Sunday, February 28, 2010

Red curry chicken

For a really full-bodied curry, there's nothing like pounding your own curry paste. John and I had so much fun doing this at Thai cooking school that I came home and bought a mortar and pestle straight away. We made a wicked green curry in December that burned our throats and made us cry. It was delicious as it was evil.

I had been wanting to try a red curry ever since. Red curry is tamer than green, as it uses ripened red chillis instead of the hotter green ones. I finally worked up the motivation yesterday when I spotted these little Thai eggplants at the Super 88 in Dorchester. Called turtle eggplants for their shape and coloration, these slightly bitter gems play wonderfully against the sweet tang of curry. We ate them everywhere in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, but they can be hard to find in the U.S. I have also used the long Asian eggplants in curries, which are not as bitter but still lovely.

Making curry is nothing more than gathering the ingredients and giving your arm a good workout. If you don't have a mortar, paste can also be achieved with a coffee grinder and food processor. Most everything here is available in Asian groceries or an online store like Temple of Thai, but one thing I cannot lay my hands on in Boston is fresh kaffir lime. In place of this, substitute equal amounts of regular lime zest and minced kaffir lime leaf.

1. Throw 1 T. coriander seeds and 2 cardamom pods into your wok or saucepan and roast them over medium heat until browned. Put these into a mortar (or coffee grinder) with 1/2 tsp. black peppercorns and 1/2 tsp. salt and grind to a fine powder.

2. Cut 10 big red dried Thai chillis in half and shake out the seeds. Soak these in water at least 10 minutes and chop them finely.

3. Mince the following ingredients fine (or chop them in the food processor): 1 tsp. galangal, the lower third of 1 lemongrass stalk, 1 tsp. kaffir lime peel, 1 T. cilantro, 3 T. shallots, 3 T. garlic, 1 tsp. shrimp paste, 10 small red Thai chillis.

4. Now add those ingredients to the mortar and pummel it all into a fine, red paste (or transfer the spices from the grinder to the food processor and puree). This makes 4-5 T., enough for one curry dish, so you may want to double it for another time.

Now for the chicken dish:

1. Cut a pound of chicken breast or thigh meat into small pieces. Season with fish sauce and white pepper.

2. Heat 2 T. peanut oil in a wok and fry 4 T. curry paste until hot and fragrant. Add 1 can coconut milk, reserving a bit for garnish, and bring to a boil. Add 8-10 Thai eggplants, halved or quartered, and simmer a few minutes until soft. Season with fish sauce and palm sugar to taste.

3. Add the chicken pieces and 2 kaffir lime leaves. Simmer a few more minutes until chicken is white and cooked through. Add some water to desired consistency.

4. Stir a handful of Thai basil leaves and transfer the curry to a platter. Garnish with more basil leaves, chillis, and dashes of coconut milk.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Farm-style omelets

In her book Breath of a Wok, Grace Young devotes about three pages of buildup and a full page of description to the following recipe, made for her by a rice farmer when Young visited the southern Chinese city of Yangshuo to research the book. These delicate yet piquant little omelets use dried shitake mushrooms, prized in Chinese cooking for their strong and meaty flavor. The omelets are wok-fried and then braised briefly in the soaking liquid used to rehydrate the mushrooms. These were the best omelets I ever had, bursting with fresh herbs and a little hotness and delicious with white rice. If either the cooking time or the heat is increased, the omelets become dry and tough, so be sure your pork is not icy cold or the omelets will require more time to cook.

Adapted from Young's recipe:

1. In a small bowl, soak a small handful of dried shitake mushrooms in 1/2 cup cold water 30 minutes or until soft. Meanwhile, finely mince 1/4 cup cilantro, a couple scallions, a few cloves of garlic and a couple hot fresh chillis. When the mushrooms are ready, squeeze them dry, reserving the soaking liquid. Discard the stems and finely mince the caps.

2. In a bowl, combine the cilantro, scallions, garlic, chillis and mushrooms with 4 ounces ground pork and a pinch of salt. In another bowl, beat 5-6 large eggs.

3. Heat the wok over high and swirl in a bit of oil, then using a measuring cup, pour a 1/4 cup of egg into the wok like pancake batter. (Young says to do two at once, but I had trouble keeping them separate in the rounded bottom of the wok). Cook on medium 20 seconds until bubbles form around the edges. Spoon some pork mixture onto the pancake and fold it in half. Then fold it in half again to form a flat cigar shape and cook 1-2 minutes until golden. Transfer to a plate. (Or push the omelets up the side of the wok to keep cooking at a lower temperature, but I would only do this if you are working very quickly).

