Comfort Food – Thai Style

From time to time, my food tenets (fresh, local, nutritious) need to take a backseat to an intense desire for comfort food. Happily, while I used to navigate towards junk food laden with saturated fat and sodium (i.e. bright orange, boxed macaroni & cheese or equally bright orange cheese Doritos) – today I crave foods that are at least moderately healthier. This weekend, it was sumptuous and spicy Thai food.

As luck would have it, I had the good fortune to be hanging out with like-minded friends. We hunkered down in a beautiful home on Bainbridge Island as a spring storm created white caps on the usually serene water and tried to strip the trees of their blossoms. My fellow captives and I scoured cookbooks and iPhone culinary apps for the perfect recipes for Tom Kha Gai and Pad Thai – and we stumbled upon a few winners. Off to the store we went to collect all manner of exotic ingredients – tamarind paste, galangal, lemon grass, rice noodles and coconut milk. Luckily the refrigerator was already stocked with kaffir lime leaves, tofu, fish sauce and spicy Sriracha.

Now I fully realize that this list of unusual ingredients may seem intimidating and does not support my fundamental objective of concentrating on recipes that are simple and easy to make. And I acknowledge the fact that the recipes below do not exactly feature produce newly picked from the farmer’s market – which is also contrary to my typical focus on all things fresh and local. I hope I will be forgiven for these temporary lapses in my devotion to these important principles.

From time to time, however, I simply crave food that is soothing and luxurious. For me, savory Thai food has the power to transport me away from my worries. AND – I honestly love these dishes and hope to demystify them and encourage you to try them. Candidly, while they are two of my favorite things to eat in restaurants, I had long been intimidated by the thought of cooking them at home. I am happy to report that, like most things in life, my anxiety ended up being disproportionate to the actual task at hand. By following the instructions carefully, these two dishes are easy and enjoyable to prepare.

ให้อร่อยนะ – or “hi aroi na” (the closest I could find to “bon appétit in Thai).

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Tom Kha Gai

Adapted from a recipe in Barbara Kafka’s book ‘Soup a way of life’.

Tom kha gai literally translates to “chicken galangal soup.” It is a spicy hot soup in Thai and Lao cuisine made with coconut milk, galangal (a root that is somewhat similar in taste to ginger with a nice hint of citrus), lemon grass and chicken. We made a vegetarian version featuring vegetable stock and excluding the chicken.

Ingredients

  • 1 stalk lemongrass
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 1 medium onion (finely minced)
  • 2 garlic cloves (minced)
  • 2 teaspoons Thai red curry paste (Mae Play is a favorite brand)
  • 6 slices of galangal or ginger (no need to peel, slice into ~ 1/8″ thick slices)
  • 3 kaffir lime leaves, preferably fresh (you can substitute the zest of 1 lime if kaffir lime leaves aren’t available)
  • 32 ounces vegetable stock
  • 2 cups straw mushrooms (if you can’t find these, you can use shitake mushrooms, chopped into smaller pieces)
  • 1 can coconut milk
  • Juice of 2 limes
  • 2 tablespoons Nam Pla (fish sauce) (you can substitute 1 tablespoon of soy sauce if Nam Pla is not available)
  • 3-4 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 3 scallions trimmed and sliced on the diagonal
  • 1/4 cup minced cilantro

Instructions

Prepare the lemongrass by removing the outer sheath and the hard ends.  Hit the stalk a few times with the back of a knife and cut into three pieces.

In a medium heavy saucepan add the oil, garlic and onion, turn heat to medium.  Cook for a minute, stirring and then add the lemongrass, curry paste, galangal and lime leaves. Cook stirring often for about 3 -4 minutes.  The onion should begin to soften.  Add the stock and bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium and cook for 15 minutes.

Bring soup back up to a simmer and add the coconut milk and mushrooms.  Cook for about 5 minutes or. Add the lime juice, brown sugar and Nam Pla. Taste and add additional sugar for additional sweetness and/or Nam Pla for additional saltiness.

