“An eager friend once asked me what I make when I’m short on time and ingredients, and I told her, ‘A quesadilla,’ ” says Chef Jen Wanous. “She seemed a little crestfallen, like she was expecting something a little more creative.
“I’ve thought about that moment many times since,” she continues. “I felt like I needed to redeem myself. It has become something of a challenge for me: how to make something quick, easy and impressive.”
One such recipe is chef Jen’s Thai peanut curry with shrimp. “The impressive part of this recipe is the shrimp,” she says. “The secret is that shrimp is easy to make. All you have to do is defrost the shrimp and toss it in the pot, cook for five minutes, and you’re done. The shrimp will all be pink, which means they are cooked. No guessing if it’s done like with chicken or pork.
“The flavor is built upon one key ingredient, curry paste,” chef Jen explains. “Curry paste is a purée of several classic Thai ingredients like lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and chilies. It’s a great way to pack a lot of flavor into a short amount of time. There are different types of curry paste available. Maesri curry (that’s sold in a can) is spicier than the jar version, Thai Kitchen. You can find both varieties in the Asian section of your grocery store. While you’re there, pick up some fish sauce if you see it. It’s another secret weapon to have in your pantry offering the illusive umami flavor (the savory fifth flavor).
“Adding peanut butter is an easy way to add a rich and nutty layer to the dish,” chef Jen says. “I remember the first Thai restaurant I went to had the most luscious peanut sauce that I dipped sticks of grilled chicken into. It blew my mind that peanut butter could be reinvented as a savory sauce; it wasn’t just for sandwiches and ice cream sundaes!”
You can also tailor the recipe. “For a lower fat version, you can use half the amount of coconut milk and one cup of water or stock,” chef Jen explains. “You also can substitute out the peanut butter, adjusting for more curry paste if needed.
“Now the next time I’m asked for a quick meal, I’ll have my back pocket recipe ready to go: ‘Well, I like to make a Thai peanut curry with shrimp.’ Yes, that does sound much better, and it tastes much better too.”
Thai Peanut Curry with Shrimp
1 can coconut milk
1 tablespoon curry paste (i.e., Thai Kitchen Red Curry Paste or Maesri Thai Curry)
2 tablespoons creamy peanut butter
2 cups fresh vegetables, medium dice (i.e., green beans, broccoli, kale, carrots)
1/2 pound frozen shrimp, tails removed
2 teaspoons fish sauce or soy sauce
2 teaspoons brown sugar (or maple syrup) (optional)
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro or green onion
1. First thing you’ll want to do is make a pot of rice. Jasmine is best but any will do. In a small pot bring water to a boil and add the rice. Cover and reduce heat to low. Cook for 30 minutes. Use a rice cooker if you have one.
2. In a colander, defrost the shrimp under cool running water. In a medium pot, add the coconut milk and curry paste. Stir and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer. Add the peanut butter, stir until dissolved, and then add the vegetables. Cook for 5-7 minutes. Next, add the defrosted shrimp and cook for 5 more minutes.
3. Turn off the heat and add the fish sauce or soy sauce and sugar. Top with cilantro and/or green onion. Serve over 1/2 cup of cooked rice.