It’s a hot night, very hot. The balmy air is heavy and the sweat seeps through your linen suit. A music somehow hotter than the night emmenates from a little restaurant and the rhythms make you feel suddenly cooler. You settle in and the pretty woman behind the bar sets a little bowl of shrimp in front of you accompanied by some sweet potato fries. The aroma is musky like curry and smells sweet like coconut. The fries smell savory and substantial. You take a bite and the sharp bite of the pepper and the sublimely cool shrimps circulate in your mouth as the warm spices soften the edges. You take a bite of the fries and its like curling your toes into the rich soil. The endorphins rush and suddenly you’re one with the music, the night, the island.
Colombo summons up something dark and ancient. Something which came about through the confluence of the spices on traders’ ships, the bounty of the crystal-blue waters, and the produce of the islands themselves. It is unlike anything you’ve ever had, and on a night just hot enough to conjur up whatever means Havana to you the combination of this simple curry, the crisp sweet potato fries, and a perfectly chilled mojito has magically transformative properties. You’ve been warned. Enjoy.
2 sweet potatoes
2 pounds of shrimp
2 cloves of garlic
1 red bell pepper
1 scotch bonnet chile, or one habanero chile if a scotch bonnet is unavailable
1 tablespoon of mild curry powder
2 cups of coconut milk
1 small bunch of cilantro
salt and pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
1. Begin by peeling and deveining the shrimps
First take the whole shrimp, in-peel, into both hands
gently pull the tail off
then pull off the rest of the peel
check the shrimp to make sure all of the peel has been removed
with a paring knife (or a bird's beak knife as I'm using here, if you have one) cut a slit along the length of the back of the shrimp
pull the vein out with the tip of your knife. For those unfamiliar with this process the "vein" is actually the shrimp's digestive track and the vein itself actually contains the shrimp's feces. An empty vein is an indicator that the shrimp was not fed properly before being harvested, a full vein is a sign of the good health and good farming practices of the shrimp producer.
Clean your knife off on a paper towel. You don't want shrimp refuse on your porous cutting surface.
Turn the shrimp over and cut another slit along the length of the inside of the shrimp. There is another major vein in this side to remove.
Pull the second vein out and discard on your paper towel as you did with the first vein.
As you work retain your shrimps in a bowl and keep chilled in the refrigerator (you'll need to serve the curry immediately after cooking). Reserve the shrimp peels in a storage container and keep in the freezer for a later use. Shrimp tails are used in an infinite number of dishes, namely shrimp bisque, which I will demonstrate in a later post.
2. Prepare the sweet potatoes for frying.
Peel both sweet potatoes, taking care to remove all signs of peel
True the edge of your knife with a steel by holding the knife at a 10-12 degree angle and running the edge of the knife against the steel alternately about 5 times each side for a total of 10 strokes. This process does not sharpen the knife but removes small inconsistencies in the sharpened edge and makes for safer, more accurate cutting. For the purpose of cutting starchy vegetables a Santoku knife is the ideal took, the thin, very sharp blade lends greater accuracy in cutting. If you do not own one a standard 10-12 inch French knife works perfectly well.
Begin by cutting the sweet potato into 3 to 3 1/2-inch segments
Taking care to tuck your fingertips and thumb in begin trimming the edges of the 3 to 3 1/2 inch segments into rectangles with sharp 90-degree angles
From your larger rectangles cut smaller, 1/4-inch thick rectangles. Be vigilant about keeping all angles at a tight 90-degree angle. This will be difficult at first but in time you will gain easy precision and easy precision is the hallmark of any good cook and definitely any professional chef.
From the 1/4-inch thick rectangles cut 1/4-inch by 1/4-inch by 3 - 3 1/2-inch sticks. This is a classical cut known as the "batonnet" and it is typically used to make pommes frites (french fried potatoes)
Fabricate all of your sweet potato into perfect batonnets, like so, and set aside.
3. Prepare the rest of the vegetables
Mince the garlic by first crushing each clove with the face of your knife and your fist
Remove and discard the garlic peel from the crushed garlic cloves
Chop the garlic finely by first slicing the crushed cloves, regathering the sliced crushed garlic, and running the knife rapidly over the garlic over and over again until...
...it looks like this. Set aside.
Slice the top and bottom of the red bell pepper off and remove the pulpy inside and seeds. Discard the tip and tail as well as the pulpy interior and seeds, reserve the rest.
Slice the bell pepper into 1/8-inch thick slices as for the julienne (see back to basics post)
Cut the 1/8-inch slices into 1/8-inch by 1/8-inch by 1/8-inch cubes, the "brunoise" from my back-to-basics post. Brunoise all of the bell pepper and set aside.
Fabricate the Scotch Bonnet or Habanero pepper in the same fashion as the bell pepper. Wear latex gloves while doing this, the pepper's oil will burn you badly and will hurt for hours if you have any little nicks or cuts in your skin.
Rinse and dry your cilantro with paper towels. Begin by slicing the mass into thin slices, regather the mass and run your knife over it rapidly until...
...the entire mass of cilantro is finely diced like so. Set aside with the rest of the vegetables.
4. When you’re ready to eat begin by preparing the Sweet Potato Fries.
Toss the batonnet of sweet potato with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper in a bowl.
Preheat oven to 200 degrees farenheit, heat a few cups of oil in a pan over high heat. I use a wok on account of its effective conduction of heat, but any sort of pan will work. The key is to get the oil very, very hot (just barely under smoking) before adding the batonnet of sweet potato. Very hot oil will seal in the moisture and make a crisp outside while under-heater oil will quickly absorb into the sweet potato and make a limp, sad, little monstrosity out of what should be a crisp and tasty fry.
When the oil is hot enough add the batonnet of sweet potato a little at a time.
Fry each batch until golden, about 2-3 minutes depending upon the size of the batch
As each batch of fries finishes transfer to a large pan in the 200-degree oven outfitted with several paper towels to absorb the extra oil. The fries will only stay crisp if there are paper towels to absorb the extra oil and moisture in the dry, hot oven. Repeat process until all the batonnet of sweet potato are turned into delicious sweet potato fries
5. Prepare the curry
Over medium-high heat heat the olive oil to just under smoking
Add the prepared shrimps
Add the habanero, bell pepper, and garlic
Saute together for about 4-5 minutes over medium-high heat
Add the curry powder and saute for another minute
Turn the heat up to high and add the coconut milk. Stir constantly over the course of about 10 minutes or until the sauce has reduced to a thickened, sauce-like consistency
After 5 minutes it should look like this...
After 10 minutes it should look like this. It is ready to serve at this point.
6. Plate and serve
After the curry is ready toss the hot french fries with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste.
I plated the curry in bowls set on top of a dinner plate with the sweet potato fries served on it.
Sprinkle a generous amount of the chopped cilantro on top. Mix yourself a third mojito and you're in business! Enjoy!