my summer cup runneth over: thai hot and sour cucumber stirfry

This is a gorgeous dish, one of my favorites from Thailand.  I mentioned it as my “meal of the week” on KLCC’s Food for Thought last Sunday.  It’s an interpretation of a hot and sour shrimp recipe by San Francisco Bay Area Thai food maven Kasma Loha-Unchit, and a great way to use up extra cucumbers and hot peppers in the garden.

Kasma was the Julia Child of Thai food for a certain group of Bayareans who came of age in the gay ’90s and noughts; she still cooks and hosts Thailand trips for students from her home in Oakland.  For those of us who had fled the stodgy food of the Midwest in the late-1980s and found our culinary footing before the days of molecular gastronomy and fusion street food, Thai food was literally the taste of freedom.  It was like Chinese food (which we knew, or thought we knew) but with vibrant, living flavors.  Fresh vegetables! Coconut milk! Seafood! Not fried! And hot! O so hot! Kaffir lime leaf! Lemongrass! Over fragrant rice that took longer than a Minute!

Everything about it was technicolor, in stereo, 3-D, digital, 3G.

And Kasma, who offered classes in actually cooking what we were sampling at restaurants, offered the same thrill,  I’d imagine, that Julia’s French cooking did for young American sophisticates in the 1960s.  As for me, I was most assuredly a not-quite-sophisticate, as I relied on my lessons from my ex-boyfriend, who would come back from class and practice his dishes on me as I served as his sous-chef.

Because that’s the beauty of cooking, right?  We learn by sharing new techniques and ingredients, and by testing variations until we’ve hit on the perfect combination (that fleeting perfection).  This joy is spread from one friend to the next through potlucks, dinner parties, and celebrations.  And with each recipe we receive, each time we cook a dish prepared by someone who wowed us on a perfect evening and share it with others who exhale “wow,” the hues of our lives deepen and take on a richer sheen.  And if you can find someone whose wow is your wow, then that, my friend, is one of the finest pleasures in the world.

But back to the fish.  I bought a pound of black cod at Newman’s, too much, but it was so pretty and I was seduced.  The dish is usually for shrimp and is called, I believe, Pad Priow Wahn, or Hot and Sour Shrimp (with vegetables).  The spicy vinegar a surprisingly natural combination for cucumbers, which we Americans never eat cooked. This stirfry just softens the cukes a bit, makes them more receptive for the sauce and seafood.

I thought the fresh peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes would be just as good over a mild pan-fried fish as they are with shrimp, and I was right.

I served the other half of the fish in an equally gorgeous dish, also with tomatoes, but this one radically different.  It used the same sauce as my Thai salmon “burger” recipe, which is also based on Kasma’s cuisine.  Fragrant with sweet-spicy roasted chili paste, and strewn with Thai basil from the garden.  The dish is balanced by slightly bittersweet little ‘Sungold’ cherry tomatoes and yet more sunkissed peppers.

Both dishes together are the essence of summer: one hot and sultry, one fresh and breezy.  Work fast and hot.  This is not the dish to simmer.  No, work fast and hot.  Run like the last days of summer.

Hot & Sour Cucumber Stirfry with Black Cod

Recipe adapted from Kasma Loha-Unchit’s pad priow wahn recipe (undated handout)

Serves 4 with another dish.

  • 1/4 cup rice flour or cornstarch
  • 1/2 lb. black cod or other thick fillet of mild, white fish (or substitute large shrimp, peeled and deveined)
  • 2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1/2 medium white onion, sliced in half and then thinly
  • 2 long banana or wax peppers or other frying peppers if you’d like it less hot
  • 4 med. pickling cucumbers or 1-2 garden slicers, halved and sliced at angle about 1/8th-inch thick (peel slicers)
  • 2-3 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 plum tomatoes or slightly underripe small slicers, cut in bite-sized chunks.
  • white pepper to taste

Set up your ingredients in separate, small dishes — mince the garlic; slice the onion, peppers, and cucumbers; chunk the tomatoes. Mix together fish sauce, vinegar, and sugar in a small bowl. Marinate fish fillet in a bit of this sauce and some white pepper.  Put rice flour on salad-sized plate or in shallow bowl for dredging fish.

Heat your pan until very hot on high heat. Just before frying, dredge fish fillet in rice flour on both sides and shake off the extra.  (If you are using shrimp, skip this step.)

