Chilling and Grilling
Last Saturday night, my dearest darling sweetly informed me that that the air outside was “cool and fresh”, and that I ought to turn off the air conditioner in our bedroom, and let some of it in. Any time a woman, Thai or otherwise, puts her hands on her hips and informs you of what you ought to do, you know you are in for it big time! I was dubious about any cool night air, as this is a statement she makes regularly, even during the hottest months of the year. My apparent doubt as to the veracity of her pronouncement made little impression on her. She simply grabbed the remote and switched the AC off, and flung open the bedroom windows.
I fully expected to get up during the night to close the windows and switch the AC back on. The “battle of who controls the thermostat” and “the battle of who controls the TV remote control” is waged just as fiercely in The Land of Smiles as it is in the four corners of Farangland. This particular skirmish seemed to be have been won by the women’s team. The long term strategic struggle was far from over however, since Sawadee needs a good night’s sleep to face the world. Believe me when I say that I can be quite cranky when deprived of my forty winks!
Amazingly, I awoke the next morning feeling well rested, and comfortably dry. I went out to greet the day, and Glory Be to Jesus, although the sun was shining brightly, I was not sweating like a pig. The cool season had finally arrived…and none too soon for me I must say! Any doubts as to the change of seasons were laid to rest when I performed my morning ablutions. My instant hot water heater normally does a great job. In fact, I usually have to turn down the temperature. This morning however, despite the temperature dial turned up to the max, I had to make do with a decidedly cool shower. Obviously the night time temperature had dropped low enough that our water tank lost any residual heat it had acquired during the day. That is the ultimate confirmation that the cool season had arrived. Until the end of February, when things start heating up again, I’ll have to use whatever warm water I can find. By sundown, I can at least count on a lukewarm shower. Don’t think I’m complaining though. Hell, cool showers are a trivial price to pay for some truly delightful weather.
For me, this weather is about what I might experience back in New England during autumn, minus any rain. The rainy season in Thailand, as many of you may know lived up to its name this year. Several weeks ago my wife headed down on the bus to Buriram to pick up Sam who was enjoying his school vacation with Grandma. Unfortunately much of that portion of Isaan was deep under some truly epic flood waters. The bus station in Korat was unapproachable, so it was quite an ordeal finding a place to simply get off her bus, let alone find a connecting bus.
The cool season here might aptly be called the dry season.
In Lampang it hasn’t rained in several weeks now, and if things hold to the norm, we won’t see a drop of precipitation until after Songkran. Most evenings you’ll find Sawadee out watering the vegetation. Thais on the other hand will be out in force burning anything that can be burned.
This cool, dry weather bodes well for a lovely Loy Kratong night. I don’t know about you, but I will definitely be out under the full moon enjoying what I personally believe the single loveliest night in Thailand. If you are looking for a place to enjoy this enchanting festival, you couldn’t go wrong hopping on a bus to Lampang, where the Lanna spirit will be on display.
I don’t know what genetic factors are responsible for an individual’s perception of temperature. Why do I sweat bullets when Thais around me are as cool and fresh as a daisy? Here I am, miserable, stripped down to a tee shirt and shorts, while the Thais I see are comfortable wearing a long sleeve shirt and a jacket! This is the case from March through October. Come November though, the screw turns the other way. Now it is Sawadee who is comfortably walking around in jeans and a tee shirt and whistling a merry tune, while the Thais are bundled up like Eskimos…and still freezing their asses off!
On a quick trip to Big C this weekend I saw mobs of Thais desperately digging through piles of winter jackets, hats, gloves, scarves and sweaters. My tee rak was rummaging through boxes of flannel pajamas and long underwear she brought from Massachusetts. Today I saw her sporting a fetching matched set of hat, scarf and mittens she bought when we visited Niagara Falls. The poor gal was actually cold! Sam is more like me. During the night he indignantly shrugs off the pile of blankets his mother has bundled over him. He must have inherited my internal thermostat.
I can hardly imagine how most Thais would fare if they ever experienced genuinely cold weather. When my wife first came to live in the U.S. in June, she thought she had mistakenly taken a wrong turn and ended up in Greenland. No darling, wait until January, when the mercury dips to minus 20F…then you can tell me it's cold! That first winter I took her to one of our local ski areas for an afternoon…not to ski… that would be a little too much to expect. No, I brought her to go snow tubing down some gentle slopes. (At least gentle for me) I wish I had a picture to show you. She had on so many garments that she resembled the Michelin Man!
