Thai cooking made simple: Panaeng Curry

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Since it is phonetically transcribed from Thai, the name of this dish is written in many different ways: Panaeng, Phanaeng, Panang, Penang, Peneng, Penaeng. They all refer to the same dish: A coconut milk based dry curry, with a hint of peanuts. It can be prepared with pork, beef, chicken, duck, large shrimps or tofu for the vegetarians. I prefer the pork or beef version, since those seem to team best with the taste of the curry. Compared to other Thai curries, Panaeng curry is rather mild, one of the reasons most people like this curry so much.

The preparation itself is actually quite simple and does not take very long at all. You spend most of your time shopping for the right ingredients and chopping the ingredients up.

If you have an Asian supermarket or Toko in the neighbourhood, buy your Thai ingredients there, instead of your regular supermarket. Most supermarkets stock a range of Asian ingredients, but the quality is mediocre and the price a lot higher. But still a good alternative if a specialized store is too far away.

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Ingredients (for 2-3 pers.):

  • 200 ml of coconut milk
  • 2 tablespoons of Panaeng curry paste
  • 2 tablespoons of fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons of palm sugar ( or white or brown sugar)
  • 6 kafir lime leaves

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  • 1 tablespoon of stir-fry oil (sunflower, rapeseed or soy-bean oil)
  • 400 gr pork or beef loin, cut into strips
  • one red bell pepper
  • one onion
  • a handful of peanuts, roasted and chopped

About the Thai ingredients:

Panaeng curry paste is a thick orange paste, sold in a bag, a cup or a jar. After opening it can be stored for several months in a closed container in the refrigerator. The curry paste can be made at home, but even most Thais buy it in the store. The curry paste is made of onions, peppers, coriander, garlic, kafir lime, lemon grass and shrimp paste. This explains the rich taste of the dish.

Coconut milk: coconut milk for cooking is what we would describe as coconut cream. It is not the watery coconut milk found in the coconut, but a thick cream made of the coconut flesh. It has the texture of a thick cream as well as its high calorie count. It softens the spiciness of the curry paste.

Fish sauce is a basic ingredient of all Thai food. It takes the place of salt but cannot not simply be replaced by salt. They sell it in small bottles and it can be kept for many months in the refrigerator after opening. You can use it in all your other wok dishes instead of salt.

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Thais often replace sugar with palm sugar. But you can just as well use regular sugar, the taste will be the same.

One ingredient that cannot be replaced are the kafir lime leaves. Fresh they are often sold in a large pack and do not keep very long. Most Asian supermarkets also sell them deep frozen, which is a great alternative. You can keep them in the freezer like for ever, and just take out a few leaves when needed. They defrost immediately, and then release this most wonderful citrus smell! It is these kinds of herbs that make Thai food so wonderful! Do not buy the dried version, those have lost all of their aroma and colour .

Since all Thai ingredients can be kept for a long time, you just have to pass by the Asian store once or twice a year! One more good reason to get your ass over there. And it will feel like travelling abroad without having to book a flight.

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All other ingredients can be found in your regular supermarket. You can buy pre roasted peanuts, but since those are often salted too, I usually roast them myself. (And it is a lot cheaper). Just toss the peeled peanuts in a non-stick pan over a high heat, and stay with it. It takes a while before the peanuts colour, but once they do, you better take them of the heat immediately because they burn just as quickly. Do not touch them if you do not want to burn your fingers. Let them cool of on a plate. Once cooled, you can chop them in a mortar or an electric grinder. Make sure not too grind them to dust. (You can use the same technique to roast other nuts like pine nuts or cashew nuts, great addition to salads in summer!)

For the fresh ingredients:

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Peel the onion and cut it in to strips, peel the bell pepper with a vegetable peeler and also cut it in to strips. Cut the meat in to bit size strips. Cut the kafir lime leaves in to very fine strips.

Take 200 ml of coconut cream and mix it together with two tablespoons of fish sauce.

Now you are ready to prepare the dish. Cook white (jasmin) rice to serve with the curry. The Panaeng curry only takes about 10 minutes to prepare!

Take a large wok pan, skillet or frying pan, whatever you have available at home. Pour the cooking oil in the pan, turn up the heat and add two tablespoons of Panaeng curry paste. Sautée the curry paste, making sure not to burn it. It is perfectly normal if the oil separates from the curry paste. Then add the meat strips and let them fry a bit in the curry paste. Add the coconut mixture, and stir until the curry paste is dissolved in the coconut sauce. Then add the onion and bell pepper strips, sugar, and half of the peanuts and lime leaves. Let it all cook on a lowered heat until the meat is done, while stirring regularly. This only takes about 5 minutes.

Pour the (wonderfully smelling) curry in a serving bowl and top with the rest of the peanuts, lime leaves and some coconut cream. Serve with cooked white Thai rice.

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(If the curry is too spicy to your taste you can add more sugar, or reduce the amount of curry paste. But if you put too little curry paste you will  lose a lot of the flavour!)

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One advice. If you would ever invite Thai friends at home, do not cook Thai food! Cook something else; a family recipe or a typical regional dish. Thai people are notoriously critical when it comes to their National dishes, especially when prepared by non-Thais! (I speak from experience)

 

No Christmas party stress please!

