Improv Cooking Basics: Vegetable Curry (and Homemade Coconut Milk)

If you're feeling really adventurous, try habaneros in your curry. And by adventurous, I mean slightly crazy.

Don’t let the picture fool you – curry doesn’t have to be super spicy, but it’s pretty danged great when it is.

I promise, I’ll go back to crunchybaking soon, but until that heat pump is replaced, our oven is offline for survival purposes. Thankfully, our weather today is gorgeous, and the aforementioned repairs are being made as I type. Hooray! So instead, I’ll tell you how to heat up your house making curry with whatever you have on hand.

When I say “curry,” I’m talking about Thai curry, using Thai curry paste. I’ve also made a pretty delicious Indian curry, but that’s for another post, and it is slightly more involved than this recipe. This is something that can be thrown together about as easily as a stir fry, and can use many of the same ingredients. It can be made as spicy or as “mild” as you want, but as a warning, if you don’t eat spicy food at all, Thai curry paste can give you a good kick in the pants, depending on which type you get.

Today’s picture is of a green Thai curry, made with green curry paste and mostly green vegetables. I do like to match up my curries with particular groups of veggies, which is why we always have at least two kinds of curry paste hanging out in the fridge (red and green, currently). I find green to be the spicier of the two. You can also make your own Thai curry paste, but that’s a realm I haven’t dived into yet. Perhaps I will do so after this bumper crop of Thai chilis we’ve got going in the garden. I’ll be sure to let you know if I do! (As another warning, if you’re trying to be purely vegan or vegetarian, watch the ingredients on store-bought pastes – they are traditionally made with shrimp or prawns.)

This recipe is also another instance of using what you have, rather than going out and buying what you don’t have or think you need for the recipe. It is a great way to use both fresh and frozen vegetables, especially if you’re like me and freeze peppers to get through the long winter, and they’re not much good for anything BUT stir fries, curries, and pastas. I’ll give you the proportions of what I used for this particular curry, but I encourage you to experiment with what you’ve got. Some vegetables I’ve used in Thai curry have been:

  • bell peppers
  • hot peppers
  • onions (green, red, and white)
  • potatoes (red, Yukon, and sweet)
  • broccoli and cauliflower – these soak up curry sauce beautifully
  • bok choy/Chinese cabbage
  • peas (snow, sugar snap, regular, you name it!)
  • summer and winter squashes
  • carrots (if you know me, I don’t actually like carrots, but other people, including husband, love them in curries)
  • eggplant
  • mushrooms

I’m sure I’ve used more than that, but that’s what I can remember off the top of my head. You can also add proteins, like meats, tofu, chickpeas, and tempeh, which tend to make for a more filling meal. Serve it on top of hot jasmine rice and you’ve got tastiness waiting for you!

Ready? Let’s go!

Basic Thai Curry

Looks like a mess, tastes like amazing.

This recipe details a curry variation used fried tofu as the protein, with other variations below.

You will need:

  • 1/2 c aromatics, such as green onion or red onion
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp freshly grated ginger
  • 2-3 c chopped cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, peppers, or summer squash
  • 1-2 c chopped greens, such as bok choy, spinach, or kale, stems and leaves separated
  • 1-4 tbsp curry paste (start small if you’re not into spicy, and go big if you’re into it)
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil, plus more for frying tofu (do NOT use olive oil – its smoke point is way too low for stir frying)
  • 2 c coconut milk (canned or homemade – recipe follows)
  • 8 oz tofu
  • kosher salt
  • 3 c hot cooked jasmine rice (1 c uncooked)


  1. Drain and press your tofu: wrap tofu in a clean dish towel, place on a plate, and place another heavy plate, skillet, or plate with cans on top of the wrapped tofu. Allow to drain for 10-20 minutes. Cut tofu into triangles about 1/4 inch thick.
  2. In a large, high-sided skillet or wok, heat oil on medium high heat until slightly smoking. Add garlic, onions, and ginger and stir fry until aromatic, about 20-30 seconds – do not allow the garlic to burn! The oil will also likely pop, so be careful, because that stuff hurts like the dickens.
  3. Add your cruciferous vegetables and stir fry, adding pinches of salt during cooking, until aromatic and beginning to brighten in color but not wilt (especially broccoli), about 5 minutes.
  4. Add the stems of greens and cook for 1-2 minutes more, salting as you go.
  5. Push all ingredients to the edges of the pan (this is especially effective in a wok). Add curry paste to the center of the pan, breaking it up and stirring until aromatic, about 1 minute. Add coconut milk all at once, stirring to combine the paste and milk thoroughly. Allow to come to a boil, then lower the heat to low. Stir vegetables back into the curry mixture, and allow to simmer for 10-15 minutes. Add leaves of greens during the last 2-3 minutes of simmering.
  6. While the vegetables simmer, prepare your protein: coat the bottom of the pan in oil up to 1/4 inch and heat oil on medium high heat. Line a plate or pie dish with a layer of paper towels. When oil is just starting to smoke, add tofu triangles in a single layer, being careful not to crowd the pan (they should have about an inch of space between themselves). This may mean frying in several batches, depending on the size of your frying pan. Fry on each side for about 2-3 minutes until golden and crispy, flipping with tongs or a spider. Allow to drain on paper towers, salting immediately after removing them from the pan.
  7. Check for doneness on the vegetables after 10 minutes – they should be softened, but still retain a bit of crispness without being mushy (unless you like that sort of thing – you do you). You should also have a good amount of liquid in the pan for saucing purposes. Salt as needed, and add spice through cayenne or red pepper flakes if the spiciness is not up to your liking (if it’s too spicy, you can add more coconut milk, regular milk, or cream to tame it down).
  8. Serve on top of hot jasmine rice, topped with fried tofu triangles.

Meat variation: Omit tofu (or combine them!). Before step 2, heat 1 tbsp of oil in your skillet or wok. Add chopped raw meat (cut into bite-sized pieces) and stir fry until no longer pink or red, depending on what meat you’re using, and salting as you go. Remove meat from skillet and set aside in a bowl. Proceed with recipe, adding meat after the vegetables have cooked in step 5.

Pan-fried tempeh or tofu variation: For those not wanting to bother with crisp-frying. Follow directions above for chopped tofu or tempeh, and fry until browned on all sides, salting as you go. Remove tofu or tempeh and set aside. Omit step 6.

Chickpea variation: Omit tofu (or combine!). Add 2 c canned or soaked chickpeas in step 4, and proceed with the recipe.

And, as promised:

Homemade Coconut Milk

The basic ratio is 1 cup coconut for every 2 cups water (or 1.5 cups, if you want super creamy coconut milk). This recipe will make about 3-4 cups coconut milk.

You will need:

  • 2 c unsweetened shredded coconut
  • 3-4 c warm water
  • optional: 1-2 tsp demerara sugar, dissolved in warm water


  1. Combine coconut, water, and sugar (if using) in a blender. Blend on medium speed for 2-4 minutes until well combined and a bit frothy.
  2. Drain mixture through a clean kitchen towel or cheesecloth into a measuring cup or other container, squeezing the milk through the towel to get as much liquid as possible. Compost the coconut solids, or add some to your curry!

Hungry for more Improv Cooking Basics recipes? Here you go!


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