Monday, January 28, 2008

Time for something completely different...

My stomach is gurgling. I dreamt of thin crust, brick oven pizza (with fresh mozzarella and tomatoes) all night long and woke up this morning to a shake of bentonite clay and psylium husk. Utterly revolting and totally unsatisfying…

It was little more than a week ago that I was roaming through a dizzying array of food stalls at the “Choa Far Variety Weekend Market” in Phuket Town and sucking down bowls of spicy rice noodles with crispy pork skin, bean sprouts and shrimp; gnawing on soft, fatty morsels of tripe satay and succulent pork satay and washing it all down with tall, icy bottles of Singha at Jae Yoa (pronounced “Jay-Yo”), a 50 year old noodle shop on Patipat Road in Phuket Town.

Mr. Ray, our guide that day, was a friendly taxi driver that picked us up at the airport a few days prior and offered to give a tour of Phuket, since our time there was limited. “No touristy places. I want to see Thailand.”, Princess said as he tried to sell us on a trip to the overly-touristed beach of Patong, a monkey circus and a trip to a shopping mall. “Somewhere good to eat”, I said, gesturing as if I was putting something in my mouth. “No problem”, Mr. Ray replied, in very good English.

He took us to Raiwai Beach, a small Thai fishing village.

We walked the fish stalls and vegetable stalls and watched fishermen mend their traps.

Mr. Ray and I inspected the food vendors and filled up on crispy, fried chicken wings (Princess wasn’t to keen on that) and chewy, sweet roties as thin as crepe and filled with palm sugar and sweetened condensed milk.

Next, we were off to a trip to the fruit market where we filled our bellies on mangusteens, darien, mangoes and rambuten.

And then the noodle shop…

So, how the hell did I end up here, drinking clay? Aside from the 12-hour bus ride and death defying ride on a longtail boat in a churning, tumultuous sea?

I had this brilliant idea a few months ago that doing a fast/cleanse/detox would be a nice thing for my body after the surgery I had in October. And, after much research on the web, I booked myself into a “fasting” bungalow at The Sanctuary Resort & Spa at Haad Thien Beach on Ko Pha Ngang. However, I started having doubts last week whether I could make it through a fast after enjoying so much tasty food, or even if I still wanted to do one. There’s so much food to explore in Thailand, why do I want to starve myself? But no backing out, I had paid a deposit.

Haad Thien Beach is only accessible by either a very treacherous ride in a longtail boat (a 10-foot long, wooden boat with an outboard engine at the end of a pole mounted on the back – hence the name) or a very treacherous ride in a taxi (if you can find one to take you there) on an unpaved mountain road, along a cliffs edge. I chose the boat ride because I hear drowning is a more peaceful death than falling over a cliff. Being strangled to death by Princess hadn’t occurred to me when I made the initial decision to take the longtail boat. But, as we were tossed about in 5-foot waves and our luggage became waterlogged and a dripping wet Princess began gesticulating wildly and hollering something in Spanish that sounded like a rapid-fire machine gun I knew my death, one way or the other, was eminent.

The Sanctuary, built into the cliffs along the beach and surrounded by a lush, green jungle is the perfect location for that “getting away from it all” feeling. And as soon as the excess adrenaline from the boat ride had worn off, and my hands stopped shaking, and I had checked into my thatched, Thai style bungalow up on stilts with tropical forest all around – I slipped into the easy, relaxed mood of the place and decided once again that a fast would be a really good idea.

But that was three days ago. And now, as I await another bentonite and psyllium shake and a coffee colonic, all I can think is that I would KILL for a beer and pizza…

If anyone wants to rescue me, please send a helicopter to The Sanctuary - and make sure there's cold beer in the cooler!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Pat's Thai Home Cooking

I have to give a big thanks to Pat Thingtong for my private cooking lessons and allowing Princess and me to stay in her home. My past few posts don't really even do justice to how great the experience of cooking with her was (even though she did say I should give up and do something else when it came to my fruit and vegetable carving lesson!) - but jet lag and being thoroughly sickened by some bad restaurant food has put me way behind on posting about my adventures. I knew I shouldn't have listened to Princess' "warnings", I was doing just fine until I went to a "safe" Euro-Americana-Indo-Thai-sit-down restaurant!

