One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.

-Luciano Pavarotti and William Wright, "Pavarotti, My Own Story"

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Thai Chicken Lettuce Wraps a.k.a. Larb Gai

Phew. I hope everyone had a nice Thanksgiving! Mine was great fun, even though I drank a full bottle of champagne and felt kind of lousy the next day... But let's not talk about that! There was juicy turkey, mashed potatoes and apple-cranberry-maple pie and that's all that matters. Of course, now that the big feast is behind us, I have a huge craving for something light and healthy and not bloat-inducing. Larb gai is just such a dish.

Most people who have been to the popular Chinese-American restaurant chain P. F. Chang's are familiar with its chicken lettuce wraps. In fact, they have almost a cult following. I, on the other hand, cannot see the appeal of that dish, as the chicken filling is terribly bland. This Thai lettuce-wrapped chicken is much better. Imagine tender minced meat; its seasoning perfectly balanced - like all Thai dishes - between salty, sour and spicy; enlivened with a shot of lime juice and served with an exuberant shower of fresh herbs. Is your mouth watering yet?

The key to good larb is to use very fresh, crisp lettuce and herbs. Discard any browned or wilted leaves. The traditional herbs are mint and cilantro. I cannot abide the latter, so in keeping with the Thai theme of the dish, I substituted Thai basil, which tastes more anise-y than regular basil. Its stems are purple and the edges of the leaves are slightly serrated. You can see it next to the mint in the photo above. The substitution was delicious, but feel free to use cilantro if you can tolerate it. Be very generous with the herbs! The other key is to use fish sauce instead of soy sauce or salt. As I've said before, its pungent odor dissipates once it's added to the dish. Don't be afraid of it!

The ingredients for this dish can all be found at the supermarket. The only exception is the toasted rice powder, which is nothing more than roasted and ground up rice. It gives a nutty taste to the meat and thickens up the juices. of the meat Please don't omit this ingredient - you can make it in five minutes at home. Instructions follow the larb recipe. The amounts of seasoning that I've given are all approximate. You should set out small bowls of fish sauce, lime wedges and chili powder on the table so that each diner can further season his portion according to his preference. 

Larb Gai
I've substituted ground turkey for the chicken here. You can use any kind of white or red meat as long as it is not super lean. Add steamed sticky rice to each serving if you want to  make this into a more substantial meal. If you follow a gluten-free diet, make sure the fish sauce you buy doesn't include any gluten. Serves 4 as an appetizer or light main course.

1 lb (500 g) ground chicken or turkey
2 shallots, thinly sliced
Juice of one lime
1.5 tbsp fish sauce
1/2 tsp Thai chili powder (I used cayenne)
2 tbsp toasted rice powder (instructions below)
1 handful mint leaves, coarsely chopped
1 handful Thai basil leaves, coarsely chopped
12-16 lettuce leaves
Extra herb leaves and lime wedges to serve

1. Wash and dry the lettuce leaves in a salad spinner. Combine the lime juice, fish sauce, chili powder and shallots in a small bowl.

2. Heat a nonstick pan over medium heat. (If you don't have a nonstick pan, add a couple of spoonfuls of water or chicken stock before the meat.) Add the chicken or turkey and cook, stirring occasionally, until no pink shows. The meat will release its juices then reabsorb them.  Don't let it brown and don't let it reabsorb all the juices. It should be just-cooked and a bit moist.

3. Stir in the lime juice, fish sauce, chili and shallots and cook for 30 seconds. Add the toasted rice powder, stir for another 30 seconds and take off the heat. Taste and add more lime juice, fish sauce or chili powder if needed. Stir in the chopped herbs.

4. Serve with the lettuce leaves, extra herbs and lime wedges. Each diner should create his own wraps after adjusting the seasoning of his larb.

Toasted Rice Powder
The toasted rice is pulverized very easily in a spice or coffee grinder. I simply empty my pepper mill and grind it there.