Anyway, getting back to November in Thailand, let me turn to the second theme in this submission…grilling. Now that the weather has cooled off, I find myself frequently preparing dinner over a hot bed of coals. Maybe it’s just me, but I swear just about anything smells and tastes delicious grilled. I’m actually planning to grill dinner this evening. You may note that I used the word grill, as opposed to barbecue. Many people use these two words interchangeably. For these folks, the two terms mean preparing food (usually meat) over a charcoal fire. Some folks insist that there is no difference between using charcoal and a gas grill. Here old Sawadee is a purist at heart. I’m sorry, but if you prepare two steaks, one over charcoal, and one over a gas grill, I can detect the difference, even blindfolded…really! Gas is convenient I suppose, and perhaps it is the primitive in me, but I like cooking over a glowing bed of coals.
I am writing this piece at the time when people in the U.S. will be setting their clocks back one hour. It is the end of daylight Savings Time and Standard Time. Although one of the reasons for instituting DST was to provide “more” hours of daylight when most American still worked on the farm, I’ve heard it rumored that the barbecue industry was a prime lobbyist for extending the dates by several weeks.
For me, and a whole lot of other folks, barbecue is a noun, not a verb. We are talking about smoked meat. Specifically I’m referring to slowly smoked meat. How slowly? It can be as many as 10-12 hours at low temperatures. In the U.S., depending on what region you are from, we can be talking about mostly red meat: beef brisket, beef ribs, pork butt (which actually is from the shoulder), pork ribs, or sometimes a whole or split pig. That’s not to say that a whole lot of chickens and turkeys don’t enjoy the same smoky treatment as well. The long cooking time ensures that the meat, while absorbing incredible flavor, remains succulent and juicy. The expression “falling off the bone” tender is not a hyperbole. The meat on a properly smoked rack of ribs should just about slide off the bones as you devour them. The flavor can vary tremendously, depending on what variety of wood you are using. Hickory, mesquite, oak, apple and cherry each add their own unique aroma.
When Sawadee was a fledging chef wannabe at the CIA (The Culinary Institute of America), one of my favorite courses was one where a small bunch of us gleefully learned the basics of making all kinds of sausages, and other cholesterol laden delights. We also got to play with an enormously expensive high-tech smokehouse. While the results were delicious, the experience was miles away from building a smoky fire in one of those old fashioned behemoths that still dot the American landscape. Splitting a few cords of wood will definitely build up an appetite. I know that from my younger days when I used a wood stove to heat my home.
I can’t help but wonder if any expat runs an honest to goodness barbeque joint here in Thailand. Just the thought of a nice pulled pork sandwich or beef brisket make me hungry! <Great American BBQ, not far from the Thonglor BTS would be the closest, I reckon – Stick>
Note: Just because I enjoy eating meat at this time in my life doesn’t mean I’m gorging myself excessively on it. I actually eat much less meat now than in the past, but I do enjoy reasonable portions, with a whole lot of fruit and vegetables making up the bulk of my diet. I have a complete set of blood tests every month, and I’m happy to say my cholesterol (both HDL and LDL) are in the green zone, along with my triglycerides. In any case, as with other things in life, I prefer quality over quantity. I’m the kind of guy who would rather have a single piece of extraordinary chocolate rather than a box of the bargain variety.
So, what’s on the menu tonight at Bahn Sawadee? Well, this morning before leaving for school I prepared a quick marinade for a small piece of pork I’ll be grilling when I get home.
I’m a big fan of marinades. Not only do they tenderize, but add a whole lot of flavor. I squeezed a lime, added a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce, a dash of Tabasco sauce, a dash of sesame oil, and three cloves of minced garlic. If I had had any green onions handy, I might have thrown some into the mix… likewise for fresh ginger.
Before changing my clothes and taking a shower, I’ll start some charcoal going in our small grill. By the time I’m ready to start cooking, I should have a small bed of coals. I love these sticks of resinous wood you find at the market next to the charcoal. A few sticks of this stuff work wonders in making a fire.
