Friday, March 21, 2008

Thai Peanut Sauce

Boy howdy, have I got the goods for you today! This is it right here, folks. This is The One. I'm fairly certain that no matter what I happen to come up with after this, even if I live to be a hundred, it will not be as good as this stuff. And it's not so much the peanut sauce itself, although it is excellent, as what you're going to do with it when it's ready. More on that later. For now, though...

It all started one day many years ago when I was living in Chicago...
Ah, y'know what? Never mind all that. Let me just sum it up-

Years ago, I discovered Thai Peanut Sauce (and sticky rice!).

And for a long time I used store-bought peanut sauce. This stuff, to be exact-

And it's actually very good. The only downside is that it's quite expensive- $4+ for about 11 oz. So after awhile I tried looking online for a recipe to make it at home, but I really couldn't find one. I mean, I found a bunch, but none of them sounded any good. Try it- do an online search for "Thai Peanut Sauce" and see what comes up. I think you'll be as disappointed as I was. Not to worry, though, you've come to the right place this time! And I even have an actual recipe for it, although as always, I encourage you to use it as a guideline only. The only reason I even worked one up is because at Sweeney's, where I work, they have a Thai Chicken Pasta dish- basically just chicken and linguine tossed in a peanut sauce- yeah, I know, "Thai" in name only. Anyway, shortly after I started working there, the boss tried my peanut sauce and liked it much better than the one they were using (no surprise there) so he told me to come up with a recipe that we could use at work, or else he'd fire me and I'd have to go back to working in those culinary coal mines known as franchise restaurants (yes, I'm thinking of you specifically, Ruby Tuesday, with your pre-cooked chicken!*). Ok, he wasn't quite that blunt about it, but I didn't want to take any chances, y'know? Sweeney's = good, franchise chains = coal mines in the 1800s.
So anyway, here's the recipe we use at work:

10 T garlic
10 T ginger
12 c coconut milk
12 c peanut butter
1 3/4 c packed brown sugar
1 1/2 c fish sauce
chili garlic sauce
juice from 3 limes + 1/2 c tamarind juice

Ok, let's break it down a little. First off, I know this is a lot. But I didn't resize it for several reasons- 1. I'm really bad at math. (And it took me a really long time to come up with those measurements specifically for work so I figure since I put so much effort into it, it should stay as is, y'know?) 2. You'll want a lot of this stuff on hand, believe me. 3. It keeps for quite awhile in the fridge, but even better, it freezes well, so you can just make a whole lot at once and not have to worry about it again for awhile. There's a few more reasons too, but that should suffice for now.
Ok, remember, this recipe should only be used as a guideline. At work we need a recipe for the sake of consistency. And because I can't really get the guys there to grasp the idea of "this is how it should taste, so just keep adjusting it until it tastes like this". It never seems to work out very well. So we use a recipe. (Or, they do. I do it my way, which is better.)
To start things off, I usually use more garlic and ginger than what's called for; usually around 12 Tbs. Also, at work we use water instead of coconut milk (that's what I used originally, but coconut milk is sooo much better. Don't skip it if at all possible.) Mince up the garlic and ginger nice and fine (make sure to use fresh garlic, not the stuff in the jar!) and heat it in some oil over medium- sesame oil is best for this. But you don't want to saute it- i.e. don't cook it till it's brown, just till it's nice and fragrant. Then add the coconut milk, fish sauce, peanut butter, chili sauce, and brown sugar. Heat over low. And I mean low. Peanut butter will overcook very easily, and when it does the oil separates and it looks all nasty and can't be made to look un-nasty, so take your time with this. If you're using an electric stove, be sure and set it on the lowest setting. Also, if you use a wire whip to stir it, it will blend up nice and smooth in no time. Just keep cooking over low until it's as thick as you'd like it to be. It doesn't take long at all. I usually make mine to about the consistency of a thick ketchup. (Keep in mind that you'll be adding lime and tamarind juice at the end.)
About that chili garlic sauce... I use, and highly recommend, this stuff-

