Dishes from Quick and Easy Thai

Back in May, I reviewed Nancie McDermott’s Quick and Easy Thai. Now that I’m back at home, I’ve made a few meals from this book using a new wok (how did I ever cook without one?!). Here are some snapshots of the recipes I’ve made. I usually forget to take pictures until I’ve already started to eat so some of them aren’t as nicely staged as they might have been 😛 

 Green curry chicken with zucchini (gaeng kio wahn gai): The first recipe I made in the wok, and also my first Thai curry from scratch. I followed the recipe pretty closely because of that. I found the curry thinner than I like, so after a bit of Googling I think next time I’ll try heating the coconut milk longer or straining a bit off. I used regular eggplant, but next time I want to try the Thai eggplants (green and golfball sized). Zucchini and eggplant make for a great green curry.
 Rice soup with chicken, cilantro, and crispy garlic (kao tome gai): McDermott knew just how to appeal to me when she described this recipe – “Simply delicious and simple to make, this is Thai-style comfort food. […] It’s the first choice when Thais cook for someone who’s under the weather, but I make it whenever we need a quick and hearty one-dish supper that satisfies us all.” I loved this soup. The cilantro adds a flavour I don’t usually have in my home cooking. My parents also like to mix in some Thai sweet chili sauce. I’m making this for lunch after I finish this post!
 Chicken with cashews and chilies (gai paht meht mamuang himapahn): I made this dish last weekend. I stopped by a Chinese market to pick up the chilies. I’d never been to one of the markets in Chinatown before (Chinatown being a very small part of my city), but I think I’ll be shopping there more often in the future! I love the spicy chilies. I don’t much like hot sauce (ex. Tabasco) but I love the flavour of spicy Thai food.

All of these recipes were indeed quick and easy. The only time needed is the time it takes to cook the rice! The ingredients may be simple but they all pack that flavourful punch I love in Thai food. I realize now that I should maybe try some recipes without chicken… I would certainly recommend this cookbook for beginning Thai chefs.

Review: Quick and Easy Thai by Nancie McDermott

Author: Nanci McDermott
Title: Quick and Easy Thai
Format/Source: eBook/Kindle
Published: December 2003
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Length: 168 pages
Genre: Cookbook
Why I Read: Want to learn about cooking Thai food
Read If You: Want to learn about cooking Thai food 😉 
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

Whoo, my first cookbook review! It’s been awhile since I read one straight through. The last time must have been in high school, when we were traveling through South Dakota and I purchased a fall recipes book.  I remember making some delicious, comforting foods from it… I should go back to it!  
Anyway. I chose this cookbook because I love Thai food and I really want to make it accessible in my home. I think it’ll be best for me to start small, learn the basics through a simplified cookbook like this, then build up my Thai cooking repertoire. Once upon a time, I was interested in making curries. I got a book from the library with recipes from around the world and I made one, but I quickly realized it was a tad ambitious for my abilities. 😛 So, after some exhaustive research (I saved a number of Thai cookbooks on GoodReads, not all as simple as this one), I chose this book as a starting point. I think that was a good idea. I felt reassured to know she lived in Thailand for a few years at least. In the introduction, she recounts her experience with Thai cooking and previously published cookbooks. McDermott decided to write this book in particular as her family began to grow and she “want[ed] to enjoy the dazzling flavors of Thai food even on a weeknight, to be able to cook Thai dishes as easily and happily and quickly as I make other favourite dishes”. She chose recipes for three different classes of food: A) intrinsically easy Thai food that Thai people cook at home, B) street food and restaurant dishes that Thai people don’t cook because they can easily buy them, and C) some complex dishes for which she found “reasonable shortcuts to a simpler but still wonderful version”. I had this book for over a year but I was always too busy with studying, and then preparing to move to Japan…soon I’ll be home with time on my hands to devote to cooking!
I like the cultural notes McDermott includes alongside each recipe, including the recipe’s name in Thai. One day if I feel more ambitious, I could look up McDermott’s other books to find perhaps more ‘authentic’ versions of these recipes. I also really appreciated the informative sections, which include “Useful Utensils for Cooking Thai Food”, “Techniques”, “A Thai Pantry” and “Mail-Order Sources for Thai Ingredients”. I made many highlights throughout the book, colour coding for general information, practical tips, and recipes to try. The recipes themselves seem clear and easy to follow. I saved 35 of the 70 recipes to try, which I think is a good proportion given that I skipped all the recipes that include fish or seafood (creatures from water = blechy) Here are some of the recipes I’m eager to make:

