Saturday, November 12, 2011

I left my heart in Southeast Asia

This is the year of visits and visitors.  You'll recall my youngest brother, the other talented sibling who cooks really well, visited at the end of October.  Then there was my friend whom I hadn't seen in almost ten years, who was here last weekend and with whom we enjoyed several wonderful meals.  And now, my other brother is here.  He has several talents too: we have decided that he is a really talented eater.  I've been doing a lot of cooking and have been having a lot of fun being inventive and trying new recipes.

So last night, I was feeling like making a foray into familiar, yet still very exciting territory.  I was craving the intoxicating flavors and seductive aromas of Southeast Asian cooking.  I had white fish, banana leaves, Emerald Sauce (see below for recipe), coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, ginger, jasmine rice, spinach and shallots.  I had an old standby technique for cooking fish, a new coconut rice recipe and an idea for sauteed spinach.  I also had two wines that I wanted to compare and contrast with the evening's flavor profiles:  Barton and Guestier Vouvray 2009 (France) and Charles Smith "Kung Fu Girl" Riesling 2009 (Washington State).  These wines run about $10 and $14, respectively.

I had invited another friend with an adventurous palate to join us--she reads my blog regularly and always has great feedback on the recipes.  It is a pleasure to cook for her and to introduce her to new wines.  We started our evening with the vouvray, a light, floral white that is reminiscent of pear and peach blossom.  This wine carries some sweetness, which is a good balance for intense sauces and especially for Southeast Asian cuisines.  Vouvray, as you may already know or recall, is the product of the chenin blanc grape and is generally produced in the Loire Valley.  As the rice was cooking and the air was perfumed with kaffir lime, lemongrass and coconut, the vouvray primed our palates.  Everyone enjoyed the interplay between the aromas and the wine.  And before dinner was even on the table, we had finished the vouvray (oh, but it was yummy) and had opened the riesling.

Kung Fu Girl Riesling is fun and doesn't take itself too seriously.  The label is amusing and boldly graphic.  Chilled to about 42 degrees, it was light and spicy with clove and nutmeg essence, bright with key lime and mellowed with tangerine and apricot, slightly mineral and just weighty enough to hold its own against the pungent and spicy Emerald Sauce on the fish.  It also played beautifully with the Malaysian coconut rice, a combination I am eager to repeat.  Note to self: this wine disappears fast.  Next time, get two bottles!

Basa with Emerald Sauce in Banana Leaves

You can make this sauce ahead of time and hold it in the refrigerator or freeze it.  I make it in large batches so I always have some ready to go.  Since I have a banana plant in my back yard, getting banana leaves is easy.  Otherwise, use parchment paper or foil.

1 cup frozen baby peas
2 to 3 Tbs. green curry paste
1/2 cup coconut milk
1/3 to 1/2 cup rich chicken broth
salt to taste

4 basa fillets, or other firm white fish, such as halibut
banana leaves, parchment paper or foil

1.  Put peas in a small saucepan with enough water to cover.  Bring to boil, then remove from heat, cover and let stand for one minute.  Drain cooking liquid and put peas in food processor or blender.
2.  Add curry paste and coconut milk and blend until smooth.
3.  Add salt and drizzle in chicken broth, blending until sauce is the consistency of heavy cream.  
4.  Taste and correct for salt; set aside as you prepare the fish packets, or chill or freeze for later use.  Sauce will keep in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours.
5.  If using banana leaves, prepare them by heating them lightly one by one (in sections if necessary) over a flat-top electric range or in a large skillet or griddle until pliable.
6.  Put a fish fillet in the center of a section of banana leaf (or parchment paper or foil) and spoon about 3 or 4 Tbs. sauce over fillet.
7.  Cover fish with another section of banana leaf and fold edges over, fastening with toothpicks.  If you are using parchment paper, you can seal the edges by rolling and folding (or use staples).  If using foil, seal edges by folding and rolling loosely around the fish.
8.  Cook over low heat on a preheated grill for about 10 minutes, either directly on the grill if banana leaves are thick and sturdy, or on a sheet pan.  Or you can cook the fish packets in an oven heated to 400 degrees for about 12 minutes.  Obviously, if you have thicker fish fillets, like halibut, you will need to cook the packets longer.  Serves four.

Nasi Lemak  (Malaysian Coconut Rice)

Must.  Make.  Incredible.  Rice.  Yum.

Baby Spinach Leaves with Frizzled Shallots and Tomato

     Coconut oil can be found near the other oils in your supermarket.  It imparts a nutty flavor to the spinach, the tomatoes bring acid and depth and the frizzled shallots on top are crunchy and textural.

2 Tbs. coconut oil
2 large shallots, peeled and cut into thin rings
1 medium tomato, cut into medium dice    
1/2 lb. baby spinach leaves
salt and pepper to taste

1.  Heat the coconut oil in a large skillet until rippling.
2.  Add shallots and stir, cooking until rings are separated and fried to a golden brown.  Be careful not to burn them.  Drain them on paper towels and set aside, reserving coconut oil.
3.  Add diced tomato to the skillet, then layer spinach on top.  Saute quickly until spinach is wilted and tomato is softened.
4.  Add salt and pepper to taste.
5.  Just before serving, scatter frizzled shallots on top of spinach.  Serves 4.

What we ate for dessert:  I departed from the Southeast Asian theme because I had a lot of fresh berries and a can of Reddi-Whip in the fridge.  OK, now's the time to confess that I often keep a can of Reddi-Whip on hand because my husband refuses to drink hot cocoa without whipped cream on top.  He really likes recreating that Denny's experience.  So, what we did was to slice up some strawberries in a small bowl and then add some blackberries.  We sprinkled a few teaspoons of sugar over the berries, then drizzled them with about an ounce each of good quality triple sec (you could use orange liqueur) and some amaretto.  Added some Vietnamese cinnamon (or use another good quality cinnamon), about 1/4 tsp., and stirred.  Then we set them aside to meld flavors.  Meanwhile, we toasted a little unsweetened shredded coconut (which you can find in Indian markets or health food stores) and some sliced almonds.  To assemble: spoon some berries and their syrup into champagne coupes or martini glasses.  Top with a crown of Reddi-Whip and sprinkle with the toasted coconut and almonds.  Oh my.  Watch it disappear.

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