Monday, January 28, 2008

Sweet-Salty-Spicy Fish

It was fish night around these parts again and I decided to make something I haven't had in a long (very long) time. You've probably seen it called something like Deep fried Fish with Thai Basil and Chilies. That name tells you very little about the dish. Traditionally, a whole fish (like pompano) is deep fried then quickly turned in a sauce made from red curry paste, sugar, fish sauce and Thai sweet basil. The result is deliciously balanced...sweet, spicy and salty in every bite.

Thai sweet basil has a very distinctive taste. Some say it has an anise flavor. I encourage you to try it side by side with regular basil to see for yourself. BTW, you can use the flowers too!

I've adapted the recipe to cut down on the prep mess and to use what I could find at my local grocer. Here in Portland, despite being known for having access to some of the best seafood in the country, I can usually only find whole trout. I’m not crazy about that fish. Instead, I thought of using a fish fillet with skin, which basically leaves only salmon. Mom, who is a traditionalist, was a bit horrified when I told her I used salmon, but it turned out great.

Fish with Thai Basil and Chilies
  • 1 whole fish (cleaned) OR 1 pound fish fillet with skin, de-scaled (pompano, tilapia, red snapper, perch or even salmon will work)
  • ¼ cup Thai basil leaves, well dried
  • 2 to 3 Thai chilies split lengthwise, seeds and membranes removed (optional)
  • ½ to 1 tbs red (green okay too) curry paste (store-bought is fine, or see recipe below)
  • 2 tbs fish sauce (start with 1/2 tbs if using store-bought curry paste)
  • 2 tbs brown sugar
  • 3 tbs water
  • 3 kaffir lime leaves, julienned (optional)
When using fish fillets, pan searing works well. For this task, some people swear by non-stick. I always use cast iron. Whatever you use, it should be able to stand high heat.

Brush the fish with oil on both sides (vegetable or peanut is best). You could even spray the fish with cooking spray if you prefer. When your pan is nice and hot (I mean very hot), put the fish in it, skin side up. Don’t be tempted to rotate the fish. Just let it sear for about 2 or 3 minutes (longer may be necessary for thicker fillets). It needs to form a nice crust; otherwise it will stick to the pan. Flip the fillets and finish frying, skin side down, until done to your liking. We like our salmon a little pink in the center with crispy skin. Remove from the pan onto a plate, with the skin side up to keep it crispy. Keep warm.

Make the sauce (and heat the wok) while cooking the fish. In a small bowl, add the fish sauce, sugar and the water. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Set aside until ready to use.

Heat a wok over high heat until very hot. Add about 1 to 2 tbs oil (peanut or vegetable; no olive oil!) and push it up the sides of the wok. Add the dry basil leaves (be careful because they will spatter, no matter how dry they are). Let them fry, without stirring for about 30 seconds. When crispy, remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Do the same with the chilies.

To the hot oil left in the wok, add the curry paste. Fry, stirring constantly, for about 30 seconds. Add the sauce mix. It should begin to caramelize immediately. Stir to dissolve the curry paste. Add 1 or 2 tbs more water if the mixture gets too thick too fast. Taste and adjust with more fish sauce if necessary. Lastly, add the fish and coat it with the sauce, carefully flipping once. Remove from heat and serve immediately garnished with the julienned kaffir lime leaves, fried basil leaves and chilies and a side of steamed jasmine rice.

Store-bought paste is fine, but I feel homemade paste gives the sauce a little more texture. You can also make it as spicy as you like, and it won’t contain all the salt found in the store-bought stuff. It may seem like a bit of work, but you’ll have enough to freeze for future use.

Red Curry Paste
  • 10 fresh or dried Thai red chilies, seeded and roughly chopped
  • 3 (or more) whole red chilies, chopped
  • 2 stalks lemon grass, whites only, finely chopped
  • 1 tbs finely chopped galangal
  • 6 or 7 finely chopped kaffir lime leaves
  • 6 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 4 Asian shallots (or 2 tbs regular shallots), finely chopped
  • 4 or 5 coriander roots, chopped (if you can’t find roots, use a bunch of stems)
  • 2 tsp fermented shrimp paste (also called kapi shrimp paste)
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • vegetable or peanut oil as needed
The easiest way to do this is to throw everything into a food processor. With the processor on, add a little oil to help the processing. Stop to scrap down the sides. Try to get the herbs as fine as possible, but don’t expect it to look like the store-bought stuff. And don’t expect it to be red. It will probably be greenish-brown with flecks of red. Freeze in batches of 1 or 2 tbs.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Thai Beef Salad

No, I haven’t been on vacation. Nor did I get lost in the woods for 10 days. I’ve just been busy with work. So busy, in fact, that I haven’t fried, roasted or even chopped a thing since my last post. I kept thinking I was going to make this or that, but by the end of the day, I had just enough energy left to pick up the phone to order out or stick a frozen entrĂ©e into the microwave. Luckily, things have settled down again, and I actually have the time and energy to step into my kitchen.

