19 July 2010

Fried walking catfish with fried holy basil

This dish is as evocative of southern Thailand as any food I know. The village where I lived and worked was in the midst of southern Thailand's vast acreage devoted to rubber trees; what once was lowland rain forest had been cleared to make room for the long neat rows of rubber trees. Poor by any standard used in the United States, these rubber farmers felt the swings in worldwide rubber prices, and while their rubber trees gave them an opportunity to make more money than rice farmers, they continued to subsist on the foods they grew, foraged, or caught. Most yards had papaya trees, chili peppers, lemon grass, kaffir limes, galangal, ginger, tumeric, and an wide array of herbs, leaves, and other plants used for cooking. I often didn't know which planted were cultivated and which were wild.
The correct fish for this recipe is walking catfish, (although pla duk, ปลาดุก is also translated simply as "catfish,") easily caught in the streams of southern Thailand, but an unwanted, illegal, invasive species here in the US. I found them frozen in an Asian market in Minneapolis; the frozen fish cost $3.50. They remind me of bullheads, which could be used; so could any small catfish. Clean the fish, cut off their heads, and slice them into 1" chunks.
Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum, kha phrao, กะเพรา) can be grown as easily as other varieties of basil, and it's specifically used in a number of Thai dishes, so you might want to plant a little of it in your garden. This recipe calls for a lot; I like to pick a colander full, maybe 4 cups of leaves.
Fresh curry paste makes this dish sing.  The curry paste is fried in a little oil, intensifying its flavor (and its fragrance, which is why I try to cook this outside, especially because of the frying involved.)
Palm sugar is the last thing needed, and a few tablespoons will be enough.

So here's how I make this delicious curry:
I lit my Weber Smokey Joe and when the charcoal was hot I put my dutch oven on top, and filled it with about 2" of oil.  When it got to 400 degrees F. I slipped in the pieces of catfish and fried them until they were crisp. I removed them with a slotted spatula and put them on a brown bag.
Next, I fried the basil leaves.  After I picked them I brought them into the kitchen and pinched all the leaves off their stems, so only leaves remained.  They went into the hot oil and cooked almost immediately.  In less than a minute, after swirling them once through the oil, I used the spatula and put the crisp leaves in a brown bag to drain.
I poured the oil into a glass jar, leaving only a few tablespoons on the bottom of the pot.  Returning the pot to the heat, I put in the 1/2 cup or so of curry paste, and stirred it, watching it brown and cook.  To this I added a few tablespoons of palm sugar, and tasted it to make sure I noticed the sweetness. Before the curry paste had a chance to burn, I added a little water, which sputtered furiously in the intense heat of frying curry paste.  I kept stirring, and eventually it smoothed out like a nice roux.  I added enough water to make it like a thick sauce, less than a cup, but every time I make this I think I should add a little more water because then maybe we'd have a little more leftover sauce, which is great with rice for lunch the day after.
To this bubbling brew I now returned the crispy fried slices of catfish, and stirred to mix the fish into to sauce.
On the heels of the catfish came the basil, and to the pot I now added 1/2 the basil, stirring it in gently, letting the crisp basil find its way into the mix.
When all was well and good I ladled it into a serving bowl and topped the entire thing with the second half of the crisp fried basil.  What a sight!
We brought this to the table with fresh green beans and a lot of rice.  Oh, and a few grilled hot dogs, too!  This dish is way too spicy for our kids, and they were happy to eat Twins Ballpark hot dogs, the big fat ones.
I hope you'll take the time to make this curry; it's one of my favorite dishes.  The curry sauce is fiery hot with a little sweetness, and the basil is infused throughout. Some of the basil loses its crispness, but by keeping some of it on top of the curry, every spoonful can bring a crisp bit with it.  The catfish is a rich, oily fish, and it retains its flavor while surrounded by other strong tastes.  'Roi jahng hoo! as they'd say in Trang.

16 July 2010

July 14, 2010 Radio show

Wednesday's broadcast of Duck Fat and Politics was preceded by an afternoon of fierce weather, with several small tornadoes touching down within a few miles of Northfield, one of which was visible from the Carleton College campus.  My guest on the show was Lynne Wilmot, whose chemical sensitivity has led her to live and eat as chemical- and toxin-free as she can.  The show was recorded and is available for your listening pleasure!

13 July 2010

June 30, 2010 radio broadcast

I ended the month of June with a Duck Fat and Politics radio show that featured my sister Bridget, who's lived in Sitka, Alaska for seventeen years.  We talked about food and fishing in southeast Alaska.  I hope you enjoy listening!

June 23, 2010 radio podcast

Here's the recording of the June 23rd Duck Fat and Politics radio show with me and my two daughters in the studio.  We had a nice conversation about the eating habits of kids.  I hope you enjoy listening.

How does it get to this?

What started as a few rabbits for dinner became, over time, a reduced, softened and taste-enhanced mess of flavor, a fragrant and humble end to a long set of meals.

Here we are with warm days and evenings filled with soccer and baseball and sometimes weeding in the garden. Fancy meals are a rarity now; what we eat instead is fresh, simple, and easy to prepare. My youngest sister recently visited from Sitka, Alaska with her family, and I wanted to give them a taste of Minnesota in the summer. Admittedly, I’m envious of the range of fish they catch and regularly eat, but I love the food that we pull from our garden daily.

We started them with wide-cut pasta, an egg-rich dough we rested for hours before rolling it out, soft, pliable and generous. A simple tomato sauce and a garden-fresh green salad made for a meal within easy reach.

As the weekend started I cut up a few rabbits and made a nice stock with the bony parts, the base for Saturday night’s rabbit risotto with fresh snap peas. The rabbit pieces marinated for a few days with a rub of garlic, bay leaves, crushed juniper berries, black pepper, and salt. Visiting family members make great kitchen helpers, and I was happy to turn the risotto stirring over to my brother-in-law. As Randy stirred, I cut a tenderloin into thin pieces that cooked in minutes. With a last minute addition of both shelled and in-the-pod snap peas, the creamy risotto was flecked with bites of green freshness.

And finally this evening, just me and my daughter on a soccer night.  A few thin leeks from the garden, sauteed in a little olive oil and fat.  A big spoonful of whole wheat flour to darken and thicken the juices.  And finally, the remains of the day, old slow cooked pieces of rabbit, now dissolved like pulled pork.  And tender, meltingly so.  A scoop and the brown jelly bits dissolve and splatter, thickening in the heat and almost-roux.  Tarragon, a little milk, salt and pepper.

And off to the side in the shallow bowl, the bits of green?  Oh, a little savoy cabbage from a friend's CSA share that he couldn't use this week because they were on vacation.  So I cut thick slices of ginger, soaked dried shrimp in hot water, and crushed a few cloves of just-pulled Inchelium Red garlic, pungent and juicy.  A few minutes in the pan and then we ate, my daughter and I, in the time before soccer with time to spare.  She liked the cabbage and the rabbit, but didn't like the bits of bone that remained.

I watched soccer, sitting in my folding chair, the summer light so just, content, satisfied.