"Cook" is for all things savory.

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Thai cucumber salad (Yum Tang Gwa)

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I picked four fat cucumbers from my garden the other day.  This is my first time growing cucumbers – in fact my very first time growing a garden of my own.  I've never before tasted cucumbers this fresh from the plant.  They were crisp, sweet, and perhaps – no, definitely – the best cucumbers I've ever tasted.  I am sure these cucumbers are the best tasting in the same sense that my cat (or your dog, or your kid for that matter) is the cutest thing ever.  But hey, why burst our bubble?

Anyway, since these cucumbers were the best ever, I couldn't possibly just use any recipe for it.  I grew these babies with blood, sweat, and tears.  Ok, not  really, I put the starter plants Cynthia gave me into the grown and gave them water and they practically grew themselves.  Hmm, now where were we, oh, yes.. growing them with blood, sweat, and tears – or just dirt and water, rather – I wanted something special the celebrate them.  A little bit of tinkering in the kitchen produced this recipe, a salad of crisp cucumber slices.  It's not exactly Thai, but the inspiration certainly is from that general direction.  

The dressing here is a classic Thai blend of lime juice, fish sauce, chilli, and a pinch of sugar.  I don't want the lime juice to be so pronounced and to overpower the brightness of the cucumbers, so I use a little less and temper it with a bit of rice vinegar.  If your fish sauce is old and getting quite stinky, I suggest using a bit less and adding some salt instead as well.  You want the dressing to be light, bright, and delicious, not stinky, sharp, and muddy, so be careful.  A little bit of herb gives the salad a lovely complexity, so I suggest Tia To or Vietnamese Perilla if you can find it (regular Shiro leafs or just plain mint will do in a pinch), and also a bit of cilantro.  Finish the salad with a generous sprinkle of toasted coconut flakes and fried shallots, and there you have it.  The salad in the picture has some poached shrimp in it, since I had that for lunch and thought I needed a little protein.  You can skip it entirely, or use poached chicken torn into strips, or tofu, or nothing at all.

Oh, you want a recipe, that was it.  Ha. Ok, not really.  

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Pad Krapow Moo – spicy stir-fried pork with Thai holy basil

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I have Bai Krapow growing in my garden.  They are called Holy Basil around these parts.  I put two itty-bitty starts in the ground four weeks ago, and they now look so happy and thriving I've decided it's time to harvest some.  So last night I did.  I made a favorite fast Thai dish, Pad Krapow, which is basically a spicy stir-fry with the holy basil as the star flavor of the show.  

Pad Krapow is a ubiquitous fast food dish in Thailand.  You can walk into just about any food shack on any street corner and ask for Pad Krapow, they'll make one for you.  You can also have it with just about any protein you want, pork (minced or cut into bite size chunks), chicken (ditto), beef (yup, ditto too), or even tofu.  Some people like to add cut up onions or sweet bell peppers to add a little more interest to the dish.  But the best thing about it, besides being really delicious, is that it's so simple to make you hardly need a recipe.  So I'm not going to give you one.  Instead I'll tell you how you can easily make it at home.  If you can't find Bai Krapow or Holy Basil, you can even use the regular Thai basil you can find at any Asian markets near you.  In which case you'll technically be making Pad Horapa (Stir-fry with Thai Basil) instead of Pad Krapow (Stir-fry with Holy Basil), but it'll be good just the same.  

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Chicken porn (Thai grilled chicken, Gai Yang)

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Well, it’s actually just a Gai Yang, or Thai grilled chicken.  But it does look mildly obscene, don’t you agree?  The poor innocent chicken, stripped bare and spread out in a rather immodest position for all the world to see.  It’s also quite immoderately delicious, and inordinately easy to do.

There’s a term for this flatten out chicken, it’s called “spatchcock”.  To spatchcock a chicken is to remove its backbone and flatten it out before cooking.  I doubt the folks grilling the chickens on the street in Bangkok know the proper culinary term, but this is precisely how they do it over there.  It makes things a whole lot easier to do a whole chicken on the grill.  I also think that it normalizes cooking time so that the breasts, legs, and thighs finish cooking at about the same time.  I’ve never had dried out breasts and undercooked thighs when grilled like this over low fire.

