Pad Thai Sans Nuts

December 7, 2011

Sitting by the roadside on a summer’s day
Chatting with my messmates, passing time away
Lying in the shadows underneath the trees
Goodness, how delicious, eatin’ goober peas
Peas! Peas! Peas! Peas! Eatin’ goober peas! Goodness how delicious, eatin’ goober peas!
~P. Nutt (A.E. Blackmar)

Earthnuts, ground nuts, monkey nuts, pygmy nuts, pig nuts—peanuts are not nuts.

Despite the name, peanuts (Arachis hypogaea) are a dehiscent legume in the family Fabaceae, related to peas, lentils, chickpeas and friends. They are composed of a curved single seed-bearing carpel that splits open along two seams.

Native to South America, peanuts were domesticated some 8,000 years ago when pre-Columbian cultures dined on and even depicted them in art. When Spanish conquistadors invaded Mesoamerica they found the Aztecs growing peanuts the locals called tlalcacahuatl.

In the early 16th century, Portuguese traders took peanuts from South America to Africa where they became highly revered and flourished as a staple crop. Around colonial times, slave traders reversed the course and shipped them along with wretchedly stowed human cargo to North America. In one central African language, Kikongo, the word for peanut is nguba which morphed into the vernacular “goober” peas.

From the better half of the scientific name, hypogaea derives from Greek for underground, combining hypo “under” + gaia Greek “earth.” An annual herbaceous plant growing some 1′-2′ tall, peanuts begin as an above ground orange-veined, yellow-petaled flower. The flower is produced near the base of a slender pedicel (peduncle, stalk) that curves downward.

After pollination, the flower withers and cells beneath the ovary begin to develop a peg that helps force the ovary into the ground. The curved pedicel elongates, bends down to kiss the moist earth, and then forces the ovary underground. The peg has a cap of cells that protects the delicate ovary as the pedicle thrusts into the fertile soil. Continued growth then plunges the ovary under further where a tiny embryonic plant with two tender, fleshy halves develop, and the mature fruit becomes a legume pod. What a resplendent, albeit a bit forcible, act. Oh baby, oh baby.

Once the subterranean, seed-bearing pod matures, functional roots and photosynthetic leaves emerge. The pod coat changes color from white to a reddish brown with wrinkled, veined shells that are constricted between pairs of usually two seeds per pod. The entire bush, including root growth, is removed from the soil and the pods are allowed to dry. After the peanuts have dried sufficiently, they are threshed, removing the pods from the rest of the bush. The beans are then roasted to become those dried, wrinkled, vein-cloaked, seed bearing carpels we know and love.

Today, thousands of peanut cultivars are grown, with the more common groups being Spanish, Virginia, and Valencia. A source of monounsaturated fats, peanuts feature an array of other nutrients including vitamin E, niacin, folate, protein, manganese, and even lifespan extending resveratrol. Not only do peanuts contain oleic acid, they are rich in antioxidants.

Centuries old, now ubiquitous Pad Thai (“fried Thai style”) was originally made with a noodle brought by Vietnamese traders to the ancient Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya. It became popularized in the 1930’s as part of a campaign of nationalist fervor and an effort to reduce rice consumption as the economy had become overly dependent on rice exports. The trendy dish has so many variants, particular as pertains to the progression of ingredients into the hot wok with timing being everything.

I might suggest you arrange the ingredients mise en place and not make too many servings at once until you find your dance steps.

PAD THAI

6 ozs rice stick noodles (banh pho)

3-4 T tamarind paste
1/4 C nước mắm Phú Quốc (fish sauce)
1/3 C honey
2 T rice vinegar
Pinch of red pepper flakes or Thai chile powder

3 T peanut oil
1/2 C chopped scallions, chopped
2-3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2-3 large eggs, beaten
1/2 small head Napa cabbage, cored and finely shredded
1 C mung bean sprouts
1/2 lb small shrimp, peeled
4-6 ozs tofu, cut into 1/2″ strips

1/2 C roasted peanuts, chopped
1/4 C fresh cilantro, stemmed and chopped
2 limes, quartered

Mix tamarind paste, fish sauce, honey and vinegar in a small saucepan over medium low heat and bring just to a simmer. Stir in red pepper flakes or Thai chile powder and set aside, keeping warm.

Put noodles in a large bowl and add hot water to cover. By far, the trickiest part is the soaked noodles. They should be just tender yet still solid, not completely expanded and soft. When in doubt, undersoak.

Put one tablespoon peanut oil in a large wok over high heat and when oil shimmers, add the tofu and cook until crisp and lightly brown, moving constantly, about 1 minute. Remove the tofu from the pan to a small bowl and set aside.

Keep wok hot, add the remainder of peanut oil, then scallions and garlic and cook for about a minute. Add eggs to pan, and once they begin to set, scramble until just barely done. Add cabbage, shrimp and bean sprouts and continue to cook until cabbage just begins to wilt and shrimp begins to turn pink.

