February 01, 2011
Recently I tossed together something that is not technically a Thai meal, but which is nonetheless strongly Thai-influenced, featuring some characteristic Thai ingredients and flavor combinations. A common feature of Thai food is a reliance on basil, and in planning this meal, I had that in mind. Unfortunately, the reality of it being winter in Iowa reared its ugly head.
Americanized Thai cooking often uses familiar sweet basil, and this works fine and dandy, but even better is a Thai variety of basil with a distinct anise flavor. Unfortunately, most groceries in Iowa don't carry the Thai basil, and the stock in even the best area Asian groceries is often in less-than-ideal condition. That being the case, I decided to try to go with ordinary sweet basil. Unfortunately, that also turned out to be a problem.
Simple fact: In Iowa during the winter, finding good basil is close to impossible. Whether at the local stores - never particularly reliable - or even the better-stocked ones at Des Moines, all the packages of basil I could locate were pretty sad-looking, with most of the leaves bruised, limp and kind of wrinkled. After buying the best packages (such as they were) from three different stores, I still didn't have as much usable basil as I'd have preferred for the recipe, but I decided to go ahead and try it out.
In retrospect, that was probably a mistake. I designed the recipe to feature the basil, using other flavors as an accent, so going short on the basil resulted in the finished dish being under-flavored. It was still pretty good, but a bit on the bland side. Juli ended up saying exactly what I'd started thinking about two bites into the meal: "This would be so much better if there was more basil."
I'm definitely going to be revisiting this recipe in the spring or early summer, when it's easier to get good basil in the stores or from our own herb garden. As I made it this time around - with a lot less basil than I'd have preferred - I'd probably give it 3 stars, using Juli's rating scale. Made as I designed the recipe - and as it is presented below - it might be a five-star dish.
Thai-Style Chicken Stir-Fry with Basil and Snow Peas
yield = 4 servings
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, sliced into bite-size pieces
1/2 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1 tablespoon peanut oil
4 teaspoons minced garlic
1 fresh Thai or serrano chili pepper, seeded and finely chopped
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon powdered ginger
12 ounces snow peas, trimmed
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 cup whole, fresh basil (or Thai basil) leaves, plus additional
for garnish (if desired)
Sprinkle chicken with pepper and salt, then set aside.
Add oil to a large skillet and heat over medium-high heat. Add garlic and chili and cook, stirring constantly, for about 30 seconds. Add the chicken and cook, stirring frequently, for 3-4 minutes or until the chicken is just slightly pink.
Stir in fish sauce, sugar and soy sauce, then add the snow peas and stir-fry for about 3 minutes.
Stir in lime juice and use to deglaze the pan, then stir in the basil and cook until it is just wilted, about 30 seconds. Remove from heat, transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with additional basil leaves if desired.
This time around, the meal was saved from mediocrity by my having served Coconut Rice along with the Chicken Stir Fry with Basil and Snow Peas. The rich coconut and broth flavors helped make up for the relative blandness of the Chicken Stir-Fry. Even though the Stir Fry was somewhat disappointing, the rice was good enough to push the quality of the meal to a 4, and it would have been even better had the Stir-Fry had a stronger basil flavor for the Coconut Rice to play off of or contrast with.
Coconut Rice would work as a great side for any number of other strongly-flavored or spicy main dishes, and would go particularly well with a variety of savory or hot Thai, Indonesian or Malaysian dishes.
yield = 4 servings
2 1/2 cups chicken broth
1 can (13.5 ounce) coconut milk
2 cups jasmine rice
2 tablespoons shredded, sweetened coconut
Add chicken broth and coconut milk to a large saucepan. Stir in jasmine rice and bring to a light boil, then stir in the coconut. Cover, remove from heat and let rest 20 minutes. Fluff with a fork and serve.