Today we had Thai beef salad. It’s super easy to make. In its simplest form, it’s grilled (or pan-seared) beef that is thinly sliced and tossed with sliced onions, herbs and a lime-chili dressing. Traditionally the herbs are mint and cilantro. Mom likes to add sliced cucumber and sometimes sour cherry tomatoes. Sometimes I add a couple stalks finely sliced lemongrass, finely sliced green onions and/or grated ginger. Sweet red, yellow or orange bell peppers are also a nice addition. Be as creative as you like!

Thai Beef Salad
feeds about 3 adults
  • 1-pound steak (I used blade steak, but use whatever you like)
  • ½ sweet onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 bunch mint, roughly chopped (save a few leaves for garnish)
  • 1 handful cilantro, roughly chopped
  • 4 tbs lime juice
  • 2 tbs fish sauce
  • 2 tsp brown sugar
  • sliced Thai chilies or sambal oelek, to taste
  • romaine lettuce or green cabbage leaves, to serve
For the dressing: Mix the chilies or sambal with the lime juice, fish sauce and sugar in a small bowl until the sugar is dissolved. Taste the dressing and adjust the flavor to taste. Set aside until ready to use.

For the steak: I like to sprinkle the steak with a mixture of kosher salt, sugar and fresh cracked white or black pepper. The formulation is 1 tbs kosher salt + ¾ tsp brown sugar + pepper to taste. You won’t use all of it; save what’s left in an airtight container. Grilled steak tastes best, but that’s not happening when it’s 29°F outside. The second best option is to pan-sear the steak. Don’t cook the steak beyond medium because the lime in the dressing will “cook” the steak a bit further. Once the steak is cooked, set it aside to cool to room temperature before slicing. Be sure to slice against the grain.

In a large bowl, toss the onion, herbs and any other additions of your choice. Add the sliced steak. Just before plating, drizzle the dressing over the salad (start with about ½), toss and taste. Add more dressing to taste. Serve with (or atop) the lettuce or cabbage leaves. I also like to serve it with Thai sticky rice.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Eat Your Greens: Saag Paneer

My absolute favorite Indian dish is saag paneer (or gosht). But one thing I’ve come to learn is the wonderful creaminess I get at the Indian restaurant is actually harder to replicate at home than I thought. Maybe it’s just me??

This time around, I used lamb because I didn't have any paneer. If you want to use lamb, I recommend braising it separately then adding it back into the saag.

When I encounter a difficult or involved recipe, I take it as a challenge. I usually look for ways to cut down on the prep time or slim it down. For this dish I didn't want to do either. I just wanted to get it right. It's taken a few times to get results I'm happy with. Here are some observations that someone out there might find useful.

1) There seems to be many versions; some have a long list of spices while the simplest I’ve run across just has chilies, ginger and salt. I’ve come to realize that it’s not so much the list of spices as it is an adequate dose of salt. With that said, I do like adding “sweet” spices like cinnamon and cloves because they add a little complexity to the dish.

2) The only way to achieve that smooth, creamy texture is to process the saag, even if you started with chopped greens. I find using ghee gives the best flavor and texture, but I also like mustard oil. Cream also works. If using ghee, use it at the beginning in place of oil while the cream would be added during cooking. Yogurt just seems to curdle, so I avoid it.

3) This dish is best made a day or two in advance. Like a good stew or chili, I find the flavors are enhanced when they are allowed to sit and meld. In fact, it tastes even better after it’s been frozen and reheated! So if you end up making more than you can eat, freeze some and you’ll see.

4) The flavor is better if you use a combination of spinach and mustard greens or kale. I don’t recommend collard greens; I think they give the dish a funky taste.

