Thai Time: Remembrances of Meals Past and a Recipe for the Present

11 Mar

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I made this soup last night and after posting a bunch of pictures on Facebook, I got several messages and comments from folks who wanted the recipe. Then I got to the gym this morning and some of my teammates were like, “I ordered Vietnamese last night because I saw your dinner pix!” And I was like, “Why are you wasting your money when you can do it yourself?” There’s really no good Thai or Vietnamese in this town. Prove me wrong, I dare you. And it really is quite simple to approximate the flavors of South East Asia in your own home IF you have a few staple ingredients and the desire to taste those flavors every day, which I do. Why wouldn’t I? They’re amazing flavors.

Flavor is my downfall. I don’t overeat because I’m super hungry or super sad. I overeat because I get a flavor in my mouth and I just want to keep tasting it. If something has amazing flavor, I will eat it until I’m sick. Case in point, my friend Annie’s mushroom risotto last week and the Pavlova that followed it. And the cheese that preceded it. All of those things tasted so f-ing good, I just couldn’t stop. Until I had to. And by “had to” I mean “was forced to go into the other room to lie down on my back for ten minutes.”

I love to taste stuff. Lots of stuff. Before I moved to Miami, I was lucky enough to call Queens, New York–probably the most ethnically diverse corner of this continent–home for nine years. I was even luckier in that I lived in Jackson Heights, one of the most ethnically diverse corners of that ethnically diverse corner. The food in JH and its surrounding neighborhoods (Woodside, Corona, Elmhurst, Flushing, etc…) is off the hook if, like me, you are into tasting lots of stuff at lots of hole-in-the-wall restaurants that specialize in authentic food from far flung places like China, Poland, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, India and the Philippines, and on and on and on. Yes, I recognize that list is disorganized both in regards to geography and alphabet. Rather, it is organized in regards to my memories of specific restaurants from nearest to furthest in distance from my old apartment.

There is also extraordinarily good South East Asian food in Queens. And lots of it. I like Vietnamese but I will always go Thai first. Most folks in the know will tell you that Sripraphai is the place to go for serious Thai in Queens. Some people will debate whether or not it’s the absolute best but those people are hair-splitters: it does most things extremely well all the time. The only bad experience I’ve ever had there was when I nearly burned the roof of my mouth completely off on their red curry duck. But that was my fault, not theirs. I ordered Thai spicy and they delivered. Their curries are off the chain and they have all sorts of nuclear looking jelly desserts to attempt to eat with your friends after dinner. More for their novelty and potential for funny Instagram pix than for actual enjoyment.

However, back in the day, when my roommate and I didn’t want to walk all the way down to 69th, we’d head to the now defunct Zaab Thai. It still exists, I think, but is under different ownership and isn’t as good. When we were going, it was BYOB and there was one waitress who never judged us for ordering seven dishes for two people but would occasionally warn us when we insisted upon trying something she didn’t think we’d like. “No good for Americans,” she’d tell us and we, refusing to be lumped into the same category as all those white dip-shits who thought venturing out to a tiny store-front under the 7 tracks on Roosevelt counted as adventure travel, insisted that she bring it anyway. Only once did we actually admit to her that she’d been right. I forget exactly what we’d ordered but I remember it looked like human excrement and didn’t taste much better.

But everything else I ever ate there was on point. They specialized in Essan thai cuisine so they weren’t really big on those sweet coconutty curries that everyone loves so much. Instead, they made their own sausage and amazing BBQ beef salads and whole flash-fried fishes and glistening Kee Mao noodles with perfectly cooked Chinese brocoli and this fucking crazy addicting tamarind chicken dish that I always had to have. But probably the thing that made us go back again again was the Tom Yum. I have yet to find another Tom Yum that comes even remotely close to the one at Zaab. Granted, I have yet to go to Thailand (it’s on the list) but I can’t imagine anything anywhere tasting better than this soup. It was insane. And it’s the flavor of that soup that I attempt to recreate whenever I make anything Thai in my house.

The soup pictured above actually has very little in common with that Tom Yum outside of the flavor profile. But great flavor is what Thai food is all about. I really don’t think any other cuisine on the planet comes close to consistently nailing sweet, sour, salty, bitter (and yes, umami) in so many single dishes. In order to get that complicated flavor profile, you gotta throw a lot of things into the pot. But once you get comfortable with those items, it becomes increasingly easy to improvise. I’ve found that the easiest way to get those flavors into your food is by making a dressing. I’ve been making one based on the Green Emerald dressing from  True Thai by Victor Sodsook.  I make my version in large batches and store it in the fridge. It would likely last for a week or so, but I wouldn’t know because I normally go through a jar of it in a few days. I put it on everything. From the soup above, to salads, fish, vegetables, and my previously posted-on nori wraps. Here’s my version and please know I tend to eye-ball these things so my quantities are all estimates.

Edith’s Green Emerald Dressing

2 cloves garlic
1 knob fresh ginger, peeled and rough chopped (about 1/2″ square)
handful fresh basil, washed and stemmed
handful fresh cilantro, washed and stemmed
handful fresh mint, washed and stemmed
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
2 tsp coconut palm sugar
1 tsp sambal oelek

Put everything in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until well combined. You can adjust to taste at this point, either with a little more vinegar or sugar depending on how you like things. But this should get you to a decent balance.

In order to do this, you’re going to have to stock your kitchen right. If you want to be completely overwhelmed, check out this awesome checklist. If you want to be normal about it, you can probably get away with just having these items on hand: fish sauce, rice vinegar, sambal or sriracha, fresh ginger and garlic, lemon grass, herbs like mint, basil and cilantro, onions, cashews, tiny dried shrimp, noodles (I use Shirataki but only because they are low-calorie and satisfy a craving, otherwise I’d use any of the noodles from that website above), eggplant, napa, coconut milk, good quality curry pastes and limes. You can pick up some of these items at regular grocery stores although they will be overpriced. If you have access to Asian specialty markets, go to one of them. Better selection, lower prices and some really cool stuff you never even knew existed.

The “recipe” for my noodle bowl only exists because I am jotting it down right now. You could easily do this with a different protein if you don’t like fish. Also, I was watching the nutritional content closely so I didn’t add the things that would make this even more delicious, like chopped cashews or coconut milk or pork. Also, I made a single serving so that’s what this recipe yields. If you want to make more, just double or triple, etc. The whole bowl was around 200 calories and packed with all the macros and micros a growing athlete needs.

Edith’s Thai-Inspired Fish and Noodle Bowl

2 cups nappa cabbage, shredded
1 small yellow onion, sliced
1 tsp olive oil
1 pinch chili flakes
1 pouch Shirataki noodles
1 4oz cod fillet
2 cups low-sodium fat-free stock (chicken or vegetable are both fine)
1/4 cup each cucumber and red pepper, julienned
1/4 cup arugula, chiffonade (this is the only “non-traditional” item in the bowl but I had some on hand so I used it)
Green Emerald Dressing to taste

Sautee napa, onions and chili flakes in olive oil and add a little of the stock to braise. Cook until the liquid is absorbed and the veg is translucent but still a little crunchy. Thoroughly rinse your Shirataki noodles (they smell awful right out of the bag but the smell goes away after you rinse and cook them). Combine stock and fish in a small covered pot over medium heat. Poach fish until cooked, about 7-10 minutes. Remove fish and set aside. Cook noodles in boiling stock for about 5 minutes. Drain noodles reserving a little bit of the liquid and place in a large soup bowl. Add braised cabbage and fish the the bowl. Top with cucs, pepper and arugula. Add dressing. Bon appetit!

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