A few of the reasons that I chose Pat's cooking class is that many of the classes offered in Thailand are in a theater setting where you watch but do not participate. Or, the prep has been done by someone else and you merely assemble the ingredients. The classes Pat gave me were private and tailored to my cooking level and entirely hands on, she would show me how to do something and then let me do it. I prepped and cooked all of my own dishes. As a bonus, her outdoor teaching kitchen looks out onto a beautiful garden and is very open and comfortable to work in. Pat was extremely informative and took me on a great market tour. She has a really down-to-earth, easy-going and warm personality and really made me feel very welcome in her home for four days.

At some point I'll get back to posting more recipes and dishes that she taught me how to cook. And if anyone is planning a trip to Southern Thailand, I highly recommend taking a class with Pat. She can accommodate individuals and groups. You can find her here.

Pad Thai

Pat's Pad Thai
(reprinted with her permission)

10 oz. narrow rice noodles
5 shelled prawns
3 eggs
2 tablespoons **white radish pickle, minced
3 bunches chinese leeks or scallions, cut into 1 inch sprigs
1 teaspoon ground, dried chillies
1 tablespoon chopped shallots
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons **fish sauce
1/2 tablespoon tamarind Juice (tamarind paste, thinned with water)

*White radish pickle is available in most Asian stores. It is commonly a Japanese or Chinese brand that is available. There are two types; sweet and salty. Use the sweet variety for Pad Thai, although if salt is all that is available, soak and rinse them first.

**Fish sauce should be purchased in small bottles so that it is used before it spoils. Good quality fish sauce should be the color of brandy and have a pleasant salty taste, not fishy or bitter. If fish sauce is too dark or black it will be bitter and should not be used.

Pat shows me how to make an excellent Pad Thai, without it being soupy or too sweet. She uses pickled white radish (available at most Asian stores), tamarind juice, fish sauce and sugar to create the contrasting flavors. Also, she says most people are cheap and use too much noodle.

We started out with a hot wok, adding a bit of oil and some garlic and shallots and sweating them just until they began to color. Then, we added thin rice noodles and just enough water to soften them, then fry them, turning constantly to prevent sticking. We removed the noodles from the pan and set them aside. Next, into the hot wok we added diced tofu and allowed it to cook until a crust began to form on it (otherwise it will fall apart). Moving the tofu to the side of the wok, we added the prawns to the center of the wok and allowed them to cook. When barely cooked, we added the pickled white radish, ground, dried chilies, sugar, fish sauce and tamarind juice and allowed that to simmer until the prawns were cooked through, then we added the noodles back in and pushed them to the side. Next, we added the eggs (lightly scrambled) spreading them into a thin layer on the bottom of the pan. When set, we mixed everything together with a scraping motion using the corner of the spatula. At this point you can taste it and add either more fish sauce (for salt) or sugar to your liking. At the very end, we added chopped Chinese leek greens (scallions will do) and garnished the dish with fresh bean sprouts.

Snack time

Pat's Outdoor Teaching Kitchen

One thing that really stands out the most about Southern Thai food is that in every dish there is a play between contrasting tastes such as sweet and salty – like the sweet sticky rice stuffed with ground, dried shrimps, black pepper and rolled in sugar and salt that we had for breakfast - or spicy and sour – like Tom Yum Soup, or a combination of all four tastes. To me, Meung Kum, my new favorite snack, best exemplifies this balance.

The components of Meung Kum: slivered garlic, diced (Not minced. Very important!) shallot, diced ginger, dried shrimps, roasted peanuts, roasted, shaved coconut, slices of a tart little green fruit called “Ta Ling Ping” (but lime can be used instead – and it is equally as delicious), sliced Thai Bird chili peppers and a sweet salty sauce of shrimp paste, fish sauce, palm sugar and finely ground and roasted coconut.

Pat shows me how to form a cup in my hand made of a cha ploo leaf (also known as a ‘pepper leaf’) – a leaf looking similar to spinach but having an herbaceous, savory flavor. She drops a piece of each aromatic into my Cha Ploo cup and tops it with the sweet shrimp sauce and rolls it closed. “This dish is about chewing”, she says and tells me to put the whole parcel in my mouth and chew, and chew and chew. I do so, and with each bite my taste buds sing. With the first chew, I taste sweet from ginger and palm sugar, then salty from dried shrimp, then spicy from the chili and sour form the Ta Ling Ping (don’t you just love that name?!) – it’s amazingly fresh and juicy tasting and much more balanced then I had expected. For westerners, often the sauce is left out because people find the taste to be too strong, or a syrup of just palm sugar is used without the shrimp or fish sauce. I try the Meung Kum prepared in all three ways but without the shrimp sauce the Meung Kum tastes like an unfinished dish, lackluster and uninteresting. The sauce really makes all the flavors come together.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

To market, to market...

