Thai Green Papaya Salad

IMG_0803On hot summer days, all I want is something cold. I want cold breakfast, lunch, and dinner along with plenty of cold beverages throughout the day. Salads definitely fit the bill and hit the spot. But I easily get tired of eating the same lettuce based salads with vinaigrette dressing. Bleh. Especially since I have been trying to eat more healthfully lately, I feel as if I’ve fallen into a rut with my meals. Which is why I am so excited to post this recipe for a Thai green papaya salad. It is a different kind of salad because it tastes rich at the same time that it is light and healthy. I love Thai food because of its complexity in flavor combinations and textures. Most Thai dishes have a delicate balance of savory, sweet, and spicy. This mixture tantalizes your taste buds and keeps you coming back for more after every bite.

Green papaya is such a wonderful base for a salad because it has very little flavor of its own beside a clean fresh taste. It is a chameleon that changes its flavor profile based on what is in its environment. In this case, limes, garlic, chili, and dried shrimp create a flavor explosion in your mouth. Thai papaya salad is traditionally prepared by mortar and pestle. You start by grinding together your aromatics and herbs first. Once that forms a nice paste,  you begin pounding that flavor into the shredded papaya. This is different than Vietnamese papaya salad, which involves no pounding at all. It is still shredded finely, but it is served plain. It is then dressed with a sweet vinegary soy sauce mix, then topped with fresh basil, sweet and savory beef jerky, and freshly roasted peanuts. Both are delicious of course, but I chose the Thai route because I was craving a sour punch to my dinner tonight.

The best part of this salad? The longer you have it sitting in its own juices, the tastier it becomes! The flavors really develop and meld together after sitting overnight. I’ve seen this served with some boiled shrimp at Thai restaurants for some added protein.

 

Cooking Tips

Invest in a mandolin or some kind of food processor that has a shredder attachment. You won’t be sorry. This will open up a world of possibilities in terms of expanding your experience with fresh veggies. Raw veggies are so much more tolerable when they are cut finely and allowed to marinade in something delicious.

I’ve heard people say that grinding your aromatics is better than using a food processor because a food processor cuts up and breaks the cell walls of the food in question. In this case, I used a food processor to mince my garlic and dried shrimp and the papaya salad still turned out delicious.

If you do not own a mortar and pestle, using your hands to punch and squeeze the papaya salad into the lemon juice mixture will also work. Just remember to wear sanitary cooking gloves while you do this; otherwise, your skin will become irritated from the acidity of the lime juice and chili.

If you want to make this dish vegetarian, just omit the dried shrimp and substitute salt for the fish sauce. Make sure to taste as you go to adjust for seasonings.

Only put peanuts on to the specific portions you plan on eating. Adding peanuts to all of your papaya salad will lead to soggy peanuts the next day.

Recipe
Servings: 6-8
Prep Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients
1 medium green papaya, finely shredded into 3-inch long pieces
1 handful of dried shrimp, finely chopped
1 head garlic, minced
1 tbsp red chili flake (or to taste)
juice of 4 limes, freshly squeezed
7-8 tbsp fish sauce, to taste
1 tbsp white sugar, or to taste
1 cup cherry tomatoes
1 handful of green beans, cut into 2-inch pieces and sliced lengthwise in half
optional: top with handful of crushed peanuts

Prepare papaya by peeling the skin off, cutting in half length-wise, and scooping out all the seeds. Using a mandolin, shredder, or food processor with shredding attachment, cut papaya into thin julienne slices approximately 3-inches in length. Set aside.

Using mortar and pestle, grind together dried shrimp, garlic, and red chili flake. When a relatively smooth paste has formed, add in some of the papaya and pound into the paste with the pestle. Continue to add papaya until no more can fit into the mortar bowl.Transfer the mixed in papaya salad into a large mixing bowl and add the rest of the shredded papaya. Add in fish sauce and sugar and use hands to mix into papaya salad. Use hands to squeeze papaya and pound it with your fist. This will help to enhance absorption of flavor.

Then add in green beans and cherry tomatoes and continue to squeeze and pound until all tomatoes are slightly crushed.

Serve a portion onto a plate and top with roasted peanuts. (Only put peanuts onto the specific portions you plan on eating.)

Enjoy!

 

Chinese Spiced Meatballs

CEA054EE-A857-44BA-8530-9A1E08A3D268 (1)These meatballs transport me back to the past, when my now-husband (then-boyfriend) was completing an internship in Shenzhen, China. We had been a long distance couple since we first started dating. After 6 years of living in different ends of the state, it felt so good to finally live in the same city. We enjoyed 3 years of living together for the first time, and it was challenging but incredible. Unfortunately, after this brief period of bliss, life took us in different directions yet again. Ray was offered an internship in Shenzhen, China following his graduation from architecture school in 2013. He was in China for what felt like an eternity, but in actuality, was 3 months. The time difference and lack of cell phone data made it difficult for us to keep in touch. We had daily chats during his lunch time, when he would tell me about his upcoming weekend adventures or new food finds.

