Ingredients for Thai food recipes with Chef Heidi Fink. Don Denton photography

Thai food flavours and recipes from Chef Heidi Fink

Salty, sour, sweet and spicy infuse these recipes with the taste of Thailand

  • Oct. 2, 2018 9:30 a.m.

– Story and recipes by Chef Heidi Fink

Story courtesy of Boulevard Magazine, a Black Press Media publication

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Summer: the season of farm markets, roadside stands, and an abundance of fresh produce.

When we buy local vegetables, we often don’t think of putting any kind of spin on them. They are so delicious on their own, they often need no enhancement. But if you’re like me, and you buy way too much produce at the farm market every week, you want to do something more with your vegetables than simply steam or grill them.

Enter Thai aromatics. They are a dream match for summer meals: spicy, bright, citrusy, fragrant, and refreshing in a way that perfectly enhances sunny days and warm summer evenings. At a time when we are craving lightness and freshness in our food, Thai ingredients help us to achieve that with a minimum of effort.

The light, lemony flavour of lemongrass, the heat of Thai chilies, the pine-like aroma of galangal, the freshness of lime and cilantro — these are a few of the ingredients that can be used in summer-fresh, Thai-inspired recipes. The hurdle for most of us is in learning how to properly use them.

Thai aromatics are widely available but can be intimidating to use for the average cook. What follows is a quick overview of how to use some basic Thai ingredients, as well as a collection of delicious and relatively simple recipes to try, with a focus on using locally grown vegetables.

Let the heat and flavour of Thailand inspire your cooking this summer.

A PRIMER ON THAI INGREDIENTS

NOTE: Lemongrass, galangal, lime leaves, and Thai chilies can all be frozen for up to 6 months, and keep their flavour and aroma beautifully.

Lemongrass: To get the most from this fragrant, lemony grass, use only the “belly” — the fat two inches at the bottom of the stem (measured after you have cut off the tough root). Bruise the lemongrass belly with a heavy can or pot before using it in a recipe.

Galangal: A rhizome not to be confused with ginger, galangal has a wonderful, aromatic, pine-like fragrance, for which there is no substitute. No need to peel before slicing or chopping.

Makrut (kefir) lime leaf: Very aromatic, with an irreplaceable flowery taste and smell, makrut lime leaves are roughly sliced and used to flavour soups, sauces and coconut curries. Remove like a bay leaf afterwards.

Thai chilies: Very spicy! Careful when handling them, use latex gloves as necessary.

Shallot: The main cooking onion in South East Asia: accept no substitutes.

Coconut: Coconut milk gives Thai curries their sweet creaminess, and is also used in marinades, soups and desserts. The richest and best coconut milk is solid at room temperature and won’t move around when you shake the can.

Fish sauce: An amber-coloured liquid that smells horrible but tastes divine, fish sauce is the main source of salt in Thai food. Don’t skimp on this; it often makes the dish!

Palm sugar: This unrefined sugar has a mild pineapple fragrance and delicate sweetness. Smash with a mallet or hammer to crumble before using in recipes.

Tamarind: Fruity, sour and slightly sweet (think sour cherry), this is used as a souring agent in Masuman Curry and Pad Thai. This must be soaked in boiling water and pushed through a strainer before using.

Thai basil: Prized for its strong anise aroma and slightly peppery finish, Thai basil is stirred into soups and curries near the end of cooking.

Fresh lime: Used to add a refreshing sourness to many Thai dishes.

Chili paste: Several varieties are widely available to choose from. Choose the one you like best and put in only as much as you like.

Cilantro: It’s either love it or hate it with this powerfully aromatic and refreshing herb. Use liberally in salads, soups, noodles dishes, and vegetable bowls.

LEMONGRASS-INFUSED SYRUP

Makes about 2 cups

This simple syrup can be used to make a variety of delicious drinks. Mix with 2 cups freshly squeezed lemon and/or lime juice for a lemongrass lemonade, or use as a fabulous drinks mixer.

2 cups water

1 cup sugar

4 stalks lemongrass

To get the most from lemongrass, use only the fat two or three inches at the bottom of the stem. Use the rest for your bath or compost. Cut the prepared lemongrass into several chunks, and bruise them with a heavy pot.

Combine the sugar, water and prepared lemongrass in a small pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 10 to 12 minutes, until very fragrant. Pour syrup through a strainer suspended over a bowl, catching all of the syrup and discarding the lemongrass. Allow to cool and then transfer to a jar and store in the fridge for up to two weeks.

