Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Thai curry by way of The Spice House

I love Thai food--sensuously aromatic, tantalizingly fragrant and intensely flavorful whether or not there is heat in the form of chilies.  Lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, tamarind, Thai basil; these are just a few of the ingredients that make Thai food so special.  Once you have come to know and use these ingredients, which are often available at well-stocked Asian markets, you begin to understand that Thai cuisine is a full spectrum for the senses.  Crushing a kaffir lime leaf between my fingers and inhaling its sharp, citrusy-floral aroma makes me want to be surrounded in this scent all the time.  And the anise aroma of Thai basil, freshly pungent and herbal when the leaves are used as a garnish; deeper and more intensely licorice when the leaves have been infused and heated with other ingredients, is intoxicating.

My favorite form of Thai food is any coconut milk-based curry.  The components, no matter how few or how many, always come together in a miraculous way.  I can't pretend to be an expert on Thai cuisine from the standpoint of putting it together intuitively; I'll leave that talent to a good friend that recently moved to Napa to make wine.  He's a Thai foodie's foodie and cooks divine Thai cuisine straight from his heart.  I usually rely on his recipes or pull one from one of several southeast Asian cookbooks I own.  The recipe I'll offer you today is an amalgamation of several recipes (and, as usual, a result of what I had in my refrigerator and pantry).

Whether you make your own curry paste, which is extremely easy once you've procured all your ingredients, or you buy a prepared paste, making a Thai curry can be one of the simplest and most satisfying meals you can prepare.  Served over a few spoonfuls of fragrant jasmine rice or just on its own as a bowl of rich, velvety soup, a curry is a lovely and magical thing.

I've recently started doing business with The Spice House and have loved experimenting with some of their high-quality products, especially some of their spice blends.  I was intrigued by a dry red curry seasoning and wanted to compare it to some of the curry pastes I've tried before, both store-bought and homemade.

This powder reconstituted beautifully when I mixed it with water, and after about 10 minutes, it bloomed into a fragrant, vibrant russet paste that smelled authentically Thai.  It has a moderate intensity of heat from the chilies.

The process of making curry varies from cook to cook, but this is the method I like best: skim the thick cream from the can of coconut milk (which is basically coconut oil) and fry the curry paste in it.  It's important not to use "light" coconut milk because the coconut fat is what gives the curry its richness and body.  After the curry paste mixture has become bubbly and fragrant, I begin layering in my other ingredients: protein first, sauteed well in the curry paste mixture, then the remainder of the coconut milk, seasonings and then any vegetables I'm using, sturdier ones first, more delicate ones last.  Then the mixture just simmers gently until everything is cooked.  When it's time to serve, I garnish with crushed peanuts, fresh lime juice, shallot or red onion (especially if I'm making a red curry) and Thai basil.  I also like to experiment with different nuances where the shallots and red onions are concerned.  When I want a bright, pungent component, I leave the shallots and onions raw.  If I want a sweeter, nuttier component, I caramelize them in a little peanut or grapeseed oil.  The point is to make this curry your own.

I would encourage you to explore The Spice House website.  This company has products others do not and they have them all in one place.  The staff is always friendly and warm.  Give them a try--soon.

Red Curry with Chicken, Sweet Red Peppers and Spinach

You will want to have a reisling or a dry gewurztraminer with this curry.  Make sure the wine is not too sweet, but you do want some sweetness to balance the spice and the aromatics in the curry.  Two reislings that work well are Pacific Rim and Charles Smith Kung Fu Girl, both from the Columbia Valley region of Washington State.  Dry gewurztraminer is a little more difficult to find, but ask your wine guy at Spec's to help.

2 Tbs. Thai Red Curry Seasoning (from The Spice House); you can substitute an equal amount of prepared red curry paste as well if you wish
2 Tbs. water (omit if you are using prepared curry paste)
2 cans coconut milk (do not use "light" coconut milk)
2 boneless chicken breasts, cut into thin strips lengthwise and each strip cut into approximately 2 inches
3 to 4 Tbs. nam pla
1 Tbs. brown sugar
1 large kaffir lime leaf (you can substitute a little strip of lime peel or a bay leaf, but it will lend a different flavor to your curry)
1 large sweet red bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into long, thin strips (you can also add or substitute a large, ripe tomato, which will bring a tart component to this curry)
2 to 3 cups baby spinach leaves
1/2 cup thinly sliced shallot or red onion, or a combination of the two
1/2 cup crushed peanuts
fresh lime halves
Thai basil sprigs
4 cups hot, cooked jasmine rice

1.)  Mix curry paste powder and water together to reconstitute; set aside while you assemble or prepare the other ingredients.
2.  Skim top layer of coconut cream from the tops of the cans of coconut milk and put into a medium-sized pot or a largish skillet over medium-high heat.
3.)  When the coconut cream is thin and shimmering just a bit, add the curry paste and stir well, letting it bubble up and blend well together.  Inhale deeply and take a sip of wine.  Heaven?
4.)  Add the chicken breast strips and continue to cook and stir until meat is no longer pink.  If mixture is evaporating too fast, add a little coconut milk so that the chicken doesn't get too brown.
5.)  Add the remaining coconut milk, the nam pla and the brown sugar; stir well to blend.
6.)  Add the kaffir lime leaf and the red pepper strips.  Lower heat, cover the pan and let simmer gently until chicken is cooked through, about 10 to 12 minutes.
7.)  Add the baby spinach leaves, cover the pan and remove from heat, letting the leaves steam with the residual heat.
8.)  If you plan to saute your shallots or red onion in a little peanut oil, now is the time to do it.  Otherwise, the spinach will be ready in a about 5 minutes, at which point you stir it into the curry to incorporate it and coat it with all that delicious coconut sauce.  Inhale again deeply.  Take another sip of wine.  Still in heaven?
9.)  When you're ready to serve, scoop about a cup of jasmine rice into a bowl.  Ladle the curry over the rice.  Garnish with shallot and/or red onion and crushed peanuts.  Lay a lime half (to squeeze over the curry) and a sprig of Thai basil at the edge of the bowl.  Pour some more wine (and don't forget to serve your guests).  Serves four.

May your tastebuds dance!

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