The early days of summer usher in a frenzied re-acquaintance with a favorite cooking device forlorn over the winter: the outdoor grill. People flock to the grocery store to snap up brats, burgers, steaks, chicken, fish, hot dogs, and anything else that might fit on their grill. Everything seems to taste better on the grill in those first weeks, especially with taste buds primed by fun summer-time adult beverages.
Eventually, however, the rediscovered joy of grilling wanes, and the food choices can start to feel a little one-dimensional. “Brats again?” “How about pork steaks instead?” If you find yourself hitting the grill doldrums, set sail for the mouth-watering waters of Asian grill recipes. While they may sound too distant and too difficult to navigate, they are in fact as close as your computer and credit card, and well chartered, with the help of a good cookbook.
Thai chicken satay, for example, is a dependable, easy-to-do, crowd pleaser. The marinade for the chicken is a simple recipe, with “fish sauce” being the only ingredient (of my recipe) that will take a little extra planning to get. It’s not that it can’t be found- it can be easily ordered from www.importfood.com (get Three Crabs Brand), or found at many Asian grocery stores. You can find fish sauce at some chain grocery stores, but I have found Three Crabs to be far superior, not to mention you get more for your money. Don’t let the seemingly over-sized 24 oz bottle of the Three Crabs Brand fish sauce put you off- fish sauce is a basic ingredient of many Thai and Vietnamese dishes- if you find you enjoy cooking Thai or Vietnamese food, you’ll be using a lot of it. Even if satay is the only dish you would ever make, I would still get the Three Crabs Brand fish sauce. The impact it will have on your finished product will be well worth your effort of getting it, and the shelf life is years long.
When I am having a party, I have found that a menu of chicken satay, pad thai, and Thai sticky rice offers my guests a diverse, authentic, flavorful buffet without tiring me too much. While the taste of these classic dishes may be unfamiliar to some, they are usually not jarring. After all, if I am introducing Thai food to someone, the goal is to spark an interest in it, and for my guests to leave wondering where they can find a Thai restaurant, or if they could learn to make it themselves. By choosing these three, I am able to please the more cautious eaters, as well as the more daring ones.
If preparation of these dishes seems intimidating, fear not! Here is my preparation strategy: The night before the event, I start marinating the chicken, make the satay dipping sauce, and get the sticky rice soaking. (Thai sticky rice needs to soak in water for several hours before steaming it in a sticky rice steamer.) The next day I make the pad thai, steam the sticky rice, and grill the chicken, which, thanks to the thin strips the chicken is cut into, cooks in minutes. To help conserve time, I usually grill the satay or work on the pad thai while the sticky rice is steaming. Soon my Thai buffet is ready!
Other than needing to soak the sticky rice in advance, I could leave the rest of the preparation for the day of my event, but I prefer to have some of it accomplished the prior evening. This leaves more time on the day of the event for those last minute hosting tasks, like bulldozing through piles of toys that had been tidied up the day before, only to mysteriously leap from their bins again as the event time nears.
Of course, you wouldn’t necessarily have to make anything besides chicken satay to make a great meal. Or, you could choose to serve chicken satay alongside burgers and brats. The possibilities are endless. Too bad summer is not.
Kristin Enkvetchakul is the author of “Introduction to Asian Cooking”. Available at bookstores everywhere.