13 June, 2010

Hey! I'm on the radio!

I would like to thank Deborah Miller and Jay White, my colleagues and hosts of SideDish, for interviewing me on SideDish. If you haven't heard it, you should run over to WCHL website and click on the "click here to listen" link. I am very flattered by the opportunity to talk about doing what I love.

During the interview Jay quizzed me on my blog and the desire to write down my thoughts about food. I guess there's a certain amount of vanity involved in addition to the desire to educate but, for me, it also has something to do with sharing the wonder and excitement that I feel when working with someone who is doing something special. One of those people was Ed Mitchell.

For those of you who are not familiar with Ed and his work, you should check out The Pit, in Downtown Raleigh. I could go on about the Pit, but the best way to find out about it is to go there. If you get there early on a Friday or a Saturday night, you might even catch Mr. Mitchell roaming the restaurant talking to everybody. I say you "might" because Ed is also on the Barbecue circuit and this weekend (June 12-13, 2010) he is attending the Big Apple BBQ Block Party.

Well, I say "attending" but the Big Apple BBQ Block Party is hard work for those who go to cook. In 2008 when I was working at the Pit for Mr. Mitchell, I was impressed by the heroic story of sheer volume. I was so impressed that I wrote up a quick little thing that I had hoped to sell as a blog idea for the restaurant. I pulled it out recently and reviewed it. I'm not as happy with it as I was when I wrote it, but it was what led me to start a blog in the first place. The excitment and desire to report "from the trenches", as it were, was almost overwhelming.

I shyly passed it on to Ed. He complimented it and suggested a few revisions for accuracy.

Now when Ed compliments something, he does it in a big way. Even though it wouldn't work out as a blog for the restaurant, his words encouraged me to keep at it. To reach higher. And that is one of Ed's real talents. In my experience, when time afforded him the opportunity to watch over the restaurant directly, he always offered kind words and encouragement to the staff. He corrected gently, but firmly. He picked you up and dusted you off when you fell down. He did that for me and I can't thank him enough for it.

Ed gets a lot of attention from the media, appearing on Good Morning America and battling it out with Bobby Flay last year, but he always takes the time to chat a little with whoever he meets. He'll tell you his whole story if there's time. If you're interested, you can follow the "pearls from the press" link on the Pit's website, but for my money, the best is the Southern Foodways Southern BBQ Trail oral history project. Here is a link to Ed's interview.

In the end of the story about my "Report from the Big Apple BBQ Block Party 2008", I think it was the beginning of this blog, but somehow it never made it onto the blog itself. So for the interest of posterity, here it is:


Report from the Big Apple BBQ Block Party 2008:

Regi King, Ed and Aubrey Mitchell, triumphantly returned from the Big Apple BBQ Block Party in New York City this past Monday. The first person I saw when I came into work was Regi our morning kitchen manager.

"How was New York?" I asked.

"It was work," was the short answer. Regi went on to describe two hour lines at the booth, almost 800 pounds of coleslaw (mixed by hand), and winning first place at the festival in Madison Park. They cooked 24 hogs for Saturday and Sunday. The festival required each vendor to produce a certain amount each day to satisfy the crowd of barbecue seekers; a quota. Our team had sold out of their supply by 4:30pm on Saturday and 3:30 pm on Sunday. The first place prize was a foregone conclusion with Ed and Aubrey at the helm.

Ryan Mitchell, Ed's son, was also there chopping barbecue and entertaining crowds in much the same way his father does. At 30 years old, we are assured a long reign and great things from him in the future.

"Ed is a celebrity up there," Regi explained. Many people came by to snap pictures of the team and of Ed himself. Of course everyone came to enjoy one of his famous chopped whole hog sandwiches.

The next person out of the door is Aubrey Mitchell.

"My main man," he calls me. Every time he calls me that, I cannot help but blush and feel important at the same time.

If Ed is the front man, then Aubrey is the Pit. Every morning, he is working over the steel and brick, charcoal-fired pits at the restaurant; chopping the hog, pulling the pork and every other little thing that comes from the pits. He presides over lunch and is the Pit's direct link to the 150 year old tradition of Mitchell family barbecue. Ed learned this tradition from his grandfather, Lawyer Sanders, his father, Willie Mitchell and a host of uncles. Following Lawyer's passing, Willie began to teach Aubrey, who was followed by Stevie (the youngest of the Mitchell brothers), to make Mitchell Family barbecue. As you can see, he is no less important. Aubrey's son, A.J. (Aubrey Mitchell, Jr. - 8 years old) is following in his footsteps and was interviewed by television reporters during the festival because, in Aubrey's words: "Daddy's workin'!"