Thai hot and sour pickled vegetables. Don Denton photography

THAI HOT AND SOUR PICKLED VEGETABLES

Makes about 5 cups

This spicy, citrusy, mouth-tingling pickle is both beautiful and delicious. Add these quick-pickled vegetables to any summer meal to add visual appeal, flavour and crunch. Avoid green vegetables — they will turn an unappetizing shade of olive drab after a few minutes.

I love to serve these with grilled satay and steamed rice for a light, refreshing summer meal.

¾ cup unseasoned rice vinegar

4.5 Tbsp sugar

1 carrot, peeled and cut into fine julienne (matchsticks)

1 shallot, peeled, quartered and sliced thinly crosswise

Half of a Long English cucumber cut in half lengthwise, seeded and sliced thinly crosswise

6 red or purple radishes, thinly sliced

Sliced fennel, quartered lengthwise, cored and sliced thinly

2 red Thai chilies, seeded and sliced thinly crosswise

4 Tbsp minced cilantro

Grated zest and juice of 2 limes

In a small pot, mix together the rice vinegar, sugar and prepared carrot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 2 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.

Mix remaining ingredients in a bowl and pour on the vinegar mixture. Let sit about 30 minutes before serving. Serve as an accompaniment to any Thai-inspired meal.

Spicy Thai style noodles with mint and lime. Don Denton photography

SPICY THAI-STYLE NOODLES WITH MINT & LIME

Serves 2 as a meal, up to 8 as an appetizer

Recipe doubles easily.

These flavour-packed noodles can be made with ingredients found only in the supermarket, yet they maintain an authentic Thai taste. Make sure to measure and chop all the ingredients before you start to cook. This recipe comes together very quickly once the cooking time starts.

4 oz dried rice stick noodles, size medium (about ¼ of a noodle package)

3 Tbsp fish sauce

1 Tbsp water

2 tsp Thai roasted red chili paste (naam prik pao) OR hoisin sauce

4 Tbsp palm sugar, or light brown sugar

1 Tbsp sambal oelek

Finely grated zest of 1 lime

2 Tbsp vegetable oil

½ lb peeled prawns (try local spot prawns!)

3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2 scallions (green onions), sliced thinly on the diagonal

1 small-medium carrot, peeled, halved lengthwise and sliced thinly on the diagonal

½ red bell pepper, seeded, halved and sliced thin

¾ cup snow peas, each pod sliced in half lengthwise

2 cups fresh bean sprouts, rinsed and drained well

¼ cup chopped roasted unsalted peanuts

½ cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro

½ cup chopped fresh mint

4 Tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice

Soak the rice noodles in hot tap water for 20 to 30 minutes until pliable but not mushy. It is better to under-soak, rather than over-soak the noodles. Drain and set aside.

In a small pot, combine the fish sauce, water, roasted red chili paste and palm sugar. Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the palm sugar dissolves, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in the sambal oelek and lime zest, and set aside.

Make sure that you have all your ingredients prepped and ready to go before you start cooking. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add ½ Tbsp of oil and swirl to coat bottom of pan. Add the prawns and sauté briefly until they just start to turn colour, but are not fully cooked. Transfer prawns to a plate, add the remaining oil to the pan and heat again. Add the garlic, stir once, and immediately add the scallions, carrots, red pepper and snow peas. Stir-fry for about 3 minutes, until vegetables are softened a bit and garlic is fragrant.

Add the sauce ingredients, bring to a boil and then stir in the noodles. Cook for 3 minutes, stirring and tossing constantly with tongs or two wooden spoons, until noodles are tender. If pan gets too dry, add up to one quarter cup of water and continue cooking until noodles are tender and silky.

Add the prawns and 1.5 cups of the bean sprouts and cook a minute and a half more, until sprouts are starting to get limp and prawns are cooked through. Transfer to a serving platter and sprinkle with the peanuts and herbs. Drizzle on the 4 tablespoons for fresh lime juice, trying to cover the noodles evenly. Garnish with the remaining half cup of bean sprouts and serve immediately. The noodles can also be refrigerated and eaten the next day as a cool salad.

COCONUT LEMONGRASS BOWL WITH MARKET VEGETABLES

Serves 6 to 8

The infusion of lemongrass and other aromatics into this coconut sauce makes for an extra delicious vegetarian bowl.

