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Real Vegetarian Thai: Spicy Goodness

mussaman curry paste, mussaman curry with seitan, rice noodles with broccoli, cucumber salad, coconut ice cream

MussamanCurryI love Thai food, but I’ve always assumed that it’s difficult to make: so many unusual ingredients, plus the effort of making your own curry paste. I’ve had Real Vegetarian Thai sitting on my shelves for years, and it looks like in that time the only dish we’ve tried is the Pad Thai, which Scott prepared (with the marginal note “double everything”). So with the holiday weekend ArbolChiles2approaching, I decided it was time to throw a dinner party, invite a few people who haven’t been here for the last few blog efforts, and put together some Thai food.

I leafed through the book and decided to make a cucumber salad, a noodle dish, a curry, and dessert. I made a list of ingredients I’d need, and was CorianderCumin2impressed to find that the only thing I hadn’t found locally before was lemongrass, which would be a base for the curry paste. I canvassed the stores in the neighborhood; no lemongrass. A few shopkeepers said “sometimes we have it, but not now.” I finally found some at an organic store in Park Slope, Brooklyn, that I was passing on my way to do something else, and my shopping Lemongrass2list was complete.

I began with the coconut ice cream. This is a dairy-free dessert, and very simple: You cook coconut milk with some sugar, then let it cool, then churn the mixture into ice cream. After I’d chilled the mixture I was startled to find that it had separated into thick solid and liquid, but with some effort I was CurryIngredientsable to break up the solid part enough that it would blend well in the ice cream maker. I set that going and proceeded with my next effort, mussaman curry paste.

Curry pastes are the bases for curry sauces in Thai food. The basic ones are green curry, yellow curry, red curry and mussaman; mussaman is basically red curry CurryIngredients2with some additional spices that import a little more of an Indian flavor, the name deriving from the Muslim traders who brought goods from elsewhere in Asia. I began by breaking the tops off about 15 red arbol chiles, shaking out as many of the seeds as I could, and then soaking them in hot water for about 20 minutes. While they soaked, I chopped my lemongrass stalks into small MussamanCurryPaste4pieces and put them into the bowl of the mini-food-processor attachment for my mixer. To this I added chopped shallot, cilantro, ginger and garlic. Now it was time to dry-toast some cumin and coriander seeds, then grind them in a spice grinder with some peppercorns. I zested a lime and added that to the mixture, then added some cinnamon, ground cloves, nutmeg, cardamom and Cucumbersalt; these are the spices that make the difference between red curry and mussaman curry. I drained the chiles and added them to the bowl, and pureed it all into a thick paste, adding a bit of water as necessary to keep the blades moving and grinding. I offered it to Scott to smell and he didn’t want to give it back.

I put the curry paste into the RedOnion2fridge and prepared the marinade for the cucumber salad: sugar, salt, vinegar and water, boiled together and then allowed to cool. Closer to dinnertime, I peeled and chopped a couple of cucumbers, minced a red onion, and chopped some cilantro, then mixed these together and added the vinegar mixture. The bowl went into the fridge, and I chopped some peanuts and pulled some cilantro CucumberSaladleaves to garnish them with just before serving.

For the curry I was going to need seitan balls. The cookbook gives a recipe for old-school seitan, mixing a flour paste and then rinsing away the non-gluten part. I don’t have the patience. I mixed some vital wheat gluten flour with some nutritional yeast flakes, garlic powder, soy sauce and Seitan2water, following a recipe I use for my Thanksgiving vegetarian feast; I kneaded the spongy mixture briefly, then shaped it into chunks, and browned them in olive oil. I set them aside.

