Saturday, September 23, 2006

Comfort Food, Bob Style

Bob is coming down with a cold. Probably stress. You know, you get through the stressful times fine and then your system just says enough. I asked him today what would be comfort food for him. He said Thai Shrimp in Peanut Sauce. My idea of comfort food is mashed potatoes or mac and cheese, and to give Bob credit, if the cold gets worse, what he'll crave next is matzo ball soup from the deli. But I think its weird that someone who has lived all his life in Ohio--and who was born of the children of German and Hungarian immigrants--craves cilantro.

My Thai Shrimp in Peanut Sauce is not even remotely authentic. It's also highly variable. Bob asked me one day if I had a recipe for it and I don't. But I do have a set of techniques and it is my feeling that technique will get you through times of no inspiration a helluva lot better than inspiration will get you through no technique. The recipe actually has three separate stages. It can take some time to prep, but once you start cooking, like a lot of Asian style dishes, it comes together fast. It's secret is not in the ingredients so much as the use of a paste as the cooking base. A really fragrant and spicy paste is the first ingredient in a lot of dishes in Southeast Asia, but we don't do it here. It's really, really astonishing what the paste does to the dish. It's magic. Really. Try making the paste and adding it to stir fry once, just once. You'll be amazed.

Maureen's Shrimp in Peanut Sauce

(makes 2 very generous servings)

1 clove of garlic
1 one inch cube of ginger*
two inches of lemon grass
grated lime zest to taste, maybe a teaspoon**
1 serrano chili***
1/2 teaspoon of coarse salt
mortar and pestle****(very opinionated footnote below)

Stir Fry

vegetable oil to coat bottom of pan
assorted vegetables for stir fry (green beans, onion and red pepper tonight)
8 oz of shrimp, chicken, pork or beef. Slice up the meat for stir fry


1/3 to 1/2 cup of creamy peanut butter
2 tablespoons of sesame oil
2 tablespoons of brown sugar
1/4 cup of soy sauce
(you could add fish sauce if you like, sometimes I do)

chopped cilantro

white rice or lo mein noodles to accompany

1. Make your paste. Put the salt in the bottom of your mortar and add the garlic. I usually crush it with the flat of my knife blade first. Mash it to paste. It will dissolve most of the salt, but life is never easy. Add the other ingredients and grind and mash them to pulp, one by one. I chop the pepper a bit. It will take awhile. Like all things, it will take less time as you get used to doing it. And the aroma. As you mash the garlic, the essential oils get released and the garlic and the ginger and the rest of the ingredients release aromatics. Anyone walking onto your kitchen will know that the cooking here is not for the faint-hearted. I don't always have all the ingredients for the paste, and if I don't have lime, I just make it without grated lime zest. If I can't get lemongrass, well now I have freeze-dried lemongrass in the freezer but it's not as good as fresh lemongrass. I've even made it without the ginger, although I think the holy trinity of the paste is probably garlic, ginger and pepper. Sometimes I add chopped cilantro stems. Cilantro stems are used a lot in Thai cooking.
2. Mix the ingredients for the sauce and set aside. It's not really a sauce. But the peanut butter will liquefy in the pan.
3. Heat your wok or pot until very hot, add cold oil. When the oil is hot, add the paste. The capsicum in the pepper might make you sneeze or cough. That's okay. Stir fry just the paste for about thirty seconds. My paste begins to disintegrate and even look a little stringy but that seems to be okay. A real southeast Asian cook probably makes a much smoother, more even paste, but Bob never complains.
4. Stir fry. Add your onions and/or carrots and/or bell pepper and/or green beans. Cook until they start to soften and then add the next group of vegetables if you've got them--stuff like egg plant and/or little corns and/or cabbage. If you are doing meat, add it now. Then last if you are doing quick vegetables like mushrooms, add them, and if you are doing shrimp, add them. You know the drill on shrimp? Take it off the heat right before you're completely sure it's done? At that point do step 5.
5. Add sauce and heat until it softens and coats everything. I throw my noodles in now and toss them around so they get a bit of sauce on them.
6. Plate and garnish with chopped cilantro and peanuts to taste. We like a lot so we garnish a lot. You could also add hard boiled egg.

