HOME ON THE RANGE: Thai cuisine is delicious, but confounding

Now I am depressed. Thai dishes are some of my favorites, yet I can’t get them right. There’s something tricky about the spicing and the texture that leaves an amateur like me in the dust. I attempted a Pad Thai recipe off the web and wound up with something resembling macaroni and cheese, a sticky conglomeration of noodles so flavorless I couldn’t eat it. My trashcan was well fed that night.

Okay, I thought, I need more reliable assistance. I drove to Pelican Bay used book store in Anacortes, where I found “The Original Thai Cookbook” by Jennifer Brennan. Ms. Brennan claimed her book was the only one I would ever need: “After nine exhilarating years in Thailand and because of an abiding love affair with Thai food, I came to America with a clutch of treasured Thai recipes — recipes developed over many hours in Thai markets and my Bangkok kitchen, abetted by a changing parade of patient Thai household cooks, while I discovered and explored the intricacies of this fascinating cuisine.”

In the acknowledgements, Brennan even thanked people like Prince Piya Rangsti, Prince Prem Purachatr and Princess Chumbhot of Nagara Svarga. Run-on sentences aside, this all sounded very promising.

I tried Pad Thai again using Ms. Brennan’s recipe, which had theoretically been approved by princes and princesses. I cooked sugar, fish sauce and ketchup. Then I added the egg and — Presto! I had reddish scrambled eggs that resembled a deformed human organ. Tossing in the noodles didn’t help. Nor did more ketchup, sugar and fish sauce.

What was going on? Was it the cast iron frying pan I used instead of a wok? Was it that I grew up baking simple, clunky food like meatloaf and pot roast? Obviously, there was something about the subtle art of Thai cooking I didn’t get.

Ms. Brennan explains that Thai food is a cuisine of creation. You have to add a dash of this and a pinch of that until you come up with a dish you like. If there’s a particular flavor you adore from a restaurant down the street, you’re not going to find the exact formula in a cookbook or on a Web site. You’re going to have to work at it, divine the exact proportion of spices in your own kitchen.

I took this advice to heart and decided to give my favorite Thai soup a try. It’s called Tom Kha Gai, otherwise known as chicken soup with coconut milk. It’s a little sour, a little sweet, very savory. The soup, when done right, is nothing short of miraculous. I recalled the bowl I’d enjoyed with Delano at this little restaurant on University Avenue in Seattle as I boiled chicken broth, added coconut milk, sliced chicken and soaked chunks of galangal (sort of a peppery ginger).

Most of these ingredients for the soup were obtained, by the way, at Angie’s Asian market on Pioneer Way in Oak Harbor. I suggest you check it out — it’s a great store, full of hard to find items and less expensive versions of those you normally buy at the supermarket, like coconut milk and soy sauce. They didn’t have kaffir lime leaves on the day I visited (I substituted a bit of grated lime rind), but the friendly folks at Angie’s made up for that by offering a long, fresh sprig of lemon grass.

I tasted and added and stirred. The soup turned out pretty well. At least it was edible. It didn’t match the flavor I’d aimed for, however. What is it they say? If at first you don’t succeed, Thai Thai again? That’s not funny.

Pad Thai

1/2-cup vegetable oil

6 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 cup small cooked shrimp

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

3 tablespoons fish sauce (Nam Pla)

1 1/2-tablespoons tomato ketchup

2 eggs, beaten

3/4-pound (approximately 3 hanks) rice vermicelli (Sen Mee) soaked in hot water for 15 minutes and drained

1 cup bean sprouts

Heat the oil in a wok and fry the garlic until golden. Quickly add the shrimp and stir-fry until heated through. Add the sugar, fish sauce and ketchup and stir until the sugar dissolves. Add the beaten eggs, letting them set slightly, then stirring to scramble. Add the noodles and toss and stir for about 2 minutes. Reserving about 4 tablespoons of the bean sprouts, add the remainder to the wok. Stir over heat until the bean sprouts are barely cooked. Turn the Pad Thai onto a platter, placing the reserved, raw bean sprouts on one side.

Garnish the noodles with the following, in this order: 1 tablespoon of dried shrimp powder, 2 tablespoons of coarsely ground peanuts, 1/2 teaspoon of dried red chili flakes, 2 chopped green onions, 2 tablespoons chopped coriander leaves and lime slices.

Tom Kha Gai

14.5 ounce can of chicken stock

4-5 kaffir lime leaves, shredded (or, 1 tablespoon grated lime rind)

2 inch piece of fresh lemon grass, bruised to release flavor (you can substitute lemon grass paste, available at Albertson’s)

1 inch cube galangal, sliced thinly (if you have dried, add 2 large chunks to the broth)

3 tablespoons fish sauce

2 tablespoons lime juice (approximately 1 small)

4 ounce chicken breast cut into smallish, bite sized pieces

5 fluid ounces coconut milk

2-10 small red Thai chili peppers, slightly crushed (to taste)

1/2-can whole straw mushrooms, drained (optional)

Coriander (cilantro) leaves to garnish

Heat the stock, add the lime leaves, lemon grass, galangal, fish sauce, lime juice and peppers. Stir thoroughly and bring to a boil. Add the chicken and coconut milk. Lower the heat and add the mushrooms. Simmer for about 2 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. If this is a main course, serve with rice.

Recipes and suggestions can be sent to

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