Sticky Situation

So deeply rooted in history, so utterly essential that in many cultures, the word for “rice” is the very same word for “meal,” or just simply “food.” The whole world as we know it could have quite plausibly begun from a single grain of rice. Trying to break down the myriad varieties though, from ancient to modern hybrid, is where things start to get sticky.

That’s exactly what I want to pick apart today: Sticky rice. For starters, sticky rice is distinct from common long grain white rice, and no amount of special preparation will come close to its unique characteristics. Don’t let any blissfully thrifty cooks tempt you into thinking that any overcooked long grains, gummy and swollen with too much water, are even remotely acceptable substitutes. While many types of short grain rice may be lumped together and called “sticky rice,” true glutinous rice is a separate breed. It all boils down to its starchy constitution. Glutinous rice contains just one component of starch, called amylopectin, while other kinds of rice contain both molecules that make up starch: amylopectin and amylose. Amylose does not gelatinize during cooking, which keeps grains separate and fluffy. Without that buffer, you’ll find a range of creamier or downright cohesive results.

Thai sticky or glutinous rice has been the object of my affection and frustration since the very first forkful I enjoyed in Thailand itself. Back at home, understanding the culinary transmogrification happening to turn out such a familiar yet entirely unique staple has been a fascinating, humbling experience.

A medium-to-long-grain rice hailing from South East and East Asia, glutinous rice does not actually contain gluten, but the name refers to the rice’s glue-like sticky quality, which easily binds it into rice balls and cakes. Black Thai sticky rice is simply the wholegrain version, meaning the bran has not been removed. Contrary to the name, it’s actually more of a mottled, deep purple color and has an exceptionally chewy, toothsome bite. Like other unmilled or brown rices, it takes slightly longer to cook than white varieties.

Typically soaked overnight, gently steamed in a special bamboo basket, and painstakingly tended all the while, traditional methods of cooking are as intimidating as they are ultimately gratifying. Every minute of planning and preparation is well worth the effort, but not exactly an endeavor for an everyday meal. If you’re willing to sacrifice authenticity for the sake of almost-instant satisfaction, I’m happy to share a secret shortcut to get those sticky morsels on the table in a fraction of the time.

Use 1/4 – 1/2 cup dry grains per person and bundle them up in a nutmilk bag. Plunge into a pot of boiling water, keeping the top drawn tightly closed and out of the water, as if you were steeping an oversized tea bag. Turn off the heat and let soak for 10 minutes. Bring the heat back up to medium, bring to a simmer, and cook for 20 minutes. Elevate the bag in a large strainer, raise the heat to high, and steam for a final 10 – 15 minutes. If using black sticky rice, soak for 15 minutes and simmer for 25.

Most Americans might be familiar with mango sticky rice, a simple dessert featuring ripe mango slices crowning tender grains in a pool of sweetened coconut cream. The combination is hard to beat, tried and true, but so easily adapted for further flavor sensations. Consider the avocado, if you would, as an alternate fruit to feature. Straying a bit from the beaten path, I played around with this Blue Lagoon Sticky Rice by adding a touch of butterfly pea tea powder to the rich and creamy sauce, since it’s also a native Thai ingredient.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with eating fresh, hot sticky rice straight-up, ungarnished in all its fully fragrant, tenaciously clingy glory.

 

 

 

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Thai It; You’ll Like It!

Laap, laab, larp, lahb, larb; there’s about as many ways to spell the dish as there are to make it. Regarded by many as the national dish of Laos, it shows up in numerous different forms in neighboring countries. Thai cooks present their own fiery rendition of the traditional minced meat salad flecked with aromatic herbs and bold spices in perfect balance, but meatless versions aren’t hard to find in the surprisingly vegan-friendly nation. Inspired by my own journey to the Land of Smiles, I’ve taken to a hearty blend of tempeh and mushrooms, swaddling the hot mixture in cooling lettuce leaves. The combination of so many contrasting tastes and temperatures creates incredibly satisfying, harmonious little bundles.

If the original inspiration remains of reach, fear not. You can take a trip to Thailand in less time than it would take to order takeout! Join me at the Sacramento VegFest this Saturday, January 26th at 11:30 AM when I’ll share my secrets for whipping up a quick fix tempeh larb without compromising flavor, nutrition, or your budget, even during the busiest weekday dinner rush. Pick up more tips and tricks for faster, tastier meals across the board, based on my latest cookbook Real Food, Really Fast.

If only for the free samples, you won’t want to miss this. Hope to see you there!

Oh, Good Larb

Waves of heat ripple across the surface of the wok, a thin layer of oil shimmering in the late afternoon sun. Power dial turned up all the way to 10, intense heat emanated from the stove, setting a controlled conflagration ablaze right within reach. With one fell swoop, our fearless culinary guide and adept chef sent verdant handfuls of tender green vegetables flying, sizzling violently against the carbon steel, instantly searing upon contact. One minute later, the meal was served; blink and you’d miss the whole show.

