Monday, October 29, 2012

Aidells at Stiles Switch

The plaque outside Stiles Switch, noting it as ATX’s first shopping center (and a shooting location for Dazed and Confused)

This past Sunday old buddy Bruce Aidells was in town for The Texas Book Festival, promoting his excellent new meat book (see my review in the Chronicle: He had contacted me about getting together to strap on the feed bag while he was in town, and I was tasked with figuring out what and where to eat. Bruce hails from Berkeley, so he can get better Asian, as-good Latino chow, and pretty damn good soul food from Oakland; the one thing that he can’t get in the Bay area is good Texas barbecue. On a previous trip here we did a 7-stop barbecue tour that damn near killed us from barbecue overdose, so I know he loves to get his ’cue on when offered the chance. I knew the chances of Aaron Franklin or John Mueller having anything left by 4pm on a Sunday afternoon were slim to zero, so I opted for Stiles Switch BBQ and Brew. It’s been a while since I had been there, and I thought Bruce could appreciate their brisket, the sausage, and the beef ribs.

Bruce Aidells, America’s Meat Guru and originator of Aidell’s Sausage
Stiles Switch sits in Austin’s original shopping center, the gloriously old Violet Crown (1951), on the corner of Brentwood and N. Lamar. The whole area is slowly gentrifying and getting hipper, and Stiles Switch sits just a block north of a true Austin landmark, Eddie Wilson’s Threadgill’s restaurant (opened originally as a Gulf filling station in 1933 by Kenneth Threadgill, and the spot where Janis Joplin developed her chops). Stiles Switch has been opened about 10 months now, a project of three Taylor, Texas guys, all with solid backgrounds in Centex BBQ: owner Shane Stiles, manager James Jackson, and pitmaster Lance Kirkpatrick. We went in and Lance was manning the counter, so after introductions, we told Lance to do his darndest.  We got a tray with an assortment of meats and a couple of sides.

The platter, bottom right mac n cheese, beef chuck rib, two types of brisket (fatty from the end of the point, and a slightly leaner cut from the middle), pork ribs, jalapeno cheese sausage, Stiles Switch original spicy sausage; both slaws (lemon vinaigrette on top, creamy on the bottom)

Their beef chuck rib has impressed me before and impressed me again: it has a thick bark enclosing unctuous tender beef that melts in the mouth. The brisket has gotten better since my last visit. “We have the smoker dialed-in and well-seasoned now,” says Lance.  We got slices from the fatty end, the point, and it had those delightful sugar cookies clinging to the bark, a deep smoke ring, meltingly tender texture, and great flavor. We tried two sausages, the Switch Original, which has a nice spicy zip to the seasoning, a medium-coarse texture, with a good snap to the casing and great smoky flavor, and the jalapeño-cheese; good, but not on a par with the Original. Lance’s pork ribs were also fantastic: a thick, smoky bark with rich porky flavor and just enough resistance on the bite. Excellent ribs, beef and pork, great sausage, and the brisket got better. I’m not much of a sides guy, but the mac ‘n cheese was okay, as were the two versions of slaw (creamy and lemon vinaigrette); compliments in that department.

Briskets getting ready to come off of the Klose smoker out back

Pitmaster Lance Kirkpatrick and Bruce discuss smoker thermodynamics and how the Koreans are driving up the prices of beef chuck ribs in America

Lance and the business end of the Klose smoker, with split post oak fire

When we had scarfed it all down, Lance offered Bruce a look at the Klose smoker out back (Dave Klose is the premier barbecue smoker builder in the country, and an old acquaintance of Bruce). It’s a work of welding art, and now that Lance has it dialed-in and seasoned-up, I think the barbecue has improved. Lance pointed out where the second Klose pit was going to go, a trailer unit that can be driven to catering gigs and competitions. All in all, a gorgeous fall afternoon, topped off by some excellent barbecue as we talked wagyu hybrid briskets, comparisons between the oak wilt here versus the California wilt, the realities of the food book publishing biz and the rise of ebooks, and how the Koreans are buying up all the chuck ribs from the US, making the price skyrocket. Good seeing Bruce again, and nice doing it over some delicious Centex barbecue.

