Thai Red Curry of Scallops

scallopcurryForget all you have ever heard about scallops having a fragile taste or being easily spoilt by strong and hot seasoning. This fiery dish, bursting with bold flavours - like every Thai curry – proves exactly the opposite. After years of eating my beloved mollusc prepared in various ways, I can say without hesitation this is by far my favourite scallop dish.

I have found this jewel of a recipe in David Thompson’s Thai Food, a beautifully edited, high-quality cookery book I have been reading and testing for the last few months. Until now, I have only posted Squid Salad (a dream treat for squid lovers), but all the other dishes I tried proved also fantastic and highly superior to what I have ever had in any Thai restaurant. These results are not accidental: they are obtained thanks to the use of genuine fresh ingredients and, in the case of curries, a homemade paste is the crucial reason of the stunning difference. This scallop curry is the perfect example of the elegance and sophistication only a homemade paste can yield.

Even though David Thompson has completely changed my way to see the Thai cuisine (for example I will never even consider using a commercial curry paste), I must confess I do not follow all his recommendations… I do not prepare fresh coconut milk, as the author urges everyone to do, and I allow myself to reduce significantly the fat content in coconut milk/cream – based curries. Served in my house as the main course with rice and some vegetables, they are much too rich and, anyway, it’s an old habit of mine to lighten dishes as long as they remain delicious. In this recipe, I have also used more scallops (and in general indicated this recipe, normally for four, as serving two, since I have it only with rice and vegetable side dish, which is less than a typical Thai meal). Even though I’m a coriander fan, I didn’t like it here; sliced kaffir lime leaves and chilli seemed a sufficient “fresh touch” at the end. For the original recipe, check David Thompson’s wonderful book.

TIPS: Since every curry paste I prepared was different from the previous one, every ingredient is of a high importance and cannot be skipped, so if you embark on a curry paste making adventure (though, since it takes me about 5 minutes, I don’t know if “adventure” is the right word), make sure you have ALL the required products. You will be thrilled to recognise them, afterwards, one by one in the finished dish.

I am able to buy all the fresh ingredients necessary for Thai pastes in Asian grocery shops and I know these are available in many European countries, so I hope you can get those in your city too. (Some can be sold frozen, for example kaffir lime leaves).

Curry paste can be prepared in a mortar (an optimal solution, apparently) or quicker and easier in a food processor (I use a small baby food mixer). The author recommends to add some water (not coconut milk; see below), which makes it easier to obtain a smoother paste.

This recipe will yield more paste than necessary; the remains can be stored in the fridge for several days and then used once more (I experiment with other ingredients). Do not add coconut milk to the paste before refrigerating because it will spoil quicker.

Do not freeze the remaining curry paste! You will completely spoil its aroma and texture.

I have realised that – purists might criticise me here – certain Thai ingredients freeze quite well (though they lose some of their aroma, so I advise using a bit more of these; I usually use 50% more kaffir lime leaves for example). I have been freezing kafir lime leaves, grachai, galangal (this one loses quite a lot in the process, but is still acceptable), coriander roots and fresh pepper corns. Do not freeze homemade curry paste, Thai basil or coriander leaves. Frozen ingredients are obviously better than no ingredients at all and definitely better than dried ones (do not even try to dry kaffir lime leaves).

Preparation: about 40 minutes

Ingredients (serves two):

Curry paste:

5-8 dried long hot red chillies (deseeded, soaked until soft in warm water and drained)

a big pinch of salt

5 thickish slices of galangal

4 tablespoons chopped garlic

3 tablespoons chopped lemongrass (remove the outer tough leaves, the upper 1/3 of the stalk and also the lowest toughest small bit)

3 tablespoons chopped red shallot

1 tablespoon chopped coriander root

10 white peppercorns

1 heaped teaspoon roasted shrimp paste

14-16 scallops (depending on the size and your appetite, of course)

500 ml (about 2 cups) coconut cream (I have used only 250 ml coconut milk instead)

1 tablespoon palm sugar

2 tablespoons fish sauce

250 ml stock (or coconut milk; I have used homemade chicken stock because I prefer a cleaner taste)

4 kaffir lime leaves, thinly sliced (I always remove the central vein)

1 tablespoon thick coconut cream

1 fresh red chilli, sliced

(coriander leaves, torn; I don’t like their presence here, so I have skipped them the second time I prepared this curry)

Prepare the paste, grinding all the ingredients in a mortar or mixing in a food processor, adding some water in order to obtain a more or less smooth paste (see the tips above).

