I have often compared food to music. When you hear music that resonates with you, that moves you— no matter the genre— it’s undeniable. It’s visceral. And you know it instantly. It is the same with food. When you taste something good, it hits you immediately. It doesn’t matter what culture or ethnicity the food is from, the goodness rings true in your core.
When I was a girl growing up in Thailand, our visits to the market didn’t involve entering a single building. Our local markets were exclusively open air. I can still picture it as sharply and clearly as ever— shopping with my mother as the “aunties and uncles” (all elders were referenced to as such) beckoned us to examine the freshly picked produce. Their loud shouts and boisterous back-and-forth banter may have sounded like arguing to the tourists, but to the locals it was understood as just good-humored ribbing. The little ladies chewing their beetle nuts would spit out red-liquid splotches into a strategically placed spittoon as they loudly proclaimed the freshness of their goods. The wide variety of Thai produce put on display to be touched and turned over and tasted amidst the colors and characters and chaos— it made the simple act of picking out your food an exciting and joyful journey.
When I was nine years old, my family moved to California. I’ll never forget walking into my first American supermarket and being absolutely bewildered. How could there be so many varieties of different foods sold in one place? It was a new way of shopping. Engaging, but different. And while the endless offerings at a supermarket can still hold my attention as I get happily lost in the produce aisles, nothing— nothing— compares to the way I feel shopping in the open air at my local farmer’s market in Santa Monica.
Rambling peacefully through the stalls on 2nd and Arizona, pulled like gravity by the sights, smells and sounds— it always takes me right back to my childhood in Bangkok. It’s an experience rich with opportunity, touching, tasting, inhaling the scents of so much delicious produce. Tender, delicate shoots of herbs, bundles of Rainbow Swiss Chards, round ripened oranges and juicy plums— sampled at their peak under the sunshine amidst the fresh ocean air. Veggies, flowers, fruits— fruits of labor from hard-working local farmers. Most of the items were picked less than 24 hours before arriving at our fingertips. It’s hard not to feel that the food was grown just for you. Just for this moment.
Last week I visited the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market looking to be inspired. As I wandered dreamily from stall to stall smiling at the vegetables and fruits and people and their babies, I spotted some overflowing buckets of colorful Arugula flowers. (As a former flower shop owner, I have a thing for edible flowers.) I find Arugula flowers to be subtly delicious, with their nice nutty taste and gentle, spicy undertones.
I snatched up a couple gorgeous bunches and continued on my treasure hunt.
The next discovery really got my creative juices flowing. I happened onto a stall featuring Rome’s favorite greens, Puntarelle— or in Italian, Cicoria di Catalogna— a bitter veg in the chicory family that I have been wanting to experiment with in my cooking. I had been wanting to cook up some comfort food, which for me always involves Thai flavors. But here I was in front of these gorgeous Italian greens. That’s when inspiration struck: my culinary creation today would be a classical Italian risotto, with a simple Thai twist. And that is how my latest dish, Thai Coconut Curry Risotto with Organic Farmers Market Vegetables, was born.
My next find for the dish was Celtuce. Also known as Stem Lettuce, Wosun or Wojo. When they’re mature, the long bulbous stems need to be peeled. But raw or cooked, Celtuce is always extremely tasty. The flavor has echoes of celery and cucumber. The leaves are lovely in salads or lightly grilled on their own. The plant is high in vitamins A and C so eating it isn’t just pleasing to the mouth, it’s a genuine source of self-care. (Love it when those two boxes are checked.)
The small carrots at the market that day were especially sweet. I conjured up a plan to oven-roast them with agave, harissa (Moroccan chile paste), cinnamon and cumin.
Finally, I grabbed some tender fennel bulbs with their lovely green fronds still attached. This is another ingredient that screams Italy. At this point, I realized I was having a little Italian envy. My friend is over there now and I’ve been drooling over the tantalizing food photos she’s posting on Instagram. But alas, as I’ve done in the past when time or finance is not permitting, I’ll use my cooking to relieve the wanderlust.