Maybe that's why we don't hear so much about one of the most important men at the Pit.

Aubrey regales me with stories and details from the festival: The eclectic mix of people. The heat; 101 degrees in the sun. The hard work of cooking hogs overnight in time for the festival opening on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Everyone came home with suitcases full of clothes wet from sweat and reeking of smoke.

Twenty four hogs, Each weighing in at around 160 pounds each ("green weight" or dressed for the pit). In two days. By way of contrast, the restaurant cooks two hogs a night. That's enough to supply chopped hog for a day's business. Now, compare that with the thirty-five pound pig that Ed cooked for his mother's lunch that day in 1990. The one that started it all.

That's a lot of chopped hog. 1,459 pounds to be exact.

That's the thing about barbecue. It's work. It's hot. It's painful (a casual brush against the pit is enough to raise a blister). Aubrey explains that their barbecue is done the same way in the raised pits (or the extremely heavy "portable" pits) as it was when it was done in hole in the ground; an actual pit. There simply aren't any shortcuts and there haven't been for 150 years.

Maybe that's why first place was a foregone conclusion.

"You ought to know," Aubrey reminds me, "who you're stepping into the ring with, if you're gonna fight."

04 May, 2010

Home: Or why I haven't blogged in over a year

The past year has been pretty busy for me. I started working at A Southern Season and commuting between Raleigh and Chapel Hill. I work in the Deli at A Southern Season, something I knew little about when I started. Now I purchas a variety of unusual and interesting charcuterie for A Southern Season. Pretty exciting.

To get to that point I had to learn a lot about meat in a very short time. So there is one of my excuses for not posting.

I had some general awareness about meat and curing, but the finer points were a mystery until I read Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. While I haven't yet tried my hand at making my own, it is certainly on my to do list. There are a number of other tomes that I will be delving into this Summer in an attempt to refine my culinary education in general.

From Good Eats.

I am honored to work with a chef at A Southern Season who has experimented with making his own charcuterie in addition to filling the deli case with all manner of tasty dishes. He is Executive Chef Chris Holloway.

From Good Eats.
I am a terrible photographer

I also recently moved to Carrboro, NC. Mainly to be closer to work, but it also turns out that I'm in a pretty hot spot for local farming and general food interest.

Last night, I went to the YUM YUM Supper Club's Spring dinner. It was not only delicious, but there were 150 people that came together to show their support for local agriculture and great food. Everyone was very friendly and conversation flowed with a nice selection of inexpensive (but tasty) Spanish wines and a refreshing Languedoc rose.

Chef Holloway was responsible for the dinner along with his kitchen crew from A Southern Season. We started with a pork belly pho (a Vietnamese style soup with rice noodles and a big-ole chunk of slow cooked pork belly). Chris followed that with his Collard Green Rillettes. If you're wondering what the heck that is, you wouldn't have been alone last night.

The only reason that I know is because I got to watch Chris make them. Rillettes are normally a preparation of meat that has been chopped or shredded and cooked slowly in some type of fat. It is similar to a "confit" in that the fat penetrates the meat entirely and tenderizes it in a way that is almost unimaginable until you actually experience it. You might also call rillettes "potted meat" and it was a common method of preserving meat. So, for collard green rillettes, Chris cooked the collards in the standard way (boiling them) and then shredded them. He mixed the collards together with some bacon and onions and then poured in a good measure of duck fat. Beyond delicious - the collards were creamy in texture and well flavored. This was scooped onto a piece of toasted baguette and finished off with a white vinegar vinaigrette.

The entree was a pork chop stuffed with pancetta and cornbread over grits with a smokey red pepper puree. Finishing the dish was a garlic scape towering over the plate. A garlic scape, if you don't already know, is what you get when garlic sprouts (you know when you don't get to your garlic in time and it starts growing). These are slightly tough shoots that curl and soar surprisingly. It can be a bit overpowering for some, but I like to eat a lot of garlic. It would make a nice addition to a salad if chopped.

The pork chop was excellent and mine was perfectly cooked.

To finish us off, Chris walked past the table passing out small cans of Coca-Cola for the dessert: Jack and Coke Floats. Basically whisky glazed vanilla ice cream in a rocks glass. We finished off the dish by adding the Coke. When done correctly, you don't even need a spoon as the ice cream dissolves with successive pours of soda. There were also chocolate chip bacon cookies. Yep. You read that right. Chocolate chips and bacon. In a cookie. Awesome!

Make sure you visit their site and sign up for their updates. You don't want to miss the next one.

