Sunday, 27 March 2011

weekend

face paint
face paint
The fun never ends - another twilight fair.
harvest moon
Completed and worn, a very lovely Harvest Moon.
cubby
A very impressive cubby house built of scrap timber and scaffolding while I was off teaching a class. The kids are over the moon, the bloke is pretty chuffed with himself (and the power of the cable tie), and I'm looking forward to getting new garden beds from the clean up.
traffic lights
Progress on Wil's hoodie. A bit rasta for me but the malabrigo is as soft as soft and a pleasure to knit.

homework
homework
homework
Homework for machine knitting class. Rather a lot this month, including a hat, shawl, socks and booties. The shawl was a challenge and I ran out of yarn for the full circle, but man, picking up the literally thousands of stitches for the garter stitch border is killing me. Killing. Me.
unbob
And at last the girl child has outgrown the simple bob. Although she is weighted down with her fear of being ridiculed for being boy like, the truth is she looks stunning with it and I look forward to mornings free of howling over hair brushing.

And I will spare you any photos I may have taken of the 2 extended wake ups from nightmares, followed by the bed wetting (an event I am very fortunate to be a party to on the rarest of occasions) and the one and a half hour period of wakefulness that followed - all while the bloke was out on the town. Also spared is the sight of my furrowed brow, my bloodshot eyes and my severely sleep deprived and crankiness personified self.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

restraint

Yeah, well. That idea about not enhancing the stash unless there was need? It appears not to have taken. Gosh, do you think less of me?

Though to be fair, I have very specific and useful projects in mind.

Firstly, after the last post about halting the stash, I thought a bit and talked a bit about what I thought would be my downfall. My guess was denim. I make myself at least one pair of jeans a year, and the kids at least two pairs a year each. There's also assorted other garments (shorts, skirts) and quite a bit of crafting more generally (bags, wheat packs, miscellaneous sturdy objects), and while my stash held a few good sized pieces I didn't think there was enough to keep me going for more than six months.

So when I popped into Tessuti to pick up a new Japanese book I've been hankering for with a very special project in mind, the three newly arrived rolls of superb indigo denim and lycra lying on the counter was my undoing. Useful, needed, barely a stash enhancement at all.

stash


And as I was wearing one of my favourite work shirts last week I was thinking it really is time I added a few more for the cooler months and some good weighty cotton elastine+discount voucher for spotlight=two new shirts for me.

And while I was there I got winter pj flannelet and jersey combos plus some long sleeve tshirt and leggings combos since my kids seem to suddenly have shot out in the limb department (bringing back memories of about this time last year).


And try as I might, there simply were not buttons in the button stash suitable for the completed harvest moon cardi, so there was a trip to Buttonmania, a little indecision and a resulting stash enhancement.


stash


And a stash enhancement of the tooling kind, shortly to be followed by some necessary yarn purchase since I have, at last cranked up the great crochet blanket project I inherited from the wonderfully talented Shula. It was an embarrassingly long time ago, but I think I am finally over my fear and intimidation that I will never be able to match the borders and construction work Shula had already started. Now to work out exactly how much of the edging yarn I will need (gulp) and I will be forking out for that too.

stash


And speaking of yarn, it's not a purchase, but I did finally manage to skein up a good amount of the coned yarn I had from the Yarn Workshop closing down blow out, so it feels like a stash enhancement now that it's ready to be dyed.



Whew that's a lot of work waiting to be done, and I haven't even told you about this month's machine knitting homework, which includes a full sized circular shawl, a pair of socks and a hat. Best I go have a cup of tea and a quick crochet.

edited to add - I did my first hex edge and join last night at 32 minutes and 2gms of yarn. So that's one down, 411 to go or 219 hours and 822 gms of yarn ahead. I may need a lie down...

Monday, 21 March 2011

noodle

I will start by saying that compared to the other dishes I've written about so far, I find this dish, Pad Thai (Thai style fried noodles) quite hard to get right. It's not a taste thing, it's a technique thing.

As best I can tell, based on my experience, a good wok is a key component. I have an excellent but small wok, and recently added a larger wok to my kitchen. It's a good wok, don't get me wrong - heavy steel with a big wooden handle all the way from Hong Kong - but it's young, and the food that comes out of it still tastes like new wok to me. And it's hard to get it hot enough on my domestic wok burner.

I get how to season a wok, and my little wok is completely black and pretty much a non stick wonder from the build up of hard set oil. It's not sticky or yukky or rusty and everything that comes out of it tastes like wok food should. But despite the careful seasoning of the new wok, it's just not yet matured enough to withstand the addition of things like water into the cooking without taking on some of the metallic wok taste.

