Cooking Khao Soi with Chow

One of my favorite Thai dishes is khao soi, the curried noodles that hail from Northern Thailand. With a variety of textures and loads of rich broth, it makes a satisfying meal. Recently, my Bangkok Glutton friend Chow arranged for her aunt to share their family’s recipe for khao soi with us.

We returned to Chow’s kitchen to try our hand at recreating the recipe. While the results were good, it is safe to say that we are going to need a lot more practice before Chow’s aunt has anything to fear from our competition!

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Khao soi is made with egg noodles. There are a variety of types, but if you have an Asian market in your city, any fresh egg noodles will do. The noodles are split into two batches: one that is blanched in boiling water and the other that is fried to make a crunchy garnish.

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The fried noodles are easier to make than I expected, not requiring much oil at all. The resulting crispy noodles are addictive. Hard to not eat them before finishing the rest of the cooking!

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The base of the khao soi is a yellow curry combined with a fried mixture of ginger and shallots. You can use any yellow curry paste available at your local Asian market. The better the quality paste, the better the flavor, of course.

Like many curries, coconut milk is added to create richness. You can use a “lite” coconut milk or add some broth to thin it out. For the meat, you can use any type of meat you like. Beef and chicken are more traditional but pork or firm tofu would be fine. The flavor of the curry might overwhelm shellfish, though.

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Like all noodle dishes in Thailand, proper khao soi is served with a variety of condiments. Here, you have dried chili flakes, chopped green onions and coriander, fresh shallots, chili oil, minced pickled cabbage (rinse off some sauerkraut as an easy substitute), and fresh lime.

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The end result looked fantastic and tasted good. Getting the proper balance of flavors – fish sauce and sugar need to be added to taste – is where the secret of a true khao soi master lies. Again, Chow’s aunt has nothing to worry about!

Down-home American Cuisine

Two weeks ago, Chow suggested we invite friends over to her house and cook a dinner that relied on a new cookbook she had received. The cookbook contained only “down-home” classic American dishes, organized on a state-by-state basis. Of course, I’m up for trying to cook almost anything in the kitchen, especially if it is someone else’s kitchen!

The main course of the meal was “Kansas Fried Chicken”. Having a lot of relatives in Kansas and having lived there a year before moving to Thailand, I can’t rightly say what distinguished fried chicken as “Kansas” fried chicken. This was only my second time trying to make fried chicken and I have to say, keeping the oil temperature consistent around the 350 F target is a pain in the neck.

The end result turned out pretty well. The chicken isn’t brined or marinated. Simply pat it dry, sprinkle liberally with salt, pepper, and paprika, and then dredge in a mixture of flour, salt, pepper, and I added some chile powder. The result was super. The chicken remained moist and with sufficient salt, very flavorful. Afterwards, I used a few tablespoons of the oil to make the best gravy I’ve ever made.

If you have gravy, you might as well have some biscuits, right? These were another recipe from the cookbook and, oddly, they used vegetable oil rather than a solid fat such as butter or Crisco. The texture was tender although I think my biscuit recipe (from my mother) is better. The Crisco in the recipe gives it a flakier texture.

Side dishes included a baked spinach casserole. The bread crumbs Chow used were panko, the Japanese bread crumbs used in tempura. The dish was very dry; not sure if something more was meant to be added to the greens. It was tasty, though.

The asparagus side dish was fantastic. It used cream of mushroom soup straight from the can, spread in alternating layers with the asparagus and then baked. On the top are crushed Cheese-It crackers. 

Used this opportunity to break out a jar of the pickled green tomatoes and shallots that I made a month ago. These were great. I need to figure out somewhere to get a larger quantity of green cherry tomatoes so I can pickle more.

Dessert was a cherry and blackberry pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Nice and simple, keeping with our Americana theme.

 

Cooking Various Thai Street Food

In my continued unemployment (well, at least I’m not formally employed full-time), I am assisting my friend Chow with testing recipes for the updated edition of her guidebook to Thailand’s best street food. This involves going out to try different dishes in their original context – i.e. on the street – and then returning to her kitchen to try and recreate the dishes, taking notes for how cooks in other countries can modify or substitute techniques and ingredients as necessary. It is a tough job, but someone has to do it.

