Elements Of Life: Important Information Update!

My newest book,The Elements of Life comes with a wheel that helps you determine your home element(s). Unfortunately, there are mistakes printed on the back of the wheel. Until the publisher can correct them, these are the right dates:
March 8, 1998
March 17, 2003
March 6, 2004

Monday, March 30, 2009

Making Sticky Rice and Mango

Sweet sticky rice with fresh mango is one of the favorite desserts of the customers at my restaurant, Saffron. As summer approaches and ripe sweet mangos are available once more, we will start making it for sale at Saffron during the middle of April as one of our Thai New Year celebration specials.
Sweet sticky rice is also one of the recipes frequently requested by my friends and customers. Here is a recipe using a Chinese steamer instead of the traditional Thai sticky rice cooker.

Makes 4 servings
1 cup Thai long grain sweet rice*
¾ cup coconut cream (recipe from the previous blog entry)
½ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup sugar
1 to 2 ripe mangos, peeled and sliced

Put the rice in a mixing bowl and fill it with cool water. Wash the rice by swirling your hand around and around the rice grains. Drain the water over your favorite plants and repeat twice more. Fill the bowl with cool water and let it soak overnight or at least 3 hours. (If you are in a hurry, cover the rice with hot water and when the water is cool, the rice is ready to be cooked.) You can tell if the rice is ready to be steamed by the color and texture. Soaked chalk-white sweet rice turn slightly translucent and when you push your fingernail through the grain, it should break easily.
Fill the steamer pot ¾ full of water and set it to boil over high heat. Drain the water from the rice completely and transfer to a Pyrex glass bowl. Spread and smooth the grains. Put the rice in the steamer tray over hot boiling water; cover, lower the heat to medium and steam for 20 minutes.
While the rice is steaming, put the coconut cream, salt and sugar in a saucepan and heat over low heat. Stir to mix until the salt and sugar are dissolved. Spoon out 2 tablespoons into a small bowl and set aside.
When the rice is cooked the grains should turned opaque and when you bite into them, they are soft and tender. Transfer the rice onto a large plate and use a spatula to mix the rice over and over 3 to 4 times to let the steam escape. Immediately transfer the rice to a mixing bowl and pour the very warm coconut syrup mixture over the cooked rice. Mix vigorously and cover with a plastic wrap. Let it sit for at least 10 minutes to allow the coconut syrup to infuse with the rice.
Scoop the rice onto 4 serving plates, spoon the remaining coconut syrup over it and serve with sliced sweet mango.

* Long grain rice used for making sticky rice is not sweet. It is labeled as such because most Westerners use the rice to make sweet sticky rice. It is actually glutinous or sticky rice. The people from north and northeastern of Thailand prefer it rather than regular long grain rice.

Making Coconut Milk and Cream

While visiting Thailand in February, I watched enthusiastic 9 and 10-
year-old children sitting on mats, grating coconut the traditional Thai way at the organic cooking school I co-founded in Mae Rim, Chiang Mai, Thailand. I thought to myself, if they can do it, why can’t adults?
Making fresh coconut cream and milk is more time consuming than going to the store to buy canned coconut cream and opening it. However, if you are serious about cooking and eating real Thai food, or if you want to eat healthfully of food with no preservatives, or are concerned about the environment, making coconut cream and milk from scratch is the way to go. In case you don’t already know, one 16 oz. canned coconut cream contains pasteurized cream from at least 6 coconuts plus flour as thickener. Over 90% of the calories are from saturated fat. Do you really want to eat those humongous amount of fats in one sitting?
Making fresh coconut cream and milk is not as difficult as you might think. The most challenging part is buying coconuts that are not spoiled. There are instructions on how to pick good coconuts and recipes on how to make coconut cream and milk in my cookbook, Cracking the Coconut. Here is a similar and more up-to-date version.
The reason for my using 4 to 5 coconuts is that the coconuts sold in the markets in America tend to be very old and small coconuts with thinner meat.

