Publishers love to send us cookbooks here at Fork in the Road, and often those books come straight from the chefs at some of New York’s best restaurants. So we decided to share the love, and each week, we’ll feature a new book, a recipe, and a few thoughts on cooking from the authors. Check back every Tuesday for a new book.
By Andy Ricker, 304 pages, Ten Speed Press, $35
Andy Ricker remembers well the moment everything changed for him: “It was like seeing a entirely new color,” he writes in the introduction of his new cookbook, released late last year. This “new color” came in the form of het thwap, a bitter variety of Thai puffball mushroom he came across floating in a bowl of soup in Thailand years ago. It, he writes, “was nothing like anything I had eaten before. It was unbelievably good.” Ricker had been enamored with Thailand for some time before this mushroom, but afterward, he nurtured a relationship with that country and a love affair with its cuisine that he would eventually bring to America.
Ricker opened the first Pok Pok takeout shack in Portland, Oregon, in 2005, where he found a ready following; since arriving in Brooklyn, he’s had lines out the door, so much so that he opened the Whiskey Soda Lounge, another Portland offshoot, next door to accommodate the waiting masses. Ricker’s Thailand was a revelation, on the front end of a wave of Isaan restaurants that has flooded the city in recent years.
In his new book, Ricker shares all he’s learned with little editorializing. His author’s introduction is but a few short pages. After that, the book focuses on the food. Ricker breaks down Thai ingredients, special equipment (you’ll need a mortar and pestle), and technique — from the most basic to the highly specialized.
Ricker was in Thailand when we called for an interview, but he answered our questions over email. And while he kept it brief, he touches on the virtues of Thai sticky rice, using what’s available, and like so many other chefs we’ve spoken with, on the importance of trying again. To hear more from Ricker, check Laura Shunk’s 2013 interview with the chef.
What is the oldest (oldest in history, or oldest to you, whatever) recipe in your book and where did you come from, specifically?
That would have to be the recipe for sticky rice. It has been a staple of [Thailand’s] Northern and Northeastern regions for more than a thousand years. It’s more of a technique than a recipe, and it is something I learned probably 20 years ago, I cannot remember exactly.
If you could give one piece of cooking advice to home cooks, what would it be?
If a recipe doesn’t work for you the first time, try again. And again. Often we humans make mistakes, and even small mistakes (in reading, timing, measuring, heat levels, etc.) can make a big difference in the outcome of a recipe.
Last year in NYC, we saw a spate of new Isaan places and more nuanced takes on Thai cookery. What developments in American Thai cooking would you like to see in the years to come?
I’d like to see more specialized vendors, [or see] folks who concentrate on a particular type of food or dish from the Thai culinary canon…Thai curry shop anyone?
What is one essential recipe that’s been a hit at Pok Pok, that is also reasonably easy/doable for home cooks?
I’ve been telling folks to start with jasmine rice and yam khai dao (egg salad), because both are easy to make and very satisfying. Start with that, and hopefully that’ll encourage people to dig a little deeper.
How do you adapt Thai cooking, or food generally, from a tropical climate, to the intense seasonality of North American produce?
Easy! Use what’s available. Luckily most everything in this book is pretty gettable at a well-stocked Southeast Asian market.
What is your favorite winter seasonal ingredient and one recipe you like to use it in?
Brussels sprouts. [Use them in the] phat khanaeng.
Phat Khanaeng (Stir-fried Brussels sprouts)
Serves 2 to 6 as part of a meal
• A Thai granite mortar and pestle
• A wok and wok spatula
A visit to a Thai market will always remind you how much you don’t know. At Chiang Mai’s vast wholesale emporium Talaat Meuang Mai, for instance, you’ll pass vendor after vendor exhibiting piles of green things — feathery flora and serpentine stalks, wide blades of what looks like grass, and pudgy-stemmed Chinese-broccoli doppelgangers. There are sundry leaves — some spindly and bitter, some succulent and tart, some strangely sweet — and other plants, plucked from overgrown patches by the side of the road, foraged from forests, or harvested from farm fields.
Some day I’m going to stop inquiring about them. For years, I’ve asked friends, restaurant owners, and vendors at local markets to identify every novelty I’ve come across. And instead of a simple name, I get one of three answers. “That?” I’ll hear in Thai. “You eat it raw along with laap,” the minced meat, blood-spiked Northern staple (page 106). Or you eat it steamed along with naam phrik, the diverse category of chile-based relishes. Or you eat it stirfried with oyster sauce. So I still don’t know the names of most of these alien vegetables. I’m not sure they even have names.
Once in a while, though, you’ll be surprised by what you do recognize. During a trip to Phrae, an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai, I went to a restaurant and asked what vegetables they offered for a simple stir-fry. “Very local vegetable,” said my waiter. “Then that’s what I want,” I said. Minutes later, out came a plate of fiddlehead ferns. Turns out that the furled young ferns that overflow crates in springtime markets in Portland, Oregon, and elsewhere throughout the US, also pop up in Northern Thailand.
Another favorite vegetable common in stir-fries is khanaeng, which looks like a cross between a Brussels sprout and bok choy. You can’t find it in the US, so at Pok Pok I sub regular old Brussels sprouts, which turn out great, and I call for them here. Of course, as my fruitless inquiries suggest, you can apply this method of cooking and saucing (a Chinese-Thai merging of oyster sauce and fish sauce) to almost any vegetable to delicious effect. Briefly blanched (I subscribe to the theory of deep-water blanching, so use a pasta pot full of water for a pound of vegetables), broccoli, green beans, cauliflower, or a mix of several types all work well.
10 ounces Brussels sprouts, bottoms trimmed, outer leaves removed, halved
lengthwise (about 2 cups)
2 tablespoons Thai oyster sauce
1 teaspoon Thai fish sauce
1 teaspoon Thai thin soy sauce
Small pinch ground white pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
11 grams peeled garlic cloves, halved lengthwise and lightly crushed into small pieces in a mortar (about 1 tablespoon)
6 grams fresh Thai chiles (about 4), preferably red, thinly sliced
1/4 cup Sup Kraduuk Muu (Pork stock), page 268, or water
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
BRIEFLY COOK THE BRUSSELS SPROUTS:
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and add enough salt to make it taste slightly salty. Add the Brussels sprouts and cook just until they’re no longer raw but still crunchy, 30 seconds to 1 minute, depending on their size. Drain them well. If you’re not stir-frying them right away, shock them in ice water.
STIR-FRY AND SERVE THE DISH:
Combine the oyster sauce, fish sauce, soy sauce, and white pepper in a small bowl and stir well. Heat a wok over very high heat, add the oil, and swirl it in the wok to coat the sides. When it begins to smoke lightly, add the garlic, take the wok off the heat, and let the garlic sizzle, stirring often, until it’s fragrant but not colored, about 15 seconds.
Put the wok back on the heat, and add the Brussels sprouts and chiles. Stir-fry (constantly stirring, scooping, and flipping the ingredients) for 30 seconds to infuse the sprouts with the garlic flavor. Add the oyster sauce mixture (plus a splash of water, if necessary, to make sure nothing’s left behind in the bowl), and stir-fry until the Brussels sprouts are tender but still crunchy and the liquid in the pan has almost completely evaporated, about 45 seconds. Add the stock, then add the sugar and stir-fry until the Brussels sprouts are tender with a slight crunch and the sauce has thickened slightly but is still very liquidy, about 30 seconds. Transfer the vegetables and sauce to a plate in a low mound, and serve.
(Recipe Reprinted with permission from Pok Pok by Andy Ricker with J.J. Goode, copyright © 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.)