1. Heat 2 tbsp of white rice in a small pan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until golden brown. Let cool, then grind to a powder. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thanksgiving 2011: Purple Yam Pie

All Thanksgiving related posts here.
My intention today was to take on that Southern classic: Sweet potato pie. I adore sweet potatoes no matter how they are cooked and thought that the pie would be a great addition to the Thanksgiving menu. Yet, when I went to the store, I saw some purple yams on sale and inspiration struck: Why not use these as the filling? I thought the bright purple color would bring a touch of whimsy to the table. 

Purple yams are even sweeter than sweet potatoes. When cooked for a long time, their flesh takes on a jammy consistency and an almost caramel taste. My mother hit upon it: They taste exactly like a less sweet version of the chestnut cream used in European and Turkish desserts. The yams are great cut into wedges and roasted at high heat with a bit of oil. You'll be astonished at how delicious they smell while roasting. However, I'm usually too lazy to peel and cut them, so I eat them simply baked and slathered with creme fraiche. The latter, which can be thought of as the less tangy French cousin of sour cream, is an amazing partner for the yams - each has a certain nuttiness that is echoed in the other. 

I'm not a fan of sweet potato or pumpkin pies that mask the taste of the vegetable with tons of spices, so I used only a small pinch of nutmeg in this pie. The flavor of the yams comes through bright and clear. The filling was not as brilliantly purple as I would have liked, but the taste of the chestnut-y yams combined with the rich creme fraiche more than made up for it. 

Purple yams are available at farmer's markets and many large groceries, but if you cannot get your hands on any, this would be just as good with regular sweet potatoes. Purple sweet potatoes, which are technically a different vegetable than purple yams but taste pretty similar to the latter, would also make a good substitute. 

Purple Yam Pie
I find this pie is best if made one day ahead and chilled overnight. The filling is a touch mushy right out of the oven but a night in the fridge firms it up nicely. Make the crust and chill it while the yams bake and cool. Feel free to use your own pie crust recipe instead of the one provided below. For added textural interest, you can sprinkle some chopped pecans into the crust before pouring in the filling. Serve with creme fraiche or whipped cream on the side. 

1 cup flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup (60 g / half a stick) melted butter 
3 tbsp milk

3 medium purple yams
1/4 tsp salt
6 tbsp sugar
Scant 1/4 tsp nutmeg, preferably freshly-grated
1 tbsp butter, cut into small pieces
5 tbsp creme fraiche
2 eggs

1. Bake the yams in a 400F (200C) oven until a sharp knife goes through them the same way it would go through butter. Lower the oven temperature to 350F (175C). Peel, mash and cool the yams.

2. For the crust, mix the flour and salt in a bowl. Mix the butter and milk in a small bowl and add to the flour. Stir until the dough comes together.

3. Gather the dough into a ball with your hands. Roll it out between two sheets of waxed paper. Peel it off the paper and transfer it to a 9 inch pie plate. Chill the dough in the fridge while the yams are baking and cooling.

4. Mix the salt, sugar, nutmeg and creme fraiche into the yams, then beat in the eggs and butter with a mixer until the filling is smooth. Pour the filling into the pie crust. The filling will expand a bit in the oven, so don't fill the crust to the rim. If there is too much filling, you can bake it in a small dish alongside the pie and have it as a pudding.

5. Bake at 350F (175C) for 50 minutes. Check the crust around the 40 minute mark. If it is browning too much, cover it with a little foil.  Let cool completely before serving.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Thanksgiving 2011: Squash and Kale Salad

Thanksgiving is almost upon us again. All the food magazine covers are adorned with burnished turkeys and the Thanksgiving posts I wrote last year are getting more and more hits every day. In 2010, I used a simple strategy of making everything but the turkey ahead of time, which let me have a stress-free evening and enjoy the company of my fellow diners. You can find the write-up of this simple, make-ahead Thanksgiving meal here. I'm particularly fond of the turkey recipe as it roasts in only seventy minutes and has delicious, crispy skin. If I cook again this year, I will definitely use the same method!