So there's the story. There is definitely more to come soon.

From Good Eats.

16 April, 2009

Updates forthcoming...

I have been really busy lately. I haven't had much time to post over the past few weeks, but I have plenty of blog-fodder since I recently did my big Easter Lamb-Fest.

I recently made some choices that should free up some of my time. Having all of my friends over to be fed was a big part of that decision. That's what life, for me, is really all about. That means even more posts.

I'm having so much fun doing this, that I'm starting to feel like it must be bad for me in some way. Let's hope not, I have enough bad habits as it is.

I promise that I'll start taking pictures of everything again. It adds so much to a post to have something to look at. I even have a few ideas for some interviews of local producers that should be interesting if I can sell the idea to them.

If that happens, you may see ads on my blog. Sorry, but if google will pay, even a little, for me to do something I love, then I will let them. I still need to sit down and really look at Ad-Sense, but it seems like a good idea.

For all of that, thanks for being one of my few readers and for putting up with sparse posts. Come back, tell your friends.

Until next time,

Mojo Criollo Refrigerator Pickle Slabs

I have recently been part of a creative discussion of the Cubano or Cuban sandwich. This is one of my favorite sandwiches in the world and is right up there next to the Banh Mi (Vietnamese sub) and really good falafel sandwiches.

The essential description of a Cubano includes a hoagie type roll (ideally Cuban bread - with a thin, buttery crust. Thanks D), cut in half and smeared with mayonnaise and a bit of yellow mustard on both sides (well that's how I like it) and then layered with tender roasted pork loin marinated in Mojo Criollo (a marinade made with sour orange juice [Seville orange as I have been reading], lime juice [some say], garlic and oregano [possibly other herbs]), topped with a few lengthwise slabs of pickle and cheese (provolone or swiss, depending on who you talk to). Then the whole thing is shoved into a hot oven or onto a griddle (or flat-top) and pressed mercilessly (I use a cast iron skillet weighted with a full kettle). The result is a gooey, meaty slab of browned bread that is quickened by acidity from the Mojo Criollo, pickle and mustard. Muy Delicioso!

Now this creative discussion revolved around using pork loin that was prepared without the benefit of Mojo Criollo and attempted to get a similar effect. The proffered proof of concept was good, but not really a Cubano. One of the problems was that we used those neon, yellow-green, commercial dill chips for the pickle. While I love them when they are battered and deep-fried, they aren't really my first choice of pickle. The discussion moved onto the possibility of using one of those crunchy, monster kosher dills (which is a favorite type) sliced thinly lengthwise. It was generally agreed that this would be a good choice, but in my mind (I didn't want to go to far), I was missing the citrus. As I drove away, I was thinking about it (obsessed you say? Well probably.).

As often happens on a relatively long drive, I went into autopilot while my brain wrestled with the problem. How to get the citrus in without overly sweetening the sandwich. I wrestled for a long time and, seeing no immediate solution, I forgot about it for a couple of days.

Then, during a break from prep for my annual Easter Lamb-fest, I fell into discussion with my friend D (thanks for your help that day, D). D is of Cuban descent and has spent a lot of time in Miami getting to know his ancestral food and culture. We discussed among other things the Cubano and the importance of the Mojo Criollo to the essential nature of the sandwich. This discussion added an important ingredient to the seething pot that represented my thoughts on the aforementioned problem. It took a few days to get an answer.

What is a pickle? A preserved cucumber. It can be preserved with salt - which if you ask most Kosher Dill aficionados, is the best way - or acidity (usually vinegar). A pickle is a relatively simple thing to make - especially if the cucumber is cut up to expose the tender inner flesh to the action of the brine or acid. I have been experimenting with this lately since I love pickles and the crunchier the better. Bring well salted water (brine) to a boil and pour into a jar stuffed as full as you can make it with cucumber slices and various spices (crushed garlic, allspice, pepper, mustard seed, whole, dried, red chilies and dill seed). Try to leave as little airspace as possible and put into the refrigerator to cool (open for the first few hours. Remember to lid them up after they have cooled). After a day or two, you will have your very first refrigerator pickle. You could can them in a hot water bath at this point if you want to keep them longer, but mine never last more than a week or so. I do add a bit of vinegar to mine (because I like vinegar). I am still working on my proportions, so I don't offer more than the basic process here - there are plenty of places on the internet and in cookbooks where the recipe is presented. By the way, important safety note: If your garlic cloves turn blue, then your brine was probably too weak. Do not eat blue garlic. Throw the batch out.

