Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Who Doesn't Love Pad Thai?

Actually, I know one person who doesn’t love it, and he’s married to my mom. He’s never tasted it, but he’s sure he doesn’t like it. In fact, he doesn’t like ANY Asian food. What a waste.

Everyone else I know who’s tried Pad Thai loves it. It’s not hard to make, despite the seemingly long list of ingredients. The version I make is simplified. I omit the dried shrimp, bean sprouts and preserved turnip. I also use vacuum packed fresh noodles, which gives me one less thing to get ready. They just need to be quickly separated when they come out of the plastic.

Simplifed Pad Thai:
  • 1 lbs vacuum packed thin rice noodles
  • ¼ lbs raw shrimp, deveined
  • ½ block firm tofu
  • 4 tbs tamarind puree (explained below)
  • 2 ½ tbs fish sauce
  • 2 tbs packed brown sugar
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 eggs
  • 5 scallions, sliced thinly on diagonal
  • 1 cup bean sprouts (optional)
  • 1-2 tbs dried shrimp, pounded (optional)
  • 2 tbs preserved turnips, thinly sliced (optional)
  • ¼ tsp chilli powder
  • 3 tbs chopped dry roasted, unsalted peanuts
  • 1 handful cilantro leaves, roughly chopped for garnish
  • lime wedges for garnish

For the tamarind puree, use about 2-3oz from a block of tamarind, which can be purchased at your local Thai-Viet store. To soften it, put it into 1/3 to ½ cup of boiling water. Using a fork, work it until you get a slurry, then put it through a strainer to remove the pits and skins. It should be relatively thick. Store the big block in the fridge; it will keep for months in a Ziplock bag.

Combine the strained tamarind with the fish sauce and packed brown sugar (I always make more in case I have to adjust the seasonings). In a hot wok with about 2 tbs oil, fry the tofu for about 2 minutes. Add the shrimp and chilli powder and sautee for another 1 minute. Remove both (the shrimp won’t be done). If you need to, add another 1 tbs oil to the wok and fry the garlic and eggs, scrambling them until barely set. Add the noodles, scallions, tamarind mixture. Stir fry for about 2 minutes, then return the shrimp and tofu back to the wok. If using, add bean sprouts, dried shrimp and preserved turnips at this point. Stir fry until the noodles are tender. Adjust seasonings if necessary. Serve garnished with the chopped peanuts, cilantro and lime wedges.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Green Curry

Green curry is my favorite Thai curry. Whenever I visit my parents, I request it. In fact, mom will usually have a pot waiting for me. Interestingly, I rarely order it when I eat at Thai restaurants because it’s usually served too sweet and thick for my taste.

Green curry with Thai eggplant and chicken. Photo added Dec 2008.

To buy or to make curry paste, that is the question. Mom usually buys it. I make my own, for a couple reasons. 1) It really doesn’t take much time because I usually have all the ingredients on hand. I make a big enough batch to last a month or so. 2) I know what’s going into it and how old it is. This might just be me, but it’s a little unsettling when the manufacturers have to say “processed under the strictest hygienic conditions.” I would recommend trying to make your own at least once.

Green curry paste:
Adapted from The Food of Thailand (see right side bar)
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 8-10 small green chillies, seeded
  • 2 lemon grass stalks, whites only and finely sliced
  • 1x1/4 inch (or there abouts) piece of galangal finely chopped
  • 5 kaffir lime leaves, finely sliced
  • 5 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
  • 4 Asian shallots or the equivalent amount of regular shallot
  • 5 coriander roots or 1 bunch of coriander stems, finely chopped
  • handful of Thai basil leaves or sweet basil leaves
  • 1 to 2 tsp fermented shrimp paste (kapi paste)

Keep in mind: 1)Despite what people say, ginger can not really be substituted for galangal, which has a slight lemony flavor. I suppose you could use ginger and up the amount of lemongrass by 1 stalk or add an additional 2-3 lime leaves. I’ve never done this, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work. Thai-Viet grocers usually carry fresh galangal, and they will definitely have dried galangal. You can reconstitute it in water before chopping. If you can get fresh, then I would buy a bunch, slice it and freeze it in portions. I also do this with my lemon grass, chillies, and lime leaves. 2) It’s hard to find coriander roots. I once found it at New Seasons (local to Portland), and I think they may have it at Whole Foods. It is definitely worth finding, but I just use the coriander stalks instead. 3) If you are afraid of the shrimp paste, start with only 1 or half a tsp (depending on the type you’re using). It’s like cooking with anchovies, which some people are afraid to use for fear of a fishy taste. 4)Asian shallots are the size of pearl onions.

I like to start by chopping up all the ingredients very finely. The old fashion way to make the paste is to pound the ingredients until you have something that resembles the consistency of Elmer’s white glue paste. Honestly that will take forever, and I’ve never ever been able to achieve this by pounding (which I did for about 20 minutes!). What I do is throw everything into a food processor and add about ¼ cup of peanut oil (or vegetable oil), then puree until I get something that resembles thick pesto. If you’re going to use a processor, you don’t have to go through the trouble of chopping everything meticulously, except maybe the galangal, lemon grass and lime leaves. These things are quite fibrous and may cause some food processors to stall or you’ll get a chunky half-paste. Don’t stress if your paste doesn’t resemble the store bought stuff. What you should strive for is something that resembles the consistency of thick pesto. Usually this recipe makes enough paste for 3 or 4 uses. I freeze the stuff in 2-3 tbs portions.