The second key component - and really I know this and yet I continue to push it past the point of sensible - is keeping the serving size small. Pad Thai is a lunch dish, a hawker dish, a one plate meal dish. It is not made in bulk to feed the masses, and there is a reason for this. Unless you have an industrial wok burner on your stove, a seriously big restaurant style one, you simply can't get enough heat to cook a large quantity before the noodles on top go claggy.

Which brings me to the third critical issue for success - the noodles. Of course in Thailand, fresh rice noodles are freely available in every market. They taste better, they have different texture and they cook differently and faster than the dried kind. You toss then straight into the wok, with perhaps a dash of water to make a little steam if they are a bit dry, but basically they just need heating.

Dried noodles on the other hand need to be re hydrated as well as simply warmed, and the manner in which this is done will determine how firm and al dente (to borrow and Italianism) they are, and how well they avoid the gluggy thing. At cooking class we simply tossed the noodles, un soaked, into the wok and added water, a little a time until they were perfectly well cooked.

But this absolutely will not work with a larger quantity (ask me how I know this). Before learning this I had always pre soaked the noodles in cold water and then added them to the wok once softened (but still firm). I know from the really delicious version I made in class that wok cooking the noodles is a better option than pre soaking, but it also feel a bit like a high wire act.

Pad Thai (Thai style fried noodles)
1 tbs vegetable oil.
Extra firm tofu (usually in vac pack plastic rather than in water), small block (a little bigger than a matchbox) per serve, cut into Julienne
1 red shallot finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic finely chopped
Thin flat rice noodles - fresh is best, but more likely dried, a handful per serve
1 tbs Thai preserved turnip, chopped (omit if you can't find it)
2 tbs tamarind puree
1.5 tbs shaved palm or regular sugar
1 tbs fish sauce
1/2 tsp ground dried chili (optional)
1 egg
1 tbs dried shrimp and/or a few fresh raw prawns (the latter gives you the luxe version of pad thai)
1/2 cup bean shoots
A bunch of chinese (garlic) chives in 3cm lengths.
2 tbs peanuts, chopped
Half a lime

If you are going to pre soak noodles, put them in cool water first and set aside. Boil the kettle too so if you are adding in a bit of water for noodles later it will be hot already.

Get everything ready because you are going to work fast on the wok and don't want to stop stirring long enough to measure anything out.

Heat the wok, add the oil and add the shallots, garlic and tofu. Toss for a minute or so.

That's Yui there in my cooking class - Hi Yui!
Add noodles to the wok and a bit of water if necessary. Even if pre soaked they should still be firmer than you would like to eat them. They will want to stick so keep them moving and only add small amounts of water at a time - don't let moisture build up in the pan.

Add turnip, tamarind, fish sauce, sugar and chili (if you are using any). Toss.

Push everything to one side and crack the egg into the bottom of the wok. Using the wok stirrer, scramble the egg up and when mostly cooked, toss the noodles on top and stir in.

Add shrimp, half the bean shoots and half the chives and toss well. Taste to make sure the balance is right - add more tamarind, sugar or fish sauce if required.

Noodles should now be al dente. Pour noodles onto a plate and serve with peanuts, remaining bean shoots and chives and lime.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

beef

Yum nua, spicy beef salad, is wonderful mix of warm juicy steak, light, crisp vegetables and sour spicy dressing. It is not dissimilar to laab in flavour or in the place it occupies in a meal, though it tends to be a more substantial dish due to the increased amount of vegetables involved.


I will start by saying in all my travels I have never eaten this dish in Thailand. I know it is well referenced in authentic Thai cookbooks and is well known outside of Thailand too, but beef is a much less available (and delectable) commodity in Thailand than other forms of meat so perhaps I've just blocked it out of consideration.

I make beef salad in a fairly lackadaisical manner, depending a lot on what I have on hand - and so long as the dressing has the characteristic sour, spicy and salty it always tastes good.

Of late I have also taken to making yum nua without the beef altogether and using kangaroo fillet instead. Roo is perfect in terms of texture and flavour and while as inauthentic as it could be, our Thai friends approve. Roo is also healthier to eat than beef, and better environmentally.

The method for making this dish is to toss and assemble everything together before serving, but I have on occasion served individual components for self assembly to allow for the smalls to skip the spicy salad and D to skip the cucumber. Taking a more pragmatic approach allows me to eat the food I really like more often without needing to prepare a second meal for those who don't like the heat, the meat or anything else - go for what works I say!



