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Currying favor in paradise

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Some recent time on an island got me thinking about making-do with limited resources. Not that I'm complaining -- the skies were blue, the sun hot, the ocean bathtub-warm.

When it came time to cook, however, I was up against the challenges of geographical remoteness that locals face all the time. Here on the mainland, as my island-bound brother calls it, we can get anything at any time of day. Cumin, you want? Well, it might cost a bundle in paradise.

The trick was finding a recipe that would be flexible and forgiving, one that would allow me to be playful with local fish without making the evening a major production.

An online search revealed a fish curry that called for coconut milk, lemongrass (cross your fingers) and clam juice (what the hell is that, anyway?). We found almost everything and then adjusted accordingly. Without clam juice or cumin, we made shrimp stock from shells and used curry powder.

Not only did we make it through the night, we loved every bite.

Thai-style Fish Curry

Inspired by a recipe from the June 1992 issue of Bon Appétit

1/3 cup chopped onion

2 tablespoons cilantro stems, finely chopped

2 tablespoons minced lemongrass (from bottom 6 inches of stalk)

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

3 garlic cloves, smashed

1 fresh seeded chile, diced (substitute: 3/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes)

Spice mixture: 1 tablespoon cumin, 2 teaspoons coriander and 1/2 teaspoon turmeric (substitute: 1 tablespoon curry powder)

1 to 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

3/4 pound fish fillets, cut into 3-inch pieces (sea bass, halibut, grouper or snapper)

1/2 can unsweetened coconut milk

2/3 cup shrimp or fish stock, or water

1 teaspoon salt

Minced cilantro leaves

2 cups cooked rice

• Blend first 6 ingredients, plus spice mixture, in food processor or blender into a paste, occasionally scraping sides of work bowl. Add a few tablespoons of water, if necessary. (Can be made in advance.)

• Heat oil in skillet over medium heat. Add 2-3 rounded tablespoons of spice paste; stir 1 minute. Add fish and cook approximately 2 minutes, turning with tongs.

• Shake coconut milk before opening and add, along with shrimp stock, to the fish; simmer until cooked through, about 5 minutes. Transfer fish to plate. Reduce liquid by half, or until a thick sauce forms -- about 8 minutes. Season with salt.

• Return fish to sauce and heat through. Sprinkle with cilantro. Serve over rice. Makes two servings.

Culinary questions? Contact Kim O'Donnel at kim.odonnel@creativeloafing.com.

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