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mindless musings of a semi-creative guy

Tasty Tuesday – ปลาเผา

After featuring Western food for the last few weeks, I figured it high time we get back to some Thai food.  Agreed?

This week, I want to introduce you to something I probably never would have ordered on my own here in Thailand (or anywhere else in the world, for that matter).  You see, coming from Midwest America, I wasn’t exposed to very much seafood growing up.  Sure, I knew what shrimp were, and I can remember one time my mom even made mustard-crusted halibut and seared scallops as a special treat.  Outside of that, canned tuna, and perhaps 3 lifetime total trips to Red Lobster, though, we just didn’t have it around.

So, what was it like, then, coming to a nation where seafood seems to be a staple in everyday cuisine?  Interesting. But, seeing as I am not one to turn down something that my host has offered, I will always try (just about) everything at least once.  And, this particular meal is one thing I am glad I tried!

Plaa Phao, or ปลาเผา, is about as simple as you can get for Thai food.  Aside from plain steamed rice, of course.  All you need is a large, flat fish (tilapia or Thai sea bass are the favorite choice around here), lemongrass, lime leaves, and coarse salt – lots and lots of coarse salt.

Check it out –

The photo above comes from a birthday dinner we attended at a neighbor’s house last week.  They are actually the ones who first introduced me to this delicious form of food.  It seems to be a favorite in their family, so every time we’ve gotten together for a barbecue, I get excited knowing that we’ll probably be eating this along with whatever else they decide to make.

So, what is it?

As I mentioned above, the fish of choice is tilapia or sea bass, but you can also find snakehead fish prepared in this same way out in street markets.  All you need to do is gut the fish, then stuff it with several stalks of lemongrass and a handful of lime leaves.  Seal the fish back up, roll it in a generous amount of coarse salt, give it a few slashes of the knife, and roast it over some charcoal.

Now, I can already hear some of you questioning the saltiness of this dish, considering the amount of white you see being charred in the photo above.  However, it really doesn’t affect the flavor of the fish at all.  The thick salty crust actually serves a different purpose – as it is used only on the outside of the fish’s skin, it actually works to seal in moisture, keeping the flesh inside tender and flaky (seriously, you don’t really even need to chew it, it’s that tender), and it makes the skin peel off effortlessly when it comes time to eat.

Surprisingly, it’s not “fishy” tasting at all.  Just light, flaky, tender, and good.  (And this is coming from someone who, since being pregnant, thinks that the fishy flavor of shrimp of any variety is way too intense and absolutely repulsive – if that helps give you any sort of comparison.)  When served, the fish is usually just placed on a large plate or suitable platter, with the skin on one side peeled or rolled upward from the tail end.  All you need to do is flake off a piece with your fork and go for it.  When one side is cleaned of meat, just grab the tail and lift upward toward the head to remove the spine, and continue eating what lies beneath.

So easy, so simple, and so delicious.  This particular type of fish can be eaten plain, as-is, or with a number of different sauces.  The most interesting, however, is the manner in which our hosts decided to eat it last week.  They seemed to make a sort of wrap out of one ruffled lettuce leaf, a few leaves of fresh Thai basil and cilantro (coriander), a pinch of super-skinny cold rice noodles, a forkful of fish, and one spoon of a sweet-spicy-tangy-citrusy vinegar sauce.  The whole thing then gets wrapped up in a ball and popped right in your mouth!  It’s such a great combination of typical Thai tastes in one neat little package.

So, once again, if any of you ever happen to find yourself on this side of the globe – this is yet another meal I will take you to eat.

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March 29, 2011 Posted by | Food, Tasty Tuesdays, Thailand | 1 Comment

Tasty Tuesdays – Hot Sandwich Braid

Raise your hand if you like sandwiches.  *Me!*  Now, keep them up if you like, hot, melty, delicious sandwiches from the oven.  *Oooooh, pick me!*

Sandwiches are often a quick, convenient, and familiar (which, when living overseas, is comforting) food.  They can be cold, pressed, grilled, open-faced, stacked, baked, stuffed… the possibilities are endless.  They come in all different forms, with all different breads and fillings, but the basic elements are always the same – bread on the outside, delicious other stuff on the inside.

I first made this recipe a while ago, not long after getting married and starting my first full-time job at an elementary school in Indiana.  It was time for my first work carry-in (or potluck), and I wanted to bring something everyone would like, wasn’t too hard to do, and didn’t cost a lot to make.  I wanted whatever it was to be homemade and delicious – after all, I was trying to make a good first impression!

Mmmmm... Fresh out of the oven goodness.

