Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Flavors of Asia Cooking Class

Mai Pham with her cooking assistant, shown
behind her cookbook and signature sauces

I joined the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op this year, after admiring from afar for a long time and even taking a few outstanding classes there in the past. (Like this one on Pie Making, and another on Raised Bed Gardening.)

This week I got to attend a cooking class on the Flavors of Asia taught by Mai Pham, an expert in Vietnamese and Thai cuisine. Mai teaches at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, owns many restaurants all over the country, has published a cookbook, makes her own line of sauces, and is a bit of a local celebrity. She has been on Martha Stewart and kicked off her class by showing us a segment she did on the Food Network to give us a feel for the cuisine of Southeast Asia.

Mai was very professional and pleasant, and even brought her 86-year-old, very spry-looking father to the class with her. Her grandmother, she confided, lived to be 105 years old and credited her longevity to a vegetarian diet and lots of coconut milk, which the Vietnamese associate with high immunity levels.

Mai also stressed the importance of moderation in all things, confessing that she has to work hard to keep balanced. For example, if she wants to eat ice cream for dessert, her family will eat a simple, light dinner such as stir-fried vegetables and brown rice before indulging.

Mai demonstrated and let us sample several dishes during the course of the class, as well as teaching some basic techniques like assembling and rolling salad rolls, and cutting herbs and vegetables gently to avoid bruising. She showed us how to make:

* Salad Rolls with Shrimp and Pork, with a Peanut Hoisin Sauce

* Yellow Curry with Tofu and Eggplant

* Singapore Noodles Topped with Stir-Fried Asian Greens

* Caramel Pork with Egg and Daikon

My favorite dishes were the Yellow Curry and Singapore Noodles, but I enjoyed them all. Before heading home, I hopped around the corner to the Co-Op to pick up a jar of Lemongrass Kitchen brand Yellow Curry Sauce, a concentrated base which makes 3-4 batches of curry. I can't wait to try my hand at this at home!

Here is Mai Pham's recipe for the Yellow Curry with Tofu and Eggplant. It's crazy good; I've never liked a vegetarian curry so much! It also taught me one thing I've done wrong in the past - adding raw vegetables to my curry has added too much water and diluted the flavor, so that I never felt that my curries at home matched up with the restaurant versions. Blanching the vegetables ahead of time solves this problem. Also, she explained that frying the tofu ahead of time so that it gets a "skin" allows it to absorb sauces better. This recipe would be perfect for summertime, when eggplant, tomatoes, green beans and zucchini are all in season.

1/4 c. Lemongrass Kitchen Thai Yellow Curry Sauce
1.5 c. coconut milk
1/2 lb. firm tofu, pan-seared or lightly fried, cut into 2/3x2"x1/12" pieces
2 c. eggplant, Japanese preferably, halved lengthwise then cut into 1/2 " half moon pieces
3 Roma tomatoes, cut into 8 wedges
1/2 c. green beans, 1" lengths, blanched
1/2 c. zucchini, bite sized pieces, blanched
2 tsp. Thai chilies, cut on the diagonal into thin slices (optional)
1/2 c. frozen peas
10 Thai basil leaves (optional)

1. In a saucepan, combine LGK Thai Curry Sauce Concentrate with coconut milk and cook over medium heat until mixture comes to a low boil.
2. Add tofu, eggplant and tomatoes and cook for 5 minutes.
3. Add remaining ingredients and simmer until all vegetables start to soften, another 2-3 minutes.


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