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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Cooking for Alain Passard

(If you are reading this post on a RSS reader, you might want to click through to Chez Pim for the slideshow.)

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Note: If you fancy trying this Kanom Jeen Nam-prik, I will be cooking it at the Asia Society's Off the Menu event, Curry across Asia, next Friday March 30th.

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"I remember the perfume that filled the house when my grand-mère made her white peach jam every summer", said Alain Passard as he chewed on a piece of impossibly fragrant dried white peach a farmer we visited earlier that day had gifted him. "How extraordinary", he murmured. I wasn't sure if he was referring to the delicious mouthful of dried peach or his grandmother's jam he was savoring in his mind. Whichever it was –or perhaps it was both- he was so blissfully lost in his thoughts that I restrained myself from intruding with a question.

It was a glorious afternoon. We sat basking in the warm California sun at the garden after a light lunch. On the menu was a taste from my own lost childhood: Kanom Jeen Nam-prik, an old Thai dish with fermented rice noodle and a mild 'curry' sauce made with shrimp and coconut milk.

I'd spent the preceding few days planning the menu, or perhaps it was the preceding few weeks. David and I knew -before his arrival as the guest chef at Manresa that weekend- that we would host a lunch at the garden for him. Since the lunch was planned for the day after the grueling series of dinners, I volunteered to cook up a little something myself so they could have their deserving rest.

In the many years I've been away from home I have collected a sizable repertoire of dishes and flavors from my past. Cooking, as Alain said that afternoon while we lounged in the gentle breeze, is meant to be evocative. Cooking, for some of us, is a perpetual journey to rediscover the taste of our childhood. Alain often talks of his grandmother Louise, who had an immense influence in his life and work, and to whom he credited many recipes he uses today at l'Arpège. "Recette de ma grand-mère", he would say with palpable pride. As for me, my influence was my grandfather Surin, whose taste and exigent passion for food I took after.

But beyond simply miring in our past, cooking is also about bringing the present into focus. When I cook Thai food here in California, I think of ways to use and adapt local produce to achieve the flavors I remember from the past. I dislike using preserved or canned ingredients to stay true to a recipe. Often, the real flavors of those ingredients –the heart of the matter for me- have long disappeared somewhere in the process of preservation or transport. No, I'm not beyond using canned or frozen coconut milk, since the flavors I am looking for is still largely there. But for other, more delicate ingredients, I prefer to stick to the spirit of the recipe rather than the letter.

That is how I've come to create this recipe for my use. It's for one of my favorite dishes called Kanom Jeen Nam-prik. The ingredient list for this 'curry' is long and full of hard to find ingredients even in Bangkok. It calls for Ra-gum, an odd fruit whose English name I don't even know, for the sour and fruity flavor, Bai Thong Laang, a bitter leaf that is battered and deep fried to serve as a condiment for the noodle and curry, and shredded green mango, among others.

Here in California, during the summer I use sour plums as a substitute for the Ra-gum fruit, and in the winter simple Granny Smith apple. The 'curry' sauce relies on super fresh river prawn, whose head full of creamy fat makes for a delicious sauce. Here in Northern California, I often use supremely flavorful Spot Prawns, which are sustainably fished just off the Monterey coast. In place of the bitter Bai Thong Laang, I use spinach or any other bitter leaves, sometimes picked right from the garden. Battered and deep fried, they provide the crunch and slight bitterness that compliment the creamy sauce very well. I even add my own twist, using pungent Shiso leaves to add yet another interesting dimension to the dish.

With these adjustments, I've transformed an old Thai dish into a quintessentially Californian adaptation while keeping the spirit of the recipe. I also made a dessert, a simple Loy Gaew, with local citrus from (Gene Lester's farm) floating in a refreshing iced ginger syrup. Even the French chef was impressed. I caught him drinking the last bit of sauce directly from the bowl. "You could open a restaurant, Pim", Alain said, looking up from his food just long enough to wink at me. I smiled back at him. My grandfather would be proud. In my kitchen, yesterday and today merge into the once and future of my life.

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Rice Noodle with shrimp Nam-prik sauce
Kanom Jeen Nam-prik

Serves 4-6
(If this is the only main course for the meal, it will serve about 4, but more if part of multi-course meal.)

Shrimp 2 pound
Shredded coconut 1/2 cup, tightly packed
Mung beans 3/4 cup
Unsalted roasted peanuts 1/2 cup
Coconut milk 1 19oz can
Water 2 cups
half a Granny Smith apple or a small sour plum, peeled and grated
Fish sauce 6 tbsp (roughly)
Palm sugar 2-4 tbsp
Cooking oil 4 tbsp
Chilli powder 1.5 tbsp
Juice from about 1 lime

For the paste
Shallots 2 medium
Garlic 2 large cloves
Galangal 1/2 inch small round
Kosher salt 1 tsp.

