tommy cooks: learning to cook Thai

For a bunch of years now I have wanted to take a cooking class.  Every time Stir (Stir is the cooking “school” run by the Barbara Lynch Grupo of No. 9 Park et al.) puts out their list of opportunities I find two or three classes I really want to attend, but then I never sign up.  More recently, I discovered that Saltbox Farm in Concord is also running cooking classes.  For me, this seemed like a better first cooking class, more local and much less intimidating.  So after years of making excuses, last Saturday night, I found myself in a small farmhouse near the Concord-Carslile town line learning how to make Thai food.

IMG_2556.jpgSaltbox Farm has classes about three nights a week.  The current lineup includes a class on Pizza, one on fresh Pasta, and even one focusing on Bouchon a cookbook by Thomas Keller of French Laundry (and Bouchon). The cost of classes is $90 and classes are limited to 10 people.  While most classes sell out, the Thai class only mustered up five guests including me. It’s not a very large kitchen though and while there was certainly room for a few more people, more than eight would seem pretty crowded to me.  The evening starts in that kitchen, a beautiful, rustic room with a fireplace on one end.  It wasn’t lit the night I was there, and it was actually a little chilly in the room.  There is a large table in the middle that guests stand around and a large industrial stove on the other end.

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All the guests happen to arrive at once, just a little before 6:30.  We were given aprons and offered beverages.  Sadly there is no alcohol.  I’m not sure if they just don’t have a license or if their insurer doesn’t want them to provide booze and sharp knives simultaneously, but they don’t even pour drink with dinner. They offered hot tea, a homemade soda, or water.  I went with the sparkling water. They did make up for it with some appetizers including a spoon of cucumber salad and some Thai chicken wings, both delicious.  Drinks in hand and stomachs temporarily satisfied we gathered around the large table for an overview of the evening.

The menu was based on a restaurant called Pok Pok in Portland, Oregon where our chef-teacher and his wife had once lived. Pok Pok has since opened a satellite location in NYC and even held a Michelin star for a couple of years, though not anymore. The three dishes for the night were green papaya salad, chicken-coconut curry, and coconut-mango sticky rice. There were three mortars and pestles in front of us and they were to be our tool of choice tonight.

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Chef demonstrated how to peel and cut a green papaya. I particularly enjoyed watching him demonstrate the hacking method where you literally hack the top of the papaya and then cut off a thin slice that falls into ribbons.  When given mine, I went with the more conventional julienne method. Once the papaya was cut we started making the salad in very small batches.  The entire dish was put together in the mortar. We started with three lime quarters and a garlic clove. Mashed that up a bit then added peanuts, teeny-tiny dried shrimp, and birds-eye peppers.  After that we tossed in about half a dozen green beans and two or three cherry tomatoes. We beat those too, though not as hard as we smashed the garlic and limes.  Then for the dressing we added softened palm sugar, which looked a little bit like caramel, some fish sauce, and tamarind water, I had never heard of that before.  We muddled that for a while and then last we tossed in a big handful of the papaya and knocked it around till it was soft and everything was incorporated.  The final product was a sweet, tangy, and very spicy salad.  Chef suggested we could do this with apples. At some point in the year I always have more of than I can handle, and given a green papaya is huge, so that idea sounds pretty good to me.

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After the salad we started working on the curry.  It was not as hands on as I would have liked.  We really just made the curry paste, and the cooking part was done by chef.  It would have been impossible for five people, let alone ten, to cook this, but still I would have liked to use the stove at least once. To make the paste we started with coriander seeds and lemongrass. We ground that up for a long time until it was pulverized.  Then we added the hot pepper again and ginger and shallot. We kept going till that was almost a paste and then added a cup of chopped cilantro.  Once that was as beaten as it was going to get we added some pungent, stinky shrimp paste to finish it up.

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The curry paste was put in a wok with hot oil and cooked for a few minutes. The chef added coconut milk, water, and chicken thighs. (That was the part we didn’t get to do.)  He later added some homemade wide egg noodles.  I would have preferred to eat my curry with rice or at least a more asian styled noodle, so I didn’t need to do that part since I won’t be repeating it.  He also added some of the green beans and tomatoes that didn’t get used up making the salad. The tomatoes were right at the very end, maybe even just added to the bowl before serving.  Either way it was sometime after I was enjoying the papaya salad so I can’t be sure.

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While we were working on our curry paste he gave us a lesson in sticky rice.  Again, we didn’t get to cook this, which is good for me because I am a terrible rice maker and would have embarrassed myself. But he did give us some pointers on soaking and rinsing the rice. He also used parchment paper as a lid to cook the rice which was one of the strangest, but oddly effective, techniques ever. Once the rice was done he added coconut milk that had been heated with sugar and salt.  That was then left to absorb while we finished up the curry.  Once we were free again, we sliced mango and plated it on a scoop of rice.  This was to be our dessert topped with some of the sweetened coconut milk.

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Having finished our work we adjourned into the dining room, a dark wooded room that reminded me of a German beer hall.  For my St. Louis readers, think the beer room at Schneithorst back in the 80s. The papaya salad was served family style, all of our little batches mixed into one big plate.  They then brought out individual bowls of the curry.  The final product was good, but didn’t have as much punch as I am used to in restaurant curry.  I think I will use a lot more paste or a lot less coconut and water when I try to recreate this.  Lastly was our mango “nigiri” which was sweet, sticky and delicious.

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Overall, it was a really fun night. My only two complaints are the lack of alcohol, at least with dinner, and I wish it had been a little bit more hands-on with the stove.  I can live with that for $90.  On the good side, the chef was friendly and casual.  I never felt pressured or rushed.  The food itself was very tasty and certainly gave me a few new dishes to add to my rotation.  The setting is beautiful.  I particularly loved the kitchen.  I certainly expect I will be making curry this week at some point and I am sure I will be taking another class at Saltbox Farm in the future.

Saltbox Farm
40 Westford Rd.
Concord, MA 01742
978.610.6020

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