For this group of recipes, we went to a long-established Isaan style street food vendor on Soi Suan Phlu, off Sathorn Road. “Isaan” refers to the northeastern region of Thailand, a dry, poorer portion of the country and also home to a large percentage of the total population. Isaan food is spicy and often uses fermented foods (shrimp paste, fish, chili paste, etc.) to add flavor. While foreigners (and for that matter, many Thais from central Thailand) can find the food a bit too strong, many of the dishes have gained admission to the pantheon of popular Thai cuisine. Chief among these are som tam (green papaya salad), gai yang or moo yang (grilled chicken or pork), and larb (chopped meat and herb salad).

Here is the street vendor’s version of kor muu yang – grilled pork neck. Thai pork is moister and more flavorful than the pork available in the United States, which has been bred to be low-flat and, thus, bland. The neck has plenty of fat and the meat undergoes a quick marinade and then grilling over blazing hot charcoal. Though simple, the flavors are very rewarding to eat.

Another dish we tried is the yam plaa muk – squid salad. “Yam” (which means “mix”) refers to a style of salad that originates in Isaan, although of course it wouldn’t originally be served with fresh squid since that region is a long way from the ocean. Regardless of the main ingredients, the dressing always includes shallots or onions, lime juice, fish sauce, sugar (usually palm), and fresh chilies. That’s the holy quartet of Thai cuisine: sour, salty, sweet, and spicy.

Back at Chow’s kitchen, we tried our hand at yam pla muk. In addition to the fresh squid (it must be fresh or else it will be rubbery), which is cleaned, cut, and boiled very briefly (it must be brief or else it will be rubbery), we added Chinese celery (substitute the leaves and thin ends of regular celery), onion, and tomatoes. Mix all the ingredients in a bowl, along with the sauce ingredients I mentioned in the previous paragraph.

The end result is a refreshing, ceviche-like dish that makes for a perfect summer salad. If you don’t like squid or can’t find any, you could use shrimp or fish, too. You could also use chicken, beef, pork (sliced and cooked), or even pomelo. Lots of options.

We also tried our hand at muu yang, the grilled pork. Lacking a grill, we seared on a cast iron griddle and then finished the pork beneath the broiler. We were focusing more on the marinade rather than the way the meat was cut and discovered that the marinade recipe will be trickier to figure out than we expected! This will require more experimentation. The red sauce is a bottled sweet chili sauce that is available in most Asian food markets. Served also with some sticky (glutinous) rice, another Isaan staple.

While we were at it, we also tried our hand at satay. Satay are skewers of meat (in this case, pork and chicken) that are marinated, brushed with coconut milk, and grilled. They actually come from southern Thailand by way of Indonesia. We didn’t focus on cutting the meat into thin strips and instead went for chunks. We did make the peanut sauce from scratch. A lot of recipes available to foreigners substitute peanut butter instead of ground peanuts. Yes, you can do that… but it really doesn’t taste the same. Served with cucumbers, shallots, and chilies briefly pickled in a rice wine vinegar and sugar brine.

The experience of cooking with Chow is always fun. For all the years I’ve lived in Thailand, I’m woefully ignorant of how my favorite Thai dishes are made. When there is such inexpensive and tasty street food available, there is little incentive to cook these dishes myself. (Especially since some of the ingredients and cooking processes come with a strong smell. Fermented shrimp paste anyone?)

 

Adventures in Cooking: Raviolo

At a friend’s recently opened Roman style restaurant (about which I will write), I enjoyed a “raviolo” – singular of “ravioli” – a single, large filled pasta. His version has an egg yolk in the middle and it is cooked to just the right point that as you cut into the raviolo, the egg yolk pours out. Very dramatic presentation. I decided to try my hand at the concept and make my own raviolo.

