OK, I admit that I eat unusual food. But I've come by my predilections honestly, having been literally schooled at the knee of my epicurean grandfather, who fed me my first oil-cured olive at the tender age of 5. Following that, I was fed morsels of whatever stinky cheese he had brought home from the deli, along with bites of dolmas, garlicky salami, broiled bluefish and huge garlic dill pickles. After that, I fell totally into debauchery at his hands--black bread wth unsalted butter, blood sausage, pickled herring, sopressata, strong green tea with a wedge of lime, leg of lamb with garlic and rosemary, endive braised with olive oil, garlic and lemon, a bottomless pot of espresso (always in the Bialetti stovetop pot), yaki tori, felafel...you name it, my grandfather ate it and fed it to me as well. I do have to say, however, that resisting the urge to run away from home while enduring the process of homemade sauerkraut and homemade kimchi was a challange. Those were nearly intolerable odors when the house was filled with them for days during my grandparents' summer visits.
Whether my palate was born or made is still debatable. What is very clear, however, is that I prefer and often crave foods that are outside the norm. Acid, heat, pungency, herbaceousness, earthiness and especially umami--I really like cooking and eating off the beaten path. So when I was expecting a friend for dinner earlier in the week and asked what she was wanting to eat, her immediately response was "Laap kai." For the uninitiated, laap kai is a Thai salad made with ground chicken, chilies, lime juice and fresh herbs. But what really makes it very different is the ground roasted rice that gives a slightly crunchy texture and a nutty taste when it gets mixed in with the warm chicken. Then the chicken mixture is served on lettuce leaves and garnished with cucumber, scallions, Chinese long beans and more herbs and lime. It's a delightful spring and summer salad and is often eated by the Thai as a lettuce wrap.
I also made and served a green papaya salad. I've eaten this salad countless times in restaurants but have never attempted to make it. I saw a huge box of green papayas when I was shopping at M & T Market last weekend and decided that this was my chance to tackle a favorite at home. The long shreds of pale, green papaya are beautiful glistening in their honey/chili/garlic/lime juice dressing and studded with peanuts, chopped fresh cilantro and Thai basil. This salad is relatively simple to make and tastes great the next day too.
We started the evening with a cocktail I can't wait to make again. It sets the stage for an evening of Thai cuisine with lime juice, basil and gin. It's cool and refreshing, and easy to make if you can prep a little ahead. I call it a Thai Gimlet. Here's the recipe:
6 oz. Tangueray Rangpur Lime Gin
2 oz. dry (white) vermouth
2 oz. fresh lime juice
3 oz. basil syrup (recipe follows)
8 basil leaves, sliced crosswise very thinly (use Thai basil for licorice flavor or Italian basil for a more straightforward basil flavor)
Green grapes, basil leaves and thin lime slices for garnish, arranged on a cocktail pick or short skewer
Combine gin, vermouth, lime juice, basil syrup and basil leaves in a bar shaker. Stir well. Fill two tall glasses with ice. Divide cocktail mixture between the two glasses. Garnish with cocktail picks as suggested above. Serves 2.
Combine 1 tsp. dried basil with 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup water. Bring to boil and boil for 2 minutes. Cool to room temperature and strain before using. Freeze any leftovers.
My Thai food-loving friend also came back later in the week and we repeated the cocktail ritual with great gusto, but this time we ate Jade Curry with Beef, Eggplant and Green Chili, Cucumber Salad with Cilantro and Mint, and Coconut Corn Ice Cream. I know that the dessert will surprise some of you, but the combination of sweet coconut and corn is a Thai favorite. So below, you'll find five recipes, the three I just mentioned, then Laap Kai and Green Papaya Salad. Be adventurous and try them!
And how could I forget the wine that we drank with the curry? One of my point-on wine guys at Spec's helped me deliberate over the right wine to serve. What I eventually settled on was a rose. Carmela Benegas 2010 (Argentina) is fermented entirely from Cabernet Franc grapes, one of my favorite varietals. At well under $10 a bottle, it has a fairly high alcohol content (13.5%) and enough sweetness to bolster the heat and intensity of the curry. The first thing I noted was that it smelled literally of roses; my friend noted cherry and strawberry, which were also present. It is a very fruit-forward, intensely flavored wine and you will definitely taste lots of strawberry. It is a gorgeous deep coral color in the glass. I have never described a wine as sexy before, but this wine is sexy. Remember Roman Polanski's movie Tess and Natasha Kinski during the strawberry scene? Yeah, it's that kind of sexy.
Jade Curry with Beef, Eggplant and Green Chili
The original recipe, adapted from Victor Sodsook's True Thai, called for 6 serrano chilies, cut in half, but not seeded. They are not intended to be eaten, but they did flavor this curry very intensely and although I can truly claim to be a chili-head, the amount of chili pushed the boundaries of my Scoville unit tolerance! So I've reduced the amount called for here to help tone down the heat. This curry is excellent reheated the next day, but the heat will have intensified, so those of you shy of chilies may want to leave out the serranos all together.
2 cans unsweetened coconut milk
1 cup green curry paste (you can make your own--contact me for a recipe--or
use prepared curry paste such as Mae Ploy brand, which can be found at
well-stocked Asian markets)
1 1/2 lbs. sirloin, sliced across the grain 1/4" thick (approx. 1" X 2" pieces)
1/4 cup golden brown sugar
1/4 cup fish sauce (nam pla can be found at Asian markets)
1 lb. Japanese or Thai eggplant (or combination), stemmed and sliced into
1 large green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and sliced into 1/4" slices
2 to 3 medium serrano chilies, stemmed and sliced in half lengthwise (remove
seeds if you'd like considerably less heat)
1 cup loosely packed Thai basil leaves (or substitute purple or Italian basil)
1. Skim the thick cream from the top of the coconut milk into a medium-large
sized kettle or soup pot. Set remaining coconut milk aside.
