Monday, June 6, 2011

Singapore sojourn, part 2: Potato rendang

One of my favorite things to do when traveling abroad is to visit local food markets and come back with bags full of exotic ingredients. Usually, thanks to US customs rules, I am limited to spices and pantry ingredients. On my recent trip to Singapore, happily, I had access to a kitchen (my sister's), so aside from palm sugar, Sichuan peppercorns and the like, I also set out to gather the ingredients for rendang, a famous Malay/ Indonesian specialty.
I had long been wanting to try a recipe for West Sumatran Potato Rendang from James Oseland's Cradle of Flavor, a James Beard award-winning book featuring recipes from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. This is a fantastic book, which introduces a great many flavors and cooking techniques from this part of the world, along with several recipes painstakingly gathered from home cooks across the region. When browsing through the book, I was immediately drawn to the description of the technique for making rendang. This is essentially the reverse of a Western-style stew, in which the item is first browned, then simmered in a liquid. Here, you start by simmering the item in spiced coconut milk, and then finish it off by browning it in the coconut oil that is left after all the liquids have boiled away. This ingenious technique developed as a way to preserve food without refrigeration!

Making rendang is a pretty time-consuming affair, which involves prepping, chopping and grinding the ingredients for the flavoring paste, long and slow stewing of the potatoes in the coconut milk, and gently browning the potatoes and aromatics as the final step. But it's so worth it: you're left with a unique vegetarian dish that even the most confirmed carnivore would love. The potatoes are sweet and spicy at the same time, subtly flavored with ginger, shallots, garlic, chile and lemongrass. The long cooking process ensures that the insides of the potatoes are creamy soft, with crispy jackets coated with caramelized aromatics and coconut solids.

The author recommends pairing this dish with goat curry, sauteed greens and rice, though I imagine it would also make a wonderful side dish to roast chicken, eggs or just about anything. We ate it with Malaysian flaky flatbread (prata) and sauteed baby greens. I'm also considering a version with traditional South Indian flavorings replacing the more Asian ingredients like lemongrass and galangal! It can be made up to five days ahead and stored in the refrigerator - just make sure to serve the dish warm (not hot) or at room temperature.

Recipe: Potato rendang (rendang kentang), serves 4-6
Adapted from James Oseland's Cradle of Flavor

2 1/2 cups coconut milk
1 1/2 lb baby potatoes
3 whole daun salam leaves
3 sprigs Thai or Italian basil
1 1/2 tsp sea salt
Peanut oil, if needed
Flavoring paste:
1 thick stalk fresh lemongrass
4 shallots, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
5 red bird's-eye chillies, chopped
5 green bird's-eye chillies, chopped
1 2" piece fresh turmeric or 2 tsp ground turmeric
1 2" piece fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
1 2" piece fresh galangal, peeled and thinly sliced

First you will need to simmer the coconut milk in a large 12” nonstick skillet over medium-low heat for about 15 minutes. While it is simmering, make the flavoring paste by whizzing all the ingredients together in a food processor, adding a few tablespoons of water if necessary to keep the mixture moving. Add the flavoring paste to the simmering coconut milk, along with the daun salam and basil. Continue simmering the mixture, stirring occasionally, until it is reduced to half its original volume, about 45 minutes. While it is simmering, scrub the potatoes and slit each one half way through to help the flavors penetrate. Do not peel the potatoes as this will cause them to disintegrate from the long cooking.

When the coconut milk mixture is reduced, add the potatoes and salt, and continue cooking the mixture, stirring often to prevent sticking. Cover the potatoes and cook for about 10 minutes to make sure they cook through. Continue this until the liquid has dried up completely and the fat is rendered out. Add some peanut oil to the pan, if necessary, to have a total of 2 tablespoons of oil in the pan.

Turn the heat down to low and brown the potatoes and aromatics in the oil until medium-dark brown, about 20-25 minutes. The finished dish should be quite dry. Transfer the potatoes and the sautéed flavoring paste to a serving dish. Allow to rest for at least 30 minutes before serving.

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