Yum nua (spicy beef salad)
Beef steak or kangaroo fillet - you will be eating this rare so buy a good cut, about 200gms per person for a main meal (less if it is part of a banquet). If you want to you can pre marinade the meat in a little soy sauce, garlic or similar.
Salad greens - mixed leaves or cos roughly chopped
Mint leaves - a few sprigs per serve, chopped
Coriander leaves - a small handful per serve, chopped
Cherry tomatoes - halved
Baby carrots - finely julienned or thin sliced
Lebanese cucumber - halved and sliced thinly on the diagonal
Red onion or red shallot - thinly sliced
Crispy fried shallots - a sprinkle over the top before serving
Toasted rice - a tablespoon or so (see here for an explanation of toasted rice)
Small red chillies, finely sliced - amount is optional. Can also use dried flakes if you don't have fresh on hand, or a combination of the 2 kinds of chili.
2-3 limes, juiced
3 tbs fish sauce
*some recipes also use mashed or finely chopped garlic and some palm sugar in the dressing, and add finely sliced spring onions to the salad

Grill, barbcue or fry the meat on a very high heat until well sealed but still rare, then rest in a warm place for 10 minutes or more. The resting and acidic juices in the dressing will diminish the rareness of the meat so be careful not to overcook!

While the meat rests toss all ingredients except chili, lime, fish sauce and shallots. Mix the lime juice, fish sauce and chili (starting with 2/3 of amount so you can top up afterwards) on a plate. Thinly slice warm beef or roo across the grain and place into dressing on plate.

Toss the meat into the other ingredients and mix well. Taste for flavour, add more fish sauce, lime juice and chili as required. Sprinkle with shallots and garnish with extra coriander leaves and mint sprigs.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

fate

As I barrel along on yet another great enterprise (school fete handmade stall coordinator), worried about getting everything done, feeling rushed and overcommited, heading out after bed time for meetings, cursing myself, I am also thinking how familiar this all is. It's one of those all roads lead to Rome kind of things.

Community+help needed+obviously useful skills+can't say no+mates=taking on too much.

It's a bit like:
new idea+textiles+intense concentration+avoidance of mundane responsibilities+potentially cool finished product=obsession
but I digress.

Whether it is my inability to say no to getting involved in community enterprises or new crafts or fabric purchases, I wonder less why I simply can't say no than why I fight so hard against saying yes?

Well, partly I know - the being overrun by piles of stash is a good reason to put the brakes on, as is staying up all night to sew stuff to sell for a song only to be exhausted and cranky the next day. But to what degree can I fight my essential nature?

How much of the fete is fate?

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

gai

Gai (chicken) is the most common of meats in Thailand alongside pork. It appears in curry and stir fry, ground in salads and it's most commonplace food on the run version - gai yang, or grilled chicken. This is another Isaan regional dish, but available all over Thailand, sold at hawker markets and by mobile sellers at train and bus stations. While the practice of travelling with unrefrigerated, cooked meat in the hot and humid Thai climate can make gai yang a bit of a bacteria risk, eaten fresh from the grill of a hawker stand this makes an excellent meal. It is most commonly served with sweet chili sauce, sticky rice and som tum (green papaya salad).

Gai yang really is just grilled marinated chicken - so it's nowhere close to being hard to make, and is universally liked. It's not spicy, and left overs are easy to use in sandwiches and salads. My friend Maria once diced up some left overs from this dish and tossed it up with the cabbage and cucumber that had been the garnish from the previous night's dinner, added fish sauce, sweet chili sauce and lime and it was a stunningly good salad. I seem to recall scoffing rather a lot of it.

In Thailand a whole quarter of a chicken is used, skinned, flattened out and wedged between split bamboo. This provides both the tongs and a 'handle' with which to eat it all in one. Brilliant. The bones in these pieces definitely add flavour and moisture to the meat while grilling, but boneless thigh fillets can also be used if you intend to chop it up to serve or if kids are involved and bones make it all too hard.

The marinade varies a lot from maker to maker and when I asked my Thai cooking teacher Yui about a recipe she said that everyone makes it their own way - it's not a dish with a recipe! Instead she gave me a list of ingredients people might use, but warned me to be careful of the sugar content because it makes it harder to cook the meat all the way through before the marinade burns. In that spirit I don't tend to measure the ingredients or get too worried if I am missing an ingredient or two, or if I toss in something new now and again.

Gai yang is ideally cooked over charcoal or wood fires to impart the characteristic flavour that brings South East Asia instantly to mind. In reality, I generally use the barbecue, or at a pinch the griller part of the oven.

Gai Yang (grilled or barbecued chicken*)

Skinless chicken pieces - drumsticks, chicken 'chops', maryland, thigh fillets etc. I usually do about a kilo at a time, but you can easily do more or less.
Coriander roots - this is quite literally the root bits at the bottom of the stems on a bunch of coriander (it is very annoying how often supermarket ones come already de-rooted!). I'd use the roots from the whole bunch.
Garlic - about 4 cloves, give or take.
Soy - I like the dark kind for this dish, a couple of tablespoons.
Pepper - ground black or white, about half a teaspoon.
Lemongrass - 2 stalks, white part only, roughly chopped.
Oyster sauce - 3 or 4 tablespoons.
Fish sauce - 1 or 2 tablespoons.
Tumeric - a small fresh grated knob or a few pinches of dried ground.
Ginger - a small fresh grated knob.
Palm sugar/white sugar/plum sauce - not too much or it burns.
(and remember don't worry if you don't use all these things!)

