Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Thai-Chinese Stir-fried Broccoli

I was dismayed the other evening when doing the blog posting on Chinese braised ("red-cooked") chicken to discover that I don't have one of the most basic dishes on my blog, one I personally make often.

I mean stir-fried green vegetables in the basically Chinese manner. They show up almost constantly in one form or another in southern Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and even Malaysian cooking.

To make up for the lapse, here is one of several green vegetable stir-fries I will get onto the blog over the next several months. This particular one is with broccoli, easier for Americans to find than the Asian greens.

Although broccoli is not as frequent as other green vegetables in Asia, and somewhat of a luxury there, it works very well when prepared in the Thai-Chinese manner. That's why it is so common in Chinese and Thai restaurants in the US.

In Thai, unlike in Chinese, cooking, fish sauce replaces soy sauce, and the juices in the dish are not thickened or very oily. The recipe below follows the Thai style.

This makes a fine side dish to a Thai curry or other meat or fish dish and white unsalted rice, and will serve six.

Stir-fried Broccoli, Thai-Chinese Style

2 medium-large stalks (crowns) broccoli
1 medium-large carrot
2 large scallions (green onions), including the greens
1 large clove of garlic
1/2 inch fresh ginger
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, such as canola (not olive)
1-1/2 tablespoons Chinese oyster sauce (available in Asian groceries)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce (available in Asian groceries)

Prepare vegetables and set aside in separate piles on a platter until ready to cook: Cut off and discard all but about 1-1/2 inches of broccoli stem. Peel tough outer skin off stem. Cut broccoli lengthwise into small, similarly sized flowerets, each with a strip of stem. Peel carrot and slice diagonally into long oval pieces about 1/8-inch thick. Cut scallion into 1-inch lengths, slicing on a diagonal. Mince garlic. Slice ginger paper-thin, stack up slices and shred paper-thin.

In wok or large frying pan, pre-cook carrots in a half cup of water, salted lightly, stirring frequently until crisp-tender, about 1/2 minute. Remove to a plate, retaining the water in the pan. Add broccoli and stir and cook in the water until color changes to bright green, about 1/2 minute. Remove broccoli and add to carrots. Reserve water in a cup. Rinse pan.

Heat pan again and add oil, garlic, and ginger. Fry briefly until fragrant, but not browned, 15 to 20 seconds. Add pre-cooked carrot and broccoli plus the scallion. Stir once and add oyster sauce, salt, fish sauce, and a tablespoon or so of the vegetable water.

Stir and fry briefly. Taste the sauce. It should be slightly salty (vegetables will soak more up). If necessary, add a little salt.

Serve immediately on a platter or plate, heaped up in the center.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Malaysian-Chinese Braised ("Red-Cooked") Chicken

A dish I learned and loved during our days in Malaysia, many years ago, is the braised chicken popular in Chinese home cooking there. This subtly fragrant treat is one for which I worked out my recipe in the 70s and taught it when we first got back to the US. It never fails to please on those infrequent occasions I remember to make it. I don't recall who I learned the cooking technique from. Certainly it was someone who neither used nor wrote down precise recipes. It was probably either Ah Ping or Yi Lien, who worked for us while we were in Kuala Lumpur raising our children.

Rarely a restaurant dish, "red-cooked" chicken is highly economical. It requires only a whole chicken -- typically cheap here, some dried black mushrooms, several sauces and seasonings, a cleaver to cut the chicken with, and a little time to simmer the dish.

"Red cooking" is a traditional Chinese style of braising meat, or meat and firm vegetables. The gravy is not actually red, but more of a tan-brown color. "Red cooking" refers to simmering in water to which soy sauce and seasonings are added before the meat. It shows up in various Chinese-influenced dishes throughout Southeast Asia.

I standardized my recipe in order to teach it. I came across a copy of that recipe recently. It still produces an amazing dinner centerpiece. It needs to be served with good, unsalted white rice, with a preference for Thai Jasmine (see my blog posting of 1/26/08). An appropriate accompaniment is a stir-fried green vegetable (see my blog posting of 5/26/09).

In Malaysia we would have drunk unsweetened iced Chinese tea with this for dinner. Or for a fancier dinner it would have been Malaysian beer.

Malaysian-Chinese Braised ("Red-Cooked") Chicken

12 dried black (shiitake) mushrooms*
1 chicken, 2-1/2 to 3 pounds
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 large or 2 medium cloves garlic, peeled
3 small shallots, peeled, or 3 large scallions (green onions)
3 (1/8-inch thick) slices fresh ginger, unpeeled
1-2 segments star anise* (optional)
1-1/2 cups water from soaking the mushrooms
2 tablespoons ordinary soy sauce*
2 teaspoons rice wine*, sake, or dry sherry
1 teaspoon black soy sauce*
1 teaspoon oyster sauce*
1/4 teaspoon sugar

* available at Asian groceries

Soak dry mushrooms in 2 cups warm water 20 minutes or more. Save 1-1/2 cups of the soaking water for cooking chicken. Discard mushroom stems. Keep mushrooms whole, or if large, cut in half.

