Tuesday, March 24, 2009

You put the tofu in the coconut and eat it all up

A trip to Jay International, the market on South Grand, usually finds me with a promising pile of recipe ingredients. On some meandering trips I don't have a specific goal, or I pick up my one intended item and then grab things that catch my eye. My head is always spinning with the possibilities as I peruse the products. I confess that I don't delve very deeply into the more exotic of Asian ingredients, both because of unfamiliarity and because I try to stick to fresh or simple processed items (e.g., I'll buy a jar of tahini, but not so interested in pickled/preserved/prepared things (except olives!), much like I shop for regular old Amurican food). I am always amused when I check out and my hodgepodge of Latin, Middle Eastern and Asian/East Asian products are laid out on the conveyor belt; the combos always seem a little grotesque mixed together like that.

On my last trip I got fresh feta (as far as I know, the best feta bargains are at Jay's - I prefer the Bulgarian, which is the cheapest but also the least goaty/sheepy), bean sprouts, snow peas, coconut milk, fresh Chinese noodles and mushrooms. On that day I also bought Latin ingredients at the Supermercado on Cherokee: crispy corn tortillas, refried beans, dried pasta and achiote seasoning.

I was in a Mexican mood so the first meal created was veggie and bean tostadas. I chopped potato, green pepper and onion and sauteed them with plenty of garlic and lots of a pollo asada seasoning I have in a bit of canola oil. To serve I smeared the hot refried beans on the tortillas, topped with cheese, then the veggie mixture, then salsa. I was afraid I should have heated the tortillas first, but the hot fillings made their texture perfect - somehow soft and crisp at the same time.

The next meal utilized the pasta and feta cheese. I kept thinking of a Greek-flavored pasta salad rife with feta and olives, so I used the adorable little gear shaped pasta. I mixed the rinsed, cooled pasta with olive oil, white wine vinegar, dried dill, parsley, pepper, a liberal amount of chunked feta, chopped kalamata olives, sliced sundried tomatoes and a couple spoonfuls of capers. I thought this would go great with chicken so I drizzled thighs with garlic-infused olive oil (thanks, Dana - she gave me a lovely bottle of the stuff, made by Francis Coppola!), lemon juice, oregano, salt, pepper and capers and baked in a slow-ish oven for 45 minutes or so. The chicken was crispy and juicy, tart salty. And we've been eating the pasta salad for days. So good!

I have been seriously craving shrimp so the next planned meal was a shrimp stir fry. As with most things I cook, I started by sauteeing a lot of garlic in canola oil, then added the shrimp, some soy sauce and a couple squirts of sriracha and cooked until the shrimp was almost done. Then I removed the shrimp and dumped quartered (or halved) button mushrooms in and let them cook down a bit before adding more sriracha and Chinese rice vinegar. Once the mushrooms were well on their way to being done, I added snow peas, bean sprouts, more vinegar, more soy and a sprinkle of white sugar. Once the vegetables were nearly done, I put the shrimp back in and added about a tablespoon of a cornstarch and water slurry to thicken it all up just a bit. In the meantime, I boiled water to cook the fresh noodles and, admittedly, fought with them a little to get them separated and cooked properly. (Any hints on dealing with these tightly packed little bundles?) Into bowls went the noodles, topped with the stir fried shrimp and vegetables. Though Steve would have rather the shrimp been peeled before cooking, I left the shells on because 1) I was lazy and 2) they are more flavorful when cooked that way.

Last night I was inspired to make what I thought would be my most challenging dish yet: a Thai-style coconut tofu curry. I looked at a couple recipes and figured I had a good enough idea of what to do. I speculated on the use of broccoli in the dish, but something about the gassy cruciferousness of the vegetable combined with the slightly sweet coconut milk seemed wrong. It occurred to me I had lovely green beans and the vegs were switched. For an accompaniment I started a pot of white rice made with half water and half coconut milk with a touch of salt. To start the main dish I melted a couple tablespoons of butter, added a heaping tablespoon or so of minced fresh ginger, and another of, wait for it, garlic. After letting it saute for a bit I added the cubed extra firm tofu, salted it, and let it get lightly browned over a fairly high heat. I poured in the coconut milk then started adding the rest of the ingredients for the curry: ground coriander, cumin, turmeric and cayenne. At that point, the fragrance was intoxicating - that rich coconut mixed with the those earthy spices. Yum. I added the green beans, a big handful of bean sprouts and a heaping tablespoon or so of dark brown sugar. Mixing everything up well and letting it simmer for a few minutes, I then tasted for seasoning; more salt and a few blobs of sriracha for that nice garlicky heat. After simmering for 10 minutes or so (until the green beans were still bright but tender), I spooned it over the coconut rice into deep bowls.

Because I thought such dishes seemed complicated when I've had them in restaurants, I was completely surprised at how good this turned out. It was, in my own opinion, unbelievably delicious. The rich sauce made the subtly flavored coconut rice clump up in these delectable balls of nearly dessert-like goodness. The burn from the cayenne and sriracha was slow and long lasting and left my lips feeling slightly swollen. What can I say, a meal that leaves my lips feeling like I've been snogging for hours? Perfect.

I'm sorry I was in such a hurry to eat all these things that I didn't take any photos. I will try to remedy this and keep my camera more handy. Gosh, I've taken so long to write this that it's now lunchtime and I can eat those curry leftovers...

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