*If you can get galangal, so much the better. I can't.
**This is because I can't get kaffir lime leaves. If you can get kaffir lime leaves, they would be a lot better, but don't tell me, okay? I'm hoping for galangal and kaffir lime leaves in Austin. Along with a consistent supply of lemongrass.
***If you can get Thai chilies...yeah, yeah, yeah, you know. Ohio. If you like you food hotter and more Thai like, add two serranos. One gives you a good flavor and mild to medium heat.
****a mortar and pestle. Why pound away at stuff in a mortar and pestle? Besides feeling cool and stuff? It used to feel cool but now I've done it so often that half the time I do it with the television on because basically it's kind of boring and it takes awhile--about five to ten minutes for me now. You can do it in a mini chopper if you want. It will turn out fine and still be better tasting that most Thai recipes you find but when I learned how to do this from a magazine article years ago, I happened to have a little mortar and pestle that someone had given me. It's was mostly decorative and I have since bought a plain one at an Asian grocery. After I had done the mortar and pestle thing a few times I tried the mini food processor and it gave me a much more even paste. But I think cutting garlic instead of mashing it gives it a different, slightly bitter taste. I've since read that they recommend making pesto in a mortar and I believe them, but my mortar isn't big enough and I don't make pesto often enough to get a bigger one. I also prefer my pesto with pecans over walnuts but that's another religious argument. So you can skip the salt in the paste and throw it in a mini prep and I won't tell, okay?

So that's it. Amaze your friends and family. The neat thing about the dish is that it has that intensity of flavor I associate with Thai. And it's good for a cold.


Blogger Mitch said...

For years, I used to get one (1) bad cold every year. I'd lie in bed for three days, eating nothing but microwaved chicken broth. I knew I'd gotten well when I woke up from a deep sleep and my first thought was: Must get to phone, order pizza.

September 23, 2006 8:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We've both got colds today. And, I also (no connection) have a mortar and pestle. I got one of those big ones made from volcanic rock because it reminds me of Mexico. I must admit that the first time I tried it for pesto I gave up and used the mini-container on the food processor. (I wondered if maybe it would have worked better if the basil had been dry instead of freshly picked and washed?)
Did you get the Texas Monthly "25 things we love about Texas" issue from Sarah? She said she *might* see you the day after book club so she's got it.
I'm glad you've sold the house; I'm sorry you're leaving. All of a piece.

September 23, 2006 8:15 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Mitch, when I have a cold, I want ice cream. Unfortunately, when I'm better I still want ice cream.

Laura, I couldn't make it to the last meeting, but I'll see her at the next one. I am sure I will love every one of those 25 things.

I'm excited about Austin, can't wait to leave, can't bear to leave.

September 23, 2006 11:51 PM  
Blogger Greg van Eekhout said...

My grandmother had a big old mortar and pestle that looked like something from the late Pleistocene. I suspect it came to California with her from Holland, and possibly to Holland with her from Indonesia. Not that I ever cook, but I wish I had it. It was pretty badass.

September 24, 2006 1:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just found out about this spice company that has a huge selection and online ordering, and it turns out that they carry galangal:

Hope this helps.


September 24, 2006 5:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While your shrimp dish may not count as authentic, it sounds great and I'm adding it to my collection.

Regarding the aromas of the ginger and garlic during preparation: I made a cabbage salad tonight that we've had before, billed as a quick Kim Chee. One step calls for chopping 3 tablespoons of ginger, 4 cloves of garlic, a jalapeno (I used a serrano tonight), and 1/2 cup of cilantro.

The aroma fills the air, and I find it almost unbelievable how good such a simple preparation can smell.

I've never tried making this with a mortar rather than a mini-chopper, but I may give it a try one of these days.

Thanks for the shrimp recipe! Hope Bob feels better soon.

. Walt

September 24, 2006 7:34 PM  

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