Sunday, December 2, 2007
Feast of Keangs
Today we celebrated the first snowfall of the season with a tropical Thai feast. Since my shrimp adventure, I have learned more about the proper way to prepare homestyle Thai cuisine, even without a mortar and pestle. The flavors themselves, in addition to the ways in which they are layered and contrasted, make Thai food unique.
The menu for today's lunch, from Cracking the Coconut, consisted of cucumber salad, stir-fried pork with shrimp and pineapple, red curry with roasted pork and plantains (Keang Pet), Thai-Indian chicken curry (Keang Kari Gai), and sticky brown rice.
The cucumber salad was crisp and refreshing, made of two cucumbers sliced on the diagonal, two green onions likewise prepared, and a few splashes of dressing made from a half-teaspoon sea salt, a quarter-cup each of fish sauce and Muscovado sugar (not packed), and the juice of five limes.
The stir-fry, besides the obvious ingredients, was distinguished by its seasonings of fish sauce, bird chiles and dry-roasted freshly ground white peppercorns.
My primary occupation on Saturday was the preparation of chile pastes. Chile pastes are the cornerstone of Thai cooking and mixing them is an art passed down through generations. When made from scratch, the depth and complexity of flavors is out of this world. They are time-consuming, but worth every second. Just make big batches and freeze the leftovers!
My two curries, Kaeng Kari (pictured above) and Kaeng Pet were seasoned with these homemade chile pastes, cooked in coconut milk with vegetables, and finished with fish sauce, sugar and fresh chiles.
Keang Kari (Thai-Indian Curry)
6 heads garlic
1 inch fresh ginger
Slice tops off garlic and shallots, toss with olive oil and oven-roast at 400 F until soft. Squeeze softened garlic and shallots from their skin into a bowl; mince ginger in as well.
1 Tbs. coriander seeds
1/2 tsp. each cumin and coriander
Dry-roast seeds in a skillet until fragrant and grind in a spice grinder.
1 tsp. sea salt
7 bird chiles
2 Tbs. curry powder
1 stalk lemongrass, hard outer layers removed, minced
1 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. fermented shrimp paste (find at Asian markets)
Using the end of a French rolling pin or other blunt object, pulverize softened garlic, shallots and ginger together with sea salt. Scrape into food processor and blend. Crush chiles and lemongrass likewise, toss in and blend. Add ground spices, curry and turmeric, blend. Lastly, blend in shrimp paste. The shrimp paste adds a unique flavor and binds the paste together.
1 whole chicken
22 oz. (1 1/2 cans) coconut milk
1 Tbs. Muscovado sugar
2 Tbs. fish sauce
2 yellow onions, diced
1 pound potatoes, diced but not peeled
1 kabocha squash, peeled and diced
5 bird chiles, julienned
Cut chicken as best you can into bite-sized pieces and simmer in a saucepan with coconut milk. I find it easier to separate the meat from the bones after the chicken is cooked. Meanwhile, add 3/4 cup of the curry paste to a skillet with a tablespoon of coconut oil, cream or milk. Add the chicken parts to the curry paste with a little coconut milk and stir to coat, then return everything to the saucepan of simmering coconut milk. Bring it to a boil and add sugar, fish sauce, onions, potatoes, squash and chiles. Simmer until potatoes and squash are tender. Squash cook faster than potatoes! Garnish with julienned red chiles and cilantro leaves. This curry was milder than the Keang Pet and one of the most delicious I've ever made. I think it was the guests' favorite.
Keang Pet followed a similar technique. The curry paste included white peppercorns, lots of chiles, nutmeg, galangal and lime zest, and left out the curry powder and turmeric. The pork was marinated in crushed garlic, ginger, soy sauce and unsweetened mango jam, then roasted and fried with the curry paste and coconut milk as the chicken was in the previous recipe. It simmered together with sliced plantains, an onion, three green peppers, fish sauce, salt, sugar, and lime zest, then received a garnish of julienned green chiles. This one was very strong and spicy. Next time I would use green bananas instead of plantains, which I found too mealy and bland.
So play with your food! Break out the mallet and crush your garlic, ginger and chiles. Dry-roast whole spices and grind them yourself. Build layer upon layer of flavors and bold contrasts: salty, sour, sweet and spicy - and that's just the beginning.