June 27, 2014

Restaurant Flavor, Home Kitchen: Coconut Curry Tomato Sauce

As much as I enjoy cooking—and I enjoy it a lot—I also enjoy the simple pleasure of dining out. After a long day at work, or, heck, even a Saturday spent lounging on the couch, it’s nice to go somewhere with a pleasant atmosphere and have someone else cook dinner for me (not to mention bring it right to my table). Personally, I think breakfast out is even more fun, but it does lose some of its charm when you steer clear of biscuits, raspberry danishes, and pancakes and waffles dripping with syrup. The thing is, when we eat in restaurants, sometimes it can be hard to know what we’re getting. What’s really going on back there in the kitchen? Are they using wacky ingredients with lots of additives and preservatives? What kind of oil are they frying in? Do they make their sauces and dressings in-house, or do they come out of a 5-gallon bucket they get shipped in from some factory every few weeks? I don’t let these issues stop me from enjoying a meal out with friends, but if you’re concerned about your health, they’re worth thinking about. One of the best things we can do for our bodies, our waistlines, and our wallets, is cook more of our food at home.

The benefit of eating in restaurants—besides being waited on and not having to lift a finger to prepare the food—is the flavor. How does that Italian place get the veal piccata to taste so good? Is there some secret ingredient in the chicken vindaloo at your favorite Indian stop? And what about the steakhouse you like? Exactly what kind of black magic are they working with that spice rub? Sometimes it seems like professional chefs have tricks up their sleeves we couldn’t possibly hope to recreate in our own humble kitchens.

But cooking at home—even on busy weeknights—doesn’t need to be bland and boring. If you know your way around a spice rack and aren’t afraid to experiment a little, you can recreate the flavors of your favorite dishes and bring friends and family into the kitchen to see what you’re up to when the aromas start wafting into the next room.  By learning how to use simple ingredients available at your regular ol’ grocery store, you’ll have great, homemade food, made fresh, and usually at a lower cost. (Maybe not as dirt-cheap as if you were eating ramen noodles for dinner, but if you were the ramen-type, you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog. Not that I didn’t consume my share of ramen back in the day, but that was a long time ago. And I digress…)

One the most effective ways to jazz up your home cooking and give it the kinds of flavors that normally have you calling to make reservations is with herbs & spices, sauces, dips, dressings, and marinades. After all, beyond the grass-fed/pastured/free-range issues, beef is beef, chicken is chicken. What really transforms the flavor of food is how you prepare it and what you pair it with.

So with that in mind, I offer the following suggestion. Yes, suggestion. That’s the thing about cooking: recipes are guides, not instructions for dismantling a nuclear weapon. It’s okay to change things up a bit to suit your own preferences. (This is why cooking > baking. No, just kidding. It’s not “better,” just different. With baking, the measurements and proportions usually need to be exact, whereas with cooking, a pinch of this, a dash of that, it’s all good.)

Coconut Curry Tomato Sauce

Yield: about 1.5 pints

½ large onion, medium dice (or fine, if you prefer)
1 Tbsp cooking fat of choice (coconut oil, ghee, olive oil, lard)
1 can (14.5oz) diced or stewed tomatoes
- ½ cup coconut cream or full-fat coconut milk (not light)
½ Tbsp curry powder (or more, if you prefer, depending on how “hot” your curry is)
½ tsp cumin powder
Xanthan gum*—just a sprinkle…the amount is hard to measure. Maybe about 1/8 teaspoon. 

*What’s up with me using something weird like xantham gum? (Someone, call the food police!) It’s a thickener I use occasionally because I’d rather not use corn starch or wheat flour. Use an alternative Paleo/low-carb-friendly thickener if you prefer. (I’ve heard arrowroot is great, but I haven’t tried it yet, myself.) Xanthan gum seems relatively benign, but it might not be for everyone. If you’d like to know more, check out the xanthan gum installment in Chris Kresser’s series on food additives.

You can find this at well-stocked supermarkets, Whole Foods, 
local health food stores, or online.
Sauté the onion until translucent and somewhat softened. Add the tomatoes (the whole can, including the juice), and stir. Add the coconut cream/milk. Stir to combine. Add spices, stir to combine, and test for flavor—you might want more seasoning. I don’t have any salt in the ingredients because canned tomatoes are usually pretty salty, but you wouldn’t be crazy if you wanted to add a little more to this. The curry powder I have is pretty hot, but if you have a mild one, you might want to add a touch of cayenne, depending on how hot you like your sauce. Add the xanthan gum, sprinkling it over the surface, rather than dumping it in in a little pile. (Sometimes it clumps up on you if you do that.) Mix it in well. I like to use a wire whisk for incorporating xantham gum. If you use a spoon, it might also clump up. So even though this sauce is chunky, a whisk is still the best tool, I think. The xanthan gum will thicken the sauce a little while it’s hot, but it’ll really thicken up as it stands and cools, and especially in the fridge. (If you make a big batch and refrigerate the extra, next time you to go use it, you’ll notice it’s much thicker—almost gelatinous. It’ll loosen up again when heated, but it’s a good idea to add just a little water to it when reheating as well.)

That’s it!

Why do I like this recipe? I like knowing I can create exotic flavors at home very easily, using ingredients I can get at the local supermarket. There’s nothing far-out here. The only thing would be the coconut milk, but these days most supermarkets carry it in the “ethnic food” or “Asian” aisle. (If you can’t find it, see if there’s a Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods near you. Or better yet, an Asian grocery! They’ll have coconut milk and all kinds of insanely cool spices, usually at way better prices than the supermarket.)