The marinade can be made in a mortar and pestle, but I usually smash it all up with the stab blender. Increase the amount of soy, fish or oyster sauce if there isn't enough liquid to make a runny paste.

Toss the raw chicken pieces through the marinade and let sit for at least a few hours, though overnight to 24 hours is way better.

Cook on a hot grill or barbecue and serve with sticky rice, sweet chili sauce and a garnish of shredded cabbage and sliced cucumber.


*this dish is also excellent made with pork, and quite possibly fish as well.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

fish


Thais do good fish. I, on the other hand have never been super confident with cooking pla (fish), but recently I have been doing my best to conquer my fears. Mostly because it seems like a lot of restaurants where you can get Thai fish dishes use really ordinary fish, and it just isn't the same.

This dish, fish with tamarind sauce, is generally served with a whole fried fish, though as I have done here you can also use fillets. It's not as spectacular in the looks department, but much more achievable on a weeknight, and more palatable if you have smalls who find looking at a whole fish a bit creepy.

When we lived in Northern Thailand we had this dish a lot, most often at the Tha Nam (river front) sitting upstairs in an old open sided teak house overlooking the water. The dish was made with tub tim, a local river fish, and it was divine. So so divine. It was worth the considerable hassle to get there (it is well out of the city centre) to eat the fantastic food and listen to the music ensemble that not only played, but let a very enthusiastic just turned 3 Maliwan (Amy) play an instrument or two too.

I make no claims to this dish being as good as theirs, but I will happily say it is an achievable thing to make at home and it is well like by all members of the family. I serve it with rice and stir fried veggies, but it would also be excellent with som tum or another salad. You can also use the tamarind sauce very successfully on grilled chicken.

Crispy fish with tamarind sauce
Fish, either whole or fillets. For the 4 of us I used about 600gms of snapper fillets.
Oil for frying (peanut gives the best flavour)
1 small red shallot, finely diced
1-3 small red chilies, seeded, deveined and finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
3 tbs palm sugar
2-3 tbs fish sauce
1.5 tbs tamarind puree
coriander

Make the sauce first. In a small amount of oil and low heat, soften the garlic, shallot and chili. Add the sugar, fish sauce and tamarind and gently heat until the sugar is well dissolved. Raise the heat and cook the sauce rapidly, stirring constantly until it thickens and darkens a little. Taste (being very careful not to burn your mouth because I always do), and add more tamarind, fish sauce, or sugar as required. It should be sour first, sweet and salty second. Turn off heat and cook fish.

In Thailand the fish is most definitely deep fried. If you are looking to reduce the oil you can shallow fry it, but you need to cook it quite a long time to get the outside really crisp. The outside should be quite hard. Drain and pat well with paper towel.

Spoon warm sauce over fish and serve scattered with coriander leaves. Scoff liberally.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

knit

All this food, you'd think I did nothing but cook! But while the obsession with food has indeed been well indulged of late (and I have a queue of posts to prove it), I've also, at last, managed to squeeze in some time to get the knitting machine out.

First up, class homework. While the projects were not of my choosing, the discipline of working through someone else's instructions has been good for me. It has, in fact, totally fired me up into obsessive mode once again after what seems like a stupidly long hiatus. Every time I get going I feel like brilliance is so close I can almost touch it.

I mean check out these kokeshi dolls!

I have to say, the presence of some study buddies in Maria and Jules has helped a lot, not just in keeping me on the straight and narrow, but in actively problem solving and in learning from mistakes (theirs as well as mine).


I'm pretty happy with my face washer, especially because my last attempt at knitting with cotton was a total disaster and very demoralising. I'm keen to try the shopping bag our teacher Angela flashed in front of us at our last lesson - it was quite lightweight and super stretchy and looked like a pretty good replacement for green bags.

And while a knitted coat hanger cover was never on my to do list, I am kind of happy to say I've made one. The multiple rows of slip stitch have created a super squishy 3D fabric that would in fact be ideal for protecting a delicate garment. Who knew there was reason behind the dagginess?

I am really looking forward to being dragged into further depths of who knewness as the lessons progress!

In the spirit of learning, and compelled by a vision of the ideal birthday gift for my brother, I pulled out the shiny new ribber and armed only with the manual and my bravado I set to.

What followed amounted to several hours of frustration and a lot of wasted yarn - a lot of complaint about dumb machines and a gentle reminder to myself that perfect first time is an unrealistic expectation.

Cue more swearing and unhappiness, a cup of tea and deep breath and another attempt.

And just like magic everything worked. I was very very pleased with this simple ribbed scarf - two strands of charcoal and one of black merino creating a soft and subtle texture.

