Tuesday, June 06, 2006
If at first you don't succeed...
Thai, Thai again.
(Joe came up with the headline for my second food column for the Kentucky New Era)
I love the flavors of Thailand: tangy, hot and sweet, mingled with pungent spices and perfumed with coriander and mint. Thai cuisine transports me to the delicious chaos of the famous floating markets near Bangkok, where I once vacationed. Sadly, I’ve never been able to master Thai cooking. So it was a special treat when my husband, Joe, enrolled us in a 4-hour crash course at the Viking Range Cooking School in Franklin, Tenn. My hopes were high and my stomach hungry as we walked into the sterile, state-of-the-art teaching kitchen. Inside, Joe and I met 10 other students, mostly smartly dressed women who seemed to be Viking veterans -- and extremely handy in the kitchen.
Our instructor, Cindy, split us into teams of three. The only other male in the class, John, was put in our group.
Whatever edge we may have had from my Thailand travels quickly faded when we began constructing a three-course meal after skimming through 12 pages of recipes. The menu: Thai beef Salad with Lettuce Cups and Sticky Rice, Tom Kha Gai (Coconut lemongrass soup with chicken) and Pad Thai with Shrimp (the peanuty noodle dish that commonly introduces Americans to Thai food.)
Our classmates wasted no time. I watched them rhythmically rock their knives over piles of cilantro, onions and peanuts until each ingredient was reduced to a neat mound. I hoped no one was watching me. I chopped my ingredients awkwardly, occasionally depositing a piece of onion on the floor or shooting a bit of peanut across the counter.
My classmates were also quick to discuss how each ingredient would affect their dish. They measured and whisked a splash of vinegar with a dash of fish sauce and tasted it before adding a pinch of minced garlic.
Our trio, on the other hand, took about 10 seconds to decide we would embrace each ingredient equally. Chili, onion, garlic, vinegar, fish sauce and oil were all sloshed together at once.
My classmates also excelled in timing strategy. They kept tabs on each dish and divided labor evenly. Our team had difficulty remembering which of the three trays of ingredients went with which dish. (We later discovered a forgotten pile of cilantro leaves and a renegade shallot.) Somehow we managed to keep up with the class, and before long we could smell the rich aroma of Joe’s task; coconut soup infused with a sachet of lemongrass, galangal and bruised kieffer lime leaves. With a little help from Cindy, I had learned to chop peanuts without sending them into orbit. And, thanks to John, our perfectly pink steak was sliced and arranged over the lettuce and spangled with mint and Thai dressing.
Our confidence could only be bolstered by our instructor, who cheerfully complemented our progress and excused our deviance from the recipe packet.
“I love to taste all the dishes at the end,” she gushed, “Because every time I teach this class, each groups’ dish will be a little different.”
Our group’s moment of distinction came when we began to cook our pad thai. Some where between stirring the tom kha and soaking our rice noodles we’d neglected our pad thai sauce—a simmering amalgam of sugar, fish sauce, vinegar and tamarind juice. It had solidified to a deep molasses brown. John flipped over the sauce pan, but our sauce didn’t budge. Cindy was making her rounds when she caught a glimpse of our antics.
“Oh!” she gasped then forced a smile, “Just reheat it; it should be fine.”
We turned on the heat and John began to stir the stiff mixture. With a smirk, he lifted the wooden spoon from the pot and our sauce followed. Up it stretched, until it stood, unaided, several inches tall. It looked like Uncle Remus’s Tar-Baby. And we were going to eat it. Giddy with hunger and our creation, we giggled and stirred and snickered until the sauce was liquid again.
Meanwhile, other groups were arranging lime wedges over their finished pad thai. When we eventually joined them at the dinner table, they were quietly sampling their handiwork. Seeing our noodles were 5 shades too dark, they graciously offered to share with us. No sooner had we declined, Cindy was hovering over us, spooning properly colored pad thai onto our plates.
After so long a labor, it was a little difficult to unwind and let my mind wander, as I’d hoped, back to the bustling streets of Banglampu, lined with open air cafes and street snack vendors.
When the rest of the class had spilled out into the adjoining shop to purchase pricey gadgetry, Joe and I lingered –giving me time to reflect on whether I would recommend the class in this column. Despite the stress of being an amateur among intermediates, there are many pros to Cooking School.
Someone else will furnish all the ingredients and cookware for you. Someone else will clean the dishes and pick up the peanuts you drop on the floor. And finally, there’s someone else making all the same dishes—so that when your pad thai sauce decides to recreate a scene from the 1960s horror flick “The Blob,” you can eat someone else’s dish.