Thursday, December 14, 2023

A Thai-ish Supper

I always have at least one jar of Maesri Thai chilli paste with sweet basil in the pantry. If you enjoy drunken noodles, you'll like this condiment.

Ordinarily, I plan our weekend dinners a few days in advance, but other times I just wing it. We normally have enough raw ingredients in the house to produce something interesting without having to make a run to the store. On this particular weekend, I decided to use some of the Trader Joe's cod we had in the freezer. Cod's not my favorite--I'm not into its weird, almost-buttery, flavor-- but it's relatively inexpensive and cooks quickly. I thought I could do something like my old standby Sriracha Bouillabaisse, which is relatively easy. (I was feeling lazy.) Then I noticed a jar of Thai chilli paste with sweet basil in the cupboard, next to a can of coconut milk, and dinner suddenly veered off in a slightly different direction.

Both recipes start with sautéing aromatics, then adding tomatoes, stock, and something spicy. In this case, the spicy element is provided one of my favorite condiments. I discovered chilli paste with sweet basil leaves at H Mart many years ago. There are a couple of variations and brands available, with holy basil, or labeled as "pad kapao" sauce. All of them contain some variety of Thai basil, chile peppers, soy bean oil, garlic, and salt. The flavors are spicy and aromatic, bright and fragrant, great with everything (I think). If you appreciate the licorice-like flavors of Thai basil and are into hot stuff, I think you'll like it.

I mostly had peppers on hand--an orange bell pepper and a bag of shishitos that I haven't gotten around to using. I chopped up a handful of those; while not really spicy, shishitos still have the flavor profile of a hot green pepper, which I vastly prefer over a green bell pepper. Green beans would work nicely in this dish, too, so if you have some, toss them in. Hell, any veg would be good, and shrimp or tofu would work just as well as the fish.

I simmer the veg and wet ingredients until they look more like a sauce than a soup, adding lots of fish sauce, lime juice, and a pinch or two of sweetener (sugar, agave nectar, honey) to get a balanced flavor. Restaurant Thai food, at least in this area, tends to be sweet. It's nice to be able to cut back on the sweetness when preparing food with Thai flavors at home, but I still think many dishes need at least a touch of sweetness to balance the more intense flavors of chiles and fish sauce.

The protein is added at the last minute and heated only until cooked through. Overcooked fish is a bad thing, so don't do it. I don't think you can overcook tofu, but probably best not to let that go too long, either. I served the dish with plain jasmine rice, your favorite grain would probably be fine. If you reduce the sauce even more before seasoning, you could probably eat this over pasta, should you be so inclined.

Thai Basil Coconut Fish

2 tablespoons neutral oil
1 medium onion, sliced thinly
1 orange bell pepper, sliced thinly
1-3 green chiles of your choice (jalapenos or whatever you have on hand), sliced thinly
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro stems
2 cloves garlic, minced
Kosher salt
1 Knorr fish bouillon cube plus 1 cup water, or 1 8-oz bottle of clam juice
1 15-oz can diced tomatoes
1 15-oz can coconut milk
2 heaping tablespoons Maesri chilli paste with sweet basil leaves (or to taste)
Fish sauce
Lime juice
Sugar to taste
1 pound boneless, skinless cod filets, or similar white-fleshed fish
Rice for serving
Cilantro and sliced green onion for garnish

Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a dutch oven or large pan with lid. Add the onion, peppers, cilantro stems, and a big pinch of salt.. Stir occasionally, cooking until veg have softened a bit and starting to brown, 5-6 minutes. Add the garlic and cook an additional minute or so. Add the bouillon or clam juice, tomatoes, and coconut milk and stir to combine. Bring mixture to a simmer and cook for 8-10 minutes to evaporate some of the liquid and concentrate the flavors.

Turn the heat down to medium. Add the chilli paste and taste for seasoning. If you are serving this with rice, you'll need the sauce to be somewhat aggressively seasoned. Add fish sauce for salt--I used a couple of tablespoons. You can add some kosher salt, too. Add a few squeezes of lime juice and a bit of sugar. Once you have the sauce flavored to your liking (it should have a nice spicy/tangy/sweet balance, but do what works for your palate), slip in the pieces of fish. Cover the pan and cook until the fish is cooked through and easily flakes apart, about 5 minutes.

Serve in bowls, with rice on the bottom or on the side. Garnish with cilantro.

Serves 4.

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