And for all my complaint a little reflection that I went from no idea to finished object in less than a day and who can complain about that?

I even managed to salvage one of the larger failed pieces, picking up the live stitches on a knitting needle and casting off to make a wide short scarf that will be lovely in winter.

And I am excited beyond measure about progress on the Harvest Moon Cardi. I have only a wee bit of the last sleeve to go and a bit of stitching to put the pocket fronts in and it's done. It's not blocked of course, but the fit looks pretty spot on.

All up it has been a very satisfying knit - quick and interesting, with quite a few little techniques new to me, but nothing too overwhelming or requiring extended concentration. A really well written pattern, with great support from the designer. And of course, a really stunning yarn that is wonderful to knit - springy and soft and highly cooperative. I am dying to get it finished so I can show it off wear it.

I've also cast on (twice now) for Wil's much requested rainbow hoodie. Despite it being everything he wants, despite it being deliciously soft yarn in awesome colours, and using up single balls from the stash too, and despite it being a long time favourite pattern, I am really struggling to enjoy this project. The colours are Just. Too. Much. So much so that I may yet have to work some voodoo on Wil to get him to change his mind about something in it, or better still abandon it altogether.

Friday, 11 March 2011

som tum

[I am posting this recipe earlier than I had planned so I don't yet have photos - I will come back and add them next time I make this dish. In the mean time you can go look at this search in Flickr for some other people's photos.]

Som tum (green papaya salad) is one of my favourite salads. It is crunchy and crisp and salty and sour and full of stuff that's good for you, and not much stuff that isn't. In Thailand it is traditionally served with sticky rice and gai yang (grilled chicken) or laab in the Isaan region and in Lao, but nowadays can be found all over Thailand from specialist som tum hawkers at lunch time. I ate it a lot when we lived there. A lot.

Som tum (or tam is it is sometimes translated) is made in a large, tall mortar and pestle with deft skill. The papaya is held in one hand and then cut into very fine matchsticks using repeated blows of a large machete like knife (I've tried doing it and while I escaped injury, I can tell you, I certainly didn't achieve the desired effect!!). The papaya and other ingredients are then lightly pounded to mix the flavours and break up any fibrous bits in the papaya. The heat from the chili is controlled by the degree of pounding - the more the chili is broken up the hotter the salad will be. I don't have a large mortar and pestle so I tend to grate the papaya, and just add the flavourings to the mortar and pestle and mix it together in the bowl.

There are variations on the basic dish which can include the addition of fresh cooked prawns or crab, and a very bland version where the dried prawns are excluded, though I think this last is generally for the benefit of foreigners with a dislike for strong flavour and usually means they leave out most or all of the chili too.

A green papaya is an under ripe version of the fruit we generally call paw paw here - not a little under ripe either. Although my Thai friend says it should be a little yellow to be best do not think you can buy a regular papaya from the grocer that just isn't fully ripe. Source a proper hard green papaya from the Asian grocer and leave it on the window sill for a day or two.

Again, in Thailand this dish is generally served pretty spicy and diluted with lots of rice.

Som Tum (green papaya salad)
1.5 cups of peeled, seeded and grated green papaya (about half a smallish one or a quarter of a big one)
8 cherry tomatoes, quartered or a whole tomato cut into chunks
2 whole cloves of garlic peeled
1 tbs dried shrimp
4 snake beans* cut into 3cm sticks
2 tbs salted peanuts
1 lime,  juiced
1.5 tbs palm sugar
1.5 tbs fish sauce
2 small red chilies

Put the grated papaya and tomato into a bowl. In the mortar and pestle pound the garlic and shrimp into it is broken up but not mushy. Add the beans and peanuts and pound a bit more. Add the sugar, fish sauce and lime - starting with about two thirds the amounts. mix well. Add the chilies and pound - just once or twice for a mild flavour, harder for more heat. Tip the mix into the bowl and stir to combine. Taste and top up sugar, lime and fish sauce to balance.

*you can use green beans, but they are not the same at all. Green beans are shorter and much juicier, as well as tasting different. The drier pulpier texture of snake beans absorbs the flavours way better, especially with a little pounding in the mortar and pestle. And since you have to go to the Asian grocer to get the green papaya get some snake beans while you are there.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

curry


Even though Thai currys are well known and popular outside Thailand, not many people make them at home. But they are very easy and taste infinitely better than the bought versions. Trust me on this!

Curry comes in many forms, based on regional specialities and ethnic influences and available ingredients, and I'm going to start the curry recipes off with Masaman, a curry which grew out of the influence of Indian migrants in Thailand. I'm doing this one first because it is not spicy, making it a perfect family curry and a good intro to cooking them since you won't have to worry if you are making it too pet (chili hot).

Coconut milk based curry share much in the technique, as well as the serving principles in Thai cooking, so I'll refer back to this post when I cover other varieties.