Although I adore traditional Thanksgiving foods, the meal as a whole is often a butter and cream-laden starch-fest. My palate is not used to such heavy foods and once at the table, I find myself wanting something light and acidic. While brainstorming ideas, I came up with this butternut squash and lacinato kale salad. Its bright, mustardy dressing cuts through the richness of the meal and the jewel-toned vegetables make a nice complement to the cranberry sauce and turkey on your plate. Toasted pine nuts and sweet currants add a festive touch. 

Lacinato kale (also called Tuscan kale) is one of my favorite vegetables. It is normally too tough to eat raw, but there is a trick to making raw kale edible: Salt it a little bit ahead of time and let it sit. The salt will draw water out of the kale which causes the leaves to wilt just enough to be edible. You can use the same trick with shredded cabbage to make coleslaw. 

This salad can be made largely ahead of time, which is a boon for Thanksgiving. Roast the squash, make the dressing and cut the kale leaves up to a day before the meal. Refrigerate all components seperately. On the day, wilt the kale, then toss with the dressing before topping with the pine nuts and currants. Speaking of the latter two, they can be substituted with dried cranberries and pecans to give an even more colorful salad. 

Winter Squash and Kale Salad
I used pumpkin in this salad, but any kind of flavorful winter squash, or even sweet potatoes, will do. You can either roast the squash halves whole, or after dicing them. The second method will give more delicious browned surfaces but the first method is easier. Don't substitute the lacinato kale with regular curly kale, the texture doesn't quite work. Even if you do prepare the salad components ahead of time, toast the nuts at the last minute. If your dried currants are tough and shriveled instead of plump and moist, let them sit for a few minutes in hot water before draining and adding to the salad. Serves 8 as an appetizer or side dish.

1 small bunch lacinato kale, washed and drained, tough center stems cut out
1 small (3-4 lb) sugar pumpkin, butternut squash, acorn squash or 2 large sweet potatoes
1/4 cup pine nuts 
1/4 cup dried currants 
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1 tbsp plain or whole grain Dijon mustard

1. Preheat oven to 400F and line a baking sheet with foil. Cut the squash in half, spoon out the seeds and stringy material, drizzle with a little oil and place cut-side down on the tray. Roast for 30-40 minutes, until a knife slides easily in and out of the squash, then let cool. (If you decide to peel and dice the squash before roasting, toss the cubes with oil and roast for only 10-15 minutes until slightly browned and tender.)

2. While the squash is cooling, stack the kale leaves and cut them length-wise into 1/4 inch thick strips. Put them in a colander and add a generous amount of salt. Don't worry about oversalting as you'll rinse the kale later. Massage the salt into the leaves for 2 minutes, then let sit for 15-20 minutes.

3. Toast the pine nuts in a small dry pan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until golden. Let cool.

4. Once the squash is cool, peel it and cut into 1 inch cubes. Season the cubes with some salt and pepper. Hold the colander with the kale leaves in it under running water to rinse off the salt, then drain. Combine the oil, vinegar and mustard in a jar and shake to emulsify.

5. To assemble the salad, spread the kale strips on a wide plate. Toss with half the dressing and season with salt and pepper. Put the squash cubes in the center and drizzle on the rest of the dressing. Top with the nuts and currants and serve.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Thailand's Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tom Kha Gai

Is there anything that tastes as good as a bowl of chicken soup when you're feeling under the weather? It's warming, homey and soothing, and the reason it instantly makes you feel better isn't just psychological, either: The minerals and collagen that leech from the chicken into homemade chicken stock really have healing properties. As chicken stock is both an economical way of using up chicken scraps and carcasses that might otherwise be thrown away, and a healthy base for a delicious meal, most cultures around the world have developed popular recipes for using it. Today I'd like to talk about Thailand's version. It is called "tom kha gai" and is a chicken stock and coconut milk base infused with some aromatic Thai ingredients. Sweat-inducing because of the hot peppers, intensely citrus-y from the kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass, with a touch of the tropics from the coconut and a shot of brightness from the lime juice, tom kha gai is like an exotic vacation in a bowl. Make this recipe and you will thank me afterwards for curing your winter blues!