1 can coconut milk

1 Tbsp vegetable oil

3 stalks lemongrass, trimmed, cut into ½-inch slices and bruised

4 slices galangal or ginger, bruised

2 Tbsp red or yellow curry paste (try Maesri brand from Chinatown)

2 cloves garlic, chopped fine

½ cup mild vegetable or chicken broth

5 to 6 cups fresh sliced market vegetables (bok choi, kale, baby carrots, snow peas, bell peppers, eggplant, kohlrabi, zucchini, green beans, okra, etc.)

3 Tbsp fish sauce

4 lime leaves, ripped

1 Tbsp palm sugar or light brown sugar

¼ to ⅓ cup chopped fresh Thai basil

Optional: a squeeze of fresh lime juice

Garnishes: Cilantro leaves, Thai basil leaves, fried shallots, fresh bean sprouts, roasted peanuts, and/or sliced fresh Thai chilies

Open the can of coconut milk. It should have separated into a thick spoon-able coconut “cream” at the top of the can and a thinner, coconut water underneath. Scoop about 2 tablespoons of the thick cream into a small bowl and set aside.

Heat a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the oil and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. When the oil is hot, add the prepared lemongrass and galangal. Sauté, stirring constantly, for 30 seconds to a minute, until fragrant, then add the curry paste and prepared garlic, and sauté 30 seconds more. Now add the 2 tablespoons of thick coconut cream. Cook, stirring, until the oil separates from the coconut milk and most of the liquid has evaporated, for 30 to 60 seconds. The curry paste should smell fragrant, but not burnt. Add the broth and the remaining coconut milk and bring to a simmer. Simmer gently for 8 to 10 minutes until fragrant.

Strain the coconut milk mixture through a fine sieve suspended over a bowl. Discard the solids and return the liquid to the saucepan. Stir in vegetables, fish sauce and sliced lime leaves. Bring mixture to a boil, stirring, then reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer 6 to 8 minutes, until vegetables are crisp-tender. Stir in sugar, basil and optional lime juice and remove from heat. Stir well to combine everything. Serve immediately, on top of steamed jasmine rice or cooked rice vermicelli noodles, with any or all of the garnishes.

Sliced mango and strawberry on sweet coconut rice. Don Denton photography

SWEET COCONUT STICKY RICE WITH SEASONAL FRUIT

Serves 6 to 8

A favourite dessert — light, delicious and unusual. The warm coconut rice plays deliciously against the sweet-tart fresh fruit.

1½ cups Thai Sweet Rice

1 400 mL can good quality coconut milk (not “light”)

1¼ disks palm sugar, or ½ cup white or light brown sugar

½ tsp salt

4 cups of sliced seasonal fruit: try mangoes, strawberries, golden kiwi, nectarines, peaches, blueberries, grapes.

Place the rice in a bowl and cover with cold water. Swish with your hands to rinse the extra starch off the rice. Drain well. Place the rinsed rice back in the bowl and cover with fresh cold water.

Soak for at least 4 hours at room temperature or, refrigerated, overnight. If you are in a hurry, you can soak it in warm tap water for 2 hours. Drain rice.

Line the bottom of a bamboo steamer or collapsible metal steamer with several layers of cheesecloth. Place the rice in the steamer, spreading it out to an even thickness.

Place the steamer in a wok or flat saucepan that has 2 inches of water in the bottom. The water should not be high enough to touch the rice. Place the pan on a burner and turn to high. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to medium or medium-high to maintain a steady flow of steam.

Steam the rice 35 to 45 minutes, adding water to the pan as needed to prevent it from drying out. The rice is cooked when it swells, turns clear and shiny, and is sticky enough to be squeezed into clumps.

While the rice is steaming, open the can of coconut milk. Empty contents into a small saucepan. Add the salt and the palm sugar. Cook, stirring, over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and set aside.

Once the rice is cooked, remove it from the steamer and dump it into a large bowl, peeling off the cheesecloth as you do so. Pour the coconut mixture over it and stir to combine. Cover the rice and set aside until liquid is absorbed, about 40 minutes.

Spread the warm, sweetened rice on a serving platter and smooth the top. Let cool to room temperature. Cover the entire surface of the rice with prepared fruit. Serve immediately, making sure every person gets an equal portion of fruit and sweet rice.

See more recipes from Chef Heidi Fink here.

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