Heat the coconut cream (or milk, if you opt for a lighter version), add 3 tablespoons of the paste (mine were well heaped) and stir-fry for about 5 minutes.

Add the sugar, the fish sauce, the stock (or coconut milk) and let it simmer until it thickens.

Add the scallops and 2 sliced kaffir lime leaves.

Let the scallops simmer until they become opaque (if they are not completely covered in liquid, you might have to flip them once).

Taste the seasoning and adjust so that the flavours are at the same time salty, hot and fragrant thanks to the kaffir leaves.

Serve the individual portions or on a serving plate, sprinkle with the fresh chilli, the remaining sliced kaffir leaves and coriander, if using.

(Refrigerate the remaining paste for several days and use it with other ingredients.)

 

Chawan Mushi 茶碗蒸し (Japanese Egg Custard) with Chanterelle Mushroom

chawan_girppChawan Mushi with Chanterelles crossed to my mind a couple of days ago, when I was still half asleep, taking first sips of my morning coffee. This gives you an idea about how much I love this mushroom and, accidentally, how often I think about cooking…. I followed my plan the same evening and must proudly say that it turned out the best chawan mushi and, at the same time, the most sophisticated chanterelle dish I have ever tasted.

Chawan Mushi (茶碗蒸し) is a very light savoury egg and stock custard, steamed in special cups and one of the most versatile (and delicious) Japanese dishes I can imagine. The traditional version calls for a precise list of ingredients, but I have never managed to assemble them and have experimented with the basic custard recipe so many times, I even don’t remember the details of the “standard” version. During my numerous tests I discovered chawan mushi is best served with crusty buttered bread and I definitely prefer it made with chicken or vegetable stock, rather than the Japanese dashi. (The chicken stock version was suggested by renowned Shizuo Tsuji in “The Japanese Cooking. A Simple Art”, so I feel entitled to say this without feeling I have spoilt a genuine recipe). 

I must have prepared chawan mushi several dozens of times and tested at least a dozen different versions, but this one is by far the most surprising of all. The delicate custard, made with homemade chicken stock, was an ideal company for chanterelles, in terms of both, texture and flavours. A simple seasoning of salt, pepper and butter were all the chanterelles needed. A pinch of turmeric added a certain je ne sais quoi, without hiding the delicate flavours and I must say I was surprised at how well fresh mitsuba – the usual chawan mushi herb – went with chanterelles. If you like chanterelles, try this combination before their season ends. Having tried different – Asian and European – mushrooms in chawan mushi, I can say that chanterelle beats easily all of them.

If you cannot get chanterelle, you might like some of these chawan mushi versions:

Chawan Mushi (Egg Custard) with Asparagus

Chawan Mushi (Egg Custard) with Asparagus

Shungiku no Chawan Mushi (Egg Custard with Chrysanthemum Leaves)

Shungiku no Chawan Mushi (Egg Custard with Chrysanthemum Leaves)

Chawan Mushi with Shrimp and Green Peas

Chawan Mushi with Shrimp and Green Peas

Chawan Mushi with Chicken and Thai Basil (Horapha)

Chawan Mushi with Chicken and Thai Basil (Horapha)

and you look for other ideas to cook chanterelle, these two might be useful:

Filo Rolls with Chanterelle and Goat Cheese

Filo Rolls with Chanterelle and Goat Cheese

Chanterelle and Goat Cheese Tart (Tartlets)

Chanterelle and Goat Cheese Tart (Tartlets)

TIPS:  I don’t know about every country in the world, but for me, whether you pick the chanterelle in the forest or buy it, it’s definitely not an everyday fare. If bought, it’s probably not the cheapest food item, so make an effort and prepare your own chicken (or vegetable) stock. Given the delicate ingredients, the stock’s taste is quite pronounced and its quality will make a huge difference (it’s not as important in the above versions of chawan mushi, in my opinion).Don’t skip the butter and under no circumstances do not replace it with margarine!

Even though chawan mushi is easier to prepare in a steamer, Shizuo Tsuji’s suggestion to use a water bath in the oven gives excellent results. Actually this is the way I prepare it because the steamer plate in my rice cooker is too low for my favourite heatproof cups.

If you don’t have a nearby Japanese grocery shop, individual, but high heatproof cups may be difficult to get. I have found very good ones at IKEA (even though without lids, which can be substituted with tightly wrapped aluminium foil), but as soon as I got hold of the beautiful Japanese chawan mushi cups you see above, I stopped using the old ones.

