Thursday, January 27, 2011

Thai Chicken and Pineapple Curry

Finally got the pics off my camera!  This batch was made in the crock pot!!
I am not an adventurous eater.  I'm not.  I mean, I love food.  LOVE food.  And obviously I love the memories that go with those foods.  But I don't like seafood.  I don't like it so much that when I was living in Spain, I told people I was allergic to it so I wouldn't have to eat it.  (In my defense-- it does get difficult trying to explain to someone in a second language that you're very appreciative of the food they just made you, and its not the chef's fault you're literally gagging trying to get it down.)  I like a lot of food, but I can almost always be counted on to order the Hawaiian pizza (don't even try to tell me pineapple doesn't belong on a pizza!) the burrito when we go out for Mexican, or a hamburger (usually with avocado if its available) at a diner.  I'm willing to try new things-- but I generally don't fall in love with new stuff when I do.  Living in Maryland for 10 years, I'm still more satisfied with a "chicken box" (fried chicken wings covered in hot sauce, served with fries that you get in a "box" from the corner store) than with the crab cakes for which the state is so famous.

One food that I did try and loved instantly though, is Thai food.  The most Asian we got growing up was Chinese and maybe one time Korean.  (I don't think this is so much due to my parents not being adventurous eaters, but more that we simply didn't eat out all that often.)  But I discovered Thai food in college, at a fabulous restaurant in Baltimore aptly named "Thai Restaurant".  I had no idea what to order, so I let my friends order for me.  Pad Thai and Panang Curry.  I remember this well because every time I frequented that establishment for the next 10 years, I ordered Pad Thai and Panang Curry.  Its a flavor explosion.  (And, very stereotypically, what Caucasian people order at a Thai restaurant.   I don't care.  I'll be that girl.)  I instantly fell deeply and passionately in love, and I was gone forever, turned on to Thai food and most especially the magic of coconut milk.  (Ironically, I don't even like real coconut, or coconut flavored sweets.)

At the time I was happy to frequent "Thai Restaurant" anytime I needed a fix.  No matter what part of the city I lived in, I would make the trek to pick up their deliciousness when I was craving some Thai goodness.  They (along with the number for Pizza at Costco) were entered in my phone as a go-to dinner out.  Who needs a menu when you KNOW what you're going to order?  Except for the money it was costing me, it was a great system.  And being in my early 20s, single and gainfully employed, who really cared about money, anyway?

And who knew how to make a good panang curry?  I didn't know for YEARS that you could make your own curry at home if you wanted to, that its simply just a mixture of different spices.  Growing up, we had a very steady supply of must-haves in the cupboard, but curry wasn't one of them.  It just wasn't.  So I had no idea what to look for, or even what most of the ingredients were, much less what to look for at the market.  But then my friend and co-worker, C, went to culinary school.  I don't mean the way an 18 year old goes to culinary school, but a real live, "I'm studying to be a chef, and I'm actively pursuing it" kind of school/mentality.  And, ironically (but working in my favor) his wife is (or was) less of an adventerous eater than I am.  So every day during lunch hour, I got to smell and often taste what he made for dinner the night before.

One thing other thing (besides being choosy eaters) that C's wife and I have in common is that she has her very own love affair with curry.  So among his other culinary pursuits, he actively sought out and tested MANY different curry recipes, in an attempt to make his amazing wife happy.  And one day he found it!  Eureka!  It was the one, just like the one she fell for in her own amazing curry-love story, having taken place somewhere out in California, I think.  And because he is so amazing, C shared it with me.  Asking where he found this amazing recipe, he told me he had connections to-- wait for it-- Thai Restaurant.  Yes, MY Thai Restaurant where I fell in love with Thai food so many years ago.  He had gotten the recipe from one of the chefs there.

That was the beginning of my adventures into the very, well-- foreign-- world of Asian market shopping.  Over the last couple of years I've changed the recipe a little bit (mine just never was as good as Cs or the original curry), and moving away from Baltimore, I've not been able to find a replacement for my beloved Thai Restaurant.

So the recipe below is my version of Thai Curry.  I call it Thai and not Panang because you could use whatever kind of curry paste you like (I happen to like masaman).  Plus, I don't really know what makes Panang curry "Panang" versus Red or Green (other than the obvious reasons).  So I call it Thai; you can say its more vague, I say its more fun.  :)  But I digress... the recipe below is a fusion of 3-4 recipes I've found over the years (now that I know what the ingredients are and how they interact, its kind of fun to put together your own curry recipes)!  Plus it would be unfair of me to post the recipe I originally got from C, since not only is he a chef, but Thai Restaurant is still actively in business-- and that's just bad mojo putting people's recipes out there they haven't published themselves.  But I do give him all the credit for teaching me what the ingredients are and HOW to make fantastic curries.