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As a result of some strange family discussions, I got to be the host for the family christmas dinner this year. This was three weeks before Christmas, and at that time it seemed like I got plenty of time to plan and execute a dinner for 19 family members. We are now three days away from D-day, and time seems to have magically dissapated between then and now. But I will not be overcome by stress or sleep shortage by Saturday! As a good cook I decided on a menu with dishes that can all be prepared in advance, or that only have to be hassled together on the day itself, without any complex cooking techniques. And I opted for traditional dishes that have been in the family cookbook since my Grandma’s time and thus had to be fool proof. With it I also stumbled upon my theme for the day: A vintage christmas party: let’s do it like grandma and mom used to do it! They managed quite easily (or so it looked), so with their recipes it should be a piece of cake! And it would please my mom who insisted on holding on to family traditions, with the new generation becoming the host for the yearly big get together.

But there is more to plan than just a dinner. Where to sit 19 people? Do I have enough chairs, glasses, plates, forks, knifes, sofas for the apero time? And we have to get our fresh christmas spruce in time this year so that it can be decorated in time( we usually only think about it when christmas is just a few day away with just a few trees left at the shop, the ones others did not choose…). Oh and table decorations,  and enough toilet paper, and the house should be clean…. My children wanted to go all the way with the vintage theme, proposing we all got traditional christmas sweaters. I vetoed against that idea, I would have enough to think about already so I did not want to fuss over my clothes on that day. But we would choose old vinyl records to listen to and show old 8mm movies my brother had digitalized a few years back.

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Two weeks in advance we started putting up the tables and counting the chairs, and if this seems overly early, I am so glad we did, because it was nothing too early! And I used one of my lunch breaks to buy some table decorations, and being quite early, had enough choice left in the shop (hurray)

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We bought our christmas tree on time so that it could be decorated a week in advance. And on one of our trips into the centre of the city I decided to overcome my disgust for the masses of christmas shoppers flocking the streets, to buy traditional chocolates and cookies to serve with the coffee. I wanted to serve some specialties from Bruges. I looked up the recipes for the first and main courses and made a list of ingredients I had to buy. I went through my cupboards to see what was still in stock. We made a first trip to the supermarket to buy everything that could be bought in advance (wines, other drinks, sauces, chips, nuts, olives,…) I was lucky since my husband prepared mussles the weekend before, so I could use the stock to already prepare the fish sauce for the gratin.

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Then Monday came and with it my calendar for the last week was instantly filled. Meat and fish and bread should be ordered in advance. I should not forget to call my mom for extra chairs. I needed to buy an extra grill for the oven, and six extra oven plates for the first course. I had to call the butcher again because he wasn’t sure my order would get there in time with Belgium being on strike four days before my dinner. And I had to get the house clean….. (sigh, no relaxing this week…)

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I made a to-do list of what I should do every day of this last week, to make sure I did not oversee anything by D-day. I gave myself one cleaning task every day of the week, so by the end of the week, the whole house would be presentable. I ordered all my meat, fish and bread on Monday and Tuesday, and bought the grill and plates I missed on Monday. The rest of the ingredients I would buy on Friday together with the pre-ordered meat and I would collect the pre-ordered fish and bread on Saturday (I could ask my husband to pick it up for me). I would set table on Thursday evening, prepare the stew and vegetables, and put the drinks in the fridge on Friday evening. And I would put plates and serving dishes ready for use. I would take the sauce out of the freezer to de-freeze.

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Would be left for Saturday morning: Pick up the fish and bread. Shortly poach the fish in the fish stock, cut the little tomatoes, and portion the fish and scallops, cut the parsley, put crackers, chips and olives in bowls, bread the little toasts.

Et voila, ready for the guests, no stress…

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(and for those curious for my christmas menu: Cremant de Bourgogne as apero drink with breaded toasts, olives, cheese, crackers and chips, fish gratin with french bread as a first course, stew of rabbit with grean beens in bacon and potato croquettes as a main course, christmas ice-cream cake with whipped cream and fruit as desert, traditional cookies and chocolates from Bruges with coffee or tea)

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So here are my “avoid the christmas stress” tips:

-Plan, plan, plan in advance…

– Make lists (ingrediënts lists, shopping lists, task lists …).

– Count the number of guests and check if you can seat them.

– Choose dishes you have experience preparing – christmas is a perfect time for nostalgic family recipes.

– Choose dishes you can prepare in advance like stews, soups, oven dishes that just need to be grilled or reheated, salads that just have to be tossed together. Go for taste over looks, you will score with tasty dishes everyone likes, rather than complex dishes that can fail and might not please all. And if children also like these dishes you avoid cooking seperatly for the little ones.

– Do not make the desert yourself, just buy it at a reputable bakery or shop.

-Check if your oven in large enough to hold the dishes you want to heat or prepare in the oven and that you have enough place on the stove for all your pots. If not, replace one of your warm dishes for a cold one.

– Make a list with all the ingredients you need, and group them according to the shops where to buy them.

– Use the weekend before to already install everything, and buy whatever can be bought in advance.

– Pre-order large amounts of meat, fish, bread, deserts, vegetables, so you do not have to worry one day in advance where to find them.

– Sauces and soups can be made in advance and put in the freezer.

-Stews can or shoud be made one or two days in advance, the taste improves, and the meat softens.

– Avoid a busy workweek just before your party if you possibly can…

-Make a to-do list for the last week before your party, of tasks you shoud do every day of that week.

-Set table the day before, already put serving dishes and plates ready for use, this way, if you still miss something you can always ask one of the guests to help you out and bring it with them.

-Put drinks in the fridge at least one day in advance.

-No stress, no stress, no stress, it is just food, the athmosphere often improves when something goes wrong….