Tag Archives: basil

Pot Thai

Chicken in a pot with a selection of Thai spices

Perhaps it’s the unseasonably warm and sunny weather we’ve been enjoying of late, or maybe it’s got something to do with my having done two whole weeks of full-time work [I know, poor me!], but I’m yearning to get on a plane and head for distant shores. And with my own planned odyssey to explore the food of Indochina currently on indefinite hold it doesn’t help that you can’t turn on the TV at the moment without seeing a certain bum-chinned, potty-mouthed chef trampling all over South East Asia and its peoples and cuisines. Ah well, if departure lounges must remain a distant dream for now there’s nothing to stop me rustling up a mini-break from the comfort of my own kitchen.

Last July I wrote about the versatility of a simple chicken pot roast and this is yet another variation on the theme, though this time conceived with thoughts of a cold Tiger beer on a Thai beach at the forefront of my mind.

Follow the same basic method as before [you can substitute water for the wine if you think it feels more ‘authentic’, but I didn’t] but this time add the following:

  • A couple of bruised lemon grass stalks and the stems of a handful of basil [reserve the leaves for later] these to be inserted into the cavity, the rest strewn about the chicken in the liquor…
  • Two small shallots, finely chopped
  • A thumb of ginger, peeled and grated
  • Two or three red chillies, chopped
  • Strips of the peel of half a lime
  • Three or four crushed cloves of garlic
  • Half a teaspoon of ground turmeric

Season well and cook as before. Once the chicken is done allow it to rest and strain the juices into another pan. Reduce by a third. Add a tin of coconut milk, simmer for a few minutes more, and check the seasoning. Add some previously steamed and refreshed green veg to the sauce and warm through. I used new season asparagus and some pak choi, but green beans, peas, spinach, pea aubergines, etc. would all be fine.

Finish the sauce with a squeeze of lime, a splash of fish sauce, the reserved basil leaves, and a few further strips of freshly sliced chilli if you fancy. Serve chunks of the chicken in bowls on a bed of warm noodles and with plenty of the sauce.

Now then, where did I put my postcards…?

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Salad of Banana Blossom

Banana Blossom Salad

If you plan to go shopping in the smaller local markets of Phnom Penh my two top tips are 1) do so with a local guide and 2) plan things such that you don’t go with a hangover. My one day Cambodian cooking course began with a nine o’clock tuk-tuk ride to Kandal Market and being accompanied by our teacher and chef Heng took care of number one. A thorough and comprehensive introduction to the bars of the Cambodian capital the previous evening however is why I am able, with some authority, to offer the second piece of advice.  Cambodian markets are lively, colourful, noisy places and there is no shortage of stimulation for all the senses. Most Cambodians will make daily visits as fridges are a rare luxury, but some of the sights and smells can prove something of a shock to an unsuspecting westerner who’s had one or two too many the night before. Fruit and vegetable stalls will be piled high with produce both familiar and not, with herbs like fresh caraway a real revelation, and shouldn’t overly challenge the constitution, unless of course you’re surrounded by a large quantity of ripe Durian on a hot sunny day.

Cambodian Market Stall - Vegetables

Venturing further into the narrow alleyways [and avoiding the motorbikes which people will ride down them] the atmosphere ripens amongst the stalls selling poultry, pork and fish – alive, dead, dried, or despatched to order – until you come across the highly prized ‘Cambodian cheese’, Prahok. Prahok is crushed, salted, fermented fish which is allowed to mature for up to three years. It is added to soups and sauces, or just eaten raw as a dip with vegetable crudités. It’s a rich, heady brew, and is your first real reason to avoid this trip whilst worse for wear.

Cambodian Market Stall

After the Prahok baskets of sulphurous charcoal aged eggs [similar to a Chinese century egg] will barely raise a nostril. My first visit though was rounded off by a visit to a frog stall. A steel tray held deep layers of frogs, all freshly skinned, beheaded and shining in the morning sun. It turns out that a recently skinned and decapitated frog doesn’t need any encouragement from Mr Volta to flex its muscles, and two of the beasts leapt out and onto the street and began hopping blindly about. A lady intent on her morning shop didn’t notice and stepped on one – the headless frog of course had precious little chance of seeing her coming. This is when you really wish you’d gone to bed early with a cup of tea the previous evening.

Cambodian Market Stall

Whatever else you stumble upon one thing you will find is banana blossoms in abundance. They resemble purplish brown elongated cabbages around 45cm in length. The tender creamy white inner layers are the edible parts, and as you strip away each layer to get to them you’ll find little proto-hands of bananas between each. The petals are rolled and thinly shredded, but discolour quickly so need to be immersed in water acidulated with lime juice as soon as they are cut. Whilst they’re slightly less abundant here they are by no means impossible to come by; my local Thai supermarket has them in stock ‘from time to time’ and recommends that if you see one you should buy it, but they also stock a tinned version which I had to buy but am yet to try. If you absolutely cannot track one down then use finely shredded hard white cabbage instead.