As for charcoal, this is the real McCoy…not compressed wood dust and lord knows what else! We go through a fair amount of charcoal, so it wasn’t a big surprise when making a road trip, my wife told me to pull over by the side of the highway where a charcoal maker was selling enormous bags of the stuff. The burlap sack we took home must have weighed close to 50 kilos.
When we moved to Thailand I brought a brand new Weber grill along. This was one of the no-nonsense black “kettles”.
Until recently I have rarely used it. Instead I have used one of the ubiquitous small cement “buckets” you see in almost everyone’s yard. The Weber is great when you’re grilling for a crowd, but too big for what I usually need for myself and my family.
Okay, the charcoal is ready. I like to use a grill basket because it’s easy to turn what’s cooking over. Since my piece of pork isn’t very thick. It should only take 15 minutes or so to cook to my particular taste.
“Is it done?” I hear that question all the time. Doneness is of course a matter of personal taste. I prefer my beef nicely pink, or medium. I like my poultry cooked more thoroughly, without becoming “jerky”. How do you know if what you’re cooking is done for you? A lot of chefs, including myself, can press done on a piece of meat, and judge the degree of doneness by its resistance to finger pressure. If you really want to be accurate though, the way to go is to use an instant read thermometer. Stick one of these into the center of whatever you’re cooking and you will know immediately what the temperature inside is. I should note that meat will continue to cook, even though you’ve taken it off the grill. This residual heat will take the temperature to where you want it to be.
A good basic cookbook or cooking website will give you the suggested internal temperatures for varying degrees of doneness.
Most cookbooks will say that pork should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F. I personally think that’s too high. I cook mine to 140 degrees. The residual heat will finish it off nicely. Overcooked pork is a bit like shoe leather, and about as tasty. This guideline was based on the possibility of the pigs having trichinosis. That may be true if they are living on garbage and living in unsanitary conditions. Hmmmm, that sounds like a bit like the conditions you may find in rural Thailand. That being said, I have never gotten sick from any meat I have cooked here, including pork.
Of course I am a tad picky about where I buy my meat. Under no circumstances will I ever buy meat from a typical Thai market. The thought of eating meat that has been sitting around all day in the hot sun, un-refrigerated and covered with nasty flies isn’t appealing. I have no problems buying fruit and vegetables, which can be washed and/or peeled. I prefer to buy my meat from a place like Big C. where it is butchered in sanitary conditions, and kept in refrigerated cases.
Getting back to dinner, while my pork is slowly sizzling on the grill, I go inside and prepare a cucumber and tomato salad and heat up a skillet on the range. I have a hankering for some fresh Indian flat bread, and luckily I still have some dough left that I prepared a few days ago. Do you like flat bread? It is extremely easy to make. The ingredients are nothing more than all purpose flour and water. I like to add a handful of sesame seeds, but that’s not necessary. Kneed everything together, or like me, throw everything into a mixer with a dough hook for 5 minutes or so. Take off a ball of dough, roll it out, and slap it in a hot pan. I like to brush the top with a little butter while the dough begins to bubble. Then I flip the bread over, brush again with butter and in a few minutes it’s done…and smelling incredible.
After a quick check of the thermometer I see that my pork is done to perfection…but it’s not ready to eat quite yet.
Done but not ready? What does that mean? If I immediately sliced my pork, all of the juices would quickly run out. I need to let it rest for 10 minutes or so. That gives me time to prepare a quick sauce from some apricot preserves and a dash of apple cider vinegar. The time for talking is over. It's time to eat, because dinner is ready!
Now it may seem that I have a large portion of meat on my plate, but I doubt it’s more than 6-8 ounces, and don’t think that I will actually get to eat all of it anyway. Sam always seems to know when I’ve cooked something of interest, and he seems to share my tastes. The lad’s not shy about helping himself to whatever is on Dad’s plate!
So I’ve got my protein, my carbs and my veggies. Add a tall glass of unsweetened iced tea and a small bowl of fresh fruit salad. What it all adds up to is a meal that is far better than anything I will find anywhere in Lampang.
