Thai red curry paste
Take Thai curry pastes. I recently found myself with a small pile of red chillis left over from a farmers' market purchase and, in an effort not to let them go to waste, I decided to make red curry paste. This is not necessarily a straightforward enterprise. Most of the Thai cookbooks I've looked at don't include recipes for curry paste; they all seem to recommend using the purchased product. For that matter, many Thai restaurants use commercial pastes, though I'm sure the best ones make their own.
Instead, the recipe I used comes from the Chez Piggy cookbook, which is quite global in its outlook. It notes that finding some of the ingredients may be a bit of a challenge, and boy was that true: they range from the relatively run-of-the-mill shallots and garlic, to the slightly more unusual, but still findable, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves to the completely obscure kaffir lime rind and coriander roots. I managed to locate most of these ingredients at our local Asian market, at a total cost of about $15 - my husband loves it when I spend that kind of money so as not to waste $1.50 worth of chillis.
(Fortunately, the recipe also gives substitutions for some of the more obscure items. For instance, I used normal lime zest instead of kaffir lime rind, and extra coriander stems in place of the coriander roots.)
Once you have all of the ingredients, you then have to prep them, which is the other warning given in the book: it's time consuming. If you're looking for an excuse to practice your knife skills, this is a great way to do it! Here's the mise en place for Thai red curry paste.
(I admit that it might have taken me longer than absolutely necessary to prep everything, since I wanted to make it look nice for this photo.)
Once you've leapt the hurdles of locating the ingredients and cutting them up, though, everything gets easy: toss all the wet ingredients into the blender and blend them to a smooth paste, then add the spices and shrimp paste and blend again to combine. Freeze the result, and you're done. I wrapped the paste in plastic wrap and rolled up into a log shape to make it easy to hack off the portion I want to use.
Red curry paste has several uses - for example, it appears in one of the best peanut sauces I've ever tasted - but it seemed most appropriate, for my first use of the new paste, to make a simple red curry dish with coconut milk, chicken and pineapple. The homemade curry paste wasn't as spicy as the commercial ones I'm used to (although the chillis were definitely very spicy on their own!), but it was much more fragrant and complex. I wouldn't say that I like the homemade version better than the commercial ones, but it's definitely different, and definitely good.