Oh, have I mentioned this is a chicken curry recipe?  You could use shrimp if you want, but, as previously mentioned, I kinda hate seafood.  You could also make it vegetarian if you leave out the protein all-together and find a substitute for the fish-sauce.  I know C's wife really likes it with just the fruits and veggies.

You might be thinking: (I know I was during my first curry making experience):
What the heck are all of these ingredients anyway?
I'll post up a picture for you (as soon as I get the camera working) of the ones I use.  But honestly, just find yourself an Asian market, and wander around.  See what you find.  Its kind of a fascinating world.  Then when you still need stuff on the list, ask someone where you can find it.  They've always been very helpful to me at all of the Asian Markets I've shopped at, and are more than happy to help someone who has no idea what they're doing.  But just go with it.  Trust me.  This food will take you places you've not been before.  Its a mind trip for your taste buds and belly.  And did I mention its made in the crock pot?

Special preparation notes:
--I like to "grate" my onion, since I live with a Serial Onion Hater, who doesn't like to find chunks of onion floating in his food.  Feel free to chop/dice/slice in any shape or size you like if you're not one of those people.
--You can use whatever kind of curry paste you want...  it changes the flavor, but not so much that the dish becomes bad.  Try a couple, use what you like.
--Kaffir Lime Leaves are kind of essential-- they REALLY make a difference.  If you can't find them (either fresh OR frozen) then you can use the zest from one lime and the juice from half of that same lime.  It works in a pinch, but its not the same.
--FISH SAUCE is essential.  Its not fishy in any way-- remember, I don't like seafood-- but you NEED the sauce for this recipe.  There are fish-sauce substitutes out there on the internet, feel free to try those if you're morally or mentally opposed to fish-sauce.  I don't know if they're any good, but they HAVE to be better than leaving it out entirely.  It adds that special something-- the curry tastes very "flat" without it.  (If it makes you feel any better, I get the super cheap fish sauce that doesn't actually have any fish floating in it-- its better for my mental health that way.  And that works out just fine.)
-- You don't HAVE to smash the chicken.  It works fine if you simply cube it, but it takes longer to cook through.  I cut into cubes and flatten with the side of a chef's knife or the flat side of a meat tenderizer.

"Thai" Chicken and Pineapple Curry
Yum Yum

1 Can coconut milk (not water, not juice, MILK-- the richer the better)
1/2 can masaman curry paste
1 Tablespoon Thai fish sauce
2 Tablespoons Palm sugar (brown sugar in a desperate pinch)
2 Tablespoons tamarind paste
1 Tablespoon fresh basil
1 can pineapple- drained
1/2 lb chicken breasts, cubed and smashed flat
1 small onion - chopped or grated
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped or sliced
3 Kaffir lime leaves

Preparation Instructions
Add all liquid/paste ingredients to crock pot set on high-- stir together.  It may not homogenize right away, the coconut milk evens out as it warms up. That's fine, as long as its mostly mixed together.  If your palm sugar is in solid form, smash, and add to liquids.  (If it was more of a paste, it should go in as is with the liquids.)  Add everything else.  Stir.  Cover crockpot and walk away for 1 hour.  Your house should now smell divine.  Check to see if chicken is cooked through and veggies are cooked to your personal taste.  Serve over rice.  (I like brown, but white would be more traditional.)  After you stuff your face and try to drink the curry liquid, come back and tell me how much you are in love with this SUPER simple recipe.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Spicy Lentil and Sausage Soup

Finally, we've got a picture!!

I recently had the pleasure of a week-long visit from one of my dearest friends, K.  She lives in Europe now (I know, jealous, right?) but we met in New York in 2003 when we were both training to become teachers.  As cliche as it sounds, for reasons that are immensely obvious and yet indescribeable we became fairly instantly the best of friends.   We even look somewhat alike-- or did back then with the same haircut and glasses-'- we went walking around our Bronx neighborhood to exclamations (en Espanol) of "Mira mama, gemelas!" (Look mom, twins!)  And while I don't think we were THAT much alike on the outside, our "insides" seemed to match very well.