Remember to pre-fry the chanterelles: they are quite firm anyway and you will reduce to a minimum the liquid they might release. Moreover, the final stage of frying with the addition of butter and ground pepper is an important flavouring step.

Chawan mushi can be served with a salad and bread (or rice and pickles) as a light main course, but it’s also a fantastic starter, a delicious breakfast or snack for any time of the day.

Chawan mushi can be reheated in a microwave. Depending on the ingredients it will lose more or less of its flavours (this one was almost as good reheated for my afternoon snack).

Special equipment:

individual heatproof cups (at least 6 cm high, mine were 6,5 cm high, with a 7,5 cm diameter) with lids or without lids + aluminium foil to cover them

Preparation: 45 minutes

Ingredients (yields 4 cups):

1 tablespoon oil or butter

500 g/a bit more than 1 lb chanterelles

salt, freshly ground pepper

2 teaspoons of butter

(a pinch of turmeric)

(mitsuba leaves)

Custard:

2 eggs

300 ml/about 10 oz homemade chicken stock or, if you are a vegetarian, a vegetable stock (normally I would say you can use also dashithe Japanese stock, but I believe here it will not enhance the chanterelle’s flavours) 

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sake or mirin (with mirin the custard will be slightly sweetish)

1 teaspoon soy sauce

Preheat the oven to 220°C (or prepare your steamer).

Clean the chanterelles. Cut the big ones into pieces and keep the smallest ones intact (for decoration).

Heat the oil or butter in a pan and fry the chanterelles until their size has reduced and they start sticking. Season with salt, pepper and stir 2 teaspoons of butter into the pan.

Put aside.

Boil a lot of water and prepare a big baking dish at least as high as the heatproof cups.

Mix the eggs very delicately in a bowl. In another bowl combine the chicken stock, salt (it depends on how salty your stock is), sake/mirin and soy sauce. Pour the stock mixture over the eggs and stir well, without beating.

Divide the chanterelles equally into the four cups, leaving about a dozen of the smallest ones for decoration.

Strain the custard mixture and pour into the garnished cups.

Cover the cups with aluminium foil or the lids if you have special cups with lids.

If you use the oven, place the cups in a big baking dish. Fill the dish with hot water (not boiling). The water should arrive up till 3/4 of the cups’ height.

Put the dish in the oven and let the custards bake for 15-20 minutes until they are wobbly but already set.

If you use a steamer, steam for about 20 minutes.

If you have mitsuba, garnish with mitsuba leaves just before serving and add the small mushrooms you have kept aside.

Serve hot or cold with bread/toast for breakfast, with a salad for a lunch, as a snack or as a starter.

 

 

Feather-Light Filo Tart with Plums

filoplumThis shapeless piece of tart might look quite ordinary, but it’s one of the best baked sweet treats I have made in years. Wondering what dessert might bring out the best in my beloved violet oval plums (the ones that become prunes), I substituted filo sheets for the usual tart crust, the solution I have been seeing quite often on internet. This change did all I had hoped for and even much more: the thin flaky layers of Greek pastry didn’t take attention away from the plums, didn’t bring useless heaviness, carbs, calories… but encased them with a crisp delicate “frame”. This lightest tart in my cooking experience was an unforgettable discovery that will certainly lead to further filo experiments with sweet dishes.

TIPS: Most cakes (made by family or friends or bought in pastry shops) are much too sweet for me, so whenever I bake, I cut down the sugar’s amount by half in most recipes. If you consider most cakes you are served or buy normally sweet, then you should double (at least) the sugar amount sprinkled on fruits.

This tart serves four to six people, but since it is a particularly light and thin, I’d recommend dividing it into six only if you serve it after a very rich meal.

Given the big amount of fruits and the thinness of filo sheets, this tart will be soft underneath, only sides will be crisp.

UPDATE: I made this tart a couple of days ago once again with plums from a different source. Given the results I don’t recommend preparing it with very watery and acid plums. Plums should be slightly “meaty”, sweet and firm. Otherwise, the tart becomes too mushy and much too acid. I recommend organic plums because these have given me extraordinary results.

Preparation: about one hour

Ingredients (serves four, max. six; fills a 22 x 14 cm/about 8,5 x 5,5 in dish):

3 sheets of filo pastry

4 tablespoons cane sugar

3 tablespoons melted butter

about 500 g stoned and halved oval violet plums

(1 tablespoon almond slivers)

Preheat the oven at 180°C.