The end result, which looks pretty enough, is about seven inches in diameter. Truly, I did make “ravioli” as there was one for Tawn and one for me. I just like saying “raviolo”. All things considered, it was a bit of a misadventure due to lack of experience and finesse on my part. But we learn from our mistakes, right? Well, I try to.

The filling was made of braised spinach and chicken, seasoned liberally with garlic, rosemary, and chili flakes.

I used Thomas Keller’s seven-yolk pasta dough recipe, which is my go-to recipe for pasta. Instead of pulling out the KitchenAid mixer, I hand rolled the dough. First mistake, as I couldn’t roll it nearly as thin as I should have. That may be because I didn’t let the dough rest long enough after kneading. It was getting late and I wanted dinner on the table before 9:00.

A good-sized portion of the filling was placed in the midst of the dough and an egg yolk was nestled on top. This was my second mistake. I separated the egg yolks at the same time as I separated the egg yolks for the pasta dough. In the intervening hour or so, the yolks formed a slight skin on them, so when I tried to pour them onto the filling, they tore. That ruined the effect of having a nice soft-cooked yolk to cut into!

Mama-mia! That’s a meat-balla! Well, actually, just a raviolo. Quite large and a bit of a pain to cut because I had no cutter large enough. Instead, I traced around a saucer with a sharp paring knife.

After about six minutes boiling (they were a pain to flip!), the ravioli were ready to serve. I put a simple homemade tomato sauce on top, sprinkling a bit of mozzarella cheese. As you can see, the egg yolk is hardly discernible as it has melted into the filling. The pasta skin, as I mentioned, was a little thick especially around the edges. All in all, I think it was an okay first attempt and was definitely a learning experience. Next time, I’ll make them a bit smaller, roll out the dough using the pasta machine, and separate the egg yolks at the last minute. The one thing I was pleased with was the filling. While it could have used more spinach (the darn vegetable just shrivels up to nothing when you cook it!), the flavor was very good – salty, garlicky, and slightly spicy.

 

Cooking with the Smoking Gun

On my recent trip to the United States, I stopped by Williams Sonoma and purchased a kitchen gadget called the Smoking Gun that I had been looking forward to trying. Made by PolyScience, the company behind much of the kitchen equipment used in molecular gastronomy, the Smoking Gun is an easy way to smoke food at home, without the need for a barbecue or smoker. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to put it to the test at my friend Nat’s house, where he, Chow, and I prepared a four course meal. Each course contained a smoked element.

This video shares the whole story but photos are below, too.

The Smoking Gun is more or less a battery powered hair dryer with a smoking chamber. You put the combustable substance in the chamber, turn on the fan, and then light the substance. Air is drawn through the smoking chamber and the smoke it blown out a spout to which a rubber tube can be attached. This makes it easy to direct the smoke where you want it. The Smoking Gun is easy to use and about thirty seconds is enough to produce as much smoke as you need. 

The smoke can come from wood chips (four types are sold directly by PolyScience), herbs, spices, tobacco, etc. and can be used on meats, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, and beverages. The key is that you need to trap the smoke in the cooking vessel or some other container and allows the food to absorb the smoke compounds for at least five minutes. Here, some pieces of sushi-grade salmon are smoked in a zipper-lock plastic bag.

Here are the finished dishes with some notes:

The meal started with sashimi grade salmon which had been smoked (I used a different type of wood with each dish but don’t remember which I used) and then served very simply with creme fraiche and a chiffonade of shiso leaves. The lemony flavor of the herb and the tanginess of the creme went nicely with the salmon. Unfortunately, I don’t feel like the salmon was as good quality as I wanted and it warmed up a bit too much during plating. Other than that, it was tasty.

The second course was cod fish. This, too, was smoked and then pan-fried in an oil that had been infused with Thai “tom yam” herbs. The fish was accompanied by a garnish of the fried tom yam herbs including shallots, garlic, lemongrass, and chilies. The smoke flavor was less noticeable on this dish. If I was to do it again, I would fry a second batch of herbs to serve as a garnish, instead of using the herbs that had infused the oil with flavor.