Saag Paneer
Serves 6
  • 4 tbs ghee or 2 tbs mustard oil + 2 tbs vegetable oil (optional)
  • green chilies (use as many or as little as you want), split lengthwise (remove seeds for less heat)
  • 1 onion, grated or finely chopped
  • 1 tsp fenugreek seeds
  • 2 x 3-inch stick cinnamon
  • 5 cardamom pods
  • 5 whole cloves
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 ½ tbs grated ginger
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tbs tomato paste
  • 2 frozen packages chopped spinach, thawed and liquid squeezed out
  • 1 bunch kale or mustard greens, de-stalked and chopped
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream (optional)
  • 1 portion paneer, cubed (either homemade or store-bought is fine)
  • salt to taste
In a Dutch oven (or the like), ghee (or just regular old vegetable oil) over medium heat. When hot add the chilies, onion, fenugreek, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. Sautee until the onion begins to brown slightly. Adjust the heat if necessary to prevent burning. Add the garlic and ginger and continue to cook for about 1 minute. There should be a nice fragrance coming from the pot. Add the dry spices and mix to thoroughly combine. Add the tomato paste and greens. Mix well. Add about 1 to 2 cups water (the amount will depend on how big your pot is) to give about ½ inch of liquid above the greens. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to allow the greens to simmer, partially covered, for about 30 to 45 minutes (longer is better). Stir it occasionally. When the water evaporates, add either the cream or a little more water. By the end of the cooking time, the greens should be tender and most of the liquid should be evaporated. Turn off the heat, cover the pot and allow it to sit for about 15 minutes (or for a day or two). Now is the time I would add salt. I find it's hard to gauge the spice and salt level when foods are piping hot. Start with a half teaspoon then add more according to your preference.

Whether you let it sit for 15 minutes or overnight, I recommend processing the saag in a food processor or with a stick blender to get the “perfect” consistency. This is optional. Just be sure to remove the cinnamon stick and cardamom pods (if you can find them) before blending! If you’re planning on freezing, now’s the time to put some aside.

Before serving, fry the paneer in a little bit of oil (or ghee) until browned on all sides. Drain on paper towels. Check the saag again to make sure it's the consistency you want. If you prefer, add a little more water to thin it out. Add the paneer to the saag and mix gently.

Serve with basmati rice or Indian bread of your choice.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Soup to Warm You to the Bone: Soon Dubu

A few weeks ago, my neighbor, Mr. Z, made the most delicious Korean soup, which he called soon dubu. It had tofu, shrimp and egg, and the main flavoring ingredient was Korean hot pepper paste (aka gochu jang). In addition to being one of the tastiest soups that has ever passed my lips, it is easy to make. Mr. Z shared the recipe with me and I’m passing it on to you.

Notes before you start:
1) If you didn’t notice, this soup is going to be spicy. To cut down on the spiciness, omit the crushed red pepper and add only 1 tbs gochu jang.
2) Instead of chicken broth, Mr. Z suggests anchovy broth. I suspect it’s a homemade thing, as I’ve never seen this for sale. Instead I used chicken broth and boiled the shells of the shrimp in the broth for about 15 minutes. In addition, I added 1 tbs of dried shrimp to the soup. This is completely optional.
3) I used 3 eggs, but separated two of them so I could poach two yolks whole because I love soft poached eggs.

This stuff is spicy and salty and gives food a wonderful flavor. Try it in this beef stew or as a marinade for grilled beef.

Soon Dubu
  • 2 tsp dark sesame oil
  • ¼ tsp crushed red pepper
  • 1/8 tsp ground black pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup finely chopped zucchini
  • 1 bunch green onions, cut into 1 inch pieces, whites and greens separated
  • 6 shitake mushrooms, sliced (or two large handfuls of dried shitakes)
  • ½ onion (preferably sweet, like Vidalia), sliced into thin wedges
  • 1 to 2 tbs gochu jang (Korean hot pepper paste)
  • 1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 5 to 6 cups chicken broth
  • 1 package silken tofu
  • 2 to 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • salt, to taste
In a pot over medium heat, add the sesame oil and about another tablespoon of vegetable oil. When hot, add the mushrooms, garlic, red and black peppers, and whites of the green onions. Saute for a minute . Add the onion wedges, zucchini, chicken broth and gochu jang. Allow to come to a slow boil and stir to dissolve the paste. Add the tofu and stir to break it up roughly. Check the seasonings. Add more pepper paste if you’d like it spicer and salt if necessary. Simmer the soup for a few minutes (5 or 10), then add the beaten egg. After a couple of minutes, add the shrimp. Resist the urge to stir! Just allow the shrimp to quietly poach in the soup until they are pink and cooked through. Add the greens of the green onions. Turn off the heat and allow the soup to rest, covered, for about 10 minutes before serving. I like my soup with a little bowl of rice.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Easy Rice Noodle Stir-fry: Pad Se-ew

I added some tips (in bold) to make this recipe easier to follow. Let me know if it helps.