Add drained noodles to pan along with tamarind sauce and tofu. Toss everything together to coat with sauce and combine well. When noodles are softened and warmed through, serve in shallow soup bowls, sprinkling each dish with peanuts and garnishing with cilantro and lime wedges.

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Chicken With Thai Basil

August 20, 2011

A sweet basil cultivar native to subtopical southeast Asia, thai basil is a member of the family Lamiaceae—kin to such garden staples as rosemary, sage, mint, lavender, oregano, marjoram, savory, and thyme. Thai basil (Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflorum) features a square purple stem and slightly downy, densely aromatic, purple flushed leaves that grow in spear-like pairs opposite to one another. It tends to be more stable and less flimsy under high cooking heat than standard Genovese sweet basil.

To keep basil vibrant, trim the stems on the bias as you would hothouse flowers, then plunge the bunch in a tall glass of water. Loosely cover the basil with a plastic bag and store on the counter. This keeps moisture in, while allowing the naturally produced and leaf browning ethylene gas to escape. Alternatively but often not as effectively, you can wrap the trimmed stems in a slightly wet paper towel and store the basil in a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator.

Although basil’s celebrity could lead to smugness, this dish is without conceit.

CHICKEN WITH THAI BASIL

1 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1/2″ pieces
3 T fish sauce
2 T oyster sauce
1 T raw sugar
1/2 T honey
40 leaves Thai basil

2 T peanut or canola oil
4 cloves fresh, plump garlic, peeled and crushed

4 Thai bird chiles, stemmed and minced

In a small bowl, marinate chicken with the fish sauce, oyster sauce, sugar, honey and 10 basil leaves.

Heat wok over medium high heat and add oil. Once heated, add the garlic. Once the garlic is fragrant but not browned, remove and discard. Then, add the marinated chicken and stir fry until the chicken is just no longer pink. Add remaining basil leaves and chilies and cook until chicken is cooked through, about another 2 minutes.

Serve over jasmine rice, white rice or rice noodles.

Vietnam was the first war ever fought without any censorship. Without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind.
~Gen. William C. Westmoreland

Vietnamese cuisine can be so simple in its essence, yet almost obsessively numinous.

Native to India, lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) is a genus of numerous species of citrus flavored, tall perennial grasses. A ubiquitous herb in Asia, it is commonly used in south Indian, Vietnamese and Thai regional fare…and this makes little mention of Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the West Indies, et al. As a general rule, wherever radiant and aromatic tropical/equatorial fare is found so is lemon grass.

Rich in citral which is the active ingredient in lemon peel, fresh lemon grass is much preferred for its vibrant flavor over the dried variety. Lemon grass is deceptively pungent and should be added with care to enhance its lemon frangrance along with those subtle inflorescences of ginger and rose. The entire stalk can be put to use. So, the green blade can be sliced very finely and added to soups, and the fragrant bulbous portion can be bruised and/or minced. Bruising releases the lemon grass essences much as you would with smashed garlic. Firmly press down on the bulb end of the lemon grass with the broad side of a chef’s knife or pound lightly with a mallet. In this lemon grass chicken version, the fibrous outer membrane of the bulb is lubriciously peeled away to reveal the soft inner skin which is then bruised and minced.

LEMON GRASS CHICKEN (Sả Thịt Gà)

3 T nước mắm Phú Quốc* (fish sauce)
1 T nước măn chay pha sản (chilied soy sauce)
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 T honey
1 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1 1/2″ pieces

3 T raw cane sugar
1/4 C water
1 1/2 T chicken stock

3 T peanut or canola oil
3 fresh stalks of lemon grass, tender white inner bulb only, bruised minced
2 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
3 Thai chiles, stemmed, seeded and finely minced

Cilantro leaves, roughly chopped, for garnish
Chopped, roasted peanuts, for garnish

In a bowl, combine the fish sauce, chilied soy sauce, garlic, and honey. Then, add the chicken and stir to coat well.

In a small skillet, mix sugar with the water and cook over medium high heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Cook, without stirring, until a deep amber caramel forms. Remove from the heat and stir in the chicken stock. Transfer to a bowl.

Heat wok over high heat, add peanut oil and heat until shimmering but not smoking. Add the lemon grass, shallot, garlic and chiles and stir fry until fragrant. Add the chicken and darkened sugar mixture and sauté until chicken is cooked through and the sauce is slightly thickened.

Transfer to a bowl and serve with steamed jasmine or white rice. Top with chopped cilantro and peanuts.

*Pourboire: both nước mắm Phú Quốc and nước măn chay pha sản are available at asian markets. Phú Quốc is an idyllic island off southwestern Vietnam mainland, resplendent with verdant interior jungles, squeaky white sand and cobalt seas. The island is also famed for nước mắm which is crafted from a particular anchovy there. On the bottle, look for the words nước mắm nhi which signifies that it is crafted from the first extraction, not unlike the first pressing of extra virgin olive oil.