I also like knowing I can create these flavors without buying jarred versions from the store. These days, well-stocked supermarkets carry everything from green curry paste to sweet and sour sauce, to peanut satay sauce and the aforementioned vindaloo. These typically contain mostly real and identifiable ingredients, but they also invariably contain questionable bits and pieces—usually canola or soybean oil, and sometimes more sugar than is necessary.

Now, for the important part: what to do with this sauce.

  • It would be dynamite over simple roasted or grilled chicken breasts or thighs—really wake them up and give them some zing. (Would also work on chicken tender skewers as a dipping sauce.)
  • For vegetable dishes, this would be great with steamed cauliflower, or if your individual carbohydrate tolerance allows for it, white potatoes. Throw in some grilled or sautéed onions with the potatoes and you have a quick and easy but delicious vegetarian dish with an Indian flair. 
  • If you eat rice, this would be pretty amazing over jasmine rice, or any white rice, really. Jasmine’s just more fragrant and has more of that Indian flavor.
  • One of my favorites: this is perfectly good to ladle over ground turkey or pork for a quick one-bowl meal. This is the kind of ridiculously simple weeknight meal you can have on the table in minutes, particularly if you have a pound or two of ground meat already defrosted and waiting for you in the fridge. It only takes a few minutes to brown ground beef, pork, or turkey in a skillet, and all you have to do is spoon this sauce over it and there ya go: dinner. It’s not glamorous, but it’s darn tasty and it’s real food. And it might not look like a fancy dish you’d get at Kunal’s Curry Palace, but I guarantee you, it’ll taste like it. (Shout out to any Big Bang Theory fans, hehheh. What can I say? I needed an Indian name to alliterate with “curry.”)

Ways to alter this:

  • Like I always say, double it! Cook once, eat two or three—or four—times! If you’re going to make it, you might as well make a big batch. It’ll keep a few days in the fridge. I haven’t tried freezing it, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work. In terms of having it ready for quick meals, the only issue would be remembering to defrost it! (Which you could do easily by leaving it out on the counter overnight and sticking it in the fridge when you wake up. When you get from home work, it’ll be waiting for you.)
  • Add chopped and steamed-until-they’re soft carrots, celery, zucchini, and/or cauliflower. You could still use it as a sauce for a meat dish, but if you added lots of veg, it could be a vegetarian meal in itself.
One last thing before we’re done:

Can I give another testimonial for canned tomatoes? I feel about canned tomatoes the way Homer Simpson feels about donuts: “Is there anything they can’t do?” Having canned tomatoes on hand means whipping up a real-food meal in minutes. Maybe not something fancy, but definitely real food. If nothing else, all you have to do is brown some ground beef, turkey, or pork, in a skillet, add the canned tomatoes, maybe toss in some vegetables and extra spices, and you’re done. Easy-peasy.

If it seems like I mention canned tomatoes in almost every recipe I post, that’s because I probably do. They’re that useful. Think of them as the little black dress (or well-cut suit) of your kitchen: a go-to staple whose simplicity is part of its inherent greatness.

I like fresh foods. In most cases, I prefer fresh over frozen and much prefer it to canned. But there are certain items that come in cans that are indispensable to a real food, lower-carb, and/or Paleo kitchen. Just like soldiers don’t go to war without the proper armament, good cooks should have a nice stockpile of different pantry staples so they’re prepared for any situation. I recommend always having several varieties of canned tomatoes on hand, and one or two cans of coconut milk or cream are a good idea, too.

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.


  1. What do you do when you don't want cans lined with BPA?

    1. Honestly? At the moment, I don't worry too much about that. Bigger fish to fry. I'm not saying it's not important; just that for *me,* right now, my concerns are elsewhere.

  2. Aroy-D makes tetra paks of coconut milk with no additives at all. They have a couple of different sizes, too. Right now I'm having trouble getting them at my local oriental market, though ("There's a problem at the factory"), which is a drag, as I love coconut milk and we just won't buy canned goods unless we are pretty sure the cans don't contain BPA. Likewise, Pomi makes very good tomatoes/tomato sauce in tetra paks. Of course, they cost more than canned versions. BPA is a big deal for me and so far I haven't found a good substitute for the Aroy-D tetra paks.

  3. Thanks for the easy recipe, must try it one day instead of the handy sauce in a jar.

    Was curious about your mention and use of Xanthan gum. Currently ploughing through Sarah Ballantyne's "The Paleo Approach", and Xanthan gum is one of those additives that are recommended to be avoided due to it being in contact with corn/wheat/soy/dairy or whatever they use to grow it. Her book is aimed at those for autoimmune disease, but would apply to those with less health issues. Checked out Chris Kresser's post, which puts Xanathan gum as low risk, but it's interesting reading the comments. Many examples of adverse reactions to Xanthan gum are listed by those commenting. Like many things, what is okay for one person is not good for another.


    1. Yeah, I think the safety/benign-ness (if that's even a word) of things like xanthan gum, carrageenan, etc., are up to the individual. Some people seem sensitive to just about *everything,* while others have a pretty broad tolerance. I think if someone has teased out the fact that they're sensitive, then they should try to steer clear, but kind of like what I said about BPA above, in my personal opinion, I have to spend my emotional energy worrying about bigger issues. (Easy for me to say, though, as I'm not aware of any sensitivity I have to these kinds of additives. I've inherited my father's iron stomach/GI tract, which I have yet to determine is a blessing or a curse, hehheh.)