Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Not Your Average Coconut Shrimp
When you see Coconut Shrimp listed on a menu, you can be certain it's deep-fried and served with a sticky sweet sauce. This dinner, on the other hand, was inspired by a beautiful cookbook called Cracking the Coconut: Classic Thai Home Cooking by Su-Mei Yu. Like Eating Korean and The Chinese Kitchen, it is a personal introduction to the author's culture. Stories, traditions and culinary concepts are the real backbone of these books - the recipes are just a garnish.
I stopped at the local Asian market on my way home to pick up bird chiles, galangal, lemongrass and shrimp. Bird chiles are tiny, pointy and usually red, but the bag I got contained all shades of green to red. Galangal is often compared to ginger because it looks like it. It is tougher to cut and smells like eucalyptus to me. I look forward to using this intoxicating flavor more. Lemongrass is a tough stalk with a sweeter-than-lemon aroma. The shrimp were previously frozen, 30-40 count, with heads attached.
The traditional Thai kitchen is a concrete slab behind the house, shaded by a coconut palm. The cook's indispensable tool is a mortar and pestle. With it she grinds spices, herbs and aromatics into a seasoning paste. Coconut milk and cream are her cooking oils - in fact the primary source of fat in the Thai diet, where meat is uncommon.
With a few unique flavors and a general technique in mind, I took my first swing at a homestyle Thai dish. If I were to make it again, I would double the spices or halve the coconut milk, as the final dish was far too mild to be called Thai.
I sliced a quarter-inch disk of galangal, minced it and smashed it with the end of a French rolling pin. I then crushed three cloves of garlic, one bird chile, and a four-inch stalk of lemongrass, which I cut crosswise into tiny shreds. Who needs therapy? Get a rolling pin! The smashing is to release the flavors as a mortar and pestle would. I finished the paste in the food processor, then warmed it in a little butter in a skillet before pouring in a 14 oz can of coconut milk.
While that was simmering I beheaded and gutted the shrimp, tossing the heads and shells into the stockpot with a shallot and another quarter-inch disk of smashed galangal for a delicious stock. The shrimp went into the coconut milk with about a tablespoon of fish sauce, where it cooked gently while the broccoli, yellow pepper and brown rice were steaming. When the shrimp was pink, I tossed in two sliced scallions and a handful of minced cilantro.
Even though the end result was far from authentic, the process was exhilarating. The thought of smashing more spices and evoking richer flavors is enticing. I'm only three chapters into this book and can't wait to try more.