When pan is hot, add oil and wait a minute to pre-heat, then add fish fillet or shrimp.  Cook fish until about 2/3 done (it will be brown on bottom and white most of the way up), then flip over in pan (for shrimp, just stirfry them until they are thoroughly pink).

Add onion and garlic, which should start to brown immediately.  Slow it down by adding the hot peppers.  Remove fish and set aside in a serving dish.  Add cucumbers and fish sauce mixture, then stirfry for a minute or so.  Add tomatoes and sprinkle with white pepper to taste.  Carefully arrange vegetables and sauce around fillet, or break apart fillet into four pieces and integrate into vegetables prior to serving.  Garnish with cilantro, if you have it.

culinaria eugenius in baltimore, part II: crabby

Lest you think it was all Jewish deli on those fine Balimorean shores, I had to post some of our shellfish eatin’.  I don’t think the word “gorge” is too strong to describe what happened in Baltimore last weekend.  In fact (vegetarians and allergists avert your eyes), it was a downright crustacean demolition derby.

We started off the weekend at G&M Restaurant in Linthicum, the former hole-in-the-wall gone Big City with an expansion and spiffing up in the ten years we’ve been away from it. We’re not so sure we like the spiffing, but they still have crabcakes as big as a salad plate that are made up of lump crabmeat and a binding batter.  No filler.  None.  As in a softball of large chunks of crab with a bit of eggy coating, served simply with lemon.  One is enough, and don’t bother with the anemic sides or stale rolls.

Instead, focus on the seafood.  Why just eat crabcakes, when you can also have Maryland crab soup and a shrimp boil?

We shared a bowl of (rather undistinguished) soup that seemed light on the crab to me, more of a tomato soup with frozen peas, corn, and limas than anything else, slopped over the side of the bowl.  But the shrimp were good — slightly dusted with Old Bay seasoning from the boil, large and delicious.

But clearly, we were holding back for the big event.  For my father-in-law’s 80th birthday party, a gala family event, we ordered the finest crab preparation in the world, Maryland blue crabs steamed with Old Bay.

Soooo good.  See that mud?  It’s not mud. It’s Old Bay.  To eat the crabs, you crack them open and eat the sweet, soft flesh while licking the Old Bay off your fingers.  No need for butter or tartar sauce or anything like that.  It’s just you and the spicy, salty sea.  Even with the questionable origins of the crabs (the Chesapeake has been polluted and the crabs usually come from farther south, and you know what’s going on with southern waters right now), I have to say that blue crabs beat the pants off our western dungeness crabs.  The meat is almost silky, and the large crabs don’t result in the stringy, bland meat that dungeness sometimes do.  And no one in Maryland insists on chilling (!) the crabs like we do here.

The boys brought home a sampler of coddies, the little seafood cakes that are another specialty of Baltimore, and I sliced up a dozen deli pickles (green, “well-done,” and green tomato).  My sister-in-law made a creamy dilled potato salad that I’m dying to try out for summer barbecues.  It was meant to go with the crabs, but we were so crustacean-drunk we didn’t eat much.  All the better — we could eat it for a couple of days for lunch and snacks.  Once I calibrate the proportions, I’ll post a recipe, but the basic ingredients were potatoes, fresh dill, red onion, cucumber, Greek yogurt and mayonnaise.  Yum.  And as drunk as we were on Old Bay, we topped it all off with springy, fruity rosé wine from California and Oregon (and crummy beer, pictured below).

My contributions to this entire feast were minimal, I’m afraid.  I’ve been so busy that I’m just not able to do much else other than work, and I took the opportunity of our trip to spend a wonderfully exhausting day at the Barnes archive at University of Maryland.  I did bring some hazelnuts and Brooks prunes to represent our ‘hood, and made Linda Ziedrich’s pickled prunes, but other than that, I just served as kitchen help and a shopper, and spent a lot of time on my laptop putting out fires.

But back to the crustaceans.  We had so much fun eating shellfish that we ordered lobsters a couple nights later and did it all again, even though lobster isn’t exactly a Baltimore tradition.  I, for one, was willing to overlook that.  We had them with drawn butter and homemade mayonnaise, and they were fabulous.  My genius sister-in-law made crèpes for dessert, and I really regretted not being able to pack my remaining few jars of 2009 jam.  I didn’t take pictures, because by then I could barely move.