My favorite ethnic cooking style is Asian – God knows how much of my life has been spent in discovering every Asian enclave in every major U.S. city, (+ Vancouver, B.C., which, BTW, beats to hell every similar enclave in the U.S.!). And I would love to tell you that I had mastered the Asian technique, but sadly, I have not. However, I am making inroads into mastery, and I’m slowly recognizing my failings – that’s always a good start!
One of my biggest mistakes is that I tend to make things more complex than they should be – and I think I’m far from alone on that. I also hurt myself by having this trait which makes it impossible for me to follow-up a wonderful Asian dish by sitting down and scribbling the recipe for the record – I can’t do this, because something inside me insists that I make all successful dishes a part of my learning curve, and therefore it must become part of my memory bank, cooking wise – somehow, there’s something inside me that says that a real cook commits those kinds of experiences to memory, and in that way becomes a better and better cook. There are many such things that I can do from memory, and adjust accordingly when I wish – but Asian seems to elude me.
Recently it dawned on me that a dish we had just ordered, and loved, at a Thai restaurant was masquerading as something elegant and exotic, when really it was a pretty damn simple dish! So, first chance I had, I pulled out everything I thought was necessary and went to work. The dish in question was called, Curried Shrimp with Pumpkin, and, I was told by our waitress, one of the restaurant’s favorite dishes. And since I’m learning to simplify my attempts at Asian, I approached this one as simplistically as possible.
Here are my ingredients:
1 lb. raw or cooked shrimp (cooked make the dish even easier, but raw win on taste) If using raw shrimp, remove shells. If using cooked, thaw and set aside.
1 regular size can of Coconut Milk (13.5 oz)
2-3 Tbs. of a Thai Curry Paste (I like Mae Ploy – the quality is high, and price is low!)
1-2 Tbs of Thai Fish Sauce (This stuff should be in your pantry – it’s fantastic)
1-2 Tbs brown sugar (This is my taste, but a Thai cook wouldn’t add this – up to you.)
1 can cooked chunks Sweet Potatoes (Hey, this is better than pumpkin! Trust me.)
That’s it guys – get this stuff together on your counter, and you’re ready to go. OK, I’m lying to you – you’ll want to decide ahead of time what you want to serve this with – like, the most likely pairing is with white rice – but I often serve this kind of thing with rice noodles, but again, I doubt a self respecting Thai cook would do that (I don’t think, anyway). I do it because I love those noodles, and frankly, I love this dish with those noodles.
BTW, a word about those rice noodles. Typically, they come without any directions for cooking them – you kind of have to learn by error how to use them. So, in case you don’t yet know, here’s how. Put them in a large pot or bowl, and cover them with warm water – leave them there for 30-60 minutes, no more – they will soften a little, and that’s just what you want them to do. Later, when you drain and add them to your wok or skillet, they’ll finish cooking to perfection in a minute or two. Just learn early, they can overcook very easily – so guard against that – and don’t try cooking them like spaghetti, they’ll turn to mush . They MUST finish cooking in a wok/skillet – add them to a clean, hot pan with several Tbs of oil, and add your finished curry when the noodles are soft. Also know that if you cook up a lot more than you eat that meal, they don’t store well in the fridge either. Eat ’em all up that night!
OK, now we’re really ready! Open the can of Coconut Milk – probably only possible on the bottom of the can – weird can! Heat the wok or skillet for several minutes over medium heat. With a spoon, scoop the solid Coconut Milk into the wok/skillet, and let it melt – add the curry paste (yellow kind is perfect – can use other colors as well) and let it simmer for 3-4 minutes. Now add the Fish Sauce, the rest of the Coconut Milk, and the sugar, if using, and continue simmering for 2-3 minutes more, before adding the sweet potatoes, oh, sorry, I mean the pumpkin, and heat for another 2-3 minutes. At this point, you’re ready to add your shrimp – if using raw, add and cook only until shrimp get pink and begin to curl (PLEASE DON’T OVERCOOK SHRIMP – BAD, BAD, BAD!). If you’re using cooked shrimp, add and cook only as much as it takes to heat up. That’s it gang! Top it off with some minced cilantro or green onions for looks.
Let me say a few words about this dish. This is supposed to be soupy – Thai curries based on Coconut Milk are runny – a Thai cook would never use a thickener like corn starch, etc. Frankly, because this cooks for some 7 – 10 minutes, and because it uses a curry paste, it really does thicken up some. But if you must have it thicker, have at it.
Another change you can make to it, if you wish, is to add some veggies like, bok choy, onion, etc. But if you do so, make sure you cook your veggies quickly and prior to doing the rest of the dish – add them at the end with the shrimp. You could even make this with tofu instead of shrimp, or even use one of those bags of mixed seafood in lieu of shrimp – they’re really not too bad – try it.
Do this one a time or two and I think you’ll agree that there’s not much else that you can put out as fast as this that will make a better impression – just don’t tell anyone that you used sweet potato instead of pumpkin, and don’t tell them how easy this was.
Don’t know why, but somehow we’ve given pumpkin a status it doesn’t deserve – yeah, it makes a hell of a good pie – but know what? Sweet potato pie is better!