My attempt at making Thai basil fried rice

When living in Chicago, I ate a great Thai restaurant in Old Town called Tiparos Thai. Unlike most people who go to Thai restaurants to order Pad Thai, I always got the spicy basil chicken. It’s a mouth-scorching dish of chopped meat, bell peppers, green beans, Thai basil leaves, and steamed jasmine rice. The dish was studded with tiny bits of hot chilies. After eating it, my lips were swollen and numb as if I had stopped by a Michigan Avenue plastic surgeons to get my lips done. This dish was so hot that it almost hurt to drink water afterwards…

Despite the pain of eating the dish, I ordered each time I went to Tiparos.

It’s difficult to explain the draw of this dish because the taste is so spicy sometimes it feels almost unpleasant to eat it. The basil Thai has a different, silvery, tea-like taste, that gets a pleasant green swampy taste because it’s cooked and steamed. The meat is crumbled and sauteed, the nuggets crispy, giving the rice a nice bite. And the sauce acts as a base for the dish – it’s salty, sweet, and slightly pungent. I always add a bit of Sriracha, to add a fruity sweetness, as well.

Since moving to London, I’ve eaten at lots of Thai restaurants, and have eaten the dish, and enjoyed it, though for some reason I’ve never tasted it as good as Tiparos, though I’m trying (I went to an amazing Thai restaurant in Amsterdam that was pretty good)

Anyways, this is my attempt at making Thai basil rice with chicken. Obviously, this won’t be a 100% accurate – I don’t have all the ingredients in a proper Thai basil rice, and I don’t like buying ingredients I probably won’t use again, so I’ve had to do some improvising.

Also, I used boughten rice. I don’t like cheating but I’m terrible at making rice, and it’s much easier to just buy rice already boiled in the shop. Also there are recipes that call for mince, but I bought chicken and chopped it myself…The texture of mince is a bit too pasty and fine for a dish like this – I enjoy it more with the chopped chicken.

As with most of my recipes, these measurements are at-best, guesses…

Ingredients:

-Thai basil, a handful, to taste, chopped in strips
-Coriander, a handful, to taste, chopped
-300g of boneless, skinless chicken breast, chopped finely – almost to a mince (or go ahead and get chicken mince) if you don’t like chicken, you can also use pork, turkey, or beef – whatever you like, or if you’d like, you can leave the meat out, I’m not the police
-1/2 of a red bell pepper chopped
-3 small shallots, sliced finely
-4 cloves of garlic, minced
-4 finger chilies, minced finely – super finely – I seed the chili and remove the rib because these things are spicy AF
-1 jalapeno pepper – I just added this because I had one left in a bag that needed eating
-8, 10 green beans or string beans, with the ends chopped off, and cut the beans in half
-half a white onion, roughly chopped
– 3 large cremini mushrooms – normally, this dish doesn’t have mushrooms (I’ve never seen this dish with mushrooms) – but I had some that I wanted to use
-1 cup of chicken broth (you probably won’t use all of it)
-1 tbl of sriracha sauce (to taste, really)
-2 tbl of fish sauce (this stuff has a very strong taste/smell, so be mindful of how much you use it)
-3 tbl of soy sauce (I use the reduced sodium soy sauce, which still has loads of salt)
-1 tbl of chili paste – I used Gochujang (Korean chili paste)
-2 tbl of sugar
-some white pepper, to taste
-2 packets of cooked jasmine rice
-1/8 cups of cooking oil, something without flavor (peanut, corn, vegetable, groundnut, that sort of thing – not olive, which has too distinct a taste)

This feels like a lot of ingredients, and it is, and it’s going to be a lot of cooking and adding…You’ll be cooking over a high flame for a lot of the cooking, so keep a window open and turn on a fan (if you have one)

Before cooking, create the sauce. In a bowl or large cup, add in the broth, sriracha, fish sauce, soy sauce, chili paste, sugar, and white pepper and mix, seeing that the sugar is dissolved (I heated the broth which made the sugar melt easily)

Heat the oil over a high flame in a nonstick pan. Throw in the beans, onions and bell pepper and cooking for about four, five minutes, stirring constantly, don’t stop. The onions probably won’t color too much, and you’re not looking into browning the veg. Add the meat and stir and continue to cook, you’ll want to get a good browning on the meat – cook for about four, five minutes. Depending on how small you’ve chopped the meat, you might already have cooked the chicken at this point, but if it’s still a bit raw, no worries, it will cook.

