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seabream

Cooking with "Thai Food" by David Thompson

55 posts in this topic

I recently purchased a copy of "Thai Food" by David Thompson. I have heard that this is not the best book for beginners (it's my first Thai cookbook), and after having read it cover to cover, I agree with that. I'm not quite ready to give up on it though, and I'm hoping to supplement the information in the book with information shared here from others cooking from this book.

First of all, I'd be interested in knowing how you've been replacing all the hard to find ingredients. For example, I haven't been able to find coriander root (I'm planning to grow my own and freeze), dried prik chii faa (I'm using dried Chile de Arbol), Kaffir lime (I'm using regular lime peel instead, but feel like I'm cheating everytime I do that).

I'd also be interested to know if you follow all his preparation advice literally. For example, he says that homemade coconut milk is much better (it may be, but after making it at home a few times - what a pain - I have switched to canned), he also says that homemade curry paste is much better (is that really the case if I don't have access to several of the ingredients in the paste? would love to hear what you think), and that fresh curry paste should not be freezed (when I make my own, it always makes too much, and we're eating curry for a week... has anyone tried freezing it?)

And last, I'd love to hear about your experience with recipes that worked or did not work from the book. I have made the following recipes from this book:

* Beef panaeng, page 316 - Good, but to my taste, it was not quite enough meat for the amount of curry. I hear that traditionally, Thai curries have a lot less meat than we're used to being served in the West.

* Stir fried water mimosa with minced pork and peanuts, page 508 - Also good. I couldn't find water mimosa, so I used yu choy sum.

* Pomelo salad, page 514 - My favorite! Very good. 3-7 bird's eyes chilies for this salad would have been way too hot for us though...

* Gai Pat Sii Uuu, page 565 - Good, but not as good as in restaurants. Would need more BTUs for that...

* Cucumber and prawn salad, page 350 - Not our favorite. The sauce could be sweeter, to our taste.

* Fish cakes, page 494 - Way too much fish sauce. Almost inedible - so salty! I think this would be really good with a third of the fish sauce though, and I am planning to do it again.

OK, now it's your turn!

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Thompson knows his stuff and, consequently, has very strong opinions. I have seen him on TV making the same points. The curry pastes are good but obviously inferior to a commercial product if you don't have access to the right ingredients. With regards to your thoughts on the recipes, keep in mind this man strives for authenticity. There's a part where he mentions only using beef, chicken, pork and other 'high end' meats is itself a concession to a western readership that doesn't have the need to trap random rodents or birds.


Chris Taylor

Host, eG Forums - ctaylor@egstaff.org

 

I've never met an animal I didn't enjoy with salt and pepper.

Melbourne
Harare, Victoria Falls and some places in between

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Yes David Thompson is a perfectionist and did a lot of research on finding authentic recipes.

With Thai cooking I feel that is best to cook to taste so don't worry about putting less chilli, salt or sugar in your dishes.

I freeze my curry pastes in ice cube trays and then transfer them to Ziploc bags for later use, the flavour may not be as good, but it is practical. Also after making up a few different pastes you have a range of pastes ready made. I agree with Chris that if you don't have all the ingredients you are probably better off buying a pre-prepared paste.

In Australia when you buy fresh coriander/cilantro the roots are still attached, I cut them off and freeze them. Vietnamese grocery stores often have these herbs. Kaffir lime leaves freeze well too, but I have heard that the dried ones are not worth using. Lime zest is not a bad substitute.

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I cook from David Thompson non-stop and I find he is right on most of his purist attitudes.

- Fresh coconut cream beats canned coconut cream hands down. There is no comparison. It's almost impossible to crack canned coconut cream properly due to the flour additives (see the cracking coconut cream thread)

- Homemade curry pastes are so far superior to pre-made ones it's not funny

That said, I think some of your shortcuts are fine, and I'll add a couple of my own:

- Regular lime zest can replace kaffir lime zest - you might need a little more of it, do it to taste

- A combination of chopped cilantro stems & leaves can replace the roots, again you'll need more, and the volume will change the consistency and proportions of pastes, so keep that in mind

- Regular ginger can substitute for both young ginger and krachai (grachay, lesser galangal) - again you will need to play around with quantities and taste

