[This is a long post, but when you get close to the end, there is a new sangria recipe…]
I should have taken a picture of the hosts’ kitchen last night around 11PM. It’s always like this after a big dinner party: dirty glasses, dinner plates, dessert plates, silverware. The pans from the final prep just before the first guest walked are still in the sink, joined by serving bowls of every size. Before starting on the final prep for dinner, the newly renovated kitchen, glowing with stainless steel and warm woods, looked like something out of a magazine spread. Now, A. remarks with a smile, “I understand why people put in two dishwashers.”
After cooking intensively for several days the body (especially this middle aging body) starts to tally up complaints: millimeter length cuts and a few minor burns only evident when the hands come into contact with lime juice, that tinge in the lower back from standing and more standing (do you remember Paul Prudhomme sitting on that rolling stool on his cooking show in the ‘90s? I would have killed for a rolling kitchen stool this week), and finally the deep muscle ache stretching from ones ribs, up the shoulder and neck and down into the arm and hand which are all interrelatedly involved in the act of chopping food with a chef’s knife.
Mentally, I feel a sense of accomplishment. We raised some money for a good cause this week, not in a Bill Gates Foundation sort of way, but an amount that makes a real difference to a small non-profit that makes a difference for children. New people have learned about its work. The model of sharing hosting and cooking responsibilities (the first year we have done this) went well. Our hosts got to focus on getting the house ready, setting beautiful tables graceful with orchids in glass jars and flickering votives, and putting together a great bar, including home brewed Oktoberfest and Pale Ale. I’m drinking the last of the Oktoberfest right now. I’m terrible at describing beer flavors. Deep, amber, mellow, but flavorful. It’s awesome. Seriously, they could sell this stuff. On to the final days!
You can’t make up time in cooking. That’s probably true in many other areas, but I’m not familiar enough with other jobs or pastimes to make generalizations. Things take as long as they are going to take; you can be more efficient by cooking something on the stove that needs to simmer while you chop the ingredients for another dish, you can improve your technique to slice faster or occasionally find a shortcut like using a handheld immersion blender, but you can’t grow more hands. Yet. I hear there are scientific folks working on it. Right now, you can lure in unsuspecting volunteers to peel veggies and scoop meatballs. I’m working on *that*, so if you want to help out with the Italy themed dinner in November let me know. Just know that what’s in it for you is some food prep experience, sore feet and being bossed around by me. D would want me to point out that I’m an only child who “doesn’t mind working with others, as long as I’m in charge.” Don’t say you weren’t warned. 😉
That’s a long way of saying that I start off cooking Thursday night at least a day behind. I should be making meatballs and trimming pineapple, as well as making a long cooking beef stew, but find myself baking cake layers and making lime curd. It’s so infrequent that I bake that the enticing smells of butter laced with sugar and eggs baking in the oven seems magical. In some ways they are: the interactions of the ingredients that make cake have always seem mysterious, no matter how many times I read Harold McGee. I’m making a coconut cake from Nancie McDermott’s book Southern Cakes, the Classic Coconut Cake on page 58, which I intend to frost with the Fluffy White Frosting on page 65 and fill with the Lemon Curd on page 157. Instead of the lemon juice, I substitute lime juice to make a Lime Curd which seems to fit better with the Thai theme but decide not to substitute lime zest for the lemon zest and instead leave the zest out entirely. I’ve had lime zest turn bitter in cooked foods and am hesitant to take the chance. [I end up sprinkling the finely grated lime zest onto the cooled filling before assembling the cake.] Every cake in the book is tempting, but Coconut Cake, while classically Southern, seems tailor-made for a dinner with a Southeast Asian theme, a part of the world were coconut is found in so many foods.