Our day started early with a trip to Baan Ting Koa market, near Phuket Town.

This is what the Union Square Farmers Market is missing!

Each paste is of a different quality. Pat explains that you can tell the better quality shrimp paste because it has lots of little black dots in it, shrimp eyeballs. If there are not a lot of shrimp eyeballs, the the paste has been made with some other type of fish.

We'll be cooking the whole peppercorns into the curry.
They are eaten just like any other type of vegetable!


And so many mushrooms and chillies!

So many funky fruits vegetables!



But first, Thai breakfast:
coconut and sweet corn jellies, pumpkin custard with coconut
and bananas with black beans and sticky rice:

Friday, January 18, 2008

Heading south...

This is how winter should be… 80 degrees and balmy, my shirt sticking to my back, hair frizzed out from the humidity, 3 showers a day to keep cool and swatting away blood sucking mosquitoes the size of golf balls.

Princess and I arrive in Phuket Wednesday afternoon. Lots and lots of farang around – “hippie” backpackers living out the Bohemian dream, college kids, older folks enjoying life after kicking the kids out of the house and finally being able to travel. It’s a mixed bag, people from all over the world and of every age.

After an hours wait at the airport, we finally get a “legal” taxi. We have been cautioned to use only the legal taxis in most parts of Thailand. The illegal taxis at the airport cost twice as much and will often change their price once they have your bags in the car. They will also try to take you to a trinket shop or a tailor who offers to make you the finest silk suit – with the taxi driver earning a percentage of whatever sale is made. Our driver tells us that there are only 45 legal taxis on Phuket, an island larger than Singapore. I find this a little hard to believe, but we did wait an hour at the airport and had quite a lot of offers from not-legal taxis. Outside of the airport there are many ways of getting around – motorbike taxis, the legal ones wear red vests. Just wave one down and hop on the back of the scooter! Then there are what I like to refer to as “truck-trucks”, it’s like a tuk-tuk, only instead of a modified motorbike pulling a passenger carriage, it’s a very tiny truck with a seating area for maybe four people in the back. And when I say tiny, I mean tiny, like a clown car with a passenger carriage on the back. With the motorbike taxis and truck-trucks, you have to agree on your price first. It’s a good thing I have Princess with me. I hate to haggle, but Princess, she loves it and she didn’t earn the nickname “Princess” because she’s nice…

We head south down a busy roadway past Wats (temples) and shopping malls and an oddly astonishing number of hip, urban looking furniture stores. It’s a strange dichotomy to see a Wat next to a shopping mall. The farang influence abounds here. But for the fact that there are no front lawns or sidewalks, the area we are in could almost be considered “suburban” by Western standards. Busy roadways, houses packed densely together, strip malls. There are no beaches around and the scenery isn’t particularly noteworthy. Just past a cashew factory on a busy street, we see the sign, “Pat’s Home - Thai Cooking School”. Princess and I look at each other quizzically. The taxi heads up the dirt driveway, past another house and a parcel of land for sale (the for sale sign shows a picture of a shopping mall with a fast food restaurant and a coffee shop), and next thing we know, we are standing at a brass gate in a garden sanctuary surrounded by orchids, birds of paradise, star fruit trees and coconut palms. Song birds fill the air and its as if we are 1,000 miles away from the urban sprawl.

a few garden shots:

the outdoor breakfast table:

We are greeted first by a young, bouncing beagle eager to play and in want of attention. “Pad Thai”, “Pad Thai” a voice calls, then says something sternly in Thai that I imagine is something along the lines of “get in the house”. Pad Thai retreats and heads for the door. Pat greets us with an outstretched hand and a warm hello. Like all the Thai people we have met so far, she is welcoming and gracious. We remove our shoes at the entrance of a large outdoor kitchen where Pat holds her cooking lessons (and where I’ll be having mine). She ushers us through and into her house. The house is very western in style, but for the large alter at the top of the stairs displaying Buddha’s, photographs of monks and jars of incense.

the outdoor teaching kitchen:

