Around the Island

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By Elizabeth Winslow
Photography by Jody Horton

Once a month, I get together with a group of friends—Lois, Sarah and another Elizabeth—to cook. Though practiced in our own personal disciplines, our group, which includes a painter, a photographer, an entrepreneur and an intellectual, convenes to embark on cooking something new—something that, attempted alone, might feel arduous or challenging.

It started with tamales. One afternoon, amidst a tumble of children, during a stolen conversation we had little time for, we discovered that none of us knew how to make them.

We’re all really good cooks, so this came as a funny surprise. “I’ve always wanted to make tamales,” I admitted. “But they always seemed like such a process. And who has the time for a big project like that?” “A little overwhelming,” my friend Lois agreed. “I’ve always wanted to make the sunflower-seed tamales they serve at Mr. Natural,” Sarah added. “I think they’d be even better with roasted poblanos.” “Why don’t we all get together in my kitchen and try it?” Elizabeth offered. “I have that huge island, and we can just make an assembly line. Y’all come over after the kids have gone to bed.”

And that was that. We divvied up the procurement of ingredients, and each of us made a filling: Sarah made the sunflower filling she’d been pining for, I made pork in red chili, Lois made bean and cheese and Elizabeth made chicken in green chili. We brought masa from El Milagro and freshly rendered lard from Dai Due Butcher Shop, soaked corn husks and banana leaves then spent hours rolling and folding, steaming, tasting and tweaking. The tamales were rich and moist, imperfect and maybe a little lumpy, but delicious and deeply flavorful. We also spent a considerable amount of time solving the world’s problems, talking about our children and our mothers, good books and films, universal truths and innocent gossip and, before long, what we wanted to cook next time. We all knew there must be a next time.

We always meet at Elizabeth’s house because her kitchen is the perfect space for our work—a huge room, bright and cheerful, with a giant stainless worktable surrounded by stools. Copper pots, colanders, skillets, perfectly seasoned cast-iron and all manner of All-Clad pans hang from the world’s largest pot rack above. After the tamales, we practiced fresh pasta—something none of us had ever had enough time to play around with. Elizabeth found a Jamie Oliver recipe for caramelle—an adorable little pasta, shaped like candies and stuffed with minted ricotta. In a giant stainless bowl, we heaped all-purpose flour and semolina, made a well in the center and cracked in Rain Lily Farm eggs with yolks more orange than yellow. We took turns slowly working the flour into the eggs, judging the texture with our fingers and then kneading until the dough felt silky and smooth. With two pasta rollers clamped to the worktable, we rolled out impossibly long ribbons of beautiful saffron-colored sheets—talking and laughing all the while. You really do make pasta by feel, and such an immersion gave us the foundation we needed to try again at home, now undaunted by something that had before seemed ridiculously ambitious.

After the pasta, we tried our hands at French macarons, Thai street food and flatbreads. We have a long list of other recipes we want to try—handmade sausage, cheese, preserves, puff pastry. We each bring to the table a bit of knowledge here, a little technique there—the whole much greater than the sum of the parts. Our voices and our hands find a rhythm together and the cooking becomes intuitive rather than intimidating. What we’re really cooking up is a sense of communal pleasure around the act of learning how to feed ourselves and our families better. Our conversation is sometimes about what we’re working on, but more often than not, it’s a timeless and rich stew of stories, psychology, sociology, folk wisdom, urban myth and pragmatism. We cook for hours, then wash dishes together—our spirits fed and our appetites refreshed.



THAI STREET FOOD COOKING CLUB RECIPES

 

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MANGO LASSI

Serves 4

Courtesy of Sarah Bork

3–4 mangos
1 c. plain yogurt
½ c. plain kefir
½ c. milk
1–2 T. sugar
½ t. of cardamom
Pinch of salt

Blend all ingredients
until smooth, chill
and serve.


CUCUMBER RELISH

¼ c. white vinegar
¼ c. sugar
½ t. salt
3 T. water

1 small cucumber, quartered
   and sliced
3 red shallots, coarsely sliced
½ long red chili, chopped
1 T. chopped cilantro

Simmer the vinegar, sugar and salt with the water until the sugar dissolves. Take off of the heat and allow to cool. (This syrup can be made in advance and kept in the fridge indefinitely.) Just before serving, stir in the cucumber, shallot, chili and chopped cilantro.