This chicken got a Thai seasoning rubbed all over and let marinated for a bit.  It doesn’t take that long, really, just prepare the chicken before you set your barbecue afire.  By the time the fire dies down enough to cook the chicken, the marinade will have done its job.

In Thailand, a grilled chicken like this is usually served with two sauces: one is often referred to as “grilled-chicken sauce”, which is basically a sweetish chili sauce you can buy in a bottle, and the other is a Jaew sauce, which is basically this dressing I used in my Ugly Salad post last week.  You can use either, or both, or none at all.

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Thai scallop ceviche – Yum Hoy Shell

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I’m calling this dish Thai Scallop Ceviche.  The “Thai” descriptor here is for the ceviche, as in Thai-style ceviche.  And not for the scallops, as in, these scallops are not from Thailand.  They are from the Northeast, actually, Nantucket Bay Scallops, to be precise.  Yes, yes, I know full well ceviche is a Peruvian preparation, but we do a very similar thing in Thailand.  We call it Yum.  Or Yum Talay.  And true to the name, it is quite yummy too, and easy besides.

The idea here is the same as the regular ceviche, that is to say the seafood takes a nice, long bath in lemon or lime juice to “cook”.  Let us not be confused though.  There’s no cooking happening here.  The citric acid in lime or lemon juice just change the texture and look of the seafood so they appear opaque and slightly firm and generally look like they’ve been “cooked”.  So I wouldn’t suggest this dish if you’re afraid of germs or parasites or all that peevish nonsense.  I read somewhere that if you’re afraid of raw ceviche you could get away with cooking the seafood very breifly in boiling water just to “cook” them slightly before making your ceviche.  Frankly I’m more than a bit dubious about this advice.  To a germ or parasite, passing just a few seconds through boiling water is like having a day at a Japanese Onsen.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to deal with germs that have just had a restorative day at a germ spa.

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Crab feast and Thai seafood sauce

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It took me a good long while before I got over my silly fear and tried dungeness crabs.  No, no I wasn't afraid of eating crabs.  I spent every summer of my childhood in Hua Hin on a diet composed almost entirely of crabs and prawns – in fact I'm rather surprised I haven't developed an exoskeleton by now. 

My fear was of pre-cooked crabs, actually.  In Thailand – ok, perhaps not the entire country but at least my family – we never ate dead crabs.  No, we don't eat crabs while they are alive – I only meant we don't eat crabs that had been dead before they were cooked.  If you go to wet markets in Thailand, you won't find a lot of dead crabs for sale.  You will, on the other hand, find crates of still alive (and sometimes crawling) crabs for shoppers to buy and take home to cook.  This is understandable, I suppose.  Dead crabs deteriorate quickly in the tropical heat, by the time you get them home their flesh have broken down into nothing but fishy, smelly mush – we say it's "gone back to sea" in Thai. 

This proved a bit of a predicament for my buddhist "kitchen mother" (that's how household cooks are referred to in Thai).  I still remember her sitting on the floor over a wooden chopping board with an ill-fated crab on top, her eyes closed, one hand in a half namaste while the other holding a sharp cleaver high over her head, her lips moving, quietly (and rapidly) reciting a pray begging the crab's forgiveness before quickly lowering the heavy cleaver to sever the crab in half.  Saturday Night Live can't make that skit up. 

Anyway, that's a rather long-winded way to explain why it took me a good many years to try one of the Bay Area's local specialties, the Dungeness crabs.  And now, when the season is high and the crabs sweet, they are one of my favorite things to eat, especially when dipped into spicy, garlickyThai seafood sauce.  Every time we have a crab feast, I make this sauce for myself and make sure there's drawn butter and even cocktail sauce for others.  But then everyone ends up stealing my sauce and I have to get back to the mortar and make more.  Luckily it's so easy, you hardly need a recipe.

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