Add the garlic and the chilies and cook for another few minutes, until you smell the garlic cooking (it’s a great smell, btw) and then add the shallots and stir and saute for another few minutes

Remember you’re cooking over a high heat, so don’t stop stirring, you don’t want anything to burn.

Add the sauce and cook…You’ll want to let the sauce get sticky and tacky, and so that it coats the veg and meat and get browned, stirring constantly. Depending on the heat, this can take about five, ten minutes. Fold the cooked meat and veg, stirring seeing that the food is coated with the sauce.

Add the basil and the cilantro and stir, letting the cilantro wilt.

Add the rice and stir constantly – you don’t want to cook this too long, because overcooking the rice will blow it out. Depending on if you like the rice to be crispy, you can let it sit for a few seconds and brown. Sprinkle some white pepper – white pepper’s got a very funky, manky smell, so be careful…

Once the rice is warmed through (remember the rice is already cooked), and you can’t see any white in the rice anymore, then you can plate it. I served it with boughten gyoza. Oh, and enjoy.


Cajun-style stew

I like Cajun cooking and like Mexican food, I haven’t really eaten a lot of Cajun food in London. I like gumbo and étouffée and when I lived in Chicago, I used to go to Heaven on Seven. I used to enjoy watching the daytime television appearances of Paul Prudhomme who was hilarious and personable and introduced Cajun cooking to me. The other sharp memory I have of Cajun cooking is Justin “I guarantee” Wilson, who I watched on PBS when I was a kid (as a kid, I thought is TV kitchen set looked like the Keebler Elves’ tree hollow) I got a couple of his books – used – at the Newberry Book Fair (unfortunately, none made it in the move to London)

So I thought I’d try my hand at Cajun cooking. I imagined this recipe up – and please, I understand, this is not authentic Cajun cooking. I’m sure that I’m breaking many rules whilst making this, which is why I’m calling this dish a Cajun-style stew – style letting you know that I am aware of my non-Cajun-ness.

Anyways, below is the recipe – just a quick thing: in London, andouille is hard to find, so I had to replace it with kiełbasa – something that’s way easier to find in London, ‘cuz we got lotsa Polish people running around this city.

This recipe isn’t the kind of recipe you chisel on stone – I improvised a lot of it as I was shopping at Sainsburys (on a Saturday, no less – so there were many screaming children up in there)

Ingredients:

  • 400 g of smoked sausage – for an authentic version of Cajun cooking, you’d want to use andhouille, but given that this is London, I found smoked Polish sausage, instead – chopped in bite-sized pieces
  • 1 green bell pepper – so Sainsburys was out of green bell pepper so this time I used yellow bell pepper -diced
  • I large yellow onion diced
  • 1 chili (green or red) diced
  • 1 rib of celery diced
  • 1 400g of chopped tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup of flour
  • 1/4 cup of vegetable oil
  • 2 green onions, chopped finely
  • a bunch of flat-leafed parsley, chopped finely
  • 1 cup of fish broth
  • 200 g of cooked rice
  • ketchup to taste
  • hot sauce to taste – Tobasco is good, but I used Cholula hot sauce
  • Cajun seasoning to taste
  • 150 g of cooked cold water prawns
  • salt and pepper

