Thai Red Curry Chicken Kebabs on Lemongrass Skewers
I’ve been trying to pare down our grocery budget. You know how it is – money is tight and sometimes even buying the necessities feels like a luxury. Even if cutting corners is not as much my style as gently rounding them off, I feel like we’ve been making some headway. I’ve been buying less top sirloin and more flank steak. Seared and spice rubbed Ahi tuna loin has been replaced with frozen tilapia, and….there’s a lot more chicken legs and ground meat. Reading this, I am now depressed.
Ground meat suits the budget though, it is incredibly flexible to be used so many ways (was that too many links? I never know), and I like that my local grocery store even color codes the packages according to fat content. Color coding makes me happy. I generally favor lean ground beef, however woman can not live on ground beef alone, and more importantly, woman’s waist will not reduce on a steady diet of red meat. Thankfully there are so many alternatives such as ground chicken and turkey which are equally affordable and have a protein to fat ratio that you can feel somewhat more virtuous about. But ground chicken is so….so…..well, it can just be so awful sometimes.
I mean, have you ever made a basic chicken burger the same way that you would a beef burger? A little bit of chopped onion, maybe some garlic, bread crumbs for body and an egg to bind, season with salt and pepper, you’re feeling pretty good about things, and then you bite in. It’s wretched. Dry and disparaging, the meat clumps in your mouth with all the flavor you’d find in the bottom of a bunny cage. It’s fair to say that ground chicken, like all chicken, requires a bit of help.
The good news is that thankfully we have an arsenal of assistance in the form of those crazy things we call spices and seasonings. What a novel idea! To think that adding flavor enhancers would make things taste good! I know, I know, but really – if you’ve ever been incredibly disappointed after working for hours on a chicken and kale lasagna, only to bite in and find that it tastes like…nothing at all, you start to appreciate the importance of salt and pepper a whole lot more.
The bold flavors that are intrinsic to Pan Asian cookery are a perfect solution for the ground chicken dilemma. The lusty scent of ginger, lemongrass and garlic meet the fiery heat of chili, balanced with the other elements of salty and sweet that make Thai cookery what it is. The other benefit to using Thai flavors with ground chicken is that there are many available ready-made spice pastes and sauces which take a lot of the traditional grunt work out of the cuisine. I generally prefer to make my own curry paste than buy it (not that there’s a huge advantage in flavor, but I do like to let my inner snob shine from time to time) but for a Thursday night dinner? It’s not going to happen. Using a store bought paste means that you’ve only got about 5 minutes of chopping and mixing to do, so dinner can be on the table in time for Jeopordy.
And now to address that last bit of ground chicken trepidation: the texture. Overcooked chicken is quite dry. Ground chicken, even properly cooked, tends to be even drier with the low fat content. What this means is that it helps to add extra moisture into the meat, preferably through a flavorful sauce, and then you want to make sure that it stays there by cooking the meat at a higher heat, at least initially, to seal in the juices. As you know, lean meat also needs something to help it bind. You could use an egg to do this, which is quite effective, but I find that the egg tends to make the meat a little bit tougher and heavier. Cornstarch will soak up that liquid and bind it with the chicken so that the end texture of the kebabs is incredibly soft, tender and oh so delicate.
We ate these kebabs with a bright and fresh mango salad, because the acidic sweetness of the fruits and vegetables balances delightfully against the savory chicken. How can you resist a dinner which is packed with seven days to Sunday worth of flavor but is about as close to fat-free as things get in my house? And hey, if you’re having a party, in the past I’ve made these kebabs much smaller -about the size of a meatball- and served them as a cocktail snack with sweet chili dipping sauce. They were…um….’popular’, to say the least.
Thai Red Curry Chicken Kebabs on Lemongrass Skewers
- 1 kgs (2.2 lb) ground chicken *
- 2.5 tbsp Thai red curry paste **
- 1 ” piece of ginger
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 2 tsp fish sauce
- 1/2 cup bamboo shoots
- 1 large or 2 small limes
- 1 tbsp cornstarch
- 4 green onions
- 1 small handful of cilantro (about 2 tbsp finely chopped)
- 5-6 stalks lemongrass ***
- salt and pepper to taste
* You can also substitute ground turkey for the chicken. Another idea, if you’re not afraid of the porcine, is to make these skewers using half ground pork. I’ve also made them entirely with ground pork and jealously hoarded the leftovers in the back of the fridge to feast on alone. Try not to judge me.
