For Ginger Lovers: A Ginger Menu

December 18, 2010

A good friend fell off a cliff, broke his neck in two places, but is fine (thank you, gods!) and recovering. Recently, however, he’s been having some nausea as he tries to wean himself off the narcotic pain pills.

Because I know ginger is good to relieve nausea, plus it helps digestion, I whipped up a dinner for him with ginger in every dish, took it over to him, and had a great meal.

If you love ginger, you might get some ideas from the menu. Everything had ginger in it, but it was never overpowering. It’s one of those ingredients that can be aptly used to give depth of flavor, spiciness, or warmth. It can blend quietly into the background, or sing loudly as a star flavor.

Here’s what we had:
Asian Black Bean Dip, served with tortilla chips and sugar snap peas

Asian Slaw with Ginger-Wasabi Dressing (a very simple salad with won bok, Asian pear and green onions)

Rice (a mix of brown rice, white rice, and barley)

Tofu, Broccoli, and Sweet Potato
seasoned with ginger and soy sauce

Pineapple Sorbet with Mint, Basil, and Ginger

Pumpkin Cinnamon Rolls with pecans and candied ginger
Next time I will serve them without the pumpkin, since you couldn’t really taste it. I’ll use it instead to make Pumpkin Smoothies!

Ginger-Mint-Lemongrass Iced Tea

Ginger Ale the old style, fermented (my first attempt at this)

Za’atar Roasted Potatoes

January 1, 2010

One of the gifts I received this holiday season was a snack-sized zip-top bag containing za’atar spice mix.

Za’atar is both the name of an herb related to marjoram and oregano, as well as a spice mix made up of herbs, sesame seeds, and sumac.

Sumac’s berry-like fruits are ground to produce a tangy, purplish spice. In this case, it was almost a fuchsia color. My friend said in Iran, where he used to live, there were bowls of the ground sumac powder on the table. People sprinkled it on their food as desired.

This particular blend was sumac, salt, sesame seeds, and thyme. I wasn’t sure how to eat it, and my friend suggested I think of it as a Middle Eastern version of furikake.

(Furikake is a Japanese mixture made from seaweed, sesame seeds, salt, and usually a fish product, although there are vegetarian versions without them. It is usually sprinkled on rice, sort of like a seasoned salt mixture.)

So I tried a bit on rice, but it had very little flavor. I could detect a subtle tang from the pretty purply sumac, and the sesame seeds, but it needed more kick to it.

Since I had to make something to take to a New Year’s Eve potluck party, I decided to use the za’atar with potatoes, sauteeing it in oil, to try to coax out more flavor.

After a bit of doctoring, I had a decent dish, and it was well enough received at the party that I thought I’d post about it here, trying to recreate the recipe. (Besides, a bunch of us received the spice, and I doubt anyone knew what to do with it. Here’s one possibility!)

Vegan Za’atar-Roasted Potatoes
2 TBS toasted sesame oil
4 TBS canola oil
1/4 cup za’atar spice mix (I used the whole baggie full, which was about that much)
1 tsp salt
3/4 tsp garlic powder
Juice from 3/4 lemon (about 1-1/2 TBS lemon juice )
3 pounds russet potatoes, washed and cubed
extra virgin olive oil (optional), salt and lemon juice to taste

In a small frying pan on medium-high heat, saute za’atar spices, garlic powder and salt in sesame and canola oils until sizzling and fragrant. Stir constantly and watch carefully, because sesame seeds burn quickly. This took about 1-2 minutes once the mixture got hot enough, but might take a lot less time if you have a gas stove.

Remove from heat and stir in the lemon juice.

Mix together with the potato cubes; stir well to distribute evenly and turn everything a rosy pink.

Place into two 9×13 cake pans in a single layer.

Bake at 350 degrees F until the potatoes are fork tender, stirring every 20 minutes or so. This took about 50 minutes, but it will vary, depending on how large you cut your potato pieces.

After they are finished, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil (optional) and add salt and/or lemon juice as needed, to taste.

Try to cut your potatoes in even-sized pieces. Mine weren’t, so the smaller ones got tough by the time the bigger ones were tender.

