13 March 2011

Thai Red Curry Dish

The Thai lunch counter in Newell Simon Hall on Carnegie Mellon campus served one of my favorite, spicy, coconutty, middlebrow, rib-sticking dishes from that time in my life.  I don't know that I ever knew what the dish was called (if you do please let me know! can't find it either), but it involved tomato, beef, egg, and broad noodles with what had to be a red curry sauce.  I say "had to be" because it wasn't very saucy, but the dish was mildly pinkish in hue and had the right flavor for red curry.

I set out to try recreate the ladles-full of delicious that I remember so partially.  First step was to make a red curry, then stir-fry the beef, tomato, and egg, then sauce it, then finally plate it.  Nothing's easier.

Ingredients for red curry sauce

The Red Curry
Since I've never made red curry sauce before, I looked up a recipe on the web before heading to the store. Of course I made a few substitutions, to cut down the number of ingredients I had to buy, and to make it my own.  Though I'm not going to link the recipe (it's one of the first ones you'd see if you google "red curry"), I'm still going to indulge myself and explain the substitutions:

  • forwent fish sauce and substituted with extra shrimp paste plus some soy sauce. Yeah, I got fried shrimp paste (the jar on the right side of the photo), figuring it takes up less space in the fridge than fish sauce in case it sits there for the next few years untouched
  • excluded Tex-Mex chili powder and red chilies (called for fresh or dried flakes) in favor of a smoky Thai chili paste. I don't know why the Tex-Mex blend was even included in the recipe I found, since it's entirely redundant to other ingredients (cumin, chili, onion, garlic), and the recipe didn't call for a lot of it so substitution wouldn't impact proportions very much
  • used banana ketchup instead of tomato ketchup, expecting the somewhat different flavor to be more complementary to the coconut milk base
  • used pieces of jaggery instead of brown sugar since that's what I had on hand
  • replaced galangal with ginger, since I had that on hand. Since the ginger doesn't have the citrus notes that galangal is supposed to, and the recipe called for lime leaves that I didn't feel like looking for, I added zest and juice from one Persian lime (no zester, but scraping a small, serrated knife worked just fine).
The sauce was put together ahead of time, since the recipe only required a blender and no heating, and it would store just fine in the fridge till later. The jaggery was useful in the blender, as I waited for the rattling of the hard pieces to stop (i.e., they dissolved) as a signal to turn it off. The finished product was a little sweeter than I hoped, and a lot less red. I added some tomato ketchup in hopes of adding tartness and red color to the mix, but there wasn't a lot of change. Recognizing that there are a lot of strong flavors in the sauce that will need time to develop, I decided to stick the sauce in the fridge and leave it alone till I get to the rest of the cooking in the evening.

I realized after looking more closely at the curry recipe that it was intended for a baked dish, and I was going to use it to sauce a stir fry.  It didn't seem to be a problem though.  If anything what I made is thinner than the original with the lime juice and a little added water, so it should be fine.  It tasted fine.  Then, while off on other business, I remembered what happens when I eat raw onions and garlic (*burp*).  The sauce had to be cooked.

The Stir Fry

Flouring the beef wasn't the best idea
One thing I wanted to accomplish was to get the texture of beef that you find in Thai and Chinese cooking.  I'll cut to the chase and say that I took the entirely wrong path.  I cut chunks of stew beef into 1-2 inch pieces, about 1/8th-1/4th inch thick, then floured them (adding some turmeric and powdered chili to the flour).  This I fried in about an 1/8th inch of olive oil and some soy sauce, in a large teflon frying pan.  I don't have a wok at the moment, so flat surface frying was all I could manage.

While that was cooking up I put the curry sauce on, to cook the raw spice-veggies in it.  Now the oil in coconut milk does solidify in the refrigerator, so I had to spoon a stiff gel out of the blender container and into my large sauce pot.  It liquefied before it was lukewarm, and frothed within a few minutes.  The heat was reduced, and I stirred occasionally to keep it from sticking or drying on the walls of the pot. The onion and garlic were of course completely pulverized, so not too much cooking time was needed.

Bigger chunks of tomato next time
Now for the tomatoes.  I used half a dozen romas, split into 8 wedges each top to bottom.  I tossed these in with the cooked beef, and as soon as the tomatoes' liquid hit the meat's flour-and-spices coating (which had held up fine to frying).... I had glue.  Tasty glue, but gluey glue.  But all was not lost.  I added about a quarter of the red curry sauce.  I was planning on using more red curry, but it would have been overkill since hot glue is in itself a sort of sauce (I suppose!), and I ended up with a different sauce through the combination.

Eggs, culantro, Thai basil
To add some freshness to the cooked flavor, I mixed in a handful each of torn culantro and Thai basil leaves. I also made a plain three-egg omelet, cooked till completely dry, and mixed that in too so that it broke up in the sauce. I'd intended to add the egg directly to the stir fry, but now it would have just aggravated the flour problem and I would have had cake.

While all the stir frying was going on I boiled a half-pound bag of flat rice noodled labeled, "Rice Flake".  These took about as long to cook as a campanelle or similarly sized wheat flour pasta.  These were drained thoroughly then added to the sauce + stir fry concoction.

What I ended up with was reminiscent of the meal I partially remember, but not quite there.  Not only did the beef not need flouring, it needed to be tenderized.  I think on the next go I will throw some papaya with the stew meat for a day or two in the fridge, try to slice it thinner, and use a mallet after I slice it. The tomatoes were cut too small, there weren't enough of them, and they cooked too long so that all I had was tomato skin and the rest of the fruit was disintegrated into the sauce.  And there wasn't enough egg at all.  On the plus side, the flour didn't step on the flavors too much and even though it wasn't what I was aiming for, and I committed a couple judgment errors along the way, it was quite palatable.  I ended up with enough for dinner tonight and lunch tomorrow.

The plated product
Since I still have about a quart of very tasty red curry sauce, I'm going to have to try something else with it soon; most likely that will be a second, corrective attempt at this dish.

1 comment:

  1. Hi - Thanks for recommending using a Teflon pan while making your Stir Fry. I represent DuPont and it's always a pleasure to see people recommending our products in their recipes.

    If you are interested in some other recipes or great cookbooks to look at for your blog, drop me an email and I would be glad to help you out! Thanks. Cheers, Sara