On a recent trip to Hawaii, Adrien from MasterChef and I had the chance to visit an amazing farm called Ma’o on the west coast of Oahu near Waianae in the Hawaiian homelands, where only native Hawaiians are permitted to live. This farm is run entirely by youth (mostly under the age of 25) and is helping educate the next generation of organic family farmers. Their mission statement is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read:
Adrien and I were blown away by the whole operation. We watched as a handful of teenagers washed and processed 3 tons of fresh organic veggies and fruit, preparing them to be delivered to local restaurants and grocery stores. These students, who would normally be at high risk of dropping out of high school, were receiving college credit and scholarship money for working on the farm. They guided us through the fields as Adrien and I picked the freshest produce we had ever seen, and we took it all back to the farm kitchen to teach the kids how to cook the veggies they had raised. It was an incredible day.
I wanted to give these kids, many of whom have never been more than 50 miles from home, a culinary experience that was different from anything they had ever tasted. So I made them a Thai-style curry using the veggies we picked just moments before. You might see that plastic carton of tomatoes at lower right…I bought those before in case there were no tomatoes on the farm. To my delight, a huge bush bearing bright orange cherry tomatoes was a few steps from the kitchen. It was fun letting the kids taste the vine-ripened fresh tomatoes compared to the green-picked, ethylene-gassed tomatoes in the plastic carton from the grocery store.
While eating this curry, one teenager remarked, “What is this?”
“It’s eggplant,” I replied.
“But I hate eggplant!” she said, as she continued eating it. “How can it possibly taste so good?”
In a colander, add:
1 large eggplant, or 4 small Asian-style eggplant, cut into 1/2″ cubes
2 teaspoons kosher or coarse sea salt (or 1 teaspoon table salt)
Toss together and let sit. Dark juices will empty out of the eggplant, so you might want to leave it in the sink.
In a small saucepan, combine:
2 cans coconut milk
2 inches of ginger, unpeeled, thinly sliced
peel from 2 limes, cut off with vegetable peeler
2 stalks lemongrass, bruised (optional)
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns (or 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper)
Bring to a boil, then remove from heat and let steep for 10 minutes to extract flavors from the aromatics.
In a large skillet over high heat, add:
2 Tablespoons olive oil (or any oil)
2 Tablespoons sambal (chili garlic paste, available in most grocery stores in the Asian section. Substitute sriracha [Asian red pepper sauce, usually has a rooster on the bottle] or any pepper sauce like Tabasco)
1 large unripe green papaya (or 2 unripe green mangos, peeled and diced)
***Green papaya exudes a milky substance that can irritate the skin of some individuals. If you have access to green papaya, peel it under running water, dice it up (removing any seeds in the interior cavity), and let it sit in lightly salted water for a few minutes.
***On the mainland you’re not likely to find green papaya. Green mango is a fantastic substitute, and you can often find hard, unripe mangos at the grocery store. If not, substitute any hard squash like butternut, acorn, or pumpkin.
Saute the green papaya for 2 minutes. While it is cooking, take the salted eggplant and press it between double layers of paper towels to extract as much moisture as possible. Add the eggplant to the skillet, toss to coat with oil, and saute, stirring every few seconds, for 2 more minutes. Then add:
1 red onion, diced
6 cloves garlic, diced
Saute an additional 2 minutes. Then strain the coconut milk into the pan, discarding the aromatics. Then add:
juice of 2 limes (the ones you peeled earlier)
12 leaves of basil (Thai or cinnamon basil, preferably, but any basil works)
12 cherry tomatoes, halved
2 teaspoons sugar
Stir well, then taste. A proper curry is a perfect mix of sweet, salty, sour, and spicy. You will ALWAYS need to make adjustments until you get it just right. If it needs more salt, add salt. If it’s missing “something” add more lime juice or any kind of vinegar. Make sure you can taste the sweetness on your tongue, otherwise add more sugar. And add more chili paste or pepper sauce to your desired heat level.
Serve this curry immediately over rice.