Stiles Switch BBQ and Brew
6610 N. Lamar, 380-9199

Mick Vann ©       

Friday, October 26, 2012

Last Friday at Sap’s, 10.191.2012

I stopped by on the way home from work and decided on a couple of things I seldom order, and boy, was I glad I did. The first dish was Sweet Hot Bamboo Shoots, S-P33 on the menu, which is a bowl of bamboo shoots that have been sautéed with some scrambled egg, brown sugar, thick slices of jalapeño chiles, fish sauce, soy, and lots of garlic. Lots of folks order it with a meat thrown in, but I got it solo, as it is on the menu. It’s crunchy from the shoots, sweet and salty, spicy (I requested 4 star heat, so it was loaded with zippiness), and rich. An under-appreciated and excellent dish.

I also got Chu Chee Salmon, S-P17. Chu chee is a traditional curry that is  paired exclusively with seafood and if you are in Thailand, the curry paste vendors in the markets will sell chu chee paste for the dish. Chu chee paste is basically a red curry paste with less coriander and cumin added, heavy on the galangal (galangal is especially used with seafood to remove the "fishiness", although all seafood in Thailand is pristinely fresh), krachai, and Thai lime leaf (all of which are often paired with seafood). It has plenty of garlic and red chile, with the zest of Thai lime fruit, white peppercorn, roasted shrimp paste, shallots, and lemongrass. Some restaurants use red curry paste, or they combine red curry paste with panang curry paste to make the dish. The paste is the background flavor; upfront you taste shredded Thai lime leaf, red chile, rich coconut milk, fish sauce, and palm sugar. It’s rich, spicy, salty, and sweet and it pairs perfectly with the richness of salmon fillet. I haven’t ordered this in a while, because frankly, I’m not a huge salmon fan, but the fish was moist and cooked exactly like it should have been, and the sauce was amazing. A fantastic dish.

Mick Vann ©

Mick's Instant Hot Chocolate Mix


It's finally a little chilly here and some folk's thoughts turn to hot chocolate. If you're lazy like I am, or you have kids (shudder), then the realization that all you need for some hot chocolate is this upgraded hot chocolate mix and some boiling water should come as a pleasant surprise. It's not gonna be the kind of spoon-standing, ultra rich 80% cacao cup of melted chocolate lusciousness like you get at Cacao Sampaka in Barcelona, but it makes a decadently rich and fast cuppa hotchoc, and it's FAR superior to Swiss Miss or any of those others.

Mick’s Instant Hot Cocoa Mix:
                Makes about 13 cups, or ~ 40 servings
4 cups powdered sugar
2½ cups Dutch-process cocoa powder (Droste or similar)
5 cups powdered milk
1½ cups heavy cream powder (or powdered non-dairy creamer)
4 tablespoons arrowroot
2 teaspoon salt
Dash cayenne pepper
Hot water
Mini marshmallows, or whipped cream, plus shaved chocolate for garnish (optional)

Sift all ingredients together into a large mixing bowl and distribute evenly. Portion into resealable bags and shake to re-distribute before measuring-out (in case it has settled); keeps indefinitely in the pantry. Fill a mug half full (about 1/3 of a cup) with the mixture and pour in hot water. Want it thicker and stronger, stir in a little more. Stir to combine. Top with mini marshmallows, or whipped cream, and shaved chocolate.

PS: it’s also good with some Kahlúa or Tia Maria, Bailey’s, Amaretto, Luxardo Espresso Liqueur, Frangelico or Nocello, or Godiva added to the cup!