Closer to mealtime I began the other dishes, starting with the mussaman curry. I did my vegetable prep: two diced sweet potatoes, two diced white RiceNoodlespotatoes, and some chopped onions and garlic. I heated 2/3 cup of coconut milk in my big Calphalon pot; when it was warm I stirred in two tablespoons of the curry paste and cooked it together for a few minutes, then added more coconut milk to total two cans, some vegetable broth, the vegetables and seitan, and some spices including cilantro and cardamom pods. I brought the CucumberSaladPlatedmixture to a boil and let it simmer for about 15 minutes. Then I stirred in some peanuts and let the mixture sit keeping warm. Technically I was supposed to let it sit 5 minutes, but I forgot to start the rice cooker until it was nearly dinnertime, so I let the curry mixture sit a little longer while the rice finished cooking. We served the curry with rice, and warned guests to be careful RiceNoodlesWithBroccoli2about the difference between cardamom pods and peanuts when chewing.

The last dish was the noodle dish, which was pretty simple. I soaked some dried rice noodles in hot water to reconstitute them; while they soaked I sauteed garlic, mushrooms and broccoli, then set those aside and added fresh oil to the pan. I drained the rice noodles and sauteed them. At this point I was supposed to add beaten eggs and cook them, but one of our guests was a vegan and I decided to just skip the eggs. Once the noodles were sauteed I returned the vegetables to the pan and added a mixture of soy sauce, brown sugar, and vegetable broth, and tossed it all together.

I brought out the cucumber salads first, garnished with peanuts and cilantro, then the noodle dish. The rice was ready about 10 minutes after that, so we brought out the curry and dug in. Everyone loved the food; the noodle dish was especially delightful, and we were all tempted to fill up on it without leaving enough room for curry. But the curry was tremendous. It wasn’t overly spicy, though I think if I made more for just me and Scott I’d add a little more curry paste to the sauce mixture. We ate so eagerly that we were a little worried about having room for dessert, but the coconut ice cream was light and refreshing, a perfect end to the meal.

Verdict: Success. I’ll be using the mussaman curry paste again, and making other dishes from this as well.

The Enchanted Broccoli Forest: The Cute Overload of Casseroles

enchanted broccoli forest

BakedBroccoliForest2I’ve had the book The Enchanted Broccoli Forest for probably 20 years now, and it’s a great cookbook. It has a wide range of tasty entrees, plus one of the best instruction sections for how to make bread that I’ve seen anywhere. But I had never tried the title recipe, “enchanted broccoli forest,” before tonight. It really seemed kind of silly, and I was always more interested in BroccoliTrees3distinctive dishes like soups or pasta than in a rice casserole. But of course when I reached this title in my blog planning, Scott and I agreed: I needed to make the forest.

The idea is fairly simple, really: spread a brown rice casserole mixture in a baking pan, add broccoli florets so that they look like little trees, drizzle on some CookedRicelemon butter, cover with foil and bake. The assembled ingredients don’t sound all that exciting — as I said to Scott, “If I’d said I was going to make a broccoli-rice casserole you’d have yawned” — but the presentation makes it rather fun.

I started by cooking some brown rice. While it cooked, I cut some broccoli into long-stemmed SpicedOnionsflorets, then set it to steam; when it was just tender I rinsed it with cold water to stop the cooking. I also chopped up some parsley, beat some eggs together, juiced a lemon, melted butter, and mixed up spices, while Scott chopped an onion and a clove of garlic and shredded some cheddar cheese.

When the rice was ready, I pulled it from the heat and fluffed it with AddingCheeseMixture2a fork. Then I sauteed the onion and garlic in some melted butter, and added a mixture of dried dill, dried mint, salt, pepper and cayenne. I mixed the onions into the rice. Then I lightly beat the eggs with the parsley and cheese, and mixed that into the rice as well. I spread the rice mixture in a baking pan.

Then I poked the broccoli RiceInPan“trees” into the rice mixture, finding that I had to trim a few of the stalks so they would stay upright. As a once and future Oregonian, I also added a few of the bare stalks to the pan as “stumps of mystery.” With all the broccoli in place, I mixed the lemon juice and melted butter together and drizzled it over the broccoli. Then I carefully covered the pan with foil and put it into the oven.

