Moving To Thailand | Cooking Thai For Our Keep
Camping out at the in-laws’ with a high-strung three year old, a hyperactive dog, and a garage full of possessions is a potential recipe for failure, but with the right ingredients, we have managed to side-step a few near-disasters. And by ingredients, I mean literal ingredients. We have been currying our way to favor (sorry, couldn’t resist the terrible pun) with Paul’s parents (my in-laws). They have been incredibly generous to open their house to us and all of our chaos at a time when we have no home. We are so grateful for their hospitality, and to show our appreciation (and to earn our keep) we have been trying to cook dinner regularly.
Cooking Thai At Home
It’s always tricky cooking in someone else’s kitchen. It’s like navigating a foreign country trying to locate the hiding places of utensils and spices and familiarizing oneself with the idiosyncrasies of stovetops and uneven oven temperatures. And then there are the added dietary restrictions to which various members of the family must adhere: my father-in-law is a vegetarian, my husband is avoiding wheat, I am on an anti-inflammatory diet (no fun at all!), and our daughter is generally a picky eater. Thai food is the only consistent cuisine that conforms to everyone’s culinary needs. Therefore, we have been consuming a lot of rice, coconut milk, chiles and vegetables recently.
Thai Cooking Is Not Intimidating
My all-time and current favorite these days is yum woon sen. “Woon sen” refers to a specific mung bean noodle (also called glass noodle), and “yum” means salad. Now that summer is officially here, I can’t get enough salads, and this particular one is both filling and refreshing. In order to qualify as a “yum woon sen”, your salad requires the following: soaked glass noodles; a standard fish sauce and lime juice dressing; and the required chiles, cilantro and green onions; the rest is up to your imagination. We’ve served a couple different versions of this salad at our restaurant over the years, and each time we alter it, I love the outcome even more. The most recent version involves marinated deep-fried pork loin, which, of course, is absolutely delicious, but the salad is also very yum-my (again, sincerest apologies for the terrible puns) with grilled tofu. We experimented in the past with shiitake and oyster mushrooms (delicious!), and shrimp, a nearly universal favorite. I’ll include a recipe below with grilled pork, but please feel free to substitute your preferred protein.
Another dish (or perhaps I should say “food group”) that I absolutely adore is curry. I’m not one of those chile heads that goes into a restaurant and asks the server to make the dish as spicy as humanly possible, a challenge any good chef will undertake with a major groan (how can you even taste the nuances of the food when it’s doused in mind-numbing chiles?) No, what I like is a little heat, but just enough to accentuate the other flavors–sour, sweet, salty and spicy–not overpower them. I am also an avid fan of coconut milk, which is lucky for me these days, since I am following a strict no-dairy diet. The coconut milk fulfills my lust for a creamy, rich mouthfeel while simultaneously providing me with all my needed calcium, vitamins, antioxidants, etc. For more information on the health benefits of coconut, check out this link.
Cooking Thai Brings Family Together
Because nothing in life is simple, and because it’s more interesting when we have differing opinions, I am happy to say that each family member’s taste varies widely when it comes to selecting a favorite curry. My husband has a soft spot for green curry, generally the sweetest and spiciest of the Thai curries (he wanted to qualify his statement by saying that to really count as his favorite, the dish must include the tiny, pea-sized eggplants that burst in your mouth, the skin taut and thin from heat and the insides soft and juicy, not dissimilar to a roasted cherry tomato). My father-in-law is crazy about massaman curry, a rich and thick curry traditionally made with water buffalo meat and tamarind for an intense sweet and sour flavor. Interestingly, my mother-in-law prefers curries made without coconut milk, claiming that the richness of the coconut cream is too heavy for her to consume on a regular basis. She likes jungle curry (a thin, watery curry traditionally prepared with wild boar), gaeng som (a sour orange curry from which tamarind lends its flavor) and naam ya (heavy on the grachai–a rhizome related to ginger–and pureed fish; one of my favorites, too). As for me, I love red curry, a complex dish full of fresh flavors of lemongrass, galanka, lime leaves, basil, cumin and coriander. Since this is my post, and since I am supreme ruler of this tiny universe, I will post a recipe of red curry below. Do not despair, however, If you are not a fan of red curry, or if your interest has been piqued by the other wonderful dishes mentioned; I promise to include more curry recipes in future posts.
Yum Woon Sen | Thai Noodle Salad
2 1/2c – 3 c soaked mung bean noodles (soak entire package in lukewarm water for at least 30 min prior to use; reserve the leftover noodles for your next salad experimentation)
2 Tbsp cilantro
2 Tbsp green onions
1 c vegetables of your choice (i.e. shredded carrots, tomatoes)
2 Tbsp roasted peanuts (optional)
2 Tbsp fried shallots (optional)
2 c marinated pork loin, sliced to about 1/4in thickness
marinade: cilantro, garlic, fish sauce, brown sugar
1/2 c all natural lemon juice (or juice of two fresh limes)
1/4 c plus 2 Tbsp good quality fish sauce
2 Tbsp maple syrup or sugar
1-2 minced Thai chiles, (depending on desired heat level)
1 fresh garlic clove, minced
Marinate pork for at least two hours or overnight; grill pork for about three minutes on each side and let cool.
Make dressing by stirring all ingredients together until sugar (if using) dissolves. Taste for balance.
Bring small pot of water to boil. Drop soaked mung bean noodles in pot for two seconds. Drain* immediately and transfer to a large bowl. Add next five ingredients to bowl; add dressing. Chop pork into small pieces and add to bowl. Mix ingredients well and serve with lettuce or other greens.
*Draining these tiny noodles can be tricky. If you can find a wire soaking basket at an Asian market (approx $3), this task is much easier. Plus, the basket is super handy for other cooking projects.
Thai Red Curry
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp galanka root, chopped
1/2 tsp lemongrass, chopped
1/2 tsp cilantro, chopped
1/2 tsp garlic, chopped
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 red bell pepper, chopped
2 kaffir lime leaves, thinly sliced
4 Tbsp plus 1 tsp red curry paste (Mae Ploy is a good brand to use)
1 Tbsp plus 1 tsp fish sauce
3 Tbsp sugar (or maple syrup)
5 cups coconut milk (Chaokoh is a good brand to use)
3 cups fresh vegetables: your preference (my favorites are squash, carrots, yams, broccoli, eggplant, bok choy, kale)
2 Tbsp fresh Thai basil
Puree first nine ingredients in food processor, or pound together with mortar and pestle until relatively smooth. In a wok or large pot add this homemade paste to Mae Ploy red curry paste, fish sauce and sugar (or maple syrup). Stir on very low heat until ingredients are incorporated and paste becomes aromatic. Add coconut milk and bring to a boil, stirring frequently to prevent burning. Taste for balance–not too salty, not too sweet–and adjust with more fish sauce or sugar (I frequently need to adjust the seasoning when making curries). Add vegetables and protein (if using–poultry, meat, seafood and tofu are all delicious) and cook to desired level of doneness. Serve with Jasmine rice and garnish with fresh Thai basil.
Post: Thai Red Curry and Thai Yum Woon Sen Noodle Salad