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Ajat (Thai Quick Pickle)

11 Feb

ajat (thai quick pickle)

Combine my love of Thai food and my love of pickles, and you have ajat. A traditional Thai condiment that’s really easy and quick to make and pairs perfectly with a variety of Thai dishes – although it’s most notably served alongside satay to balance the richness and greasiness of the grilled meat (or fried tofu) and peanut sauce. The part of this quick pickle that seems ingenious is the preparation of the syrupy pickling liquid separately ahead of time – it’s only poured over the fresh sliced vegetables (cucumber, mild peppers, and shallots) right before serving, so the prep at serving time is minimal, and the veggies stay nice, bright, and crisp. The cilantro garnish is optional, but I thought the herb’s flavor was a great addition, especially towards the end of the meal as the delicate leaves macerated slightly in the syrup. The recipe as given makes quite a lot of ajat, but if you need less, I recommend making the full recipe of pickling liquid to use on multiple occasions, cutting up as many vegetables as you want at a time and pouring over only as much liquid as needed to barely cover them.

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Thai Peanut Sauce

8 Feb

thai peanut sauce

I’ve long been enamored of Thai food, and that’s probably no surprise since it’s right up my alley in many ways – strong, bold flavors with no fear of spice, often filled with fresh vegetables and herbs, and, of course, delicious salty-sweet combinations. This sauce is a perfect example. It’s packed with flavor from a generous helping of Thai red curry paste, and the savory richness of peanut butter is well-balanced by sugar. It certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s also ridiculously simple to make and addictively tasty. The sauce can be thinned out with extra vinegar for a salad dressing, or used as is for dipping raw veggies. But, of course, it’s most amazing in its traditional use, alongside Thai satay (I’ll be posting a recipe for Thai chicken satay next week). The recipe makes quite a lot – enough for you to try it in a variety of applications, so long as you can resist eating up spoonfuls plain.

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Nam Pla Prik

28 Jan

nam pla prik

I’ve heard nam pla prik (also sometimes called prik nam pla) referred to as the “salt and pepper” of Thai food. Only instead of salt, it’s fermented fish, and instead of black peppercorns, it’s extra spicy Thai bird’s eye chiles. For garlic-lovers like myself, some slices of raw garlic are added to the mix. And a little sugar helps balance the fish sauce (although it can be safely left out, too). Something so simple really shouldn’t be as addictive as the resulting sauce is. The key is, of course, the main ingredient – fish sauce (the “nam pla” in nam pla prik). I know, I know, it sounds weird and smells weirder, but I’ve come to love this pungent sauce made from fermented, salted fish that’s crucially important to Thai cuisine (and other Southeast Asian cuisines as well). Like salt, it brings out the flavor of whatever it’s added to, but it also adds complex umami (savory) notes. The bird’s eye chiles (which can be replaced with jalapenos for a milder version) give the sauce a kick – and (like all hot peppers) have great health benefits, including the ability to speed up your metabolism and high levels of vitamin C. Along with being a natural pairing to Thai dishes, nam pla prik is amazing over rice (or quinoa), eggs, or even just fresh vegetables.

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Pickled Roasted Peppers

9 Jan

pickled roasted peppers

I think I’ve mentioned that food in general is surprisingly expensive here in Montevideo. The prices are nearly what I encountered back in DC – except now I don’t have a full time job. So I haven’t been eating out a whole lot here, since there aren’t really options like the $10/dozen empanadas back in Buenos Aires. Instead, I’ve turned back to sandwiches – once you have a couple basic ingredients on hand, they take mere minutes to put together, and having great condiments like these pickled roasted peppers on hand make them truly amazing. I’ve pickled raw bell peppers, and I’ve roasted them, but I’d never thought to combine the two before. This is an interesting mix, since the natural sweetness of the bell pepper, concentrated and enhanced by the roasting, plays well with the tartness of vinegar. It’s surprisingly mellow for a pickle, actually, but I think pickle lovers will definitely appreciate swapping these in for the traditional roasted bell peppers on their sandwiches (and salads).

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Pickled Red Onions

2 Jan

pickled red onions

The hardest part of moving, for me, is adapting to a new kitchen. Here, I only have a two-burner electric stove and a tiny sink (far too small for the amount of dirty dishes I produce), alongside a small square of counter space. I’m doing my best to adjust my habits, planning ahead to make sure I’ll have a burner free and being extra strict about cleaning dishes as I go. But, unlike my last place, there’s a full-sized refrigerator, so I have room again to stock up on little goodies like these pickled red onions. The onions still have a crunch to them and retain some of their characteristically strong taste, but the bite is mellowed by vinegar and sugar, with hot peppers tossed in to add a lingering kick of spiciness. They’re surprisingly addictive, and I find myself reaching for them over and over, an amazing addition to salads and sandwiches and great complement to all sorts of beans and meats. I like how versatile their simple flavor is, fitting in with a variety of cuisines – anything from Mexican (perch them atop tacos) to Indian (use as a side to balance rich curries) to Greek (sprinkle on a salad with feta). Although my favorite might just be snacking on them plain, something I can’t resist doing any time I open the refrigerator and spy them.

