I hardly ever cook from recipes. Which probably sounds weird coming from someone who spends a lot of her time writing them, but there it is. I suspect I’m like a lot of cooks; I have an embarrassingly large collection of cookbooks, but I tend to open them for ideas and inspiration rather than to follow a particular recipe. But every now and then a book comes along that I’m compelled to cook from, and Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey is one of those.
This book came along just at the right moment for me. It was last September; I’d just finished working on my own book and, frankly, I was a bit sick of my own cooking. Here was a book filled with the zingy flavours I love, and a whole lot of different dishes from South East Asia that I hadn’t made before. It piqued my tastebuds and got my juices flowing again. There are post-it flags all through this book marking things I have cooked and want to cook.
As is usually the case, the best recipes in here are the simplest. There’s a Vietnamese dish of tamarind-marinated chicken in which the pieces of meat are wrapped in kaffir lime leaves and threaded on to skewers. It’s perfect, simple and absolutely delicious. I’ve made this several times now. Rick’s Pad Thai is a pretty good one, which I’ve been practising regularly. On the other hand, the Balinese dish of slow-cooked lightly-smoked duck stuffed with garlic, chilli, lemongrass and galangal I have only made once, but I will do it again when I’m inclined to spend an afternoon making dinner. It’s a labour of love, which sometimes is just what you feel like, isn’t it? The spice paste for the stuffing takes about 40 minutes on its own, especially when your stick blender gives up the ghost and you have to do it by hand. But – it is worth it – the duck tastes amazing: fragrant, tender and moist with incredibly complex smoky flavours. Yum.
I’ve also become a fan of Rick’s Laab neua (stir-fried minced beef with lemongrass, chilli and roasted rice rolled in lettuce leave) which at first I thought was a bit bland compared to how I’d usually attack a laab, but actually turned out to be a very interesting and satisfying thing to eat. The roasted rice, which to be honest I always thought was a bit of a palaver for nothing, turned out to be a really nice addition.
I don’t think Rick’s recipes are particularly easy recipes to follow; he is fond of chef-y measurements like ‘50g galangal’ and ‘75g garlic’, which is a real pain. I don’t think many home cooks would know how these translate off the top of their heads. I’m also not fond of reading ‘one quantity of balinese spice paste, see page 300’ and then finding I need another 12 ingredients to complete the dish. And I can’t help myself tweaking the recipes to include vegetables; I know to be really authentic I would make separate vege side dishes, but there are not a lot of vege dishes in the book to be honest, and I just can’t not take the opportunity to add veges when it presents itself.
In that vein, one of my absolute new favourites is a stir-fried Thai yellow curry from the Thailand chapter, which is a really nice change from the usuals using coconut milk (much healthier, too). I adapted this recipe and demonstrated it to the Matakana Mens Grub Club recently and the blokes, I think it’s safe to say, loved it! So I thought you might love it too.
Beef and bean stir-fry curry (adapted from Rick Stein)
This is a good example of a Thai curry that doesn't involve coconut milk. It's full of complex flavours and is really quick to make. This paste is also really good with other meats or veges and tofu.
for the paste:
3 stalks lemongrass, sliced finely
3 dried birds' eye chillies
1 fresh chilli, roughly chopped
2cm piece ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
2 teaspoons dried turmeric
½ onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 teaspoons shrimp paste or fish sauce
6 cloves garlic, peeled
for the curry:
3 handfuls green beans or broccoli
1 teaspoon brown or palm sugar
3 tablespoons reduced-salt soy sauce or tamari
2 tablespoons lime juice
rice bran or vegetable oil
500g beef sirloin or fillet, sliced
2 cloves garlic
5 kaffir lime leaves, thinly sliced black pepper
To make the paste, combine all ingredients in a blender or mini chopper and process into a rough paste, adding water or oil as needed. Set aside until ready to use.
Steam or microwave the beans until tender.
Combine the sugar, soy sauce, lime juice and water in a jug and stir to combine. Set aside.
In a large pan, heat oil over a medium heat. Add the beef and garlic and stir-fry for a few minutes, until just browned. Add the curry paste and stir to coat the meat with paste. Add the liquid and bring to a gentle simmer, simmer 2 minutes then add the beans and lime leaves and simmer a further 2 minutes, or until slightly thickened. Add black pepper to taste. Serve immediately with steamed rice.