The evening goes by fast. The rice cooker test, making a batch to be used days later for fried rice, goes perfectly. The Aroma rice cooker makes plump fluffy grains and saves me the trouble of even thinking about over or under cooking. I do a bunch of rote prep: cooking rice noodles, cutting and marinating meats, washing and picking leaves off herbs, squeezing what seems like 100 limes. There are several sauces on the list: a vegetarian peanut sauce for the sate and for the vegetarians to use for the summer rolls, a lime garlic dressing for the laab/lob, a roasted chili and garlic spice paste that will be used as a seasoning ingredient and/or condiment, and a Vietnamese dipping sauce with what I consider the perfect balance of salty, sweet and tangy/sour. Between the cake, the laab with its lime leaves, lime juice and the roasted chili paste the house smells sweet with notes of herbal spicy. Too wired to sleep, I recheck my prep lists and recipes making sure I have not forgotten any items. I fall asleep noting the faint, but pleasant scent of garlic on my hand as I lay it near my head on the pillow.
“I love when you cook and all this [equipment] comes out of nowhere.” – D
Some people have hidden depths or hidden talents, I have hidden kitchen equipment. The beverage dispenser hides in the upper part of the pantry that can only be reached by stepladder. The second slow cooker is in the guest room closet. To D’s credit, there are a couple of new items in the kitchen. In addition to the electronic rice cooker (Um, why did I not have one of these before? Oh yeah, I only cook rice once a year.) I picked up something that I have been wanting for years: a traditional Thai rice steamer used primarily to cook sticky rice. As you can see from the photo, it consists of a curved metal pot to boil the water and a rounded conical woven basket to hold the rice over the steam. They seem to defy sense as most western steamers completely enclose the food being steamed, with little room for steam to escape. I’ve been improvising rice steamers for years with metal baskets, muslin, cheesecloth and also with woven rice holders (which work not even close second best). The basket and pot arrangement works beautifully for the glutinous rice – water is absorbed by and escapes slightly from the woven natural material and is prevented from dripping onto the rice and making it soggy. The pot concentrates the steam upward to the rice in the bottom of the cone. The cooked rice comes away from the flat weave of the basket perfectly when dumped into a dish. The lid is whatever you have on hand that will cover the rice, but leave enough room for it to expand; depending on the amount of rice, you can use a larger or smaller pot lid. This lid is special in that it is the only remaining piece from a four-piece cooking set that my grandfather bought me for Christmas the year I moved away from home. It wasn’t the fanciest set of cookware, but to me it represented my grandparents’ support for my decision to move (and I’m sure my grandmother made the suggestion about the pans). I used the pans for many years until they wore out and were replaced, but I’ve held on to the last lid.
I have today off of work and it’s really the final prep day before the dinner. I hope that Saturday will consist of packing the car, fixing anything the goes “wrong”, heating and stir frying food on site. After my last cake disaster there needs to be plenty of time for dessert plan B, or plan C. [July 2009. Friend’s birthday cake. 100 degrees and 1000% humidity. Three separate batches of Italian buttercream frosting refuse to set up. Wrong cake for July.] Without notes, it’s too difficult to describe the details of the day. Some lingering impressions: I sleep restlessly and need a caffeinated super sweet Thai tea to shake off the lethargy. The bright orange tea tempered with cream is my sunrise in a glass. About mid-day I am reminded that despite this being a cliché, these sorts of events are marathons, not sprints. Same advice applies; stay hydrated and focus on the task at hand – the next mile not the next dozen. For a long time it feels like I am only making parts of dishes, and that nothing is finished. It suddenly seems *very* important to see something “finished” and to feel like I’m making progress. I make the cucumbers in vinegar. Little slices floating with peppers and cilantro; the salty/tangy/sweet/herbal flavors are all there. Finally something DONE. Checkmark. I realize I’ve been standing for hours one position and need a few good stretches and knee bends.
The biggest thing lacking in the home kitchen vs the commercial one? For me it’s not a giant oven or an 8 burner stove, though there are times more stove/oven space is handy. Folks, it’s the dishwasher and not the actual machine (though having bought a home with my first one 7 years ago, I cannot now imagine a dinner party where I cleaned every dish and pan by hand). It’s the wonderful staff person who washes your mixing bowls so you can use them again immediately and who scrapes the crusted and slightly burned mixture of meat juices and palm sugar off your jelly roll pans. At home, when pressed for time, dishwashing is simply annoying, “It’s not on my prep list! It dries out my hands! What do you mean you can’t put the strainer/wooden spoons/Le Creuset/bamboo steamer in there!?” I am my own dishwasher this week. It reminds me that this is the first job many chefs , including me, had in the kitchen and it’s the one that has to be done to keep the rest of the operation moving. The dishwasher is the center of the hub, the platform on which the busy kitchen rests. O, dishwasher, my dishwasher!
