Monday, June 6, 2011

Thai Curry Noodles and the Body Odd

During my morning surf of the news last Friday, I came across a story on The Body Odd on A new study from Yale University shows that, with regard to weight loss, your state of mind about what you're eating can affect your hunger hormones. In short, the researchers gave two groups of participants the very same vanilla shake. They told one group that the shake was a special non-fat, low calorie diet shake and told the other group that they were receiving an indulgent, high fat treat. What they found was that the ghrelin, our body's hunger hormone, did not go down after the "diet" group finished their shakes, although the ghrelin of the "indulgent" group showed a "dramatically steep decline" after consumption. Since ghrelin is what tells us we're hungry and to eat more, we want it to go down after we eat.

The lead researcher, a clinical psychologist, recommended that "people should still work to eat healthy, but do so in a mindset of indulgence." YES! Scientific support is a beautiful thing.

This is the essence of healthier kitchen. So it's extra fitting that I'm renewing my efforts to provide lighter recipes that will trick us all (me) into feeling indulged. Today, I'm featuring a favorite recipe and lightening it up a little. This one is from food52, posted by thirschfeld, Tom, a prolific, versatile and creative chef, Dad and farmer in Indiana. He's given me permission to mess with his recipe a bit, and make my attempt to lighten it up, while staying true to the essence of his original. Check out his blog, Bona Fide Farm Food, here.

I had made this a couple of times as written, and we all loved it. In fact, Maddy deemed it "restaurant worthy." But (there's always a but), there is too much coconut milk in this recipe for me to make it routinely. My goal was to lighten it with a combination of light coconut milk and regular unsweetened in hopes that the sauce would retain the silkiness that is so appealing about this dish. I know from experience that light coconut milk alone would not be thick and creamy enough. I was also interested to see how much I could pull back on the fish sauce which provides a necessary counterpoint to the creaminess of the coconut milk, although it's high in sodium.

This recipe is everything you want in a home version of an ethnic dish you'd order out. It's slurp-worthy delicious, relatively easy to put together, and now, better for you than its restaurant counterpart. Could a curried noodle dish be even lighter? Yes. Would it still taste so good? In my opinion, probably not. And that matters to me. A lot. While I have to watch the fat and sodium, I've never wanted to reduce them to an amount that would turn our meals, and therefore, our dinner time, into a sepia toned and drab event. I want technicolor to fake out my ghrelin!

As you can see in the photos, I used mussels this time instead of shrimp, just for fun. It was delicious this way as well. In fact, once you've got this sauce down, you could really play with the protein. If you use a little cut up chicken breast instead of shrimp and put a few egg slices on top, it would taste an awful lot like a Burmese dish we devoured in San Francisco last summer. Tofu would work as well.

I also added in some baby Shanghai bok choy that called out to me in the Asian market. Each little cabbage is about three inches long and can remain whole for cooking after a trim of root end. You don't want to cut off much, just about the outer centimeter, as you want the head to stay intact while cooking. This addition turned the noodles into a one-dish meal which I was able to easily accomplish on a weeknight. Thirschfeld recommends a side dish of sauteed Asian greens so I stayed true to his vision. In the fall, I'll be growing some Chinese broccoli and kale as well as tat soi, so if I'm successful, I'll be able to use those when I make this. Pea shoots would also be wonderful! In fact, you could serve bok choy in the dish and sauteed greens or pea shoots alongside for an extra healthy, USDA "plate" acceptable meal.

You could easily make this meal from items available at your regular grocery store or co-op. My local farm stand often has bok choy and sometimes even the miniature baby bok choy, in season. On the other hand, if you have the time and the desire for adventure, head over to your local Asian grocery and explore the produce aisle, pick up your fish sauce and Thai red curry paste and grab a package or two of fresh lo mein noodles from the refrigerator section. In the grocery store, look for Thai Kitchen brand (extra bonus - Eating Well this month reported that Thai Kitchen fish sauce is lower in sodium than some other brands) fish sauce and Thai red curry paste. At an Asian market, my favorite fish sauce is Golden Boy, though I also like Three Crabs.

Thai Curry Noodles with Shrimp

adapted from thirschfeld (Tom Hirschfeld)

(serves 5 or 6)

1 pound lo mein noodles or spaghetti (I use fresh lo mein noodles from the Asian market though you could use whole wheat spaghetti to make it even healthier- you might want to use 1.5 pounds if you use fresh noodles)
3 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
1 Tablespoon Thai red curry paste
1 Tablespoon Madras curry powder (use regular curry powder if you don't have Madras). This should be salt-free.
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cumin
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1-1/2 cups chicken stock or no salt added chicken broth
1 Tablespoon fish sauce, more to taste (I ended up using 2 Tablespoons total)
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk (make sure to shake this really, really well and use a spoon to scoop out into measuring cup)
1 - 14 ounce can light coconut milk
3/4 pound - 1 pound baby bok choy, ends trimmed
1-1/4 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 Tablespoon fresh lime juice, more to taste
1/3 cup sliced scallions or green onions
1 lime, quartered, for garnish
a few springs of cilantro, roughly chopped
little sprinkle fried shallots (optional - available at Asian markets)
2 Tablespoons roughly chopped Thai basil (optional - also available at Asian markets)

1. Cook noodles according to package directions. Drain and let cool.

2. In a small bowl, combine the garlic, Thai red curry paste, curry powder, turmeric and cumin.

3. Heat a large pot over medium high heat. Add 2 Tablespoons of oil to the pot. Add garlic and spice combination from the small bowl. Mix the spices around and let them cook just until fragrant, a couple of minutes.

4. Add the stock, fish sauce, sugar and coconut milks. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for about 20 minutes to let flavors meld.

5. Add the bok choy and let cook for two to three minutes, then add the shrimp and let them cook until almost done, about 4 minutes.

6. Add the lime juice. Mix and bring the sauce back up to a boil and then turn back to simmer.

7. At this point, taste the sauce and if it seems a little flat or in need of salt, add another teaspoon or two (or three) of fish sauce and mix in.

8. Add noodles into pot to rewarm and mix well.

9. Serve topped with scallions/green onions, Thai basil, cilantro, and fried shallots if you like. Serve with lime wedges.


  1. I would definetly use the shrimp too. This looks fabulous and so healthy!

  2. we loved it and it's now one of our favorites! thanks for always knowing what we want to eat! xo, Anna

  3. Thanks so much Maris and Anna!

    Anna - it's too bad we don't live nearer and could cook together - it seems like we have similar taste!