I didn’t grow up eating Asian food….unless you count the brief period when, as teenagers, my friends and I liked to get won ton soup and fried rice from a local inexpensive “Chinese” restaurant.  Come to think of it, I stopped eating there when I heard a rumor that each won ton in their soup was filled with a tiny little chicken brain.  How embarrassing to think that I believed that they were taking the time to extricate a chicken brain for each and every won ton wrapper!

 
Flash forward a few years and, living in Paris, I discovered the amazing variety of Asian cuisine…. Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, not to mention the many unique provinces of China.  When I first started making these dishes at home, after returning to the States, some of the ingredients were hard to find.  That has really changed in recent years and most big grocery stores have decent Asian sections.  But don’t let that stop you from popping into one of the small Asian markets that may be around town.  The prices are better and you will be inspired by the variety of ingredients!
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Beef with Thai Sweet Basil Leaves

Thai basil has small leaves and a subtle licorice/mint flavor.  It is definitely worth a trip to an Asian market which may offer it in the produce section in the summer months.  For the last couple of years, it has been available here in nurseries so I have been growing it in my herb garden.  If it isn’t to be found near you, another basil variety can be used,  but you may need to tear the leaves if they are large.
1 tablespoon fish sauce
3 tablespoons oyster sauce
4 tablespoons chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion, cut into thin wedges
2 small red chilies, sliced
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
8-10 ounces beef fillet steak, thinly sliced
1 handful Thai sweet basil leaves
Mix the fish sauce, oyster sauce, stock and sugar in a small bowl.  Place a wok or heavy skillet over high heat and add 1/2 tablespoon of the oil.  When very hot, add the onion and chilies and stir fry until just wilted and starting to brown, 2-3 minutes.  Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside while you cook the beef.  Add another 1/2 tablespoon of oil to the wok and then add about half of the beef and half of the chopped garlic.  Scatter the beef slices so that they can cook in a single layer and let them cook undisturbed on one side 1-2 minutes until starting to brown nicely.  Then toss the beef a couple of times quickly and remove it to the plate holding the onion mixture.  Repeat with remaining beef and garlic, adding a bit more oil to the wok only if necessary.  Return everything to the wok and stir in the sauce mixture.  Stir for 30 seconds to let the sauce heat through and to coat the beef. Add the Thai basil leaves and remove from heat.  Serve over Jasmine rice.
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Peanut Shrimp with Rice Noodles

 This recipe is based on one that was published in the New York Times in August of ’09.   This is a wonderful dish because the sauce stays light and fresh while still delivering an amazing amount of flavor.  I like butterflying the shrimp because they curl up quickly into perfect bite sized morsels, but if your shrimp are very small you might want to leave them whole.
1 lime
1/3 cup chunky peanut butter
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
12 ounces flat rice noodles
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 pound raw medium to large shrimp, peeled, deveined and cut in half lengthwise
1 bunch green onions, sliced, white and light green parts only
1 cup grated carrots
2 tablespoons minced fresh garlic
1 minced jalapeno chili
coarse ground black pepper
salt
1/2 cup cilantro leaves, chopped

In a small bowl, combine peanut butter, sugar, fish sauce, the zest and juice from 1 lime, and just enough water to make a smooth sauce.  (about 1/3 cup)
Cook rice noodles in boiling, salted water until just tender, being careful not to overcook or they will become mushy.  Drain.
Heat a large skillet over high heat.  Add oil and quickly stir fry the shrimp until they curl and begin to turn pink.  This should only take a minute or two.  Add scallions, carrots, garlic and jalapeno and toss around until the vegetables soften a bit and the shrimp is just cooked through.  Remove from the heat.
Toss the rice noodles, shrimp and peanut sauce together and season well with the black pepper (and salt if necessary)  Serve hot or room temperature. (Serves 4)
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Cashew Salad

 
In Savoring Southeast Asia, Joyce Jue writes that cashews are grown in abundance the south of Thailand and that this “culinary gem” is a perfect snack to serve with iced limeade or beer.  Be sure and have all of the ingredients prepped and ready to go before you fry the cashews.  And be mindful of the fact that nuts burn very quickly so watch them carefully.  As I did not have any fresh lemongrass, I substituted a bit of fresh lemon zest.  Not the same thing at all but OK in a pinch for this particular recipe.
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 pound raw, large, whole cashews
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1 green onion, thinly sliced (white and light green parts)
1 lemongrass stalk, tender midsection only, finely minced
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped celery leaves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
1 red jalapeno chili, seeded and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 1/2 teaspoons fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves
Place the still hot cashews in a bowl and immediately add the shallots, green onion, lemongrass, celery leaves. mint, and chili.  Toss to mix well.
To make the dressing, combine the lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar in a small bowl.. Stir until the sugar dissolves,  Pour the dressing over the salad and toss well,  Turn out onto a serving plate and garnish with the cilantro leaves.

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