Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Other Side of the World

I own an embarrassingly large number of cookbooks, but like many things, I have a few favorites that I find myself reaching for time after time...my desert island cookbooks if you will. This is a series of posts that will describe these books that make up my core collection. I hope that you find them and the recipes they contain as enjoyable and useful as I do.

Despite my extreme whiteness, I've always had a serious thing for ethnic foods. I don't know if it comes from growing up in an area that boasts a wide array of ethnic restaurants, growing up with a mother who cooked exotic foods on a regular basis (she has much affection for the cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey so we got a lot of delicious Indian dishes at dinnertime), or whether I just gravitate towards bright, assertive flavors.

Either way, I've got a lot of ethnic cookbooks. And one of my very top picks? The great tome of Thai...Hot Sour Salty Sweet.

This book is written by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid...a husband and wife team who seem to live the life of Ryan. They have a couple of kids, and as a family they travel around the world, living in various countries, studying the local cuisine during their stay, and then write beautiful cookbooks about the experience. They've done this with China (Beyond the Great Wall) and the Indian subcontinent (Mangoes and Curry Leaves), but my favorite is their ode to Southeast Asia.

Flipping through the book, the breathtaking images of rice paddies, piping hot noodle dishes and fresh vegetables from the markets will make you want to jump on a plane immediately. But as that is not a feasible option for most of us, cooking and eating the wonderful recipes the authors offer up is the next best thing.

It will stun you how good some of this stuff can be. Seemingly simple cucumber salads, yellow rice, stir fries all have unexpectedly vivid, complex flavors. Nothing like what you have likely experienced in your local Thai restaurant (unless of course, you happen to live in the neighborhood of Sripraphai). And this green curry below? To die for. Almost literally. I simply must insist that you make the curry paste (do not buy the canned stuff) as well as the curry. You will understand why once you take your first bite.

Duck In Green Curry Paste

Serves 4 to 6 as part of a rice meal

one 3 to 3 1/2 pound duck (alternatively, use boneless, skinless chicken thighs)
3 to 3 1/2 cups canned or fresh coconut milk, 1/4 cup of the thickest milk set aside
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
4 to 5 tablespoons Green Curry Paste (recipe follows)
2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
8 to 10 round Thai eggplants, stems removed and halved lengthwise, or substitute 1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped (1-inch cubes) Asian eggplant
8 to 10 fresh or frozen wild lime leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/2 to 1 cup sliced (1/2 inch wide slices) mild to medium-hot green and red chiles
About 25 Asian or sweet basil leaves

Use a cleaver to cut the duck into pieces, leaving the meat on the bone. Cut the legs crosswise in two, otherwise, generally try to end up with pieces not more than 2 inches long. Trim off all the fat and fatty skin (or if using chicken thighs, cut up into bit-size pieces).

Place a heavy 6-quart or larger pot over medium heat. Add the 1/4 cup thick coconut milk and stir as it heats and melts, then cook for 5 minutes over medium-high heat, or until the oil starts to separate. If using nutmeg, stir it into the curry paste. Add the paste to the cooking coconut cream, together with 1 tablespoon of the fish sauce. Stir to blend well and continue to cook for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. The paste will become very aromatic.

Add the duck/chicken pieces and turn to coat with the paste. Raise the heat to high and cook, turning occasionally, for about 5 minutes. Add the remaining coconut milk and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook at a strong simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. (The curry can be prepared ahead to this point and set aside for up to 24 hours, once cooled, in a well-sealed container in the refrigerator. Return to the heavy pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat when ready to proceed).

Add the eggplant, 5 to 6 of the lime leaves, the salt, and the remaining 1 tablespoon fish sauce and bring back to a boil. simmer for another 15 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings if you wish.

Just before you wish to serve the dish, add the chile slices, if using, the remaining lime leaves, and the basil leaves. Cook 1 more minute, then turn into a bowl and serve.

Green Curry Paste

Makes 1 cup paste

1 tablespoon coriander seeds
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/4 cup minced coriander roots
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup minced lemongrass (4 to 8 stalks)
1/4 cup coarsely chopped garlic
1/4 cup chopped shallots
2 tablespoons chopped galangal, or substitute 1 tablespoon minced ginger plus 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon minced wild lime zest, or substitute regular lime zest
1/2 cup bird chiles (preferably green ones), stemmed and coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon shrimp paste

Place a heavy skillet over medium high heat. Add the coriander seeds and dry-roast, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, until aromatic and beginning to change color, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a mortar or spice grinder and grind to a powder, then set aside. Use the same method to dry-roast the cumin seeds, about 1 minute, then grind to a powder and add to the ground coriander. Grind the peppercorns and add to the spice mixture.

Use a large mortar (I find a food processor to be fine) to reduce the ingredients to a paste. Place the coriander roots in the mortar with a pinch of the salt and pound until well softened and breaking down. Add the lemongrass and pound until it is well mashed. Add the garlic and another pinch of salt and continue pounding. Once the garlic is shapeless and breaking down, add the shallots and continue until broken down. Add the galangal and lime zest and pound and mash with another pinch of salt to a coarse paste. Add the spice blend and mash and pound until well combined. Add the chopped chiles and the remaining salt and pound until broken down and smooth. Set aside.

Place the shrimp paste on a piece of aluminum foil about 8 by 4 inches. Spread it out in a thin layer, then fold the foil over it to seal and make a flat package. Place a heavy skillet over high heat, put the foil package in the skillet, and cook for about 3 minutes on the first side, pressing it down onto the hot surface. Turn over and repeat on the other side. You should start to smell the hot shrimp paste. Remove from the heat, unwrap it, and add to the curry paste blend. Pound or stir thoroughly to blend. You'll smell all the aromas in the curry paste as it mixes with the hot shrimp paste.

Store the curry paste in a clean, dry, well-sealed glass jar in the refrigerator. It should keep for about a month.

I tend to make double this recipe and freeze it in saran wrap lined ice cube trays. This gives me 1 tablespoon cubes that I can easily access from the freezer whenever I'm in the mood for curry (i.e. frequently).


Terry B said...

Like you, we're big fans of big ethnic flavors, Laura. We recently got this cookbook at the library [trying to limit our own cookbook acquisitions]. There are a number of recipes duly photocopied and awaiting testing.

Laura said...

I'm such a fan of getting cookbooks out of the library to test them out! I would recommend the cucumber salad and the yellow rice with duck as well...delicious! Although I would use duck legs, not breasts. I found the breast meat got a little dry.

Melly/Melody/or Mel said...

I love Thai and Vietnamese food...I'll check out that cookbook.

You'll like this one too!

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