The only difficult part of making tom kha gai is finding the ingredients. While most can be found at the supermarket, the kaffir lime leaves and galangal might require a trip to an Asian shop or a specialty spice store. Luckily, these two ingredients can be frozen and don't lose any of their flavor after a stint in the freezer, so you only need to stock up once. Once you have all of the ingredients ready, making the soup is as easy as throwing everything in a pot and simmering for a few minutes. 

Here's an explanation of the flavoring ingredients that you will need:

Fish sauce: Thailand's answer to soy sauce, fish sauce is made from fermented anchovies. It smells to high heaven when you open the bottle but don't let that deter you. The smell won't make it into your dish; it will simply add a delicious salty depth.

Coconut milk: While a lot of people avoid coconut milk because coconut fat is mostly saturated, the type of saturated fat found in coconut is a special one called medium-chain triglyceride. MCTs have been found to have lots of health benefits such as improving liver and thyroid function, increasing metabolism and thus helping weight loss, and increasing HDL (the "good" cholesterol) You can read more about the health benefits of coconut fat here and here. Given that you see a lot less obese people in Thailand, where coconut milk is widely consumed, than you do in the Western world, I'm choosing to believe that coconut milk can't be all that bad for you! Please don't use "light" coconut milk when making tom kha gai.

Galangal: Galangal is the knobby root on the top left of the plate. It is a relative of ginger but has a much stronger, almost medicinal taste. This soup is named for galangal ("kha" in Thai) so don't substitute it with ginger or powdered galangal! You can chop the galangal up into chunks and freeze it in a ziplock bag. Slicing becomes easier after defrosting.

Limes: A good squeeze of lime juice right before serving adds tang to the soup.

Lemongrass: A subtle, citrusy grass, available in most supermarkets.

Thai chile peppers: Also called "bird's eye" chiles, these small red peppers are insanely hot. Since my heat tolerance is piss poor, I only add a slice or two to my bowl. If you like it spicy, go to town! Make sure you wear gloves when cutting them up as they can irritate your skin.

Kaffir lime leaves: The leaves of a special kind of lime tree, these have an immensely strong, almost floral citrus aroma. The ones in the picture came out of the freezer which is why they are a bit discolored. When buying them, look for ones that are bright green and without blemishes. You can freeze them in a ziplock bag. 

Not shown: Cilantro, aka the worst-tasting substance to ever grow out of God's green earth.

I kid.

No, I don't.

Tom Kha Gai
Adapted slightly from here. Serve the chopped cilantro, sliced chiles and lime wedges in separate bowls, for each diner to add to the soup according to their taste. Low-sodium canned chicken stock is OK in a pinch, but homemade chicken stock (instructions here) will make the soup a million times better. If you follow a gluten-free diet, check to make sure that your fish sauce and canned chicken stock have no gluten. Serves 4.

1 14 oz. (400 ml) can of coconut milk
2 cups (500 ml) of chicken stock, preferably homemade
2 stalks of lemongrass
6 kaffir lime leaves
6 slices of galangal, each 2 mm thick (no need to peel)
Fish sauce
8 oz (250 g) white or straw mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 lb (500 g) boneless, skinless chicken breast, thinly sliced against the grain
3-4 bird's eye chiles, thinly sliced
2 limes, cut into wedges
Cilantro leaves

1. Cut the lemongrass into a few pieces and smash these with the butt of your knife. This will expose the inner, more aromatic parts, for easier infusion.

2. Put the chicken stock in a pot. Bring it to a boil, then lower the heat to medium low.

3. Add the coconut milk, galangal, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass. Cook at a bare simmer for 15-20 minutes. When the liquid is nicely fragrant, fish out the herbs with a slotted spoon and discard. Stir in 2 tablespoons of fish sauce and taste. Add more fish sauce until you find the soup sufficiently salty.

4. Maintaining the soup at a bare simmer (no more than a bubble every few seconds), add the mushrooms and chicken and gently cook for 3-4 minutes until the chicken is just cooked. Take off the heat.

5. Serve with cilantro, sliced chiles and lime wedges on the side. A healthy squeeze of lime juice in each bowl is essential!