Friday, June 10, 2011

Sweetened or Unsweetened?

We're starting to think there's a special day associated with practically everything out there. Donut Day, Chocolate Ice Cream Day and now Iced Tea Day. But hey, we like all three so why not celebrate?!

How do you take yours, sweetened or unsweetened?
Here in Seattle, the iced tea comes to the table automatically unsweetened, but I'd say more than half of the population adds some type of sweetener at the table, Splenda being quite popular in our 'all-natural' loving city.

I've been to Virginia and the sweet tea was phenomenal. In fact, everyone but my Seattle-transplanted girlfriend ordered it that way. It was funny to hear her actually have to ask for her tea to be plain, unsweetened.

In fact at dinner with family last week we had the "sweetener" conversation and it dawned on me just how particular people are about their tea. My auntie and grandma, both from California, insist on using saccharin. My mom has to have NutraSweet because the Splenda makes her break out in hives. Myself? Well, I'm a naturalist. I use sugar. Raw sugar to be specific. Even white refined sugar tastes like chemicals to me now. (As I sit here and eat Lay's potato chips. HA!)

We also spoke about the Paradise iced tea craze that spread around Seattle in the 1990's. Remember that? Not sure if it was as popular around other parts of the country but you either loved it or you didn't and most restaurants usually carried only one or the other. Wonder whatever happened to that Paradise iced tea.

Then I visited San Francisco a few years back and took a Culinary tour of China Town and my eyes were opened to the wide world of tea. Imported from China and Japan and in every shape, size and form you could ever imagine. Tea rolled into balls, green teas, teas that bloom when you steep them, and every type of tea I never even knew existed. It was quite impressive and that's where I learned that I had been steeping my tea way too long and that's why it always tasted so bitter.

But in my heart I will forever be an iced tea girl. Give me some nice Jasmine loose leaf, a giant pitcher stuck out in the sun for a few hours on a warm afternoon and I'm a happy girl.

So today at lunch or tonight at dinner, grab an iced tea and toast to another National Day of celebration. I'll be toasting with my 'Long Island'!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

An attempt at glorious pad ped

A craving for tofu pad ped gripped my mind recently and would not let go.

Pad ped is a Thai dish that I have seen served only in Michigan. I think it translates – roughly – to “spicy stir fry,” and may have origins among the Hmong of Thailand. Michigan happens to have a large Hmong population (have you seen "Gran Torino"?). I have eaten Thai food at many restaurants here in Seattle, and also in New York, New England, Indiana and Colorado, but have not seen pad ped on the menu.

I suppose I should be more specific. I’m talking about tofu pad ped from Lamai’s Thai Kitchen in Lansing, Michigan. Lamai’s is a locally famous little spot inside a narrow building that used to be a bank … that used to be a diner. Lamai serves a lunch buffet every day on a different theme. I used to go on Thursdays, which was vegetarian day. At the end of the buffet table: a big mess of pad ped.

Jalapeno peppers help spice this dish
Lamai’s pad ped was extremely spicy and the sauce was thick. She tossed in sliced jalapeno peppers AND red chilies. She mixed in whole sprigs of Thai basil, which complemented the slightly sweet sauce with a hint of earthy licorice flavor. The tofu was cut into thin rectangles and was cooked just enough so it was firm, but still open to absorbing all of the flavors of the dish. 

My mouth is watering and my brow sweating just thinking about it ...

I have tried unsuccessfully over the past few years to replicate Lamai’s pad ped. But the effort is more urgent now that I live thousands of miles from Michigan. Last Friday, I set out to Seattle’s Uwajimaya grocery store – it’s a huge, famous Asian grocery store in the International District neighborhood. I bought a bag of jasmine rice, 2 jalapeno’s, a can (yes, a can) of red curry, a bunch of basil, a red pepper, a package of tofu and jasmine rice. It turned out to be my most successful pad ped attempt. Here’s how I did it:

-1 regular size package of tofu
-1 tablespoon of brown sugar
-1/3 cup of rice wine vinegar (or any kind of vinegar)
-1-1/2 cup of Thai basil
-2 tablespoons of red chili paste
-1 white onion
-2 cloves of garlic
-2 jalapeno peppers
-1 red pepper
-1 can of red curry, preferably the kind pre-mixed with coconut milk
-1 teaspoon of corn starch
-1/2 cup of soy sauce (or less – enough for taste)

Start by cutting the tofu into thin rectangles. I usually cut the block in half lengthwise, which makes 2 rectangle shaped bricks, then slice from one end to the other. (Tip: freeze your tofu overnight for a meatier texture; defrost before cooking and squeeze out the water like a sponge.) Cook the tofu in a nonstick pan until brown (or blackened, which is how I like it), using a tiny amount of vegetable oil. Use rice wine vinegar to deglaze, if necessary.

While the tofu is cooking, chop the onion and red pepper into similar-size pieces, preferably squares half the size of the tofu. Chop the jalapeƱo into wheels, mince the garlic and chiffonade the basil. In a separate pan from the tofu, sweat the onions and garlic. Then add both peppers, cook for a few minutes, and pour in the can of red curry, the soy sauce, red chili paste and the rice wine vinegar. Cook until it starts to simmer, then add the brown sugar, corn starch and basil. Stir until just slightly thick, add the tofu and serve over a heap of jasmine rice.

Easy, right? The trick I’ve found is the red curry with the coconut milk already mixed in. In the past, I’ve used red curry paste plus a can of coconut milk. The milk overwhelmed the dish and made it too soupy. And, of course, you can substitute the tofu for any kind of meat.

My version is not as complex, wonderful and spicy as Lamai’s, but it’ll do. If you have a pad ped recipe, please let me know.