After settling into our room, I head downstairs. Pat is sitting on the settee and I make myself comfortable on the stairs. We fall into easy conversation about food and cooking and I feel as if I am talking to a friend. She asks me what I would like to learn, so I open my notebook and turn to the pages of food that I hope to eat while in Thailand. I want to make a Kaeng Pa (“jungle curry”) and I would like to make the curry paste from scratch. Pla Som Rod (“fish with three tastes”); a deep fried whole fish with a spicy, sweet and sour sauce. Pad Thai, since mine always comes out like soup and way too sweet. Maeng Kum, which there isn’t a direct English translation – but it’s little morsels of pungent aromatics wrapped in a cha ploo leaf and served with a sweet and salty fish sauce. And, last but not least, sweet, sticky rice with mango. This is a staple food of South East Asia and I lived off of it for three weeks on a trip to the Philippines (I’m addicted to it). I have tried making it several times and it never turns out. Also, from the basic recipe, it can be made into little cakes, stuffed, wrapped in banana leaves and grilled or turned into many other sweet little treats…

“Great”, Pat said. “Can you be ready to go to the market at 6am tomorrow?”. Can I? I’m not even sure if I’ll be able to sleep I’m so excited!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

One night in Bangkok...

Speaking fast and in her thick Spanish accent, Princess is wagging her finger and warning me sternly, "Cristina, you can get Hepatitis A and Avian Bird Flu from eating the wrong thing here".

"No drinks with ice in them, no salad because it could be washed with bad water".

“No fruit unless you peel it yourself”.

“You can’t eat anything unless it’s been cooked and is served hot”.

My eyes are watering and throat burns from our tuk-tuk ride. I really want a Thai iced-tea, damn it. I don’t let on, but Princess’ warning rings in my head. I’d heard it all before – typhoid, hepatitis… blah blah blah…

I'm not going to be paranoid. Besides, I prayed to Lucky Buddha today:

Buddha, please let me be lucky today and not get typhoid or Avian Bird Flu.
There, my bases are covered...

“Princess, You have to be willing to put aside your quaint, Western notions of sanitation and safety if you are going to travel in the Third World and enjoy yourself. Really, girl. Where’s your sense of adventure?”.

Where there is risk, there is also reward...

"Cristina, I am not immunized, I am NOT eating that stuff!". But now she is fallowing behind me as I sniff and inspect each food stall down grimy road after grimy road.

Every road is grimy in Bangkok. It is a city covered in a layer of soot.

Her voice fades into the background noise of motorbikes, tuk-tuks and taxi’s. I hear vaguely something about getting the shits for a week, blowing out my stomach on the first day of my trip…

I don’t care; I’ve been in Thailand three hours already and haven’t eaten ANYTHING! And I came to Thailand to eat…

Typhoid, hepatitis, bird flu - to hell with it! I'm eating it all!

Tangy ginger crusted fish! Yum!

Sweet and Spicy Clams

Those little chillies will kill off the bacteria, won't they?

Well, I'm blogging about it. So obviously it didn't kill me...

2007 Wrap up...

Christmas Party Menu

Shot of Eggnog apon arrival

“Dippy Things”:
Tuscan White bean Dip with Roasted Garlic
Green Olive Tapanade
Black Mission Fig and Kalmata Olive Tapenade
Sun Dried Tomato Tapenade
Homemade breadstick, crackers & crudite (for the diippy things)

Cheese platter with Dried Fruits and Nuts
Selection of Artisinal Breads

“Pick-up Things”:
Bacon Wrapped Dates Stuffed with Marcona Almonds
Truffled Chicken liver pate on Crostini
Roasted Tiger Prawns Marinated in Pesto and Parmesan and Wrapped in Proscutto
Tapas Style Meatballs
Stilton & Walnut Salad on Endive Leaves
Mini Turkey Sandwiches with Cranberry Bourbon Relish on Rye Crostini
Mini Panko Crusted Crab Cakes with Smoked Paprika Aioli
Pigs in Blankets with Homemade Ketchup and Spicy Mustard

“Sweet Things”:
Pistachio and Orange Flower Baklava
Chocolate Hazelnut Crinkle Cookies
Cinnamon Biscotti

It was a hectic week of preparation for the X’s Christmas party. I was told the head count would be around 120, but having cooked for the X’s all summer long, I knew better and prepared for 200. Which, of course, was much closer to the actual turnout.