Mick Vann © 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Drunkard's Noodles -- Pad Kee Mao


Pad Kee Mao is a popular stir-fried rice noodle dish served throughout Thailand and the direct translation is “drunkard’s noodles”. When you order this dish in Thailand, rest assured that it will be very spicy, loaded with chiles and basil, and the preferred way to eat it is accompanied by a large icy beer (although over there, the beer might be poured over ice). The dish is just as popular with the Thai whiskey drinkers, whether it’s Mekhong or Sang Som whiskey, Sang Thip rum, lao khao (“white liquor”), lao theuan (“jungle liquor”), or yaa dong (rice-based herbal liquor). I suppose you could also include the Thai fruit wine drinkers, and perhaps the legitimate Thai varietal grape wine drinkers as well (Thailand has a burgeoning wine industry, using varietal grapes grown on the temperate mountain slopes).

Pad Kee Mao is a versatile dish. It can be made with rice noodles, wheat spaghetti, without noodles and served over rice, or as fried rice. The main protein can be beef, pork, chicken, tofu, or seafood, or with mixed meats, or only vegetables; you name it. Kee mao is a cooking style, not a particular dish, although most Westerners think of the classic stir-fried rice noodle dish when they think of the term kee mao. In Thai, ‘pad’ means to stir-fry, and ‘kee mao’ means someone who likes to drink too much. ‘Kee’ literally means ‘shit’, and putting ‘kee’ in front of any verb indicates it’s a bad habit. ‘Mao’ means drunk. So, a ‘kee mao’ (“shit drunk”) is someone who has a bad habit of drinking way too much.

There are many theories on how the dish or the cooking style got its name. Drinkers in Thailand prefer very spicy dishes, especially carbo-rich dishes, when they’re getting their drunk on, and pad kee mao is considered an excellent hangover treatment; both conceivable theories.

Others, especially Westerners, feel the dish is so hot that the eater has to be drunk to be able to stand it, or one becomes drunk trying to drown out the heat with alcohol, or it’s so hot that the spiciness makes one feel drunk. Considering the wide assortment of ingredients that can be in the dish, the cook must have been drunk to have combined them in the first place, or the original cook was drunk when he first cooked it, so he didn’t realize how hot the dish was until later. Yet another theory is that the “wobbly” nature of the noodles themselves gave the dish its name. The dish is widely available at street food stalls very late at night and very early in the morning, when the unofficial or hidden bars are emptying out, hence, the preferred dish of drunkards. (In the cities there are curfews on how late bars can serve, but it’s common for underground or late-night bars to do business way past curfew by offering bribes to local officials to look the other way. There is a subculture of illegal after-hours clubs, often located in second floor walkups, which serve all night long, with many of them not even opening up for business until 3 or 4 am).

Regardless of the source of the name, the cooking style and dish originated in an earlier version in China, and was brought through Southern China by traders and immigrants into both Laos and Thailand, spreading first through the Chinese immigrant communities, and then adopted into the Thai community at-large.

It is a common dish across Thailand, and is most frequently found being sold by street or market vendors, or in shophouse cafés with limited menus. A shophouse is a typical Thai row building, 2 or 3-story, with a business on the ground floor and living quarters above. If that business is a small café, it will usually have open-air seating, covered by the building above, with a street stall-like kitchen set up in one corner, or on the edge of the sidewalk. It can also be found on the menu of regular restaurants, and if a bar has a kitchen, it will be offered to the bar’s patrons.

