Sunday, June 14, 2009

East Meets West

Today's 80 Plates edition combines two rather different countries: Thailand and Canada. As my dad once said, "Nothing quite goes with Thailand like Canada." (OK, this is not strictly speaking true. What he DID say, and I swear to God this IS true was, "And if Columbus had sailed East, he'd have discovered Israel.")

This weekend was supposed to be Leah-free and it was until last night. I was feeling very cook-ish/cook-y? and wanted to do something so I decided to return to 80 Plates and knock out a couple of more countries. We flipped through the Around the World in 450 Recipes and hit on Thailand's barbeque chicken. Whether or not it's true, the book claims:

Barbecued chicken is served almost everywhere in Thailand, from portable roadside stalls to sports stadiums and beaches.

Now recently, we've had a TON of barbecue chicken. Michael's mom and dad made some while we were in Rhode Island and the other night while we were visiting baby Kai, Elizabeth and Jesse grilled chicken as well. It has long been a source of unhappiness within me that I am not a great griller. Oh, I can make a burger or a hot dog or a brat, but beyond that, I tend to BURN. My mother-in-law said, "Cook it over low heat for a long time" but my grill is evil and difficult to regulate heat-wise. But I was damned determined that I was going to grill some chicken and it was going to come out well.

I did modify the recipe just slightly: it called for a whole chicken cut apart ( a) I have no interest in doing this and b) we have all agreed that none of us likes bones in our chicken so I went with boneless skinless breasts) and it called for ginger (my sister is allergic). Oh, and I have no idea what palm sugar is, so I used some Sugar in the Raw that my uncle left here after his visit in November. Otherwise, I stuck to what the recipe said to do.

So this was basically a pretty easy recipe to follow! However, I did find one ingredient that my nifty knife does not like to chop: lemon grass! I really had to do battle with it. I slit it lengthwise first and then made chops into little half circles, but I was not going to chop it up beyond that. Still, I think it looked pretty respectable considering.

I smashed up garlic and chopped shallots, although the recipe does not give any instructions on what to actually do with either ingredient, it just says to add them. After combining all of that in a large bowl, I added the sugar and then turned my attention to putting together the liquid part of the marinade.

One of the things I LOVE about doing this is I am getting to use up the bottles of sauce that I might have had use for a tablespoon of here and there. In this case, I got to use up 2 tablespoons of fish sauce! I have no idea what to do with fish sauce, but I do know that when we continue cooking around Asia, I've got it on hand to use, and I'm down to about 1/2 a bottle! Hooray! I added that to coconut milk and soy sauce and it made this rather luxurious looking coffee colored sauce. And I have to say, it smelled pretty good. Then I dumped it over the fresh savories and stirred it altogether.

All that was left was to pour it over the chicken and refrigerate overnight. I was really, really excited about this dish because it smelled AMAZING! It was going to be torture to wait for lunch, but fortunately Leah was back to keep us busy! I will say, also that when I look at the picture in the cookbook, the marinade looks almost smooth, so I wonder if they put everything in a food processor to put it together. But I kind of liked getting in there with my knife and just slicing and dicing, and I don't think it affected the recipe in the least.

Ok, so this morning dawned bright and clear and I decided I was also going to take the opportunity to make nanaimo bars. This was mainly because having read up on the matter, I knew how rich the bars were going to be, and I could send them home with Judy and Lucas and not worry about totally trashing my diet.

While Lesley was here, she mentioned that as far as she knew there wasn't really a typical Canadian dish (I feel the same about American cuisine, so I feel her pain). We never got around to cooking anything--mostly because we were too busy--so I went on Wikipedia to the national dish list and looked up Canada and there were nanaimo bars as one of several of Canada's national foods.

This excited me because in A Mighty Wind, Mickey says she won't perform alone without Mitch and that she's going to go back to her hotel with a pan of nanaimo bars. I always wondered what they were, and now I know! So this ties in nicely with Lesley's visit, but also with the recent Christopher Guest concert. As Hannibal Smith used to say, "I love it when a plan comes together!"

So luckily for me, Wikipedia had a link to the city of Nanaimo's website which has the award winning recipe for nanaimo bars. Apparently in 1986, there was a "prepare the best nanaimo bars ever!" contest and Mrs. Joyce Hardcastle emerged the clear winner with her recipe, which is now the official nanaimo bar recipe. You can find it here. The basic idea is a ton of butter, cream, chocolate, and sugar. What could be better than that?!

I was 'helped' in today's adventure by my niece, Dot. Here she is wielding her spatula.

Shortly after this picture was taken, she put her foot into her mother's coffee mug and spilled coffee all over the place and then attempted to dive head first into the ingredients.

So, since the bars are made in layers, you obviously start with the bottom layer first. This calls for melting butter, sugar, and cocoa together in double boiler. I don't own a double boiler, I just make my own with a bowl placed over a pan of boiling water. This is effective, doesn't require any additional equipment, and I've found you can use either ceramic or metal bowls with the same result. When all was said and done, it looked like this:

While that was melting, I got out my food processor. The recipe called for 1/2 cup of finely chopped almonds. Kind of akin to my processing the heck out of the cottage cheese for the blintzes, I knew I'd have to be one step shy of almond butter to suit my sister, who does not like nuts. The food processor does a great job of pulverizing the little suckers. I put in 3/4 of a cup of slivered almonds and got back just over a half cup of chopped almonds.