As I prepped the dish in my mind, I decided to go with red curry because it would make the colors pop. Also, I knew I had Panang curry paste in my cupboard at home (always good to check the pantry and fridge before shopping). Normally, the leaves of the Punterelle are discarded when a salad is made, with only the crunchy stems and stalks used. In this case, I wanted to make use of the leaves and save the rest for another day.
While Italian risotto is normally cooked in broth, I decided to use coconut milk for it’s natural sweetness in order to balance out the bitterness of the leaves. I knew the creamy coconut curry stock would add a ton of flavor.
With my trusty reusable canvas bag brimming and full, I headed off to the kitchen. Today, two beloved classics from across the globe would come together to make something new and delicious. A truly international dish. I give you…Thai Curry Risotto with Organic Farmer’s Market Vegetables.
Vegan Thai Curry Risotto with Farmers Market Vegetables
Serves 4-6 people
For the stock:
2 tablespoon of your favorite Thai red curry paste. More if you like it super spicy
Three cans of organic coconut milk ( not just the cream!)
1/2 of an onion
2 stocks of celery
2 large carrots
*Optional aromatics if you can find it in your go-to asian markets. Fresh is always preferred but either dried it frozen will work as well. Skip it altogether if not available!
A handful of kaffir lime leaves, A stalk of lemongrass and a large piece galangal ( not ginger) root.*
In a large heavy bottom pot over medium heat add curry paste to half a cup of coconut milk. Stir until the curry paste has incorporated and there are no lumps. Now add the rest of the coconut milk. Washed and chopped into large chunks the onions, celery, carrots and fennel. Add to pot. Keep the pot on a low simmer.
Roasted carrots for garnish:
1 bunch of carrots, peeled and halved lengthwise, quartered if large
1 tablespoon organic agave
1 teaspoon of Harissa, a spicy Moroccan chili paste
A dash of cinnamon
A dash of cumin
1 dash of olive oil
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a sheet pan combine carrots, agave, Harissa, olive oil, cinnamon, cumin and a sprinkle of salt & pepper and mix well. Spread evenly and bake until fork tender 10-15 minutes depending on size of carrots. Set aside. Be sure to wash your hands well after working with harissa it can really irritate your eyes.
1 cup Arborio or Carnaroli rice
1/4 cup Extra Virgin Olive oil
1/2 cup of room temperature dry white wine, optional
1 large fennel bulb,sliced and save the feathery fronds for garnish
1 bunch of Punterelle or dandelion greens
1/2 onion, diced
2-4 cloves of garlic, minced
One bunch of Swiss chard, stems included, diced and separate leaves from stem
1 Celtuce, if not available replace with, 2 stalks of peeled and diced celery
Salt and black pepper
Any edible blossoms. I used arugula and broccoli rabe flowers
Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a medium sauce pan over high heat. Add the sliced fennel and a pinch of salt & pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally for about 5 minutes or until it begins to brown and becomes tender. Remove to a large plate and set aside. To the same pan over medium heat, add to that additional oil if needed, diced onions, minced garlic and Punterelle or dandelion greens. A little salt & pepper. Cook until tender. Set aside on cooked veggie plate. Do the same with the diced Celtuce and the Swiss chard. For the Chards add stems first, stir for a few minutes and then add the Swiss chard leaves. Again, season with a little salt and pepper. Set aside when tender.
To the same pan, add the remaining olive oil and shallots, cook for 1 minute. Add the rice, a sprinkle of salt and stir to coat all the kernels with oil. Continue to cook until the rice is sizzling. Add the white wine and cook, stirring until it is almost completely absorbed-skip this if you do not want to use wine. Now begin adding the coconut broth, 1 cup at a time, stirring frequently between additions. This is a very important step, after the 1st cup is almost entirely absorbed, only then add the next cup. Continue cooking in this way for about 20-25 minutes until the rice is al dente-just cooked with a little bite to it. The final texture will be a rich and creamy risotto. It should be a little loose and not dry, should slide around a plate bowl easily. Add more broth & keep stirring to reach desired consistency. Remove you’re pot from the heat, stir in all the previously cooked vegetables. Garnish with roasted carrots and edible flowers. Freshly ground black pepper and a squeeze of lemon completes the dish.