Curry is designed to be eaten as part of a balanced banquet in the traditional Thai way. It tends to be quite rich and creamy and is often made with few or no vegetables - that's because curry is served with other dishes that provide the vegetable part of the diet. The Western habit of chucking all our food needs into a single bowl results in curry that is quite unlike the traditional Thai version. Personally I would rather a small serve of a delicious, intense, rich curry beside the larger serve of rice, wok tossed vegetables, crunchy salads and garnishes than the insipid mush I am often served here. But maybe that's just me.

When I first started cooking Thai curry I think the single biggest leap for me was to give up the fry off the garlic and onion and curry paste in oil step I had always used when making Indian style curry. In Thailand the aromatic paste is 'fried' (somewhat wetly) in heated coconut cream, and other ingredients are added to this liquid base, rather than browned off. While this may seem counter intuitive, it actually makes the whole process much quicker and adds to the delightfully piquant undertones of Thai curry.

A curry can be cooked in a wok or a good sized saucepan, depending on what else is happening on the stove top. It is important, particularly in the early stages of cooking, to keep stirring - coconut milk and cream burn easily and tastes yuk. And while I'm talking about coconut milk and cream let's share a few definitions.

First up there is something that comes out of the middle of a (young) coconut that you drink. It is not creamy or white and you don't cook with it. I'll call that coconut juice. Personally, I do not care for it.

The stuff you cook with is extracted from the white flesh of the mature coconut and is called cream or milk depending on the water content. The first pressing of the coconut flesh, in which no water or other agents have been added, yields coconut cream. It has a higher fat content, a lower water content and not surprisingly, the most flavour. In cooking it is often used early (where we might use a cooking oil) and then because heating changes the flavour of coconut cream and milk more may be added at the very end for flavour (where we might use butter to finish off a sauce or risotto). After the flesh has been pressed once, water is added to the fibre and a second pressing takes place, yielding coconut milk. The freshly extracted stuff sold in the markets all over Thailand (you can find the stall easy enough - there's a guy and a big machine and a pile of brown hairy coconut shells as big as a car) is as gloriously different from the tinned version as you can imagine, but realistically as unavailable to most of us as milk straight from the cow, and for pretty similar reasons.

In theory the distinction between cream and milk is clear (if the ingredients on the side of the can say 100% coconut, it's cream and if the ingredients say coconut and water, it's milk). In reality processing introduces other variables that make the distinction a bit fuzzy. My advice is to try different brands until you feel confident about the difference and then stick with one, and if you want milk when you have cream - just add water. My personal choice is ayam brand, although I think their milk is a little too creamy so I sometimes cut it down with water, or use another brand in concert.

Curry pastes can definitely be made at home if have the time to devote to this quite intensive task - I have done so many times. But for my money, it isn't worth the effort. Most things are better home made, but personally, I don't think I will eat enough curry in this lifetime to get really good at it, and when you can now very easily buy excellent quality ones for almost nothing, it seems foolhardy to bother. In terms of brands, I prefer Mae Ploy (and my Thai family agreed when they came to visit us and we shopped together). They sell small quantities too, with sachet versions, which are good for at least a couple of currys selling for less than a dollar at pretty much every Asian grocer around (and quite a few supermarkets too).

As with all Thai cooking, tasting and seasoning adjustments at the end are critical - start by adding less than the recommended amount and then taste, adjust, taste, adjust.

Also, on the topic of quantities, this curry would serve up to 8 people, as part of a banquet of dishes. If you are relying on the dish heavily (say just a curry, rice and a salad or veggies) it would feed more like 4 people. The balance between 'bits' (meat, veggies etc) and sauce is also variable - sometimes a curry is almost soup like with far more liquid and more milky than creamy, other times the flavour is more densely concentrated and the balance between liquid and solid more slanted to the solid. The latter form is more in keeping with my understanding what is traditional, the latter an adaptation for farang (foreigner) tastes, or possibly a way of keeping costs down and stretch meat and precious cream further.


Masaman Curry
300gms meat (chicken, beef, pork) sliced quite thinly
1 cup of coconut cream
1.5 cups of coconut milk
2 tbs masaman curry paste
1 small onion cut into large chunks
2 medium sized potatoes, cooked, skinned and cut into a large dice
1 tbs tamarind puree
2 tbs fish sauce
2.5 tbs palm sugar
1 cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
4 whole cardamon pods
2 tbs salted peanuts

Heat the coconut cream to a simmer over a medium low heat until the oil begins to separate and forms glistening puddles on the surface. Don't rush this step or underestimate its importance.

Tip in the curry paste, slightly increase the heat and mix through, stirring all the time. Heat for 2 minutes.

Add the meat and stir through until the meat is almost cooked through. Add onion, potato, peanuts, cardamon, bay, cinnamon and coconut milk, bring to a simmer and heat for 5 or 10 minutes, or until meat is tender.

