Yesterday around lunchtime, I got a craving for Thai food. Perhaps it's because my bosses shuttle back and forth between Japan and Thailand, while I've never even visited the country, perhaps it's the great Thai restaurants I've been to in my lifetime (including one near the Kyoto city court house just south of the Imperial Palace), or perhaps it's the more readily available ingredients in the super-sized American vegetable sections at the grocery store.
I love the vegetable section at the grocery store near my parents, especially the herbs. Yesterday I got fresh mint, basil, and lemon grass. I also found juicy limes and fresh bulk bean sprouts. The only things lacking were fresher ginger, whole bamboo shoots, and a decent array of mushrooms…. but what they had sufficed. The store even had sticky Thai noodles (which I had never heard of before seeing them in an online recipe) and reasonably priced mangos.
Thai Green Curry
Green curry, as a Thai friend who tried to rescue a Japanese interpretation of the dish once said, is supposed to be sweet and spicy. And that's exactly that which I love about Thai cuisine. It balances so many flavors in each dish that do some exotically beautiful dance on your palate. This dish, however, is an interpretation that uses ingredients avaliable in most North American supermarkets. Although I'm not quite qualified to say so, I think the effect is a very close approximation to the original.
I made an afternoon of the experience and decided to grind up my own curry paste with a mortar and pestle. First, I chopped up three green onions and a good handful of basil leaves. The inch-long piece of ginger I decided first to peal, but found that even a bit dried, the peal has a better aroma to it than the center of the root and ended up chopping everything nice and small. I didn't know quite how to prepare the lemon grass, but pealed off the first few layers of leaves until the remainder looked reasonably soft and chopped it up as well. I used half of an absolutely gigantic clove of elephant garlic, juiced half of a small but juicy lime, and minced 2 fresh green chili peppers. To this mixture, I added a pinch of turmeric, a good dose of coriander and brown sugar, and a bit salt. Then, in parts I put it in my small mortar and pureed it with the pestle until it was mostly smooth. This took a good three rounds of grinding and beating.
The actual cooking of the dish was simple. In the bottom of a heavy pot, I put 2 chopped chicken breasts in a bit of olive oil. The goal was to brown them, but I didn't have the patience or there were too many juices. Next went in a good portion of the curry paste to coat the chicken, which turned a beautiful bright green color from the chlorophyll. Then vegetables in droves: green beans, sliced mushrooms (they weren't properly labeled at the store, so I really don't know what kind), bamboo shoots (from a can, so I boiled them first to get rid of the canned taste), and 2 red chili peppers sliced into strips. In went the rest of the curry paste, which I attempted to stir into the huge amount of vegetables with limited success. Never mind! The coconut milk (2 small cans or 1 large can, I guess) went in with a small amount of water to clean out the cans. The soup was thoroughly green and nothing like I'd ever seen in my pot before. Beautiful.
Adding a liberal shake of salt, I let the pot simmer while I prepared the rest of the meal. Because my paste wasn't nearly as spicy as the stuff I've bought pre-made, I ended up adding dried chili flakes to the simmering pot. Since I had tons of time, when the flavors had seeped into the vegetables and meat, I turned the heat off. Cooling and later reheating the dish somehow drives the flavors even deeper into the meat and vegetables.
Just before serving, I sprinkled fresh mint leaves over the top of the dish.
Fresh Mango Spring Rolls
For this dish, I tried making my own wrappers from a Moosewood recipe, but had to augment it a little to keep them from falling apart in the pan. I whisked 3/4 cup each of water and cornstarch in a bowl with 2 eggs (Moosewood said 1). This I let sit while I prepared the filling and dipping sauce.
For the filling, I boiled Thai sticky noodles and blanched bean sprouts for the bulk of the filling. To this went mango and green onion, both cut into 3 inch-long strips, red leaf lettuce, fresh basil and mint leaves.
For the dipping sauce, I mixed 3 tablespoons Thai fish sauce with 3 tablespoons water and the other half of the lime, juiced. For interest, I added a few drops of Thai hot chili sauce.
To make the wrappers, I heated up a flat, round pan to (after experimentation) low heat, and with a paper towel spread a even, thin layer of olive oil over the bottom (this I repeated between making each wrapper). Then, like making crepes, I put a bit of my thin batter into the pan, quickly swished it around, trying to cover the bottom, and waited for the thin edges to look dry and the center be mostly cooked. Then, using chopsticks and a very large, very flat spatula, I flipped them for a few seconds then dumped them onto a plate.
The result was a somewhat thicker, eggier wrapper than what you may buy at an Asian market, but the flavor went well with the dish.
Then I assembled the rolls like you might burritos and cut them diagonally in the center. Because I couldn't make the rolls very tight, they wanted to fall apart on me (and one did completely). At the table we dribbled dipping sauce over the rolls and ate them with knife and fork.
The reaction to this meal was favorable. The curry and spring rolls went over very well. Only the dipping sauce was too fishy for North American/European taste buds, so out came the soy sauce to fix everything. Sigh.