- Brined green peppercorns can substitute for the unfindable fresh, just be sure to soak them in cold water for at least 30 minutes, and use more

- Holy basil - fresh, real holy basil is extremely difficult to find and goes bad in 24 hours - and it is incredible - make sure you're not being sold Thai basil under the name holy basil. But if you can't find it, try using a mixture of Thai basil and fresh mint leaves

Some things you can't substitute very easily... you will need high-quality fish sauce, shrimp paste and jasmine rice. You should use real fresh bird chiles and real dried red Thai chiles. Nothing will substitute for galangal and lemongrass. Do not substitute onions for red shallots. And try to get small, purple garlic rather than the immense supermarket garlic cloves we usually find.

I would check Kasma Loha-unchit's website for brand recommendations on the above ingredients, which focus on what you can get in the US:

http://thaifoodandtravel.com/brands.html

It is an absolute pain in the ass to make fresh coconut cream, I realize... if you can't deal with it, then I suggest buying coconut oil and mixing it with canned coconut cream. But you're not going to get rid of that floury texture. Better to just make curries that don't call for coconut. There are plenty of them.

My favorite recipes include the dry red curry of lobster (adaptable to just about anything, doesn't require coconut cream), the highly unusual curry of pork with fresh green peppercorns (under "menus"), the royal salad of grilled prawns with kaffir lime juice mixed with mandarin orange juice, heavenly stirfried beef with holy basil, papaya salad with sweet dried pork, the marinated dried deep-fried beef sticks, and the jungle curry (to die for).

If you have to do coconut recipes, the green and red curries are superb. But they need fresh coconuts!

The most important thing Thompson has to teach besides the importance of ingredients is the importance of balancing flavors at the end of each dish. It sounds to me from your post that you're not doing this. I would try his flavoring exercise (or the one on Kasma's site above) to learn how to balance flavors. In the world of extremely intense Thai flavors, it only takes a slight imbalance to throw the entire dish off.

The key thing is only to put half the fish sauce in that's recommended - he writes about this in the intro to the curries section. That saltiness will be the hardest aspect to correct if you put in too much. And there are so many factors, not least the basic flavor of the paste (which you should be smelling and tasting as you make it, ingredient by ingredient).

Then at the end - the very end - taste the dish, and carefully adjust - fish sauce for salt, palm or white sugar for sweetness, tamarind or lime for sour, and bitter ingredients for bitter. But it's the first two that are most likely to be out of whack. If you've held back on the fish sauce, you've given yourself room to maneuver.

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Thank you all for the great replies!

patrickamory:

- I'm curious to know what method works for you, for preparing coconut for coconut milk.

- Do you find that homemade curry pastes are superior to purchased ones, even when not using all the right ingredients? (Using coriander stems and leaves instead of coriander roots, and regular lime zest instead of Kaffir lime zest.)

- Got it about the balancing of flavors. I do remember reading that on David Thompson's book, and just read the corresponding section on Kasma's site. For me, as a newby to Thai cuisine, it's a bit hard to use intuition to flavor the dishes right. I often question my own opinions of the food I'm tasting - am I adjusting the flavors to be more balanced or am I changing an authentic Thai recipe to fit my Western palate (or my recollection of a similar dish in an americanized Thai restaurant)? I think a bit of both happens (the meat to curry ratio is a good example where improving the dish to my taste reduces on the authenticity). With more experience I will learn to distinguish between the two, but it's a bit hard when I'm starting out.

I definitely want to stay away from Westernizing David Thompson's recipes. I purchased this book because all the reviews said it was authentic. My main goal is to understand what Thai food is really supposed to taste. I already understand what American-Thai food tastes like, and I can get it anywhere for cheap. That's not what I'm trying to achieve.

- Thanks for including your favorite recipes from the book. I will look into them, as I'm planning to cook something else from this book later this week.

On a different note, I thought it was interesting that Kasma recommends a Chinese soy sauce and a Taiwanese soy sauce. I purchased a Thai soy sauce (thin soy sauce from Healthy Boy brand, easily available where I live), and I think it tastes so different from the Chinese ones. I'd be curious to know what soy sauces people are using for Thai cooking.

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I use golden mountain sauce rather than a Chinese soy. I think Healthy Boy brand is ok.

