03 August 2015

Food Lab 33: Thai

If it's the case that the motto of Cajun cooking is "first, you make a roux," (and it is), I would say that it's equally true that the motto of Thai cooking is "first, you make a paste."

This weekend, the Food Lab crew gathered for some experiments in Thai cooking. The idea was inspired by International Dilettante's international travles. Unfortunately, she and Dr. Fruit Bat were unable to join us (although they will be part of a fabulous trip to Villa San Lorenzo in the Piedmont region of Italy with us this fall).

In our previous experiments with regional cooking, we've discovered that, while the techniques may be unfamiliar, they're not generally complicated. The key, as our previous Rick Bayless / Diana Kennedy-inspired mole and Hana Market-inspired sushi labs have demonstrated, is quality ingredients. But where to find quality for Thai cooking in the DC area?

Fortunately, Mad Kitchen Scientist and The Executive Committee live in a suburban neighborhood with a large southeast Asian population, near the appropriately-named Grand Mart. We went a little crazy - as we tend to do - and walked out laden with bags full of delicious ingredients we then proceeded to spend all afternoon and part of the evening cooking at a shockingly low price.

This was more of a "cooking together" experiment than a lab per se. That is, we weren't taking a technique or ingredient and trying to perfect it. We were just trying to learn some of the mechanics of Thai cooking and make food that tasted good.

We were assisted in this endeavor by David Thompson's encyclopedic tome Thai Food, which Mad Kitchen Scientist received as a groomsman's gift from Dr. Fruit Bat many years ago. Seeing as it is a published and copyrighted book, I will not be sharing the specific details of the recipes we made, although if you are interested in Thai cuisine, I can highly recommend it.

As per usual, when we actually unpacked our haul, we realized we'd purchased too much. There was no way all that veg was going to fit into one curry! So Mad Kitchen Scientist quick stir-fried the lovely Chinese broccoli we'd picked up with some hoisin sauce, ginger, and garlic, for a snack while we planned our attack.

Course one: Thai cucumber salad
Course two: Green papaya salad
Course three: Pork satay
Course four: larb gai
Course five: veg green curry and steamed sticky rice
Course six: fresh coconut, fresh lychee nuts, sugar plums, jackfruit
Course seven: coconut milk ice cream

Chef Spouse and I have tried making the Thai cucumber salad before, and it's never turned out right. He thinks the problem is that we've been using white wine vinegar rather than rice vinegar (or ideally coconut - which we couldn't find at Grand Mart and appears to be something we'd have to make ourselves if we want it, and yes, Thai Food does have a recipe). I'd argue that it's because we've been going WAY too wimpy on the chiles. The long-leaf Thai coriander might make a difference, too, and using shallots rather than re onion. Regardless, this was DELICIOUS, even if Chef Spouse and The Executive Committee proclaimed it "too hot!"

The green papaya salad was my first "make a paste" dish, which is in fact what you start with. Mad Kitchen Scientist had already ground up all the ingredients for the green curry, but he cheated and used a mini food processor. I ground my damn paste with my damn mortar and pestle. He declared that I had more dedication. Damn right. One of the things that was interesting about Thompson's method for the green papaya salad is that he had you grind some snake beans and cherry tomatoes into the paste, and then combine it with the shredded green papaya and lightly mash it all together, with a liquid made of "tamarind water" and fish sauce. We couldn't quite figure out what "tamarind water" was, so we dissolved some tamarind paste in water. Seemed to work, and a gentle hand with the pestle turned out to be perfect for the mashing. Once again, delicious, authentic, and, for our two supertasters, "too hot!"

Why does anyone ever make satay with chicken? Seriously. My thoughts about chicken are well-known, but EVERYONE agreed with me. Once again, this was one of those "we've tried making this before and been disappointed at the results." Not this time. "First, you make a paste..." and the recipe made a ton of the peanut sauce/marinade, which we divvied up, so Chef Spouse and I plan to have MORE satay tonight.

I feel like the larb gai was our least successful dish. We finely chopped the chicken legs and thighs we used, but I think we should've gotten out the Kitchen Aid and the grinder. Following Thompson's recipe, it was delightfully sour (due to large quantities of lime juice and fish sauce), but not spicy at all. And I think the amount of toasted ground rice was too much - it thickened too much. I'd experiment with this again, but would want to tweak some of the processing and ingredients.

Even with the mild satay and larb gai, our spicephobics were asking for us to take it easy on the final course (the fact that they both kept eating the delicious but fairly spicy cucumber salad may be to blame). So we did, and went vegetarian too, to The Executive Committee's relief (she's always the voice of trying to be reasonable, not purchase too much, and eat something green. In other words, she's the adult in the room most times). This was another "first you make a paste..." activity, which was very simply combined with coconut milk to make the sauce that went over lightly stir-fried king oyster mushrooms, Thai eggplant, Chinese okra, baby corn, and steamed sticky rice.

The fruit was interesting. If you ever get the chance to have fresh lychee, take it. Choose pink/red ones that give slightly to a gentle squeeze. Peeling them is a breeze, and they're about a million times better than the ones in the cans - and the ones in the cans are pretty good. 

(We never ate that cute little yellow Chinese melon at the front - TOO FULL. The sugar plums taste like regular plums, but they're smaller, so you can just pop them in your mouth, and they have a slightly firmer texture, even though they tasted fully ripe.)

Jackfruit was an adventure. Freeing the edible part from the non-edible part is a bit of a challenge. This was the best explanation I was able to find:

And it is delicious - subtle, lovely flavor and interesting chewy texture. The one thing he neglects to mention is that it is INCREDIBLY sticky. The goo had to wear off my hands, and we had to get out Goo-B-Gone to get it off the handle of the knife.

The Executive Committee was our coconut huller. She punctured green, young, and aged coconuts to get the coconut water (which we proceeded to use in cocktails) and then bashed the coconuts open with a rock (how Robinson Crusoe of her!) and cut out the flesh. The more "seasoned" the coconut, the tastier the flesh was, so if you're not just after the water, get the dark brown version that's your prototypical image of a coconut (the dude on the left above).

Speaking of coconut, we finished with a simple coconut milk-egg-palm sugar cooked custard ice cream. And more jackfruit.

On the cocktail front, we were playing around with lime juice, coconut water, and the tamarind in various applications. Nothing really jumped out at any of us, other than the fact that Thai basil makes an excellent addition to cocktails, and anything with tequila seems to benefit from the addition of a little salt. And sweet white wines go well with spicy food.

Verdict? Don't be afraid of cuisines that are outside your normal range of cooking. But make sure you visit a Grand Mart first.

(A note to the observant: food lab 32 *is* missing. That's because some of what we made required aging, and it's not done yet. So we'll be addressing that out of order and at a future date.)

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