By Roberta Bailey
The folksinger Greg Brown makes me grin when he sings the line, “We’re a cross between our parents and hippies in a tent.” The line brings to mind scores of young, enthusiastic back-to-the-landers whom I have known during my 20-odd years of being one. The woman who wouldn’t even have a radio in her cabin. The fellow who ate nothing but raw whole grain, chewing away on flint corn wherever he went. The couple who gave up most of their possessions, including their names, becoming “the woman with the short, blond hair,” “the man with the black dog.”
What makes me grin is the gradual or sometimes very sudden return to more conventional ways. The purchase of vegetable oil instead of pressing one’s own homegrown oilseed. A can of soup here, a little brown sugar or white flour there. Pre-order co-op meetings could be very telling. Someone’s grandfather dies and now they have a reliable car – with heat. The woman in the tipi leaves quite suddenly, not even finishing her milkweed down coat. Years later, news filters back to us that she is living in New York City, working for a fur coat manufacturer.
It seems that we go to extremes to get away from our upbringings, then slowly settle back to something closer to our parents’ lifestyles, but not quite. Perhaps the “not quite” is where societal change occurs.
I’ve given myself permission to accept it all gracefully; perhaps that is the biggest change. Still, I sometimes agonize over the standards for this column. A little white flour here, a cup of brown sugar there. What about Thai fish sauce or galanga? Can I send readers off in search of obscure Thai ingredients? Sure, why not? Life should be an adventure.
I’m so consumed with the sensuous flavors and smells of Thai cuisine that I don’t want to eat much else. My seed purchases were centered around visions of soup and delicate noodle dishes. I want to share my enthusiasm with you.
Growing older is about gaining the courage to take risks, embracing the changes without fear. So here they are – my spring fancies.
Hot and Sour Shrimp Soup
(Tom Yum Kung)
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 T. dried lemongrass
10 fresh lime leaves or the rind of one lime, cut in strips
2 T. green chili paste
4 T. Thai fish sauce
1/2 c. fresh lime juice
2 to 3 T. palm sugar or brown sugar
1 lb. Maine shrimp, shelled
1/2 lb. mushrooms, sliced
1 medium onion, chopped
2 c. chopped oriental greens
20 snow peas, cut in thirds
2 to 3 small Thai chilis, crushed (optional)
sprigs of cilantro
Put the stock and lemongrass in a soup pot. Add lime leaves or rind to the pot. Bring to a low boil, adding the chili paste, fish sauce, and lime juice after it has boiled for a few minutes. Add the sugar, stirring until dissolved. Add the shrimp, mushrooms, onion, snow peas and greens. Simmer until just cooked, about 1 minute. Float the chilis on top and turn off the heat. Garnish with cilantro as the soup is ladled.
Option: Replace the shrimp with chicken and make Tom Yum Kai.
Classic Thai Noodles
8 ounces dried rice stick noodles or any thin, flat variety (1/8 inch wide)
1/4 lb. Maine shrimp, shelled
1/4 lb. boneless chicken
4 Tbs. Thai fish sauce (nam pla)
6 T. distilled white vinegar
1 T. ketchup
6 T. brown or palm sugar
3 T. vegetable oil
8 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped
1/4 c. diced, pressed bean curd (tofu)
2 eggs (optional)
1/2 T. Thai or Mexican chili powder
4 scallions, including the green tops, angle-cut into 1-1/2 inch pieces
1-1/2 c. bean sprouts
1 to 2 c. finely shredded Chinese cabbage
1/3 c. roasted, unsalted peanuts, finely chopped
2 c. bean sprouts
1/2 c. roasted, unsalted peanuts, finely chopped
6 to 8 small Thai chilis, finely sliced
Soak the rice noodles in a large bowl of warm water until soft (15 minutes). Slice the chicken into bite-size strips. In a small mixing bowl, combine the fish sauce, vinegar, sugar and ketchup. Stir until the sugar is dissolved.
Drain the noodles and set them aside in a colander.
Place all stir fry ingredients within reach of cooking area. Arrange condiments in bowls or a platter on the serving table, so that they will be ready when the noodles are hot out of the wok.
Set a wok or deep, heavy frying pan over medium-high heat. When it is very hot, add the oil. Coat the pan with the oil by rotating it a bit. Add the garlic and chicken, stir-frying until the meat loses its raw look, about one minute. Stir in the sauce and bring it to a boil. Add the noodles and gently toss them in the mixture. Mix in the bean curd and cabbage. Break the eggs into the wok, mixing the yolk with the white, then mix the eggs down under the noodle mix. Cook without stirring for about 15 seconds, then stir-fry until all ingredients are well-blended.
Add the chili powder and scallions. Cook for 2 minutes. Stir in the bean sprouts and peanuts. Transfer to a serving platter and serve immediately.
A classic seasoning of Thai cuisine that also goes well on new potatoes, hot pasta or dolloped into soups.
1 t. whole white or black peppercorns
3 T. freshly chopped cilantro leaves and stem
2 to 3 T. coarsely chopped garlic
Using a mortar and pestle or spice grinder, crush or grind the peppercorns to a fine powder. Combine the three ingredients and blend or grind them into a fine paste. Add a bit of oil, if needed, in a blender. To keep, store in a glass jar with a bit of oil over it to cover the surface. Keeps one week in a refrigerator.
Garlic Shrimp or Tofu
3 T. vegetable oil
1/2 lb. shrimp, peeled or 1/2 lb. tofu, cubed and dried.
2 T. cilantro pesto (above)
1 T. fish sauce
a few fresh cilantro leaves
Heat a wok or heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil and swirl to coat the surface. When the oil is very hot, but not smoking, add the shrimp or tofu. Stir-fry for 2 minutes. Add the pesto and stir-fry for another few minutes. Add the fish sauce and toss to mix. Transfer to a serving platter, sprinkle with cilantro leaves and serve.