As if they are bursting from the earth, the greenest foods are now everywhere: asparagus and peas, ramps and spring garlic, sorrel and onions, bok choys and young kale, and bright, fresh herbs. A spicy green curry paste is one way to make the most of a lot of them. Whir the ingredients together, pack in freezer-friendly containers and you’ll have the basis of a satisfying, fresh-tasting meal.
There are many commercial varieties of curry paste, but I wanted to DIY a pantry (freezer) version that would sing with the flavors of the season. Garlic is always front and center in a store-bought paste, so I opted for spring garlic bulbs and their green scapes. Along with cilantro, plenty of mint and basil boosts the herbal notes.
Curry pastes are shot through with the tingle of floral galangal, but fresh ginger is a suitable substitute. Because the traditional lime leaves can be difficult to find, I used plenty of fresh lime zest and juice instead.
Chilies are essential for both the heat and zesty complexity of traditional curries. My preference is for a combination of assertive Thai chilies and familiar, fruity serranos. Remove the peppers’ seeds, and the paste is mildly spicy, with a family-friendly zing; if you are a heat-seeker, add some seeds to the mix. If red curries are your preference, substitute small red bird chilies and Fresnos or Chinese long red chilies, each one substantially zippier than their green cousins.
Plan a trip to an international grocery store for shrimp paste. Often packed in a small can, it’s an ocher-colored umami bomb. It’s optional in the accompanying recipe, but this standard curry paste flavoring agent adds a subtle undertone. It must be warmed to release its charms; I like to wrap a few teaspoons in a foil packet, then use the oven, the toaster oven or a dry skillet to heat it through. You’ll know when it’s ready, because it releases a serious olfactory insult. Soldier on; it’s worth it.
I experimented with ingredient ratios until I landed on a curry paste that worked for me. It’s anything but traditional, with all those fresh herbs. After I was satisfied, I went rogue, adding whatever green components caught my eye. One of my recent interpretations included sorrel, its lemony green elevating the sour flavors from the lime zest and juice. A handful of peppery arugula went into another one. I can’t resist adding garlic chives, Chinese chives or chive flowers for their sweet, oniony bite. Curry pastes are a timely pantry addition for fast-to-the-table delicious dinners that take full advantage of whatever green is growing.
In full-on DIY mode, I tried the old-fashioned curry paste route, bashing the ingredients in a mortar and pestle. That exhausted me, so I embraced modern convenience and tossed everything into a high-powered blender. (A food processor works, too.) Soon, the chilies, ginger and lemon grass, citrus zest and lavish amounts of green herbs convert to a zingy, smooth blend: an exotic combination celebrating the sweet, sour, salty and bright flavors associated with Thai cuisine.
Right now, early in the season, use this green curry paste to make a sauce for mussels with asparagus, sweet onions and peas. In a few months, stir the paste into a melange of zucchini, green beans, eggplant and tomatoes — with or without shellfish, shrimp, chicken or tofu. You’ll find it’s an adaptable ally in the kitchen.
When I set out to make curry paste this year, my freezer was a treasure trove, preserving chilies from last summer’s garden: A zip-top bag contained whole Thai, bird, cayenne and fish peppers. These slim chili peppers freeze whole and may be added directly to curry pastes or any other dish that calls for a pepper.
This is the time of year when a wide variety of chili pepper plants are available. Happy in a medium-size pot and placed in a sunny spot, each plant will produce dozens of chilies by late summer.
Barrow is the author of “Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving” (W.W. Norton, 2014). She blogs at mrswheelbarrow.com. She will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat: live.washingtonpost.com.