This is a bit oily by the time you are done, but I like the flavor the extra virgin olive oil added. You can omit it if you like. Much of the oil and spice mixture ended up stuck to the sides of the pan.

If you didn’t receive a bag of this particular za’atar spice blend, use what you have, but start with 1 TBS za’atar. I would taste some of the spice mix first to get an idea of how much you want to use.

This was an exceptionally bland spice mixture, so I threw it all in. My guess is, if you have a mixture with the oregano-related herb, you would only need a small amount.

Also, this did not taste like it had any salt in it, so if your spice mixture tastes salty, omit the salt until the end, and only add enough to taste, so you don’t end up with a too-salty finished dish.

The flavor and color was unusual enough that it piqued my interest and taste buds. I’ll be looking into trying different variations of za’atar spice blends.

Vegetarian Thai Cooking Class

December 6, 2009

The first thing I did upon arrival in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was head to May Kaidee’s Vegetarian Restaurant. It’s on Ratchapakinai Road, next to the Sumit Hotel, about 4 doors up from the Thai Red Cross office, which is easy to spot.

Look for the plants in front of the tiny shop.

I had a bowl full of something luscious, with coconut milk curry and vegetables, and I was immediately happy.

Last time I was in Chiang Mai, I took a cooking class from The Farm, an organic farm about 20 minutes out of the city. It was a well-organized class, the food was delicious, and it was a nice break to get out of the city and spend a relaxing day making mouth-watering food. I highly recommend it.

This time I wanted to take a class that was specifically vegetarian, not just a cooking class that substituted vegetarian ingredients. Since May Kaidee’s had a cooking class available, I had to taste the food before signing up.

No use taking a cooking class from somewhere with tasteless, or worse, awful food.

So I was relieved that the food was delicious and that it was close enough to my guesthouse, which meant I would be coming back often to eat. (I did–I went every day except when I was out of commission due to food poisoning…grr.)

Class started at 9 am with a bowl of fruit and yogurt for breakfast. Then the other three students and I, plus Duan, May’s sister, who runs the Chiang Mai restaurant with her husband, daughter, and brother, set off for the local market.

There Duan pointed out and explained several ingredients crucial to Thai cuisine. She showed us sticky rice, kaffir limes, ginger, galangal, lemongrass, holy and Thai basils.

Choy sum swarming with bees

Most of the produce was already familiar to me, including long beans, choy sum (Chinese greens with yellow flowers that the bees were swarming around), gailaan (sometimes called Chinese broccoli, and what Duan called kale), round and long eggplant, pumpkin (large, flat, and brown, like a more rowdy cousin of the Japanese kabocha).

The Thai papayas are enormous, at least eight inches long, orange and shaped like a cylinder. The papayas in Hawaii are much smaller, shaped like yellow pears on steroids.

We also saw the rice noodles that people ordered by width and watched the vendor chop them with her cleaver before putting them into a tiny plastic bag secured with a rubber band. The thin version, like fetuccini, are what is used to make Pad Thai, the popular fried noodle dish. The uncut sheets are the wrappers for uncooked spring rolls.

After filling our baskets, we walked back to the shop, past a rotund yellow dog that took up half the road. Cars, people and motorcycles inched around it to pass. We couldn’t decide if she was pregnant or just obese.

The Somphet Market Dog--fat or pregnant?

Back at the shop, we chopped some baby corn, greens, and cauliflower before heading upstairs with bottles of drinking water, to get to work.

Each of us had a station with a wok and shared areas with dark and light soy sauce, chili paste and already-chopped garlic and chilies.

For each recipe, Duan walked us through the steps. “Put one spoonful of oil in your wok. Now add chilies, half spoon, and garlic, half spoon.” Spoons were the Asian soup spoons, the long ones with handles bent upwards, that come with bowls of gau gee min and ramen, Asian noodle soups.

“Now, quickly…KHON!

That meant “Stir!” in Thai. We spent many hours that day khon-ing.

“Next put tofu and vegetables….khon faster!”

And so it went. After the first three dishes, I lost track of how much of what went into what. Fortunately, all the recipes had been printed out for us, so we stopped after a few to make notes about substitutions and anything else not already written for us.