That thought led to the next one: It didn't have to be a brine did it? Couldn't you use some high-acid preparation to achieve very similar results (like pouring vinegar over a jar full of garden fresh chili peppers)? It probably wouldn't last as long, but it might work.

Then the big one hit me.

Mojo Criollo pickles!

It was so simple. The cellular machinery in the cucumber would soak up all of that wonderful flavor and release it when you bit into it. I immediately altered course to the local grocery and picked up a lime. I already had some oranges left over from the Easter thing. While I shopped, I mused that it didn't *have* to be oregano - or at least, not just oregano - and I still had a full box of dill from the Easter thing. Besides, this was supposed to be a sketch of a kosher dill anyway. So I left the fresh oregano out this time. Maybe for the future.

I got home, excited. I hauled out the cheap plastic and metal mandoline and hacked up the cucumbers (lengthwise). Next the marinade. I had decided not to use the traditional grocery store orange juice because I probably couldn't get a small amount (I tend to forget about cartons of juice until they are fermenting - I'm busy, OK) and it would probably be too sweet. So I juiced the oranges that I had, three. The juice was sweet, but had a delicious tartness. Next I juiced the lime and added it to the orange juice (I strained both in a fine mesh sieve). Pretty tart. Adding a little of the juice to my mini-chop, I then threw in 4 cloves of garlic. I read recently that if you want a finer mince in a food processor, it was worthwhile to add some liquid to the bowl with the garlic (it is). I whirred it until it was fine, the added a good sized handful of roughly chopped dill (tender stems and all) to the bowl and processed until there weren't any big chunks left. I added this mixture to the rest of the juice and added some salt. Tasted. Hmm. The salt may have been a mistake since it seemed to take down the level of the acidity. I had a lemon left over from Easter, so I juiced that too (next time it will be two limes though - for the flavor). Ahh. Just right. I also added a few grinds of black pepper and a little coarsely ground dill seed (I really wanted the dill to "pop"). Then I shoved the cucumber slices slices into a zippie (Ziploc brand resealable baggie) and poured the juice mixture in on top of it and carefully pressed as much air out of the zippie as I could before sealing it up.

The hard part is the waiting.

This morning, I opened my zippie full of joy and tasted one of the slabs. Excellent. Plenty of citrus and dill flavor with a big hit of garlic. Not too sweet and pretty tart. Overall, I felt, a successful experiment.

I will present my findings and proof of concept to my discussion group tomorrow (2 days should be perfect). I'm pretty excited to see how it is received.

Here is the recipe as it stands:

Mojo Criollo Refrigerator Pickle Slabs

1 Cucumber sliced thinly lengthwise
4 Cloves of Garlic minced very fine
3 Oranges juiced
1 Lime Juiced
1 Lemon Juiced
1 small bunch of Dill
.5 tsps coarsely ground Dill seed
.5 tsps salt
a few grinds of black pepper

Combine everything but the cucumber in a bowl, mix well. Lay cucumber slices in a zippie or flat, non-reactive pan, add mixture, cover tightly and refrigerate for 1-2 days before using.

The next step will be to build the perfect Cubano. I'm taking applications for the tasting panel...

16 March, 2009


Italian bread. Kind of like a squashed batard (wider than a baguette). Can't be that hard, right?


The traditional Ciabatta is made with a biga (a kind of sour-dough culture that you start the night before) and contains much more water than you might be used to in your bread making (unless you've been making baguettes). Overall, it seemed like the kind of challenge that I enjoy.

A few notes about my baking methods:

1 - I weigh my ingredients in metric (grams - the cheap-ass scale that I have does English measurements in *fractions*. Not a favorite part of math for me). Metric also seems to be to be more granular in that I can tweak my percentages to a greater degree than I can by guessing at fractions. Overall, working by weight also allows me deal with the percentages more accurately. Mass, especially when working with things like flour (which is compressible) or water (which can change volumes due to temperature), is a more accurate measurement.

2 - I build my recipes on "baker's percentages". Essentially, all of the ingredients other than flour, are expressed as a ratio of the weight of the flour (eg: if you're working with a recipe that features 100g of flour, the 50g of water that you use can be written as 50%. 50g/100g = .50 or 50%). With a spreadsheet and a few simple formulas, this allows you to easily scale your recipes to any size (useful for dinner parties or holidays - if you want to use 200g of flour, your formula will tell you to use 100g of water). The flour is always expressed as 100%. (For an excellent primer on baker's percentages go here)

3 - I like to test a recipe out several times before I put it in front of people. Especially if I'm converting a recipe from English measurements. I'll start by weighing the called for volume, then tweaking it as needed over several iterations of the recipe.