And so it stayed, through years of learning how to teach and eventually doing it, through boyfriends who become husbands (and the ones who didn't make the cut), through several moves that separated us in distance, we have spent many hours sharing good food, talks, movies.  And I miss her like hell.  Technological advances have helped us stay in touch over the miles, but its not the same as being in the same room eating cookies together.  We had a wonderful visit while she was here, and I cherish the time we were able to spend and just "veg" in each others' presence.

Perhaps that is why it was even more of a delight than usual when K's husband L came for a visit a week after she left.  L occasionally comes back to The States for work, and when he does, he usually drops by for a visit.  Its always wonderful for us, since my Loving Duke and L get along so famously, but this last visit was an especially nice one.  Perhaps it was because he's been here so often now that I don't feel like I have to "super clean" the house before he arrives-- he more like a long-traveled family member than a friend, so he's been upgraded to "lightly clean the house" status.  I think for me, however, it had more to do with the fact that I had just seen K, so seeing L so soon afterward felt like we got to spend more time just enjoying him for the interesting person that he is.

Cooking for L is always a challenge.  He's on a special diet that does not allow him to eat gluten or any kind of dairy.  I usually just give up on desserts since everything I can think to make has either flour our milk in it.  But you can't invite a man to the house and not feed him dinner-- that would be criminal-- so I've made exciting things such as a HUGE green salad with chicken, pears, sunflower seeds, all kind of exciting salady things.  I've made smoked chicken with potatoes and grilled veggies.  This time I made Sausage and Lentil Soup.

Inspired by the soup from Carrabas Restaurant, I dug around on the internet to find something that would suit our needs.  And I found The Soup Lady.  This lady rocks my world, especially because its COLD this winter, and nothing seems to taste so good on a cold evening as a steaming bowl of soup.  I have made more than one of her soups, and I always enjoy them!

I have very literally copied and pasted her recipe here, except I've take the time to create an ingredients list first (she likes to put it all together in the instructions directions).  Also, she calls for hot italian sausage-- I think we used "Caribbean Sausage" from The Olde Town Butcher here in town.  (No, they're not advertising, I just LOVE all places small and local where they provide excellent customer service.)  I highly recommend going to a butcher and checking out their different sausages-- you might be surprised at what you find.  VERY different from a supermarket meat section.  Anyway, I digress...

So I made the soup.  First, it made the house smell DIVINE!  Secondly, I LOVE dinners I can make ahead and leave in the crock pot, which is what I did with this one.  Then dinner was ready whenever I wanted it to be.  Thirdly, EVERYONE loved this soup.  My loving Duke couldn't get enough, L thought it was fantastic, and I was pretty proud of myself.  I hardly missed the hearty bread that I would normally make to dip into it.  Its SO easy, and again a great dinner to make ahead, put in the fridge, and drop in the crock pot on your way to work.  Yum yum.  Bonus-- you could do it vegetarian pretty easily, if you were to add in some extra spices and use vegetable stock instead.  But why?

Spicy Lentil and Sausage Soup
Excellent make-ahead dinner.  Could also be listed in the "freezes beautifully" section of any cookbook.  Simply add a little more chicken broth if it thickens up too much.

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
2 carrots- diced
2 stalks of celery- diced
1 large sweet onion- chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped or crushed
1 lb hot sausage, removed from casings
8 cups chicken broth (or even better, chicken stock)
2 cans whole tomatoes
2 cups dried lentils, washed according the package directions
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper (we like it spicy, use less if you like stuff mild)
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon of fennel seeds
two bay leaves
1 package of frozen spinach, thawed and "wrung out"

Preparation Instructions
1. In a large saucepan, heat oil. Add one carrot, celery, onion and garlic.  Saute until tender.
2. Remove vegetables from the pan and and add sausage, removed from the casing, to the pan. Brown the drain off fat.
3. In a large stockpot (or crockpot), put chicken broth, the sauteed vegetables and the sausage meat.  Open two cans of whole tomatoes, break them up by squeezing them with your hands and add to the soup along with the juice. Add the dried lentils.
4. Season with salt, black pepper, crushed red pepper flakes, oregano, thyme, fennel seeds and bay leaves (don't forget to remove bay leaves before serving).
5. Simmer until the lentils are tender, 45-60 minutes. Remove 1/3 of the soup and puree it using an hand-held blender, then return it to the pot, add spinach cook for 5 min until the spinach is warm. Correct seasonings and remove bay leaves.