Tom Kah Mussels
One of my favorite things to eat, especially when it’s chilly outside, is curry. Whatever a curry's origin, it is straight home cooked food, never fancy and even if you didn't grow up on the stuff, the aroma and the taste of grilled garlicky bread in the broth is enough to make your mouth happy. Every curry is different. My all time favorite curry is Tom Kah Gai which is a blend of lemongrass, chili, coconut milk, ginger, and lime: sort of a cross between a delicate poached chicken soup and a curry. It's special, you see. The Thai's base their dishes on 4 profiles; sour, salty, bitter, and sweet. And this baby hits them all powerfully and simply! First time I had the soup I remember tipping back my head at the end and slurping the broth, closing my eyes and forgetting my group that I was with for a second. If I had been alone, I would have ordered 2 more to take home and freeze.
When I started cooking for big groups, I thought why not mix Tom Kah with mussels? Except instead of leaving the ingredients in chunks like ginger and lemongrass, I'd blitz them all together into a beautiful concentrated paste. Also, fresh mussels, depending on where you are, are not that expensive and they cook in 5 minutes! So, why not ?! It's super easy. I'm sure there are a few ingredients you may not use every day but almost ever city has an Asian Grocer where you can find pantry items at your fingertips. Sambal Oelek is my new favorite ingredient. Look it up. It tastes like a less hot and better Sriracha.
^^ lemongrass and ginger^^ ^^ sambal oelek ^^
A Note on Mussel Preparation
Your mussels are the main event here so make sure they're good ones. Look through them carefully. They should have a sweet and fresh smell and they should be tightly closed, not open. If it’s open, it's dead and then you’ll be feeling dead for a few days if you eat it. Everyone knows someone who accidentally took down some bad shellfish and it was explosive on both ends (if you catch my drift)...it's not pretty. Mussels are quickly perishable so eat them the day you buy them and make sure they're from a good source. Keep them on ice after they're scrubbed and ready to be cooked. To get the maximal absorption from the curry soaking into the mussels, I like using a roasting pan over 2 flames instead of a pot. The wider, the better…like a mini hockey rink. If you don't have access to a roast pan, a good wide pot with a lid is perfectly fine.
^^ Keep 'em on ice 'till they're ready! ^^
For 5 people:
4 lbs mussels, scrubbed clean and kept cold
2-3 fresh red chilies, deseeded and all white parts removed
3 cloves garlic
3 shallots, rough chop
1 stalk lemongrass, only the white tender part on the base, rough chop
2 inch thumb sized piece of ginger, peeled and thick sliced
Handful of fresh washed cilantro, leaves picked, stalks reserved
3-4 kaffir lime leaves, cracked
2 limes zested and halved
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 14 oz cans unsweetened coconut milk
1 cup chicken stock
Handful of thinly sliced scallions
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For garnish: crusty peasant bread and sambal oelek
In a food processor, blender, or pestle and mortar, add chilies, shallots, garlic, lemongrass, ginger, cilantro stalks, lime leaves, lime zest, fish sauce, and sesame oil. Blitz until smooth. Stop and scoop around if you need until it becomes a paste. Have 2 sheets of tin foil ready. Heat your roasting pan over 2 burners on medium. Or put your pot on with the lid handy. Pour in the olive oil, when it shines, add your paste and stir around so it doesn't burn. After a minute, pour in the coconut milk, chicken stock and your mussels. Mix them up with a serving spoon so they all get the juice from the bottom, covering every mussel. Cover your pan with 2 layers of tinfoil. Turn up the heat and let it do its thing. Shhhh, it’s steeping! After about 5-6 minutes, turn off the heat and with a knife, make a cut in the center and peel it back. Give the mussels a good stir and toss in your cilantro leaves, scallions, squeeze your lime over them and tuck in!
Alicia and I came through Costa Mesa, CA with the Pippin tour and our friend (and Alicia’s business partner) Christopher Johnstone asked if I'd come help his mom, Lynne, cook for a little dinner party. Andrew and Robert, Chris's brothers (there are 4 Johnstone boys) just caught yellow tail tuna and Andrew is going sear it for sashimi. Also THANK YOU supermom Lynne for helping me navigate around your beautiful kitchen! We had practice under our belt from a dinner bash last year at the Johnstones when I came through with the Evita tour. I found some Pacific mussels at the market and I made Devils on Horseback (bacon wrapped prunes stuffed with wine poached pears covered in an armagnac sauce - recipe coming soon!) as a sweet, smoky, textury taste to round off the meal.
^^The Johnstone Family, Thomas O'Malley & Friends. From L to R: Robert, Nick (Johnstone brother), Mike (Johnstone Dad), Lynne (Johnstone Mom), Robert (Johnstone brother) Christopher (Johnstone brother), Tom Burke, Alicia, Me ^^
After dinner, Lynne (baker extraordinaire), served her amazing cookies. Robert poured the Sazeracs and Christopher and Tom brought out paper “wish” lanterns.
I live for nights like this where I get to make food with friends, laugh, share embarrassing stories, play music, come up with interesting ideas together for the future - And at the end of the night count my blessings next to people I love and conjure up some of my biggest desires in life and release them out in to the universe.
^^ UP UP ! ^^
It was a solid night and I'm ready for tomorrow. To the lovely Alicia Monica...It’s never half as good of a party without you, so thanks for sharing it with me and putting up with my bad driving down Trabuco Canyon the next morning :)