With heavy knife or cleaver, cut chicken (bones, skin and all) into small pieces: drumsticks in half, thighs in half, breast into half then each half into 3 pieces, separate wing segments. Reserve bony back, neck, and wing tips for soup stock.

Bruise garlic and shallots or scallions.

Heat oil to medium hot in wok or heavy pot. Briefly fry (15 seconds) garlic, shallots or scallions, ginger, and star anise, if used. Stir as they fry. As soon as fragrant, add the mushroom-soaking water, sauces and wine. Bring back to a boil.

Add chicken pieces a few at a time, starting with the tougher parts first (leg, thigh). After each addition, bring broth back to a boil. When chicken is all in, add mushrooms. Stir, cover, and reduce heat.

Braise, stirring occasionally, until chicken is tender, 25-30 minutes. Taste sauce, and add salt, if needed, so sauce is faintly salty since more will be soaked up by the chicken and the dish will be served with unsalted rice.

Add sugar, and with lid off, let simmer, stirring occasionally, a few minutes to thicken the sauce down. If too dry, add a little water. Taste sauce, and add salt if needed. Discard ginger, star anise, and any remaining garlic or onion.

Serve with rice. Accompany with a simple stir-fried green vegetable.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Malabari Chicken Korma: Rich with Coconut

It's been busy recently with the "day job" and more so with the catering by the family restaurant in Athens as the end of the school year brought receptions, departmental parties, "exit shows," and even a wedding. It should now slow down for a while. During the rush, I didn't get to work on my blog postings.

Here's a curry from our days in Malaysia in the 70s that I learned from an old chef, a Muslim man from the Malabar Coast of South India. His ramshackle thatch and tarpaulin-roofed open restaurant nestled under a huge Flamboyant tree across the street from the Institute in Kuala Lumpur where I worked. Lunches were served on banana leaves and eaten with the fingers. His food was uncommonly tasty, cheap and different.

When he wasn't too busy, I would ask him about recipes. He had nothing written down. It was all just in his memory. But he said if I were willing to be at his place at 5 in the morning when he cooked for the day, I was free to watch and ask about anything he was cooking. I did so on a number of occasions.

I made this recently for the staff at St. Bart's. It's in my memory. (But from time to time we also make pretty much this same curry at our restaurant in Athens from a volume version of the recipe that I recorded.) Technically it's a korma, ancestrally from Muslim cuisine, rather than a curry. But unlike typical North Indian kormas, it has neither cream nor ground cashews for richness. The South Indian substitute is the omnipresent coconut, coconut milk like in most South Indian (and Thai and Malay) curries, but also toasted coconut pounded into the spice mixture.

This rich dish is surprisingly inexpensive, though a little fussy to make. It uses chicken thighs, skin removed, but bone-in. Plus it has potato.

It should be served with unsalted white rice. The recipe is sufficient for 6 people, with leftovers.

Malabari Chicken Korma with Coconut

1/2 cup dry shredded unsweetened coconut
1 very large or 2 medium-large onions, finely chopped
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 bay leaf
4 whole cardamoms
3/4-inch fresh ginger, skin scraped off, thinly sliced
3 large cloves garlic
4 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
3/4 teaspoon ground fennel seed
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 (14-ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk (put remainder in zip-lock bag and freeze)
1 can water
3 pounds chicken thighs
1 pound potatoes
2 teaspoons salt plus to taste
Cilantro for topping

In large frying pan, dry-fry shredded coconut over medium heat, shaking and stirring frequently until evenly pale golden in color and fragrant. Either pound this very finely in a mortar and pestle or puree it in a food processor or blender, adding just enough water to have it puree well. Set coconut aside.

Fry onion, bay leaf and cardamom slowly in oil in large pot, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, either pound in the mortar the sliced ginger and garlic, or mince them very finely. Measure spices.

Pull skin off thighs (make broth with it for another use). With cleaver, cut thighs in two or three pieces each, through the bone. Peel potatoes, and cut in 1-inch chunks and place them in water so they don't brown.

When onion is turning dark golden (caramelized), stir in ginger-garlic mixture, and fry, stirring frequently, about 2 minutes. Add pureed, toasted coconut plus the spices, and fry, scraping the bottom frequently about 2 minutes.

Add coconut milk plus water and bring to a boil. Add cut chicken, drained potatoes, and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until chicken and potato are tender, 20-30 minutes. Add another teaspoon salt when cooking is partially done. Add a little water, as needed, to keep the sauce thickly soupy.

Taste sauce, and add salt as needed, making the sauce slightly salty because the meat and potato will soak up more.

When meat and potatoes are tender, remove pan from heat. Let sit, covered, 10 minutes. Stir and taste, checking salt again.

It's best to make the curry ahead and reheat to serve. Check salt. Serve over unsalted Basmati or other long-grained rice. Sprinkle generously with coarsely chopped cilantro.