Thursday, September 3, 2009

Spy School, Part 2
What’s cooking? Thai Meatballs with Green Curry Sauce

Here we are – my cousin Helen and I – with Chef. It’s hard to compress the learning that takes place at the CIA in a mere four days, but I’ve tried to focus on the most memorable. What follows then are five pearls of wisdom from my time at the CIA.

1. Beware the toque. Everyone in the CIA kitchen wears one, ostensibly because it keeps the sweat of your brow from splashing down into the food. My own experience is that they make you sweat more, because even with the air conditioning, it’s about 102º in those professional kitchens (really, that’s what they told us) – and you’ve got a hat on! Worse than that, at the end of the class, you have a terrible case of hat head.

2. It’s all about the mise en place. Hard as it is to imagine, I am not always totally organized when I set out to cook something. So I felt properly chastised when, in the opening lectures, the second topic of discussion – right after “Safety and Sanitation” – was “Mise en place.” That’s French for “Get your shit together.” All those little bowls you see laid out in front of Ina and Mario and Paula and Emeril and Giada? That’s everything they need, in the quantities they need, chopped or sliced or cubed. Of course, Ina and Mario don’t have to slice/chop/cube anything, but it does make the work go smoother and faster.

3. Not using the fond will land you in culinary hell. In cooking, the fond is those brown crusty bits of meat stuck to the bottom of a skillet after you cook it. For the longest time, they just looked to me like more work in the clean-up phase. By the time I got to the CIA, I had learned that they are the basis of most pan sauces, but I hadn’t realized how much flavor they can add to a dish. Which is why even if the recipe for Thai Meatballs didn’t call for it, Chef said I must add a little stock to the pan and deglaze before I continued with making the sauce, or risk eternal damnation. (A corollary to this rule is not to use a teflon pan.)

4. Pillsbury frozen pie crust works as well for hors d’oeuvres as the homemade variety. Certainly my homemade variety. So I’ve used the store-bought stuff for years, but it was nice to have this particular short-cut validated by a pro.

5. No non-functional garnishes. None of that foo-foo parsley on top of your canapés. “Very 80s,” says Chef, and another sure-fire ticket to culinary hell. The garnish must add to the flavor or the texture of the item, like a dill sprig on salmon or cilantro on ceviche. Consider yourself warned.

And now for the good stuff. These meatballs are amazing – tender and tangy – but the sauce will make you want to lick the entirety of the sauté pan. Just wait until it has cooled off a bit – I wouldn't want you to burn your tongue.

Thai Meatballs with Green Curry Sauce,  adapted from the Culinary Institute of America
(It helps to start with a trip to an Asian market, where these are pretty standard ingredients. But the results are well worth the effort.)

For the meatballs:
1 pound ground pork
1 pound ground beef
4 green onions, finely minced
3½ tablespoons oyster sauce
½ cup cilantro, chopped
3-4 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 teaspoon orange zest, finely grated
2 teaspoons Asian chili sauce (e.g., Sriracha)
1½ teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
2 eggs

For the sauce:
3 teaspoons Thai green curry paste
1½ cups coconut milk
1-2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
1 tablespoon palm sugar
Juice of ½ lime

1 cup cornstarch
½ cup vegetable oil
½ cup beef stock

Thoroughly mix (like whip with a wooden spoon) the meatball ingredients. Wet your hands, roll a small portion into a 1" ball and place it on a tray. Repeat 30-35 times. Refrigerate about 20 minutes.

Dredge the meatballs lightly in cornstarch. Heat the vegetable oil in a sauté pan over medium to medium-high heat until the oil shimmers, and sauté the meat until golden brown. Let meatballs rest on a rack, then drain off fat from the pan, add stock and deglaze (scrape the fond from the pan as you boil down the stock). Add sauce ingredients, stirring and adjusting for taste, and bring the sauce to a simmer. Add back the meatballs and cook until they are thoroughly heated. Serve with toothpicks or as individual bites in Chinese spoons. Or as a main course over pasta or rice.

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