4. Continue forming little omelets with the remaining eggs and pork mixture (you should end up with about 8). When all the eggs are cooked, return the omelets to the wok, increase the heat to high, and add the reserved mushroom liquid. Cover, reduce the heat to medium, and cook 2 minutes. Turn the omelets, cover, and cook 2 minutes or just until the pork is no longer pink. Feeds 2.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tom ka gai

Tom ka gai soup, with its creamy coconut base and tangy flavor, is one of my top comfort foods. We made it in my cooking class in Chiang Mai last fall. It's quite quick and easy, but does require a couple ingredients hard to find in my part of the world - kaffir lime leaf and galangal. (I have both frozen, which I ordered fresh from

Note that the galangal, lemongrass segments, chillis, and kaffir lime leaf are not meant to eaten, but used to flavor the broth. You can keep these in for presentation, especially the chillis, but restaurants tend to strain them out.

Adapted from Sompon Nabnian's Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School cookbook:

1. Cut the bottom third of a lemongrass stalk into 1-inch segments. Slice four thin coins off a piece of galangal. Tear two kaffir lime leaves into pieces. Put all these in a wok with 1 1/2 cups coconut milk, 1 1/2 cups water, and 4 to 5 red thai chillis. Bring to a boil, simmer 10 minutes and strain, if desired.

2. Return the liquid to the wok and add 6 ounces thinly sliced raw chicken breast, a cup of straw mushrooms, and 4 thinly sliced shallots. Season with fish sauce and bring back to a boil. Add a handful of chopped cilantro and turn off the heat. Stir in the juice of a lime. Serve garnished with thinly sliced scallions and extra cilantro.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Chairman Mao's red-braised pork (hong shao rou)

I say I eat everything, but the one thing I cannot stomach is animal fat. That slippery, gelatinous texture is the reason I hated my native Vietnamese cuisine as a kid — most people think of Vietnamese as light and refreshing, but homestyle cooking typically involves very fatty cuts of meat. The same is true of Chinese food. In her cookbook Land of Plenty, Fuchsia Dunlop explains that one of the greatest obstacles to a profound appreciation of Chinese food in the West is our very limited sense of texture:

Most Westerners think of pork fat with distaste: It's the horrid bits you leave at the side of a steak, or a dangerous substance best bred out of farm animals. The Chinese, however, have long regarded pork fat as a delicious luxury, and when you try eating it the Chinese way you will probably understand why.

Fine. I'm learning to cook Chinese food, I'll try fat. The fattiest dishes are made with pork belly, a well-marbled cut of meat with a thick ribbon of fat and skin attached. These days crisp-skinned pork belly has made its way onto many couture menus, typically north of $10 for a small appetizer portion, so I was pleased to find it in a Chinatown grocery for under $3 a pound. I bought a piece to make red-braised pork belly, Chairman Mao's favorite dish. Apparently Mao's doctor, concerned about his fat and cholesterol, had forbidden him from eating any more red-braised pork, but Mao paid no attention. (He also famously said: "If you are scared of the chillis in your bowl, how on earth will you dare to fight your enemies?")

This dish slow-cooks the decadent meat in a seductive braising liquid of stock, soy sauce, rice wine, sugar and spices. (The red-tinted meat makes a lovely Valentine's day presentation.) Note that in Chinese braises, one typically blanches the meat in boiling water before beginning the slow cooking. This removes bloody juices, which the Chinese find undesirable. Dunlop says you can skip this step if you want, so I just seared the meat to develop a golden crust as we do in Western braising.

1. Blanch a 1- to 1 1/2-pound piece of boneless pork belly for a couple minutes in boiling water, then remove and rinse in clean water (optional). Cut the pork into 2- to 3-inch chunks, leaving each piece with a layer of skin and mixture of lean meat and fat. Crush a 2-inch piece of unpeeled ginger with the flat side of your knife. Cut 2 scallions into 3 or 4 sections each.

2. Heat a trace of oil on high in a heavy-bottomed pot, then add the pork chunks, allowing surfaces to sear and brown briefly. Add the ginger, scallions, 2 cups chicken stock, 1 T. dark soy sauce, 2 T. Shaoxing wine, 2 T. brown sugar, half a cinnamon stick and half a star anise (4 segments). Stir well.

3. Bring the liquid to a boil, then simmer half-covered or uncovered over a very low flame for 2 hours, stirring from time to
time, until the liquid is much reduced and the meat is fork tender. Serve with plenty of white rice.

So how did I like it? Much, much more than I expected. The meat was meltingly tender and wonderfully aromatic. I even spooned more of the unctuous gravy over my rice. Red-braised pork is a fabulously rich dish, so some light and refreshing stir-fried bok choy or other vegetable is the perfect accompaniment.