Happy New Year!

I know. I know. I’m late. I had every intention of posting sooner with my food-related favs of 2007 and resolutions for 2008, but that boat came and went and it seems a little untimely to do it now.

Instead I’ll tell you about one of my fav noodle dishes when I was a kid. It’s called pad se ew. This is the noodle dish mom made most often, probably because it’s so easy. Unlike pad Thai, the list of ingredients is relatively short. It’s also one of those dishes that gives you some flexibility with the ingredients. Mom always used Chinese broccoli, which doesn’t look or really taste like regular broccoli. It looks more like collard greens but tastes more like kale. If you can't get Chinese broccoli, kale, broccoli, broccolini or even asparagus will do. For the protein, you could use chicken, pork or tofu. I prefer to use fresh rice noodles (also called chow fun noodles), but you could always soak the dry rice noodles (like for pad Thai).

The main flavoring ingredient in this stir-fry is a mushroom flavored soy sauce. It has a smoother taste than regular soy sauce and I think that why it’s also referred to as light soy sauce (not to be confused with Chinese light soy sauce, which doesn't contain mushroom). It's actually thin soy sauce co-fermented with mushrooms. Mom always called it Healthy Boy, which is actually the brand she used. In fact, I don't know if there is another brand?? Unfortunately, I don’t think many grocery stores stock it, so you’ll need to visit your local Asian grocer. Or you could pay a little more and buy it online. BTW, this mushroom soy sauce is a great substitution for regular soy sauce in many stir-fries. Try it in fried rice and you’ll see.

Mushroom soy sauce is not as harsh as regular soy sauce in the same way that kosher salt is not as harsh as regular iodized salt.

Pad Se-ew with Broccoli and Tofu
Serves 4
  • 2 tsp regular soy sauce
  • 3 tbs mushroom flavored soy sauce (also referred to as light soy sauce)
  • 2 tsp sugar (I prefer brown, but white is fine)
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ block tofu, cubed (or the protein of your choice)
  • 1 to 2 eggs, lightly beaten (depending on how much you like eggs)
  • 1 to 2 cups broccoli florets (or one bunch washed and well-dried kale or Chinese broccoli)
  • 1 to 1 1/2 pound fresh, wide rice noodles (also called chow fun), strands separated (or about 8 oz dried wide rice sticks, soaked in boiling water until semi-soft, drained well and lightly oiled to prevent sticking*)
Make the sauce by mixing the soy sauce, mushroom soy sauce and sugar together. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Set aside, but remember to stir it before using. [BTW, I always recommend making a double portion of the sauce mix. Everyone has a different preference for salt. You may feel like you want to use more sauce and it's annoying to rush around throwing more sauce together when you're stir-frying. You can spike the leftover sauce with some chili garlic sauce or sambal and use as a condiment.]

In a hot wok over high heat, add about 1 or 2 tbs oil (don’t use olive oil; it sucks for stir-frying). When it’s smoking, add the broccoli and stir-fry for about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. You want it to be tender-crisp (more crisp than tender because you’ll cook it further later). Remove it from the wok and set it aside.

Add 2 more tablespoons oil to the wok. When hot, add the tofu (or meat). Stir-fry, stirring only occasionally, until the tofu begins to brown, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and continue for 30 seconds. Slowly drizzle the egg down the sides of the wok and cook until they are just set. Add the noodles and pre-cooked broccoli and stir-fry for a minute or two, until the noodles begin to soften. Add half to 2/3 of the sauce mix and stir-fry to coat the noodles. Taste the noodles and add more sauce mix if necessary. It's done when the noodles are cooked through. Serve immediately.

Don’t forget to serve with accompaniments, such as roughly ground chili pepper and wedge of lime. My favorite is a vinegar chili sauce, which you've probably seen at noodle houses. A quick version of the sauce can be made by combining 1 tbs fish sauce, 1 tbs rice vinegar, 2 tsp sugar and fresh or jarred jalapeno peppers to taste. If you have extra sauce, try spiking it with chili garlic sauce or sambal and serving as a condiment.

*You may want to read the post I did, which compared the fresh rice noodles to the rice sticks. Here is the link.