As I am usually cooking only for two, I use canned coconut milk or cream, patrickamory said canned coconut milk can have additives that stop it from breaking. Look on the side of the can if it has emulsifiers they will not work well.

I am sure fresh coconut milk would be better, I would like to know if anyone has made coconut milk from frozen coconut pulp?

I try to stick with David Thompson's recipes as close as I can, because they are great.

I would suggest that you adjust the balance of salty, sour, sweet, and hot, to you and your guests tastes, there is no point in providing a meal that is too hot for your guests.

BTW I am only a home cook.

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@patrickamory, I have never seen holy basil for sale here, we have to grow it ourselves :(

I feel that I may be preaching to the converted, but most fresh herbs seem keep well if wrapped in absorbent paper, put in a plastic bag, and put in the fridge.

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As I've said every time the issue comes up, cooking things intended for "beginners" leaves you cooking like a beginner. If you are truly interested in authentic Thai, this is your bible. And to reiterate something mentioned above, Thompson stresses to adjust things to your taste. One of my absolute favorite qualities of this book is that he tells you what each thing is intended to taste like, e.g., "hot, salty, and slightly sweet." It's sort of amazing how few cookbooks give you guidance as to what you should be aiming for in that regard.

With respect to curry pastes, I've never used a commercial paste in my own cooking, but I have to find a Thai restaurant in New Orleans that does not use commercial pastes. And to be frank, every single one of them sucks in comparison to mine. Even when I'm missing an ingredient, or the paste doesn't come out perfectly. The level of control over the flavors and texture in a homemade curry paste is something that, with time and patience, you'll very likely grow to appreciate.

On top of all that, it's important that something be appealing to you. I usually try to make things exactly to spec the first time, then adjust after that. Maybe something tastes odd to you initially, but grows on you as you eat. Maybe not. But if you add a bit more palm sugar or fish sauce and it's delicious, I don't think anyone's going to take issue with it. And if you use a store-bought curry paste and like it, good for you. As long as you're happy with it, and as long as you're eating Thai food, which is vastly underappreciated outside of pad thai and the like.

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OK, I really got the point about adjusting the flavors, instead of following the recipe exactly as is. I still feel like I'm lacking "intuition" in Thai cooking, but that's the key skill I need to work on to cook Thai successfully (with this book or any other book).

I also very much agree with the comment about cooking things intended for "beginners".

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You'll get it eventually! Just keep at it. Thai food is endlessly fascinating, and really, unlike any other cuisine. Definitely worth the effort.

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miang som - Miang of Pomelo with Prawns, page 484-486

Sublime. A flavour explosion. One mouthful, so many flavours. I couldn't believe my palate could take such a flavour bomb... this was my "eye opening" dish when it came to the versatility of Thai food and the balance of sweet, hot, sour and salty.

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infernooo - That recipe was on the short list of "next recipes" to make from this book. With your comment, that will be the next one we make. So thank you!

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This thread has inspired me to pull the book off the shelf again. Starting off with the chicken and vegetable curry and the stir-fried wild pork curry (altho' I admit I'm using pork, as wild boar is very expensive). My only problems: I'll have to sub a bit of zest for the lime leaves (couldn't find any today) and could only find regular basil, not even the standard Thai stuff. The latter is of more importance to me, but hey, #firstworldproblems and all.


Chris Taylor

Host, eG Forums - ctaylor@egstaff.org

 

I've never met an animal I didn't enjoy with salt and pepper.

Melbourne
Harare, Victoria Falls and some places in between

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Chris - let us know how those recipes turned out!

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The pork is nice. Next time I buy wild boar tenderloin I know what I'll be doing with it. If you happened to have access to warthog--if you were South African, say--I'm sure warthog would work exceptionally well in this dish. Possibly better than boar.

Incidentally, when making the curry pastes it helps to know your dried chillies. 'Long hot dried chilli' is about as non-specific as it gets. The ones I bought were far too hot--the heat dominated the other dimensions of the dish's flavour profile.


Chris Taylor

Host, eG Forums - ctaylor@egstaff.org

 

I've never met an animal I didn't enjoy with salt and pepper.

Melbourne
Harare, Victoria Falls and some places in between

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Just to comment on some general themes that have been brought up since my last post:

- Yes, I think that making your own curry paste is superior to any commercial paste, even if you have to sub ingredients.

