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In the Kitchen: Some favorite Thai dishes at home

Thai is one of my absolute favorite cuisines. You might think cooking Thai food at home is prohibitive because some common ingredients are not always readily available at your corner grocery store. 

Thankfully, most grocery stores have come a long way upping their game with ethnic ingredients. In addition, there are some substitutions you can use when cooking Thai dishes and nobody will be the wiser — the dishes will taste authentic and delicious. For example, to substitute lemongrass, a common ingredient in Thai cooking, you can use lime zest or the peel (not the pitch) of a lime. Just remove the peel before serving. 

There is one ingredient I don’t think there is a good substitute for is fish sauce. One sniff of this sauce might make you want to run for the hills, but I promise if you add some to a dish that calls for it, you won’t taste anything “fishy.” What you will taste is a seasoning that melds perfectly and gives the dish that little “something something” nobody can quite put their finger on, but are happy to keep eating the dish. Most grocery stores don’t have a broad selection of fish sauces, but you can find many at an Asian grocery store or online. My favorite is a brand called Red Boat — it’s made in Vietnam and is delicious. Another good brand is Golden Boy Brand and I have found that one locally. 

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I love lettuce wraps and make them often. This is a chicken Thai one and uses ground chicken thighs. You can use ground chicken breasts, but I like the texture and flavor of thighs better. 

Thai chicken lettuce wraps

1-pound ground chicken, preferably thighs

2 tablespoons neutral oil, such as avocado oil

1/2 onion, minced

1 ½ tablespoons fresh ginger, grated on a microplane

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons soy sauce

3 tablespoons fish sauce

2 teaspoons lime zest

2-3 tablespoons brown sugar

Juice from 1 lime

2 green onions, minced

1/2 cup cilantro, minced

1/4 cup mint, minced

2 carrots, grated

Lettuce leaves for wrapping

Toasted peanuts or cashews, chopped (optional)

Heat oil over medium-high heat. Add ground meat and onion, cooking until meat is done and onions are soft. Drain meat and then return to skillet. Add the ginger and garlic and cook another minute or two. Turn heat down and add soy sauce, fish sauce, lime zest, brown sugar, lime juice and cook another few minutes, stirring to combine. Now taste. Adjust. Remove from heat and stir in green onion, cilantro, mint and carrots. Wrap in lettuce leaves and top with nuts. 

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Who doesn’t love Thai coconut soup? It’s creamy, luscious and addictive. Don’t be put off by the list of ingredients — it isn’t difficult to make and you will be rewarded with a fantastic soup that is also great the next day. 

Thai coconut soup (Tom Ka Kai)

2 tablespoons neutral oil, such as avocado oil

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into small pieces

1/2 teaspoon salt

6 ounces shitake mushrooms, stems removed and thinly sliced

3 green onions, chopped and divide the green from the white

2 peeled strips from a lime

1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated

2 jalapenos, seeded and finely minced

6 cups chicken stock

1 (14-ounce) can coconut milk (not lite)

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2 tablespoon fish sauce

1/2 teaspoon brown sugar

1/2 cup cilantro, chopped

1/2 cup basil, cut into slivers

Heat oil over medium-high heat. Sprinkle chicken pieces with salt and add to hot oil. Cook for several minutes per side until browning. It won’t be fully cooked yet, and that is fine. Add the mushrooms and cook another minute. Add the white part of the green onions and cook another minute. Add the lime peels, ginger, and jalapeno and cook another minute.

Pour in the stock, coconut milk, lime juice, fish sauce and brown sugar. Bring to a boil and then lower heat and simmer 15 minutes. Remove and discard the lime peel. Add in the green part of the green onions. Taste for seasoning, adding more fish sauce if it needs more salt. To serve, ladle into bowls and garnish with fresh cilantro and basil. 

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This is a nice, cooling side dish. It can be a topping for lettuce wraps or just a tasty side dish. 

Cucumber/cilantro relish

1/2 European cucumber, thinly sliced

3/4 cup cilantro, chopped

1/2 cup rice vinegar

1 ½ tablespoons sugar

Pinch salt

Toss together cucumber slices and cilantro. In a small bowl, whisk together rice vinegar, sugar and salt. Stir to dissolve sugar and salt. Pour over the cucumbers and then cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.