Well, after bringing this in, I got requests to make it again for most events after that for 3 years (and, if you know the staff I was a part of, then you already know how much everybody loves an excuse to have them during the year!).  It’s simple, delicious, versatile, takes just over an hour from start to your plate, and looks beautifully impressive (though, my pictures today aren’t so lovely, as I ran out of daylight and had to rely solely on our fluorescent ceiling lamps – blargh).  The dough is super easy to work with as well.  That makes this a definite winner in my book!

This recipe comes straight from a Taste of Home leaflet I got inside another magazine almost 5 years ago.  I’ve added a few notes in blue, as well as a few other tips at the end.  Try it out, and enjoy!

Ham & Swiss Braid
Makes one large loaf, about the length of a cookie sheet.

  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 packages (1/4 ounce each) quick-rise yeast
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/4 cup Dijon mustard (I like to use French’s spicy brown)
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 pound thinly sliced deli ham (smoked, honey, & pepper all work great!)
  • 1 cup (4 ounces) shredded Swiss cheese
  • 1/2 cup chopped dill pickles (totally optional – I’ve never used them, as not everybody likes hot pickles)
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten

Directions:

  • In a bowl, combine 3 cups flour, sugar, yeast and salt.  In a small saucepan, heat water, mustard and butter to 120°-130°.  Add to flour mixture.  Stir in enough remaining flour to form a soft dough (dough will be slightly stiff).  Turn onto a lightly floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic, about 6-8 minutes.
  • Roll dough into a 14″ x 12″ rectangle on a greased baking sheet.  (I just line my sheet with parchment paper and don’t bother with the greasing.  Easy cleanup!) Arrange half of the ham over dough. Top with cheese, pickles and remaining ham.

I ran out of ham - so, I did not put another layer on top of the cheese this time.

  • On each long side, cut 3/4″ wide strips about 2-1/2″ into center.  Starting at one end, fold alternating strips at an angle across filling.  Pinch ends to seal.  Cover and let rise for 15 minutes.
  • Brush with egg.  (Add toppings – see notes below.) Bake at 375° for 30-35 minutes or until golden brown.  Serve warm.

It starts out like this ^, and ends up like this! ^

Other notes and tips –

  • You can also use many other filling combinations for this braid – just be sure that whatever you choose fill it with, will go with the slight mustard flavor of the dough.  Previous braids that I have made have included: ham & swiss; ham & cheddar; roast beef & cheddar; roast beef & provolone; turkey & swiss; turkey & cheddar; turkey, honey ham, & smoked provolone.  I also think pastrami would be amazing, though I have yet to try that one out – can’t find it over here!
  • If you make one large loaf, as the recipe specifies, the bread will be a nice fluffy, thick texture.  However, I have made this recipe before, dividing the batch of dough in half, and rolling it to almost the same size, though thinner.  That way, I could get 2 braids, with separate fillings, out of one batch – and, it wouldn’t be as bready.  It’s good both ways, just depends on how much bread you enjoy!  Just try it out each way, and see which one YOU like best.
  • By adding other toppings, such as parsley, other dried herbs, sesame or poppy seeds, shredded Asiago or Parmesan to the top of your braid (after brushing with egg), you can add a little extra flair, as well as help others distinguish which braids are filled with what.  For example, top the roast beef braid with sesame seeds, the ham braid with parsley, and tell your guests so they can tell at a glance which one they want to dig into.
  • Also worthy of note – if you happen to be one who enjoys stromboli, this is similar, but has key differences to be aware of, so you are not surprised or disappointed if you are expecting them to be the same.  This braid is made with a thicker, fluffier bread dough that will rise as it bakes and give more to bite into, as opposed to the thinner pizza dough that stromboli is usually made with.  Also, this dough is made with mustard, so the dough will have a slightly more tangy flavor, as opposed to a pizza dough serving as a blank canvas for the fillings.

March 22, 2011 Posted by | Food, Tasty Tuesdays | 3 Comments

Newsletter Time!

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If you haven’t already, check out our latest newsletter by clicking on the image above.  It’s an update on all that’s been keeping us busy in the past few months…  and even some exciting news on page 2!  Your thoughts and prayers continue to be such an encouragement to us…

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March 18, 2011 Posted by | Newsletters, Thailand | Leave a comment

Tasty Tuesday – Tortillas

I usually don’t like having two Tasty Tuesdays in a row, without another post in between, but it’s been busy, busy around here, so I’ll just have to deal with it, I suppose.  Eh, who really cares anyways – it’s food.  I like food.

