BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Thai It, You’ll Like It

Despite growing up so close to the hustle and bustle of New York City, I spent the majority of my formative years in the safety of small towns. These modest, insular neighborhoods are the perfect place to foster a care-free childhood, complete with tight-knit communities, safe neighborhoods, and sleepy streets that go quiet at 9 PM, even on a Saturday. Many cherished memories were made around the babbling brook a short walk from my home, collecting the Queen Anne’s lace that grew in abundance on either side of the stream. Although I’d consider myself more of a city slicker these days, I wouldn’t change those early years for the world. There’s no better place to develop a sense of identity, since there are fewer distractions or outside forces telling you what to be. What small towns are not so great for is cultivating a finely tuned palate. For the first dozen years of my life, I can easily count the number of world cuisines that had passed my lips on just one hand. Oh, but wait, do hot dogs count as a particular national specialty of any sort? Shamefully, my final count could end up being far less.

Thai food was entirely foreign to me, in every sense, pretty much right up until the prior year. It’s not the most rare or exotic culinary find, as globalism has brought so many worldly edibles closer to home than ever, but solid examples of these flavors had eluded me in sleepy coastal Connecticut. Only when I went to Hawaii did I find the immersive experience that I was craving. The landscape is ripe with stellar, dare I say, authentic offerings from just about every part of the world, with particularly strong offerings from Asian countries. It was there that I found Opal Thai, and my hunger for the cuisine has never been greater.

Nothing that I could fabricate at home would reach anywhere near those gustatory heights, but hunger drives one to gamble a bit in the kitchen. Som Tum, otherwise known as green papaya salad, is easily my favorite way to begin a meal. Served chilled, the tender yet crisp strands of unripe papaya are cooling, yet still popping with bursts of heat from abundant flecks of chili peppers. Brightly acidic, tangy, and slightly salty, with just a touch of sweetness to take the edge off, every component must be in perfect balance to achieve a successful, harmonious dish. The most challenging part of the composition is preparing vegan fish sauce, but once you make up a single batch of the funky stuff, it will last in your fridge for ages, facilitating almost instant salad satisfaction.

Of course, the key ingredient, green papaya, eluded me in my limited hometown grocery stores, which is why I took a page from the ever-popular zucchini noodles that proliferate as summer brings an abundance of the green squashes. They don’t stay crisp as long as papaya, so just make sure you leave them undressed until the minute you’re ready to serve. It may not be the genuine article, but it transports me to a delicious new world of flavor with every single bite.

Thai-Style Zucchini Ribbon Salad (Based on Som Tum)

1/4 Cup Lime Juice
2 Tablespoons Coconut Sugar, or Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
2 Tablespoons Vegan Fish Sauce
1 Teaspoon Soy Sauce
1 Clove Garlic, Minced
3 – 4 Ounces (A Big Handful) Skinny Green Beans, Lightly Blanched
2 Medium Zucchini, Spiralized or Julienned
1/2 Cup Halved Grape or Cherry Tomatoes
1/2 – 1 Red Thai Chile, Thinly Sliced
Handful Skinny Chives or Scallions, Thinly Sliced
2 Tablespoons Roasted and Salted Peanuts, Coarsely Chopped

This dish comes together very quickly, so prep all of your vegetables first and you’ll zip right through the rest of the preparation. For the dressing, whisk together the lime juice, coconut sugar, vegan fish sauce, soy sauce, and garlic. It will seem like a lot of liquid, but don’t worry, that’s exactly what you want! This isn’t like a traditional salad dressing; it should soak into the noodles a bit, and you will have a bit of a pool at the bottom when it’s in proper proportion.

In a medium bowl, place the green beans, zucchini ribbons, and tomatoes. Pour the dressing on top and toss to coat. Add in the chili, just a little bit at a time, until it’s spicy enough for your personal tastes. Give it one more good toss to mix everything around and evenly distribute the ingredients before transferring everything to a serving dish. Top with a generous handful of sliced chives and chopped peanuts.

Don’t waste time chit-chatting; Eat immediately!

Makes 2 – 4 Servings

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Water, Water, Everywhere, and Only Soup to Drink

The world’s biggest water fight is going on right now, amid the hottest month of the year. Songkran, a celebration of the Thai New Year, has captured my imagination and jealousy for a number of years now. Temperatures can reach well into the 90’s, if not topple the scale and breach 100 degrees, which makes the waterworks both symbolic and necessary to keep one’s cool. Wash away the previous year’s misfortunes, transgressions, and any other ill will to start fresh and clean once more. Taking place April 13 – 15, anyone who’s not already sopping wet on the streets has missed the boat on this experience, but someday, it could be the trip of a lifetime. Just be sure to pack a bathing suit and plenty of towels.

Hot soup may not be the most appropriate dish for an actual Thai celebration, but for better or for worse, our April climate is considerably more mild. The time seemed ripe to dig this gem out from the recipe archive, especially since it had sat there for years without ever being made. Flipping through the recipe binder at Health in a Hurry one day, trying to straighten up the pages with Sue close at hand, I stumbled across this unassuming paper, filled with bright, exotic flavors that I had never seen grace our little soup bar. Without missing a beat, Sue scanned the paper and gave me her blessing to share it with the world, rather than let such a stunning formula go to waste. It’s such a shame that it took me well over another year to finally do so.