At this point, the chocolate mixture had cooled just slightly and I was able to add the egg. I didn't want to put the egg directly into the hot chocolate mixture because I didn't want to have hot scrambled eggs in our bars. I did it just a little bit at a time and stirred the heck out of it between additions and it came out just fine.

Then I added in graham cracker crumbs, the almonds, and coconut. It made me think of an Almond Joy bar on steroids. I pressed the entire thing into an 8 inch round cake pan, since I couldn't find my 8 inch square pan anywhere.

That done, we turned our attention to layer two. This very easily called for beating together butter, heavy cream, vanilla custard powder (I used pudding mix, I couldn't find custard powder in my local store--but when Wegman's opens next week, I bet I'll be able to locate it!), and confectioner's sugar. I couldn't help it, I had to try just a bit of it, one little lick. I told my sister, "Those crazy Canadian bastards know their fillings!" and she took a taste and agreed. We decided to let Dot help us spread the filling over the crust.

She did a pretty good job, too!

That done, we turned our attention to layer three, using a double boiler again to melt together semi-sweet chocolate and butter. Dot got mad that we wouldn't let her near the hot stove, so we gave her a pan of her own and some water and a spoon to have fun with. I think she's a natural chef. (Please ignore my dirty floor--I'm thinking I'll be shamed into washing it in preparation for Evanovich Fest 2009, taking place this weekend.)

Once the chocolate melted together, we let it cool just a bit, enough not to liquify the butter and sugar layer and then I spread it over the top of the bars. It looked amazing. I could only imagine what it was going to taste like! But it'd have to wait for after the BBQ, so I put the bars in the fridge reluctantly and turned my attention back to Thailand.

Woman versus Grill in the epic battle for supremacy. Who will reign supreme!? I felt like I had it regulated pretty nicely, honestly, but then the burners on the sides went out when I turned them too low, so I had to restart the entire operation midway through the cooking process.


The recipe did give me the option for the coward's way out using the oven to bake it, but I GRILLED it. I am a GRILLER. I GRILL. You have no idea how proud of myself I was.

Thumbs up, hell yeah! The sky could possibly be the limit with my grilling capabilities, seriously.

So then we set the table and got down to business. I made a side of jasmine rice, about which the book says "A naturally aromatic, long grain white rice, jasmine rice is the staple of most Thai meals." Of course I made it in my rice cooker, which is pretty well hassle free and which I love. As long as I'm not making brown rice. Anyway, we set the table with rice, chicken, and I made some peas as well, and of course, the General's mashed potatoes. Then it was time to get down to business, so of course Leah and Dot both demanded food.

Consequently Lucas took the first bite. The General asked, "Honey, does the chicken have any sauce on it?" and before I could answer, we heard an indecent moan issue from the other end of the chicken before Lucas gulped out, "This chicken doesn't need sauce" and began gobbling it up! So I cut up the General's and he decided to take a crack at it, with my assurances that if he wanted sauce, we had some in the fridge. "Forget the sauce, honey," he said in total agreement with Lucas. I quickly cut up my chicken and stabbed a piece, sinking into culinary happiness with my first bite before regaining control of myself and taking my child back so my sister could enjoy what the rest of us were experiencing.

It was a QUIET meal for a bit as we all sunk our teeth into the chicken. How I grilled it so well, I do not know, but it was juicy and the marinade had really sunk in overnight. It was AMAZING chicken. God it was good. I'm only distressed that there is but one piece left, but guess what I'll be having for lunch tomorrow?!

Afterwards, we rested a bit while the kids finished their bottles and fell asleepish. Then I began to clear the table and we got talking about the joys of growing up near the Canadian border, which somehow led to Judy and I breaking into the Canadian national anthem, and then I was impressed to learn that my husband knew the words to it too! We finished off quite strong with, "O Canada we stand on guard for thee!" and then cheered while I dished out the bars.

This time, Judy took the ceremonial first bite and the first words out of her mouth were, "Holy shit!" She quickly took a swig of soda and then said, "This makes my soda taste bitter!" I didn't know if it was a good thing or a bad thing, wondering if maybe something went terribly wrong, so I took a bite, but the fact of it was just the absolute richness of all the ingredients combining into this amazing bite. It's one of those desserts that kind of makes you lose your will to live, in a good way if that makes any sense at all. The General tried it and gobbled it right up!

Lucas couldn't even finish his, and he has a real sweet tooth! The rest of us gamely soldiered on. I must say, I think I know why Mrs. Joyce Hardcastle won the nanaimo bars contest. These suckers were awesome!

Thus endeth two more recipes and two more countries, but this one was momentous, for it was our first country from North America! It was such a fun time, I enjoyed having Dot around for cooking even if she did make a mess. :-) Next up, we're going to try Vietnam on June 18th because Michael's sister is heading there that day! And our Axis of Evil dinner cometh! Details to follow!