BroccoliForest2The baked dish looked a little more finished than when it went into the oven: the rice mixture had firmed up a bit, and the broccoli had lost a bit of its brightness during cooking. I didn’t bother to photograph the mixture on the plate, because it’s really not possible to keep the stalks standing up and it didn’t look particularly exciting. But it tasted terrific: the rice had a rich and hearty flavor, and the lemon butter made the broccoli really delightful.

Verdict: Success. I’ll want to make this again. I don’t know if it would be an effective way to get kids to eat broccoli, but it might motivate adults who know they ought to be eating fewer cheeseburgers.

Joie Warner’s No-Cook Pasta Sauces: Bliss in a Bowl

blue cheese and broccoli sauce

Pasta with blue cheese and broccoli sauce

The premise of Joie Warner’s No-Cook Pasta Sauces is that you can make a tasty pasta meal with minimal time and cooking; most of the recipes require you to chop together fresh ingredients in a pasta bowl or other broad serving dish while the water is boiling to cook the noodles.

I love this book, and I’ve been in the habit of thinking that I know it very well, but in fact I have about four go-to recipes that I can prepare from memory. No-Cook Pasta Sauces contains 75 recipes. I have, as the educational set might say, not been working to potential.

We had invited friends to dinner, one of whom is a vegetarian, so of the July collection this book seemed the most promising. Because the only thing that gets significant heat in this book is the pasta water, the ability to use meat is limited.

Blue cheese for pasta sauce

Some recipes do call for it in the form of rotisserie chicken, cured or pre-cooked sausage, or shrimp that can be tossed into the noodle pot during the last few minutes of cooking. But mostly we’re dealing with fresh raw foods here, which is ideal for a summer evening.

The recipe for broccoli and blue cheese sauce caught my eye because my initial reaction was to be intimidated: would it be too strong, too overwhelming?

Warming blue cheese mixture for pasta

I decided that it would be better to ask Marianne and Colleen if they liked blue cheese than to chicken out, and fortunately they are both big fans, so I set out to get the ingredients. Garlic, crushed red pepper, olive oil, butter, blue cheese (I chose a Danish blue, whose chief point of differentiation was that it cost less than $10 a pound), parmesan, and broccoli. Even if I had gone for one of the more pricey cheeses (did you know some of the artisan varieties can run $30+ a pound?) it would not have been a very expensive meal.

Preparation is easy. You crumble the blue cheese into a pasta bowl, mince the garlic, grate the parmesan, cut the butter into small chunks, and add the oil and red pepper, along with a couple of twists of freshly ground black pepper.

Melted mixture of blue cheese and butter (and more)

Set the bowl over the pot in which you are bringing the pasta water to boil; this will soften the cheese and butter so you can mix the sauce well. Or, if you are inattentive, will melt them entirely, which is OK too. When the water is boiling remove the bowl (if you haven’t already) and pour in the dry pasta, plus some salt if that’s how you like it; while it cooks, cut the broccoli into florets. When the pasta is about 2 minutes from being done, add the broccoli to the water so it can cook; then drain and add the pasta and broccoli to the sauce, and stir well to coat.

I served it with a sliced loaf of sourdough, plus butter and beer (not to be applied in exactly the same ways);

Broccoli florets

I brought out the parmesan hunk and the microplaner so we could add a little extra to our bowls. This dish was very well-received. And for good reason: It smelled and tasted fabulous. This is the kind of recipe I love for entertaining: It looks, as my husband puts it, gourmet-y, but it’s incredibly easy to make. We had the cold leftovers for dinner the next night,  along with leftover bread and some wine, and it was delicious that way as well.

The finished dish

Verdict: Success. I will definitely make this recipe again, and I will be sure to mine this book for more dishes to try. Promising candidates include cherry tomato sauce with mint, sesame sauce with roasted red peppers, lemon and mascarpone sauce, and asparagus with orange and basil sauce.