made by Huy Fong Foods. It's fairly readily available, even in small-town stores. How much you use is totally up to you. I didn't include a specific amount in the recipe because at work we use crushed red pepper, but I really, really recommend that you don't skip using this. It's too good. (I buy it by the gallon.) Luckily for me, I live in a town with one of the largest Hmong populations in the U.S. so Asian food stores are more common than Starbucks around here.
As for the brown sugar- when the recipe says "packed", it means packed- as tight as you can get it in there. And here's a tip- just pack it once and then weigh it out, then next time you make it you don't have to bother with all that cramming into the measuring cup! (I believe 1 3/4 c weighs about 14-16 oz.) I also prefer dark brown sugar to light.
As for the fish sauce, the main thing to look for is a minimum of ingredients- water, fish, salt. A lot of brands have sugar added, but in my experience, it's not very noticeable in most. The online Asian store mentions 4 they like a lot. I found Three Crabs brand to be very sweet. I'd avoid using it, at least for this recipe. I personally don't like it at all (supposedly it's quite popular, though) and it's pretty expensive which is another reason I don't use it. I've used both Squid brand and Golden Boy a lot and can definitely recommend both.
Once you get the peanut sauce to the thickness you'd like, turn off the heat and add the juice of 3 limes plus 1/2 c. tamarind juice. How do you get tamarind juice? Chez Pim has a tip near the bottom of her post on pad thai. In a nutshell, you take a block of Tamarind Paste-

and soak it in 4 cups of hot water until soft, then strain. If you have to, in a pinch you can use cranberry juice- it's taste is pretty darn close. Just don't tell Pim I said that- she's kind of a purist and all and might rip me a new one. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe you should tell her. After all, she's kind of a big name in the food blog world and if she rants about me on her blog... (even bad publicity is still publicity, is all I'm sayin'.)
Also, I find that adding just a little o.j. to the mix at the end really adds a nice touch.

I think that about sums things up. If you can't find any of the ingredients in your area, has everything you need, and there are other online Asian stores as well.

Now, on to the real star of the show- sticky rice! If you've not had this before, you really need to add this to your list of Things To Do Before I Die. And then get to it ASAP. Not just any ol' sticky rice from any ol' asian restaurant, though. Try it my way first. Seriously, if you could scoop up all of Heaven and plop it in a bowl to eat, it would taste like this. I am not lying or exaggerating. Not even a little. The name "sticky rice" is kind of a misnomer, though; it's not really "sticky" in the sense that you think of when you picture regular rice that's been overcooked. "Chewy rice" would be a more accurate way to describe it. But I guess that doesn't sound as cool, does it? Yeah, let's stick with Sticky.

I'm going to try and sum this up quick. (Or you can look Here. I swear I'm not trying to plug it's just a convenience for me, since they're the main one I'm aware of, but there are other Asian food sites online to order from as well. I encourage you to check them out.)
Sticky rice is also known as "glutinous rice" and "sweet rice". When it's dry, it looks kind of like a smaller version of puffed rice cereal-

When cooked, it becomes more translucent-

(it won't have that pinkish hue- that's just from the light in the room,
and I never got around to correcting it in Photoshop)

You don't have to cook it in a bamboo steamer, or if you want to get really food-nerd about it, one of those sticky rice steamer baskets (which I have, of course). You can use a regular colander and pot. You will need some sort of cheesecloth-type fabric to line the basket with, though. I've found regular cheesecloth to be too porous and flimsy, so I use a couple cloth napkins that I got at Target or something for not a lot of money.
My instructions are basically the same as those on the other site, but slightly rearranged- I soak mine first- for a solid 8 hours. You might get away with 6, but in my experience 8-10 is better. Then I rinse the rice, usually more than the 2-3 times they call for. You want the water to run fairly clear (it probably won't get totally clear, though). Also, I don't think it takes 45 minutes like they say- mine's usually ready in 25-30. Once you've made it a couple times you can usually tell by looking whether it's done or not, but you can always taste it while it's steaming to find out. You'll know when it's done. It won't separate too easily with a fork and will be nice and chewy (and translucent). When it's done, if you take it off the stove and immediately flip the whole thing over into a large mixing bowl, most, if not all of it, will just plop right out of that cloth and into the bowl, leaving a nice easy-to-rinse-clean cloth. You'll want to cover it though, so it won't dry out. Now comes the fun part- take as much as you want and put it into a very large bowl- (I tend to just leave it all in that same stainless mixing bowl and eat out of that) then add the following-

peanut sauce
fine grain sea or kosher salt
granulated garlic
chili garlic sauce

the order isn't super important, but I usually go wet before dry- makes it much easier to mix. Even the amounts aren't all that critical. I once made this for a friend and added by sight only- didn't taste even once to test it before handing her the bowl. The result? Success!

Heaven. In a bowl.

That's what you've got right there, my friend. Heaven in a bowl, I kid you not.

*To my knowledge, Ruby Tuesday no longer uses pre-cooked chicken. It was a short-lived, failed experiment. But that's their M.O., anyway. Along with all the other franchises.
Cheap bastards, I hate 'em.