Duan prepares rice wrappers to make uncooked spring rolls.

Each of us had a tasting spoon, which we kept in a pocket in the front of our aprons, for sampling the dishes as we finished. This was an interesting part of the course, because we learned how much of a difference in flavor small substitutions could make.

For example, clear Tom Yum, coconut Tom Yum, and Tom Kha soups were identical, save for the amounts of coconut milk we added, but the flavors were more different than you’d imagine.

Four hours later, we had a spread large enough to feed us all for lunch and dinner. Fried noodles, soups, several kinds of curries, and the famous Kao Soi, a northern Thai curried noodle specialty.

The finished uncooked spring rolls: light, fresh, chewy, crunchy, spicy, and refreshing, all at once.

We also made lip-smacking peanut sauce, and May Kaidee’s famous and possibly the most popular dish on the menu: Pumpkin Hummus. Various seeds, spices, chilies, and cooked pumpkin were pounded with a mortar and pestle. The end result was creamy, complex pumpkin magic.

Duan said it was their mother’s special recipe. She used to make it for them growing up, and they ate it with everything, from balls of sticky rice, to spread on bread as sandwiches, or as a dip with vegetables. It was easy to see why this was such a popular dish.

The only non-vegan things were the yogurt in the morning, plus the egg noodles in the Kao Soi. But that was a variation on a curry dish, so you could leave them out.

I gave my leftovers to my Thai massage friends, since I did not have a fridge in the guesthouse and did not want to tempt fate with even more food poisoning.

Thank you, Duan, An, Nain, and Opal, for delicious food every day, and for your help! Khob kun mahk kha!

If you are interested in taking the cooking class, visit the restaurant and talk to one of them. I highly recommend it.

May Kaidee Vegetarian Restaurant, Chiang Mai, Thailand

The Travelers’ Curse: The BRAT Diet

November 20, 2009

Surely you’ve heard of the BRAT diet to cure diarrhea? Bananas, Rice, And Toast (white, plain). I offer you my Thai version: Bananas, Rice, And Tea.

Apple bananas, 15 baht per hand (about 50 cents U.S.)

The bananas were apple bananas, the smaller version popular in Asia, with a more tangy taste and firmer texture (to hold up to those delicious desserts, like bananas in coconut milk, bananas steamed in leaves with sticky rice, and tapioca and coconut milk pudding with bananas.)

The rice was the Thai version of something my grandmother and mother used to eat when they got sick, called okayu in Japanese. Not sure at this time what the Thai name for it is…if I find out, I’ll get back to you…

The tea was ginseng first, then grachai later. Grachai (said with a low tone) is Chinese keys, which is obviously in the ginger family.

Chinese keys, Grachai, for stomach upset

It smelled a bit like turmeric, looked like orangey mud, tasted bitter and earthy and had a bit of heat and pungency to it, just like fresh ginger and turmeric do.

It reminded me very much of the horrendously bitter “berbena con jugo de limon,” another herbal brew that I was served in the jungles of Ecuador, after pulling our boat through the river made my bronchitis worse….but that is another story!

My sister said I was being a drama queen, making faces with every sip, so I told her to try it. She gagged. It was the last time she drank my tea, and the last time I traveled with her (by choice, that is…but that is also another story!)

(Am I bitter? Perhaps–but not as bitter as that tea! ha ha)

Where was I?

Oh yah, the tea. The kind husband manager of the guesthouse, Jimmy, came up to my room on the fourth floor to check on me several times all day and night. I was supposed to have my vegetarian cooking class, but I was rudely awakened at 2:30 am with stomach cramps and the dreaded Montezuma’s Revenge. Or, since this is Chiang Mai, Thailand, perhaps a better name would be Moon Muang Road’s Revenge.

I’ll “spare you the gory details,” as my mother used to say…

By 8:00 am I was no better and went downstairs to ask them to call to cancel. I needed help getting back up and spent the day and night in bed and the bathroom, basically.

I asked for bananas, which he brought, along with tea, and some Chinese herbal medicine from their uncle across the way, who, coincidentally (although there are no coincidences in life, apparently) had also been sick the day I arrived, and had an extra vial.