So to assemble the dish, you first have to make a roux. Usually it’s made with flour and butter, but I’m trying to do something a little healthier, so I made the roux with oil and flour. It doesn’t cook the same way as you’d do it with butter (probably not as good), but it’s worth a try. Over a small flame, I dumped the oil and flour onto a heavy-bottomed pan, and stirred continuously, making a paste, working to get a nutty brown color. I kept a careful eye on the cooking so I won’t burn the shit. You can’t leave the pan, though, otherwise it can burn very quickly…Keep watch so you don’t destroy the roux (and set off your smoke detector)

Add the bell pepper, onion, celery, and chili and mix. Add some salt and some of the Cajun seasoning and stir. The roux will coat the vegetables. Cook for about 10 minutes, letting the vegetables sweat – you don’t have to let the vegetables brown. Add the fish broth and stir, scraping any sticky bits from the bottom of the pan (there shouldn’t be too much – it’s not a fond). Let the mixture simmer for a bit, before adding the chopped sausage.

Add the can of tomato and add some water – about half of the tomato tin and stir. Add some more Cajun seasoning and stir, raising the heat to high, and let it boil. Stir and let the stew thicken a bit. Add the parsley and green onion and let it boil for longer to let the stew thicken and to let the liquid cook away.

Once the stew gets thick, add the cooked rice, the hot sauce, and ketchup and keep stirring – it’s a lot of stirring, it’s not a dish from which you can walk away – you’ll want a very thick, reddish stew. It’ll smell great. The whole cooking process should take about 40 minutes, and at the last minute add the prawns, and remove from the heat, and stir a bit to heat the prawns through (you don’t want to cook them as they’ll get rubbery if you do)

Serve in bowls, hopefully you got some cornbread (we didn’t – this is London – the closest thing is corn muffins from Gail’s). Oh, and enjoy.

 

Cooking with Margaret Costa

The other night, I went to a cookbook club with a dear friend of mine. The ingenious idea behind the cookbook club is that the group is assigned a cookbook – in this case, it was Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book – and each of us was assigned a recipe. My friend had to do ratatouille and I did Costa’s recipe for peperonata. We then bring the dish to the club and share it with the other members, each of whom brings his/her own dish, as well. It’s a great, friendly way of learning about cooking, and even more importantly, talking about cooking. Everyone’s dish was wonderful and there were leftovers to take home.

Costa’s peperonata reminds me a bit of ratatouille or sausage and peppers, hold the sausage. It’s a very simple, vegetarian dish, and I chose it because it’s summer and I didn’t want to take the hot Tube with meat or dairy and possibly get people sick. I also work in an office with a tiny dorm fridge, and I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to get the food in the fridge.

I won’t go into too much detail about how to make Costa’s dish – you should get the book to do that – but I’ll go over the basics. Essentially, it’s a side dish to be eaten hot or cold. For a serving of four, I chopped up 10 medium-sized tomatoes, 6 red bell peppers, two cloves of garlic (just two) and a little bit of salt. And that’s it. It was so simple, that I kept looking back to the recipe to see if maybe I was missing something. I almost threw pepper in it, but caught myself because there was no pepper in Costa’s recipe.

At the class we were discussing Costa’s recipes which are “of a time” – a bit like those Mad Men-style recipes that charm us with their silliness or weirdness. These are the kinds of recipes that are supposed to impress dinner party guests.

The peperonata went over well with the other guests, though I have to admit, it’s a hard dish to mess up.

Margaret Costa is a great food writer, and though the recipes are probably not dishes I’ll be cooking, I do own her book. I was one of a handful of people who knew who Costa was and was familiar with her book. When someone asked “who would buy this book now?” I raised my hand – I buy midcentury cookbooks because I love the kitsch/camp value. I also appreciate what cooking looked like when folks didn’t have access to many of the ingredients we take for granted now. Reading writers like Elizabeth David or Julia Child is an interesting education in social studies – particularly class and gender – what middle-class women were expected to do and how they were expected to do it.