Ray and I are huge fans of good food. My way of showing love for him is to remember his favorites and to try to either recreate them or find a local restaurant that serves them. One of his favorite street foods came up again and again in our conversations: spiced lamb skewers. My family had never made these for us, as their culinary and cultural roots were in the Canton province of China. I had never tried Chinese lamb skewers until I attended the 626 Night Market, when I made it a point to finally sample this special treat. I was blown away by the explosion of flavor in my mouth-there was sweet, salty, spice, and heat all in one bite. After trying the traditional lamb skewers, I have wracked my brain to figure out how to recreate the dish. I did not have lamb available, so I used ground beef instead. When I eat these meatballs, I remember the time that he was in China, as well as the separation that we have weathered as a couple. Sweetness, bitterness, saltiness, and spice-this meatball carries it all; just like what life has to offer. Having these elements in balance is key to a beautiful dish and a beautiful life.

When Ray came back to the States, he was offered a job and had to move away. We were apart yet again. We were reunited in 2015 when I successfully matched to an internship near him. We found an apartment together, took in my family dog, and the rest is history. We are now newlyweds and cannot be more grateful for the amazing life that we have -full of love, family, friends, and wonderful moments. After all these years of distance and missing one another, we have learned to cherish the precious amount of time that we have together.

 

Cooking notes/tips:

When making any meat dish that is marinated, I highly recommend cutting of a small piece to cook and sample to taste for flavor. I prefer not to eat raw meat. So when you make any meatball/meatloaf dish or have a filling for ravioli or dumplings, always taste for seasoning before proceeding with your dish.

Do not over mix meatballs as they can become tough and difficult to eat. Mix just enough for your ingredients to be evenly distributed.

Thai restaurants provide delicious red pepper flakes that would be perfect for this dish. If you are getting takeout from a Thai restaurants, do not throw these red pepper flakes away. Making these spiced meatballs is a great way to use up this often discarded condiment.

Please do not add sesame oil or sesame seeds to a dish just because it is Asian. Not all Asian dishes have sesame oil and sesame seeds in them. In fact, Japanese and Vietnamese cuisines hardly use sesame oil. Korean cuisine uses it the most, followed by Chinese cuisine, and even then, only very specific Chinese dishes use sesame oil. Ok, end rant. Thanks for reading.

Recipe
Serves: 2
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 35 minutes

1 lb ground beef
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp salt
1 tsp seasoned salt (e.g., Trader Joe’s), to taste
1 tbsp red pepper flake
1 tbsp black pepper
2 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp rice wine
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp honey
optional: sambal (red chili sauce)

Directions

Prepare meatballs. Place ground beef, spices, soy sauce, rice wine, and sugar into a large mixing bowl. Use hands to mix together all ingredients. Set aside (preferably for 4 hours or overnight).

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Begin forming meat mixture into meatballs 1-2 inches in diameter.

Place meatballs onto an oiled baking tray, allowing some space between each meatball. Bake for 30 minutes.

Remove 2 tbsp of juices from cooked meatballs and mix with honey. Use this to glaze meatballs after they are cooked.

Optional: top with red chili sauce and serve hot.

Enjoy!

 

Seared Tuna Poke Bowl

IMG_0719A few days ago, summer officially began. This has been a cooler summer so far, and for that, I am incredibly grateful. There are times that I leave my air conditioner on at home to prevent my dog from overheating. So the cooler days are much appreciated. To fight against the heat in the summer, I eat lots of cold foods, Vietnamese spring rolls, salads, cold sandwiches, especially summer fruits. Watermelon, cantaloupe, Hami melon, honeydew… I love them all. Eating cool foods reduces the amount of heat generated in my kitchen from cooking. Another reason is that the coolness of the food itself is a welcome contrast to the ambient heat. I have heard that in countries where summers are ridiculously hot, the people eat spicy foods so that they can sweat and cool down. While I understand that logic, I dread the idea of being drenched in my own sweat while suffering both the heat of summer and the heat of my food.

Which leads to today’s post: seared tuna poke bowls. I had some white rice leftover in my refrigerator, so it was just a simple matter of giving a quick sear to the tuna steak that I had and then combining with vegetables and a quick and easy poke sauce for a refreshing and light meal. This is such a simple and fast meal, especially if you already have rice ready to go. Poke bowls have become more and more elaborate with its recent celebrity status in the food world. Toppings can range from fried onion and garlic chips to salmon roe. I encourage folks to use whatever toppings are available to them in their pantry and refrigerator. I had cucumber in my refrigerator and sesame seeds in my pantry, so those were my toppings of choice for this poke bowl.
The sauce is a very easy combination of sugar, soy sauce, a splash of sesame oil, and a splash of water. It is a quintessential flavor combination of sweet and savory that is characteristic of many Asian dishes. This basic sauce is incredibly versatile in Asian cooking and can be used as the foundation of a salad dressing, the sauce for a yummy stir fry, brushed onto seared meats as teriyaki sauce, or as the base of a marinade for chicken, pork, beef.

