When I lived in Anaheim in 1998-9, my favorite place to get lunch was Royal Orchid Thai in Orange. I went about twice a week, often enough that before long I didn't have to order — I'd just sit down and my food would be placed before me: first a salad, and then a plate of vegetable panang. This wasn't actually on the menu. At first I had to specially request it. A couple of times the propreitor shuffled out to gape at me. "You really want this with just the vegetables? You don't eat meat at all? Ever?" He was astounded. Which struck me as odd, because I'd heard that vegetarianism was common in Thailand.
Then later I found out that in Thailand, "vegetarian" means "no hunks of flesh," but that stuff like fish sauce and shrimp paste somehow qualify. (As Grant Morrison's Beak might say, "Okay, maybe a herring is the wrong fruit to pick...") It was bad enough when I discovered that the Chinese restaurant I went to put chicken stock in the "vegetarian lo mein," but this was a real blow — so much for my favorite lunch spot. The only Thai place I've found since then that'd serve me food without animals in it was Araya's in Seattle, and though I've heard there's a similar place in Montreal, an international drive seems like a bit much for some curry. So I was very pleased to find Real Vegetarian Thai, a cookbook by Nancie McDermott that suggested I might be able to stay home and make this stuff myself.
And I can, though the cookbook was only a starting point; really, at this point I only use the curry paste recipes buried in the back. (Come to think of it, at this point I only use the red curry paste recipe. The green's kind of enh.) Actually making the curry doesn't lend itself to recipes very well, though. There's a balance of coconut milk, curry paste, salt and soy sauce, sugar (the book suggests brown sugar if you don't want to deal with rocklike palm sugar, but I tried it and it was terrible; now I use turbinado and it's great) and lime juice (not mentioned in the cookbook at all, but vital) that you really have to go by taste to achieve — keep adding small quantities to the wok until you have something tasty. Then there's the matter of what exactly to put in the curry; the book has a handful of suggestions, but I started improvising pretty much immediately. Of course, the problem is that if you're going to just toss stuff into the bubbling curry and let it simmer until done, you need to know what to add when, which entails some trial and error. Last night, for instance, I decided on sweet potatoes, haricots verts and baby corn, but I underestimated the amount of time it'd take the beans to cook so they were still slightly crunchy when the potatoes and corn were too tender to keep cooking.
As for non-curry items: I've tried some, such as the paht thai and Thai omelet, but for the most part it's pretty unappealing: bean sprouts in a sauce, bamboo shoot salad, clear tofu soup, that sort of thing. I actually don't like East Asian food much. I love Italian, Mexican, Indian... Ethiopian, Afghan... but Chinese doesn't do much for me. There were a couple of dishes I liked at Red Hot in Brooklyn, but I'm suddenly realizing that I haven't had a Chinese meal since I left New York City. And Japan, Korea and Vietnam are total writeoffs for me: can't eat sushi, can't eat pho, don't want to eat kimchi. The Thai curries I like take what's essentially Indian food and introduce just enough of a touch of East Asia to make it deliciously different; the rest of Real Vegetarian Thai, I'm afraid, I use only to keep the red curry paste recipe from blowing away.
I've also been working through a slim cookbook called Macaroni & Cheese with 52 recipes for making, shockingly enough, macaroni and cheese (or, as our friends north of the border call it, "dinner.") Why'd I get it? Because Pasta & Company in Seattle had this frozen macaroni and cheese that was really great, but I have no idea what cheeses or spices they used and have been trying to come up with an approximation for years. I thought I might find something similar in here. I haven't, but there've been some good ones: gruyere and Montgomery cheddar with toasted cornbread crumbs is great, and there's also a creamy rendition with poblano chiles I quite liked. (The recipes get pretty wild toward the back: one calls for prosciutto, artichoke hearts and portabellos, and many include truffle oil.) But after making about a dozen of these in the space of a couple months I'm really sick of macaroni and cheese, so the search must go on hiatus for a while.
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