- Beginners might try to find a copy of Su-mei Yoo's out-of-print Cracking The Coconut - she's also a purist, but is more step-by-step than Thompson is. However, you do really have to work your way through the book. You can't just jump ahead very easily.

- Similarly, Thompson hides some of his most important tips and comments in the Ingredients section, or in the introductions to the subsequent sessions. So the first time you're making any dish, go back and look at each entry for any ingredient. There will be comments on de-seeding, salting and soaking dried red chiles, for example, blanching pork from a cold-water start, soaking brined green peppercorns if that's all you have access to, and so on. The multiple introductions in the curry section (general, boiled, fried, coconut) are worth reading several times over.

- I make my coconut cream as follows. It's a sh*tload of work I'm afraid, but the results speak for themselves. You will need, ideally, a heavy cleaver, an oven, a food processor, cheesecloth, a sieve, at least 3 large bowls and a fridge. The process is sweaty, time-consuming & dirty, so give yourself some time (not good for doing when you come home from work). The following is a combination of Kasma & Su-mei Yoo's procedures. Kasma's are excellent but are somewhat scattered in different sections of her site so somewhat confusing. Try to find and watch her video of how to split a coconut in two halves (linked below)

1. Buy a more coconuts than you are going to use. (Some are inevitably rancid, and it's nearly impossible to tell.) if they have the outer husks, still have a lot of their hair, don't have any visible mold, have covered eyes, are heavy and full of coconut water when you shake them, those are all good signs, but none of them guarantee freshness unfortunately. (Remember, you want the mature brown hairy coconut, not the young green kind sold for its water.)

2. Preheat your oven to 425-450 degrees.

3. Slightly crack each one with one whack from the back (blunt side) of your cleaver, above the sink - making a tiny fissure for draining the coconut water. The smell of the water at this point will tell you whether your coconut has gone bad or not. Drain into the sink. N.b.; coconut water is not coconut milk! It is drunk as refreshment, but the water from young coconuts is preferred for that. I just throw out mature coconut water.

See Kasma's comments here:

http://thaifoodandtravel.com/features/cocmilk.html

4. Throw out the bad-smelling coconuts. Put the good-smelling coconuts in the oven for 15-20 minutes.

5. Remove from oven using oven mitts and allow to cool.

6. Whack the coconut with the back (BLUNT SIDE) of your cleaver all along what Kasma called the center line, i.e. not the seam but the "equator" of the conconut, perpendicular to the seam. Kasma has a video here:

http://thaifoodandtravel.com/features/crackcoc.html

Make sure nobody is standing behind you in the kitchen while you do this, because the sharp end of cleaver is flying back each time!

7. If you've done it right, the conconut has split into two halves. Often for me it's 3 pieces or even 4.

8. Here's the most difficult part: pry the meat out of the pieces of shell with a short knife or screwdriver. You may find at this point that some of the conconut meat is moldy and some of it is fine. I always just use the good pieces and discard the bad ones. It's difficult enough finding fresh coconut in NYC. You might be luckier where you live.

9. Many of the pieces of meat will have brown skin attached to them. For most purposes, you can leave this on if it's not too thick and dry. Otherwise, peel it off with a vegetable peeler.

10. Cut the pieces into 2" chunks or so. If they're smaller, no worry.

11. Place in the bowl of the food processor with the blade attachment and pulse and blend until the meat is finely shredded, about 30-60 seconds. Add 1 cup of warm water per coconut used, and pulse and blend another 30-60 seconds, until you have pulp.

12. Remove the mixture to a large bowl, take both hands, reach in, and firmly and rhythmically squeeze and massage (milk) the coconut meat at least 89 times (it's a number important to Buddhists apparently - in any case it gives you a minimum to go for).

13. Place a large sieve over a second bowl, line with cheesecloth, and push all the pulp through it, gathering it up and squeezing it in the cheesecloth to extract the maximum amount of milk. Remove the dry pulp with the cheesecloth and reserve. What you have in the bowl is called the FIRST PRESSING. Cover and refrigerate.

