Thai Beef with Eggplant

Since my first cardboard box of Lemonheads (slipped to me by my grandmother when my natural-foods-pushing parents weren’t looking), I’ve been hooked on sweet and sour. Give me a package of Fun Dip or some Haribo Gummi Grapefruit Slices over a piece of chocolate cake any day. And my dad’s deep love of peanut butter (all natural, stirring required, of course) introduced me to the notion of sweet and salty at an early age. It took me a little longer to find my way to spicy food but, once I did, it was with the zeal of a convert.

When I first discovered Thai food, it was a revelation. You mean I can have salty, sweet, sour and spicy all at once? In college, my stepdad’s brother Daniel took me to South Berkeley’s famed Thai Buddhist Temple brunch. Daniel being Daniel and me being a religious scholar, we somehow got to eat inside with the monks. This was my first introduction to Thai food cooked for Thai people–and it was HOT. I was seated somewhere in the middle of three long tables arranged in a horseshoe, flanked by serene men in saffron robes. I did my best to smile sweetly while tears and worse poured down my face. And still I loved it.

At the beginning I was satisfied with just about any Thai food but, over the years, I’ve become more discriminating. While I still love that unique flavor bomb (did I mention umami?), I find that many places dish up gloppy, sickly sweet sauce, overly starchy noodles, and way too much low-grade cooking oil for my stomach to properly process.

And so I save myself for those special Thai meals when the ingredients are fresh and each dish is like a symphony where you can pick out and appreciate the individual components but the whole is somehow greater.

In the meantime, I’ve figured out that I can make a reasonable facsimile of Thai food at home using whatever protein, vegetables and herbs I have on hand. The key is in the condiments. The shelves on my refrigerator door always contain fish sauce, soy sauce, Sriracha, rice wine vinegar and sesame oil–all of which will last pretty much forever. A few weeks back, I deployed these ingredients to whip up a Thai Beef Salad and Quick-Pickled Kohlrabi.

Yesterday was my first day off in two weeks. Sheer exhaustion and a badly sprained ankle compelled me to stay home. Luckily, I had plenty of CSA bounty with which to feed myself. For breakfast I had scrambled eggs and tomatoes lightly dressed with salt, pepper, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and a little fresh basil. Lunch was the aforementioned Plum and Ricotta Salata Salad. By dinner time, I was ready to tackle the eggplant, green beans, onions, Thai red chilies and more of that basil.

This year, my CSA struck up a partnership with Lewis Waite Farm. One can order their pork and beef à la carte along with chicken and dairy products from neighboring farms. Overwhelmed by the choices, I opted for a monthly Carnivore Share. I’ve been trying to eat more meat and have made a commitment to focus on meat that is good for me and good for the planet. My freezer is starting to fill up as, even with dinner guests, four pounds is a lot of meat for me to go through in a month. But I imagine the stash will be quite welcome come winter.

Carnivore Share

I’m having fun toying with new cuts. Earlier this week, I cooked the lamb rib chops pictured above and ate them over an arugula and tomato salad. Last night, with my friend Louis on his way over, I was ready to tackle the eye round beef from my previous month’s share. While I was unfamiliar with eye round, I could tell by eyeballing it that this was a lean cut probably best suited for stewing or braising. But there was only half a pound of it, which didn’t seem worth a slow and low cook. I decided to try to tenderize it by slicing it thinly against the grain, cooking it quickly at high heat, and using a marinade with a good bit of acid. The resulting dish was so good that, sadly, there were no leftovers to pick at this morning.

Eye Round Beef

Thai Beef with Eggplant

  • 4 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon Sriracha
  • 2 tablespoons thinly sliced basil leaves
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 1 Thai red chili, seeded and thinly sliced
  • 3 tablespoons canola/vegetable oil
  • 1 large Japanese or other long skinny eggplant, cut into discs
  • 8 ounces eye round beef, sliced thinly against the grain
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  1. Combine 3 tablespoons of the soy sauce along with the fish sauce, sugar, rice wine vinegar, Sriracha, basil, lime juice, and half of the ginger, garlic and chili in a small bowl.
  2. Heat 1 tablespoon of canola oil in a large pan over medium-low heat. You want it hot enough that a drop of water sizzles but not so hot that the oil is smoking. Add half of your eggplant, cook until lightly browned, flip and then cook until the other side is also browned. (They may seem a bit firm, but should soften up as they slowly steam.) Place the cooked eggplant in a shallow bowl and drizzle half of the marinade over the top.
  3. Repeat Step 2 with the remaining eggplant slices, taking care to shift them to the bottom of the shallow bowl so that they get a chance to soak up the marinade and soften.
  4. Turn the heat up to medium and add your last tablespoon of oil. Then add the remaining ginger, garlic and chili. When these are fragrant but not yet browning, add the beef and cook for three minutes or so, stirring or flipping as needed, until you don’t see any red. Add the remaining tablespoon of soy sauce. Toss the eggplant with its sauce into the pan and stir to combine.
  5. Empty the contents of the pan into a serving bowl and drizzle with the remaining marinade.

