In the past, when I’ve followed recipes labeled “thai curry” it’s meant that I’m able to stave off a Thai take-out order for about 18 more hours. Which is to say that my kinda Thai cookings have not really sated any cravings–just made them harder to ignore.

Well, meet the new boss. A few weeks ago, I started daydreaming about a pumpkin curry I had at a Laotian restaurant near Jo’s house in Madison. If I remember correctly she doesn’t even really like this curry, but I loved it, and I also enjoyed figuring out how to pronounce “Laotian.” With a fair amount of geographic fudging I decided to seek out a Thai curry recipe–no matter what I was going to end up using a tinned curry paste so I figured drop the pretense of authenticity early on, right?

I have no idea if this curry is any decent approximation of real, live Thai food (let alone Laotian)–but it is definitely as tasty as the take-out place down the street, and will delay your inevitable take-out order by two weeks. The sauce is pleasantly murky–pretty luscious with the fatty coconut milk, and spicy from the added chiles. The recipe allows for as much improvisation as you like–vegetables, protein–but I would recommend keeping the acorn squash, especially if you’ve never had it in a curry, and frying the tofu. If you’ve ever been wary of cubed tofu, frying it might be the ticket. With a little textural interest tofu becomes palatable, even good–and I don’t like tofu that much.

Thai Curry with Acorn Squash and Fried Tofu
a riff on Nigella’s recipe
serves 5-6

A note on coconut milk. Whenever I’ve bought the low-fat kind I’ve been disappointed. This time I bought a sketchy $.99 can of the stuff from Albertson’s, which made no claims about its fat content. It didn’t have the layer of fatty coconut goo on the top, but it also wasn’t totally austere. If you don’t find any such cans, get the full fat kind. Discard the layer of cream on top, if you’re trying to avoid excess fat, or go ahead and use it. That’s what I’d do.

Also, if you’re veggie just leave out the fish sauce. I forgot it until the last minute and while it adds a nice tang the dish is still wonderful without it.

4 t canola oil, divided, plus more for frying
2 serrano chiles, finely sliced
3 garlic cloves, finely sliced
2 T Thai red curry paste
1 14-oz. can coconut milk
1 14-oz. can water
1 vegetable bouillon cube
3 lemongrass stalks, lengthy dry tips removed, the juicier ends bashed with the flat of a big knife
1/4 t tumeric
2 T fish sauce (optional)
2 T brown sugar
1/4 t lime zest
1 sm. to med. acorn squash
1/2 large yellow onion, sliced
1 green pepper, cut into squares
1 lb. firm tofu, cut into cubes
2 handfuls of green beans (I like frozen haricots verts)
1 handful basil leaves (about 10 big ones)

In a medium soup pot or dutch oven, heat up 2 t of canola oil over medium heat. Add the chiles and garlic and a little salt and stir until the garlic turns golden. Add the curry paste, let it toast for 30 seconds or so with the garlic and chiles, then add the coconut milk. Fill the coconut milk can with water and add it too, along with the bouillon cube, lemongrass stalks, tumeric, fish sauce, brown sugar, and lime zest.

As you bring this sauce to a boil, deal with the acorn squash. Cut it in half and scoop out the seeds. Then cut the halves in half, and cut these quarters into rings. Finally, cut the rings into 1-inch cubes. Add them to the sauce, skin and all–you’ll never notice the skin and it is a royal pain to remove.

Simmer the squash in the sauce for 10-15 minutes, until the squash is tender. As it cooks, slice up the onion and pepper. Then heat a large skillet over high heat until the pan is really scorching–you want to blister these veggies, so be brave. Add the remaining 2 t of canola oil when the pan is hot, then dump in the onions and peppers. Distribute them evenly in the pan and then let them alone for a minute. They’ll spatter but it’s ok. Toss them around once, let them sit for another 30 seconds or so, and remove them from the pan once the peppers have some brown spots on them and the onions are a little wilted. Set them aside for now.

In the same skillet, pour in a hefty layer of canola oil for frying the tofu. It should cover the bottom of the pan, no swirling necessary, to a depth of about .5 cm (1/4 of an inch or so for those of you who cannot form a mental picture using the metric system). Heat the oil over med-high heat and add the tofu cubes in a single layer. You need a fair amount of oil for this operation so don’t skimp–the tofu want to stick, and there is nothing lost when you use more oil. Start checking the tofu after 2 minutes–when it’s golden, flip it all around. Pry up any recalcitrant pieces with a spatula. Continue frying and turning until the tofu is golden brown on many of its sides. Drain it on a plate lined with paper towels and discard the extra oil.

Now add the green beans to the simmering squash. Stir to combine and bring back to a simmer. As soon as you’ve reached the simmer the green beans are probably done–that’s the only thing that has to cook, so keep checking it. When the green beans are done, add in the tofu, onions and peppers. Keep the heat on for a minute until everything is nice and hot, then turn off the heat, tear the basil leaves roughly, and stir them into the curry.

Serve with basmati rice and lime wedges.