A couple of weeks ago, I got the urge to make bread. I had been baking regularly throughout 2007 but, for one reason and another, 2008 didn't lend itself to much baking. It's a pastime I really enjoy; it involves science (the way I approach it anyway), a deft touch and the strength of my hands to produce. Even though I often use a mixer, I still like to get my hands into the dough and give it a really good knead. There's a special moment when you knead by hand where the sticky mess turns into a smooth, silky ball and sucks the dough right off your hands. The first time it happened properly, I danced around the house congratulating myself on my success (it's also really important in making home-made pasta too). Overall, baking bread is very rewarding on an emotional and physical level.

Since I had decided to bake, I started casting around for a recipe. I had gotten pretty good at a whole wheat sandwich loaf and pizza. I had messed around with baguettes a bit - which I dearly love. I got hooked on them when I worked next door to the Blue Moon Bakery in Asheville. The City Bakery's baguettes - also in Asheville - were simply wonderful and are my watermark for making them. But half the fun of baguettes lies in the shaping and presentation of the wet, loose dough - something I'm still working on. Then it occurred to me: ciabatta. This is another highly hydrated dough that gets relatively little in the way of shaping, so it has a very rustic look. Those of you who know me, know that "rustic" is a mode of presentation that fits very well with my sometimes reckless approach to cooking. I figured it would be a good place to re-start my baking habit and would give me some valuable experience before I moved back into the baguette fight.

Now for the bread itself. What I am looking for is a crackly, hard crust with a tender, elastic and pearlescent crumb. It should have plenty of elaioladophilic* holes to capture other ingredients and condiments at the table. The ciabatta itself should be a relatively flat bread (but not a pizza - that's a whole 'nother article) and should lend itself well to toasting and the production of bruschetta.

So with that in mind, I toddled off to the King Arthur Flour website and looked up their recipes. King Arthur Flour, by the way, is a great company that is employee-owned and produce a very high-quality range of products. Plus it has a picture of a knight on the front (always a selling point for me). They also offer a tremendous amount of information on their website. That's where I learned about baker's percentages and a host of other things that have definitely improved my baking. If you haven't been to the website, it is worth a trip. I'll wait.

Ok, now that you're back. I started with this recipe mainly because I couldn't immediately find the "professional" section which has a bunch of baker's formulas. The website had been re-arranged and I was impatient. The document that I refer to above is very good and I read it pretty thoroughly. The main thing that I think threw me off was that it presented measurement in volume, although they did note English measure weights, but in fractions. So I went through the process of measuring volumes and weighing in metric.

From Good Eats.

Then I made the biga (or starter sponge) and let that sit overnight. The next day, it looked nice and bubbly, so I carefully weighed out the other ingredients and blended the final dough. After a 2 hour rise (with a fold over after one hour), I plopped the dough onto the baking sheet, divided it and let it rise for another hour. Dipping my fingers into water, I carefully prodded at the dough until it was dimpled. After a spray of water from my mister and a cup of ice cubes thrown into the bottom of the oven, I slid the bread into the 425 degree oven to bake for 30 minutes.

I have a layer of terra cotta tiles just above the element in my oven to even out the heat. Sometimes, when I'm not baking a dough that is this loose, I bake right on the tiles.

Somewhere along the line, ciabatta V0, ended up with too much water (almost 90% hydration!) and I ended up with some very flat bread indeed. Because of the various aspects of ciabatta, the beautiful crust was separated by a very thin layer of crumb. It was quite hard, but the flavor was wonderful. The holes in the bread, while fairly small, were irregular and looked quite nice. Well, it wasn't a bad start.

So I wrote up my notes in a spreadsheet and converted to baker's percentages to see where I went wrong - I had kind of figured it out already as the dough had basically pooled on the baking sheet. I didn't bother to take a picture.

Next came ciabatta V0.1. This version did all right, although I didn't get quite the sour-dough zip that the first one had. I forgot to spray the loaves with water just before baking and I didn't steam the oven with ice. They definitely looked rustic.

From Good Eats.

After that came the beautiful looking, but bland ciabatta V0.2.

From Good Eats.

I left out the salt (by accident) and left out the NFDM (non-fat dry milk) on purpose. I also try to use filtered tap water but, for one reason and another, my filter wasn't working. This led to an important lesson: a sour-dough starter made with noticeably chlorinated water doesn't get that sour. I guess the chlorine is there to kill off bacteria whether you want it to or not.

