The Magic Ingredient
I've written here and here about the things I keep on hand in my pantry; while the lists may sound extensive, they're probably not that far from what you have in yours. You probably have soy sauce somewhere in your cupboards; if you're smart, you'll also have a bottle of oyster sauce tucked away because you know that you can throw it into any stir-fried vegetable-and-protein combo to make it a dish. You might have Thai fish sauce, too. All of those are available in any decently-stocked grocery store. But this is the thing: if you make the effort to go to an Asian grocery and buy a jar of Thai nam prik pao (or nam phrik pao) in your fridge, you can make anything. Well, not anything, but a whole lot of things. Mainly Thai things. Food-related. You get my point.
Nam prik pao is also known as Chili Paste in Soybean Oil, which is how it will most likely be translated on the label when you venture to buy it. It's not terribly hard to make, I've been told, from dried red chilies, dried shrimp paste, tamarind, garlic, and oil, but actually most Thais use commercial version in their cooking. Street vendors in Bangkok keep big containers of it near at hand and add some to almost every dish they cook, allowing the smoky, almost sweet and deeply savory (umami) heat to infuse whatever other ingredients they put in the pan.
While you're at the Asian grocery, pick up some galangal, lemongrass, and lime leaves -- the other staples in the Thai repertoire -- and keep them in your freezer, too. (Trim the lemongrass before freezing it in a ziploc, and cut the galangal into "coins.") You can throw the frozen stuff straight into the pan when you're ready to cook -- no need to thaw.
And also: do yourself a favor and grow Thai basil in your herb garden next summer (it also does great in pots). You can find it pretty easily these days in garden stores and nurseries; I bought mine at my local organic co-op. Plant it outside once it turns warm (it hates cold, and won't tolerate frost at all). It's a beautiful plant, and its spicy, almost minty basil fragrance adds an incomparable flavor to the simplest dishes.
P.S.: For some other Thai recipes, check out this post.
Tom Kha Gai (Chicken Coconut Soup)
If you have the ingredients on hand, this soup (one of the most frequently-ordered dishes at Thai restaurants, I'm sure) is so ridiculously easy it's ridiculous. I tend to like the soup quite tart -- I love lime -- but if it seems too sour to you feel free to add a bit more sugar.
3 c chicken broth (low-sodium canned or homemade)
4 slices galangal (Thai ginger) or regular ginger
1 large stalk lemongrass, white tender part only, cut into 2" lengths
12 fresh or frozen Thai lime leaves, torn in half, or zest of one lime removed with a vegetable peeler
2 cans coconut milk
12 oz boneless, skinless chicken breast sliced into thin, bite-sized slices*
2 TB nam prik pao
1/4 c fresh lime juice
2-4 tsp light brown sugar (start with the smaller amount and add as required)
3-4 TB Thai fish sauce (start with the smaller amount and add as required)
4 oz white mushrooms, thinly sliced
4 small red chilies, slit
Pound the lemongrass with a meat cleaver or the butt of a heavy chef's knife or something equally smash-producing. (You don't need to pulverize it -- just bruise it enough so it will release it's flavor.) In a soup pot, add the chicken broth, galangal or ginger, lemongrass, and lime leaves or zest. Bring to a boil gradually, over medium-high heat. Boil gently for couple of minutes, then stir in the coconut milk. Return to a boil. Now add the chicken pieces and again return to a boil, stirring so the chicken pieces stay separate. Add the nam prik pao, lime juice, sugar, and fish sauce and stir until well blended. Allow to simmer for a minute or two. Add the mushrooms and simmer until just cooked (about a minute).
Serve hot, with chilies floating on top as garnish.
* To slice chicken breast: place the breast smooth side up on the cutting board. Slice lengthwise into three strips. Take each strip and slice horizontally, on an angle, into thin slices.
Tom Yum Kung (Hot and Sour Shrimp Soup)
The other famous Thai soup, to American palates, at least. Equally easy to make with the right ingredients in your freezer and pantry.
