Many people don’t follow recipes.
I understand, I’m an intuitive cook who goes with the flow of what I have and what I know. Yet, while I may not follow recipes to the letter, I hold them dear. I read my cookbooks cover to cover — they provide adventure and best of all teach me how to become a better cook.
While pondering broccoli dishes for this article, I pulled out several cookbooks to get in the mood and spark ideas. Broccoli, in my experience, likes a sauce, and doesn’t do well under or over cooked.
Good recipes come from talented cooks. Their recipes have a sensibility, a philosophy and usually value fresh ingredients, cooked with classic techniques, using principles that create the utmost flavor. Therefore, we should read recipes, not because we are incapable of putting dinner on the table without them, but because they hold the know-how of ultimate taste experiences. Recipes are full of the expertise that advances our skills. Without good recipes, we’d stagnate, and what’s the fun of that?
But back to broccoli, I remembered a favorite Italian recipe, “Garlic-sautéed Cabbage,” from “The Splendid Table” by Lynne Rossetto Kasper. Several times a year I make this dish and marvel at how it transforms ordinary cabbage into a culinary delight.
The recipe also works its magic on broccoli. My friend Heather makes a similar pasta dish. She creates a paste of garlic and slowly infuses it in warm oil. Then she cooks the broccoli with the pasta and adds the garlic sauce at the end.
Indonesian flavor pastes use the same low-heat technique and are famous for creating mouthwatering dishes. I pulled out James Oseland’s “Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore” and reread the page he devotes to using flavor pastes.
What is a flavor paste?
It’s a mix of alliums like onions, shallots and garlic, and other aromatic rhizomes like ginger, turmeric and galangal. We sometimes mix them with fish sauce or shrimp paste and hot chilies. The components are ground, added to oil and cooked over a low heat until their flavors mellow and soften. This technique is useful for all kinds of vegetables and meats.
The recipe was coming together in my head. I would use the sautéed garlic idea with Indonesian ingredients and make a curry. I jumped up, grabbed my notebook and wrote.
When you read my recipe, you’ll notice that I cook in layers, meaning I build flavor by using techniques in a particular order.
FLAVOR BUILDING WITH LAYERS
1. I sauté the onion long enough to create a sweet background.
2. I add the flavor paste at a lower heat so it can infuse without burning the garlic.
3. I add fish sauce for the umami element, acidic tomato paste, piquant chilies and warming cinnamon, salt, and more sweetness to balance the spices. This is the layer of the five directions: umami, sour, sweet, heat and salt.
4. The broccoli has its own layer, so it’s not forgotten and overcooked.
5. I add creamy coconut milk at the end so that it never boils and separates.
6. I serve crunchy cashews and sour limes at the table to balance out the dish with the correct amount of acid, while the cashews provide a crunchy contrast.
Coconut Broccoli Curry
Serve over rice. It’s excellent with chicken, pork or tofu.
3 tablespoons coconut oil
1 large onion, cut lengthwise and thinly sliced
For Flavor Paste
4 cloves garlic, growing stems removed, crushed
1-inch piece fresh ginger root, peeled and sliced
1-inch piece fresh turmeric root, peeled and sliced (or one teaspoon turmeric powder)
1-inch piece fresh galangal root, peeled and thinly sliced (optional but good)
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon red chili flakes or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon coconut sugar (brown sugar works)
1 tablespoon fish sauce (I like Red Boat brand)
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 cup water
1 lb broccoli, cut into bite size florets, stems peeled and sliced
1 can (13.5 fluid ounces) thick coconut milk
1/2 cup roasted cashews, chopped
1 lime, cut into wedges
Prepare all ingredients.
Prepare the flavor paste: Using a food processor, grind the ginger, garlic, turmeric and galangal into a paste and set aside.
Over a medium-high heat, using a large lidded skillet, sauté the onion in oil for eight minutes. Reduce the heat to medium. Stir in the flavor paste and continue to sauté for four minutes more. Stir in the water, cinnamon, fish sauce, tomato paste, sugar and salt.
Fold in the broccoli, cover with a lid, and allow the broccoli to steam for five minutes, adjusting the heat as necessary. It should steam but not boil. Stir in the coconut milk and continue to cook the curry until the broccoli is perfect for you. About two minutes more.
Serve the curry over rice, top with cashews and a generous squeeze of lime.
(Sidonie Maroon is the culinary educator at the Food Co-op, abluebotkitchen.com. Find more of Sidonie’s recipes at /blog/flavor-paste.)