26 March 2009

Good buy phone

Well, someone got a good buy today. I'm sure of it. All they had to do was walk on over to MBK,* take a look at the phone counters and find my phone sitting there. I am certain that, if not at MBK, then my phone is somewhere on the black market being hawked for a very quick sale.

Out for a stroll with my kids, I strapped on the Ergo backpack and casually placed my mobile phone in an exterior pocket. "Gasp," you exclaim. "Not the exterior pocket." Distracted by piles of bananas and pens and salted pomellos for sale, I casually said my hellos to the vendors. I bent over to get a look at the pet pigs from my children's eye view. I stopped to dig for some baht to throw into a nearby fountain. I.... wait... are those dozens of roses I see on the back of that parked motorbike?

Some of the most beautifully fragrant roses I've ever seen sat perched in a little milk crate, wrapped by the five dozen in bundles. Approaching slowly, I asked the price. 80 baht! (That's about two and a quarter in the States.) I took one bundle (five dozen) vibrant pink roses and threw in a big bunch of leggy garnet orchids as well. With a child holding each hand, a back pack stuffed with bananas falling off my shoulders and flowers shoved under my arms, I was quite the unsuspecting victim.

Stopping at the coffee shop (Do you have any idea how heavy five dozen roses with all of their stems and leaves still attached are?), I had to ring my husband to brag about the steal I got on my flowers! With the pocket flap opened and no phone in site, it looks like my flowers actually cost a bit more than 80 baht.

*MBK is billed as an indoor version of Thailand's famous outdoor street markets. Everything is price negotiable and the electronics zone is known for buying and selling used merchandise (acquired legally, I'm sure).

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 40:
Rose Martinis
Rose syrup is used in a popular drink in Malaysia. This is inspired by that drink and is a beautiful twist on the traditional martini. Plus, it looks stunning served as a pre-dinner drink at a small supper party.

approximately 5 culinary roses**
3 cups of boiling water
1 cup of sugar
vodka, 2 oz per beverage

Remove the petals from the roses, reserve a few petals for garnish) and place in a large heatproof glass container. Pour the boiling water over the top of the petals and cover tightly. Allow to sit for one hour and strain, reserving liquid. In a saucepan, reheat the rosewater and add the sugar. Without stirring, bring to a boil and then lower the heat to a simmer. Watch closely, but allow to cook until the sugar has completely dissolved (about 5 minutes). Set aside and cool. In a shaker add ice, 2 ounces of vodka, and 1 ounce of the cooled rose syrup. Shake, pour into a martini glass, garnish with a single floating rose petal and serve immediately.

**Can be found as an edible flower in gourmet groceries or purchased dried from a variety of online sources. Or, use your own garden roses. You want something that is pesticide-free. If you can't find the appropriate roses,  purchase a pre-made rose syrup or rosewater from your grocer.

22 March 2009

Fire sauce burns

To say that last week did not go all that smoothly might be an understatement. As I write this post, I'm popping pain relievers and holding an ice pack to my mouth. My lips are swollen beyond recognition and feel as though they are going to swallow up my entire face at any moment.

After months of enjoying the pepper sauce accompanying one of my favorite vendor dishes, this was the week that my brain played a nasty trick on my body. "Come on, you like the heat. The spice is fantastic. You're not a wimp. You can handle it hot," my brain taunted. Dropping a full teaspoon of the vendor's fire sauce onto my cup of rice, I lifted a bite to my mouth. Wow. Ka-ping. That stuff is good! And, hot. A few bites later and I was screaming my way to the kitchen to put out the fire in my mouth. Unwrapping a giant chunk of unsweetened chocolate I keep for the occasional baking project, I couldn't mess with a knife and just attempted to gnaw off a piece to put out the flames. Ahhh... relief.

The next day, I eyed the sauce cautiously. Oh, what the heck. Let's give it another whirl. A bowl full of rice and a half teaspoon of sauce later, I was splashing cold water all over myself in an attempt to stop my lips from the burning sensation radiating within.

On day three, I awoke and knew something was wrong. If the pain pulsing from my lips wasn't a strong indicator, then the blisters lining the entire interior of my mouth were a dead give away. Here's a lesson: Pepper sauce that you refer casually to as fire sauce can burn your lips... badly.