The other we talked about was the dated format of the book. Unlike contemporary cookbooks, the recipes aren’t laid out with the ingredients listed in bullet points, nor are there gorgeous photographs of the dishes. Costa’s recipes are written far more casually and conversationally – she’ll write something like “heat the oil and throw in the onion and garlic which you have chopped up” – so as a warning, read the recipes in their entirety because the ingredient lists don’t indicate what you do with the ingredients, you have to read the instructions themselves (which are written out in paragraph form)

Along with the format, we also talked about the cover. There are a few editions of the book with the latest being a tasteful, grey cover. I own the goofy, campy cover as seen below:

Yup, that’s a dead bird, nestled among the veg and herbs

So the cover is so ugly that I had to get it – it’s hideous, especially the dead bird that’s taking centre stage. It looks stuffed (taxidermied) I find it funny that the food stylist thought that including a dead pigeon would make the book seem enticing.

I’ve made the dish before last night, though my version had anchovy and olives, and I’ve added parsley and pepper. The peperonata took on a sweet, summery taste (even though it’s firmly ensconced in Costa’s ‘autumn recipes’).

Cooking with Peg Bracken

One of the best cookbook writers is a woman who hated cooking. In fact, the title of her most famous cookbook is The I Hate to Cook Book, which was published in 1960. It recently enjoyed a re-printing with an introduction from Bracken’s daughter, Johanna. The I Hate to Cook Book speaks to housewives and working moms (a growing demographic in 1960) who are burdened with the task of feeding families – often on budget – even if they hate cooking. The genesis of The I Hate to Cook Book is a klatch of women who share the recipes that saved a weeknight dinner.

I read The I Hate to Cook Book like a novel, because recipes, for the most part, are uncookable now. All the recipes have midcentury ingredients that I’d be hard-pressed to find now – like, for example, a surprisingly large number of recipes in Bracken’s book call for canned or frozen cream of shrimp soup. My local Co-Op has cream of mushroom, cream of chicken, and maybe cream of tomato, but I’ve never even heard of cream of shrimp. I had to look enough, and sure enough, I did find that Campbell’s does do a cream of shrimp soup, but I’ve yet to run across it (or taste it – to be honest, it sounds kind of disgusting)

The recipes in Bracken’s book reminds me of Sandra Lee, the woman who revolutionized home cooking with her semi-homemade ethos (70% prefab ingredients, 30% fresh….yum…) A lot of Bracken’s suggestions include a can of this or a tin of that. Lots of the veg she suggests to include are tinned. Interestingly enough, for a dish that calls for mushrooms, she writes about using fresh mushrooms as a treat or extravagance, which leads me to believe that not only were tinned veg a convenience but also an economy, too.

But the reason for reading Bracken’s book is because of her writing. She is the voice of every woman who’s just over it. Bracken cooks because she wants to feed her family and in 1960, moms were expected to feed their families (it was in the job description), but she wasn’t a June Cleaver-type who lived for her domestic duties. She wasn’t a fan of cooking and she realized that a lot of women felt the same way. This isn’t Julia Child who finds joy bursting out of every cherry tomato.

Of cooking, Bracken writes, “some activities become no less painful through repetition: childbearing, paying taxes, cooking.” All of her recipes include shortcuts so that the reader doesn’t have to spend one extra second in front of the stove. Sometimes her recipes sound like outtakes from Mad Men as she suggests “you may now put your feed up and have a highball” while making a rather far-fetched Indonesian curry.

Speaking of curry, another charming thing about this book is that because it’s written in 1960, its reach for multicultural recipes is hilarious and also disgusting. For example, one of the dishes she includes in the book is something called a tuna-rice curry: a questionable concoction that includes canned cream sauce, a can of tuna fish, leftover rice, hardboiled eggs, and curry powder. It’s like someone tried to give her the recipe for kedgerre, but forgot some of the ingredients, so Bracken improvised the rest.