**Thai red curry paste can be found in the international section of many grocery stores, or from a Pan Asian market. It is the most widely used of the Thai curry pastes, which are usually identified by color (red curry, green curry, yellow curry) and is a primary ingredient in (obviously) many curries, satay, and the infamous Tom Yum. Red curry paste is easy enough to make at home in a food processor, if you feel the yen. The main ingredients are Thai red chilis (also called bird’s eye chili), galangal or ginger, coriander seeds and stems, shrimp paste, lemongrass, lime leaves, garlic and onion. If you make your own paste it can stay refrigerated for several weeks in a sealed container. When I make my own I usually just wing the measurements, but if you’re looking for a good reference recipe I like this one.
*** If you aren’t a fan of lemongrass or you simply can’t find any, you can use wooden or metal skewers instead. You might want to grate a bit of lime zest or finely chopped kaffir lime leaf into the minced meat mixture if you do that, to make up for some of the flavor that the lemongrass imparts.
Put the ground chicken into a medium sized mixing bowl. Dollop on the red curry paste, cornstarch and sugar. Add the fish sauce and squeeze in the juice of 1 fat lime. My limes were slightly, um, ‘sub prime’ so I used two.
Finely chop the bamboo shoots. They don’t add much flavor to the dish, but they certainly contribute in the texture department by adding a little bit of tooth. Finely mince the garlic (or if you’re as lazy as I am, use a rasp or garlic press to make short work of it) and add these to the mix as well. Season the meat liberally with salt and pepper.
Mix this thoroughly using a sturdy spoon or your best kitchen tool – a set of clean hands.
Wash the cilantro well and finely chop it – stems and all. Cilantro stems, like parsley stems, have so much flavor that I just hate to throw them out unless I have to. Chop the green onions up as well, the whole onion with both green and white parts, and add them to the mix. Work everything together again until all ingredients are evenly combined.
Put the meat in the fridge to chill for at least half an hour. The mixture will be really soft and moist and the chill time will encourage it to firm up. This makes a world of difference when it comes to shaping the skewers, and anything to make life easier, right?
Preheat the oven to 450ºF and set your rack in the lower third, but not at the very bottom.
Wash the lemongrass stalks and chop them horizontally in half. I have never bought a bunch of lemongrass stalks which were uniform in diameter, there’s always a blend of wee spindly ones and giant fatties with one or two sized in between. Take the really wide ones (like you see on the far left) and cut them lengthwise in half and then again to quarter the largest ones.
If you were making cocktail portions you can cut the lemongrass into thirds.
Moisten your hands and grab a good tennis ball sized amount of the chicken mixture. I think. I should stop using sports analogies since I am clearly not even the slightest bit sporty. Make the size of a soft ball? How big IS a softball? Anyway, gently pat this into a generic and totally un-sports-related round shape, stick a lemongrass skewer most of the way inside, and then work the meat around the stalk into an elongated kebab shape. Place the chicken kebabs onto a large (or 2 small) lightly oiled baking sheet.
As you form the kebabs your hands will start to get sticky and it’s harder to form the mince. Just keep them wet, move fairly quickly so that the meat stays cold, and you’ll be done in two clucks of a spent hen.
Broil the kebabs for 12-15 minutes until the meat is cooked through, and be sure to turn them over after about 7 minutes so that they cook evenly on both sides. Broiling them at a high heat will give you some lovely caramelized brown color, and the kebabs will cook through fairly quickly.
The kebabs also work nicely on the BBQ and if it wasn’t for the fact that we live in Canada – where it snows for 8 months and then rains for the other 4 – I would have done them outside instead. There is absolutely nothing like that smoky charbroiled taste of barbecued meat, but we’ve still got another 2 months to go before that beast comes out of hibernation.
Ground chicken asks for the flavor, and baby you just gotta deliver. Thai food is among my favorite styles of cuisine because it’s so exotic and exciting with the balance of sweet, sour, salty and hot. Fragrant ginger and lemongrass slide through the gentle heat of the red curry paste, the verdant cilantro and green onions add a certain freshness, and the light crunch from the bamboo shoots keeps things on the brighter side of interesting. Ground chicken, you are officially forgiven for all those years of heartache.
Low fat and affordable. Life is good.
And now I should go and hide the new pair of shoes that I bought last week, just in case Mike is tempted to find some kind of ridiculous correlation between new footwear entering the house and the fact that we’re having cabbage soup for dinner tonight. Because really, I mean of course, that just has to be some sort of crazy coincidence….yeah……coincidence…..