The beauty of larb, otherwise written as laab, lahb, larp, laap, or lahp and prepared just as many different ways, is that it comes together in a flash, even if you don’t have the same kitchen confidence as bay area food guru Philip Gelb. Under his guidance, I encountered my favorite version of this Laotian and Thai dish, lightly charred by the kiss of the wok and brilliantly perfumed with a bouquet of fresh herbs and spices. Stunningly simple in composition yet impossibly complex in flavor, every bite was a new revelation. It’s the kind of combination that can never get boring, offering a fresh experience with every mouthful, and opportunities for different variations with every passing season.

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed many riffs on this timeless theme, sometimes with a delightful discovery of tender green asparagus or the unmistakable umami of chopped mushrooms sprinkled throughout. Even in the heat of summer, that man-made inferno is short lived, smoldering on only in flavor, and tempered by the cooling foil of crisp lettuce cups for serving. It’s well worth that fleeting moment in the fire.

Tempeh Larb

By Chef Philip Gelb of Sound & Savor

2 Tablespoons Raw Brown Rice

3 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
3 Tablespoons Palm Sugar
1/4 Cup Lime Juice

8 Ounces Tempeh, Cut into 1/4-Inch Cubes
Oil for Frying

2 Tablespoons Coconut Oil
1 Stalk Fresh Lemongrass, Minced
4 Cloves Garlic, Minced
3 Teaspoons Ginger, Minced
1 – 10 Thai Chilies, Minced
1/2 Cup Green Peas, Fresh or Frozen
1/2 Medium Red Onion, Diced
1/4 Cup Fresh Thai Basil, Chopped
1/4 Cup Fresh Mint, Chopped
1/4 Cup Fresh Italian Basil, Chopped
1/4 Cup Fresh Cilantro, Chopped

Crisp Lettuce Leaves, Such as Romaine or Bibb Lettuce, to Serve

In a hot frying pan over medium-low heat, dry toast the raw rice. Shake the pan continuously for 2 minutes until the rice smells nutty. Transfer to a mortar and pestle and crush it until it’s powdery. Set aside.

Combine the soy sauce, palm sugar, and lime juice and set aside.

Deep fry the tempeh until crisp and golden brown. Set side.

Place the coconut oil in a hot wok. Add the lemongrass, garlic, ginger, and as many chilies as you like. Stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add the peas and onion and stir-fry for another minute. Add all of the fresh herbs and cook for only 10 seconds before add the soy sauce mixture. Give it just 1 more minute on the stove before turning off the heat.

Add the toasted rice powder and fried tempeh and stir everything together. Serve with lettuce leaves and let diners wrap parcels of larb with the lettuce.

Makes 2 – 3 Servings

Printable Recipe

No Sweat

What kind of crazy person would recommend diving into a steamy bowl of lava-hot spicy soup in the middle of a heat wave? As temperatures flirt with the 100-degree mark in much of the country, one’s natural impulse might be to crawl into the freezer and eat all the ice cream while waiting for the blaze to subside. Instead, consider the human response to capsaicin, the “hot” component of all chilies and peppers which is actually considered an irritant in large doses. To combat that culinary chemical attack, we naturally begin to sweat, which in turn, actually cools the skin.

Suspend disbelief just long enough to embrace the burn, and your pain will likely turn to pleasure. That’s especially true if the hellbroth in question happens to bear the hallmarks of my favorite Thai soup, tom yum. Sometimes it shows up on menus as a romanized “Tom Yam,” which inspired me to pursue that concept more literally. Dropping the more typical addition of rice noodles in favor of spiralized yams, the sweet, sour, and spicy combination gains greater depth, and preparation is coincidentally simplified. Everything goes into one pot, cooks just to a boil, and dinner is served in an instant.

If you can’t stand the heat, literally, feel free to take down the spice level a notch by incorporating a splash of creamy, cooling coconut milk. Although “Tom Kha Yam Noodle Soup” doesn’t quite have the same ring, it definitely has an appetizing allure all its own.

Yield: Makes 2 Servings

Tom Yam Noodle Soup

Tom Yam Noodle Soup

Dropping the more typical addition of rice noodles in Tom Yam Soup in favor of spiralized yams, the sweet, sour, and spicy combination gains greater depth, and preparation is coincidentally simplified. Everything goes into one pot, cooks just to a boil, and dinner is served in an instant.

Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 10 minutes
Total Time 20 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 Medium Yam, Peeled and Spiralized
  • 3 – 4 Cups Mushroom or Vegetable Stock
  • 1 Medium Shallot, Diced
  • 1 Stalk Fresh Lemongrass, Bruised and Roughly Chopped
  • 6 Makrut Lime Leaves, Bruised
  • 1 Inch Fresh Galangal or Ginger, Sliced
  • 1 Medium Roma Tomato, Diced
  • 6 Ounces Medium-Firm Tofu, Cubed
  • 6 Ounces Mixed Mushrooms, (Cremini, Shiitake, Trumpet, Oyster, and/or Straw Mushrooms) Sliced
  • 2 Tablespoons Sambal Oelek
  • 2 Teaspoons Braggs Liquid Aminos
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons Lime Juice
  • 1/4 Cup Fresh Cilantro, Minced (Optional)

Instructions

  1. Start by spiralizing your peeled yam and placing it in a large stock pot over medium heat on the stove. Add in 3 cups of the stock to generously cover the vegetable noodles, along with the diced shallot.
  2. Bundle up the bruised/chopped lemongrass, lime leaves, and galangal or ginger in a large tea strainer and toss the whole thing into the pot. This allows for a powerful flavor infusion with easy removal later, since these items are too fibrous to comfortably consume.
  3. Add in the tofu, mushrooms, sambal oelek, braggs, and lime juice. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 10 minutes, until the yam noodles are fork-tender but well before they start falling apart. Divide between two big bowls, top with cilantro if desired, and dig in immediately, while piping hot!

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

2

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 584 Total Fat: 11g Saturated Fat: 2g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 6g Cholesterol: 13mg Sodium: 401mg Carbohydrates: 112g Fiber: 33g Sugar: 32g Protein: 37g

A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts

In one of many ill-conceived business ideas, I briefly considered setting up shop selling coconut shell bowls. The obsession was short but intense, yielding many colorful vessels for my own enjoyment, but few to share with the general public. Alas, of all those tropical fruits cracked open and eviscerated, not a single one actually turned a profit. Anyone with an ounce of money sense could have seen that coming, considering the sheer amount of time and labor necessary for each individual piece. It turns out that even the most beautiful coconut shell really isn’t worth more than $3 an hour, if you’re being particularly generous.

The venture wasn’t a total loss though. Processing through so many coconuts yielded tons of fresh coconut water, coconut shreds, coconut milk, coconut butter, and coconut pulp to enjoy. The last step in that journey could be considered the least celebrated, but to me, the most intriguing. What remained after straining homemade coconut milk was not quite fine enough to call flour, but certainly not refined enough to call flakes. It fell firmly between the two categories; rough around the edges but quite sweet and charming once you got to know it.

Finding a way to eat through that volume of pulpy excess was ultimately a more rewarding challenge than the monotonous task of sanding down the sharp edges and fine lines of a coconut shell. Taking inspiration from their Asian origins, Thai spices join the mix to form tender patties, fashioned into bite-sized sliders perfect for celebrating the tail end of summer. They aren’t burgers by any stretch of the imagination and they don’t try to be. I wanted to celebrate the coconut in all its natural glory, succulent and tender, cradled between two buns- Mock meats need not apply.

I daresay that this unconventional take on the typical picnic fare would be perfect to liven up any Labor Day festivities you may have planned. Even if your plans for the three day weekend consist of little more than binge-watching Netflix and pulling your long sleeve shirts out of storage, there’s no reason why these flavorful sliders can’t be on the menu. These versatile patties are just the start of the fun, inviting a wide range of fully customization toppings to suit even the most exotic cravings. I’ve listed some of my favorites below to get you started.

In case you don’t just happen to have a couple of fresh coconuts on hand to turn into pulp, you can absolutely process plain old unsweetened shredded coconut into a coarse meal instead.

Thai Coconut Sliders

Thai-Spiced Coconut Patties:

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil, Divided
1/2 Cup Diced Shallot
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
2 Tablespoons Red Curry Paste
1 Tablespoon Ketchup
1 Tablespoon Vegan Fish Sauce or Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Lime Juice
1 Cup Dry Coconut Pulp or Meal
1 Cup Cooked Jasmine Rice
2 Tablespoons Tapioca Flour
Salt and Pepper, to Taste

To Serve:

Mini Slider Buns
Sliced Cucumbers
Sliced Avocado
Fresh Cilantro or Thai Basil

Additional Topping Suggestions:

Peanut Sauce
Mango Relish or Chutney
Coconut Aioli

To prepare the patties, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a medium pan and add the shallots and garlic. Saute until softened and aromatic. Stir in the curry paste, cooking it for 2 – 3 minutes to bring out the full flavors of the spices. Add the ketchup, “fish” sauce, and lime juice and cook for another 3 minutes, allowing the ingredients to meld.

Transfer the aromatics to a large bowl along with the coconut pulp, cooked rice, and tapioca flour. Use a wide spatula to mix everything together. It’s a very thick mixture so you may just want to get in there with your hands to speed up the process. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Use an ice cream scoop to portion out the most consistent slider sizes, or just aim for a scant 1/4 per patty. Roll them between lightly moistened hands and press them down gently to shape.

Heat a wide skillet over medium heat and coat the bottom with the remaining tablespoon of oil. Cook 2 – 3 sliders at a time, being careful not to crowd the pan. Allow 5 – 8 minutes per side, until golden brown, flipping as needed.

Serve on mini slider buns with as many toppings as your heart desires.

Makes 7 – 8 Sliders.

Printable Recipe

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