Love is in the Details

July 4, 2011 § 3 Comments

The other night we got around to watching Bertolucci’s adaptation of Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky. Since this is not a film blog I will only say two things: that the novel is far superior; and that it appears that this season’s Anthropologie lookbook was mostly based on Kit’s wardrobe in the film, which, since more or less undocumented on the web, you will have to watch to see for yourself. But I digress. The Bertolucci film makes you wait right till the very end before it hits you with the novel’s (rightly) most famous quote:

“Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”

How many more times do you think you will cook supper in your life? Thousands, we hope. Maybe even tens of thousands if you’re really lucky, although on a busy Tuesday dinner prep can feel anything but luck to be in front of the stove. But how many more times will you, for instance, cook this specific dish of a halibut curry? Let’s say it blows you over (which it does) and you make it four or five times a year (that’s already a big repetition of the exact same recipe in our kitchen). Tastes change; fishery practices and guidelines change; you might take a dislike to dishes with coconut in the future. Realistically, I might eat this dish twenty times in my life at the absolute most. It’s torturous to go through the process of figuring this out: it seems futile even to try and put numbers on such everyday events when life spreads itself before you with all its permutations and possibilities. Surely the only sensible thing is to savour the dish as though this is the one and only time you will cook it, eat it, write about it.

There are two aspects of this recipe which you might be tempted to skip and the whole point of this vaguely digressive rumination is to pleed with you to go the whole hog with the details. The core of the dish is a thai-style green curry, chock-full of lemongrass, jalapenos, galangal, cilantro. The curry base is simmered with coconut milk until thick and perfumed, at which point you take it off the heat, add chunks of silver-fleshed halibut, and leave to one side while the residual heat gently cooks the fish through. I am a complete seafood novice (although trying to improve) and I promise it is impossible to overcook the fish in this recipe. It comes out soft and flaky, the perfect foil for the pale sauce. Sounds good, right? Well, it really is, but the dish only gets better if you go to the pains to make the garnish of chiles, red onion and lime. And the optional black sesame seeds? They really do add visual impact. If I eat this dish two or twenty times in my life I want it to be that version: the one with the pretty black flecks and the sharp crunch of the garnish. I don’t want it to be the half-assed version, because I couldn’t finish my email ten minutes earlier or contemplate chopping two extra vegetables. This is it, right now: cook like there’s no tomorrow.

Halibut Coconut Curry with Charred Chiles and Lime

Adapted from Becky Selengut’s Good Fish (watch this space for more on this amazing book)

Serves 4

2 jalapenos (remove the seeds from one or both if you want less heat)
2 stalks lemongrass, woody top half removed, chopped roughly
1/2 cup roughly chopped shallots (about 2 medium sized shallots)
1/4 cup cilantro stems (about 10 stems)
1 clove garlic
2 tbsp chopped fresh galangal or ginger
1 tsp coriander seeds, ground in a spice grinder or pestle and mortar
1 tsp cumin seeds, ground in a spice grinder or pestle and mortar
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp dried tumeric (or 1 tsp grated fresh tumeric)
5 Kaffir lime leaves (or zest of 2 limes if you cannot get hold of these)
1/4 cup chicken or vegetable stock or water
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 14oz can coconut milk
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 lb halibut fillet, skinned and cut into 1 inch cubes
black sesame seeds for garnish

For the topping:

1 tsp vegetable oil
4 Fresno chiles (red chiles), seeded and minced (you can sub jalapenos if you can’t get hold of red chiles)
2 tbsp minced red onion
1/3 cup chopped cilantro leaves (1.e. a good handful)
2 limes, peeled and flesh cut into small dice

Combine the jalapenos, lemongrass, shallots, cilantro, garlic, galangal, coriander, cumin, salt, tumeric, and 1 of the Kaffir lime leaves in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to blend, using up to 1/4 cup (65ml) stock or water to help it become a smooth paste. You’ll need to scrape the bowl down a few times and run the processor for at least 3 minutes to get a smooth puree.

Heat the vegetable oil in a small saucepan over medium high heat. Add the curry paste and fry it for 2-3 minutes. Add the coconut milk, fish sauce, and the remaining Kaffir lime leaves. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium low and simmer for about 10 minutes.

While the sauce is simmering, make the chile topping. Heat the vegetable oil in a small saute pan over medium high heat. Fry the chiles and onion until they are caramelized, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the cilantro and lime. Season to taste with salt and leave to one side while you finish the curry.

Add the halibut to the hot curry and turn the heat off. Let the residual heat gently cook the fish. It will be ready to serve after about 5 minutes. Divide between bowls, top with the chiles and lime and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Serve with rice.


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§ 3 Responses to Love is in the Details

  • […] of fish is that the advice on cooking techniques is so clear and direct. After the success of the halibut curry, where the fish is cooked from the residual heat of the curry alone (and comes out perfectly), I […]

  • zoealexis says:

    I love the flecks of black sesame. Happy to have come across this blog and your thoughtful commentaries on living!

    • cakesnail says:

      Thanks – and for reminding me of this recipe which I haven’t made for far too long! Your zucchini bread looks delicious too!

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