I had a slave in the kitchen for the week. An 18 year old kid that cooks at a local restaurant and is delusional enough to think he wants to be a professional chef. I’m not sure how encouraging I was as I repeatedly hounded him about the importance of working neat and clean, knit-picked over his knife skills and even tossed out some prep when it wasn’t up to snuff and told him to start over. Ah, yes, I’d forgotten how nice it was to have help in the kitchen. I can’t wait to have a sous-chef on the yacht…

Sadly, my sprout experiment that I had started didn’t quite survive the maelstrom of activity that week. The Orchid Room was a bit too dry and with all of the prep I had to do, I let the sprouts go un-watered for one day and the little sprouting tails on my seedlings quickly dried out and withered. But, I will have planting boxes in the window of the galley so I’ll try again another day…

One of my favorite projects for the party was to make sourdough breadsticks from the starter that I began last August. Tucked away in the fridge in the for the past five months I was unsure and a tad skeptical as to whether my little yeasty monster could be brought back to life from its chilly hibernation. I removed the dormant starter from the refrigerator, it had separated into a thick white paste with a pungent smelling, tea-colored liquid floating on top. But, besides the dark liquid, there was no mold and despite the pungent odor, it wasn’t entirely offensive. When the starter came to room temperature I gave it a stir to make a homogenized, white paste and added equal parts bread flour and warm water to match the existing starters weight. Within hours it awoke and became a bubbling, foaming mass. It still worked! Yeah! The breadstick recipe called for nearly 2-pounds of starter, so I fed my starter equal parts flour and water, matching its weight, 2 times a day for 3 days until I had more than enough to work with. Active and bubbly from it’s twice daily feedings, it had a strong, tangy aroma and was ready to be used…

Following Nancy Silverton’s recipe for Italian Breadsticks, I mixed and proofed my dough and piled it onto a well-floured counter into a soft, loose mound. It spread out into a loose, gelatinous blob. Using a metal pastry scraper I began cutting the dough into thin strips. It was very soft and delicate to handle. Gently rolling each strip to round out the edges, I placed them on a baking sheet and baked the breadsticks until they were a pail golden brown, then I brushed of the excess flour, brushed them with olive oil and Maldon sea salt and put them back in the oven until they were a deep golden brown. The kitchen filled with a toasty sourdough aroma as I pulled and replaced tray after tray from the oven. Mrs. X drifted into the kitchen as if lead by her nose. “Mmmm, Cookie, are these ready?”, “sure Mrs. X”. She bit into and all she could say was, “mmmmmmmmmmm. Can I have another?” and she at one more. “This one looks imperfect too, I really think I need to eat it”. “No problem Mrs. X, but I need some for the party”, “ok, just one more. I swear” she said as she walked out of the room munching a breadstick and with one more in her hand... I took a breadstick to try as well. It shattered in my mouth into light, crisp, shards. First the sourdough, then the crunch of salt and olive oil ambushed my taste buds. Perfection, I don’t think I will ever be able to enjoy a box of store bought grosini again. Mrs. X returned, “ok, maybe just one more?” Between the two of us, I think we devoured a dozen breadsticks. The homemade breadsticks were all different lengths and had little imperfections about their appearance; bubbles, and “spurs” and twists. They looked fun too. We stood them up in tall glasses all around the horsdeouvre table.

The truffled chicken tourine was another great treat to make, and extremely simple. I minced about 2 cups shallots and 3 cloves of garlic and sweated them together in a large saute pan with copious amounts of butter. When they were soft, I deglazed the pan with brandy and added allspice, black pepper, thyme and marjoram. Then I added 2 pounds of chicken livers which I sautéed just until they were barely cooked, but still pink in the middle. I placed the warm mixture in the food processor with 1 cup of the white truffle cream that my boss had given me and pureed everything together, adjusted the seasoning and then poured it into small ceramic bowls. I decorated the tops with herb leaves and a thin layer of clarified butter to prevent the tourine from turning an unsightly grey.

At 6pm as the guests began to arrive, the valets took their cars, their jackets were hung and they were greeted with a tall, skinny shot glass of brandied egg-nog. I rushed to fill the table with all that I had been preparing for the previous four days. Mr. X got his pigs in blankets and the guests did a formidable job of devouring almost everything…

The next day was the day before Christmas Eve ,a massive snow storm was predicted for that part of the Midwest. I had a flight out at 6am and between cleaning up after the party and packing my bags I had about an hour of shuteye before my taxi arrived and I was heading home…

I actually made another visit to the yacht right after New Years. The frames are in for the cabinetry in the galley and I can really see the progress. The hull is being sanded and painted now --- and in no time at all, she’ll be in the water….

I won’t be needed again until Mid-March and Mr. & Mrs. X have given me strict instructions to “get lost” and an “education budget” for which to get lost with. And so, I’m writing this blog as I kill time on my 18-hour flight to Bangkok, Thailand. My cooking lessons begin in two days in Phuket….

I think it’s going to be a good year…

Blog Directory - Blogged