Most recipes mention ingredients you don’t have or measurements you can’t understand. It doesn’t matter whether they’re recipes for consommé or boiled frankfurters, they always read like the formulas of some fake science.
When I cook something and I like it, I write down the list of ingredients, and that’s that — few specifics, no precise measurements. I picked up this habit cooking Southeast Asian food. It’s a forgiving cuisine. You spend a long time cutting stuff up, hopefully talking and drinking, and then you cook in a few minutes. Nothing ever simmers for hours. Nothing has to lie in something else overnight. You don’t have to cool your hands before you touch something. There’s no pastry. Most importantly, nothing ever flops. Whatever you’re making is in plain sight and can be corrected as you go along. It’s never entrusted to an oven where it collapses or explodes.
The main reason for this is that they don’t use milk. The moment you allow milk into cooking, all is lost. Things curdle or clot. You have to worry about cream. There’s cheese. Food with milk is lovely but it comes from the great kitchen in the sky and is beyond my reach.
If I could have my way, all recipes would list their ingredients with possible replacements and notes about what you could ignore. It would be required by law. Recipes would have a picture so you’d have something to aim for, and they’d be funny. Why not? Recipes are plans for things we’re supposed to like, not diagrams of sewers. It would also be illegal to sound superior. Phrases like garnish with parsley and serves 4 would incur fines. It would be illegal to use foreign words unless you stated what they meant. And any author who used an exclamation mark anywhere in a recipe would be jailed.
There will be none of that here.
Nutty red stir-fry is a stir-fry of chicken and vegetables and nuttiness, with Thai red curry paste and coconut milk. The bare-bones recipe is this: chicken, Thai red curry paste, garlic, red things, green things, beany things, white pepper, fish sauce, coconut milk, palm sugar, peanut butter.
That’s how I would record it and be done. It’s flexible, and, yes, a little dense. This form of recipe recording takes getting used to at first, so here it is with some detail and measurements:
- 2-4 chicken breasts, sliced
- Garlic, crushed, as much as you like
- 1 thumb of red Thai paste (don’t make your own; it’s nicer, yes, but not enough so and too much effort. Use a paste made by Mae Ploy, or something similar — it’ll be fine. If you have Panang paste, use it. In fact, use green or yellow Thai curry paste if you want to)
- 2 handfuls of green things — bok choy, or pak choi, which is just a type of Chinese cabbage. I used Swiss chard because I didn’t have bok choy and was too lazy to go and get any. Use normal cabbage if you want to instead, but cut it fine unless you want to chew like a goat
- Red things — 2 red onions if you can, but any kind of onion will do, cut in eighths; 1 red sweet pepper, sliced
- Beany things — a handful of thin green beans and bean sprouts
- White pepper, 1 tot of fish sauce, coconut milk or cream, as much or little as you like, 1 dollop of palm sugar and 1 dollop of peanut butter.
You can adapt pretty much any of the vegetables but it’s probably a good idea to retain the beany stuff and the peanut butter as the aim of the dish is nuttiness. If you don’t have thin beans, don’t use normal green beans — just leave the beans out instead. You can use brown sugar instead of palm sugar, or, if you have to, white sugar. If you replace the coconut milk with cow’s cream you’re on your own. If you don’t have fish sauce, at least add some salt. Use peanut butter unless you’re the sort of peasant who wants to grind up actual peanuts or the sort of connoisseur who claims that the difference is crucial. There’s a difference, but it’s not crucial.
You’ll need a wok.
If you don’t have one, get one. Don’t buy expensive teflon-coated shit. Good woks are cheap and made of thin steel and can be scrubbed and banged and treated with disrespect. Anything else is just bullshit. A good wok looks like the one in the picture, slightly dirty and burnt, but that’s all fine. What you cannot scrub off won’t come off any other way.
Also, you’ll need gas. To cook on electric plates is the culinary equivalent of wading through syrup. Electric plates have a thermal inertia which makes them slow to heat and slow to cool down. When you want to start you have to wait, and when you want to stop you have to hurry. It doesn’t make any sense. Use gas.
Because you’re new to minimalist recipes, I’ll outline what must be done. Start out with oil in the wok, the curry paste, the peanut butter and the garlic. I didn’t mention oil with the ingredients because it’s bullshit to do that. Of course there’s oil.
Fire up the heat and seconds after this all starts sizzling, add the chicken. Move it around rapidly, and at high heat. Chicken becomes tough when you respect it too much. In fact, try to treat all your ingredients with some disrespect. You’re going to eat them and crap them out. They cannot be holy. Fussing over a truffle means that you’re going to find fault with it, or with the things around it, and pretty soon you’re not cooking but thinking. When it looks as though the chicken might soon be done, it’s done. Add the onion pieces and the harder half of your vegetables (the beans and cabbage if that’s what you’re using). Move it around, always. When it looks as if there’s peace, add the other vegetables and the coconut milk. Move it around. When there’s peace again, add the palm sugar, white pepper and fish sauce and stir it through very quickly. Then turn off the gas. Add the bean sprouts and stir them through.
That’s it, you’re done. Don’t taste what’s in the wok. Tasting from woks and pots doesn’t work. It’s about as useful as kicking the wheels of a car. The food is too hot to taste. All you’re going to do is add salt or something sweet. You can do that later if you really need to.
This all goes with rice. Good rice is slightly sticky. It’s just sticky enough to hold together in forkfuls. The nonsense idea of snow-like rice made popular by ads that show rice tumbling off a spoon in slow motion is easily debunked when you remember that such rice is always eaten with gravy so that it can stick together.
You can cook good rice in a microwave. Long grain fragrant or Basmati rice works best. Add some salt and enough boiling water to cover the rice plus a little bit. Put it on high for about 10 minutes. Don’t stir it. Don’t even look at it. Ignore people who claim that you have to soak the rice beforehand, and all that. They’re peasants.