Makes about 1 cup coconut cream and 2 cups coconut milk

4 to 5 coconuts
3 cups very warm water

Preheat the oven at 350 degrees. Use a Phillips screw driver and a hammer to pierce through all 3 indentations ("eyes") on one side of the coconut. Drain out the liquid and use it to water plants. Do not drink this water; it will give you a stomach ache! Put the coconut in the oven for 15 minutes. Remove and cool until you can touch them.
Take the coconuts outdoor and break them apart with a hammer. Drape your hand with a dish towel and hold on to a piece of coconut. Use a paring knife to pry it loose from the hard shell. It should come off easily. Repeat with the rest of the coconuts. Peel away the hard brown part of the coconut with a vegetable peeler. Wash and dry the coconut meat well. Slice into small cubes. Put them in a blender and add the water. Blend until the liquid turn milky white.
Drape a piece of cheese cloth over a fine mesh strainer. Put on top of a bowl. Pour the pulverized coconut and liquid into the cheese cloth. Gather and extract as much of liquid as you can. Let the liquid sit in the bowl for 10 minutes. (In the meantime, don’t wash your hands just yet. Instead, massage your hands and cuticles with the remnants of the coconut. Your hands will turn soft and silky.)
Use a spoon to skim off the thick cream on top. You should have one cup of thick heavy cream and the rest is the coconut milk.
You can freeze them by putting the coconut cream and milk in separate zip-lock bags. Lay them flat on a plate or tray and put in the freezer. Thaw when ready to use. Frozen coconut cream and milk will keep for at least a couple of months.

Note: Dry-roast pulverized coconut in a large skillet over medium-low heat until golden. Store in a container with a lid. Use as a garnish for salads or desserts. You can also save a portion of it and mix with 5 to 6 drops of either Mandarin orange essential oil or lavender essential oil and use it to massage your hair and body before showering.
Store the coconut shells and when you grill, use them as starters for your fire. Dry the hard brown peels in the sun and store them with the shells. When adding to hot charcoals, they give off the most wonderful fragrance and will turn ordinary grilled meat, fish or vegetables into heavenly tasting dishes.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Wild Greens, Blooms and Grubs

