October 15, 2010

Sweet and Spicy Shrimp Curry

Last night was the trial run for another original recipe.  I love shrimp, but we hadn't had it in awhile.  I also love Thai food, and we haven't had that lately, either.  So, I decided to come up with my own Thai-influenced shrimp curry recipe.   I wanted it to stand on its own (with the addition of rice) as a meal, meaning the dish would have to include fruit and/or vegetables.  I ended up going with both, and since including fruit would lend toward the dish being somewhat sweet, I knew I'd have to add a fair amount of spice to balance the sweetness. 

With that in mind, I started thinking about what to add.  Indian curries feature highly variable amounts of a few core spices, but Thai curries usually feature one of a small set of standardized curry blends.   I went with red curry, mostly because I had a jar of red curry paste on hand.  Coconut milk is frequently used in Thai curries, so I decided it, along with the red curry paste, would form the basis of this curry.  This decision again meant I'd need to use a fair bit of the curry paste to prevent the mellow, somewhat sweet flavor of the coconut milk from making the dish taste more like a dessert than a curry. 

Some sort of chili pepper is almost a given in Thai food, but since I was going for flavorful over heat, I decided to use a jalapeno instead of Thai hot peppers.  A lot of Thai curries feature either lime or tamarind in a strong supporting role.  I decided I wanted just a tangy undercurrent, so I went with the lime instead of the tamarind, but decided to double up on the lime flavor, via using both lime zest and lime juice.

From there, I gave some thought to what colors and textures I wanted in the dish, along with what flavors might go together well.   I ended up going with sugar snap peas for bold, green color and a bit of crunch.  The few times I've seen cherry tomatoes used in Thai dishes, I've always liked the result, plus I knew they would add some vivid red.  Since I'd already decided I wanted some fruit as well, I added pineapple, as pineapple goes along well with both coconut and lime. 

With those basics out of the way, I needed just a few finishing touches.  Fish sauce is another "almost a given" ingredient in Thai food, and I quickly realized it belonged in this dish, both to provide a bit of saltiness and to give the dish a distinctly Thai character.  I thought about whether or not to add a sweetener to the gravy, and decided to go with it, to bolster the natural sweetness of the coconut milk.  Considering options, I went with palm sugar over other sugars, honey and so forth, mostly because it adds a bit of tropical flavor that fits well with a Thai-inspired dish.  I considered and decided against both galangal and - rare for me - ginger, as there was a wide enough mural of flavors already.   I also briefly considered another Thai staple, lemongrass, but decided it wouldn't really add anything distinct with the heavy lime presence.  All that left to be decided on was a bit of leafy green, something that is all but ubiquitous in Thai cooking.  The two typical choices are cilantro and Thai basil.  I went with the Thai basil to once again provide a distinctly Thai character to the dish, but decided a few cilantro leaves might be okay as a garnish.

So, having come up with the ingredient list, all that remained was to decide on the proper amounts of the ingredients, then try out the recipe.  And that's what we did last night.

We were both quite pleased with the dish.  It was both sweet and spicy, but neither of those flavors really dominated the dish.  It included bits of more intense sweet/tart flavor in the pineapple chunks and bits of mild heat in the jalapeno slices, which complement the overall flavor of the dish while also providing more flavor variety.  The gravy thickened nicely, and while the pineapple's color didn't stand out, the dish was still quite attractive.  The only needed improvement we could identify was to boost the amount of Thai basil, as the amount I wrote into the first draft of the recipe wasn't enough to really make it stand out.   I decided doubling the original amount (1 tablespoon) would do the trick, and that change is reflected in the recipe as written below.

We hope some of our readers will give this one a try.  If you do, please let us know what you think of the dish.

Sweet and Spicy Shrimp Curry

1         can (13.5 oz.) coconut milk
2         tablespoons Thai red curry paste
1         tablespoon fish sauce
1         teaspoon palm sugar
1/2      teaspoon lime zest, grated
8         ounces sugar snap peas
1 1/4   lb fresh, large shrimp, shelled and deveined
12       ounces cherry tomatoes
1         can (8 oz.) pineapple chunks, drained
1         jalapeno, thinly sliced
2         tablespoons Thai basil, chopped
1         tablespoon lime juice

Warm 1/2 cup of the coconut milk over medium heat until steaming.  Stir in the curry paste and cook, stirring often, until fragrant.

Add the fish sauce, palm sugar, lime zest and the rest of the coconut.  Bring to a boil, then add the snap peas and reduce heat to a low simmer.  Cook, stirring often, for about 8 minutes.

Add the shrimp, cherry tomatoes, pineapple chunks, jalapeno slices, Thai basil and lime juice.  Increase heat to medium and cook, stirring often, until the shrimp is cooked through (this will depend in part on the size of shrimp you use.  Large shrimp will take about 5 minutes to cook).

Garnish with Thai basil leaves or cilantro leaves, if desired, and serve with jasmine rice.

Palm sugar, also known as jaggery, is usually sold in solid chunks of variable sizes and should be grated before it is added to this dish.  If you don't have or can't find palm sugar, light brown sugar is an acceptable substitute.

Thai basil has a stronger flavor than the sweet basil usually used in Western cooking, as well as a hint of licorice.  You can use sweet basil instead, but you will need to add a bit more (probably just under 3 tablespoons of chopped basil).  Even then, the substitution will result in the loss of part of the dish's distinctly Thai flavor, so Thai basil is strongly recommended.  It can be purchased at pretty much any Asian grocery. 

To give the dish a somewhat different, but equally delicious, fruit element, substitute one sliced mango for the pineapple chunks.

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