14. Remove the dry pulp from the cheesecloth to the first large bowl, add 3 cups of warm water, and repeat the milking process, 89 times with both hands, being sure to get as much of the pulp between your hands as possible (it's harder now that there's more liquid). Place the sieve over a third bowl, line with fresh cheesecloth, and repeat the process of pushing it through and squeezing out every last drop from the cheesecloth. Discard cheesecloth and pulp. What's in this bowl is the SECOND PRESSING. Cover and refrigerate.

15. After a minimum of one hour, the coconut cream will have separated from the milk in each of the bowls in the fridge. In the first pressing, the cream will be about 1-1/2" thick on the top of the bowl, and will be a thick, creamy consistency - something like strained Greek yogurt. Directly beneath the coconut cream will be the coconut milk, which will be watery and semi-translucent. In the bowl containing the second pressing, the coconut cream will be maybe 1/4" thick and may be floating on top of the milk the way that fat does on the top of chicken stock after you've refrigerated it, in floating pieces like ice floes.

Your cream and your milk are now ready to use - and to "crack" - as recommended in the recipe.

There are couple different ways (at least) to crack coconut cream. See Thompson's introduction on coconut curries, about a third of the way into the curries section of the book. Any questions, please ask here and I'll do my best to give tips.

P.S. Each coconut will give off approximately 3/4-1 cup of coconut cream and 2-3 cups of coconut milk, depending on size, how much meat there is, and how much meat is still good.

P.P.S. Coconut cream and milk will go rancid after 1 day, so don't even think about making it in advance.


Edited by patrickamory (log)

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- I make my coconut cream as follows. It's a sh*tload of work I'm afraid, but the results speak for themselves. You will need, ideally, a heavy cleaver, an oven, a food processor, cheesecloth, a sieve, at least 3 large bowls and a fridge. The process is sweaty, time-consuming & dirty, so give yourself some time (not good for doing when you come home from work).

[...]

P.P.S. Coconut cream and milk will go rancid after 1 day, so don't even think about making it in advance.

Translation: Only make coconut-based curries (edit: or other dishes, I guess) when you can afford to take the day off work?


Edited by mkayahara (log)

Matthew Kayahara

Kayahara.ca

@mtkayahara

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P.P.S. Coconut cream and milk will go rancid after 1 day, so don't even think about making it in advance.

Translation: Only make coconut-based curries (edit: or other dishes, I guess) when you can afford to take the day off work?

Well, it's a cuisine that developed off the backs of groups of women who would spend the entire today in courtyard homes doing things like pounding pastes and cracking coconuts. There are of course shortcuts - we now have things like wetgrinders for pastes and food processors for coconut shredding (some people still do the latter by hand).

Here's what I recommend:

- Make coconut-based curries and dishes on weekends

- Makes pastes in advance - they last indefinitely (at least I've gone for months) in the fridge

- Get a wetgrinder

And remember that not all Thai dishes are curries, and not all curries are coconut-based. Many of the greatest curries - jungle curry for example, or some of the dry red curries - are fried in pork fat or vegetable oil.

Salads are simple and fast to make.

So is most Thai street food, which is often a high-heat stirfry. Even when it involves, say, drying beef or making sweet pork, you do a little work 24 hours in advance, and a little work the day of cooking.

The dish many Thai cookbook authors consider the heart of Thai cuisine, nahm prik (called relishes by David Thompson, and chile water by Soo-mei Yoo), is generally very simple and easy to prepare, and often doesn't involve any cooking at all.

Nobody would call classic French cuisine easy, from a properly made ragoût or lamb and artichoke from Richard Olney to soufflés or forcemeats. Same goes for modernist cuisine, some of Diana Kennedy's Mexican recipes and many other pre-modern cuisines. Modern Thai cooks don't cook this way, but they do have access to markets where fresh curry pastes are pounded daily, and fresh coconut cream and milk are freely available. Do plenty of them rely on commercial pastes and canned coconut milk? Probably yes. All I'm saying is that doing it right will yield magnificent results, as with most cooking.

If you're going to make Thai curries, and especially coconut-based curries, it's all about the weekends and just getting into the joy of it! Though I have to admit I get less joy out of cracking coconuts than pounding pastes - your experience might vary :smile:

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I'm planning a Thai meal mainly out of David Thompson for tomorrow:

- shrimp paste relish (nahm prik gapi) with raw vegetables, page 191

- pork and green peppercorn curry, page 454

- heavenly beef, page 505

I'm pounding the paste for the highly unusual pork curry (recommended, especially if you can find boneless pork shin) this afternoon.