Lak is my friend Khun Mom (Sir) Tri’s gardener. He is a man of few words who lives with his equally shy wife Fon on my friend’s property where they manage the organic farm. He knew me as the cook who started a cooking school on the campus of Prem Center for International Education. This is a school my friend founded in Mae Rim, a small town in Chiang Mai province in northern Thailand. Lak was respectable and polite whenever we met to discuss how to better connect the use of the farm with the cooking school. After my four consecutive visits during the past two years, the ever present but unspoken class barrier between us was finally broken. We have become friends because of our shared passion for cooking.
One of the specialties from northern Thailand that I love is a spicy chili jam-like paste called nam prik ta daeng. Because of its intense flavor, vendors in traditional markets usually sell tiny wraps of an ounce or two of this spicy paste, just enough for one person to eat with sticky rice, steamed greens and grilled meat. During my visit to the school last year, my numerous conversations with Lak ended as usual: we talked about food. I lamented to him how I had to stock up frequently with at least a dozen or so of these one-ounce packages. I wondered if it was difficult to make. Lak mentioned casually that he knew how to make it.
Last month, I returned to Thailand to work at the cooking school. I asked Lak if he would teach me how to make nam prik ta daeng. He quietly agreed. What I thought was to be a day of simple cooking lesson turned out instead to be a wondrous cooking and eating adventure.
Lak and Chad, who is Lak’s friend and supervisor, picked me up at nine o’clock sharp one morning. We drove in Chad’s pick-up truck to talad mae malai, a local market near the school. Chad deliberately drove along the back roads so I could enjoy the countryside. We drove past villages and Buddhist temples nestled among rice fields, vegetable gardens and forests. I had brought along a bag of blooms I bought earlier that morning at the Mae Rim market. I was fascinated by a white trumpet shaped bloom tinged with shades of yellow and delicate pink. Chad pointed out some tall trees with tiny newly formed leaves lining the road. Scattered underneath them were the same blooms as in my plastic bag. He called the flowers “mali mai.”
Apparently, both the men and other gardeners and workmen who would join us for dinner that evening had already pegged me as someone who is game to eat anything they would eat, even though they don’t consider me to be a real Thai like themselves. Lak and Chad in particular, were not surprised to see me with my little bag of blooms. During our marketing, we bought up strange looking wild herbs, greens and shoots as well as a banana pouch filled with fat, juicy and oily looking white ant eggs crawling with red ants.
On the way back, we stopped at Lak’s house, an imposing modern pink two-story brick structure, to pick along his and the neighbor’s fences more wild vines, leaves, shoots and a couple of hefty looking immature jack fruit.
When I showed up at the kitchen after a quick lunch break, they had divided everything we bought and picked into piles on fresh banana leaves. Each leaf contained ingredients to be made into the various dishes we would be cooking.
Northern Thai cooking, in general, is simple and healthy. It relies on a basic chili paste for seasoning. Fat and meat are used very sparingly. Instead, river fish, fermented fish and shrimp paste, wild and cultivated seasonal greens, shoots, roots and blooms are used abundantly in soups, salads and stir-fries.
I tried to record the Thai names of these wild and unfamiliar shoots, leaves and blooms as Chad and Lak called them out during our cooking session. After returning back to my home in America, I searched through my collections of books for their English and scientific names. I was partially successful in my effort. The following are the dishes, each with a list of main ingredients used in their making. I hope the accompanying pictures will help you see what some of these exotic ingredients look like. Toward the end, there is a video of Lak explaining in Thai what each of the finished dishes was before we sat down to dinner, followed by my English translation.
1. Soup with immature jack fruit, pork, chili paste made from salt, garlic, shallots, dried chilies, fermented shrimp paste, and fermented fish; betel leaves, paak cha kang: small ovate leaves with bland taste we picked along the fences of Lak’s neighbor, kratin (leucaena leucocephala de wit): young shoots and feathery leaves that look like dill and smell like fresh cut grass, and cherry tomatoes.
2. Soup with three layer pork with saleay (broussonetia kurzii coner): delicate sprigs, each holding a cluster of 3 to 4 tiny pea-size buds that taste slightly bitter, same chili paste used for immature jackfruit soup, fermented shrimp paste, fish sauce, tamarind puree, and cherry tomatoes.
3. Soup with chicken, green gourd from our farm, same chili paste used for immature jackfruit soup plus fresh turmeric added, pulverized Sichuan peppercorns, kaffir lime leaves and chopped cilantro and green onion as garnishes.
4. Haw neoung gai – steamed savory chicken in banana leaf pouches – same chili paste used for immature jackfruit soup plus kaffir lime rind, galangal and Chinese keys added, pulverized Sichuan peppercorns, cloves of crushed garlic, leb krug fuy (polyscias feuticosa harms): small leaves with frilly edges from a bush grown on the lawn of Lak’s house that tastes slightly bitter with musty smell, tum leoung: young vines from scarlet fruited gourd plant with bland taste; bai ta seur (morinda citrifolia linn.): large deep green leaves that look like avocado leaves we picked along the fence of Lak’s neighbor that taste bitter with slightly peppery aftertaste, fish sauce, ground rice powder, kaffir lime leaves, cilantro, and green onion.
5. Ant eggs soup with same chili paste used for immature jackfruit soup, paak waan (melientha suavis pierre): delicate small ovate leaves attached to thin stem about 9 inches long that were foraged from bushes in the forest with green grassy smell and bland taste, fish sauce, cherry tomatoes, and mung bean noodles.
6. Soup with paak paang (basella rubra linn.): light green and delicate leaves with sticky and slimy texture and with tiny white blossoms, cooked with sour raw pork sausages, same chili paste used for immature jack fruit soup, fermented shrimp paste, fish sauce, fresh chilies, cherry tomatoes, kaffir lime juice and lime juice.
7. Nam prik ta daeng made with roasted dried red chilies, roasted garlic, roasted shallots, salt, dried river fish, thin wafers of dried soy bean paste, and fermented fish. This is eaten with an array of fresh and steamed vegetables including cabbage from our farm, immature blossoms of tang luang (trevesia palmate vis.): clusters of tiny brown peppercorn-size buds with a slightly bitter taste, mali mai, thua paep (hyacinth dolichos): flat white-light green pod the size of lima bean pod with slightly astringent and bland taste, dok khae (sesbania grandiflora desv.): white flowers of vegetable humming bird tree with bland taste and cooked bamboo shoots.
8. Thinly sliced pork strips marinated with a paste made with salt, garlic, lemongrass, and turmeric, flattened between two pieces of thin bamboo and grilled.
9. Stir-fried fiddle-head ferns (paak good) with nam prik ta daeng and oyster sauce.

I asked Lak to tell me what we cooked. He named the dishes one by one starting with sliced grilled pork strips, haw neong gai, steamed vegetables with nam prik ta daeng, soup with three-layer pork and saleay, soup with chicken and green gourd, soup with immature jack fruit, ant eggs soup, soup with paak paang, and my favorite drink - a bottle of local moonshine. Lak is holding a plate of fiddle-head ferns ready to be stir-fried.