Accompaniments
Batter-fried greens
1 small Granny smith apple, peel and cut into matchsticks
(or green mango if you could find it, cut into matchsticks as well)
1 handful of Green beans, cooked and cut into thin rounds
Fried dried chillies
Fried garlic and shallots

Making the Nam-prik Sauce
1) Roast the shallots, garlic, and galangal in a toaster oven at 450 for 10-15 minutes or until the skin is charred.
2) Peel and discard the darkened skin, then chop finely, and pound in a mortar, with 1 tsp of salt, to a fine paste. Transfer the paste into a small bowl and set aside.
3) In the same mortar, pound the peanuts into bits a little larger than the size of the mung beans. They don't have to be uniform in size, some larger bits will be just fine. Just don't pound them into peanut butter.
4) Skim off 1/2 cup of the creamy part from the can of coconut milk, pour the rest into a medium pot. Add 2 cups of water into the pot. Heat up the mixture until bubbly, then lower the heat and add the mung beans, let the pot simmer gently.
5) Heat up a wok until warm, add the shredded coconut and stir vigorously, about 3-5 minutes on low heat, until the white coconut flesh turns brown. (Keep stirring or the coconut will burn.) Transfer the roasted coconut to a plate, and set aside.
6) Wipe the coconut bits off the wok, then heat up 4 tbsp of oil in it until hot, add the shallot/garlic/galangal paste and stir vigorously until very fragrant, about 1-2 mins. Add the 1/2 cup coconut cream and cook, stirring frequently, until you can see a layer of oil breaking out from the coconut milk and paste mixture, continue cooking until more oil breaks out, about 3-5 mins altogether. Then add the chilli powder, beginning with 2 tbsp, you can add more later if you want. Stir well for 30 seconds, then turn the heat off.
7) Put 2/3 of the shrimp in a blender with a quarter cup of coconut milk (from the mung bean pot) and pulse until ground. Keep the rest of the shrimp whole.
8) Transfer the cooked chilli paste (from #6) into the pot containing coconut milk and mung bean and stir well. Add the grated apple, stir well. Then add all the ground peanuts, and about 2/3 of the roasted coconut, crumpling up crispy coconut with your hands as you add it to the pot. Then add the ground shrimp meat and whole shrimp.
9) Add the apple or plum to the pot. Season with palm sugar and fish sauce. Tasting carefully as different brands of palm sugar and fish sauce will have different intensity. You want the Nam-prik mixture in the pot to taste slightly sweet and then salty. Make sure that the seasoning balance is intense enough as you won't be eating this sauce by the spoonful by itself, but tossed with bland noodles. Add more fish sauce of palm sugar if needed.
10) Turn the heat off, add the juice of 1 lime. Taste to see if there is enough acidity, if not, add a little more lime juice. If too acidic, add a bit more fish sauce and sugar (white sugar is fine at this point). The mixture should taste sweet, sour, salty, with a little kick of the chilli at the end. (The Nam-prik can be prepared ahead until this point and kept overnight. It will lose some brightness from the lime, so you should add a little bit more after the reheat before serving.)
11) Just before serving, sprinkle the rest of the coconut over the Nam-prik and give it a quick stir.

Making the accompaniments
The classic accompaniments to the Kanom Jeen Nam-prik are batter-fried vegetables, blanched wing beans cut into thin slices, green mango or papaya cut into match sticks, deep fried sliced shallots and garlic, and deep fried dried chillies. These may look daunting, but they are practically all optional. The Nam-prik is good even eaten just with some noodles or even over rice, but adding the accompaniments, with the layer of textures and flavors will add a lot to the dish.

You can use just about any leafy greens (spinach, arugula, etc.), give them a light dip in batter and fry until crispy. The slight bitterness from the greens and the crunch from the fried batter will add another layer to complexity of the dish. I also like to slice a couple of shallots (thinly and lengthwise and a few cloves of garlic, then fry them until brown and crispy. Don't fry the garlic and shallots together as they don't cook at the same time. If you don't like the taste of fried garlic and shallots, just skip them. Before you throw the oil out, fry up a handful of small dried chillies as well. Just do it very briefly until they puff up and change the color only slightly. They will add a kick when crumpled up into the dish. This way each of your guests can control her own level of spice on her plate. Instead of green mango or papaya, which could be hard to find, and the stuff that are available are not always top quality, I prefer using granny smith apple cut into matchsticks. The matchsticks add freshness and acidity to the dish. You can also cook a handful of green beans and serve them in little thinly sliced rounds.

Serve these accompaniments on a separate plate. Your guest can take a little of this and that to their own taste at the table.

Cooking the noodles
In Thailand we use Kanom Jeen, long, thin noodles made from fermented rice dough. Kanom Jeen is unavailable in the US, but in you can easily use dried Japanese Tomoshiraga noodle instead. Tomoshiraga noodle is white and the thickness of angel hair pasta. It is widely available in Asian supermarkets and can even be ordered online. If your local Chinese market carries Vietnamese Bun Xio noodles, you can use that as well.

For Tomoshiraga noodle, cook in boiling water for 2 mins, drain, and serve immediately. If you found Bun Xio noodles, cook them in boiling water for 1 minute or until heated through, drain, and serve.

Service
At the table, your guest should each take a bit of noodle, then pour on a ladle of the Nam-prik sauce, then add the accompaniments to taste. This dish should be eaten the traditional Thai way, push the food into your spoon with your fork and eat from the spoon.

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Photo credit: the final five shots in the slideshows -with me in them- were taken by my friend Sophie.

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