May 19, 2014

Sky, Dirt, Basil

My final week of traveling before I headed home to Boston was in Chiang Mai, Thailand where I really learned how to use a mortar and pestle. You can't be a wimp about it, especially when you're working with hard, dried spices and woody ginger and lemongrass. You have to be strong. And patient. Even zen.

This attitude has proved useful since arriving home. Even on the trip home, which takes about twenty hours, it was hard to stay calm as I hurtled through the air at whatever miles per hour. Since traveling so much I have had the opposite reaction to air travel, which is to say that I find it harder. I have become more and more anxious the more I fly. 

Maybe it was the final scene in Gravity where Sandra Bullock hurtles through the air in the Chinese space shuttle back towards Earth to land in the ocean where she finally unbuckles herself underwater like some kind of Houdini and swims onto land, gripping the dirt as she gasps for air. 

I loved this ending. Where the movie is "filmed" mostly in outer space, giving us the sense of its vacuous, harsh and sheer colorless nature, this final scene of water, plants and dirt fills the viewer with a visceral sense of relief. (Apologies if you haven't seen the movie and I just spoiled the ending.) It reminded me how we need earth, dirt and all of the beautiful plants in order to celebrate our exploration. 

Note this plaque from the Peradenia Royal Botanical gardens in Kandy, Sri Lanka:

Once home, all I could think about was getting my hands in the dirt, so grateful to be grounded. I calculated the number of airplanes I traveled on since leaving Boston last December and it is 16. Not only is that a lot of time spent up in the tropo- and stratospheres, but it's a lot of fuel. My carbon footprint just got a lot bigger, and all in the name of spices. How strange.

So I spent some time in the dirt down at Eva's Garden in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts where I could literally feel the richness of the soil through my fingertips. If there ever was a recipe for travel weariness, this would be it. Dig in the dirt.

The Chiang Mai mortar and pestle lesson helped here too, since farming is hard work and takes a lot of patience. And now I am applying it to my new status of being engaged. Yes! To be married! Sometimes I wish Mark and I could run away and just get married under a waterfall with an audience of ferns and fish and strange-looking orchids. But even if it that sounds romantic, that's not a very fun party. And oh how I love a good party. So I'm trying to be strong and patient and zen. 

Besides digging around in the beautiful soil at Eva's herb farm and eating wild foods like Japanese knotweed, dandelions and seagull eggs, I've also spent some time cooking at home, practicing with some of the flavors that had become familiar in Thailand. 

Tired of having my fresh herbs wilt and brown in the fridge (especially after being on a farm where I could just wander around and pick them!), I headed to the local nursery to add a few to my very small urban porch garden. I came home with Thai Basil, this one called "Siam Queen" (Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflorum 'Siam Queen') which has the distinct spice and anise quality of the basil I was used to in Bangkok, especially in green curries. It's a sweet basil, developed for its aromatic qualities that are prized in SE Asian cuisine. In Vietnam it's called húng quế and is enjoyed by breaking off huge bundles of the fresh leaves to add to soups or noodles.

When Mark said he had his annual guacamole contest coming up at work (and, no he doesn't work at a Mexican restaurant), I became particularly excited. Why not Thai guacamole? 

Thai and Mexican food share similar flavors, from fresh herbs such as cilantro to the spicy peppers that contain capsaicin. So guacamole is not a far reach to alter with SE Asian flavors. Adding basil, especially the gorgeous Thai basil with lance shaped leaves and purple stems, adds a freshness that's different from cilantro. Combined with fresh lemongrass, ginger, hot peppers, cherry tomatoes, lime and a touch of coriander, this guacamole becomes distinctly Thai. But it needs to be made in a mortar and pestle like so many Thai curries. (And like the original guacamole, which the Aztecs made in a molcajete). 

Don't be a wimp about smashing the lemongrass and ginger. Be strong, and patient and zen. 

And did I mention that Mark won 1st Place in the guacamole contest with this recipe? 

Thai-Style Guacamole
Voted #1 in the Annual iZotope guacamole contest!
serves 3-4 for appetizers 

3 stalks fresh lemongrass, the bottom 6" only, chopped (about 1/3 cup)
2" piece of fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
1/2 tsp coriander seeds
2 cloves garlic
1 hot pepper (such as jalepeno or birds eye chili) seeds removed, chopped
1 shallot, finely diced
4 ripe avocados
1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, chopped
small bunch cilantro, stems separated and chopped and leaves (torn)
small bunch Thai basil
1 lime
2 tsp salt
cayenne (to taste)

In a mortar and pestle, place the chopped lemongrass, ginger, garlic and coriander and smash/pound to a fine paste, about 10 minutes. If your mortar is small, transfer to a bigger bowl and add the chili, shallot and ripe avocados. Using the mortar or a hefty wooden spoon, smash the avocados to combine with the other ingredients.

Once combined, add the chopped stems of the cilantro and the cherry tomatoes, lime juice and salt. As soon as you're ready to serve, add the fresh cilantro leaves and fresh Thai basil leaves, torn to release their scent. Salt to taste and add a little cayenne for extra kick! Stir quickly and serve. 

Ingredients Note:
Many stores don't carry fresh lemongrass. However, I've seen a new product that is a squeezy bottle of puréed lemongrass sold in the produce section - this will work, just note you'll need to use more of it since it has a weaker flavor. 
Thai basil is not often found in regular supermarkets; try an asian-foods store, or better yet buy a small potted version at your local nursery. It's easy to grow!

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