3 Winning Weeknight Dinners With a Fiery, Fragrant Secret

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It’s the end of the long workday (or the start of an extra-long week) and we’re hungry. Like, “can’t-think-straight” hungry. Luckily, Food52 contributor EmilyC wants to do all the thinking for us. In Dinner’s Ready, her monthly column on weeknight wonders, she shares three simple, flavor-packed recipes that are connected by a single idea or ingredient. Stick with Emily, and you’ll have a good dinner on the table in no time. Today, one of her favorite flavor-boosting condiments, turned star of the show.

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I’ll admit it: Condiments have taken over the entire top shelf of my fridge. Miso, tahini, fish sauce, preserved lemons, anchovy paste, chili crisp, four different kinds of mustard on last count. I reach for them often because they’re simple ways to add pizzazz to all sorts of dishes—whether to flavor a dish from the inside out, or as a final flourish on the plate. Despite a never-ending battle to keep them organized and in plain sight, I can’t imagine weeknight cooking without this lineup.

Though I have a special place in my heart for all my condiments, recently, there’s been one clear standout on that crowded shelf: a little container of Thai red curry paste. Frankly, I’m obsessed with the stuff. For years, I’ve used it as a quick, aromatic base for Thai-style curries, laden with coconut milk, vegetables, and meat or seafood or tofu. But over time, determined to put the odd half-full jars to good use, I experimented with it beyond curries. I started slipping it into soups, stirring it into salad dressings, and tossing vegetables with it (plus a drizzle of olive oil) before roasting. I quickly realized that when I used it as a condiment, not just the beginning of a sauce, it’s every bit as versatile and indispensable as (if not more than!) the other bottles in my arsenal.

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So what’s in this fragrant, fiery paste? Ingredients vary between recipes you’ll make, or kinds you can pick up at the store. But chances are it’ll probably involve some combination of dried chiles, lemongrass, makrut lime leaves, galangal, garlic, and shallots. I rarely have all of these ingredients on hand (especially on an average weeknight), so I love that they all can live in my fridge in one little jar, instantly elevating whatever I’m making.

On buying red curry paste from the store: Two of my favorite brands are Maesri (sold in a can) and Thai Kitchen (sold in a glass jar). The level of heat varies (Maesri, for example, is spicier than Thai Kitchen), so find one you like and get to know it. Once opened, the paste lasts in the fridge for several months, or up to a year in the freezer. (If you’re using the canned variety, transfer any leftover paste to a jar with a tight-fitting lid to preserve its freshness.) You can, of course, make red curry paste from scratch, but, to me, the store-bought variety is a very fine and welcome shortcut.

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So whether you have an open jar in your fridge right now, or want to stock up on your next grocery run, here are three low-effort, big-reward dinners that put red curry paste to good use.

Just a few tablespoons of red curry paste enlivens this hearty stew of red lentils, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and coconut milk. It’s warm, comforting, and super easy and fast to execute—pretty much everything I want in a weeknight dinner. My recipe takes inspiration from the Curried Lentil, Tomato, and Coconut Soup from Ottolenghi’s Simple, and one of my kids’ favorite dinners, this Sweet Potato-Coconut Curry. One of my favorite details (aside from the red curry paste) is the addition of grated lime zest and fish sauce, which add so much dimension to this already bold, delicious dish.

I’ve never been a big fan of chicken fingers (and strangely, neither have my kids), but everyone in my family devours these. To start, I dunk strips of boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs, or prepackaged chicken tenders, in a mix of red curry paste and yogurt, then coat in panko and crushed fried onions (I use the store-bought kind, but feel free to fry up your own). I then bake the spiced and breaded chicken fingers on a rocket-hot sheet pan, which makes them super crispy (and mess-free!). They’re pretty swell when dipped into yogurt sauce, jazzed up with (you guessed it) more red curry paste.

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Red curry paste perfumes a whole pot of quinoa in this simple, streamlined dinner. The steps couldn’t be easier: Cook quinoa in an intensely fragrant, spicy-sweet mix of red curry paste and coconut water. While you’re at it, steam a big pile of greens (Swiss chard, kale, spinach, whatever you might have on hand) in the same pot. To finish, dress the whole thing with coconut oil, lime zest, peanuts, and green onions. This idea of cooking grains (or seeds!) in coconut water, and then swirling in coconut oil for extra richness and aroma at the end, comes from Andrea Nguyen’s Genius Vibrant Turmeric Coconut Rice; the all-in-one technique for cooking quinoa and greens is from community member deensiebat’s Food52 classic, One-Pot Kale & Quinoa Pilaf.


What’s your favorite way to use Thai red curry paste? Let us know in the comments.

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