What to do when you have a slew: Thai basil

So, this is a new recipe my buddy Colin taught me. It was apparently engendered by an overabundance of thai sweet basil in a friend’s garden. The problem with normal basil is easily solved: make pesto. Yet, this felt strange with thai basil (tho it may have worked), thus was born Pesthai! It is merely a pesto recipe with the cheese, pinenuts and olive oil taken out with coconut milk, peanuts, ginger, chiles and curry added. Below is the meal Colin and I prepared for an impromptu birthday party. One great thing about this recipe is that our vegan friends who can’t eat normal pesto were able to enjoy it.

Pesthai Tofu with Broccoli and Carrots

4 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
2 cans coconut milk
3/4 cup unsalted peanuts
3 tbsp green curry paste
Hot chiles (start with one or two, add more to taste)
1 large ginger root
1 package extra firm tofu
3 heads broccoli (1 bunch)
2 large carrots, sliced
1 package wide rice noodles (such as bahn pho), prepared according to package

First make a ginger reduction: clean, peel and chop ginger root into large pieces. Put 2 cups of water in a saucepan, cover and boil ginger for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. You should have a strong ginger tea at this point. Simmer with the cover off until the volume is reduced to at least half. At this point, it should be so strong that only a masochist would want it as tea.

Put basil, 1/4 cup of peanuts, 1 can of coconut milk, ginger reduction, chiles and curry paste into a blender/food processor and puree. If you need more moisture, you can add more coconut milk from the second can. I’d make a double serving like this, leave it as paste and freeze the extra to add more coconut milk later. If you want single servings, you can use an ice cube tray. If you want a stronger ginger flavor after trying the recipe a few times, you can always add any ginger pieces that can be easily cut with a knife. If you are leaving it as a paste to be mixed, make it considerably spicier than the final desired sauce. Coconut milk kills spice better than just about anything.

I started the tofu while Colin started the pesthai. Actually, Colin started the pesthai at his house, a transformer blew outside, then we packed everything up and moved to the birthday girl’s house, where we continued. I started the tofu there. After years of pan frying tofu, I think I’ve finally figured it out. The problem most people have is either cutting it the wrong size or not cooking it long enough. I’m not a fan of cubes unless you are deep frying, which is something I tend to avoid. Oh, its also really important to press out the moisture as well. Colin covered it with cheesecloth and set the collected works of Marx for about 10 minutes. That seemed to work well. I slice tofu into planks the length of the block about a half inch thick. Then I fry in 1/4″ of oil at either medium in olive oil (more wholesome, takes longer) or med-high in peanut oil (quicker, tastier, a little more saturated fat). I personally don’t often use canola oil, never liked the flavor or smell of it, although it has less saturated fats than either the above alternatives. All of this health talk is maybe a moot point in a recipe that has up to two cans of coconut milk, so I’ll cease the digression there. At any rate, I recommend flipping the tofu planks three times total, shifting the inside ones to the outside each time. This can take 15+ minutes at medium heat, so be patient. Trust me, the texture is worth it. I take them off when they are going from golden to light brown. They’ll keep cooking and get a little darker after you set them on a plate covered with paper towel.

While you are waiting betwixt flips of tofu, steam the broccoli to just on the crispy side of your desired softness and sautee the carrots in a large pot. I prefer to sautee them until they get pretty soft and sweet, which can take as long as the tofu. I’d then gently mix the noodles and broccoli with the pesthai and more coconut milk until the sauce spreads, but is still pretty spicy and thick. You can make the noodles in the pot you used to steam the broccoli, which is usually really quick.

I like to serve this dish layered, with the noodles on bottom tofu planks on top and–what the heck–save a couple nice looking basil leaves for garnish. Then wait for accolades from your friends, vegan or no. Or maybe they’ll just tell you to stop playing with the food before it gets cold…but maybe your friends are less cheeky than mine…

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