I could not eat the fat, however. Those revolting blobs just sat in my bowl, flavoring the rest of the meat with their proximity, and that was enough. Sorry, but there are some places I just can't go.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Thai steamed banana cake

I had a bunch of bananas that were going downhill, so I decided to make the steamed banana cake John and I had made in our cooking class in Chiang Mai. Sticky, pleasingly sweet, and very easy.

1. Mash 3 bananas in a mixing bowl and add 1 cup unsweetened coconut, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup rice flour, 1/8 cup tapioca flour, 1/4 cup coconut milk, and a pinch of salt. Mix well.

2. Divide the mixture among four ramekins or small bowls and sprinkle some more coconut on top. Steam for 30 minutes and serve hot or cold.

Green bean redux

I've now tried three recipes for Sichuanese green beans. The first, from Bill and Cheryl Jamison's book Around the World in 80 Dinners, was terrible. The Jamisons called the recipe "wok-charred beans" but instructed me to cook the pork first and then add the beans to the wok. The presence of the pork crowded the wok and allowed no opportunity for the charring and wrinkling characteristic of the beans in this dish. That recipe also incorporated large, anise-scented Chinese olives, which I don't much care for. Fuschia Dunlop's recipe is better, and the simplest of the three. But I loved the use of ginger, scallions, Chinkiang black vinegar and chicken stock in the version in Grace Young's Breath of a Wok. (The Jamisons' version used chicken stock and black vinegar as well.) Then I missed the ya cai in Dunlop's recipe, so I added that as well (obviously optional if you don't have any). I believe the directions below employ the best of the three recipes. Young comments that this dish reaches full flavor after sitting for a few hours, which makes it an ideal make-ahead dish for dinner guests.

1. Combine 1/4 chicken broth, 1 T. sugar and 1 tsp. salt in a small bowl.

2. Heat the wok, swirl in 2 T. peanut oil and add 1/2 lb of green beans. Reduce the heat to medium and pan-fry, turning the beans until they are wrinkled with brown spots. Transfer to a plate and repeat with another 1/2 lb. of beans.

3. Add 2 T. minced ginger and 2 ounces of ground pork to the empty wok and stir-fry, breaking up the pork until it has lost almost all its pink color. Add 2 T. ya cai and stir-fry another minute. Swirl in the broth mixture and add the beans, tossing to combine, and cook a couple more minutes until most of the liquid has evaporated. Stir in 1 T. Chinkiang vinegar, 1 tsp. sesame oil and 2 thinly sliced scallions. Remove from heat and serve hot or at room temperature.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Chicken with Sichuan peppercorns

This aromatic dish is from Grace Young's cookbook Breath of a Wok. It uses Sichuan peppercorns, also prominent in dan dan noodles. I probably haven't talked about Sichuan pepper enough. These dark red peppercorns should be roasted in a wok to bring out their flavor — just heat them up dry in the wok until they are slightly brown and fragrant — and then crushed in a mortar or spice grinder. It's a culinary cliche to say something is doing a dance in your mouth, but in the case of Sichuan pepper it is true. It's hard to explain the tingling, numbing sensation to somebody who hasn't tried it. The Mandarin word for Sichuan pepper heat, "ma," is the same word used to describe anesthesia and pins and needles. Far gentler yet in a way more startling than chilli heat, Sichuan pepper spice is intensely pleasurable. Well, to me. John's coworker's Chinese wife hates Sichuan food, says it's like little bombs going off in her mouth.

Notice how in this recipe the chicken is supposed to be cut in small cubes and the garlic, ginger and scallion sliced to match. The Chinese consider it sloppy to serve a stir-fry without uniform cuts (see above), but my chicken thighs were all misshapen, and I have neither the drive nor the knife skills to get too fussed.

1. Cut 12 ounces of chicken thigh meat into 1/2-inch cubes. Combine the chicken, 1 tsp. Shaoxing rice wine, 1 tsp. cornstarch, and a sprinkling of white pepper in a bowl.

2. In a second bowl, mix 2 T. chicken broth, 1 T. Chinkiang black vinegar, 2 tsp. sesame oil, 1 tsp. sugar, 1 tsp. chilli oil, and 2 more tsp. rice wine.

3. Slice some garlic, ginger and scallions all into thin slices. Roast 1/2 tsp. Sichuan peppercorns and grind them to a powder.

4. Heat the wok over high heat, then add a bit of peanut oil, 8 small red dried chillis and the chicken meat. Cook undisturbed for one minute, letting the chicken begin to brown. Then stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes until the chicken is brown. Transfer to a plate.