If you wish, remove the galangal, lime leaf and lemongrass now. We left it in as it is easy to fish it out.  Place in bowls and sprinkle with cilantro and scallion. Consider serving with jasmine rice.

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Pad Thai

Adapted from an Epicurious recipe.

Pad Thai, literally translated to “fried Thai style”, is one of Thailand’s national dishes and likely the top seller at most Thai restaurants in the U.S. I find that the “Americanized” version can be cloyingly sweet and learned that a number of recipes include ketchup – which solves the mystery of the reddish hue gracing many platters of this culinary delight. For those of you used to this crimson version, do not be dismayed that the following recipe results in a dark brown version of Pad Thai. This version’s sweetness comes from tamarind – which might be more challenging to find if you don’t have an Asian market nearby. But it’s worth the hunt.

Ingredients

  • 2 ounces dried flat rice noodles (1/4 inch wide; sometimes called banh pho)
  • 3 tablespoons tamarind paste
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons Sriracha (Southeast Asian chile sauce) (you can use 1 tablespoon red chile flakes if you can’t find Sriracha)
  • 1 bunch scallions
  • 4 large shallots, minced
  • 1 (14- to 16-ounce) package firm tofu
  • 1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
  • 6 large eggs
  • 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 cups bean sprouts
  • 1/2 cup roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped
  •  1/4 cup cilantro, chopped

Instructions

Soak noodles in a large bowl of warm water until softened, 25 to 30 minutes. Drain well in a colander and cover with a dampened paper towel.

Meanwhile, make sauce by combining the tamarind paste, soy sauce, brown sugar, and Sriracha, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Set aside.

Cut scallions into 2-inch pieces. Halve pale green and white parts lengthwise.

Rinse tofu, then cut into 1-inch cubes and pat very dry.

Heat oil in large sauté pan (or wok) over medium heat until hot, then fry the shallots over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until golden-brown, 8 to 12 minutes. Remove from pan, leaving the oil in the pan, and set aside.  

Reheat oil in pan over high heat until hot. Fry tofu in 1 layer, gently turning occasionally, until golden, 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer tofu to paper towels using a slotted spoon. Pour off frying oil and reserve.

Lightly beat eggs with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in pan over high heat. Add eggs and cook, stirring gently with a spatula, until cooked through. Break into chunks with spatula and transfer to a towel with tofu. Wipe pan clean

Heat pan over medium heat, adding about 5 tablespoons oil (use any reserved oil from previous cooking) until heated. Add noodles and stir-fry about 3 minutes (tongs are useful here to keep the noodles from sticking together). Add tofu, bean sprouts, and sauce and simmer, turning noodles over to absorb sauce evenly, until noodles are tender, about 2 minutes. Stir in eggs and shallots and transfer to a large shallow serving dish.

Sprinkle pad Thai with peanuts and serve with lime wedges and cilantro sprigs.

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End note: as stated in a few previous posts, I do my best to take all the pictures featured in this blog. However, the first three photos above are not mine. I wanted to display the tamarind, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves in their natural state – but only thought to do so after the ingredients were well on their way into the dishes. And frankly, the tamarind paste is just not all that aesthetically pleasing – hence the borrowed pictures of the seeds.

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4 Responses to “Comfort Food – Thai Style”

  1. Rachel says:

    Ohhh, sounds and looks yum – very adventurous, cooking thai has always scared me :o )

    Hope you are well.

  2. Corrie says:

    This dinner was AMAZING, as was the company. Thanks Kathryn for sharing great food and a much needed island getaway! The Tom Kha Gai was especially good on day two….

  3. CLC says:

    An amazing meal with friends in a beautiful location or Papa Murphy’s pizza with auntie K and four nephews ages 9 and under. It makes the intricacies of a Thai recipe sound easy!

  4. Rosalind says:

    I love Thai food, can’t wait to give these recipes a try!

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