2. Over medium-high heat, stir in curry paste until well blended and bring to a
simmer. Cook, stirring constantly, for about 2 minutes.
3. Stir in the beef and the remaining coconut milk. Bring to a simmer, stirring
4. Add the brown sugar and the fish sauce. Stir until the sugar is dissolved
and all is blended.
5. Stir in the eggplant and sweet green pepper. Cook for about 2 minutes.
6. Add the serranos and return to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Cook for
about 2 minutes.
7. Turn off the heat, cover and let sit for a few minutes.
8. Just before serving, stir in the basil leaves, or use them to garnish if you
are transferring the curry to a serving bowl. Serve with plenty of hot
jasmine rice. Serves 6 to 8.
Cucumber Salad with Cilantro and Mint
2 cucumbers, peeled and sliced into 1/4" slices
2 to 3 Tbs. honey
juice of 1 lime
salt to taste
2 Tbs. chopped cilantro
2 Tbs. chopped mint
1/4 cup plain dry-roasted peanuts, chopped or crushed
1. Arrange cucumber slices on a serving platter.
2. Drizzle cucumbers with honey and lime juice.
3. Salt to taste.
4. Sprinkle with chopped herbs.
5. Sprinkle with chopped/crushed peanuts. Serves 4.
Coconut Corn Ice Cream
2 pints good-quality vanilla ice cream, slightly softened
1/2 cup shredded, sweetened coconut
1/2 cup fresh sweet corn kernels (in the absence of fresh corn, use the sweetest, most tender
corn kernels available. Canned corn is acceptable, but its color is dull. If you use it, make
sure it is well-drained).
Blend all ingredients together with a mixer (or use a spatula and be quick about it!). Pack into a container and freeze until time to serve. Serves 4.
You will need to plan to make the ground roasted rice ahead of time. This recipe is a compilation of several and relies heavily on suggestions from my friend, whose's mother makes this dish for the family frequently. You can also make this dish with ground turkey and it is really excellent with ground pork, which would then be called Laap Mu.
2 cups ground chicken breast, with a little skin and fat mixed in (if you can't find ground
chicken breast at your grocery store, chop boneless chicken breasts yourself if you have
a food processor)
2 jalapenos, stemmed, seeded and minced (or substitute 1 Tbs. dried crushed red chili)
4 Tbs. fresh lime juice
3 Tbs. fish sauce (nam pla can be found at Asian markets)
2 to 3 Tbs. ground roasted rice
2 Tbs. thinly sliced shallots
1/2 cup chopped fresh herbs such as mint, cilantro, or sawtooth herb
2 to 3 kaffir lime leaves, finely chopped (optional)
Lettuce leaves (such as Boston lettuce, green leaf lettuce or Buttercrunch)
Chinese long beans, blanched and chilled
Shredded Chinese cabbage
Cherry or grape tomatoes
Cilantro, mint and/or sawtooth herb for garnish
1. Mix 2 Tbs. lime with the ground chicken.
2. Using a little oil if necessary, cook the chicken and the minced jalapenos in a wok over
medium heat, stirring until chicken is fully cooked. It will not brown, so don't overcook it
or it will be dry.
3. Stir in the rest of the lime juice along with the fish sauce, the ground roasted rice, sliced
shallots, chopped herbs, and kaffir lime leaves (if using). Blend well and taste and correct
4. Serve chicken mixture as a lettuce wrap along with the other vegetables, or line a serving
platter with the lettuce leaves, pile the chicken mixture on top and arrange the other
vegetables around the platter.
5. Garnish with extra herbs and pass lime wedges. Serves 4.
Ground Roasted Rice
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Place 1 cup Thai glutinous or "sticky" rice on a dry baking sheet. Roast rice in the oven for about 1 hour or longer. It should look like the color of toasted sesame seeds when it is done. Cool rice, then grind in a food processor or blender, or use a mortar and pestle to pound rice to about cornmeal consistency. Store extra ground rice airtight. It will keep for several weeks. Makes a scant 1 cup.
Green Papaya Salad
This is a simplified version of Victor Sodsook's recipes in True Thai. You can also find many versions on the internet, including Vietnamese-style, which I especially love for chopped the Asain beef jerky. Note: there is an easy way and a hard way to shred the papaya. If you shred it lengthwise (from stem end to blossom end), your job will be much quicker!
1 large green papaya
3 to 4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
3 to 4 small Thai chilies, stemmed and roughly chopped
2 Tbs. mild honey (such as clover or orange blossom)
3 Tbs. fish sauce (nam pla can be found at Asian markets)
6 Tbs. fresh lime juice
1/4 cup chopped cilantro and/or Thai basil
1/2 cup dry roasted unsalted peanuts, crushed or finely chopped
1. Peel the papaya with a sharp paring knife or vegetable peeler, then cut it in half lengthwise.
2. Scoop out and discard the seeds, along with any white membrane.
3. Using a mandoline with a julienne attachment, or a food processor with a shredding disc,
shred the papaya. Set aside or chill until ready to serve.
4. Pound the chillies and garlic together in a mortar and mash well.
5. Blend in the honey and the fish sauce with the pestle.
6. Use a large spoon to scrape down the sides of the mortar and to help dissolve any
7. Add the lime juice and mix well.
8. Arrange the shredded papaya in a shallow bowl and pour the honey-lime-chile dressing over
the papaya. Toss well.
9. Sprinkle with chopped herbs.
10. Sprinkle with peanuts. Serves 4.