Grease a baking dish with butter.

Spread a sheet of filo pastry, sprinkle half of it with 1/2 teaspoon sugar. Fold onto the sweetened part.

Butter the top of the sheet, sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon sugar and cover with another sheet, prepared the same way.

Repeat with the third sheet the same way.

Place the three folded sheets into a baking dish.

Cut them to adjust to the dish’s shape (it should fit the dish’s bottom size + about 2 cm on all sides).

Brush the top layer of the filo pastry with butter and sprinkle some sugar again.

Place the halves of plums very tightly, overlaying each other on top of the tart.

Sprinkle with the rest of sugar and with almond slivers, if using.

Fold the edges inside, so that you obtain rounded edges (this is only for aesthetic reasons). Brush them with butter.

Bake until the edges are golden brown (after 30 minutes, check every ten minutes, so that it doesn’t burn).

Chicken Vindail

vindailp I usually start thinking about soups and thick sauces when it gets cold, but tomato-based dishes are an exception since even the best quality canned tomatoes will never taste as good as ripe, sweet, end-of-summer produce. With its refreshing tangy note, Chicken Vindail proved a perfect dish to enjoy the delicious seasonal tomatoes and to discover a particularly light chapter of the Indian cuisine.

I first read about Chicken Vindail in Rick Stein’s India. In Search of the Perfect Curry, an extraordinary collection of genuine Indian recipes the author discovered during a culinary trip to India during which he shot his series for BBC. The dish comes from Pondicherry, a city with French colonial past and French culinary influence. Its origins are however not clear. “Vindail” sounds similar to “vin d’alho”, a Portuguese dish, which was also an inspiration for the famous “vindaloo” (which also has a tangy note, but is slightly different). “Alho” on the other hand, means “garlic” and Vindail does contain quite an impressive amount of garlic… so personally I would opt for the theory I read somewhere evoking Portuguese roots and the dish being brought by the French from the Portuguese Goa, which resulted in a slight change of the name…

Anyway, regardless the origins, the dish is incredibly good and completely different from what is usually served in Indian restaurants I know. It is slightly tangy and hot at the same time. The rather moderate amount of spices give it a sharper and clearer flavours than most Indian dishes popular abroad. It’s also quite quick to prepare and even though it will taste great with canned tomatoes, I advise you all to hurry till the fresh ripe ones are still in season because they make quite a difference.

I loved the sauce so much when I first made it, I decided to double its amount forever. I have also transformed the dish to serve two people, so I strongly advice you buy Rick Stein’s India to check the original recipe and to discover this fantastic book.

TIPS: The use of wine vinegar is not a Westernisation of this Indian dish, but the European influence it has kept.

Rick Stein advises using Kashmiri chilli powder, but I haven’t found it here, so I use simply any chilli powder I have.

Taste the dish at the end. If the tomatoes are very sweet, you might need more vinegar, so that you feel a slight acidity.

If you cook Indian food regularly, it’s a good idea to invest in a cheap coffee grinder. I bought one several months ago and have been grinding spices in it successfully and quickly (it gets a bit complicated if you want to grind coffee in it too…). Freshly ground spices do make a big difference, especially in the Indian cuisine…

Preparation: 1 hour- 1h30

Ingredients (serves two):

2 medium chicken legs, skinned and cut in two pieces (with bones)

500 g/a bit more than 1lb roughly sliced tomatoes (you can skin them or leave the skin on; the skin adds more flavour, but some might dislike it)

10 cloves garlic (crushed)

2 cm/about 3/4 inch cinnamon stick

1 whole clove

1 whole star anise

2 medium onions (chopped)

1 tablespoon ground cumin

2 teaspoons chilli powder (or more)

1/2 toasted and ground fenugreek seeds

1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder

1 teaspoon salt+ more to taste

1 teaspoon sugar

1 – 2 tablespoons wine vinegar (or more); I have used red wine vinegar, but the author advises white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon oil

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a pan.

Fry the cinnamon, the clove and the star anise for one minute at medium heat.

Add the onions and fry, constantly stirring, for about 15 minutes until they are browned but not burnt (lower the flame, if they start browning too quickly).

Add the garlic and the cumin powder and fry them for 2 minutes.

Add the chilli, the fenugreek, the turmeric and salt and fry for 30 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and cook them for about 5 more minutes.