5. Add the garlic, ginger, scallions and Sichuan pepper to the wok and stir-fry for 15 seconds. Return the chicken to the wok. Stir the sauce mixture and swirl it in. Stir-fry 30 seconds until the sauce thickens slightly and serve over white rice. Feeds 2.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Ants climbing a tree (ma yi shang shu)

We tend to have a binary relationship with meat. Those with humane or environmental objections to meat typically don't eat it at all. The rest of us gorge it at every meal. I thought of this strange dynamic a few weeks ago when a girl in my cooking class, a former vegetarian, confessed the secret to her butternut squash soup - sausage. It killed her vegetarian sensibilities to add it, she said, but it was the ingredient that made the soup's flavors sing. To me, it seemed she should have been praising the sausage trick. A small amount of meat, crumbled into a large pot of soup, would go a long way in imparting savory flavor to a predominantly vegetable-based meal.

There are a lot of compelling reasons to be vegetarian. Agribusiness is awful to animals and the earth. I think factory farming is a moral crime. But I cannot give up meat. I love the way meat tastes. It's prominent in just about every culinary tradition, and I value the access it gives me to other cultures and foodways. Like me, most other people are not ready to give up meat. And they get defensive or dismissive when you bring up the ethical arguments. But all of us could eat less of it without feeling that much sacrifice, and it's hard to argue against the health benefits of eating less meat. If four people decreased their consumption by 25%, wouldn't that have much the same impact as converting one full-fledged PETA vegetarian? (Mark Bittman has done a ton to promote this concept.)

Many of the Chinese dishes I've been cooking - dan dan noodles, fish-fragrant aubergines and dry-fried beans among them - make judicious use of meat as a flavoring agent. Meat doesn't play center stage in any of these dishes, but a small sprinkling of ground pork or a splash of rich chicken stock dramatically enhance their deliciousness. A one-pound package of pork can last us four meals or more these days. Obviously, this cooking strategy was really useful when money was tight and meat hard to come by, but I think it's just as relevant in modern times.

One such dish is what Fuchsia Dunlop's Sichuanese cookbook charmingly calls Ants Climbing a Tree. If you dangle a few strands of these noodles from your chopsticks, Dunlop explains, tiny morsels of meat will cling to them, apparently like ants climbing a tree. This dish uses glass noodles, easily found in any Asian market and sometimes labeled "mung bean thread" or "bean vermicelli." In case you're wondering, light Chinese soy sauce is predominantly used for seasoning, while dark soy sauce is less salty and added for color.

1. Soak 1/4 lb. glass noodles in hot water for 15 minutes. Add a splash of Shaoxing rice wine and a couple pinches of salt to 1/4 lb. ground pork or beef and mix well.

2. Heat your wok over a high flame, add 1 T. peanut oil and stir-fry the ground meat with a splash of light soy sauce until lightly browned and crispy. Add 1 1/2 T. chilli bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is red and fragrant. Add 1 2/3 cups chicken stock and the drained noodles and stir well. Tip in 1/2 tsp. dark soy sauce for color, and season with light soy sauce to taste.

3. When the stock has come to a boil, simmer over a medium flame for 10 minutes until the liquid has mostly evaporated and been absorbed. Add 3 finely sliced scallions, mix well, and serve. Feeds 2.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Happy birthday to me - Ten Tables

Although I had intended for this blog to be about restaurants as well as cooking, I have never once remembered my camera when we go to eat out. My birthday on Monday was no exception, but John managed to borrow a camera from his officemate. We went to Ten Tables, an adorable and inventive place not far from where we live. For whatever reason, we hadn't been there since John's birthday over 11 months ago. It's one of those new American, sustainable emphasis places that are all over Boston, but Ten Tables sets itself apart with value - a higher end experience at moderate prices.

Ten Tables has added a bar area to its ten-table dining room since we were there last. This caused a little mixup as John had reserved a table at the "bar," meaning the high chef's table in the dining room that overlooks the tiny kitchen. We were seated in the bar area with an apology, but no matter.

We got the four-course chef's tasting menu:

Charcuterie (pork pate, pickles, homemade chorizo) - partially eaten. Not only do I forget the camera, I can never remember to use it before taking a bite.

Scottish salmon with faro, beets and spinach

Braised short rib with duck fat fries. So rich I was glad there was only one.
Citrus sorbet palette cleanser (not pictured)

Tahitian creme brulee. Tasted like a creme brulee - I have no idea what made it Tahitian.

Lemon pudding

In all, the selections were delicious, but a bit more conventional than I recall from our previous dinner there, which had wowed me by unexpected pairings of ingredients that, upon arriving on my tongue, were obviously meant to be. I was a touch disappointed they didn't give us the chocolate terrine with sea salt and thai basil ice cream (!), but it's always on the menu.