Aroma draws us to a dish, inviting anticipation of the delights just around the corner. This is particularly true of today’s submission, Panang Beef Curry, as Cook’s Illustrated suggested the preparation in its 2017 collection of recipes.
In common with many curries, Thai ones especially, coconut milk is not merely important, it’s central to the food’s appeal. It gives the dish a silky, sweet creaminess that announces itself early, filling the kitchen with an intoxicating prediction of the waves of satisfaction about to float diners in heaven’s direction.
Coconut milk doesn’t act alone, though; it has teammates in its captivating mission. Primary among them is the dried lime leaf called kaffir in many countries, makrut elsewhere. These add a lilting citrus tang to the magical scents drifting from the wok. Together with the coconut milk and the crushed peanuts, they give the tender beef a warm hug, elevating it to a surprising lightness.
By the way, here’s one of the kaffir lime leaves we used:
In Thailand, panang refers to a whole class of curries, also called, “red curries.” Coconut milk plays a big part in this variety, though it also tends to be, ironically, drier than are other versions. The preparation is a big part of the southern Thai menu in particular, but it takes its name and draw its inspiration from the similarly-named Malaysian city a bit farther down the Malay Peninsula.
Most cooking, and all curries are, almost genetically, enticingly aromatic, but there’s something about the beguiling combination of creamy coconut milk and floral lime leaves that distinguishes panang, even in a culinary field so crowded with talent. Where the nose leads, the mouth, stomach and heart are sure to follow.
Panang Beef Curry
- 2 pounds boneless beef short ribs, trimmed
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil (*1)
- 3 to 4 tablespoons Thai red curry paste
- 1 14-ounce can of coconut milk
- 4 teaspoons fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons sugar (*2)
- 1 hot chili, halved lengthwise (*3)
- 6 kaffir lime leaves, central vein removed and sliced thin (*4)
- 1/3 cup peanuts, chopped fine
Slice beef, perpendicular to the grain, into strips 1/4-inch thick. Place beef in a saucepan and add water until the beef is just covered. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce flame to low, cover the pot, and continue to simmer for an hour. Retrieve the meat with a slotted spoon and place in in a bowl, setting it aside until ready to use.
Place a wok over medium heat. Add the oil and heat it until it shimmers. Add two tablespoons of the curry paste and cook, stirring frequently, until it turns a darker and deeper shade of red, about three minutes.
Add the coconut milk, sugar, fish sauce and chili (if using) and stir to combine. Continue stirring until the sugar dissolves. Add more curry paste, if desired, to achieve intended spiciness. Add beef, stir to coat, and allow mixture to continue simmering.
Stirring occasionally, simmer until the liquid volume is reduced by half, about 15 minutes. Stir in kaffir lime leaves and continue to simmer for two more minutes. Using tongs, remove and discard the chili.
Transfer to a serving platter, sprinkle with peanuts and garnish with thin strips of lime leaves, and serve.
1 – Predictably, perhaps, I substituted peanut oil, particularly as the nuts are a major component.
2 – Granulated sugar is great, but if you have it, use palm sugar. It’s a little more subtle, and is much more authentic this way.
3 – An option I definitely exercised, particularly as it coaxes a little more heat. Plus, the hot peppers looked good at the market today.
4 – If you can’t find (or haven’t mail-ordered) kaffir lime leaves, the zests of a whole lemon and a whole lime will work. If possible, use a microplane to produce the zests, as you want it to be as fine a grate as possible.