Thai Food and Cooking

Back in 1990-something, my friend Craig and I walked in to Five Star Thai Cuisine, a small restaurant in downtown San Diego. He’d been there a few times before me so he knew the menu and proceeded to walk me through it. We were mesmerized by the Mee Krob and ordered it every time we visited the restaurant. Needless to say, we were very disappointed when Five Star closed its doors. At that time, there were no other Thai restaurants in the area. The memory of that Mee Krob has haunted me for years and years. Though I’ve eaten in many Thai restaurants since then, I’ve never been able to find it on a menu.

ThaiFood As I was walking through the pages of Judy Bastyra & Becky Johnson’s, Thai Food and Cooking, A fiery and exotic cuisine: the traditions, techniques, ingredients and recipes (Anness Publishing Ltd 2003,2010), I came across a recipe for Mee Krob (pg. 210) and here’s the recipe intro:

The name of this dish means “deep-fried noodles” and it is very popular in Thailand. The taste is a stunning combination of sweet and hot, salty and sour, while the texture contrives to be both crisp and chewy. To some Western palates, it may seem rather unusual, but this delicious dish is well worth making.

I really enjoyed this recipe book. It’s oversized, 12″x9″, and filled will beautiful food images. The authors take you into a Thai kitchen and introduce you to the simple ingredients found in the pantry – almost 40 pages of tasty info. I liked this section: the notes, pictures, and instructions. The recipes are relatively simple, the ingredients – perhaps a bit difficult to find in your average grocery store – add a depth of flavor not found in most dishes.

herbsthaiThe recipes are broken down in to the usual categories including a chapter on rice dishes and one for noodle dishes. The appetizer and snack chapter took me by surprise. A very, very delightful bunch of tasty morsels that I fully intend to test on friends and family at my earliest convenience. IMHO, there are no loser recipes in this collection. My hat is off to the authors for a lovely work of art and a great collection of recipes.

If The Salad Glistens…

My first introduction to Jonathan Waxman occurred on the second season of Top Chef Masters. He has the title “King of American Cuisine.” On the show, he was given the second title of “Obi Wan.” He appears to be humble, pretends nothing, and it’s obvious he’s comfortable in his own skin. As I did a little googling I learned that he’s mentored some of America’s culinary best, opened several successful restaurants, and published the cookbook, A Great American Cook.

jonathan_waxman One of the reasons I read cookbooks cover-to-cover is to get to know the chef by understanding their culinary point of view and their favorite ingredients. From each cookbook, I want to be inspired by the recipes and learn something new from the author/chef. I’m not usually impressed by the foreword in a cookbook, but this one, by Chef Bobby Flay, was like a window into the life of Jonathan Waxman. Chef Flay has a great deal of respect and admiration for Chef Waxman and I loved what he added to the cookbook.

I must admit I have a bit of a culinary crush on Jonathan Waxman. As a result of his cookbook, I’ve gained a deeper respect for simple ingredients and their combination. In the foreword, Chef Bobby Flay says of Chef Waxman, “He taught me how to dress a salad, respecting each tender green that landed on the plate. Jonathan used to say that the leaves should look like they had just fallen from the clouds, light and individual.”

greatamericancook_300dpi200x250pxlOn page 72, in the “Salad” section, you’ll find this note before recipe for Garden Salad:

There is inspiration in compliments. It used to bother me when people at dinner parties asked me to dress their salads. Why in the world would anybody want another cook messing up the works? Finally, when one friend told me his dressings always tasted greasy and flat, I started to analyze what made mine different. What was that inexplicable detail that could make all the difference? First, have good ingredients (that seems obvious), and second, always add the vinegar first. “That can’t be all there is to it,” my friend said. He was right – there is a more difficult matter: how much dressing to use.

I love this cookbook and learned quite a lot about food and flavor combinations…and Jonathan Waxman. For the most part, the ingredients in the recipes are simple and easy to find. I started to list the recipes I liked and then realized I pretty much liked them all. In the cookbook you’ll find chapters on starters, soups, salads, sandwiches and pizza, pasta, poultry, meat and game, fish, shellfish, vegetables, and desserts. And, edicts on selected ingredients and techniques.