Realization is dawning that I will need to be up early Saturday to finish the cake, chop vegetables, and cook the tamarind fruit compote. Around 6:30 PM, I send D off to deliver items bound for the hosts’ house for tomorrow’s set up and food for their refrigerator to free up some space. I’m nineish hours into the day and rolling the rice paper wrapped summer rolls doesn’t occupy my head enough to ignore the physical toll three days of cooking is taking on my body. Amid the sharp smells of fresh mint and cilantro, while I am gently tearing and rolling with vegetables into thinner than paper rice wraps, I have a sense memory of the two years that I worked a second job on weekends catering. The energy needed, the intensity of the work, the way my feet and legs hurt after 8 hours hurt no matter what shoes I wore. (and the good feeling when all the prep and planning resulted in a great event.) I re-prioritize the checklist and note “sit” after items I can do off my feet.
One of the last items is the fresh coconuts. I’ve been intending to crack, peel and grate the coconut for two days. Some part of me is avoiding the unknown. This is my first coconut. A coconut virgin. I have no idea why I’ve waited this long: what cook wouldn’t love food that requires you to use an ice pick AND a hammer to make it edible? The directions make it look so easy: poke a hole, drain the milk, crack with a hammer, pry the coconut from the hull, and peel the skin from the white edible flesh. So visceral. Having already made the cake, and not worried about saving the milk, I poke the eye. Nothing drains out. I risk my loomed rag rug getting wet and rap it firmly while holding it on the floor. Crack. I open the two halves to find the inside slightly discolored and slimy. Thankfully I’ve read several recipes that warn me this means the coconut has gone bad. I toss it and move on to the second. Same procedure, only now I can hear the milk sloshing around once there is a hole in the end. I get a crack started and then hold it over the sink. A final firm hit releases the coconut water in a gush over my hand and I’m holding two beautiful halves filed with pure white. The part where you simply pry the flesh from the hull? The two have no desire to part from one another. The curve of the nut impedes getting the dinner knife inserted. After some time I begin to get bits and pieces. I go at the outside with the hammer to get smaller pieces and this seems to work better, allowing the smaller bits of hull a flatter aspect to jam the knife into. Eventually on the table is a bowl of white pieces covered with an inedible brown “skin” that is to be peeled; not even my sharpest veggie peeler does the job well. I resort to a sharp paring knife and carefully holding each piece upright against the cutting board and cutting down the outside. I am finally running the coconut through the grater attachment on my food processor. It’s lovely, looking like soap flakes, but tasting of nuts and cream. My brain wants to think sweet, like the sugar infused stuff in the grocery aisle bags, but this tastes clean: white cotton linens hung outside on the line on a windy day. I feel a bit like I’m home from the hunt: laughable as it has taken me more than an hour to come up with enough shreds for a cake. I clean up the kitchen, head upstairs and sleep soundly.
The day of the dinner has arrived. I awake a bit nervous about how the rest of the day will go, but feeling physically refreshed and ready to finish. The morning goes along smoothly, the frosting and cake turn out beautifully, the borrowed mandoline slicer works perfectly for the julienning green papaya for salad, there is too much work for the remaining time, but I’m oddly at peace. The folks from the Church of Latter Day Saints knock as I’m sautéing the fruit and cooking the spiced tamarind sauce for the compote. Their eyes light up when the door opens: “What is that smell? I could stand here all day!” I warn them I can’t talk as I literally have something cooking on the stove. The smell of cooking palm sugar, star anise, vanilla bean, ginger and lemongrass with fruit evokes a homey “apple pie,” feeling but there is a sly spiciness to the anise, ginger and lemongrass that you can’t quite pin down. I want to bake it in a pie, or better yet distill it into a perfume to spray around the house when I’m feeling blue.
