Sunday, February 22, 2009

Chicken in Spicy Coconut Sauce

Maybe it’s the midwinter blahs or something, but lately I’ve been feeling bored with my own cooking. Restaurant food is better, but eating out all the time is expensive. I’d prefer to cook myself, but I was having trouble coming up with something that sounded appealing. So, the other day, while going through a stack of recipes looking for this one particular one, I pulled out several that I hadn’t made before and that sounded good. This is one of them. I’d printed it out two and a half years ago and never got around to making it. “The sauce is rich with coconut flavor and redolent with spice” it says. Spicy is particularly appealing right now, as is coconut, maybe because I just got back from Florida.

I admit I changed quite a few things when I actually made this recipe. The first problem was that I didn’t have lemongrass or galangal on hand, and didn’t have time to get to an Asian grocery, so I ended up just leaving them out. I wasn’t sure where to find Holland red chiles (or even what they are, for that matter), so substituted a half teaspoon of chili powder. I also didn’t have shallots, so used a large clove of garlic instead. I used powdered ginger instead of fresh, and light instead of dark brown sugar because those are what I had on hand. At least I did have a block of tamarind in the freezer.

The amount of coconut milk called for alarmed me. I spend my days analyzing fats. My boss does research on atherosclerosis. So I know about the fat composition of coconuts. I love coconut milk, but I know that it’s not good for you – and 48 oz, which is nearly 4 regular-size cans, sounded like an awful lot. So I decided to cut the recipe in half (if it turned out badly, I wouldn’t have as many leftovers to deal with) and use two chicken breasts, which I cubed before cooking, and only one 13 oz can of coconut milk. Finally, I didn’t bother to puree the garlic; I just diced it and threw it in with the other spices, which were all already powders anyway.

The tamarind is a bit messy, but otherwise this was an easy recipe – just simmer everything together for awhile, then take the lid off and simmer down until the sauce thickens (I didn’t bother to remove the chicken at that point). As it was cooking, my kitchen was filled with the pleasant aroma of turmeric. Unfortunately, that’s about what the final product tasted like. Instead of the rich mixture of spices I’d expected, I could taste turmeric and coconut milk, and that was pretty much it. Everything else had just disappeared. Turmeric and coconut milk is not a bad combination, but I expected something more complex. The texture of the sauce was nice, though, and the proportions were about right. I was glad I hadn’t added another can of coconut milk.

If I can get some lemongrass and galangal, I may try making this again, but I’ll double the amounts of all the spices.

Verdict: Hmmm.....might be a keeper after some tweaking...

Chicken in Spicy Coconut Sauce

Sorry, no photo - imagine chunks of chicken in a bright yellow sauce...

3 pound chicken drumsticks and thighs
2 teaspoons salt
2 rounded tablespoons tamarind from a pliable block
1/2 cup hot water
1 cup chopped shallots (4 large)
10 (5 1/2-inch) fresh Holland red chiles, sliced crosswise (1 cup), including seeds
1 tablespoon chopped peeled fresh ginger
2 teaspoons chopped peeled turmeric (fresh or thawed frozen) or 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 fresh lemongrass stalks, 1 or 2 outer leaves and all but lower 6 inches discarded
6 cups well-stirred canned unsweetened coconut milk (48 fl oz; not low-fat)
1 (1-inch) piece galangal (fresh or thawed frozen), sliced crosswise
2 teaspoons packed dark palm sugar or dark brown sugar

Rub chicken with salt and let stand at room temperature 30 minutes.

While chicken stands, gently mash tamarind with hot water in a bowl using your fingertips until pulp is softened, then force with a rubber spatula through a medium-mesh sieve into a small bowl, discarding solids. Pulse shallots, chiles, ginger, and turmeric with cumin and coriander in a food processor until finely chopped. Lightly smash lemongrass stalks with bottom of a heavy skillet.

Stir together coconut milk, tamarind purée, shallot mixture, lemongrass, galangal, and palm sugar in a 6- to 7-quart wide heavy pot. Add chicken and bring to a simmer over moderately high heat, stirring frequently, then reduce heat and gently simmer, partially covered, until very tender, 40 to 45 minutes. Transfer chicken with tongs to a bowl and simmer sauce, uncovered, stirring frequently, until thickened and reduced to about 4 cups, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand 5 minutes, then skim off any fat if desired. Discard lemongrass and season sauce with salt. Add chicken and stir to coat.

Recycle: spice jars, coconut milk can

Compost: peelings/trimmings

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