The last thing I expected on that fateful day I handed over my baht in exchange for the little baggie filled with pepper sauce was to obtain the results that some people pay big bucks for. Hey, anyone need a serious lip plump? Come visit me and I'll lead you in the way.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no 39:
Fire Sauce (Nam Prik POW!)
I haven't yet been able to replicate the sauce made by our local vendor. But, this recipe is a take on the traditional fried chili sauces found throughout Thailand. Each vendor or restaurant has their own variation of the condiment which can be used to top plain rice, added to soups or noodle dishes. It can also be added to curries to give stronger heat. Consider yourself warned though: Cook this in a well ventilated area and take caution in consuming. Make no mistake about it, this is FIRE sauce.

6 tablespoons oil
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 shallots, finely chopped
6 dried red chili peppers (the largest you can find), crushed slightly
4 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons salt

In a wok, heat the oil and fry the garlic and scallions until golden brown. Do not allow garlic to burn. Remove from the oil and set aside. Add the chilies to the oil and fry until they darken. Remove from oil and combine with the garlic and scallions in a mortar. Pound thoroughly until a paste is formed. Reheat the oil and add the paste. Add the sugar and salt. Combine and cook to warm. Set aside and serve warm or cold. Will keep for up to three months in an air tight container in the refrigerator.

18 March 2009

Ring, ring... food delivery

After a full day of play dates, swimming, keeping up with two kids under five and a husband who was away on business, I desperately needed a quick dinner solution. Under usual circumstances I relish the opportunity to try a new recipe or whip up a batch of fried rice, but last night I was tired and uninspired (and frankly, craving something of the Mexican variety). So, after months of hearing about some of the food delivery services available in Bangkok, I decided to finally hit the Internet and found out that you can order ANY type of food you desire to be delivered to your doorstep!

With a lack of desire to fight evening traffic, leave it to the restaurants in Thailand (a country known for its food) to come up with a clever and easily executed answer to the question: "What's for dinner?"

Thirty minutes later and burritos, margaritas and nacho chips were hot in my hands. Why hadn't I tried to order food for delivery sooner?!

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 38
Lime Coconut Cake
For the day you actually do feel like cooking, this cake is an all-around dessert winner. Simple, fresh and perfect for any season. Serve with a swirl of the chocolate sauce or a dollop of whipping cream.

3/4 cup butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup white sugar
6 eggs
zest of 4 limes
juice of 2 limes
3 cups of finely grated coconut, unsweetened
3/4 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder

This batter is best made by hand to preserve its authentic density. In a large mixing bowl, whip the butter until smooth and add the sugar. Whip until well combined. Begin adding one egg at a time. Incorporate each individually before adding the next. Add the zest and coconut. Combine. Add the lime juice. Fold in the flour and baking powder. Pour into a well greased and floured cake pan (I prefer to use a 6 inch diameter, deep sided oven-proof glass bowl. The cooking time must be extended for a smaller than usual deeper pan.) Add to a preheated 350 degree F oven. Cooking time will vary depending on pan-sized use, but for a standard cake pan, plan for 40 to 45 minutes. Remove once the cake is cooked through and allow to cool. Invert, slice and serve.*

*I enjoy slicing the pieces and heating slightly under the broiler before serving so they get a bit toasty.

16 March 2009

Dancing with tea

(press the play button above to see video of Thai Tea Pullers... amazing!)

If you've studied the beverage section of your local Thai food restaurant, you've undoubtedly come across Thai Iced Tea. The orange colored, nutty tea diluted with sweetened condensed milk and poured over ice is a delicious accompaniment to Thailand's often spicy dishes. I'd be willing to bet, though, that you may have never had "Pulled" Thai Iced Tea.

Recently, I took my visiting father to Bangkok's Weekend Market and made sure to stop at one of my favorite vendors. Located on the main road-side circle route of the market, roughly around section 12, you'll find the Thai Tea Pullers who for about 35 baht per cup will provide you with a frothy delicacy and roadside entertainment. With a boom box playing, the vendors twirl and dance while pouring your tea from metal canisters located at the end of fully stretched arms. You're left with the nutty familiarity of Thai Iced Tea, but with an added airy bonus. The evaporated milk loses its canned syrupy-ness and mingles with the rich flavors of the tea.