If you had seen that original recipe, though, you might understand. Only if you knew Sue could you translate such scripture. After a few tweaks for personal taste and volume, I had my own edible Thai festival for dinner.

Thai Vegetable Soup

1 Tablespoon Peanut or Sesame Oil
1 Tablespoon Finely Minced Jalapeno
1 Tablespoon Finely Minced Garlic
1 Tablespoon Finely Minced Ginger
1/2 Cup Red Bell Pepper, Sliced into 1-Inch Batons
1/4 Cup Jicama, Peeled and Sliced into 1-Inch Batons
1/4 Cup Carrot, Peeled and Sliced into 1-Inch Batons
1/2 Cup Sliced Button Mushrooms
1 14-Ounce Cans Diced Tomatoes
1 Tablespoon Lemongrass, Finely Chopped and Bruised
3 – 4 Kaffir Lime Leaves (Optional)
1 Tablespoon Lime Juice
3 – 4 Cups Vegetable Stock
1/2 Cup Snow Peas
1/2 Cup String Beans, Cut into 1-Inch Pieces
1/2 Cup Frozen Peas
1/2 Cup Asparagus, Cut into 1-Inch Pieces
Salt and Ground Black Pepper, to Taste
2 Tablespoons Fresh Mint, Roughly Torn or Chopped

Heat the oil in a large stock pot over medium heat before adding in the jalapeno, ginger, and garlic. Saute for 4 – 5 minutes, until highly aromatic. Add in the sliced pepper, jicama, carrot, and mushrooms, and cook for another 4 – 5 minutes until very lightly browned. Pour in the can of tomatoes, liquid and all, and scrape the bottom of the pan to deglaze the delicious brown bits that may be sticking.

Bundle up the bashed lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, if using, in a tea bag. Drop it into the stock pot along with the lime juice and 3 cups of the vegetable broth. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to medium-low. Let the soup simmer gently for about 10 – 15 minutes, until the vegetables are tender but still crisp. Toss in the snow peas, string beans, frozen peas (no need to thaw) and asparagus, stirring to incorporate. Cook for just 2 minutes, until the newest vegetable additions are bright green.

Give the soup a taste, and add the final cup of stock if desired, and salt and pepper as needed. Remove and discard the tea bag full of aromatics. Top off with fresh mint and serve immediately.

Makes 3 – 4 Servings

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Feeling Saucy

Sauces are the unsung heroes of every meal. Quietly, selflessly, they accept their role as the supporting actors, and yet they’re often the most flavorful element in the whole production. The same old boring dishes can be reinvented with just a few small tweaks to the sauce, no further modifications necessary. Take, for instance, stuffed shells.

Plate provided by Steelite

A fool-proof formula of pasta, “cheese,” and tomato, the staples upon which Italian food is built. However, if I were to tell you that the pool of red sauce seen above was not a mere marinara, but one infused with lemongrass, ginger, and a bird’s eye chili, among other exotics, wouldn’t it up the ante for the average meal that much more? Proof positive that the magic is all in the sauce, the ordinary meal became something truly memorable with a small deviation from the norm. Creamy coconut milk helps to tame the burn of hot peppers, making a velvety but delightfully chunky red sauce that’s mellow enough for even those with more timid palates to enjoy. Rather than following the usual path for dinner, give the sauce some much-deserved attention next time, and see where it can take your meal.

Thai Spiced Marinara

2 Tablespoons Olive or Coconut Oil
1/2 Large Red Onion, Chopped (1 1/2 – 2 Cups)
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
3/4 – 1 Inch Ginger, Minced (About 1 Heaping Tablespoon)
2 Tablespoons Chopped Fresh Lemongrass
1 Bird’s Eye Chili
2 Kaffir Lime Leaves, or 1 Strip of Lime Peel
1 14-Ounce Can Diced Tomatoes
1 1/2 Cups Vegetable Stock
1 Can Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1 12-Ounce Jar Roasted Red Peppers, Rinsed and Drained (or 2 Roasted Peppers)
1 – 2 Tablespoons Red Curry Powder or Paste
1 Tablespoon Tamari or Soy Sauce

Begin by heating the oil in a large stockpot over medium heat. Add in the chopped onion, garlic, and ginger, and saute until the onion is translucent and the whole mixture is very aromatic. Allow the onion to take on a bit of brown color around the edges; about 10 – 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, gather together the lemongrass, chili, and kaffir lime leaves or lime zest, and bundle them together in a tea bag or reusable tea ball. I find that this makes it easier to remove these items once they’ve imparted all of their flavor into the sauce, rather than fishing around with a strainer and hoping you got all of the fibrous bits. Set aside for the time being.

Once the aromatics are beginning to brown, stir in the diced tomatoes, scraping the bottom of the pan to ensure that all of the flavorful caramelized bits get incorporated as well. Pour in the vegetable stock, and toss in the sealed tea bag or ball (if using a tea ball, clip it to the side of the pot for easier retrieval.)

Toss the roasted red peppers, coconut milk, curry powder or paste, and tamari into a blender, and thoroughly puree. Once perfectly smooth, pour the mixture into the stock pot as well. Bring everything up to a boil, and then reduce the heat to medium-low so that the sauce simmers gently, uncovered. It may seem a bit watery now, but give it time; 60 – 90 minutes should thicken it up nicely.

Remove the tea bag or ball, and discard the contents. Serve the marinara hot, or let cool and store in an airtight container for up to 10 days.

Makes About 5 – 6 Cups Sauce

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