THAI MADTARBARK WITH BEEF

Adapted from Thai Street Food by David Thompson
Serves 4

For the dough:
4 oz. self-rising flour
½ egg, lightly beaten
¼ t. salt dissolved in ¼ c. water
½ oz. butter, broken into small pieces
½ c. oil

For the filling:
2 T. chopped red shallots
Good pinch of salt
1 T. chopped garlic
1 T. chopped ginger
1 heaping T. curry powder

3 oz. minced beef
2 T. fish sauce, or to taste
Pinch of sugar
1 small white onion, sliced
3 T. chopped spring onions
2 T. chopped cilantro
1 egg, beaten
1 handful Thai basil, chopped

 


Make the dough. Sift the flour into a bowl and make a well in the center. Add the egg, stirring to form a crumbly dough, then gradually work in the salted water. Knead for about 15 minutes, until the dough is smooth and soft. Transfer to a bowl that has been rubbed with a little of the butter and leave to rest for about an hour.

Roll the dough between cupped hands, then divide into 3 equal-size balls and roll a little to smooth their surfaces. Return them to the bowl, cover in the oil and dot with the butter pieces. Cover and leave for at least 3 hours or overnight.

Meanwhile, make the filling. Using a mortar and pestle, pound the shallots with the salt, then add the garlic and ginger. Pound to a fine paste. Stir in the curry powder. Fry the paste in a frying pan with 2 tablespoons of the oil covering the dough balls until fragrant, then add the minced beef and cook for 4 minutes—stirring to prevent it from clumping. Season with the fish sauce and sugar. Allow to cool, then stir in the onions, spring onions, cilantro and egg.

Oil the work surface and your hands well. Take out one of the dough balls and press it against the work surface with two or three fingers—spreading the dough to make a disk about 4 inches in diameter. Now, cast the dough by holding one edge of the disk and, using a throwing motion, stretch it until it is really thin and transparent. If you want, you can also use a rolling pin.

Heat a large frying pan and melt a smear of the oil from the dough balls in it, then carefully lay the pastry in the pan. Let it cook for a moment, then place a third of the filling in the center, pressing down to flatten and spread it. Fold opposite sides of the pastry into the center, then repeat with the other two sides to make a square. Make sure that the flaps overlap to secure the filling inside. Flip, and continue to cook until both sides are golden brown. Allow to cool slightly, then cut into squares. Serve warm with cucumber relish.

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LARB GAI

Courtesy of Chanda Chapin
Serves 4


1 lb. ground chicken
½ c. lime juice
2 T. fish sauce
½ t. minced fresh ginger
6 shallots, finely chopped
½–1 c. chopped scallions
½ c. chopped cilantro leaves
15 mint leaves
2 T. roasted rice powder
Lettuce or endive leaves, for serving

Sauté the ground chicken, lime juice, fish sauce, ginger and shallots in a large skillet over medium-high heat until the chicken is cooked through. Toss with the remaining ingredients and serve cool or at room temperature with butter lettuce or endive leaves.

Note: To make roasted rice powder, dry roast uncooked rice in a small skillet until golden, then pulverize to a fine powder in a spice grinder. (It can also be found in Thai grocery stores and online.)


EGGPLANT AND TOFU CURRY

Adapted from Tender by Nigel Slater
Serves 6

2 large eggplants
3 medium onions
2 T. peanut oil
8 cardamom pods
2 T. coriander pods
2 t. black peppercorns
4 cloves garlic
Thumb-size piece of ginger
2 t. turmeric
10 medium-size tomatoes
8 oz. extra-firm tofu, cut into cubes
2 cans coconut milk
4 small, hot red chilies
Salt to taste
Small bunch of mint
Small bunch of cilantro

Cut the eggplant into fat chunks. Put them in a colander and sprinkle heavily with salt. Leave them to sweat and drain for 30 minutes or longer. Peel and roughly chop the onions, then cook them with the oil in a large pan over moderate heat until they are soft, translucent and sweet.

Meanwhile, crush the cardamom pods with the flat blade of a knife or a rolling pin, and shake out the little black seeds into a mortar or spice grinder. Add the coriander seeds and peppercorns and grind them into a coarse powder.

Thinly slice the garlic. Peel the ginger and cut it into thin matchsticks. Stir the garlic and ginger into the onions along with the turmeric and ground spices. Peel and seed the tomatoes and add them to the pan.

Rinse the eggplant and pat it dry. Without oiling, grill on a ridged cast-iron grill pan until they start to soften and have dark grill lines across them. Turn them as you go, so they are cooked on both sides and remove them as they are ready—replacing them with another batch. Add them, along with the tofu, to the onions, then pour in the coconut milk and bring to a boil. Add the chilies and a little salt and continue cooking at a simmer for about 45 minutes. The eggplant should be soft and silky but not falling apart.

Lift out the eggplant pieces, tofu, tomatoes and some of the onions with a slotted spoon. Reduce the sauce in the pan by boiling hard for 5 minutes or so. Use an immersion blender to blend the sauce to a smooth consistency. Return the vegetables and tofu to the pot, then chop the mint and cilantro and stir them in, with a final seasoning of salt and pepper.