This week’s Tasty Tuesday is another thing I have really come to love making here in Thailand, that I never did before moving out of the States – flour tortillas.  Well over a year ago, I posted about making tacos for supper one night in Lopburi, but I was still too new at the tortilla-making game that I didn’t want to to post any sort of recipe until I was sure I had found one that was wonderful.  Well, enough time has now passed, enough recipes have been tried, and plenty enough rounds of tortillas have been made to declare that I now have my favorite recipe that I will use always and forever, amen.

Seeing as most recipes use some sort of lard, shortening, or heavy fat substance, I originally wanted to find a recipe that was a bit lighter.  Not to mention the fact that shortening and lard aren’t something I can easily come by over here anyhow.  So, after testing out 5 or 6 recipes (2 of them using shortening, just because I wanted to see the difference), I just kept going back to the very first one I ever used.  It was the most consistent, best tasting, and least complicated – so, why not?

The recipe originally comes from Eating Well magazine’s website, with a couple of minor changes from me.  One was that their idea is to freeze a small portion of flour with your choice of vegetable oil, so it acts like shortening when blending together with your flour (similar to when making a pie crust).  I, however, didn’t like having to wait another 30 minutes for that to happen, so after doing that the first couple of times, I just decided to use the oil straight out of the bottle – and, it works just fine!  That’s exactly how I’ve been doing it ever since, and it turns out perfect every time.  The other change I made is the number of tortillas I can make out of the recipe.  I tend to like bigger tortillas (halfway between what packages usually label to be “taco” sized and “burrito” sized), so I can tuck the ends in before picking up my tacos.  After all, who likes their filling to fall out when they’re trying to eat?  Not me.

So, here you go.  The recipe, and a few tips on how to make them.

Hand-Rolled Flour Tortillas

  • 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus a little extra for rolling out the tortillas
  • 3 tablespoons oil (canola, soy, veg blend – anything light – I use rice bran)
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup warm water

1.  Add both flour and salt to a large mixing bowl and give them a good stir.

2.  Measure out your water and add oil to water.  Give them a stir, too.

3.  Add your wet ingredients to the dry, and mix until they come together.  (Keep in mind that the dough will be in large clumps rather than a nice smooth ball.  If all of the dry ingredients haven’t been dampened, add just a little more water, 1 teaspoon at a time, until it all comes together.)  Scoop the dough out of the bowl and knead for a few minutes until smooth. It should be a medium-stiff consistency; definitely not firm, but not quite as soft as most bread dough.

4.  Divide the dough into small balls, according to how many you would like to make – 12 for smaller, 10 for medium, 8 for large enough to make good-sized burritos.  Making the balls as smooth as possible is key in helping you roll out nice circles later on, so check out this tutorial on YouTube to see how to do that well (I didn’t like her recipe, but I used her method for making smooth balls which starts at 1:15).  Let the balls rest on a plate, covered, for at least 30 minutes to make the dough easier to roll out later.

5.  Lightly flour your work surface (counter top, marble slab, smooth glass cutting board, or my personal favorite – a cloth pastry frame), and flatten one ball with the palm of your hand.  Lightly roll a few times with a rolling pin, then rotate the dough a quarter turn.  Roll a few times again, then rotate a quarter turn.  Repeat the process until your tortilla is as thin as you can go, without being see-through.  It’ll take a little practice, but once you’ve got it, you will no longer have to worry about amoeba shaped tortillas and all will be right in the world.

6.  Place tortilla carefully (not letting it fold or wrinkle up) onto a hot griddle and watch for bubbles to form.  After about 20 seconds, flip the tortilla over and cook for another 20 seconds or so.  You want the tortilla to be white and cooked through, and some little brown spots on the bubbles are just fine.  Be careful not to let them get too brown though, as the tortillas will get stiff pretty quick.

7.  Keep finished tortillas wrapped in a towel to keep them warm and flexible as you work on the rest.

Ta-da! Lovely, delicious tortillas.

** A few things I’ve found to be very important in making great tortillas are – not letting the dough get too wet, being sure to allow the dough to rest for 30-40 minutes (or else it’ll be like trying to roll spring-loaded silly putty), rolling them out as thin as I can to keep them flexible, and flipping them quickly so they don’t get tough.

Now, if you’ve not made homemade flour tortillas before, it’ll probably take a couple of rounds to get the hang of it.  But, once you’ve got it, it is SO worth it.  Packaged ones just seem so dry and bland to me now.  Homemade ones don’t tear when you stuff them with juicy meat, tomatoes, melty cheese, and salsa.  And, seriously, if you like making quesadillas, homemade tortillas will give you that wonderful crisp outside, chewy inside goodness that you can only seem to find at Mexican restaurants.   Mmmmmm…. I’m so glad I made a double batch this week!