The third course was beef tenderloin, smoked and then cooked sous vide. Afterwards, the beef was briefly pan seared and served with a broiled butter leaf lettuce, roasted, carrots, and air fried potatoes. Again, the smokiness was pretty subtle but the beef was nicely tender. The broiled lettuce was a real treat, lending a lot of complexity to an otherwise simple vegetable.

For dessert, I fired up the butane torch and burned some sugar. Where there’s smoke, there must also be fire, right?

Vanilla creme brûlée with meringue, smoked Granny Smith apple compote, and raspberry coulis. The smoked apple compote was very successful – I used both wood chips and cinnamon in the Smoking Gun – and the meringue was a nice touch. I must admit to being proud of thinking of a way to use the leftover egg whites and browning the meringues with the torch made them very attractive.

My overall impression of the Smoking Gun? It is an easy to use tool and effective for adding a subtle, superficial smokiness to food. It isn’t the same as smoking pork belly for twelve hours to get bacon, but it also requires a lot less space, so the trade-off is worth it. I’ll have to think carefully about what items to smoke and would like to experiment with using herbs and spices. Hopefully, that means more videos!

 

Cooking Thai Food

A few weeks ago, my friend Chow, a prolific food writer who publishes at BangkokGlutton.com, invited me to help her write some Thai food recipes to include in the updated version of her handy book, “Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls”. One or two afternoons a week, we have gathered ingredients in her kitchen and tested and modified different recipes to try and make ones that are easily accessible to home cooks anywhere in the world.

While I can’t share the recipes here, I will share some pictures of two of our recent dishes: pad thai and tom yum goong.

Pad thai is a common fried noodle dish that is notable for its distinct, sweet-sour sauce. Thai restaurants in the west sometimes try to make a tomato based sauce or use ketchup as a flavoring, but that isn’t an acceptable substitute for the main ingredient: tamarind. These days, tamarind is increasingly common in many countries, thanks to its use in Latin American and Indian cuisines, cultures that have large diasporas. Not long ago, I was in suburban Seattle and was able to find fresh Mexcian tamarind, using the flesh to make a sweet and sour sauce for steak. 

The pad thai also makes use of (moving left to right from the top row, down) pickled daikon radish, garlic, eggs, shrimp, the tamarind sauce, lime, toasted peanuts, bean sprouts, green onions, firm tofu, dried shrimp, and red chili flakes. Most of these ingredients are readily available. The pickled daikon can be replaced with well-rinsed sauerkraut in a pinch. Not shown are the dried rice noodles that form the base of the dish. These are available at any Asian market and at better-stocked supermarkets with an Asian foods section.

 

The end result is a stir-fry of all the ingredients with an engaging flavor that is tangy and sweet, slightly spicy, and a little bit sour. A perfect balance of flavors. Now, one thing about Thai cuisine that non-Thais don’t always understand: noodle dishes (both soups and stir-fries) are generally a single-plate food. Most Thai food is served family style, with various curries and other dishes in the middle of the table to be shared and eaten along with rice. Noodle dishes, though, are usually ordered for lunch, a snack, or dinner and are consumed by a single person. So when you go to a Thai restaurant and, along with all your other dishes, order some pad thai to share, it is a little strange. I’m not saying you can’t do it – by all means, order whatever you want – but it isn’t the way the dish is eaten by Thais.

The next dish we made was a tom yum soup. This herbal soup is not only rich in flavor but has significant health benefits from all the different herbs. The main ingredients, from top left, are lime, peppercorns, fish sauce, kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass, chilies, galangal root, cilantro, and mushrooms. We also added prawns, called “goong” in Thai. You could also make it with chicken or tofu.

The soup is made by bruising the herbal ingredients (literally beating them with a cleaver, mallet, or other heavy object) to release the oils. These are then simmered in water or, cheating a little, some broth. The fish sauce is added to make the flavor more complex and many people also add fermented chili paste. The mushrooms are cooked and then prawns are added a minute or two before serving.

