Monday, October 4, 2010

I knew a woman named Renee once. She and I worked together at a small, well trafficked bookstore in SoHo, before SoHo became a Disneyland version of an arts district, before Giuliani. It’s not there anymore-- Spring Street Books-- but I worked there for 3 years or so when I was in college. SoHo already wasn’t the SoHo it had been, and models lived nearby, and there was an Origins at the corner, and a store called Country Road, which I think was the Australian version of Banana Republic. There was also Moss, and Kelley and Ping, and David Bowie shot his scenes for Basquiat a block away. We had a great magazine department, and Linda Evangelista would come in once a month and buy and armful. Cindy was our favorite, she would buy Barbara Kingsolver and Jane Smiley, and came in with Rande Gerber when she was still married to Richard Gere, only we didn’t know it then.

Renee had finished college and gone to South America to teach English, and had become very ill, and had had to come home. She was small, with long brown hair, and was mousy, and had pasty skin. She was slim, too, but it turned out she’d developed Diabetes, but it took the better part of a year to stabilize her health. I don’t remember all the details, but I think there was a family fall out in there too. Anyway she lived around the corner, staying with her college roommate who was now a stockbroker on Wall Street, while she figured out what to do next.

Renee was always so calm, and never recognized anyone famous, and could deal with our crazy boss, Izzy, the holocaust refugee owner of the store. He was friends with the guy who’d written Maus, and Kinky Friedman, or at least knew them well enough for them to stop by and ask for discounts.

Renee was more mature, and more conscious of money than many of our coworkers. I remember the awe I felt the day she said she’d made the curry she was heating up for lunch. Thai curry. This for me was like when other people realize mayonanaise can be made at home, or dill pickles were once cucumbers. It was life changing . I loved thai food, but of course was too poor to afford it often. I was already a good cook, and able top make a nutritious, tasty food most nights, but it had never occurred to me that ethnic food could be made at home, too.

Renee lent me a cookbook, took me to Chinatown to find ingredients, and invited me over to cook when I was ready to try it for the first time myself. That cookbook is dynamite, and Renee was a great teacher, and Chinatown a great resource.

That Spring Renee got into graduate school for public health, not at NYU, but somewhere out of the city. I am not sure where, or what became of her. But I make a lot of thai food, and whenever my herbs just start to wilt, I make batches of curry paste, and think of her, and how she’d always say to drop by for “tea and sympathy, or vodka and a cigarette” when Izzy was in one of his moods, and she was leaving me to the late shift.

Green Curry Paste
Adapted  from Real Thai, by Nancie McDermott. I am allergic to shrimp so I omit the paste, but you coul include 1 tsp shrimp paste in place of the fish sauce.

1 tbs whole coriander seed
1 tbs whole cumin seed
1 tsp whole peppercorn
3 stalks fresh lemongrass
1/2 c coarsely chopped fresh cilantro roots, stems and leaves
1/4 c coarsely chopped mixed thai basil, vietnamese coriander, italian basil, and mint
1 tsp minced lime peel
1 tbs chopped fresh ginger
6 cloves of garlic, smashed and peeled
1 shallot chopped
1/2 c fresh thai (birdseye) chilies, chopped
1 tbs fish sauce
1 tsp salt

Toast the coriander, cumin, and black pepper together in a skillet, then pound in mortar and pestle.
Trim the lemongrass stalks and chop finely.
In a food processor or blender, grind the cilantro and mixed greens until roughly processed (5 minutes or so), then add lime, ginger, garlic, shallot, chilies, one by one, pureeing to combine after each addition.  Add the toasted spices and lemongrass, then the fish sauce  and salt.

This makes enough for 2 to 4 pots of curry. To store, put the ingredients in a jar and cover with a thin layer of neutral oil. Lasts for several months in the refrigerator.

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