In these companion recipes, I learn uses for kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce, unsweetened shredded coconut, and banana leaves, all inherited from our friends when they moved to the East Coast.
Research about banana leaves comes from About.com; curry marinade for the fish is adapted from thaifood.about.com.
Thai Fish Curry in Banana Leaves
3-4 fillets: salmon, tilapia, cod, or other fish
1 pkg. banana leaves (if frozen, thaw for at least 1/2 hour) OR 3-4 sheets parchment paper, OR tin foil
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger
2 tsp. ground coriander
handful of basil leaves
2 Tbsp. fish sauce
1/2 can coconut milk
2 kaffir lime leaves, snipped into small pieces with scissors (discard central stem)
1 dried red chile, sliced (seeds removed if you prefer a milder sauce)
1 tsp. chili powder
juice of 1/2 lime
Place all curry marinade/sauce ingredients in a food processor (or blender) and process well.
Place fish fillets in a large bowl and add 1/2 the curry marinade. Reserve the rest for later.
Slather the marinade over both sides of the fish, then let it sit in the refrigerator 10 to 15 minutes.
When fish is done marinating, spread a banana leaf approximately 1 foot square on a working surface (you will have to cut the leaf) - or the equivalent of parchment paper or tin foil. Place one fillet in the center of the leaf/paper/foil.
Fold both sides of the wrapping material over the fish, then fold both ends to create a square "packet". Turn it seam-side down to keep sides from opening. Do the same for the other fillets.
Place packets in a glass casserole dish or pie plate and bake for 15 min. at 350 degrees, or longer depending on the thickness of the fillets.
After 15 minutes, open one of the packets. Insert a fork into the center of the fillet or steak (the thickest part) and gently pull back. If inside flesh is opaque and no longer transparent, the fish is cooked. If not, return to oven for another 5-10 minutes.
Over low heat, warm up the reserved curry sauce/marinade. I like to pour it over the fish and rice, below.
2 cups Thai jasmine-scented white rice (brown rice will not work for this recipe)
1 cup coconut milk
2 cups water
1 Tbsp. lime juice
1/2 tsp. salt
2-3 Tbsp. dry shredded coconut, unsweetened
Preparation in rice cooker:
Place rice in rice cooker. Add the water, coconut milk, lime juice, salt, and shredded coconut. Stir well (use a plastic or wooden utensil to avoid scraping off the non-stick surface). Cover and set to cook.
Once your rice cooker switches to "warm" mode, allow another 8-10 minutes for rice to finish "steaming". This will ensure your coconut rice is fully cooked and pleasantly sticky.
Gently fluff with chopsticks before serving (some of the shredded coconut may have risen to the surface - just stir it back into the rice). Taste-test it for salt, adding more if necessary.
Alternately, if you are cooking rice on the stovetop:
Rub oil over the bottom of a deep-sided pot. You will also need a tight-fitting lid.
Place rice, coconut milk, water, lime juice, shredded coconut, and salt in the pot and set over medium-high to high heat.
Stir occasionally until liquid comes to a gentle boil (stirring will keep the rice from sticking to the bottom of the pot and burning).
Once the coconut-water has begun to gently bubble, stop stirring and reduce heat to low (just above minimum). Cover tightly with a lid and let simmer about 15 minutes, or until most of the liquid has been absorbed by the rice (to check, pull rice aside with a fork to see down to the bottom of the pot).
When the liquid is gone, turn off the heat, but leave the covered pot on the burner to steam another 5-10 minutes, or until you're ready to eat.
When ready to serve, remove the lid and fluff rice with a fork or chopsticks. Taste-test the rice for salt, adding a little more if needed.
And finally, a word or two about banana leaves…
Banana leaves are used regularly in Asian cooking, serving as functional cookware (steamer packets of grilling mats) that also impart subtle vegetal flavor to the food.
Banana leaves are very inexpensive to buy - roughly $3.00-4.00 for a large pack. Buy banana leaves fresh or frozen in large, flat plastic bags at your local Asian supermarket (check the freezer if you can't find them on the shelf or in the produce section).
Banana leaves can be used for baking anything "wrapped" - in the same way you would use tin foil or parchment paper. However, note that banana leaves are porous (unlike tin foil), so some of the "sauce" or juices from your food item may seep through. It's therefore a good idea to place your banana leaf "packets" in a glass casserole dish, or a tray that has "sides" on it, so that the juices don't drip to the bottom of your oven.
You can also use banana leaf as a kind of "mat" for barbecuing fragile fillets of fish, smaller shrimp, or vegetables that have a danger of falling through the grill. Simply lay a piece of banana leaf on your grill, then cook your food items on top of it (as you would with tin foil). The banana leaf will turn bright green at first, then brown as you cook. It will give a nice hint of flavor to your food that is very pleasant.
Usually you will have leftover leaves after you've finished making your recipe or serving your food, as they are sold in large packs. To keep the rest for use later, simply wrap up in plastic (a plastic bag will do, secured with elastic), and keep in the freezer. Banana leaves only require about 30 minutes to thaw, so this is a convenient way to keep them fresh. If using within a week, store them (wrapped in plastic) in the refrigerator.