First try the Guacamole and Fresh Chips on page 19. It’ll rock your world!

Piedmont: Durham’s Little Treasure

IMAG0060On a recent visit to North Carolina for a conference, I was given the responsibility of finding a place for dinner. I encouraged suggestions but all I got was “no chains, no barbecue, no fast food.” A simple google search for “durham nc restaurants” gave me seven options to start with. I eliminated solo cuisine and ugly corporate websites, and then I found the Piedmont website.

You know you’re headed in the right direction when a restaurant changes the menu on a daily, weekly, or seasonal basis. Their website is simple but the menu made me smile when I noticed the cheese course offered both goat and cow’s milk cheese.

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I called and made reservations for four…forgetting to include myself. When we realized we’d be late, I called and changed the reservation by thirty minutes. It wasn’t until we were on the way to dinner that I remembered there were five of us. We called to change the number of diners and they had to bump us to a later time. That’s a good sign – it means other people like to eat there.  When we arrived we sat outside on the little benches and waited our turn. They graciously offered us water several times and never forgot we were out there. I’ve got big love for good customer service – and Piedmont delivered over, and over again.

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The decor at Piedmont is simple, yet elegant. The tables are nicely spaced to give diners plenty of room for conversation and privacy. We didn’t meet the chef, but with a little research I was able to determine the chef/owner is Andy McGowan.

Once again, I find myself using the word “simple” to describe another aspect of Piedmont. The menu: Cheese course, 1st course, 2nd course, Etceteras, and Dessert. We asked our waiter to explain the menu rules, and he assured us we could order as much or as little as we wanted in no particular order. I love options.

From the cheese menu, we ordered all three cheese selections to share. The cheese came with almonds, figs poached in red wine, and a lovely raisin bread with a tight crumb. In addition, we ordered the housemade charcuterie selection to share: country pâté & chicken liver mousse with pickled vegetables, dijon & grilled bread. We darn near licked the plate.IMAG0061

For the main dish we divided and conquered. I went for the housemade Italian sausage with creamy polenta, braised greens & tomato jus. Laura and Jo both ordered giant-sized pork chops covered with lovely peaches (pictured at right). Jo’s Dad selected the chicken, and Chelsea went for a lovely salad with a side of pomme frîtes with aïoli.

If I lived anywhere near Durham, I would find my way to Piedmont as often as possible. You’ll find them at 410 Foster Street, just down the street from the Marriott hotel and Bull Durham stadium. They serve dinner Wednesday through Monday and brunch on Saturday and Sunday. Dress is casual. Check out the menu on the website and call Piedmont and make your reservation today at 919.683.1213 and tell them Lucy sent you.

Culinary Book Review: The Flavor Bible

My love for cookbooks started back at Bryanston High School (South Africa), with Cooking Is Fun ( Keating, S.M. & Fookes, B.G., Wynberg, Cape: Rustica, 1976)., a 108 page recipe book which ignited a passion and sent me on an exciting culinary adventure. I’m quite sure I read that little theflavorbiblecookbook 100 times in one semester. When I say “read,” I mean cover-to-cover.  I didn’t do so well in the sewing part of the home economics class; however, in the cooking class, I impressed the instructor and surprised myself.  My friend, a gorgeous red-headed boy who eventually captured my heart, sat outside the classroom and waited for class to finish in order to partake of my culinary creations. I clearly remember the day he bit in to that lovingly, prepared steak and kidney pie with perfect flaky pastry, closed his eyes, groaned deep in his throat, and swayed ever so slightly. That little book held a secret I needed to understand. So here I am, more than 30 years later, still reading cookbooks cover-to-cover.

While having lunch at my friend Mackenzie’s house, she handed me a copy of The Flavor Bible (Page, Karen & Dornenburg, Andrew. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2008), a gift from her oh-so-clever husband. I flipped through the pages and noticed I was holding my breath. It was as if I’d found a secret map to carry on my culinary adventures. I waited a few weeks before purchasing my own copy because I’ve discovered that delayed gratification makes me appreciate things more. Needless to say, I love this book. It’s not a cookbook, and you won’t find recipes in the ordinary sense; however, you will find thousands of flavor combinations and an exciting, culinary resource.

