Gaining Elevation: Spice of Life

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Welcome to Gaining Elevation, a column dedicated to kicking your kitchen game up a notch. We’ll explore classic and often-used recipes, and get professional insight into how to get great results every time. From desserts and cocktails to mains and sides, nothing’s out of bounds!

As the temperatures dip to their lowest, we find ourselves turning to dishes that not only warm our bellies, but somehow defrost our frostbitten spirits as well. We slowly braise stews, and simmer chili and soup; we fill bowls with hearty, steaming servings. But by the end of January, when the ground has been encapsulated in ice for what feels like an eternity, those favorites can feel a little worn.

Chef Steve MacDonald from Teton Tiger has the perfect antidote: King Salmon Kaeng The-Pho. His distinctly creative take on a Thai curry is warm-you-to-the-bone welcoming, and yet bright and fresh. The dish is traditionally crafted with pork belly, but MacDonald wanted a protein that was lighter and felt connected to the region. He settled on King Salmon, and the combination is a match made in curry heaven.

MacDonald has some theories about why a dish like this – even though it isn’t extremely complicated to make – can intimidate some home chefs. The exotic ingredients, things like tamarind paste, fish sauce and kaffir lime leaves, aren’t found in many typical American pantries. But that shouldn’t slow you down, he says. “There’s really no reason to not attempt your own Thai curry,” MacDonald encourages. “Coconut milk, which is the base, is very forgiving. And you really can’t overcook it!” In fact, he says, the longer the spices simmer, the more intense and developed the flavors will be.

One of the earliest steps in the recipe is one of the most important: blooming the curry. Mixing the curry paste with oil, stirring and heating it creates a flavorful base for the rest of the ingredients. “When you heat and open up the herbs and spices, it adds a whole additional level of flavor,” explains MacDonald. “One of the key parts to building any dish is to maximize the flavor in the ingredients.”

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Skipping the bloom or scorching it simply won’t create the base that an excellent curry requires.

After the curry is bloomed, MacDonald introduces coconut cream, and stirs it until it appears curdled. This, he explains, infuses the oils with the curry and coconut flavors. He then adds tamarind paste, palm sugar, and fish sauce, stirring until all is dissolved. Next is a layer of veggies – he’s opted for Napa cabbage and green onions – atop which he perches the salmon. “Using the veggies as a base keeps the salmon from burning,” he explains.

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He pours in tamarind tea and salmon stock, and covers the pot. As the liquid boils, it washes over the salmon, cooking it evenly and thoroughly. When the fish is cooked, MacDonald finishes it with a generous squeeze of fresh lime, adding a layer of bright, tart citrus. “If you add it too early, it cooks and the flavor profile of the lime gets changed,” he says.

Pouring the sweet, salty, spicy curry into a wide bowl, MacDonald carefully rests the salmon in the center. He garnishes it with a small handful of locally sourced red shiso leaves, and serves it with a bowl of steaming rice.

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Once you’ve rounded up the ingredients that aren’t lurking on your own shelves yet, this curry is a great place to start. It sounds (and looks) impressive, but can be made quickly and has plenty of room for improvisation. Curry is a canvas on which to craft your own favorite combinations of protein and vegetables. Make it super spicy, or keep it mild. It’s all up to you.

If you need further inspiration, head over to Teton Tiger and let MacDonald whip up a dish for you. Really, whether it comes out of your kitchen or his, this dish really is the cure for the wintertime blues.

King Salmon Kaeng The-Pho

Ingredients

  • For a single dish:
  • 2/3 tablespoon red curry paste (more for hotter, less for milder)
  • 2 tablespoons coconut cream
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 3/4 cup coconut milk
  • 4 kaffir lime leaves
  • 1/2 tablespoon tamarind paste
  • 1 tablespoon palm sugar (up to 2 tablespoons for a sweeter curry)
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 salmon steak
  • 1 cup vegetables, large pieces (Napa cabbage, green onions)
  • 3 ounces tamarind water (see directions below)
  • 5 ounces fish stock
  • 2-3 limes to finish, add to taste
  • Small handful red shiso sprouts

Instructions

  • To make tamarind paste and tamarind water, submerge a block of tamarind into water and stir. When block is softened, scrape tamarind paste from block. The resulting liquid (tea-like in color) is tamarind water.
  • Heat pan with oil, add curry. Stir to bloom curry.
  • Add coconut cream, stir until separated.
  • Add coconut milk, tamarind paste, palm sugar, fish sauce and kaffir lime leaves.
  • Arrange vegetables on bottom, place salmon on top.
  • Add tamarind water and fish stock.
  • Boil until fish is firm, approximately 7 minutes.
  • Finish with generous squeeze of fresh lime, garnish with fresh red shiso sprouts.
  • Serve with rice.
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In full rebellion against the unpredictable climate of the Rocky Mountains, you can find Melissa on her deck grilling any month of the year. Typically in flip flops. Snow, rain, wind… no weather is too fierce. She’s a lover of peaches in any form, has a borderline addiction to arugula, and (strangely) has been known to drizzle soy sauce on pizza. But even more than she loves her stand mixer and cast iron collection, she adores cooking for her husband and young daughter. When this Jackson Hole native isn’t scurrying around her messy kitchen, she’s probably outside floating the river, hiking, camping, fishing, or, well… grilling.

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