Thanks, dad, for the above video of our visit. Oh, and with great embarrassment, I will add a brief note. Knowing that I was going to post this video today, I crept into our home's kitchen (full of confidence) while the kids were napping. Pulling out my tea makings and two pseudo canisters, I combined the ingredients and drew my breath in. Giving it a try, I spun and poured... and laughed at myself as the tea actually landed in the opposite canister. Stretching further and twirling a little faster.... cheeks blazing... I grabbed a dish towel and began mopping.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 37:
Curried potato dumplings
Here is a perfect accompaniment to your own homemade Thai Iced Tea (although, I'd recommend leaving the tea pulling to the professionals). I recently served these little dumplings at a dinner party to rave reviews. The flavors are strong so you'll only want one or two per guest.

2 potatoes, peeled and cubed
1/2 cup of frozen green peas, thawed
1-2 tablespoons green curry paste
Won ton wrappers, approximately 20
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 1/2 cups of orange juice

Boil the potatoes until they are fork tender. Drain to remove cooking liquid and mash thoroughly. Add the peas and one tablespoon of curry until well combined. Taste and add more curry, depending on desired heat. To assemble the dumpling, place a Won Ton wrapper on a flat surface. Have a small bowl of water at the ready. Place a small amount of filling (about 1/2 tablespoon) in the center of the won ton. Dip your fingers into the bowl of water and place a dot at each corner. Gently bring the corners to the middle top and use more water to create a seal. Set aside on a parchment lined plate. Repeat until wrappers and filling are gone. In a saucepan, combine the soy sauce and orange juice. Bring to a boil. Add 2-3 dumplings at a time and cook until done (about 3 minutes each). Remove gently onto a spoon (Asian style soup spoons work well) and place entire dumpling, including the spoon, on to serving tray. Serve after allowing to cool slightly.

Yield: 20 one-bite appetizers

11 March 2009

Plastic packages

I've written many times singing the praises of Thailand's street vendors. The food they serve is fantastic and the experience they provide is an amazing one. In our own neighborhood, I love paying a visit to a couple that cooks up chicken over a flaming barbecue. For very little money, you get a giant piece of deliciously smoky sweet chicken (that our family of four often shares), a side of white sticky rice and a spectacular peppery condiment to light your mouth on fire with. 

My only gripe? The amount of packaging used in this city is off the charts. For the meal I just described, three plastic bags get encased in a fourth larger bag. And, from the volume of business being done, there's a lot of plastic ending up in the garbage at the end of the Bangkok lunch hour.

However, looking at it with a slightly different lens, preparations begin with whole foods and compared to some other areas of the world there is probably less waste in the beginning of the meal's life. Everything is "home" cooked out on the streets. With the exception of the sweetened condensed milk used in the teas, coffees and some desserts here, I have yet to see canned or processed foods used by the vendors. Whole animals are used to create savory stocks, veggies bought from the local traveling green market are stacked high and hand made noodles and dumplings are rolled in front of your eyes. Even so, there's definitely room for improvement in the packaging of the final product. I'm sure I'll be seen as the crazy foreigner the next time I show up at my favorite vendor's stall carrying a reusable container for her to fill with her amazing chicken!

Cooking in Thailand: entry no. 36
Curried Noodles
One of the easiest meals you will ever make. Use the trick of garnishing it well and your friends will think they're dining at their favorite Thai restaurant!

1 package of fresh egg noodles*
1 cup of coconut milk
Thai curry paste, green or red (amount to taste)
approximately 1 tablespoon of fish sauce
approximately 1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 small hand full of basil, roughly chopped

In a large deep saute pan, add 1 tablespoon of coconut milk. Heat and add the fresh noodles (if opting for dried, boil first to an al dente state). Add curry paste, beginning with a little and eventually tasting and adding more to suit your palette. Add remaining coconut milk and stir to coat. Add fish sauce and sugar. Taste and add more curry, fish sauce or sugar depending on your desired taste. Continue to stir until well combined and hot. Pour onto large serving platter and garnish by sprinkling the basil over the top.

Yield: serves four

*If you can't find fresh egg noodles, fresh or dried spaghetti is a fine substitute.

05 March 2009

The Ice Man Cometh

As the temperatures begin to rise in Bangkok, a brigade of newly needed street vendors wheel their roadside carts out of winter storage.

These days, people are beginning to move slowly again, perspiration forms on one's brow and parasols to protect from the heat are raised beginning in the late morning hours. While we are not yet at the hottest period of the year, one can tell that it may be just around the corner. So, when I laid eyes on a woman carrying a Styrofoam cup of freshly crushed ice loaded with neon syrup, I quickly scanned our side street to find its source. 