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Balsamic Pickled Cherries

24 Dec

balsamic pickled cherries

Cherries are in season here in South America, and while I’ve been enjoying eating them out of hand (and using them in place of strawberries in my strawberry bourbon lemonade), I wanted to get a little more creative. I’m a big fan of pickled fruit (like peaches), since I find the natural sweetness of fruit is well-complemented by the tartness of vinegar. This recipe caught my eye – although I’d never seen anything pickled with balsamic vinegar before, cherries and balsamic seemed like a perfect match. The result was everything I’d hoped for. An amazing blend of sweet and tart, these cherries are amazing on salads and sandwiches, and I think they’d also make a great addition to a cheese plate. The added benefit to this recipe is the cherry-infused balsamic vinegar – great for salad dressings or drizzling anywhere you’d use balsamic.

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Roasted Corn Salsa

17 Dec

roasted corn salsa

Did you know the best way to keep sweet corn sweet is to store it in the refrigerator? This helps slow down the conversion of the sugars to starches. I only have a small refrigerator here (think slightly larger than one in a dorm room), so I don’t have a lot of space to dedicate to storing corn. But I can’t resisting buying some when it shows up fresh at the market (currently in season here, of course), so I had to think up a quick easy use for the cobs sitting on my refrigerator shelf. I opted for this take on a basic corn salsa, roasting the corn for extra depth of flavor. The rest of the flavors here are pretty traditional (green onion, cilantro, hot pepper, lime), though I did toast the garlic, which I find mellows it perfectly for things like this. This salsa is great as a dip, on tacos, to add a pop of color and flavor to a plate of beans, or as a side for grilled fish or meat.

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Homemade Kimchi

19 Nov

homemade kimchi

One of my best friends in middle school was Korean, and I remember fondly much of our time spent together after school. We would take the school bus to her house, and there was always perfectly cooked rice waiting in the rice cooker, sheets of seaweed to wrap it in, and delicious homemade kimchi. At the time, I wasn’t even a fan of standard pickles, and kimchi, with its fermented odor and strangely bright red, nearly unrecognizable vegetables, seemed quite intimidating when my friend first offered it to me. But I knew it was rude to refuse, so I tried it. And somehow I was quickly taken in by the bold flavors, a mix of sour, spicy, and even a little sweet that made plain rice into a treat.

I’ve eaten a lot of kimchi since then, and these days, it’s hard for me to resist, whether it’s a side to Korean barbecue, flavoring ramen, or in an omelet. I tried my hand at making my own before, but the flavor wasn’t quite right. Now that I’m in Buenos Aires, where there seems to be a dearth of good Asian food (and certainly a dearth of spicy food), I figured it was worth another shot. I compared several recipes and techniques and tried to keep things simple but authentic with my take. The only specialty ingredients here are the Korean red chili pepper flakes (gochugaru) (which I actually carted along with me from the U.S.) and fish sauce; both shouldn’t be hard to find in an Asian market (and the gochugaru can be replaced, if necessary). As I was chopping the cabbage (feeling pleasantly surprised at having been able to find Napa cabbage at my neighborhood verduleria), I started to worry that this would make too much kimchi. And even after it reduced dramatically from the initial salting, I was still concerned. But as I packed the ready-to-ferment kimchi into its large jar, I tasted a piece, and suddenly I wondered if maybe I hadn’t made enough. The fermentation only adds more complexity and the characteristic tang to the kimchi (oh, and some great health benefits, too), and I can easily say now that I’m quite happy with this recipe. I’ve been snacking on it plain, drizzled with a little sesame oil and sprinkled with sesame seeds, and loving it.

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Ginger Mint Simple Syrup

14 Nov

ginger mint simple syrup

I love basics like this recipe. An infused simple syrup is a great building block that’s great to have in your refrigerator because even though it’s trivial to throw together, it makes it easy to add a gourmet touch. Suddenly, it’s no problem to make ginger mint lemonade or ginger mint iced tea. Or you can pour a little bit over a fruit salad to take dessert to the next level. And, of course, it’s the perfect addition to mixed drinks, a great foil for whiskey, gin, rum, tequila, or whatever your favorite spirit might be.

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Mushroom Ragu

5 Nov

mushroom ragu

First, for those of you who follow this blog, let me apologize for not posting on Friday – I’ve been recovering from a cold and subsisting mainly on tea (with ginger and honey, yum), and I haven’t had a chance to re-build my backlog of posts for such times yet. But I’m back in the swing of things now and have been cooking up some great new recipes for this week. Let’s start with this mushroom ragu. I was craving a bowl of pasta with meat sauce, but wanted to eat something a little healthier instead. While I usually try not to create “imitations” of other foods (though I’ve been known to do so before), I figured what I was really craving was something with a lot of umami (as meat sauce typically has) and something nice and filling (as pasta is). So I cooked up this sauce, with the meatiness of cremini mushrooms standing in for the usual ground beef, while the liquid they release serves as the base for the sauce. It’s thickened up with tomato paste and minced black olives, then given a flavor boost from red wine, for a savory sauce that would be great on pasta in place of your usual sauce. I wanted an extra nutritional boost, so I actually served this on top of white beans which worked quite well. I think it would also be a great sauce on top of chicken or roasted vegetables.

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