I did try shaping the dough in a fashion similar to baguettes (but looser), by gently folding them over into a packet and placing them seam-side down on the baking sheet. However, at 80% hydration, they were just barely too loose, but it showed that it would work well enough.

Finally, here is ciabatta V0.3. I thought it was going to make the cut to V1.0β, but I want to tinker with the recipe just one more time and I want to work with shaping a bit more (the dough was lively enough that I didn't do much this time around).

From Good Eats.

The inside:

From Good Eats.

*Elaioladophilic: GR: "olive oil loving." I made this one up, but it is a quality that I look for in my breads. This one definitely has it:

From Good Eats.

For those of you who are interested, here is a link to my spreadsheet with the formula.

By the way:

NFDM = non-fat dry milk
UAPF = unbleached, all-purpose flour

Even though this is all still a rough draft, it will give you an idea of my process. It's all about getting it right and the fun of precision measurement. Ok. I'm a little odd maybe. Hope you enjoyed it.

Maybe I'll have pan bagna tonight...

10 March, 2009

Curry, curry, curry!

I love curry. Whether it's one of the many Indian curries or a creamy, spicy Thai curry, I have yet to find one that I don't like. Maybe it's the variety of dishes that shelter under the name in common Western usage. Maybe it's the spicy, intense flavors that meld together in a murky sauce and turn even the most common ingredients into a dish fit for kings. Maybe I just like them because it's another excuse to eat really hot food. Like I need an excuse.

But curry is a somewhat misunderstood term in the West. A brief review of Wikipedia's article on curry will show how misunderstood it is. Curry is an easy way to classify a range of dishes from varied, ancient high cultures. It is a term that doesn't always respect the nuances of culture and place. It does however, respect the ingenuity of incorporating new tastes and techniques that marks many of these cultures and our Western experience of them. So, to me, it is a double-edged term. I try to use it respectfully.

Indian curry grabbed my attention first. But India is a large country with many diverse cultural nuances. The cuisine is no simpler. When I first started exploring Indian cuisine with Madhur Jaffrey ("Indian Cooking" and later "World Vegetarian"), I was appalled at the injunction to use only whole spices (which keep very well) and to grind them only in the quantities needed (for for freshness of flavor). What? Grinding spices is a real pain, but because I am who I am, I started seeking out whole spices. At one time a friend converted an unused coffee grinder into a very effective spice mill (which only just gave up the ghost a couple of years ago, after almost a decade of service). Eventually my spice rack of plastic jars of pre-ground spices turned into a chaotic collection of old jars brimming with the shapes and colors of whole spices. When my spice mill died, I pulled out the cast iron mortar and pestle I had received as a gift several years ago and got on with doing it by hand (which is just as easy now as the spice mill was when it was still working). Believe me, a freshly ground curry powder will blow your mind. I am still working on exploring Indian curries, but (even though I've already spent a lot of time on it here) that's not the curry I've been playing with lately.

Thai curry is very different. The curry is a creamy, somewhat soupy sauce made with coconut milk and one of a variety of color-coded curry pastes. It is also distinguished by the use of fish sauce or "nam pla" (Thailand). The curry is then filled with a variety of vegetables and meat of some kind (although there are many vegetarian Thai curries). A lot of fresh herbs (such as cilantro and basil) feature heavily in Thai curries and the dish is often quite easy and quick to prepare (for a certain value of "quick").

I had stayed away from these wonderful curries because I was a little leery of coconut milk in my spicy food but, I finally got around to trying it out and fell in love. My experience with coconut had so often been of the candied variety that appears commonly on cakes (which I don't particularly care for). I had also had unsweetened coconut fresh from the shell (which I did like), so I wasn't entirely surprised when the unsweetened coconut milk in the sauce really captured my imagination. It was a perfect counterpoint to the heat of the chilies of which the Thai are so fond. I could ask for it even hotter, I could sweat more. Alright!

Since my first introduction I have always kept a couple of cans of unsweetened coconut milk kicking around in my pantry - just in case.

A few weeks ago, I decided what I really needed was a nice Thai-style curry to keep me going. So after a trip down to the grocery for a few key ingredients, I was cooking. Following the directions on the jar of red curry paste, I sauteed the shallots and garlic, dropped the veggies in (except for the cilantro) for a quick sautee and then added the coconut milk, a couple of teaspoons of curry paste and about a half a cup of water. Stewed it for a while, added in the cilantro and spring onion at the last moment and had it over rice. It was good, but it wasn't quite right.

The next week, during a bout of high-spirited optimism over the arrival of Spring (temperatures dropped into the 20's the next week), I strolled down to the grocery. There I picked up some delicious looking collards (I felt the need for something green in my diet) and some of the other ingredients for a curry and headed home.