The dish itself involves the aforementioned choice of protein and blanched (pre-cooked al dente) rice stick noodles, especially wide (sen yai) noodles. Some prefer rice vermicelli, feeling it gets coated better with the sauce, and spaghetti noodles aren’t uncommon, especially in the cities where Italian restaurants are quite popular. Whichever noodle is used, it’s best if it gets slightly charred in the cooking process, to get that smoky “dragon’s kiss” from the wok. It can also be prepared as fried rice, or served over rice as a sauce. The dish has lots of chopped garlic cloves, especially Thai garlic, which is smaller but more pungent than American garlic. The heat comes from lots of chopped fresh Thai chiles, especially orange Thai chiles (phrik daeng), usually combined with some phrik pat (roasted chile paste), or phrik pon (dried ground bird chile); it will be very spicy, unless the vendor tones it down because you look like you can’t handle the heat. Depending on the cook, it might also have fresh green peppercorns (phrik thai onn). There is an assortment of vegetables that can be added at this point, depending on the choice of the cook: mushrooms, Chinese cabbage, etc. Traditionally the dish is not terribly vegetable-centric.
The sauce is usually a mother sauce made-up in advance, of fish sauce, black soy sauce, oyster sauce, and white sugar. It’s not uncommon to include Golden Mountain Sauce, which has been made in Thailand for over 50 years. It has a taste similar to Maggi Seasoning Sauce, but is more authentically “Thai” in overall flavor profile. At the last minute holy basil is added so that it gets wilted and infuses the dish; many prefer holy basil since it amplifies the spiciness of the dish (which, in the case of this dish, is a good thing). Thai basil can be used instead of holy basil; if so, it gets tossed in as a garnish.


Sugar, phrik pat, and naam som phrik
On the table, is the vendor or shophouse café’s khreuang puang : literally ‘circle of spices'. It's a reference to the standard condiments on the Thai table, especially where noodles are served: naam plaa (fish sauce), phrik pon (chile powder), phrik dong or naam som phrik (chile slices in vinegar), and white sugar. Vinegar isn’t normally added to a wok during the cooking process, as it could affect the cooked-on non-stick “seasoning” of the metal; generally, vinegar is added by the diner at the table. If the vendor specializes in pad kee mao, the chiles in vinegar would likely be Thai orange chiles, a sweet-sour, fruity chile that still packs a wallop, but not the stinging heat of Thai or bird chiles (prik kee nu). For the most part, the chiles added to the vinegar as a table condiment are milder Thai chiles like phrik chii faa (‘sky pointing chiles) or phrik yuak (‘banana stalk chiles). You’d also find some chile paste, or phrik phat: fresh ripe Thai chiles which are sun or oven-dried, roasted and ground, and then sautéed in a little bit of oil to produce a dry, almost paste-like consistency. It's used as a table condiment. The flavor is very spicy and smoky, and the taste of this condiment goes with literally any dish. The most common adjustments that a pad kee mao diner would add are a sprinkle of sugar, a little vinegar, and some additional heat, either from chile paste or chile powder (or both).

The next time you have a hankering for a plate of Thai noodles, especially if you have a little alcohol buzz going on, defer to the drunkard’s choice: pad kee mao. It’s rich, aromatic, smoky, and oh-so very spicy; the perfect sort of dish to keep the hangover gods at bay.

Mick Vann, Wonk in Progress © 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Pud Ped Gaprao -- Thai Hamburger Helper

Americans might think of pud ped gaprao, or pad gaprao (which means stir fry with holy basil), as the Thai equivalent of hamburger helper, meaning that it is very simple to prepare and cooks in seconds, using a short list of ingredients that are usually on-hand. It’s the kind of dish that almost anyone or any restaurant can quickly throw together, and is also one of the favorite comfort food dishes of the Thai people. If it is not on the restaurant menu, odds are the kitchen can make it, and it is often available at fast-food, curry-rice shops (rahn kao gkaeng). It can be cooked with pretty much any minced meat (chicken, turkey, duck, pork, wild boar, water buffalo, or beef), sliced squid, whole shrimp, shellfish (mussels, whelks, razor clams, clams, etc.), mixed seafood (crab, scallops, firm-fleshed fish, mussels, shrimps, etc.), or even tofu or mushrooms for vegetarians,  if necessary. The smaller the protein ingredient is chopped or minced, the greater the surface area there will be that is coated with the flavors of the aromatic herbs and sauce, and the bigger the flavor the stir-fry has. 

