When the back-to-school blues sap culinary spirits, take a lesson from cooks in the Southeast Asian kingdom of Thailand. Thai people aren't always in the mood to toil in the kitchen, but they're never too worn out to eat wonderful food. That's why their cuisine includes an array of fresh, simple dishes that sparkle with intense flavors.
Thai salads make terrific autumn fare whether you're escaping Bangkok's turmoil in a riverside cafe or seeking an easy, appealing way to feed family and friends without wearing yourself out. Hearty, colorful jumbles of meat or seafood are intensely flavored with lime juice, chiles, cilantro and mint. Since most Thai salads are dressed without oil or cheese, they're also intrinsically healthful and tend to please first-timers and dedicated Thai food fans alike.
I learned to love Thai salads during my Peace Corps days in Thailand. The Thai word for this particular category of dishes is yum. Unlike most Thai dishes that are created to season platefuls of plain, unsalted rice, yums stand alone as spicy, enticing dishes to be nibbled at leisure.
In Thailand, yums are either the prelude to a meal or else a stand-alone snack. These robust, fiery dishes are usually paired with ice-cold beer or whiskey-and-soda, but I find that frosty glasses of lemonade or sparkling water temper the chiles equally well.
California cuisine has ushered warm salads onto the list of dishes currently in vogue, and Thai salads fit into this niche. Meat or seafood predominates, which means they work nicely as a main course. And since they're best served warm or at room temperature, I can do all my chopping and other preparation work in advance and then assemble the yum when I'm just about ready to serve it.
Thais prefer a meal full of contrasting flavors, and I quickly became a fan of this idea myself. I like to let my yum provide an exotic accent on a buffet of simple standards, leaving me free to enjoy my guests. Any leftovers provide me with a quick lunch or supper the day after the party.
When I use a Thai salad as part of a buffet, I keep all the other dishes as simple as possible. Tortilla chips with salsa and several kinds of olives are out when guests arrive. Along with a Thai salad, I offer a pasta salad or potato salad, made up hours in advance so that it's cool and ready for presentation whenever I am.
For a touch of color, I saute a skilletful of sugar snap peas or snow peas in a little olive oil just until they're shiny and brilliant green. In the same pan I saute cherry tomatoes for a minute or two, removing them when they're shiny and before they split open. Then I season to taste with salt and pepper the peas and tomatoes and transfer them to a platter.
I round out the meal with two old Southern stand-bys that my North Carolina grandmother always used to please her guests. One is deviled eggs, which I spike with curry powder and minced green onions; the other is a homey bowl of carrot-raisin salad that the food processor can transform into a quick and easy dish.
For a more elegant meal, I start with a simple leek and potato soup, which I can make the day before, and serve either warm or chilled. Plated servings of the beef or seafood salad follow, along with garlic toast. Since this menu leaves me ready for dessert, I finish up with either coffee ice cream with butter cookies at lunch or a luxurious, cool creme caramel at dinner.
The four yum recipes that follow all use freshly squeezed lime juice for a burst of sharp, clean taste. If you're preparing things in advance, I suggest you postpone squeezing and mixing in the lime juice until serving time because its flavor turns harsh quickly.
The beef salad is a standard in northeastern Thailand where robust grilled dishes are a specialty. It's delicious with leftover grilled beef, so I like to cook an extra steak whenever I'm grilling or broiling beef and make this salad the following day.
In Thailand, cooks add crunch and fragrance to the beef salad with a spoonful of roasted rice powder. If you'd like to try this traditional touch, dry-fry grains of raw rice in an ungreased skillet over medium heat until they are wheaty-brown and fragrant. Then pound or grind them to a coarse, sandy powder, using a mortar and pestle or a coffee or spice grinder.
The seafood salad works just as well with shrimp alone if you can't find or don't care for squid and bay scallops. An attractive way to present it as finger food is to place spoonfuls of the dressed seafood in lettuce cups, which are small crisp leaves of limestone or Boston lettuce. Using a slotted spoon to do this makes the lettuce cups neater. Guests pick up a seafood-laden leaf and roll it into a tube, taquito-style, before taking a bite.
The pork salad also works well in lettuce cups. I like to garnish each cup with a sprig of fresh cilantro or a sprinkling of sliced green onions after arranging them on a serving platter.