Just prior to serving add the tamarind, fish sauce and sugar. Adjust seasonings as required to achieve a balanced palate. If you want to you can carefully find and remove the cinnamon, bay leaves and cardamon.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

rice

It occurs to me I may be gotten things round the wrong way when I didn't start my posts about Thai cooking with a post about kao (rice). The devotion to rice is difficult for most of us of European extraction to understand - in modern day Australia in particular there are really no foods that occupy such a singularly central role.

So important is the role of rice that it works its way into everyday language expression - go to dinner (bai gin kao) is literally go eat rice. Emotions are subject to rice too - I'm so sad I couldn't eat sticky rice. When Thai farmers build a new dwelling they start with the rice house and then build their own dwelling. Rice is life.

While some Europeans rely very heavily for example on bread as part of a meal, there remain whole parts of the cuisine untouched by it. And while a slice or two may be considered an essential addition to the dinner table it does not occupy the lion's share of things when all is said and done.

Given that rice forms the largest part of most meals, it is important to cook it right. In most parts of Thailand Jasmine is the rice of choice - it is long grain and early harvested but unlike it's very popular cousin, Basmati, Jasmine is not aged before sale. Rice is sold in markets in Thailand graded by freshness and quality, with 'spring' rice being most highly valued.

Minimising the contact with water is the key to good rice - boiling it in loads of water is guaranteed to make a Thai recoil in horror. Apparently the very best Jasmine rice is steamed - though I only ever steam sticky rice (more on that below) and cook my Jasmine by the absorption method. This is how I was taught and this method has never failed me.

Steamed Jasmine Rice

1 cup of rice
1.5 cups of water

This is what I would use for 2 adults. This is generous by aussie standards, though the smaller the quantity of rice you make, the more wastage per person you get from the bits that stick to the bottom of the pan so I would say 2 cups would feed 5 adults.

Rice cooks best with an even heat and a well sealed lid so the heavier the post base and the tighter the lid, the better the result. I use a stainless steel saucepan, but an enamel cast iron pot is even better.

Put the rice and the water in the pot, put on the lid and put it on as high a heat as you can. As soon as the water starts to boil, turn the heat as low as you can*. Do not open the lid, do not stir, do not mess about with it. It should take about 10 minutes on the low heat, though the age of the rice will affect the timing.

After this time, take it off the heat, stir with a fork to fluff it up (NOT scraping any stuck bits off the bottom - leave them there because they are hard and not nice to eat) and test for doneness. If it's good replace the lid until time to serve. If a little underdone replace the lid and wait, the warmth of the rice and pot will keep the cooking going. If it is very underdone and very dry, add a little more boiling water, replace the lid and replace on low heat for a few more minutes.

* [You can also take it off the heat completely after boiling and let it sit for up to half an hour or so while you prepare the rest of the meal. When you are almost ready to eat, stir the rice well, add a dash more water if required and then put it onto a low heat to finish the cooking - usually only for a few minutes once up to heat]

Steamed Sticky Rice

Sticky rice is just about my most favourite form of rice. It's chewy and flavoursome and best of all, you eat it with your hands! It is the rice of the Isaan region of Thailand and Lao - it's the rice the poorer people eat. It is a different variety and is sometimes sold labelled as glutinous (rather than sticky) but isn't the same as the glutinous rice I have seen used elsewhere, which is short grain. Here is the packet of the brand I often get.

Because sticky rice is steamed, the ratio of water to rice isn't important and I never measure! I guess you would still use about a cup for 2 adults, or maybe less since it doesn't stick to the pot.

Soak the rice for at least a few hours (I usually do it overnight or for the day). Cook over steam for about 10 minutes - or less. Cooking time depends on soaking time, age of rice etc, but it can be quite quick. It shouldn't be at all crunchy, but it will still have texture.

I use this traditional sticky rice steamer which came home from Thailand with us. You can use any steamer, lined with cheesecloth or muslin.

Monday, 7 March 2011

thai

It's no secret to regular readers that I am in love with all things Thai.

From the moment I arrived there for my first visit in 1989 (well, after I recovered from the shock of the heat) my interest in and adoration of all things Thai has only increased. This very blog grew out of our Thai sabbatical in 2005, and I still look back on our time living there as very happy indeed. Idyllic even.

So it's in that spirit that I've decided to start an occasional series on Thai food. I hope I can entice and encourage more people to try cooking or at least sampling dishes in restaurants, and spur myself on to perfect the dishes in my repertoire and add some new ones too. It really is a stunning cuisine in so many ways, and so much more than the standard curry and noodles that people tend to try here. Like any other country there are things you only ever see in people's homes, regional specialities and dishes which when prepared with care and fresh ingredients are a world away from the commonly seen fast food/restaurant versions.




