Thursday, July 3, 2008

Beat The Heat The Southeast Asian Way

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With hot, summer weather coming our way, it's hard to muster up the desire to slave away in front of a hot stove and a stuffy kitchen just to get dinner on the table, even if I usually don't mind being in front of a hot stove. But sometimes, when you really can't beat the heat, you just have to find an alternative.

I made a Southeast Asian dinner the other evening, which is perfect to enjoy on a hot summer's day. The refreshing Vietnamese Fresh Spring Rolls, made by rolling up fresh vegetables and protein of your choice (if desired) in rice paper is so simple to make, super healthy and easy to go down on a hot day in lieu of greasy hamburgers. Actually, if you're having a backyard summer party, it would be a great idea to set up your own make-your-own bar, laying out various vegetables (julienned cucumbers, carrots, lettuce leaves, etc.), protein (shrimp, cooked chicken, pork, or beef, etc.), rice vermicelli and plenty of fresh herbs (I love to use cilantro, Thai basil and mint) for your guests to choose from. Make a simple dipping sauce from Thai fish sauce, minced garlic, rice vinegar, sugar, and lime juice and you're all set!

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Refreshing and cooling sides like salads are also great. I made two different, easy to assemble salads, both of which are Thai: Som Tam (Green Papaya Salad) and Ahjaad, cucumbers pickled in vinegar and sugar with sliced shallots and chili peppers. Both salads are delicious and make a great accompaniment to satay, skewers of grilled meat (we did chicken and pork) marinated with fragrant spices and often than not, served alongside a peanut dipping sauce. This is a great alternative to your normal backyard barbequeing with a Southeast Asian twist. If using wooden skewers, be sure to soak them at least a few hours in cold water to ensure that they don't burn when on the grill. And if you don't want to have your hands smelling like garlic, shallots and spices for more than a day, it might be wise to wear gloves when you're skewering the meat onto the skewers.

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Malaysian Satay
Adapted from this recipe
Serves 4

1 lb meat (chicken, beef or pork)
2 cloves garlic
1 cup shallots
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 ¼-inch piece turmeric root (or 1 tsp ground turmeric)
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp palm sugar (or brown sugar)
¼ cup evaporated milk
1 tbsp cooking oil
Bamboo or wooden skewers, soaked in water

Cut meat into small thin pieces.

Grind together shallots, garlic, coriander seeds, cumin seeds and turmeric in a food processor until very fine. Combine ground spices with salt and sugar. Season meat with the ground spices and let marinate overnight.

Skewer the meat onto the soaked bamboo sticks; don’t overcrowd. Grill satay sticks over a charcoal fire, basting occasionally with evaporated milk combined with oil, until cooked through, about 5 to 6 minutes per side. (For a brush, try using the head of a lemongrass, smashed and flattened to resemble a brush.) Serve with peanut dipping sauce.

Note: I skipped the step about brushing the meat with the evaporated milk, but it'll help to keep your meat from drying out on the grill.

Peanut Dipping Sauce
Adapted from Rasa Malaysia
Makes about 2 cups

1 ½ cup dry roasted peanuts (unsalted)
1 cup water
1 tbsp sweet soy sauce (Kecap Manis)
1 ½ tbsp palm sugar (use brown sugar or cane sugar if palm sugar is unavailable)
1/8 tsp salt
¼ cup oil
1 heaping tbsp tamarind pulp (soaked in ¼ cup water for 15 minutes, squeeze the tamarind pulp for juice and discard the pulp)

For the spice paste:
6-8 dried red chilies (seeded and soaked in warm water)
3 cloves garlic
3 shallots
2 lemongrass (white parts only)
1 1-inch piece galangal (substitute ginger if galangal is unavailable)
1 tbsp coriander powder (optional)

Crush the peanuts coarsely with mortar and pestle or in a food processor and set aside.

Chop the spice paste ingredients and blend until fine using a food processor. Heat oil and fry the spice paste until aromatic and smells spicy. Add the chopped peanuts, tamarind juice, water, sugar, sweet soy sauce and stir thoroughly. Simmer on low heat while continuing to stir for about 3 minutes until the peanut sauce turns smooth. Serve at room temperature with the satay.

**Note: I found the original recipe to be a bit chunky for my liking, since I prefer to a peanut sauce that's actually a bit more smooth and actually "dippable." To fix this problem, I simply placed about 1/2 cup of the peanut sauce into a blender along with 1 tablespoon of peanut butter and a drizzle of honey for some extra sweetness. Add a bit of hot water and puree. Remember, don't add too much water initially; you don't want your sauce to be soupy. It's better to add the water a little at a time until you reach a consistency you're happy with. I like mine to be smoothed out but still with a few bits of peanuts left here and there for texture. The addition of the peanut butter really helps enhance the peanut flavour of the sauce without taking anything away from the other spices, while the honey helps to balance everything out.


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