March 15, 2011 Posted by | Food, Tasty Tuesdays | 1 Comment

Tasty Tuesday – Broccoli Salad

If you’re from the States, and you’ve ever been to any sort of potluck meal (church picnic, work carry-in, neighborhood barbecue, etc.), chances are you’ve had broccoli salad.  I’m going to also assume the kind you’ve had is the most common type (in the Midwest, anyways) – broccoli, raisins, lots of bacon, onion, and a dressing made of straight mayo, apple cider vinegar, and lots of sugar.  Sound familiar?  Probably.  Taste good?  Definitely.

But, I still like it better my way.  🙂

I’m a big fan of taking things I know, then not only changing them to my tastes, but also making them healthier and fresher, too.  That’s how my version of broccoli salad came about.  Every time I’ve made or brought it somewhere, it has been met with good reviews and well, it’s perhaps my favorite thing to eat at a barbecue (or for dinner even in the middle of winter).

Wanna make it?  I’ll tell you now, since this is another Sara-style recipe, I’m basically just going to give you a guideline for what goes in it without precise amounts.  I always just eyeball it and it works every time.  But, don’t let that put you off.  Try it.  Play with it.  Make it, then put it in the fridge for an hour, taste, and adjust from there.  Really, it’s not that scary.  Just do it.

So, what’s in it…

  • To make a regular-sized mixing bowl full – what I usually do for a picnic – I start with 2 heads of broccoli about the size of my fist (because that’s what I can get here), and a softball-sized head of cauliflower.  Wash and chop them both up into small, bite-sized chunks.  You can even chop up some of the stems, too, if you want to add more crunchy pieces.
  • Next, a couple handfuls of RED grapes, halved or quartered, whichever way you like better and depending on how big they are to start.  It’s important to use red grapes, NOT green, as the sweetness of the red ones is what helps eliminate the need for adding any sugar to the salad as you continue.
  • Finely dice up about half of a red onion (little purple shallots will do just fine in a pinch, if that’s what you’ve got on hand).  Also, cook and crumble/chop up, pat dry, and cool about 3 or 4 slices of bacon (that is more than enough, believe me – depending on the size and flavor intensity of the bacon, I sometimes even use just 2), and throw all of that into the bowl with the grapes and veggies.
  • Get some plain, sliced, unsalted, roasted almonds, and toss in a handful of those.  If you don’t have them, you can use sunflower seeds just as well – but, I think the almonds are better.  🙂
  • If you’ve got some shredded sharp cheddar on hand, put a pretty light handful – meaning not very much, just enough to add a pop of color and a little salty bite – of that in, too.  (Sorry, you’ll notice none in my photos today, because cheese is harder to come by here.)
  • Grab a handful of dried cranberries, and add those to the bowl.  You can also use raisins, if you like.  You can even use both, which I often do.  I really like the sweet-tart bite of the cranberries best, though.
  • Now, toss it all together so it’s nice and pretty, and get ready to put on the dressing.  It really is quite simple.  Add just a couple of spoonfuls of Miracle Whip to the top of the bowl (the tangy-ness of Miracle Whip is key in balancing the sweet and salty between the other ingredients, without having to add any sugar to your salad – however, if you really don’t have any, you can use regular mayo… but, it won’t be the same 🙂 .  Squeeze on a bit of lemon juice.  Add a few cranks of fresh cracked black pepper.  Then, stir away!

You can add more of the dressing and juice as needed, but be careful not to make it very thick.  Actually, leave it a little bit drier than you think you should.  Why?  Because after stirring it around, you need to let it chill for about an hour.  During that hour, the juices from your red grapes will seep out into the dressing, and the vegetables will soften, making the salad become a bit creamier on its own.  The flavor of the bacon, though there’s not much in it, will also incorporate itself into the dressing (which is why you don’t need to add a lot in the first place) as it sits.  If, after an hour, you think it’s still too dry, then add another spoonful and another squirt of juice until it’s to your liking.  Really, if you like it, then it’s already a success!

Just look at all those little bits of yumminess...

So, now do you see why I like my style even better than the other also yummy, yet more common, version that’s out there?  You don’t need to add any sugar, as your sweetness comes from things already in the salad.  There’s much more variety, and good things, adding more vitamins, good-for-you-stuff, and more flavor.  And, heck, it’s got a lot more color!

March 8, 2011 Posted by | Food, Tasty Tuesdays | 1 Comment