They were tiny pellets which looked like they had been dipped in brownish-red royal icing and left to dry. He motioned for me to tip my head back and empty the vial into my mouth. I took a swig of liquid and managed to down them in three swallows.

“Guarantee you better by this afternoon,” Uncle said. “Guarantee.”

That afternoon, I would have joked with him, “I want my money back,” but 1) he wasn’t around, 2) he gave it to me free, 3) I had barely enough energy to open the door, and 4) I was in no @#$^ mood to joke.

I kept popping acidophilus tablets every hour, and by evening, I was thinking, I wish I had rice. Not that I was hungry, but I remembered the BRAT diet. I didn’t want to bother the hotel manager, either.

As it was, he must have read my mind, because he showed up several hours later, surprising me with a bowl of watery rice porridge, in a little plastic bag secured with a rubber band, the way they do take-out here, a tiny zip-top baggie of salt, and one mandarin orange. So kind of him.

Watery rice gruel, salt, and a mandarin orange: gifts from kind Jimmy, the guesthouse manager

He must have gone back down and climbed up again to bring me the cup of muddy grachai tea.

I’m happy to report that I am back in commission today and extremely happy to be eating more exciting fare!

What have I learned? Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to pinpoint what made me sick, which is frustrating, because I can’t avoid it if I don’t know what it is. I ate at restaurants I had eaten at before, where they cook the food when you order it. (On my last trip, I had gotten sick from places where the food has been sitting in trays for a while.)

I have been drinking bottled water and taking acidophilus tablets to keep the good bacteria outbalancing the nasties. Perhaps it was the fresh orange juice with ice. Ice is apparently suspect, because they don’t always use purified water to make it.

I haven’t been using bottled water to brush my teeth, just the tap water, but I thought once you’ve been to a place, you body gets used to the bacteria there and you’re fine?

Whatever it was, it wasn’t nice. Another woman in the guesthouse had the same problem, and I was just trading notes with a man at dinner (although his was from India.) Not the most enjoyable travel story to share, but important nonetheless.

I also was reminded of the kindness of strangers, and how the simplest acts can mean so much. How grateful I am for them. It’s one of the reasons I travel. It reaffirms my faith in humans, which can quickly erode if I bother to watch the news.

Finally, I have a few more possible remedies for when I travel through this part of the world, natural options that do not just squash the symptoms and leave me with unwanted side-effects. Nature is amazing.

Vegan Ranch Dressing or Dip

September 1, 2009
This is thick enough to spread or dip into.

This is thick enough to spread or dip into.

I wanted a vegan ranch dressing that had tang and zip to it. Once I realized that it was basically an emulsion, a mixture of oil and water (in this case, soymilk, a water-based liquid), I based the recipe and procedure on mayonnaise.

Since I have fresh parsley and green onions in our garden, I haven’t tried it using dried parsley or substituting other herbs. Feel free to experiment. Mwah ha ha!

Alina’s Vegan Ranch Dressing or Dip

1/2 cup soymilk
2 TBS cider vinegar
1/2 tsp onion powder
1/8 tsp cayenne
1 tsp mustard powder
1 tsp salt
2 TBS sugar
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 TBS chopped green onion
1 TBS chopped parsley
1 cup oil

Place all ingredients into a blender. Blend for 30 seconds.

Stop the blender, scrape down the sides, and blend for another 30 seconds, or just until it is thick and pale green.

Do not overblend, or it may separate and turn into an oily slick with droplets of milk floating in it, although this has not happened to me with this recipe before (knock on wood…)

This is thick enough to be a dip. If you want to use it as a dressing, thin it down with a small amount of milk or water. You can adjust the garlic and cayenne to your taste. It’s just mild enough now to give a hint of zing to it without being overpowering.

It’s tasty and addictive. I’ve been using it as a substitute for my mayonnaise and as a spread in sandwiches.

This will likely keep a few weeks in the refrigerator, but I keep eating it up fast, so I can’t say exactly how long!

You may get a tiny amount of separation, with watery liquid pooling at the top, after a couple days. Either pour it off, or stir it back in. Like anything else with multiple ingredients, this tastes even better the next day, after flavors have melded.