I was kind of late to the Thai food craze. A few years ago my wife and I took a rare, much-needed, kid-free vacation to Key West. Around the corner from our hotel was a floating Thai restaurant, a quaint little place moored near a collection of fishing charters. My wife was immediately enamored with the romantic notion of dining on a boat, and I liked the idea as well, just not the Thai food part.
After some bad experiences back in college, I didn’t care for Indian food (still don’t) and I had long associated curries with the stuff. I knew that curries were also a staple in Thai cuisine, and based on the ignorant assumption that all curries were created equal, I had dismissed Thai food long ago. My wife, bless her heart, told me we were going to eat there regardless of my objections and I went along, mostly because she was paying for the vacation.
A rickety set of stairs led us past a window that offered a glimpse into a cramped but bustling kitchen, manned by two chefs and emanating intriguing, unfamiliar smells. I don’t even remember what I ordered, I think it was some bastardized Thai- American dish like phad thai. My wife’s meal, however, I will never forget—red curry with grouper. After she convinced me to take a bite, it was like I was tasting food for the first time. The complexity and the depth of the dish blew me away, it was the perfect marriage of sweet and spicy with a fatty, satisfying richness unlike I had ever tasted. My mission as soon as the plane landed back home was to recreate this dish in my own kitchen in all its glory. The recipe below is as close as I’ve come.
Any good Thai cook will tell you that the foundation of a delicious curry is a fresh, homemade curry paste. Unfortunately, some of the ingredients found in such a paste are hard to find, like kaffir lime leaf and galangal. Ready-made commercial pastes are more widely available, and brands like Mae Ploy and Mae Sri are awfully good, they just need a little help. I would have kaffir lime leaves in the recipe if they weren’t nearly impossible to find.
Bluegill compliments the flavors well. MAKE SURE the fillets are completely scale and bone free!
Thai Red Curry with Bluegill
- 1 lb bluegill fillets
- 1 cup fresh pineapple, cut into small chunks
- 1 cup sweet peppers, julienned
- 3 1/2 cups coconut milk
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 4-6 tbs Thai red curry paste
- 2 tbs canola oil
- 2 stalks lemongrass, prepared
- 2 large garlic cloves, finely minced
- 2 limes
- one large shallot, minced
- 1 tbs ginger, finely grated
- 2 tbs fish sauce
- 2 tbs brown sugar
- 1 cup chopped, unsalted peanuts
- handful of Thai or holy basil
- 4 cups cooked jasmine rice
- Prepare the lemongrass: slice the bottom third (the white, root end) of the stalks into thin pieces. Pound the pieces into oblivion with a mortar and pestle or meat tenderizer. Bruise the leftover stalks. Set aside.
- Preheat a heavy bottomed pot over medium-low heat. Add the canola and a saute the shallot for about 3 minutes, then add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes more. Add the prepared lemongrass and curry paste and saute gently for at least 2 minutes or until the paste is fragrant (4 tbs of curry paste will result in a medium level of spice, 6 tbs will be hot, and any more than that would be considered “Thai hot.”)
- Add the coconut milk and chicken broth and stir in the ginger, fish sauce, brown sugar and bruised lemongrass stalks. Simmer, covered tightly, for 20-30 minutes. Now is a good time to start the rice.
- Add the bluegill fillets and cover completely with curry. Simmer until just cooked through, about 2-3 minutes, then add the sweet peppers, pineapple, and the juice of one lime. Turn of the heat and let it sit, covered, for a couple minutes.
- Serve hot, topped with fresh basil and peanuts with rice and lime wedges on the side. Serves 5-6.