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

Printable Recipe


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When Food Bites Back

Eggplant, my dear, you are one cruel mistress. I’ve professed my love to you time and again, but nothing will tame your harsh bite; the most delicate preparations or careful peeling does little to lessen the fire. I’ve come to realize that it’s honestly not you, eggplant darling, but me. The burning sensation that inflames my whole mouth, throat, and stomach, comparable to an intense and wide-spread heartburn, is the sign of an intolerance.

Given the prevalence of food allergies, and allergies in general, I’ve been incredibly lucky. I can eat my gluten with gusto, and relish my peanut butter-smeared apple slices, unlike many Americans these days. Complaining about something so mild as a slight discomfort when eating eggplant feels incredibly petty in comparison. It’s nothing life-threatening, does no permanent damage, but only removes a beloved vegetable from my diet. Admitting that though still stings a bit, too. Sometimes the pain will be worth it, and I’ll dive into that plate of spicy, garlicky, and meltingly tender Chinese eggplant anyway, but now that I’ve given it a name and told the internet about it, I may not be able to do so as easily anymore.

Not one to shy away from a challenge, once the brief mourning period passed I set to work devising ways to work around that purple nightshade. Closely linked in my mind, for their mild flesh and similar squash lineage, zucchini has now started vying for the title of “most popular vegetable” in my fridge these days.


Dishes provided by Steelite

Baba ganoush was my first introduction to eggplant, before I even knew what was in the mellow, smoky dip, and is still a top pick. Given that the squash would be mostly ground up, it seemed like a good test to see how my new zucchini friends would fare, replacing that original love. Anticipating from the get-go that nothing would ever replace those eggplant, or even come close, I was startled at my first taste. The simple addition of smoked salt helped to pick up the deeper, woodsier notes that the delicate flesh couldn’t replicate alone, and it made all the difference. With a flavor far closer that I could have hoped to come to the original inspiration, this mild but wonderfully savory, lightly roasted taste sensation gives me hope for life without eggplants.

I’ll admit to secretly holding out hope that the intolerance is just a passing phase, but until there’s actual evidence of that, I think I’ll get along just fine with my glorious, green zucchinis instead.

Zuke-anoush (Zucchini Baba Ganoush)

1 1/2 Pounds Zucchini (About 2 Large or 3 Medium)
6 – 8 Garlic Cloves, Separated From the Head but Not Peeled
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil, Plus Additional to Garnish
Pinch [Table] Salt and Black Pepper
3 Tablespoons Sesame Tahini
2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
1/4 Teaspoon Applewood or Hickory Smoked Salt

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees, and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.

Slice the zucchini into 1/4-inch thick rounds, and toss them in the oil, salt and pepper until evenly coated. Lay them out in one even layer, with no pieces overlapping, on your prepared baking sheet. Place the whole cloves of garlic grouped in the center of the sheet so that they don’t burn. Roast for 30 minutes, until the zucchini are nicely browned. Let cool.

Once the vegetables have come to room temperature, peel the garlic cloves, and toss them into your food processor along with the roasted zucchini. Add in the tahini, lemon juice, cumin, and smoked salt. Pulse to combine, until you create a rough and chunky sort of paste. You don’t want it to be smooth, so err on the side of less processed if you’re not certain. It should only take about 5 – 10 one-second pulses, depending on your machine.

Transfer the finished dip into an air-tight container, and ideally let it cure in the fridge for at least 8 hours or overnight before serving. It’s delicious eaten immediately, but the flavors do meld and improve with a bit of time. Serve with an additional drizzle of olive oil over the top, if desired.

Makes 1 1/2 – 2 Cups

Printable Recipe

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