The end result is a clear broth with lots of herbal flavor, a delicately cooked prawn, and a bit of spice. An alternative version of this soup, tom kor gai, is made with chicken and is finished with some coconut milk to add richness. Usually served near the start of a Thai meal, the soup is like an appetizer, with the herbs whetting your appetite and preparing you for the complex flavors of the meal to follow.

I will share more photos as we continue to experiment with the recipes.

 

Homemade Pizza and Pasta Party

Last Friday we gathered at Chow’s place to cook dinner. The menu: homemade pizzas and pasta. The pizzas were a variety of gourmet types based on the menu of Roberta’s Pizza in Brooklyn, which Chow had tried on a recent visit. The pasta was a homemade chorizo and butternut squash ravioli. And to top it off, I made kaffir lime cheesecake.

Friends gather around the large island in the kitchen, helping to prepare ingredients and eat appetizers. The ravioli are already prepared and drying and we were waiting for the oven to preheat for the pizzas.

Every time I cook at a friend’s house, it is a bit of a logistics ordeal. In this case, I needed my KitchenAid mixer so I could roll out the pasta. I was also bringing a case of Oregon beer.

The beer in question is from Rogue, an independent brewer. The most interest beer of the evening: Voodoo Doughnut Bacon Maple Ale. Had a distinct smokiness with a subtle sweetness on the tail end of the flavor.

For the pasta, I made homemade fresh (not dried) chorizo. I bought pork belly and ground it, adding paprika, garlic, and chili powder.

Browned the sausage in a pan, drained it on paper towels to remove the considerable grease, and then blended it with a butternut squash puree made from locally produced organic squash.

Make the pasta from scratch using Thomas Keller’s “Seven Yolk Pasta” with semolina flour. This is the best way to mix pasta dough, using your hands.

Using a creative technique I picked up watching Season 10 of Top Chef, I layered sage leaves between two sheets of pasta dough and then pressed them several more times. Then flattens the leaves, making the pasta pretty and adding some sage flavor.

Completed ravioli. I cut them relatively small so they didn’t have a lot of filling. In hindsight, I would have added more butternut squash and less chorizo as the sausage overpowered the squash flavor. A few more sage leaves would have been nice, too.

After boiling the ravioli, we fried them in a pan with browned butter and sage leaves. Became a bit more crispy than intended but were tasty all the same.

While I made the pizza dough (with Type 00 flour, a finer texture than regular all-purpose flour), I let Chow coordinate the toppings for each pie.

Half mushroom and pepperoni and half Jerusalem artichoke and pesto.

Salame!

Sliced Brussels sprouts, Boursin cheese, and locally produced pastrami.

Tomato, fresh buffalo mozzarella, and rocket.

For dessert, I once again made the kaffir lime cheesecake that was such a hit on New Year’s Day. It begins by steeping the lime leaves in heavy cream.

The crust is made of graham crackers, toasted pecans, sugar, and butter.

The main ingredients are cream cheese, eggs, the infused cream, kaffir lime zest, and a little lime juice. The juice comes from a regular lime as the kaffir lime juice is much to acidic.

The ingredients are blended together until smooth and light. Truth be told, I add two or three drops of green food coloring just to augment the color. The leaves alone give it only the most pale of greens.

Tap several times to release air bubbles and then cook in a water bath for 40-45 minutes. The key to a cheesecake with a smooth top (no cracks) is to turn the oven off when the edges are set but the center is still very shaky. Then let it complete cooking in the closed (but turned off) oven for another hour. This lets it cool down gradually and prevents the cracks.

The finished product has a mixture of sour cream, kaffir lime zest, and sugar poured over the top. I garnished with a chiffonade of kaffir lime leaves. This worked okay the first time but this time the leaves were a bit tough. I need to choose the smaller, more tender leaves and cut them more finely. The taste of the cake was good, though, and won rave reviews.

Most importantly, we had friends gathered together and shared good food, good wine, and good company. After all, that’s what makes the best meals, right? The company with which they are shared.