Flowers of the banana plant on a Cambodian market stall

You will need around half a large or one whole small petal layer per person.

Serves two

  • Banana Blossom
  • 2 tablespoons of roughly torn mixed herbs including mint, basil and coriander [Asian varieties if available]
  • A handful of torn spinach leaves
  • 1 large mild red chilli cut into thin strips
  • 1 tablespoon of roasted peanuts, slightly crushed
  • Juice of 1 lime added to a shallow bowl of cold water
  • 150g to 180g of poached chicken or any leftover poultry

For the dressing

  • 1 or 2 mild red chillies
  • 1 small birds eye chilli [optional]
  • Juice of 2 limes
  • 3 cloves of garlic.
  • 1 shallot finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon Cambodian fish sauce [or two thirds that amount of Thai Nam Pla]
  • 1 tablespoon palm sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 4 tablespoons water

The dressing can be made a few days beforehand and stored [covered] in the fridge. Chop the chilli finely and crush the garlic, then smash together a little with a mortar and pestle but do not reduce to a paste. Mix all the other ingredients and stir to dissolve the sugar, then add the chilli and garlic.

To make the salad roll the banana ‘petals’ into cylinders and slice finely across to produce strips about 1mm wide. Place these into the cold water with lime juice to prevent browning. Drain after five minutes. Tear the meat into thin strips with your fingers. Toss everything together in a bowl and add the dressing bit by bit until you are happy with the balance of flavours. It should be sprightly and fresh, lively with herbs and with a kick from the dressing.

Tomato Soup In A Flash

Tomatoes

The other day I watched James Martin make this soup in five minutes, so – stopwatch at the ready –  I’m attempting the same.  I’m doing no pre-prep other than to line the ingredients up on the kitchen counter, possibly in nice little dishes and ramekins just like they do on the telly, and setting up equipment like plugging in the food processor [I’ll just have to manage without the lights and cameras]. In fact I’m sure James had his pan warming before he set off so I’m giving myself the same advantage. Other than that it’ll be a tomato soup time trial from a standing start.

I have made a couple of tiny tweaks to James’ recipe. My tomato to stock ratio is a little more tomato heavy, and there’s the addition of my secret ingredient for any tomato soup – gin! I’m not sure my mother would approve of this as a tin of Heinz tomato soup was always her restorative food of choice for an ailing infant, but tomato and gin soup has long been a favourite, and was my first course at the ‘everything must contain booze’ dinner I cooked for friends in Singapore some thirteen years ago. The same dinner, incidentally, where I flambéed eight fillet steaks all at once for the first time, producing a tremendous fireball which briefly engulfed my head, taking with it my fringe, eyebrows and lashes. I was told by the waiting guests who could see into the kitchen through a large hatch from the dining room that the pyrotechnics  rivalled the harbour fireworks display at the Singapore National Day celebrations, but it’s not a trick I’ve been keen to repeat since, and I most certainly would not recommend that you try it at home!

Anyhow I digress. For four dainty or two hefty portions of the soup you will need:

  • 1.2kg tomatoes
  • 4 fat garlic cloves
  • 1 small handful fresh basil leaves
  • 1 tbsp tomato purée
  • A good glug of olive oil
  • 500ml hot vegetable  or chicken stock [vegetarians and vegans will clearly want the former]
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tsp caster sugar [or to taste]
  • 60ml double cream, plus extra to serve [this can be omitted for a vegan version]
  • 50ml gin, plus a dash to serve [optional]

So then, we’re under starters orders – and we’re off!

Pan’s on the heat, in with the oil and start to quarter the tomatoes. Tomatoes into the hot oil and as they fizz and spit chop the garlic. Garlic in, and tear the basil. Add tomato puree, stir, and gin. Salt, pepper, sugar. Basil in. Back to the simmer then pour in the hot stock, and back to simmering point again. Now into the blender or food processor. Whizz, adding the cream as you go. Ready a sieve over a waiting pan [I used the one where the stock had been warming], and pass through the blended soup. Return to a simmer for the final time, taste and adjust seasoning and sugar, and add a splash more gin.

Stop the clock!

My time? A not very respectable 15:00.2. This is not boding well for the three egg omelette challenge, but I’ll post any new personal bests here as and when. Do add comments with your own times. But even at 15 minutes, it’s hardly a huge investment of time for a fresh and tasty soup to beat any can.

Tomato Soup