A Fish Curry, Thai Style

Having spent many years in Australia I became enamored with Asiatic food. Sydney boasts some of the best Eastern eateries in the world: Japanese, Malaysian, Vietnamese, regional Chinese, Thai and I even came across a Mongolian restaurant some years ago. The fish market is the largest market of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere and the world’s second largest seafood market in terms of variety outside of Japan so just about anything that comes from the sea is on display. I had the fortune to travel to most of the Asian countries, sampling their offerings and, whenever I was allowed, watching how it’s done.

The following recipe is so simple that anyone with the ingredients and a pot can rustle up this tasty fish curry. I spent an hour in a Thai friend’s kitchen as he was preparing  this dish, drinking a few bottles of Tiger beer and chatting while it simmered.

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A Culinary Tour of the Maghreb

When I turned seventeen, as part of having successfully finished my end of school exam, one of my uncle took me to Tunisia for a week of R&R. That same uncle had taken me to Senegal a few years earlier, and my encounter with an elephant foot was part of an entry in this book titled “On Strangely Esoteric & Exotic Foodstuffs.”

Tunisia made a huge impact on me with its rich history, the constant explosions of colors, the sparkling Mediterranean sea, the ruins of Carthage and beyond Tunis, its capital, the road leading to the beautiful sea-side village of Sidi Bou Said lined with olive groves, citrus orchards and endless vineyards, its remarkable architecture, beige sun baked bricks set in geometric patterns, Moorish arches and high vaulted ceilings, the throngs of shops offering locally woven carpets, Berber jewelry and ornaments…and the smells, and the food, the glorious food!

Let me tell you about my North African adventure as seen through the eyes of an excitable youth with a ravenous appetite.

Algerian desert

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The Pope of Gastronomy

I’ll say it right from the start: I blame Fernand Point for my appreciation of great food, and some of my girth, even though I have never met him! When I was eight or nine my favorite aunt packed me in the backseat of her enormous American sedan, a Buick I think, and along with her boyfriend we set off very early in the morning for the town of Vienne, some 40 kilometres below Lyon, to dine in a hugely famous restaurant she had visited several times and revered it on the altar of her gourmand god. Great food is, as she explained, her true religion: sous-chefs were her priests, patissiers and sauciers were her cardinals and Fernand Point was her pope. She had been talking about this culinary trip for some time and wanted me to acquaint myself with what she termed the greatness of the upper palate…or something like that. As kids of my age were always up for a bout of gluttony I heartily went along with the idea of a long voyage even though I had a tendency to throw up my breakfast if the ride is fraught with turns and ups and downs, which it is invariably the case unless one takes the autoroute but my dear aunt preferred the route nationale, meandering through verdant hillsides under our Provencal Attic blue sky, stopping at rustic auberges for refreshment and local pastries.

The great man himself above, in his younger days, never far from a magnum of Champagne.

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A Luxurious Crab & Truffle Risotto to Die For

With the festive season just around the corner here is a dish that combines gravitas, extravagant ingredients, is relatively easy to make and will impress your mother-in-law to no end! No mother-in-law? Then impress your friends with your grasp of this tricky but tasty first course. There are two kinds of people, my great-grandmother would say, those who present this at the start of a promising dinner and the fools who would dare to serve it up as a main course. She had a point. It is somewhat filling.

If you really want to learn how to do this properly have a read at this earlier piece which will explain how to select the grain, make the stock, select the cooking pot and the manner in which risotto must be handled.  After all it is a capricious dish and requires total attention, a tad like looking after your favorite pet. Or a demanding partner.

With this risotto I would use the carnaroli grain, easily obtainable in good delis and online shops. I prefer it to arborio for its grain length and starch content, and when cooked slowly it remains firm, not at all mushy. It truly deserves slivers of truffle and fresh crab meat.The first pic shows how to flavor the rice simply: stick a whole truffle in the jar for a few days before making it. It will impart a subtle scent to the grains, and make your truffle work harder as it is an expensive item. You can buy a whole truffle online here (UK) and here (US). It’s not cheap but this is a dish that you will not forget. Also resist the temptation to use saffron. I know it would look prettier but it will take some of the truffle flavor away. Simplicity is all.

For 6 to 8 persons (you can stretch it to 10 if needed) you will need: 1 whole truffle, 750 grams of carnaroli, allow 50 grams of fresh crab meat per person (can be bought in good supermarkets but don’t fall for the tinned stuff, tasteless), 50 grams of the best butter you can find, 100 grams (or 6) shallots (finely minced), a dash of extra virgin olive oil, a small glass of Madeira (I did try this with a glass of Champagne instead but I think it’s best to drink it and use Madeira as it goes well with the intense flavor of the truffle), and finally 3 pints of a good chicken stock mixed with a pint of shellfish stock (all stocks recipes are in the first link above). Sea-salt to taste. I would stay away from black pepper for the same reason as the saffron.

How to proceed: first, you must take care of yourself. A nice glass of Champers will do wonders for your concentration as the preparation & cooking of this dish will take the best part of an hour. Ok, I lied, make it two glasses!