Thai Beef with Eggplant

I served this with brown Jasmine rice and some green beans that I had sautéed with onion, garlic, ginger and the other half of the chili pepper. Off of the heat, these were dressed with a sauce made from peanut butter, sesame oil, Sriracha, and soy sauce. Fresh basil leaves went over the top.

Green Beans with Sesame Peanut Sauce

This meal paired wonderfully with a Vinho Verde. Afterwards, we retired to the couch with a bottle of Prosecco, an ice pack, and a Barbara Stanwyck film. Louis was snoring within 30 minutes.

Thai Beef Salad and Quick Pickled Kohlrabi

On Tuesday I returned from a deliriously fun and much-needed vacation to Montreal. That evening, I worked my CSA shift in a steamy warehouse. It is a testament to both the friendliness of my neighbors and the agricultural skills of the good folks at Windflower Farms that I do not begrudge my mosquito-bitten legs. I headed home around 8:30–itchy, dripping in sweat, and laden with fresh vegetables.

The rest of the week is a bit of a blur. I did my best to catch up at work, coming home late in the evenings to assemble a quick salad. The heat finally broke on Friday and I seized the opportunity for some actual cooking as well a joyride from my office in the Village to my home in Brooklyn courtesy of Citibike.

I’d invited a friend for dinner, assuming I could piece something together from the odds and ends in my fridge. I had red leaf lettuce, scapes, green onions, basil, and kohlrabi. I also needed to get a move on the meat socked away in my modestly-sized freezer before this month’s share arrived. I threw a block of ground beef into warm water to defrost, poured a glass of Riesling, and got to work on the kohlrabi, which looks like a cross between an alien spaceship and a deepwater sea creature.

Kohlrabi

Quick Pickled Kohlrabi (or Carrots or Whatever)

  • 1 cup rice wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 10 black peppercorns
  • 20 whole coriander seeds
  • 2 pinches red pepper flakes
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 kohlrabi bulbs (and/or carrots, turnips, etc.)

Combine all but the kohlrabi in a very small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. While you’re waiting, peel the kohlrabi and cut into matchsticks. Pour the hot brine over the kohlrabi and let stand for an hour or so, stirring occasionally. If you have the time, toss it in the fridge to chill.

Quick Pickled KohlrabiAt some point, I decided to make some rice. I brought 1/2 cup of brown Jasmine rice, just under a cup of water and a pinch of salt to a boil, tossed a lid on, turned the heat down, and let simmer until we were ready to eat. I also rinsed and dried a head of red leaf lettuce.

Justin arrived a little after 7:00, by which time I had polished off the wine. Justin busied himself making a batch of gin cocktails with sweet vermouth and the poaching liquid from my foray into homemade maraschino cherries. I got to work on my best approximation of Larb, a dish that I associate with Thai food, although the internet tells me that it is actually Laotian.

Thai Beef Salad

  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil (or some sort of vegetable oil)
  • 1 garlic scape (or a couple of cloves of garlic), thinly sliced
  • 1 onion (in this case a fresh green onion), cut into slivers
  • 1 pound lean ground beef
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar (or another lime, but I could only unearth a single dessicated fruit)
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon Sriracha or other chili sauce 
  • 20 leaves fresh basil and an equal amount of fresh mint
  1. Bring the oil up to medium heat in a cast iron skillet and then add the garlic scape, onion, and beef. Stir frequently, taking care to break up the meat.
  2. Mix the remaining ingredients, save for the basil, in a small bowl.
  3. When the onions are wilted and the beef is cooked through, dump the mixture into a bowl along with the sauce from the smaller bowl. Thinly slice the herbs and toss everything together.

Thai Beef Salad

I had intended to serve the beef mixture in lettuce wraps, but the lettuce turned out to be more spikey than leafy, so we mounded it on our plates, adding the rice, beef, and additional Sriracha. This would have been even more delicious had I remembered the pickled kohlrabi (blame it on the gin), which ended up making a solo appearance as the second course.

Happy Justin

From there, we whipped up a couple of Gibsons with radishes that I pickled during last autumn’s bumper crop and headed up to the roof for some fresh air. Back downstairs and having polished off the vermouth, we moved on to rye mixed with Campari and bitters–or something like that.