I chop a few reaming items and pack it all in the car by 1:30. The final dinner cooking is too rushed for my taste. Doesn’t everyone wish they had a few more hours before very event? Or am I the only one trying to cram in last minute items? I forget the eggs I’ve already cooked and chopped for the fried rice, in my hurry I leave out one or two things, substitute others, but nearly everything is idiot-proof as I’ve pre-mixed most of the dressings and sauces. I wish I had a second wok, but I make it work with one. Dishes go into the warming oven and the regular oven. Platters and chafing dishes are set out. The ED of the non-profit arrives early to help with last minute prep. The appetizers are out and the brewer pours me a beer. Suddenly the juggling is over and I slip into the powder room to change clothes, elated that the food is ready.
“Babe, what kind of liquor do we have?”
A and I whip up sangria about two hours before the party. It’s the moment I really settle in and realize that this is going to be great. It’s wonderful having help for a big event. Our hosts are calm, prepared, and looking forward a fun evening. Once the party kicks off, I realize the second benefit of having someone else host the dinner: it forces me to end my cooking when the guests arrive. I can enjoy chatting, drinking and eating with everyone else. (Mostly. There is a chafing dish mishap that quickly gets resolved.) Several partygoers ask for the sangria recipe: we laugh since we are not entirely sure how much of anything we put except the wine and soda. Here’s what I think was in it.
Basil Lime Lemongrass Sangria
4 bottles of wine (we used a sweeter wine, but if you use a dry, just increase the syrup or sugar)
2 liters lemon lime soda/Sprite
2 liters club soda/sparking water
1 cup (more or less) of white rum (I think brandy or vodka would work as well)
¼ to ½ cup lemongrass and lime syrup (I cooked equal parts sugar and water with lemongrass stalks and juice of two limes). If you don’t want to do this step, use sugar and lime juice and be sure to dissolve any added sugar completely before serving. Taste the sangria before adding more sugar syrup.
5 sliced limes
Fresh Thai basil on the stem
Lemongrass stalks, lightly pounded if using fresh, or take the steeped ones or the ones from the syrup like we did.
Combine it all, stir, and chill, allowing to infuse over several hours. Then serve over ice.
My favorite dish was the lime curd filled coconut cake: maybe because I’ve not made a cake in a while and it seemed like the biggest feat to do for a party at someone else’s home. The cake layers have the right balance of density and lightness, the way a homemade cake with single syllable ingredients should. The lime curd is tart enough to balance out the light but sweet frosting. Second, favorite, the shrimp and pork meatballs on pineapple wedges (my version of galloping horses, but able to be eaten off a toothpick). The ingredients are too lengthy to list, but crispy garlic and shallots, tamarind, fish sauce, peanuts merge with the pork and shrimp to strike a balance of flavors: sea and garden, salty sweet and tangy. Hardly any left is the real testament. The beef with pumpkin was a hit: a thick stew of beef marinated with garlic, cilantro stems, white pepper and coriander seeds, simmered in coconut milk with chunks of pumpkin added at the end. The smaller pumpkin bits and coconut thicken the sauce and provide a sweet contrast to the spicy intensity of garlic pepper. None of the ingredients is familiar in combination, but eating it evokes the comfort of curling up by a fire, knowing the cold winter outside is held at bay.
There wasn’t much food left (which means for the most part I planned the right amount of food for 30, yea!). We do have an overabundance of summer rolls (I could have stopped halfway) and lots of laab/lob with cellophane noodles, both of which is fine with me and D: lunch today was warmed laab salad, topped by a lightly fried egg and garnished with siracha. I’ll have to get back to my regular (low) carb levels next week, but for now, I have lunches for the entire week. I used almost an entire bottle of fish sauce, more than 5 pounds of limes, an entire brisket, 10 cans of coconut milk, a pound of palm sugar and D had to run to the store twice for eggs (I think we used a total of 3.5 dozen). I bought too much Thai Basil, and not enough sawtooth herb (and I can’t wait to head back to Saigon Market in Raleigh to explore all the other bags of greens and herbs in their coolers). I have enough extra veggies that I couldn’t pass up from my various Asian market forays to make several other dishes this week (Green Chicken Curry with Thai mini-eggplant or Napa Cabbage with roasted chili garlic sauce anyone?)