  • Meatballs in panaeng curry sauce (panaeng look chin neua sahp)
  • Rice soup with chicken, cilantro and crispy garlic (kao tome gai)
  • Beef and zucchini in red curry sauce (neua paht peht)
  • Pork with spicy green beans (moo paht prik king)
  • Rice noodles with lettuce and ground beef gravy (kwaytiow neua sahp)
  • Roasted eggplant salad with cilantro and lime (yum makeua yao)
  • Nun bananas in coconut milk (gluay buat chee)

I only spotted one odd thing – a beef salad recipe that called for chicken stock. It caught my eye because Pollan gripped about excess use of chicken stock in Cooked. I agree with him. Novice that I am, I think there must be better ways to get flavour than through tossing chicken stock in everything. At the very least, why add chicken stock to dishes that don’t contain chicken? When I make this recipe, I will probably just use water.

Can I review a cookbook without having made any of the recipes? I’ve done it anyhow. It’s hard enough for me to find familiar ingredients in Japanese store, let alone Thai ones. You know I’ll hit the ground running in September, when I’m back in familiar territory! 

The Bottom Line: If you love Thai food and want to learn how to enjoy it your own home, this is a good place to start.

Further Reading: 

Review: Cooked by Michael Pollan

Author: Michael Pollan
Title: Cooked
Format/Source: eBook/library 
Published: January 2013
Publisher: Penguin
Length: 480 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Why I Read: ‘New’ Pollan boo
Read If You’re: Interested in the art/history of cooking
Quote: “Elation, effervescence, elevation, levity, inspiration: air words all, alveolated with vowels, leavening the dough of everyday life” (258).
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

I didn’t pay much attention to this book when it was first released either because A) I thought I’d heard everything Pollan could say on the subject of eating or B) a book about cooking didn’t pique my interest too high. Well, touché – A) This isn’t a book about eating and B) I’ve become much more interested in cooking since graduating and fending for myself in a foreign country.

How was it that some burning coals and a single oak log had turned something you would never think to eat – dead pig – into something you couldn’t wait to eat? (95)

 When I read about food, I usually read books concerned with sustainability, health, or taste. In Cooked, Pollan focuses on the history and practice of cooking. Therefore, Cooked makes a lighter read than his other works. No need to fret about our health or the future of our species – let’s just explore and enjoy cooking for itself. History, philosophy and a helping of science (particularly in Part VI, about fermentation) fill Cooked’s pages. The topic lends itself to more poeticism than Pollan’s previous works, as he romanticizes the act of cooking and ruminates on its long history.

Gazing into the flames of a wood fire is mesmerizing; the flames seem to take control of your thoughts, deflecting them from any linear path. Gaston Bachelard, the idiosyncratic French philosopher, claims that philosophy itself began in front of the fire, flowing from the peculiar reverie that a fire inspires. (117)

 Pollan explains how cooking gave us more free time by allowing us to spend less time digesting (66). While I always how agriculture gave us more free time, I hadn’t considered how cooking did the same. He suggests cooking played an important role in our species’ development by allowing us to divert energy from chewing to thinking (67). He doesn’t dwell long on this theory, but I like the idea!

The above being said, health inevitably crops up in parts of the book that contrast commercial and home cooking. For example, Pollan questions the use of commodity pork in Joneses’ traditional, slow cooked barbecue (58). Pollan wants “…to pinpoint the precise historical moment that cooking took its fatefully wrong turn: when civilization began processing food in such a way as to make it less nutritious rather than more” (24). Doesn’t that just sound absurd?! I can’t comprehend it. It really all does come down to money (and I suppose a great deal of marketing). Frozen PB+J, are you kidding me? But then, just a few lines after the frozen sandwich mention, market researcher Harry Balzer argues “Take-out from the supermarket, that’s the future.” (196). Ehmmm….yup, the future’s here, I’m in that group. ^^; If I don’t have the time or creativity or desire to cook (whatever is the day’s excuse), I feel better getting a rotisserie chicken or a custom made sandwich from Safeway than going eat. But for me, that’s the key – such meals aren’t replacing home cooking. They’re replacing going to a restaurant, ordering in or eating Pizza Pops and carrot sticks.