When I was getting started, I had the idea of cutting the collards into long, thin strips and serving them like "noodles". So I got started on cooking the collards in a pretty traditional fashion (steamed with a little pork side meat, vinegar and red pepper flakes). I didn't cook them for too long (about 30 minutes) because I wanted them to hold together and add texture.

Then I got to work on the curry. This is the result:

From Good Eats.

Hmmm. That sauce looks a little watery. Not to mention that I had used red curry paste. Something was definitely not right, but it was pretty good to eat. I liked the collard "noodles" and agree with my friend Mark who suggested that a bit of Southern cornbread alongside would have been a perfect accompaniment. But I was more worried about the sauce.

Back to researching curry. I finally discovered Simply Thai, which I have mentioned before. I was looking at the possibility of producing my own curry paste and had seen another commentator suggest that even most Thais bought a ready made paste. Simply Thai has several good recipes for curry pastes (and a wide variety of other delicious looking dishes), but they are *really* labor intensive. Plus lemongrass and galangal aren't commonly available (although I have found a source for both). For the time being, I decided that I would stick to the pastes. I will try out the "DIY" curry paste eventually - after all, I'm already crushing my own whole spices in a cast-iron mortar and pestle.

While I was there (looking for the "Crying Tiger" recipe), I came across the "Curry" section. There I discovered that I had been doing it wrong. Sauteeing the shallots and garlic was right, but then the curry paste went into the sautee. It didn't matter if it was green (which has a lot of fresh herbs in it) or red or yellow. Then the coconut milk went it - no water anywhere. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

While going over the recipes, I started to realize that it wasn't all that different from Indian curries in some respects. It was a process. Once that clicked, I had it. I don't often use recipes for dishes that I make frequently because I have internalized the process (which is often more important than the ingredients). Once you get that down, the rest is pretty easy.

This past weekend, I was feeling pretty ill due to the aforementioned change in the weather from cold to warm back to very cold again. I had decided, however, that I was going to make a big ole curry and nurse myself back to health with a liberal dose of hot peppers. So down to the Grand Asia Market to shop the produce I went. I came back with some lovely looking stuff. I had:

Chinese eggplant:

From Good Eats.

Eggplant is one of my favorite vegetables and I like it prepared in a variety of ways. These beautifully colored eggplants were creamy white and delicately fleshed on the inside. I admit, I got a little excited when I cut into them.

Thai Chilies:

From Good Eats.

Hot. I love these little guys and they come in a little baggie that has so many for just a dollar or so. This wasn't even half of the bag, but it's the amount that went into the curry.

Baby Bok Choy:

From Good Eats.

Oh boy. This is another favorite vegetable. These are a little larger than some of the other "baby" bok choy, but every bit as delicious.


So on Sunday, feeling pretty weak after working through my cold, I made my way into the kitchen to start cooking.

Here are some of the other things I had on hand that went into the curry:

Japones chilies (whole, dried, 5)
Canola oil (about 2 tablespoons)
Shallots (minced, 1 large shallot)
Garlic (minced, 5-6 cloves)
Green curry paste (4 teaspoons)
Coconut milk (1 can)
Fish Sauce (about 4 teaspoons or to taste - you could substitute a light-colored soy sauce if anchovy water bothers you)
Spring onion (sliced thinly on the bias, 2)
Fresh Lime (1 half, quartered)
Cilantro (chopped, half a bunch)
Basil (trimmed, washed, the last couple of whole sprigs I had left)

The process:

I started by chopping and mincing and generally getting everything ready to go into the pot. This is referred to "Mise-en-place" in French and is a very good idea for anything you cook. Once the process starts, it is very difficult to stop it and maintain the quality of the finished dish if you have to prep something you've forgotten. I still end up leaving things out on occasion, but I've been getting a lot better since I started doing it. It is especially important when you're dealing with a high-heat, quick-cooking method like stir-frying. Thai-style curries also happen pretty quickly and try to maintain a "just-cooked" crispness to many of the vegetables that appear in them. Again. The "mise" is invaluable.

Then I heated a large pot over medium-high heat (whatever it takes for sauteeing). I dry fried the Japones chilies until they started to blacken and smell like peanuts (I haven't figured out why, but they do). Heating the chilies in this fashion causes them to release more flavor and "hotness" when the rest of the stuff goes in.

From Good Eats.

Then I added the shallots and garlic and sauteed them until they just started to brown. In the west, we often avoid browning garlic because it goes from brown to burned and bitter in seconds. I have found that I enjoy the flavor it lends the finished dish. You do have to be careful though and ready to add the next ingredient to arrest the browning at the correct stage.

