Day Ten (or, the craic with coconuts)

Friday marked something of a departure for us at January’s Cooking for Life course at Dublin Cookery School, on several levels.

To start with, we were all hungover to some degree or other, having decamped to Fallon and Byrne’s fantastic wine cellar on Thursday evening after a field trip to Drury Street’s Asian Market in the company of Lynda Booth and Matthew Albert. We had been in the Asian Market to pick up some last-minute ingredients for Friday’s feast of green papaya salad with griddled poussin; stir-fried mussels with chilli jam and Thai basil; stir-fried beef with cumin, onions and Bird’s eye chillies; green curry of halibut with pea aubergines perfumed with fresh pandanus leaves; and southern grilled prawn ‘gola’ curry. It turns out that Thursday is the day the delivery arrives from Thailand, and so the best day to pick up fresh produce. Several of the students took the opportunity to fill their baskets with other treats such as pre-prepared jellyfish (which were two for the price of one!) and 8″ granite mortar and pestles for less than €40, a worthy kitchen investment if there ever was one.

The varying degrees of hangovers actually set us up nicely for the day that was in it, which involved team work of a new level (so all that drunken bonding came in handy) as we came together as a group to pound, chop, bruise, slice, marinate, griddle, curdle, simmer, reduce and stirfry our way towards our late lunch – served with more wine, an appropriately lush and aromatic Sipp Mack Pinot Gris. By the time we were clearing the long dining table in the late afternoon, most hangovers had hightailed it, chased out of the place by heavy doses of endorphin-enducing capsaicin, the chemical that gives chilli peppers their peppery heat.

Spirits were high at the end of Week Two of this month-long course; in part because we knew we still had two full weeks to look forward to; and in part because of the fantastic day-and-a-half session we had just had with Matthew Albert (who will be back in May for the next Cooking for Life course, when he will also do a one-day Saturday class on Thai barbecues).

Anyone who’s really serious about Thai food needs to check out two books, both written by Matthew’s executive chef, David Thompson. His seminal tome Thai Food established him as the authority on the subject, and is a joy to savour, with a good 100 of its 360+ pages devoted to the historical culinary culture of this fascinating country. Last year, his follow up, Thai Street Food, was one of the foodie publications of the year.

Matthew’s session on Thai stir-fries, salads and curries demonstrated just how much work can go into making Thai food from scratch, and just what a difference that significant effort can make to the end product.

If you want to try some ambitious Thai cooking, Thompson’s books will provide you with lots of material, and Drury Street’s Asian Market with lots of fresh fodder (as long as you visit on a Thursday).

Here’s a couple of rules of thumb to tuck up your sleeve in the meantime:

  • When pounding pastes, deal with each ingredient separately starting with the most fibrous ingredients first.
  • Try to use a granite pestle and mortar for pounding pastes, and save the wooden ones for bruising green papaya salads.
  • Aim for the smoothest paste possible for curries, but keep it coarse for stir-frying so that it is less likely to burn.
  • Lots of curry pastes can be boiled in coconut milk, but to really capture the freshness of green and red curry pastes, it’s better to fry the paste.
  • The best way to do this is by ‘cracking’ the coconut cream, which refers to the process of reducing the liquid until it curdles and the oil separates from the cream. Once this happens, the added paste will amalgamate with the  cream and will fry in the hot oil.
  • Most tinned coconut cream is homogenised, so the best way to crack the cream is to crack the coconut itself yourself. (I hope you’re keeping up.)
  • Do this by holding said coconut (or three: one fresh coconut yielding about one cup of cream) in a linen-lined palm of your hand, and whacking it repeatedly with the back of that cleaver you keep lying around for such purposes.
  • Blitz the inner flesh to a pulp in a blender with some water, squeeze this through muslin into a non-metallic bowl, and set aside to settle into thin milk and thick cream.

If all this sounds like more work than craic, you could cut some corners by simply booking yourself into Nahm next time you’re in London town. Say Sawatdee Khrab/Kaa to Matthew for us when you’re there, and tell him to hurry back!

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