Another significant example of how food processing has taken ‘its fatefully wrong turn’ is in the commercial bread chapter. Frozen PB+J is pretty absurd, but commercial bread takes the cake because it’s something so many people eat on a daily basis (discussed in Part III, Chapter II).  Pollans writes, “I had probably never really experienced the full potential of whole-grain wheat” (280) and I doubt I have either. Adding it to my ‘to eat’ list! 

Thousands of years on, we still haven’t discovered techniques for processing food as powerful, versatile, safe, or nutritious as microbial fermentation (313).

The final part of the book, “Earth”, explores fermentation. While my interest wandered during some of the scientific discussion* , I did find the overall section very enlightening. I’ve never considered the variety of fermented foods, nor really how they come to be.

But then it occurred to me that, in fact, all four elements were represented in the beer-making process. The barley is first cooked over a fire; the grain is then boiled in water; and the beer, after fermentation, is carbonated with air. Beer is the complete four-element food. Which, I realized, is exactly the sort of insight you would expect beer to sponsor. (393)

I cringe to admit I didn’t think of the privileged position one must find themselves in to be able to enact Pollan’s recommendations until I read Bee Wilson’s review for the New York Times. Thoughts of all the free time I’ll have to cook when I return to Canada preoccupied my mind. I’ve been interested in food and cooking for about four years, but university commitments prevented me from ever indulging that interest (so I tell myself…). That ‘free time’ I’m imagining comes from not being a full-time student or employee. This is not a place one wants to find themselves in for a lengthy period of time – indeed, for me, it’s a transition stage. Who knows how I’ll feel about taking a couple hours a day to cook when I once again find myself in university or with a full time job (though I like to think once I’ve learnt to really enjoy ‘slow cooking’, I’ll divert time from other activities to be able to cook more during busy times).

It seems to me that one of the great luxuries of life at this point is to be able to do one thing at a time, one thing to which you give yourself wholeheartedly. Unitasking. (202). 

Then again – okay, so some people are short on time because they’re forced to work all the time but some people are like me, ‘short on time’ because they want to do so many things and can’t focus on just one. “When chopping onions, just chop onions” (189). I should hang that in my kitchen! I admire and try to adhere to the principles of Buddhism and meditation but I still rush around far too often. Maybe cooking will be the thing that grounds me. I suppose this is the angle Pollan comes from, but given his careful acknowledgment of gender politics throughout the book, he might have acknowledgment how one must have some privilege to engage in the kind of cooking he advocates.

Each of the different methods I learned for turning the stuff of nature into tasty creations of culture implies a different way of engaging with the world, and some are more sympathetic than others. (411)

 The Bottom Line: Love food but are tired of reading about issues like sustainability or health? Just want to read about cooking? This is the book for you.

Further Reading: 

*Whenever I read a big food book, my mind tends to wander around this part – about 75% into the book. Is it because I’m tired of a big book or is it because the books are structured so that the sort of parts that don’t’ interest me come in at 75%? It’s a chicken or egg question, maybe.