I should add that I don’t eat meat, especially red meat every day. I’m often satisfied by a vegetarian meal. At least once a week I’ll be happy with a bowl of noodle soup, though not from the market. That usually tastes suspiciously like old dishwater! This weekend I think I’ll make up a batch of falafel to keep in the freezer and perhaps some spaghetti sauce as well. I saw in the fridge that my wife has just bought a few blocks of fresh bean curd. Those will undoubtedly make their way into some stir fried green beans and mushrooms.
As I mentioned earlier, my Weber grill hasn’t gotten much use over the past five years, but that’s changed dramatically since a fellow American built a home a few house down from mine earlier this year. We have become pretty good friends, and among other things enjoy getting together over dinner. Being one hell of a nice guy, it’s not surprising that he has an extraordinary number of friends who like to come by to socialize. Also being extraordinarily generous, he usually has a large number of them over for dinner on the weekends. A typical dinner might include folks from England, Germany, the USA, Japan, and yes, of course Thailand. In addition to bringing food over that I’ve prepared at home, I often do a fair amount of grilling at his house. As his grill was a bit on the flimsy side, I’ve wound up parking my Weber over at his place. Just during the past month I’ve cooked a top round beef roast, innumerable racks of pork ribs, pork chops, sausages and pork roasts…not to mention heaps of grilled vegetables. Most of this came from Rimping Market in Chiang Mai, where they have a few pretty good butchers. They are happy and able to cut things to order, so you can get full racks of ribs, not just the tiny ones you see everywhere in Thailand. Those might be fine as an appetizer, but don’t make much of a meal.
Some people feel that barbecued ribs aren’t anything to get excited about, since each one might only have a bite or two of meat on the bones, but oh, how delectable those few bites are! I absolutely love ribs! Here are countless ways to prepare them, but here is my preferred technique.
First I like to marinate them overnight. Next I dry them off thoroughly and generously rub them with a dry mixture of spices. Fresh ground black pepper, cumin, coriander seeds, ginger, and chili powder are some that I often use. If possible I like to cook them over an indirect fire. That is to say I rake the coals to the edge of the grill, and put the ribs topside up in the middle. I then put on the kettle cover, with the air vents top and bottom open about halfway. This ensures a nice smoky, low temperature environment to slowly impart maximum flavor.
I can hear somebody out there shouting, “What about the barbecue sauce! You can’t have ribs without some barbecue sauce”! Have no fear. I haven’t forgotten a thing. Hell, half the fun of eating ribs is getting some sticky fingers! Unless you like eating carbonized dreck, the time to slather on the sauce is during the last few minutes of cooking. The trick is to brush on a coat of sauce, let it caramelize slightly, and then apply several more coats.
Everyone has their favorite recipe. Let me share mine with you. No specific measurements here. Everything is to taste…however you like it. Take some ketchup. Yes ketchup! Luckily good old Heinz is available even in Lampang. Add some vinegar. Any type will do. Apple cider or red wine vinegars work well. The only vinegar to avoid is the white stuff most Thais use. This is great stuff…if you want to clean your sink with it. It is frankly a bit like battery acid. If you soak a whole lot of chilies in it, it becomes barely palatable. Depending on what I have on hand, I’ll add some brown sugar or honey. Maple syrup would be lovely, but not at the prices it costs here. Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco and powdered ginger add some spiciness. I like to add some spicy mustard as well. Garlic? Definitely! In my humble opinion you can never have too much garlic! A quick stir or two and the sauce will be ready. If you’ve taken your time, your ribs may look something like this.
All this may seem like a lot of work, but let me assure you that the results are well worth it. Your friends will certainly think so, and may even tell you so if they can spare a few moments from sucking the sauce off of their fingers to do so!
A nice accompaniment to the ribs would be some corn bread, some grilled leeks and a pot of homemade baked beans. (And plenty of cold beer!) Dessert? How about some Key Lime Pie or some Mango/Coconut Ice Cream?
I really do hope that I haven’t gone over the top in blathering on about cooking. I often tend to get carried away on the topic. I just wanted to serve up a slice (bad pun intended!) of daily life here during the “Big Chill”. It seems that as the temperatures drop, I enjoy turning up the heat more and more. If nothing else, I’ll manage to say warm next to the grill.
You really ought to open a restaurant. You've often lamented the lack of farang food options in Lampang. Having had the pleasure to enjoy your fine cooking and seeing the passion you have when it comes to food, this could be your chance to break the teaching cycle. Seriously, consider it!