It is basically a simple stir fry; one of those many dishes that originated in Chinese cuisine, and got morphed into the Thai culinary realm as its own creation. Originally it would have been stir-fried using lard, which always boosts the flavor, but today you’re much more likely to see vegetable oil or rice bran oil being used. It is seasoned with lots of pungent Thai garlic, piquant Thai chiles, and holy basil, with secondary flavor coming from shallot and a good blast of fish sauce, a splash of rich stock, and from here, recipes diverge. Some substitute Thai basil for holy basil, but that is not the traditional preparation, and a big no-no. After all, “gaprao” is the Thai word for holy basil. It’s like trying to make tom kha (spicy coconut milk soup with galangal) without the galangal; believe me, it’s not that uncommon here in the States.

Gaprao daeng, "red" holy basil, from Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages

Holy basil ( Ocimum tenuiflorum, gaprao daeng; daeng means “red”) has a reddish-purplish pigment to the leaf and the leaf bract. There is a variety of holy basil that is light green (O. sanctum, gaprao khao; khao means “white”), without the purplish pigment; there is also a hybrid between the two varieties. All three varieties work in the dish, but if all are available, the gaprao daeng is preferred. The young leaves are the best to use, as they have concentrated flavor and are the tenderest. Holy basil is always added during the cooking process, but towards the end of the cooking, especially in stir fries, so that it gets wilted and completely infuses the dish with the flavor and aroma; it is never eaten raw. Using holy basil will amplify the spiciness of chiles and aromatics used in the dish.

Gaprao khao, "white" holy basil, from lilithsapothecary.wordpress

Some chefs add very finely minced Thai lime leaf; again, not traditional, but excellent. Some add a small amount of sweet black soy sauce or Golden Mountain sauce and a dab of white sugar, while the old traditional recipe adds ½ teaspoon or so of palm sugar instead, with no sweet black soy. Some cooks add a bit of Maggi sauce, a soy-like sauce made from vegetable protein, with MSG; others add a bit of oyster sauce and/or soy sauce. It is all a matter of preference. Ideally the flavor balance of the finished dish will be heavy on the holy basil, with assertive fish sauce, and the spicy heat of the chiles paired with pungent garlic and sweet shallots nestling in just below those two; it is a spicy dish, but the heat can easily be moderated to assuage the lightweights.

Pud ped gaprao is always served with (or over) fragrant, nutty jasmine rice, normally with some sliced cucumber on the side of the plate, and a garnish of sprigs of cilantro, holy basil, or minced garlic leek or scallion. Depending on how spicily the kitchen prepared it, a Thai would sprinkle on some roasted chile paste (phrik pad), dried powdered bird chile (phrik pon), or even better, and preferred by most, some fish sauce and a bit of lime juice loaded with finely minced Thai chiles (naam plaa phrik). Some take the dish further still, adding sliced mushrooms to the mix, which contrasts nicely with the minced meat texture. In Thailand sometimes you’ll see some sliced long beans added, which add crunch. Ideally the dish comes topped with a kai dao, or crispy-fried sunny-side-up egg, with a crispy edge and a runny yolk that spreads out over the meat when broken, adding additional richness; at the local Thai restaurant you need only tell the waiter to add one.

Pud Ped Gaprao Moo Kai Dao -- Pork and Mushroom Holy Basil Stir-Fry with Fried Egg

We have the Chinese to thank for this dish: 1. they brought domesticated pigs, 2. they brought woks, 3. they knew how to get lard from aforementioned pigs, to stir fry with, 4. they introduced the use of chicken eggs (before the Chinese arrived in force, eggs were a lot more valuable as future chickens than they were as a food source). As with all adapted Thai dishes, the early Thai cooks took a foreign dish and made it uniquely Thai by using indigenous ingredients and the magical skills of Thai culinary alchemy.

The variations to the recipe modify it little; the finished taste is a perfect amalgam of savory deliciousness, and perfectly balanced between spicy, aromatic, salty, and richness. It’s the kind of comfort dish that can instantly transport you back to Thailand with the first bite.

Mick Vann ©