Summer Spice: Thai Chicken & Basil with Cucumber Salad

When the weather gets hot I like spicy food, but I don’t like spending a long time in a hot kitchen. This meal is quick to make, cost-effective and all the ingredients are available in the neighborhood. The cucumber, basil and cilantro are all cooling, as is the kick from the hot peppers. Total food cost to feed two is under ten bucks, and it’ll take you less than half an hour to prepare. The shopping run may include some new places for you, making this meal even more of an adventure.

First shopping stop: the outdoor vegetable stand on the south corner of Grand and Chrystie Streets. It’s the one under the awning for Hua Du Dumpling. Most of the veggies you need are available here: Thai hot peppers, green pepper, onions, garlic, Thai basil, cucumbers, cilantro, limes. You have to ask for the Thai basil. (If they’re sold out it’s sometimes available next to the cash register at the fish market across the street on the north corner). A small bag of Thai hot peppers is more than you need for this meal, but the peppers will keep in a bowl in your fridge for a week or two, and they can add a nice kick to something else you make during that time. Keep in mind they’re HOT. One adds a little kick, two a little burn. Three or more make food truly spicy. Know yourself.

JP outside Fairtown Trading, 272 Grand Street.

Second stop is a block east to Fairtown Trading (272 Grand), on the north corner of Grand and Forsyth. It’s a pretty typical Chinese grocery where you can get fish sauce (I like Squid Brand), peanut oil, rice and some peanuts, which you’ll need. But the real reason to come here is for the chicken breast. For three bucks and change they’ll sell a chicken breast that actually looks and tastes like chicken, as opposed to the colorless, flavorless, bloated examples sold in most supermarkets. (The meat cooler is located along the far west wall in the back of the store, eliminating the need for non-Chinese speakers to pantomime at the worthy butcher counter). There are other sources for good chicken in the neighborhood, but Fairtown is convenient and consistent, which is enough to get me in the door. The place is worth a little poking around; they manage to cram quite a bit into a modest two-storefront breakthrough.

Now we’re ready to get cooking. This meal is served with rice. Use whatever you like: white, brown, Basmati, Jasmine. Cook the rice, make the salad and prep everything else before you start cooking the Basil Chicken, as it only takes about ten minutes to cook, and you’ll want to serve it immediately.

Cucumber Salad

For the dressing:
1-2 Thai hot peppers, finely chopped
1 tsp fish sauce
½ tsp sugar
Juice of ½ lime

For the salad:
½ large hothouse seedless cucumber OR 2-3 Persian cucumbers, sliced
¼ cup chopped red onion

To garnish:
Chopped peanuts and cilantro sprigs, to taste

Put all dressing ingredients into a small cup, stirring with your finger until sugar is dissolved. Taste. It should be a balance of spicy, salty ,sweet and tangy. You might want a little more sugar or fish sauce (to provide saltiness) if it seems too tangy. Place cucumber and onion on a serving platter or bowl, and pour dressing over them. Garnish with cilantro and peanuts immediately before serving.

Thai Basil Chicken

1 large cooking onion, cut into crescents
1 green bell pepper, cut into 1” strips
1 chicken breast, cut into thin, bite sized pieces
3-5 cloves garlic, chopped
1-4 Thai hot peppers, chopped (depending on how hot you like it)
1 tsp sugar
1Tbs fish sauce (more if you like your food on the salty side)
4 Tbs peanut oil
Leaves from one bunch Thai basil, washed

Heat wok or large frying pan until hot, then add peanut oil. Fry onion, pepper, garlic and hot pepper together for two minutes. Add chicken and sugar and continue to fry, moving everything around in the pan until chicken is nearly cooked. Add fish sauce and cook a minute more. Turn off heat. Toss in Thai basil and stir to mix evenly. Serve immediately or basil will overcook; you want the basil warmed into the dish, not cooked into it.

This meal goes well with a cold beer. If you prefer wine I’d recommend a white with just a touch of residual sugar to play off the heat of the Thai hot peppers. Two good choices available at Seward Park Liquors (393 Grand Street) are Riscal Rueda ($10) and Famega Vinho Verde ($9). The Rueda is a bit more elegant; the Vinho Verde is light and slightly effervescent. Both are a good choice for sipping on a hot day.

JP Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world repeatedly, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is a serious home cook with over two decades’ experience cooking for family, friends and fellow rock and rollers. Mr Bowersock keeps a toe in the wine business as well,  consulting for the wine lists of several neighborhood establishments, including Clandestino, 35 Canal St. When not on tour or in the recording studio he’s scouring the neighborhood for frugal food finds.