I have been enjoying reading this in my spare time recently and learning more about some foods I have never cooked or had outside of Thailand and along with this and this, as well as the class cook book from my stints at the fabulous Thai cooking school I spent time at in Chiang Mai, I have a good selection of recipes. But of course the internet is, as always a complete gold mine and I often use this site and this one too for inspiration.

And there's nothing at all wrong with just launching into it - even badly prepared Thai food tastes pretty good! A lot of dishes are very forgiving, and to my palate the flavours and ingredients are so good I'm happy to try it any old way. So even though I might talk about about how it's traditionally done, or the challenge of really perfecting the flavour balance, a fear of getting it wrong shouldn't prevent anyone from having a go.

In fact with Thai food that should be the mantra. Thai food by its nature is responsive and adaptive - forget the science of baking or the precision techniques of fine dining. Recipes are a broad base from which to begin, but the pinnacle of taste is achieved by the subtle balancing of flavours that can only be done by tasting and adjusting and tasting again until the hot, sour, salty and sweet taste buds are all singing to the same tune. Since every chili packs its own degree of punch, every lime yields it's own quantity and sweetness of juice and every brand of fish sauce has a different amount of salt, the quantities in recipes can only ever be a guide. And your palate can only develop and improve by repeated tasting!



While on the topic of fiddling I wanted to put in a word about chili. Thai food is considered by many to be unmanageably pet (chili hot) but if you struggle with chili there's a few things to be said about it. Firstly, there are many really good dishes which use little or no chili, so if you seek them out you can gain an appreciation for the flavours of the cuisine without freaking yourself out. Secondly, your tolerance for heat from prik (chili) increases rapidly with exposure so if you build up from mai pet (no chili) to pet nit noi (a little chili) by the time you get to some of the more challenging dishes you should be well ready. Chili also comes in many forms - fresh, dried, roasted, ground, in pastes and so on - and you may find some forms more tolerable than others. And its important to note that many of the really fiery dishes are designed to be eaten slowly and in small portions, well diluted with lots of kao (rice) and other less spicy fare.


But really critically I want to say that prik plays an important part in balancing flavour in Thai food as well as adding heat and if a dish uses chili you can't just take it out and expect the dish to taste the same minus the heat. I find a lot of Thai food in Australia tastes very sweet for example compared to what you eat in Thailand. I suspect this is less because aussie cooks use more sugar than it is because they use less chili and fish sauce - by reducing the heat and or saltiness the sweetness becomes more pronounced. To reduce the heat and maintain balance, the other ingredients need to be reduced too, but in reducing the sources of flavourings, the overall intensity of flavour will be reduced too, so the more of the chili you can tolerate, the more delicious a dish will be.

That's enough theory for now. Lets get to some recipes - starting with what I had for dinner last night.

Laab (or larb or laarb depending on translation)

This is a real favourite at the moment (especially now that my 8 year old daughter has decided a bit of chili is worth it for flavour) - it is easy, uses readily available ingredients and since the chili is added late in the piece the heat can be easily modified. Traditionally this is served with a lot of heat and made from moo (pork), though gai (chicken) is also widely used. While it is quite meaty, the taste is fresh and light, classifying it more as a salad or accompaniment than main dish. It comes from the Isaan region of Thailand and neighbouring Lao where it can be expected to be served with kao neuw (sticky rice) and som tum, with extra coriander, mint and toasted rice scattered over the top.

300gms minced pork or chicken
2-4 limes
1 small red shallot, finely sliced
2 spring onions, finely sliced.
half a bunch of coriander, roughly chopped
4 or 5 sprigs of mint, roughly chopped
2-3 tbs fish sauce
1-2 tbs uncooked jasmine rice for toasting
1/2 tbs dried chili flakes

Start by toasting the rice. In a dry non stick fry pan or wok toss the rice over a medium heat until browned all over. It should smell vaguely nutty. Coarsely grind the rice in some electric gadget or a mortal and pestle.


Sprinkle a tablespoon or so of lime juice over the raw mince and let stand for 5 or so minutes, then toss into a hot non stick fry pan without any oil. Stir the meat until well cooked and quite dry then place in a bowl big enough to hold all ingredients.

Toss in the other ingredients - starting with about two thirds of the recommended amounts of seasonings (herbs, chili, fish sauce and lime) - stir well and taste. Now try adding small additions of each of the remaining flavourings until you reach a good balance. You may need proportions quite different to the recipe - that's OK! Exercise the most caution around the fish sauce - it is very hard to balance out too much salt with other things so add it in small amounts and taste often.


The finished dish should really zing in your mouth, be fresh and light and acidic, you should not be tasting the meat (if you are the overall flavour intensity too low), nor should it taste too salty. If you are really looking to learn about the flavours, divide your mix into two bowls at the start and add different amounts to each to see what effect the seasonings have.

Let me know how you go - I assure you, you won't be dissappointed!