6 c low-sodium chicken broth
1 large stalk lemongrass, tough outer leaves removed, trimmed to 12" and then cut into 2" pieces
10 Thai lime leaves, torn in half, or the zest of one lime removed with a vegetable peeler
2 TB nam prik pao
4 TB Thai fish sauce
1/2 c fresh lime juice
1-2 TB light brown sugar
1 lb medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
6 oz oyster mushrooms or button mushrooms, cleaned and thinly sliced
4-6 red chilies, slit
sprigs of cilantro
Pound the lemongrass with a meat cleaver or something of that sort. Put the stock and lemon grass into a soup pot. Add the lime leaves or zest, and bring to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. Allow to simmer for a couple of minutes, then stirr in the nam prik pao, fish sauce, and lime juice. Add the smaller amount of sugar and when it dissolves taste the soup, adding more to suit your taste. Add the shrimp and mushrooms, and simmer until just cooked, about 2 minutes.
Serve garnished with cilantro sprigs and a chili floating on top of each bowl.
Thai Pork with Red Peppers and Cashews
1.5 TB canola oil
6 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 lb boneless pork loin, trimmed of all fat and cut into thin, bite-sized slices
4 scallions, cut into 2" lengths (cut white bulb in half lengthwise)
1 small red onion, sliced
1 red bell pepper, sliced into 2" strips
1 TB nam prik pao (Thai chili jam)
1/4 c low-sodium chicken broth
1 TB oyster sauce
1 TB Thai fish sauce
2 tsp sugar
1/2 c whole roasted cashews
juice of half a lime
1/2 c loosely-packed Thai basil leaves or cilantro leaves
1. In a small bowl, combine nam prik pao, chicken broth, oyster sauce, fish sauce, and sugar. Stir to dissolve sugar. Set aside.
2. In a wok or large sauté pan, heat oil over high heat until shimmering. Add garlic, and when it becomes aromatic and golden add pork. Allow pork to sizzle and sear, stirring every once in a while, until it has lost its pink color and has started to get golden brown. Add scallions, onion, and bell pepper and sauté for a minute or two until vegetables soften.
3. Add sauce and sauté for a minute or so until it coats the mixture in the pan. Add the cashews and basil or cilantro. Add a squeeze of lime juice. Serve immediately.
Nam Prik Pao Fried Rice with Chicken
Serves 4 as a main dish
This also is fantastic with shrimp (about 8 oz peeled and deveined) or the same amount of scallops, cut into slices. You could also substitute pressed tofu, but note that the nam prik pao contains dried shrimp paste, so it's not vegetarian.
3 c day-old, cooked white rice
2 TB canola oil
2 eggs, beaten
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 chicken breast, sliced thinly on the bias into 1" pieces
1 medium onion, diced
1/2 c diced red or yellow bell pepper
1 c zucchini, diced
2 carrots, sliced thinly on the diagonal
3/4 c frozen corn kernels
3/4 c frozen, shelled edamame or green peas
2-3 TB nam prik pao (Thai chili jam), depending on how much heat you desire
2 TB Thai fish sauce
1/4 c chopped cilantro leaves or chopped Thai basil leaves
1. Heat 2 tsp oil in large wok or sauté pan over high heat (I prefer a non-stick for this). When hot, add the beaten eggs. Allow to set, and then scramble till well-cooked. Remove from pan and set aside.
2. In the same pan, add remaining oil. When shimmering, add garlic. As soon as it starts to brown, add the chicken breast pieces. Allow to sizzle and fry for a bit, and then start stirring and shaking the pan until the chicken browns a bit and loses all its pink color.
3. Add the onion, then the bell pepper, then the zucchini, then the carrots to the pan, waiting about 30 seconds between each addition. Add one good pinch of salt. When the vegetables are crisp-tender (more crisp than tender), add the rice, breaking up the clumps with your hands as you put it in the pan. Mix thoroughly, allowing the vegetables and rice to meld and fry.
4. Now add the corn kernels and edamame or peas, along with the nam prik pao. Sprinkle the fish sauce over the contents of the pan, and mix everything so that the chili sauce is well dispersed and everything is heated through. Taste for seasoning -- add salt if necessary. Stir in the cilantro or Thai basil and serve immediately.