I don’t need food to be hot. But I do like it spicy. Even comfort food. I add chile flakes to pasta, hot sauce to mashed potatoes, black pepper to scrambled eggs.
The penchant for warm spice stems from college days enjoying skewers of chicken satay and pad Thai noodles with classmates. Later, a research meal with Cuisine magazine colleagues at Chicago’s Thai Room opened our eyes to even bolder heat. A menu item, “original hot number one,” challenged us mightily. Gradually, I built tolerance for its searing green curry heat and licorice-y notes of Thai basil. Someday soon, we hope to encounter zesty new flavors dining out with friends.
In the meantime, I’ll cook with bold flavor as much for challenge as nostalgia for shared meals with fellow food adventurers.
Memories of that Thai-style satay, grilled and skewered highly seasoned meat, inspire these recipes. I skip the skewering and opt instead for meaty, flavor-packed pork country ribs. You can use bone-in or boneless country ribs — whatever you can get at the meat counter or butcher. Trim off excess fat, but leave enough for flavor and browning. This recipe also works beautifully with bone-in chicken pieces, beef sirloin steak and lamb shoulder chops.
Refrigerated purées make easy work of the flavor-filled marinade. You can substitute fresh ginger and lemongrass if it is available. If you are missing any of the ground spices, just use a little more of each of the ones you have on hand or substitute some garam masala or curry powder.
For grilling, charcoal adds the most flavor, but a gas grill will suffice. I prepare the grill to have a cooler area so the ribs can cook more slowly to tenderness. A sear over the hottest part of the grill adds a browned flavor that keeps us coming back for more. Be sure to serve the pork with wedges of fresh lime for squeezing over the meat. Bottled peanut satay sauce can be served alongside if you wish. I like to sprinkle lots of fresh cilantro over everything for its fresh flavor.
A slightly sweet and spicy slaw makes a crunchy contrast to the rich meat. In lieu of peanut sauce, I simply add a handful of dry-roasted peanuts to the slaw. Steamed green beans or broccoli spears, tossed with Chinese chile crisp (or melted butter and crushed pepper flakes), makes a gorgeous side dish.
I’m always playing around with ways to flavor brown rice. Here, I add a little unsweetened coconut milk to the cooking water and a generous amount of unsweetened coconut flakes for texture. I just love to sprinkle the finished rice with hot sauce — especially when it’s the basis for a bowl topped with leftover shreds of the pork and spoonfuls of the slaw.
THAI-STYLE GRILLED PORK COUNTRY RIBS
Look for prepared lemongrass and ginger purées in refrigerated cases at the grocer.
8 bone-in or boneless country-style pork loin ribs, each about 1-inch thick OR bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, 2 3/4 to 3 pounds total
1/2 small white onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon lemongrass purée or 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh lemongrass
1 tablespoon ginger purée or grated fresh ginger
1 tablespoon fish sauce (or 2 teaspoons soy sauce)
1/2 small serrano chile, seeded (or 1 teaspoon hot sauce)
1/2 teaspoon each: salt, black pepper, ground coriander, ground cumin, turmeric
Chopped fresh cilantro, lime wedges, bottled peanut satay sauce
Put the ribs into a large bowl or baking dish. Put 1/4 cup water, onion, garlic, purées, fish sauce, chile, salt, pepper, coriander, cumin and turmeric into a blender. Process until smooth.
Pour the marinade over the ribs; turn to be sure meat is coated well on all sides. Refrigerate covered at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours.
Heat a gas grill to medium hot, or prepare a charcoal grill and let coals burn until covered with gray ash. Turn off burners, or arrange coals at sides of grill for indirect cooking.
Put the chops, with marinade that clings, directly over the heat or coals. Cook, without turning, until nicely browned, about 10 minutes. Flip chops to the cooler portion (not directly over the heat) of the grill. Cook without turning, until meat is almost firm when pressed with the tip of a knife (about 150 degrees on an instant read thermometer), about 20 minutes.
Transfer to a serving platter, tent with foil and let stand about 10 minutes. Serve garnished with chopped cilantro and lime wedges for squeezing over meat. Pass the peanut satay sauce if you wish.
Nutrition information per serving: 380 calories, 32 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 110 mg cholesterol, 0 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 22 g protein, 313 mg sodium, 0 g fiber.
Variation: For Thai-style grilled sirloin steak, marinate 2 to 2 1/2 pounds boneless top sirloin beef steak (about 1 inch thick) as directed. Grill the steaks directly over the heat the entire time as follows: 6 minutes on the first side and 4-6 minutes on the second side for medium-rare.
LEMONGRASS AND PEANUT SLAW
1/4 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon each: sugar, dark Asian sesame oil, lemongrass purée
6 cups finely shredded cabbage, about 11 ounces (one-quarter of a medium-size head)
2 large carrots, peeled, trimmed, shaved (about 1 cup or 2.5 ounces)
1/4 medium white onion, finely diced, rinsed
1/2 teaspoon minced fresh green chile (such as jalapeño or serrano) or 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup roughly chopped roasted peanuts (can substitute crunchy chow mein noodles, if desired)
Put the vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil and lemongrass purée into a large bowl. Mix until the sugar dissolves.
Stir in the cabbage, carrots, onion and chile until well mixed. Refrigerate covered about 30 minutes or up to several hours.
Stir well. Add the cilantro and peanuts. Toss and serve.
Nutrition information per serving: 124 calories, 8 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 10 g carbohydrates, 5 g sugar, 4 g protein, 353 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.
COCONUT BROWN RICE
2 cups long-grain brown rice
1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut (optional)
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut milk
2 cloves garlic, crushed
3/4 teaspoon salt
Toasted coconut for garnish (optional)
Chinese chile crisp or red pepper hot sauce (such as peri-peri), for serving
Put 3 cups water, rice, coconut, coconut milk, garlic and salt into a 3-quart saucepan. Heat to a boil.
Reduce heat to very low. Simmer, tightly covered, stirring once or twice, until water is absorbed and rice is tender, about 40 minutes. Let stand off the heat, 10 minutes.
Fluff rice with a fork. Garnish with toasted coconut. Serve hot jazzed up with hot sauce.
Nutrition information per serving: 207 calories, 4 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 38 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 4 g protein, 222 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.