Finally, add the chicken, about 200 ml water, cover with a lid and simmer until the chicken is soft (I like mine falling off the bone, so it takes sometimes almost an hour).

Check if the dish doesn’t burn and add water if necessary.

Just before serving, add the vinegar and the sugar and remove the lid, so that the sauce thickens.

Heat for five minutes (or more if the sauce is too watery), check the acidity and the saltiness and adjust the flavours, if necessary. Heat for one more minute and serve.

 

Tsukune つくね (Grilled Chicken Meatballs) with Lemon Zest

tsukunecitronpTsukune, in appearance a humble meat patty, is the first thing I order in a yakitori-serving restaurant in Japan because its taste and texture reflect the cook’s skills and/or imagination. My favourite tsukune in Tokyo contained aromatic yuzu (Japanese citrus) zest. Trying to copy them with locally available fruits I have added lemon zest and, even though they couldn’t hold a candle to the yuzu version, my tsukune turned out delicious and original.

The name “tsukune (捏ね or つくね)” apparently comes from the verb “tsukuneru” (to knead) and refers to the fact that the patties shaping process involves more or less kneading. Even though they are usually made with chicken, other meats can also be used or a mixture of meats. The shape also varies: while most yakitori-serving restaurants give them an oval shape and grill them on skewers, tsukune can also be round and pan-fried or simmered in soups. The grilled skewered version is the only one I tasted during my two trips to Tokyo, so I tried to copy this one for now.

This simple recipe comes from the fascinating Izakaya: the Japanese Pub Cookbook by Mark Robinson where I discovered not only interesting dishes and snacks, but, most of all, fantastic Tokyo izakayas, one of which serves the above-mentioned yuzu tsukune I will never forget. Since Mark Robinson was given tsukune instructions from my beloved izakaya, I couldn’t imagine a better recipe source. I found it surprisingly effortless and simple: no binders (such as egg), no fillers, but simply good juicy meat, onion and yuzu zest. The author says that the main secrets are the use of various chicken parts (such as skin, offal or cartilage) and long meat kneading, but I decided to use simply skinned leg meat, which is relatively easy to mince at home and didn’t knead it really. My tsukune were not perfectly shaped and couldn’t even compare to the ones from the Tokyo izakaya, but they turned out juicy, aromatic and extremely flavoursome.

If you don’t like the lemon zest idea or are simply looking for other options and inspiration, you should check Nami’s gorgeous tsukune with shiso/perilla leaves (on Just One Cookbook blog).

TIPS : For optimal results do not use ground chicken breast here, unless they are the minority of the ground meat. The second time I prepared these tsukune with a mixture of chicken breast and legs (1:1): they were slightly dry and not even half as good as those made with leg meat only.

If you cannot find ground chicken legs, you can easily mix them in a food processor (this is what I did; I also debone chicken legs because it’s cheaper and really quick). After grinding, remove any long stringy white bits you see (unless you have a real meat grinder; then the result should be perfect). You can grind the meat almost to a pulp, if you wish, but personally I liked the slightly chunky texture too.

I prefer my teriyaki glaze less sweet than the one usually served in Japanese restaurants, but feel free to add more mirin or sugar.

Special equipment: skewers (I have used 8) and a brush

Preparation:

Ingredients (serves two as a snack):

ground meat from 2 medium chicken legs (about 250 - 300 g/9 – 10 oz)

1 small onion (I have used a shallot)

grated zest from one big lemon (preferably organic)

salt, pepper

oil

Teriyaki glaze:

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon sake

1 tablespoon mirin (sweet cooking sake)

Chop the onion and combine with the zest, the salt and the pepper.

Refrigerate for one hour (you can skip this step if you are in a hurry, but it lets the flavours mix better together).

15 minutes before grilling or pan-frying, soak the skewers (if you use wooden ones) in water.

Form equal balls in your palms, slightly kneading the meat.

Give the balls an oval shape and “stick” them around the skewers, pressing with your palm, making sure they don’t fall off the skewer (I was worried they would fall, but mine never did).

Heat the glaze ingredients in a pan until it thickens.

Put aside.

Grill the skewers on a grill or on a pan, turning them regularly.

If you grill them on a pan, I advise keeping the pan covered, so that you don’t end up with raw meat inside and burnt outside. I turned them four times (as if they had four sides), each time after about a minute.

Just before serving, warm the teriyaki glaze a bit and brush the skewers with it. I have also sprinkled them with ground black pepper.