A Southeast Asian Bibliography and Some Direction on Recipes
A few things I made were straight from recipe books, but for the most part after cooking and eating Southeast Asian food for more than 25 years, I use recipes as a starting point. Sweetness is a good example: having given up most sugars, many Thai and Southeast Asian foods with sugar come off as too sweet to my tastebuds. Palm sugar has a lower sweetness, but even then I find myself adjusting recipes to be a bit more on the tart or salty side. I like testing out different proteins with the flavors in another dish. Luckily every cookbook I’ve seen seems to encourage this experimentation, as with most food cultures, people cook with what is on hand, informed by their heritage, to their taste. I have around 15 Southeast Asian or Thai cookbooks, and another 5 or so Chinese/Asian cookbooks on the shelf: some I cook out of regularly, some are references, some have inspiring photos.
Chicken Sate with peanut sauce (vegetarian sauce): http://www.thaitable.com/ and Real Vegetarian Thai, Nancie McDermott
Vegetarian “Summer Rolls” with Nuoc Cham: The Southeast Asian Cookbook, Ruth Law and Simple Laotian Cooking, Penn Hongthong. The rolls use whatever is fresh and on hand: I used mint, cilantro, bean sprouts, carrot, sawtooth herb, snap peas and some rice noodles, and no meat.
Pork and Shrimp Meatballs w/pineapple: Note that there really is no recipe for this, I used several as inspiration: Cracking the Coconut, Su-Mei Yu and Where Flavor is Born, Andreas and various galloping horses recipes in other books
Cucumber Relish/Salad: http://www.thaitable.com/ and Cracking the Coconut, Su-Mei Yu
Cool Noodles with Turkey Laab/Lob: I like the lob/laab from Simple Laotian Cooking, Penn Hongthong but the noodle idea and dressing (Dressing #2) are from Cracking the Coconut, Su-Mei Yu
Green Papaya Salad: Chiang Mai Thai Kitchen Cookery Centre, Prathuang (Tim) Impraphai and Cracking the Coconut, Su-Mei Yu. Don’t try too hard to find the first book, it was self published in Thailand by the author.
Panang Chicken Curry: our friend Alex made this spicy stew, intense with red chilies and littered with kaffir lime leaves. Google it, then spend some time in Thailand. You might get close. 😉
Beef and Pumpkin Stew: Cracking the Coconut, Su-Mei Yu
Pork and Green Beans: Simple Laotian Cooking, Penn Hongthong
Pad Se Yu (Vegetarian version): Real Vegetarian Thai, Nancie McDermott
Fried Rice w/ pineapple, tomato, cashew, egg: Thai Vegetarian Cooking, Vatcharin Bhumichitr
Coconut Cake with Lime curd: Southern Cakes, Nancie McDermott
Sticky Rice Pudding with Tamarind Glazed Fruit: The pudding is one thing I don’t think turned out well. Making a baked sticky rice pudding (instead of a stovetop version) based on the one from Beans and Barley (the little book of “Beans”, 1998) just didn’t quite work – flavor was good, using palm sugar and honey thumbs up, but the sticky rice just absorbed a TON of the liquid and got too gummy. The tamarind fruit is going over ice cream at my next dinner party: Where Flavor is Born, Andreas Viestad
It Rains Fishes, Loha-unchit
Thai Cuisine, Mogens Bay Esbensen
The Original Thai Cookbook, Jennifer Brennan
Traditional Recipes of Laos, Phia Sing
Curry Cuisine, various authors, DK Publishing
Southeast Asian Specialties, Rosalind Mowe ed. Culinaria Konemann
The Food of Thailand, Oi Cheepchaiissara with Lulu Grimes, Murdoch Books
The Food of Asia, Murdoch Books