There are three delicious chapters:

  1. FLAVOR = Taste + Mouthfeel + Aroma + “The Factor”: Learning to recognize the language of food
  2. GREAT COOKING = Maximizing Flavor + Pleasure by tapping Body + Heart + Mind + Spirit: Communicating via the language of food
  3. FLAVOR MATCHMAKING: The Charts

2008_09_food_DornenburgPageHeadshotBy far, my favorite chapter is Flavor Matchmaking – chapter three. The book is 380 pages and 339 of those are in chapter three. I’ve haven’t had this much fun with reference material since the first time my Dad let me use his set of Encyclopedia Britannica. I loved those big, brown books. The giant-sized map book was my favorite. Alas, I digress. The charts in chapter three are listed in alphabetical order and include both ingredients and the flavors of a particular country or region. Below each ingredient, the authors “distilled and summarized key aspects of an ingredient’s essence” by: season, taste, weight, volume, and primary function. They also recommend cooking techniques and some useful tips.

Thank you, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, for a thorough and generous treasure chest. I really, really love this book and I’d like every cook to own one. However, I’m pretty sure many folks won’t recognize its beauty. Buy one for yourself and for that person in your life who appreciates flavor. You won’t regret it. And, thank you, Mackenzie. I owe you one.

Eat Like A Greek

I wasn’t raised in a traditional Greek family, with two Greek-speaking parents; nevertheless, my Mom and her family made it their quest to infuse us with a love for all things Greek. My Dad graciously allowed it to happen, although, over the years, he’s made every attempt to stick a Scottish label on us, but not much sticks to Greece (pun intended). Somehow, I managed to make it through thirty years of life before I realized my “Greek” family originated from Italians. So four generations ago, the grandparents of my grandparents left Italy and made their lives in Greece. And so, I willingly embrace all things Italian.

My Mom did a good job of incorporating American food in to our lives. I’m pretty sure she did it so my Dad wouldn’t starve. And though he loves her cooking, he doesn’t fully appreciate the more colorful aspects of Greek cuisine. Thankfully, I inherited my Mom’s palette and have no food fears. Well, except for lima beans, and badly cooked okra. Oh…and liver.

At an early age, I learned to eat first and then ask, “What is that?” When a plate was set in front of me, regardless of the smell, texture, or look of an item, I was required to take a bite. This small obedience was, as I look back over my life, one of the best gifts my Mom gave me. If not for that little rule, I would have missed out on so many wonderful and exciting flavors from many different cuisines.

When I was eighteen, my family, in different variations, spent the summer in Greece. We lived many days on the beaches of Glyfada, Tolo, and Vouliagmeni, only coming out of the sea for a few hours to eat a delicious lunch. We ate fresh fish, village salads, crispy potatoes, slabs of cheese, lemony horta, and loaves of fresh bread. With wet hair and wet bathing suits, sand between our toes, and sunburned skin, we took pleasure in eating the simple but scrumptious food. Bread was for dipping, lemons for squeezing, fingers for licking, and forks were, well, forks were optional.

The other night I saw an episode of FoodTV’s Chopped: When Chefs Collide (Episode 3.1). In the appetizer round, the chefs were tasked with creating an appetizer out of Manila clams, kumquats, and croissants. The Greek chef, Peter Giannakas, Chef and Restaurateur of Ovelia Psistaria Bar, New York, NY., was eliminated in the first round. He created a dish that, according to the judges, was difficult to eat. They also commented about the flavors of his dish; however, since they were too afraid to get their hands messy, I question whether or not they actually tasted the dish. As the chef was eliminated, he said to the judges, “Don’t be afraid to eat.” I laughed so hard I nearly cried. My Mom would be proud of him.

Thanks to her, and the generations of Greeks who came before me, I am not afraid to taste – even if it means getting messy or trying new flavor combinations. I believe my love for cooking is in the genes, seasoned by my Mom, and whipped in to shape by hours of practice. For that I am thankful and, Lord willing, I will have many more years to eat like a Greek.

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