I'll also be marinating the beef today and drying it in the oven.

Tomorrow afternoon my partner will undertake the dirty work of preparing the coconuts.

Tomorrow night I'll deep fry the beef, make the actual curry, and make the relish which is easy to prepare. It will be served with raw apple eggplants, raw snake beans and raw carrots.

There will be nam pla prik as well as roasted red chile flakes for the curry, and Victor Sodsook's sweet and spicy dipping sauce for the beef.

Jasmine rice.

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Were you able to find fresh green peppercorns?

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Never been able to find those in NYC. I soak brined green peppercorns thoroughly in fresh water and use more of them. They're pretty good, but I'm sure they don't come close to the real thing.

Some pictures from tonight's prep.

The beef strips marinating in a mixture of light soy sauce and palm sugar mixed with a paste made of garlic, salt, coriander roots and white peppercorns:

beef_marinating.jpg

The simple but unusual curry paste, made out of de-seeded soaked dried red chiles, salt, lemongrass, kaffir lime zest, coriander root, roasted coriander seed and roasted cumin:

curry_paste.jpg

Photos of the finished meal will go in the Dinner thread tomorrow.

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Very cool. Haven't been able to find them here, either. Actually, I haven't found brined here. Just dried.

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Yesterday our dinner was "Miang of pomelo with prawns, page 484" and "Fish cakes, page 494".

Miang of pomelo with prawns

* Really wonderful combination of flavors. Very similar to the "Pomelo salad, page 514", my favorite dish from this book.

* I was happy that I was able to find all the ingredients, including the young ginger. So I didn't have to make any substitutions.

* I used spinach leaves to serve it. David Thompson says we can use bai tong lang, betel or spinach leaves. What the hell is "bai tong lang"? He doesn't describe that in the ingredients list, and a quick search on the internet reveals pretty much nothing (aside from a few links to this same recipe in other sites). Or is it just another name for betel?

* I'm wondering if any of you has been able to find betel leaves outside of Thailand.

* I added less than half the sauce to the salad, and still thought it was a bit too much. The recipe just says to "dress with the sauce". Am I missing something?

Fish cakes

* They turned out a lot better than the first time I made them, because I added only 1 tbsp of fish sauce (the recipe calls for 3). As much as I'm trying to "cook by adjusting the flavors", this is a hard one because tasting a raw fish paste is simply not very appealing. The funny thing is that even with 1 tbsp of fish sauce, they were still very salty.

* I used kaffir lime leaves from my just purchased kaffir lime tree... oh boy, what a difference! I used to buy leaves at the supermarket and freeze them, and never understood the point of adding them to food. They were tought and not that flavorful. The ones from my tree are softer than spinach leaves and so flavorful. I love the smell too.

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patrickamory - The "Heavenly beef, page 505" recipe says to dry the beef in the sun for a full day. I'm wondering how long you dry it in the oven to achieve the same effect.


Edited by seabream (log)

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Fish cakes

* They turned out a lot better than the first time I made them, because I added only 1 tbsp of fish sauce (the recipe calls for 3). As much as I'm trying to "cook by adjusting the flavors", this is a hard one because tasting a raw fish paste is simply not very appealing. The funny thing is that even with 1 tbsp of fish sauce, they were still very salty.

Generally with that sort of thing, you pinch off a small portion of the mixture, pan-fry it until cooked, taste and adjust. I do it all the time with fresh sausage, for example.


Matthew Kayahara

Kayahara.ca

@mtkayahara

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      I'm hearing rumours of a new book from Fuchsia Dunlop, this time on Zhejiang cuisine from the east of China around Hangzhou and Ningbo, south of Shanghai. No date or title - or confirmation yet.
    • Whipping creme anglaise
      By Droo
      I'm making the citron cream recipe in Migoya's Elements of Desserts (p318/9?).
      It says to cook the anglaise to 85 degrees, place on an ice bath then whip the anglaise. I've done that but it doesn't seem to whip (let alone to a medium peak).
       
      This is a new technique I've not tried before so I'm at a loss. Anyone have any ideas?
       
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