From Good Eats.

Now the curry paste goes in and gets stirred around until it stops clumping and becomes aromatic. If you are cooking with meat other than fish, you should add it with the curry paste. The meat will brown somewhat and the curry paste will give it a good coating. After you start to get a good amount of aroma rising from the pan, add the coconut milk and fish sauce and bring to a low boil stirring constantly. Ideally, the coconut milk will separate and a thin layer of oil will appear on top. I have yet to get this part of the technique down. I am used to trying to keep a sauce from breaking and it hurts to do it on purpose - I'll get there eventually though.

From Good Eats.

Next the eggplant went into the pot. I stirred it around well until it was coated, then covered the pot and let it stew on medium heat for about 10-15 minutes. The white flesh of the eggplant melted into the curry and thickened it beautifully.

From Good Eats.

After the eggplant began to break down, I added in the bok choy and Thai chilies and let them cook for a while. Unfortunately judging the precise moment for doneness escaped me this time and it was a little softer than I wanted. As I mentioned before, I feel that a good Thai curry should feature vegetables that have a little crispness or bite to them (and the best that I've had always do). I was also a little inattentive at this stage - not a good idea while currying. Let my mistake be a lesson.

The best timing for this stage is usually about 10 minutes before you want to eat. This is also a good time to add your uncooked fish (cut in bite-sized pieces) or shrimp to the pot (most seafood cooks very quickly).

About 5 minutes before I was ready to eat, I dropped in the spring onion, cilantro, basil and squeezed the lime slices into the pot. I dropped the slices in, but took them out before eating since they can lend a pithy bitterness if they are in too long. Finally, I poured a good amount over rice and dug in.

From Good Eats.

Maybe it was resting for a full day with little more than a trip to the bookstore and a little cooking, but the next day my cold was well on it's way out of my head. Personally, I like to think that the curry had more than a little to do with it. It really cleared out my head, but wasn't as forwardly spicy as you might have suspected. I think that the eggplant and the coconut milk thickened sauce probably took away a bit of the heat (although it was still plenty hot). It was even good cold when I finished off the last of it the next day.

So if you want a little something different that is easy to cook, the Thai-style Curry is your pal. Believe me after the first couple of tries, you'll be throwing together curries in no time. Head out to your local grocery and pick up the staples:

At least 1 can of coconut milk
A couple of jars of curry paste (red and green are most common)
A couple of shallots (you can mince them, put in a resealable freezer bag and freeze if you don't normally use shallots - I never keep mine longer than a week, but freezing is a good idea just in case)

Then grab the fresh veggies. I like bell peppers (red and yellow especially), green onions, bok choy, eggplant, broccoli, etc. Anything will do though. Tomatoes, mushrooms and potatoes make good additions as well. Thai-style curries are about freshness, so hit the market and buy the best looking, freshest stuff you can find. Meat is good too: beef, pork, chicken, fish, shrimp, you name it.

As far as the color of the paste goes: Red is pretty hot (often labeled as "Penang"). Green can be pretty mild. It's always a good idea to taste a little of a new paste before you put it in your dish so that you can judge the heat. I have not seen many yellow curry pastes out there, although I am sure it'll turn up at the Grand Asia Market or similar specialty grocery. The yellow is supposed to be quite mild and appropriate for everyone. While you can pick any color you like, the red is often used for beef or other strongly flavored meat. The green and yellow are often used for chicken, vegetable or seafood preparations. If you look around you'll see that, even in Thai restaurants, these aren't exactly rules.

Now get out there and make some curry!

04 March, 2009

Amateur pics of "Hot love on a cold night..."

I wonder how Google's filters will deal with that. I guess I'll find out if my blog gets yanked. Let me know if it mysteriously disappears, okay?

I really am an amateur when it comes to photography, so this is the best I can do until I can afford a camera that's a little easier to deal with (my current rig is an Olympus C-4000 and it has served me well, no doubt).

With that up front, here they are:

The mysterious sauce. It does pack a spicy punch.

The finished dish.

I like to eat big salads anyway. I dressed the salad with the deliciousness that is the sauce. You should try it out (without oil it doesn't coat the leaves like most Western salad dressings do, but it's very refreshing). I think I'm going to keep it on hand for my summer salads. You can never go wrong with a bit of tomato either.

Well, there you go. Now that I've figured out the simplicity of keeping a Picasa album and cutting and pasting the links, I think we'll see some more pictures.

Thanks for reading!