Tuesday, November 04, 2008

True Thai: Kaeng Phet Gai (Thai Red Curry Chicken)

What is more warming on a dark, cold night than a bowl of Thai curry?  Nothing, that's what.  This is like the perfect winter dish when you're living at the North Pole.  I'm not sure how a country with such a lovely climate managed to come up with something so satisfying when you're freezing, but God bless them for doing it.

I wanted to make a traditional curry, which of course meant scouring Asian grocery stores for ingredients.  I must admit I've cheated a bit since I have my own beautiful potted Kaffir lime tree, but the pert little limes aren't ready yet.  So I just scavenged the leaves off the poor thing.  Hey, its purpose in life is to give me materials for yummy little Thai goodies.

Kaeng Phet Gai (Thai Red Curry Chicken)
Adapted from True Thai by Victor Sodsook

For the curry paste:
6 dried Thai long red chilis or japones chilis
1 tablespoon whole coriander seed
½ tablespoon whole cumin seed
1½ tablespoons shrimp paste, wrapped neatly in a layer of thick aluminum foil
¾ cup shallots, roughly chopped
½ cup peeled whole garlic cloves
½ tablespoon grated Kaffir or Persian lime peel
2 large stalks lemongrass, tough outer leaves discarded, lower stalks trimmed, and finely sliced
⅓ cup finely chopped peeled fresh galangal
½ teaspoon ground white pepper

For the finished dish:
1 (19-ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut crosswise into ¼-inch thick slices
10 Kaffir lime leaves
1 red bell pepper, sliced into strips
1 (8-ounce) can sliced bamboo shoots
3 tablespoons palm sugar or brown sugar
2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
1 cup loosely packed Thai basil

To make the red curry paste, first use kitchen shears or a knife to remove the seeds and the tough, dry ribs of the chilis.  Put all the chilis in a bowl and soak in lukewarm water for 30 minutes.  Meanwhile, dry roast the coriander and cumin seed in a small skillet over medium heat for 3 to 5 minutes, until toasty and aromatic, shaking the pan often to prevent burning.  Set aside the toasted seeds.

Set the skillet back over medium heat.  Place the foil-wrapped shrimp paste in the skillet and cook for about 5 minutes, until aromatic, turning the packet once or twice.  Remove the packet from the skillet and set aside to cool.  Combine the shallots and garlic in the skillet and dry roast over medium heat until tender and slightly browned, about 5 minutes, stirring often.  Remove from the pan and set aside to cool.

Put the coriander seed in a large, heavy mortar and smash to a coarse powder.  Transfer the ground seeds to the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade.  Combine the grated lime peel, lemongrass, and galangal in the mortar and pound for a minute or so to break down the fibers.  Transfer the crushed mixture to the food processor.  Transfer the shallots and garlic to the food processor.  Unwrap the shrimp paste and add it to the food processor.  Add the ground white pepper.  Drain the chilis, reserving about ½ cup of the soaking liquid.  Add the chilis to the food processor.  Process the ingredients until a rich, moist paste forms.  Stop occasionally to scrape down the sides of the work bowl.  Add a few tablespoons of the chili soaking liquid now and then, if needed, to ease the grinding.

Skim the thick cream from the top of the canned coconut milk into a soup pot, reserving the thin milk.  Set the pot over medium heat.  Stir in the red curry paste until blended with the coconut cream, and bring to a low boil.  Cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 minutes.  Increase the heat to medium-high and add the chicken.  Cook for 1 minute, stirring occasionally.

Add the reserved coconut milk and cook for 1 minute, stirring often.  Tear each Kaffir lime leaf in half and add to the pot.  Lower the heat to medium.  Add the red bell pepper and the sliced bamboo shoots and cook for 1 minute, stirring occasionally.  Add the palm sugar and fish sauce, stirring until dissolved and blended.  Simmer, covered, for 3 minutes.  Turn the heat off and stir in the Thai basil and cook for a few seconds.  Serve hot with rice.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

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