Another tuna-related recipe that Bracken has sourced from the East, calls for chow mein noodles to be cooked with cream of mushroom soup and a can of tune – you’re supposed to bake this mess at 177°C – and voila – it’s like you’re in Beijing!

Even though Bracken hates to cook and has made it her schtick, it’s clear that this isn’t just some jokey book to entertain her readers. Yes, that’s a major part of it, and burnt-out housewives who are wasting their journalism degrees while tending to a raggedy litter of kids probably found Bracken to be a kindred spirit, but Bracken does try to impart actual advice and skill to her readers. The recipes aren’t spoofs and are a perfect snapshot of midcentury cooking and entertaining, when women started to look around their Formica surroundings and ask themselves, “Is this it????”

Back to my roots: Polish dining at Café Maja

I grew up in Brighton Park in Chicago. Brighton Park has a large Polish population and was, at one point, the largest settlement of Poles in Chicago. White flight has made Poles move out of the city in large numbers toward the suburbs, but when I was a kid, the shops down on Archer Avenue all had Polish signs. A big part of my growing up was going to the Polish delis and Polish restaurants.

Chicago is an important part of the Polish diaspora. But so is London. Like Chicago, London has some big Polish areas, especially Acton. Hammersmith is close to Acton, so there is a presence of Polish immigrants in Poland, as well. The other thing about Hammersmith is that the Polish Social & Cultural Association (or Polski Ośrodek Społeczno-Kulturalny) acts as a hub for British Poles or Polish immigrants. It’s a large building in Hammersmith that houses a gallery, two restaurants, and various offices of Polish institutions and bodies.

This afternoon, I went to the Café Maja for lunch this afternoon. It was crowded, as I think we hit the after-church crowd. Sundays are a huge social day for Polish Catholics. After church, families and friends often will make their way to a local deli or restaurant to eat Polish food, talk, gossip, and rest before another busy work week.

Café Maja’s entrance is on the side of the cultural association’s building. You walk into a really casual diner-style dining room. The menu is written on chalkboards behind the counter, and today’s offerings were familiar items: pierogi, Polish sausage, veal cutlet, borscht.

I ordered the grilled Polish sausage that came with two, perfect scoops of mashed potatoes. I also ordered a side of sauerkraut. My partner got the chicken cutlet with potatoes, and he ordered a side of red cabbage. We also ordered a plate of meat pierogi for the table as a starter.

While waiting for my food, I looked around the dining room, and indulged in some people watching, a favourite sport of mine. I saw tables with loud, raucous people, laughing and talking. Two old nuns were sitting at table near the counter. They were eating the tripe soup. The table next to me had some cinephiles who were talking about movies. An older woman behind me was holding court, lecturing her dining companions about etiquette (Emily Post angrily scolded one of her friends to not leave her elbows on the table)

Our food came, the plates crowding our plates. My sausage was scored, blistered and browned, with caramalized onions. The potatoes were perfect scoops, sprinkled with frizzy dill fronds. My partner’s cutlet was flat and nearly the size of the plate. It was golden and crispy, puffy. The pierogi came with little bits of bacon (it would’ve been nice if they came with soured cream or breadcrumbs)

The food was good and comforting, like Polish food is supposed to be. London has a few Polish haute cuisine restaurants, and while they’re good, I can never bring myself to pay lot for fancy, fussy Polish food. Polish food is meant to be hearty and simple and familiar. It’s the kind of food eaten on a cold, wintery day – or if you had a bad day. It’s not healthy food, and scanning the room, I probably saw a lot of hypertension and high cholesterol, but the draw of this kind of food is undeniable.

When you finish a Polish meal, you should be groaning a bit getting, and you should be needing a good stretch, as if the eating was a physically taxing exercise. A large Polish meal also requires that you walk home when you’re done, preferably a long distance, 30 minutes at least.