 

Take the truffle from the rice and slice it as finely as you possibly can (that scene in Goodfellas comes to  mind, you know the one where Paul Sorvino slices the garlic clove with a razor blade). In your heavy-based pot, over medium heat (remember, this is not fast food), pour 2 tbsp of the extra virgin olive oil with a small knob of butter, add the minced shallots and cook till translucent but not brown. Add the rice and stir for a few seconds before adding the Madeira. Then pour a third of the mixed stock and stir. Add two thirds of the sliced truffle (keeping the remainder for garnish). Simmer till it’s all gone, stir, and add more stock until it’s done. It shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes, depending on your elbow work, then mix in the crab meat (having made sure there are no bits of shell in it), add the rest of the butter and olive oil. Stir well, take the pot off the stove, let it sit for 20 seconds and serve, adding the last of the truffle slivers as garnish.

Next Friday I will repost the Provencal Christmas piece, a yearly event. Well, Christmas does come once a year.

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How to Make a Provencal Olive Tart, Anchovies Optional…

Provence, once upon a time, was populated about fifty thousand years ago by the Neanderthals, and was still valued in the Neolithic period and the Iron Age. Later it was part of Gaul, the land of the Voconces tribe and then became Romanised in the 1st century BC. What does this have to do with an olive tart recipe? Well, I like history, particularly my Provencal culture, taught to me by my great grandmother who could recite poetry in its original language and prepare local dishes like no one else. Additionally, having read widely about Provencal lore I finally traced the origin of the tart to the many food markets that started from around the twelfth century in and around the Mediterranean regions. Large crowds hailing from every village and hamlet attended the major markets of the largest towns, usually on Fridays and Saturdays.

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Just When You Thought Nitrates Were Bad…Bacon is Now Healthy!

Loaded with saturated fat and sodium, bacon, salami, prosciutto (and I love all three) and other cured meats have been long considered artery-clogging and terribly unhealthy due to the use of nitrates and nitrites in the curing process, however one must remember that humans have been curing meat for millennia, and that civilization depended on the ability to preserve food by curing it for most of human history and that if it were so complicated and dangerous we probably wouldn’t be here, would we?

Well, as the dude would say, “new shit has come to light!” New research on nitrates and nitrites show that it is in fact not bad for us. Far from it. Continue reading

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Bitter Lemons, Mediterranean Musings and Two Recipes

I’m a big fan of Lawrence Durrell’s writings, and in particular of his travel books. I’ve reread “Bitter Lemon” recently and it led me to read a raft of Mediterranean writers, some I worshiped as a young man like Camus, Moravia, Consolo, Fazio and many more. It struck me that in all of their work the two main symbols of the Mediterranean soul are the olive and the humble lemon. The sun comes in at third place.

One thing leading to another, I came across a list of available ingredients in ancient Greece with the lemon figuring almost in all of their raw and cooked dishes which doesn’t surprise me as lemon juice was liberally squeezed on just about everything that was edible and they still do this to this day. Not only it lifts dishes with its pungent acidity it is also incredibly healthy which might explain longevity in some Greek islands notably Crete.

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Bouillabaisse, the Rolls-Royce of Seafood

I’ve been asked to write the best Provencal recipe for a good friend. There are quite a few that come to mind but I’ll settle on this one: so Provence’s most illustrious dish, our fabled Bouillabaisse, will be revealed in its splendour in this post. I could rhapsodize about this endlessly as it is truly the Rolls Royce of sea-food dishes as the title implies. And it is not that hard to prepare and cook. The gathering of all the required fish & shellfish and ingredients takes longer. This dish is prepared in every fishing port along the coast of Provence, although it is usually thought to have originated in Marseilles. Popular Marseillaise legend tells us that the Goddess Venus served bouillabaisse to her husband, Vulcan, to lull him to sleep while she consorted with Mars. Tricky gods, to be sure, not unlike our politicians.


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One Delicious Summer Recipe

I haven’t written much as we are in the midst of a heatwave which is highly unusual in Eire. A great change from incessant rain but it does have its downside: it’s hard to concentrate and sit in front of a screen when all one wants to do is to dip into the ocean and catch some waves, the cool ones. And of course I have a wine bar to run, with live music and demanding customers.

I posted a friend’s photograph of a summer dish yesterday and requests for the recipe came in fast and furious. Here’s the pic:

I called her to find out what was inside and she said that she got the idea from me years ago and was surprised I had forgotten. “Goat cheese”, she said, and she added one thing to it: capers (my original recipe had goat cheese mashed with basil, finely sliced bell peppers and a generous amount of pitted Kalamata olives. Continue reading

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The Mighty Turmeric, the King of Curry Spices, with a Fish Curry Recipe!

A few years ago while doing research on the benefits of curries (there are aplenty, believe me) I came across an article written by an Indian doctor about a miracle cure for lung and esophagus cancers. The prime suspect turned out to be turmeric! Not being an expert on cancer I shelved the article (though being somewhat fatalistic I have included turmeric in most of the things I eat, including pizza dough!) Since then quite a bit of research bring more light to this and the American Cancer Society has an ongoing study not only on turmeric but also on curry, curcumin and cumin (curcumin is the principal chemical in turmeric). Ever wondered why people eating curries are less prone to lung cancer? Well that would be because turmeric is an essential spice needed to make up a curry paste. The American Cancer Society has a post about Turmeric’s known properties, with a sizable database at the bottom of the article.

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