If you want to use it for marinading, start with one portion (about 2-3 tbs) paste and add 2 tbs brown sugar, 3 tbs coconut milk (optional) and about ¼ cup low sodium soy sauce. I allow chicken pieces (with bone and skin) to marinade for as little as 2 hours up to 8 hours for a whole bird.

Before you attempt this recipe for green curry, please read the following disclaimer (and the editor’s letter on page 14 in the March 2007 issue of Saveur). I have never measured any of the ingredients before. I tried really hard to get a working recipe, but really it’s a guideline. You may like it sweeter or saltier. Let your taste buds lead you.

Green curry (serves 4):
  • 2 ½ cups coconut milk (not low fat, you’ll need at least 2/3 cup cream)
  • 2 tbs green curry paste (homemade or store bought)
  • 1 to 2 tsp brown sugar (more to taste)
  • 2 tbs fish sauce
  • 1 tbs sliced galangal
  • 5 kaffir lime leaves
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 3-4 boneless, skinless chicken thigh, sliced (pork is also commonly used)
  • bamboo shoots, well rinsed and drained
  • other veggies such as sliced red bell pepper, green beans, etc
  • ½ cup half and half
  • Handful of Thai basil leaves, roughly torn.

In a heavy bottom large pot on medium heat, cook 1 cup coconut cream/milk until it separates. This may take 15 minutes. Then continue to cook for about 5 more minutes with frequent stirring to prevent burning. The volume of the liquid will be greatly reduced. Add the curry paste and fry for about 2 minutes. Stir as needed to prevent burning. Add the rest of the coconut milk, sugar, fish sauce, lime leaves, galangal and chicken stock. Let it simmer for about 5 minutes, then check seasonings. Add more sugar or fish sauce to taste. When you’re happy with the taste, add the bamboo shoots and any veggies that may take longer to cook (like green beans). After a couple minutes, add the chicken and remaining veggies, spreading the chicken out in the sauce. Close the lid for 7 minutes to let the chicken cook. If the chicken needs more time, give it a gentle stir and let it cook until done. My mom is convinced that too much stirring will dry out the meat. After you turn off the heat, add the half and half and basil leaves, and give it a gentle stir. Let the curry sit for 5-10 minutes to let the flavors develop, then readjust the seasoning if necessary. Serve with jasmine rice.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Laab (updated!)

Laab is a type of salad made from ground meat (usually pork, chicken, duck or even tripe) and fresh herbs. Some Thai restaurants in America serve this dish semi-wet, but actually it’s supposed to be fairly dry, which makes it perfect for eating with sticky rice.

Photo added December 2008. Serve laab with cabbage leaves, lettuce leaves or Thai sticky rice.

This dish was adapted from a Thai cookbook (see right sidebar)I purchased at Costco. The book has beautiful pictures, but I didn’t have high expectations for the recipes. That’s because it was cheap and I’m always comparing recipes with mom’s home cooking. However, the few recipes I’ve tried are very good and this is definitely a keeper.

  • 1 tbs Thai glutinous or jasmine rice
  • 10 oz pork or chicken, coarsely ground*
  • 3 tbs lime juice
  • 1 tbs fish sauce
  • 2 stalks lemon grass, whites only, finely sliced
  • 5 kaffir lime leaves, finely sliced
  • 4 green onions, finely chopped
  • 2-3 tbs finely chopped mint, more to taste
  • ¼ tsp palm sugar (or light brown sugar)
  • salt, lime juice and fish sauce to taste

Toast the rice in a pan until it’s brown. Then use a mortar and pestle to grind it to the consistency of kosher salt, and set aside.

Combine the ground meat with the lime juice and fish sauce. Using a blazing hot pan (such as a cast iron wok), heat about 1 tbs vegetable oil and stir fry the meat until the juices are evaporated. I know this seems like a strange way to start, but it actually works to keep the dish dry while flavoring the meat. Remove from heat and let it sit for a few minutes to cool. Drain away any cooking liquid before mixing the cooked meat with the spices. Adjust seasoning with salt, lime juice and fish sauce if desired. Sprinkle with ground rice, to taste.

*I find that pre-ground meat is often too “wet” so when I cook it, even in a blazing hot wok, it will release juices and won’t brown properly. I prefer to grind the meat myself. That way I can use the cut of meat I want and I can get the texture I want. It’s easy to do; you’ll only need a super sharp kitchen knife. Dice the meat into small cubes, then chop like you would parsley. Stop when you get the desired texture. Alternatively, you could put the diced meat in a food processor and pulse a few times, until you get the desired texture. For this dish, pork butt or skinless, boneless thigh meat are best because they are just fatty enough, but leaner cuts of meat will work fine. I do not recommend beef.