I used to make my Thai curry paste from scratch; it was an afternoon-long affair, (longer, if you count the time I spent running down all the ingredients), but I was smug in my commitment to authentic flavor. I had learned to make green, red, and Panang curry pastes at the Somphet Thai Cookery School in Chiang Mai, Thailand, from the wonderful chef who runs the school out of a six-station kitchen attached to her home. She was adamant that using a food processor ruined the taste and soul of the curry paste, and that it must be done with a mortar and pestle. And so, each (admittedly rare, given the time commitment involved) occasion on which I made a Thai curry in the two or three years that followed, it was a major undertaking.
Then one day I was sitting in a well-regarded Thai restaurant here in California, lunching with my uncle, when we struck up a conversation with the chef-owner. He mentioned he was thinking of offering Thai cooking classes out of his kitchen. “That’s wonderful,” I said. “So you’ll be teaching people to make the various curry pastes, that sort of thing?” He laughed. “No one makes the paste from scratch!,” he said. “That’s way too much work. We get it from a can.”
That day, I felt freed. I soon experimented with various Thai curry pastes available at the Asian grocery, and found that Maesri brand, from Thailand, had by far the best flavor. I recommend seeking it out, or just ordering it online if you can’t get it locally. Now I can make a Thai curry on a weeknight and save the curry-paste-from-scratch efforts for social cooking occasions, when there are other hands to help and the extended curry paste prep is part of the fun.
Speaking of making a Thai curry at home: caveat time. I do usually cook it on the stove top in a wok, a more traditional method of Thai cooking than you’ll see described in the recipe below. However, it’s basically impossible to recreate actual Asian wok-style cooking in a Western kitchen. Asian stove burners are sunken and you set the wok down into them– this means your wok gets much hotter and you can quickly stir-fry your proteins and vegetables, and get a much better and faster caramelization (when the sugars in the vegetables brown) and Maillard reaction (when the surface of the meat browns) than you’ll ever achieve with a wok set atop the stove top. So Western style wok cooking is always an approximation, and always takes longer. Caveat complete.
So why go the braising route if the wok is traditional? I got the idea from a fantastic Thai restaurant in Hercules, California, called Won Thai. They have a Panang curry beef (Panang Nur) on their menu that the waiter described as “homestyle,” that is, slow-cooked. The beef is shredded and fall-apart tender, the dish is topped with a crunchy chiffonade of kaffir lime leaves, and to have it once means to crave it forever. I filed the slow-cooked curry idea away for a rainy day.
Today it is raining. Well, drizzling. And foggy. Even though it’s almost summer, it feels like a slow-cooking kind of day. I decided I wanted to do a variation on Won Thai’s Panang Nur, but in this case with chicken, and with an even more intense peanut flavor. (The different between red Thai curry paste and Panang Thai curry paste is the addition of peanuts in the latter.) I’m not sure if they do theirs in the slow cooker or the oven, but I decided to do a straight-forward braise in the oven. (Braising can be done in the oven or on the stove top; the idea is that there is some liquid used in cooking, but your main ingredient isn’t entirely submerged. This way, you benefit from both types of heat– the un-submerged portion will roast with dry heat, and the submerged portion will simmer in liquid– they’ll both cook, and some slightly different flavors and textures will develop in each portion.) I pulled out the cast iron dutch oven, put in a couple of pounds of chicken breast, whisked together a thick, peanut-forward Thai curry sauce on the stovetop, poured it over the chicken, and put the whole thing in the oven to braise.
Next, I thought about plating. The chicken will be tender and shredded by the time it’s done; it should go equally well over rice, noodles, or a salad. I decided to go the noodle route tonight– nestling the chicken into a nest of buckwheat soba noodles– and save the salad solution for lunchtime this week. (Yay for leftovers!) Finally, for a finishing splash of color and flavor, I thought I’d develop a Thai-inspired variation on gremolata.
Traditional gremolata is an Italian condiment consisting of minced parsley, garlic, and lemon zest; it’s typically used to add a bright and herbal note to rich, meaty dishes. I thought a similar concept would work well with Thai flavors and add a fresh accent to this curry, so I subbed lime zest for the lemon and minced cilantro for the parsley, kept the garlic, and added shallots and peanuts. Here’s the recipe for the Thai gremolata, followed by the recipe for the Braised Peanut Curry Chicken. Enjoy!
- 1/2 cup roasted, salted peanuts, minced
- 1/2 cup minced cilantro, packed
- Zest of two organic limes
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 small shallot cloves, peeled and minced
- In a small saucepan, briefly dry-saute the minced shallot, garlic, and peanut, stirring frequently, until toasted and fragrant. (Do not leave unattended, or you risk developing burnt or bitter flavors.)
- Remove from heat and cool.
- Toss the peanut, shallot, and garlic mixture with the lime zest and minced cilantro to complete the gremolata.
- 2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs, trimmed
- 1/2 cup red Thai curry paste
- 1/2 tablespoon peanut oil (okay to sub a neutral oil)
- 2 cans coconut milk
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons creamy natural peanut butter
- Juice of one lime or a chiffonade of 4 Kaffir lime leaves (worth it if you can find them!)
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon brown or palm sugar
- Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F.
- In a wok or large sauce pan, stir-fry the curry paste and peanut oil together until the paste is softened and fragrant.
- Add the coconut milk and whisk to combine.
- Add the peanut butter, and whisk to combine as it softens and melts into the sauce.
- Add the lime juice of kaffir lime leaves, the sugar, and the fish sauce, whisking to combine.
- Simmer for a couple of minutes and then remove the sauce from the heat.
- Add the chicken to a dutch oven and pour the peanut curry over it.
- Place in the 350 degree F oven and braise until the chicken is tender and easily shredded with a fork; approximately an hour.
- To serve, plate a serving of chicken over rice, noodles, or salad, and garnish with Thai gremolata (recipe above.)