The rickety wooden cart had a crowd of people milling about and staring at the bottles of brightly colored syrup. The man behind the cart was methodically scraping a big glistening block of ice across an extremely sharp blade embedded in a wooden plank. He held a disposable cup below and caught micro-fine crystals of shaven ice. With no more than ten scrapes across the blade, he had a giant cupful of cooling goodness. Next, customers ahead of us chose their preferred flavor and the vendor generously dumped swirls of blue or pink or green or yellow across the frozen mound, followed by optional toppings of lychee fruit and sweetened condensed milk. As my kids contemplated what color to select for their shared helping, I worried that the vendor may lose business while they worked their way from blue to yellow to pink to red and back to blue. 

Two days after our first encounter with the frozen ice, my son spotted the "ice man" from about a mile away. "ICEEEEEEEE!!!!" he yelled. And, being dragged towards the cart, we were about to experience our second encounter with the grrrt, grrt, grrt of the ice shaver's blade. I am certain we will be responsible for consuming huge blocks of Thailand's ice in the hot months to come. Now, if my kids could just decide what flavor they'd like at a little more business friendly speed, I think we'll be welcomed by the ice man.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no 35:
Cashew Salad
An incredibly easy salad that makes a great unique side dish. You don't want this to sit long though before serving-- the cashews will lose their crunch. I suggest making the dressing and then combining the salad ingredients in a separate bowl. Toss together just before serving.

1 cup of cashews
1 cucumber, finely diced
1/2 carrot, grated
1/2 red pepper, finely diced
2 green onions, finely diced
1 small hand full of cilantro, roughly chopped

1 Tablespoon lime juice
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1 Tablespoon fish sauce
1 Tablespoon white or rice vinegar
1/2 clove garlic, minced or pressed
1/2 Tablespoon sugar
1 fresh red chili, minced
pinch of black pepper

In a serving bowl, add the dressing ingredients and stir to combine. Add the salad ingredients and toss. Serve immediately.

Yield: serves four generous side dish portions

01 March 2009

Rain, frog, not hot, frog again

On this first day of March, we officially bid adieu to "winter " in Bangkok with its mild average of 85 degrees, low humidity and dryness. And, today, we welcome the beginning of the hottest season of all. Going back a few months, when the summer turned to the cooler season I was shocked to learn that the locals were right: "winter" began exactly to the day. Locally, the day after Loy Kratong marks the beginning of cool season and true to the calendar, the day after a wonderful holiday of celebration came and the humidity suddenly dropped. So, with the start of hot season being today, I expected to experience a similar phenomenon. Dawning my lightest clothes, I stepped out onto our home's balcony, planning to water our orchids. But, I had a few surprises awaiting me.

Surprise number one: There was a light rain falling from the sky and the temperatures were cool. I haven't seen rain in Bangkok since early November. How refreshing to watch the little specks mist over the trees. How renewing to smell the earth soak up the precipitation and the smell of wet dirt rise to surround my kids and I on the balcony.

Surprise number two: A dried up frog that apparently couldn't make it to this morning's cooling refreshment was sitting on the couple inch railing of our red balcony. He lay precariously on his back, legs up and "fingers" splayed looking as if he choked on his way to death.

Surprise number three: Just a few yards away, on the same balcony railing lay another dead frog, this one belly down and looking like it could have also used some water in its final days. Perhaps even more surprising than finding two dead frogs and the breeze having not blown them away in the early morning hours, is that they were both positioned on a fairly narrow railing high in the air. Surprising that they not only withstood the elements, but predators as well. 

At my bare feet, a dried up snake skin blew past my red toe nails. I went for the camera as my kids splashed in the rain. We all watered the orchids, despite the fact that they didn't need it now, said a good-bye to the frogs and prepared for "just another day" full of surprises in Thailand.

Cooking in Thailand: entry no. 34
Carrot Ginger Soup
This is one of my favorite recipes no matter where I am in the world. Make extra and pop it in the freezer for a day you don't feel like starting from scratch.

10 large carrots, scrubbed and cut into chunks
4 cups of stock (chicken or veggie)
2 large pieces of ginger, peel removed and cut into chunks
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup of cream, optional

In a large pot, combine the carrots, stock and ginger. Bring to a boil and reduce to medium heat. Cook until the carrots are tender and fall apart when touched with a fork. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. In batches, add mixture to a blender and blend until completely smooth. If you wish, you may strain the soup after blending. Add salt and pepper to taste and cream, if using. Reheat and serve.

Yield: four generous servings