 

Cooking Tips

Fresh fish is the key to delicious poke. Buy the best quality fish that you can find to ensure a tasty outcome. I find that Costco has some nice quality fish at prices that do not completely drain your wallet. Salmon could be a substitute for tuna in this dish.

When making the sauce, make sure that the sugar is well-mixed. Otherwise, sugar granules may fall to the bottom of your sauce and create a grainy texture and uneven flavor profile when you pour your sauce into your poke.

Recipe
Servings: 2
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients
½ cup uncooked rice, washed
½ cup water
2 Persian Cucumbers, thinly sliced
1 small avocado
½ lb tuna or salmon steak
salt & pepper to taste
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp sesame oil
1 splash of water
1 tbsp sesame seeds

Follow rice cooker instructions to cook rice. Otherwise, place rice and water in a pot and place it on high heat until it begins to boil. Reduce to low heat and cover with a lid. Cook for approximately 20-25 minutes, or until rice is just done (rice should still be chewy, but soft).

Slice avocado and cucumber tomato thinly. Set aside.

Make sauce: add soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, and a splash of water together.

Pat tuna steak dry, and then season with salt and pepper on both sides. Heat a pan on high heat until it begins to smoke. Then add oil and place tuna steak gently on the pan. Allow to sear for 1 minute, then flip and allow the other side to sear for another minute. Remove immediately from the heat and allow to rest.

Thinly slice seared tuna into ¼ inch thick slices and set aside.

Check rice for doneness. When the top grains of rice have softened, the rice is ready. Give rice a quick stir and spoon evenly into 2 bowls.

Top rice with tuna slices, cucumber, and avocado slices. Sprinkle on sesame seeds.

Pour sauce onto fish and rice and eat immediately.

 

Enjoy!

 

Vietnamese Braised Catfish (Ca Kho To)

IMG_0530.JPGFull disclosure: I actually used to hate catfish because of its muddy/earthen flavor. But throughout the years, I’ve learned to appreciate this meaty bottom-feeding fish that at first looks quite intimidating with its dragon-like whiskers. Growing up, my aunt would make delicious Vietnamese food for us for Sunday dinners. It was akin to the Sunday roast dinner that many American families have, but rather than a huge roast, we would have specialty dishes that required lots of time and preparation. I have lost count of how many times I’ve watched my aunt cooking this dish.

With the widespread popularity of pho and eggrolls being the ambassador foods of Vietnamese cuisine, many equally delicious Vietnamese dishes have been hidden in their shadow. My family actually never made pho at home because of how time and labor intensive it is. Ca kho to, however, is relatively easy and quick to make and packs such a punch of flavor. There are recipes that utilize a pre-made caramel sauce. I am going to challenge my readers to make their own caramel. It is such an easy and cheap product to make; yet its ready-made versions are often overpriced at grocery stores. And if I have any pet peeve it’s got to be overpaying for something that is not all that difficult to make myself. So, have a little faith in yourself, and give caramel a try! Once you master this skill, you can make caramel sauces for desserts, caramel candies, and even caramel sugar art if you are extra ambitious.

Cooking Tips:

Use fresh coconut water from a young coconut if possible (water from a brown coconut is no good). This will imbue your fish with the most intense and delightful coconut flavor.

I love getting my fish at the Asian grocery store because they offer fish cleaning and cutting services, which saves me lots of time and unnecessary mess in my kitchen. Have your butcher cut the catfish into steaks, as boneless filets will easily fall apart in the braising process.

Recipe
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Serves: 4

1 tbsp peanut oil
1 lb catfish steaks
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup fresh coconut water
1 large shallot, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/4 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup oyster sauce
1/4 cup water
1 red jalapeno, sliced
green onion, chopped

Place sugar into a saucepan on medium-high heat. Allow sugar to melt. Mix sugar crystals with melted sugar to ensure an even caramel. Continue heating until melted sugar becomes a light caramel brown color. At this point, add coconut water. Mix well and continue boiling on medium heat until the sauce reduces to the point where it can coat the back of a wooden spoon (~20 minutes)

Meanwhile, heat a deep frying pan on high. Drizzle with oil and sear catfish steaks on medium high heat until golden brown (3-5 minutes each side). Remove fish from pan and add in garlic, shallot, and red jalapeno into frying pan. Allow to sauté for 3-5 minutes until shallot softens.

Add seared catfish back into the pan and add fish sauce, oyster sauce, and a splash of water. Once the coconut caramel has thickened, add it into the catfish and mix well with the sauce. Allow catfish to braise in the sauce on medium low heat until sauce thickens and each side of the catfish has absorbed a thin coating of the sauce (~10 minutes). Flip catfish once one side has taken on a nice caramel color and allow the other side to braise in the sauce.

Adjust seasonings to taste: by adding in a splash of water, oyster sauce, fish sauce, or sugar.

Garnish with green onion and serve with white rice. Enjoy!