We Put the Tang in Panang

Curry in a hurry? Relatively speaking. With a few tweaks to jarred curry paste, this rich, savory-sweet, deeply fragrant Thai classic, Panang Beef Curry can be as easy to make as a stir-fry, but don’t try to shortcut it further by using a quick-cooking cut of beef such as sirloin or flank steak. Use boneless short ribs instead. They become at least as silky as chuck does after just one hour, and they require almost no knife work. (Use my shortcut and cook the meat a day ahead—while you’re doing something else—to make an even quicker meal the following night.)

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For a cook who has time, making panang curry from scratch can be a labor of love, but most of us don’t have that luxury, especially during the week. Hey, even in Thailand, many cooks start with store-bought paste, which can make this dish easier to pull together than a typical stir-fry. By using store-bought red curry paste, you can skip the laundry list of ingredients and focus instead on a few additional key items.

Savory Thai curries are often categorized by the color of the spice paste used to flavor and thicken them. Green is hot and pungent, mild yellow is sweet-spiced, orange is pleasantly sour, and salty-sweet red, my fave, features a lingering burn. And then there is panang—a sweeter, more unctuous derivative of red curry that’s enriched in this recipe with ground peanuts and seasoned with sugar, fish sauce, deeply fragrant kaffir lime leaves, and a touch of fiery Thai chile.

Boiling the beef in water and combining it with the curry during the last few minutes of cooking doesn’t infuse the dish with deeply meaty flavor—and that’s the point. Unlike Western beef stews, which are meant to taste ultrabeefy, traditional versions of panang curry cook the beef separately so as not to muddy the flavors of the spice paste. So if you try the beef right after it’s cooked, don’t be alarmed by the bland taste or looks.

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Beef slices are added to a large saucepan and covered with water.

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The beef looks almost unappealing after simmering for over an hour in a covered pan.

Red curry pastes from different brands vary in spiciness, so start by adding two tablespoons and then taste the sauce and add up to two tablespoons more—not surprisingly I added four. Another ingredient, silky kaffir lime leaves are well worth seeking out. The leaves boast a tangy, floral aroma that perfumes many Southeast Asian dishes. They’re available in Asian markets and freeze well. If you can’t find them, a combination of lemon zest and lime zest will approximate their flavor. (Note: These leaves are also called “makrut lime leaves,” as “kaffir” is an offensive term in some cultures.) 

Years ago Russ and I needed to purchase kaffir lime leaves for some Asian dish we were making and easily located them in the produce section at Wegman’s. Our initial shock of the $39.99 per-pound-price wore off quickly when we weighed them and one ounce was plenty more than we needed. Over the years, the extras kept well in the freezer until we needed to use more.

This was one of those dishes that I instinctively knew I would like, but wasn’t prepared for how fabulous it actually was. Love, love, loved it! In addition to chopped peanuts, our other toppers included thinly sliced scallions cut on a diagonal and a sprinkling of more Thia red chile slices. To complete the meal, we served it with jasmine rice steamed in chicken broth and paired with a side of baby bok choy stir-fried in some minced fresh garlic and ginger with a splash of fish sauce.

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Ingredients

  • 2 lbs. boneless beef short ribs, trimmed
  • 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 2-4 Tbsp. Thai red curry paste
  • 1, 14-oz. can unsweetened coconut milk, do not substitute light coconut milk.
  • 4 tsp. fish sauce
  • 2 tsp. sugar
  • 1 thai red chile, halved lengthwise (another thinly sliced for topping, optional)
  • 1/3 cup unsalted dry-roasted peanuts, finely chopped
  • 6 kaffir lime leaves, center stem removed and then thinly sliced

Directions

  1. Cut each rib crosswise with grain into 3 equal pieces. Slice each piece against grain 1/4 inch thick. Place beef in large saucepan and add water to cover. Bring to boil over high heat. Cover, reduce heat to low, and cook until beef is fork-tender, 1 to 1 1/4 hours.
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  2. Using slotted spoon, transfer beef to bowl; discard water. (Beef can refrigerated for up to 24 hours; when ready to use, add it to curry as directed in step 2.)
  3. Heat oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add 2 tablespoons curry paste and cook, stirring frequently, until paste is fragrant and darkens in color to brick red, 5 to 8 minutes.
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  4. Add coconut milk, fish sauce, sugar, and chile, if using; stir to combine and dissolve sugar. Taste sauce and add up to 2 tablespoons more curry paste to achieve desired spiciness. Add beef, stir to coat with sauce, and bring to simmer.
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    After the coconut milk was stirred in, I added an additional two tablespoons of Thai red curry paste.
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  5. Rapidly simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce is thickened (see below) and reduced by half and coats beef, 12 to 15 minutes. (Sauce should be quite thick, and streaks of oil will appear. Sauce will continue to thicken as it cools.)
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  6. Add kaffir lime leaves and simmer until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Remove the chile halves, transfer to a serving platter, sprinkle with peanuts, and serve.
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    Slice out the center stem of each lime leaf and discard, then make thin slices from the leaf halves.
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Steamed jasmine rice makes a perfect bed on which to ladle over the panang curry.

By Annie Petito from Cook’s Illustrated

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