    Review: The Third Plate by Dan Barber

    Author: Dan Barber
    Title: The Third Plate
    Format/Source: eBook/Library
    Published: May 2014
    Publisher: Penguin Press
    Length: 496 pages
    Genre: Non-fiction
    Why I Read: Interested in food; haven’t read a book like this in ages
    Read If You’d: Like to learn about improving a food’s flavour or how eat more ‘naturally’
    Quote: “The food chain is actually more like a set of Olympic rings. They all hang together.” (33)
    Rating: ★★★½ [ratings guide]
    Challenges: Foodies Read 2015
    GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

    “But we weren’t addressing the larger problem. The larger problem, as I came to see it, is that farm-to-table allows, even celebrates, a cherry-picking of ingredients that are often ecologically demanding and expensive to grow. Farm-to-table chefs may claim to base their cooking on whatever the farmer’s picked that day […], but whatever the farmer has picked that day is really about an expectation of what will be purchased that day. […] Farm-to-table may sound right – it’s direct and connected – but really the farmer ends up servicing the table, not the other way around.” (26)

     If you’ve passed by this book thinking “Well, I’ve already read Pollan’s In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma” – as I initially did – think again! My apologies to Dan Barber. I noticed this book when it was released last spring but I didn’t rush to it because I thought it would rehash books I’d already read. When I added it to my Foodies Read 2015 list, I prepared for a repeat read, thinking I could use a refresher. Instead I found a new perspective that looks beyond what I already knew (Barber assumes you’ve read Pollan and that Barber’s taking the next step from there). As I made my way through the introduction, I got excited about what I was going to read. My note on the quote above was “AHA, that’s still the problem. Great, this is the next angle/step!” Barber sets out to look once again at the big picture, moving beyond how we can make single ingredients (like tomatoes or beef) more sustainable.

    “The Third Plate goes beyond raising awareness about the importance of farmers and sustainable agriculture. It helps us recognize that what we eat is part of an integrated whole, a web of relationships, that cannot be reduced to single ingredients. It champions a whole class of integral, yet uncelebrated, crops and cuts of meats that is required to produce the most delicious food. Like all great cuisines, it is constantly in flux, evolving to reflect the best of what nature can offer.” (33)

    The early part of the book involves much discussion of Barber’s restaurant and farm endeavour. Well, of course his restaurant plays a role throughout the story, but in the beginning I felt dropped in the middle of it. Barber writes as though you’re familiar with his business endeavour, or as if knowing the background isn’t important – but I think it is because I didn’t really understand how he ran the farm and how it would accommodate the techniques he learns about. I would have appreciated a few pages fleshing out the background of how he came to run Blue Hill and how the Stone Barns operation functions.

    Barber breaks the book into four large sections – soil, land (focused on foie gras), sea (focused on fish) and see (focused on bread). The soil chapter focus on soil, because it’s so integral to growing anything. A good place for the book to start. I felt too much space was devoted to fish, but I really don’t like fish so I wasn’t totally captivated. At least I was able to feel a bit better that I don’t eat unsustainable fish! There wasn’t a lot of direct talk about vegetables, because I suppose they’re covered under growing things in the soil chapter. I was very happy to come to the bread chapter (especially after reading so much about icky fish). Bread is my soul food (sometimes life in Japan is very hard when I can’t get nice bread ;-;).  My exact note was, “Oooh bread now we’re talking” (370). Barber references a book about the chicken industry (168). I love chicken but while reading this book I realized – I don’t think I’ve ever had a really good chicken, only chicken from the supermarket. Now that I understand more about where flavour comes from, I think it’s my duty to try a well-raised chicken.

    I learnt a lot about different methods of agriculture. One passage that struck me was about Klaas, a farmer who went looking for books about weed control before the use of manufactured chemicals. He finally found a book written in the 1930s that said “Vigorous plant stands are the best means for eradicating weeds”. Klaas says, “I read that to [my wife] Mar-Howell and we just looked at each other and said ‘Duh! Focus on the best plants! How come we didn’t think of that” (66). Of course, it seems so obvious once you say it. Around page 108, with all the talk about how plants grow and overcome adversities, I was hit with the thought that it’s amazing plants just work, they just grow and do what they need to, and they would keep on growing and nature would keep balancing itself out, even if no one knew about it. I think that’s pretty freaking amazing. I learnt a bit about the USDA’s historical influence on farming systems and how that was recently overcome by the private sector’s influence:

    “By the 1990s, private industry had surpassed the USDA in the funding of agricultural research at land-grant institutions. And the spending gap continued to expand. In a little more than a century, the spirit of a regional food system encouraged by land-grant colleges was effectively turned on its head” (434).

