Of all the things I gained during my pregnancy – I mean besides 65 lbs. – the strangest of all was an appreciation for Thai food. Most people like Thai food, at least in my circles, but I have never cared for it. I tried to like it, really I did, but the flavors never meshed for me. Something about the sweet and salty, and the spice – especially the spice – didn’t work for me. Love Vietnamese food, but Thai food, not so much. But then I became pregnant, and it was as if a switch was flipped.
My enjoyment of Thai food became so strong that this year I used a birthday Barnes and Noble gift card to buy Pok Pok by Andy Ricker. Ricker spent years in Thailand learning the cuisine and now has a burgeoning Thai restaurant empire in Portland, Oregon, and New York. He won the James Beard Award Best Chef in the Northwest in 2011. This guy knows his Thai.
So when a handful of kind-of-sad-looking Japanese eggplant came in the CSA a few weeks back, I grabbed Ricker’s cookbook and set out to make grilled eggplant salad. Although the recipe strongly suggested a charcoal grill, I used my oven’s broiler to blacken them. As I assembled the salad, I remembered that my friend Caitlyn, also living in Portland, also a Thai-o-phile, taught me all about this salad when she visited last summer. She even went so far as to find a video of some famous Thai chef making this recipe. “Just skip the step with the shrimp,” she said to me. So I did. And so can you.
A few things about this recipe: Apparently there are dozens of types of eggplants out there, and Caitlyn taught me that small green eggplants are traditionally used in this recipe. That wasn’t an option in my CSA, but the recipe turned out fine. I skipped the fried garlic, only because it called for using thirty cloves and, well, I didn’t have that many in my kitchen. I used the option of red onions rather than shallots because that, along with the chiles and cilantro, came in the CSA. I’m still a wimp about a ton of spice, so even though the recipe calls for 2 chiles, I think I used half of one. I had palm sugar in the house because I found a bag of it in the Gourmet Foods section at TJ Maxx, or maybe it was Home Goods. (One of those two; definitely check out that section if you have the chance. That’s where I’ve found whole vanilla beans for a buck or two.) If you don’t have palm sugar in the house, I think brown sugar will be a decent substitute. I broiled the eggplant one day but only had a chance to make the rest of the salad the following day. I simply heated the pieces of eggplant in a skillet on the stovetop.
I loved this salad. Not sure how many it is supposed to serve, but it served me, and me alone. Rich didn’t even know this salad existed until he edited this post.
Yam Makheua Yao (Grilled Eggplant Salad) from Pok Pok by Andy Ricker
12 ounces long Asian eggplants (2 or 3), preferably green
1 egg, at room temperature
1 ½ Tablespoons lime juice
1 ½ Tablespoons Naam Cheuam Naam Taan Piip (Palm sugar simple syrup – recipe to follow)
1 Tablespoon Thai fish sauce
2 grams fresh Thai chiles, preferably green, thinly sliced (or to taste)
14 grams peeled small shallots, preferably Asian, or very small red onions, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced with the grain (about 2 Tablespoons)
2 Tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro (thin stems and leaves), lightly packed
Clean, peel and cut the eggplants
Cook the eggplants either on the grill (highly recommended) or in the oven.
- On the grill: Prepare a charcoal grill and ignite the coals. Once the coals have begun to turn gray but are still flaming, grill the eggplants directly on the coals, turning frequently, until the skin has almost completely blackened and the flesh is very soft (it should meet with almost no resistance when you poke it with a sharp knife), about 4 minutes. The goal is to fully char the skin before the flesh gets mushy.
- In the Oven: Preheat the boiler to high and position a rack as close as you can to the heat source. Put the eggplants on a baking tray lined with aluminum foil (or, even better, on a wire rack on the baking tray) and broil, turning them over once, until the skin has blistered and mostly blackened and the flesh is very soft (it should meet with almost no resistance when you poke it with a sharp knife) but not mushy, about 6 to 12 minutes total, depending on the size of the eggplants and the distance from the heat source.
Let the eggplants cool for 10 minutes or so. This will make them easier to peel and allow the flesh to firm up slightly. Use your fingers to peel off the skin (don’t go crazy removing every last bit), trying your best to keep the flesh intact. Do not run the eggplant under water. Cut the eggplant crosswise (on the diagonal, if you’re feeling fancy) into 2-inch slices and arrange them on a serving plate.
Cook the Egg: Prepare a bowl of ice water. Bring a small pot of water to a full boil, gently add the whole egg, and cook for 10 minutes. Your goal is a fully cooked egg whose yolk hasn’t become dry and powdery. Transfer the egg to the ice water and once the egg is cool to the touch, peel and coarsely chop the white and yolk into small pieces.
Assemble the Salad: Combine the lime juice, simple syrup, fish sauce, and chiles in a small saucepan or wok, set it over medium heat, and heat the mixture just until it’s warm to the touch, 15 seconds or so. Pour the warm mixture over the eggplant. Sprinkle on the egg, shallot, and finally, cilantro.
Naam Cheuam Naam Taan Piip – Palm Sugar Simple Syrup
2 ½ ounces palm sugar, coarsely chopped
¼ cup plus 1 Tablespoon water
Combine the sugar and the water in a very small pot or pan. Set it over medium heat and cook, stirring and breaking up the sugar as it softens, just until the sugar has completely dissolved. If the water begins to bubble before the sugar has completely dissolved, turn off the heat and let it finish dissolving in the hot liquid.
Let it cool before storing. The syrup keeps in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.