    I also learnt a lot about how flavour occurs naturally in foods. It’s something I realized I had no idea about, despite being someone who loves flavourful food (who doesn’t?). I always kind of thought great flavour could only come from using extra seasonings like herbs. I never thought much of food tasting great on its own – which really sums up the problems with the food industry that Barber tackles in this book. For example, one thing I learnt is that exercising animals (such as pigs) makes room in the muscles for fat deposits, which means better flavour (190). Hmmm, interesting! Some parts of the book could have been strengthened by more scientific evidence (although see my comment in the final paragraph about notes). One part that struck me early on was the discussion of how killing soil kills nutrients and thus flavour (sorry, missed the page number). Sounds logical but I’d like some concrete scientific explanation, please, because it’s all new to me.

    Barber’s focus here is flavour and how that can be achieved through chefs pursuing sustainable agriculture. He’s not talking about large-scale feasibility of the systems he explores, which is okay, I suppose. It’s not the focus of this book, but it’s definitely an important question. The ideas he writes about sound great, but how can we widely implement them beyond the privleged world of a chef’s fancy restaurant? The forms which Barber explores are definitely not affordable for most people. The numbers are indirectly mentioned about 1/3 of the way into the book (165). He acknowledges not everyone has the money to buy great flavour, and flavour is the focus of his book – not health, ethics or environment (if those areas are benefited in Barber’s cases, it’s because they’re a side effect or means to great flavour). At another point (293), he asks how do we keep in check the drive for economic returns? However, I’m still left wondering who can afford this and how many can you feed with these systems? That’s my question, but it’s not the one Barber sets out to answer. That’s fair, but I think it’s a topic that shouldn’t be avoided and could have had a chapter devoted to acknowledging it.

    Barber does touch on environmental benefits, as the way to grow flavourful food comes from growing it in an environmentally friendly manner. He also writes that such systems could be better adaptable in a world affected by climate change.

    “In the face of weather that is less predictable and more unforgiving, a diversity of locally adapted crops is one way for farmers to hedge their bets. Glenn’s landrace system isn’t just repatriating a lost cuisine. It’s gathering the seed stock for the future of eating” (409).

    Something this book has that I haven’t really noticed in other food books is a certain style of humour. There’s some light cussing, small jokes, and colourful personalities. My favourite bit:

    “I went with yellow mustard”‘ Klaas said, and then he leaned his head back and smiled mischievously. My expression didn’t change, which I could tell confused him. Had I known about the improbability of planting yellow mustard, I would have said, “Holy shit, Klaas. You planted a weed in your already weed-infested field?!” That’s what his Penn Yan neighbors said. (79)

    Okay, I’m almost finished! Here are some notes on the end of the book. When I reached the end, I exclaimed “OH epilogue?!” because I found on myself on page 465 of 579.  Just as I was thinking “I’d like some encompassing wrap up idea”, Barber presents a new menu (475). Okay, that’s fine, but as I discuss above – it doesn’t really offer the practical answers of implementation that I was hoping for. But by the time I got to the end, I had accepted that wasn’t what Barber was exploring. His writing maybe opens the door for that practical discussion.  I’ll be picking through the bibliography for more food books to check out. A final comment on an ebook issue: I didn’t realize there were any notes until I manually flipped through to those pages at the very end. You can click the note to go back into the text, but you can’t go from the text into the notes, which would obviously be the more useful feature. I had no idea there were any citations while I was reading. Come on, ebook, let’s get with the game! You have so much potential.

    “Fixtures of agribusiness such as five-thousand-acre grain monocultures and bloated animal feedlots are no more the future of farming than eighteenth-century factories billowing black smoke are the future of manufacturing” (20).

    The Bottom Line: The Third Plate is a big book, yet there were parts I still wanted more of! Barber tackles a huge topic, giving the reader plenty of food for thought. I learned a lot, but would have appreciated some science-based explanations as I don’t know much about how farming works. Barber explores how to bring great flavour back into food while eating more of what nature provides. Although he is unable to provide answers to the global issues of food supply and sustainability (as this is beyond the scope of his book), he provides some great insights and an informative read.

    Further Reading: