Recipe: Spicy Thai Basil Beef

There are times when I think my recipes actually choose me, and not vice versa.  That’s definitely been the experience in bringing this particular dish to ye olde blog.

As usual, it started with a craving. I love Thai food like almost no other cuisine out there, but can’t always afford to go out for it and have yet to really practice cooking it at home. It’s sad in a way, considering we had a family friend from Thailand living with us for years (he’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to having a brother) and I never got around to learning how to cook such incredible food. But the love for it lives on, and I indulge my Thai food cravings as often as I can afford to do so.

Over the winter, I was very sad to see that my favorite herb vendors weren’t at my usual farmers’ market.  Granted, winter time at the farmers’ market isn’t the bumpin’ good time that spring and summer can be, but there’s still plenty to enjoy. I have to admit I’d gotten a little spoiled by the prices & selection from my favorite herb stand, so it was troublesome to have to go in search of comparable stands.

So you can imagine my excitement when I saw my gals – and my herbs – were back a few weeks ago.  All was right in my farmers’ market world once more, and I’ve been happily enjoying my herbs ever since (note: Poor Girl has yet to start her garden, hence the lack of herbs in the backyard and the need to buy ‘em. For now.).

One of the things they sell that no other vendor carries at that market, is Thai basil. A slightly darker green with deep purple hues running through its stems, Thai basil has a very distinct flavor that’s just as delicious as the more traditional sweet basil. I find it fun to use in experimental dishes, but because it had been so long since I’d enjoyed this aromatic herb in any dish, my first instinct was to use it in a simple spicy basil beef recipe.

The scene was set: I had my beef, thanks to Lucky Dog Ranch and my CalFresh benefits; a nice healthy bunch of freshly picked Thai basil, veggies, rice, I was READY! Until I realized I had no fish sauce. And a Thai-inspired dish, no matter how non-authentic it may be, just isn’t the same without fish sauce.

Snarf.

I pouted, much as I’m doing now as I recount this tale, and saved my beef for another time – preferably a time when fish sauce resided in my kitchen.  A few days later, I was helping out my pal, Andrew, shop for the big mobile food event we had recently, and one of our stops included a trip to a nearby Asian market, where he gets some of the goods for his famous Mustang sandwich. I’d been a very attentive helper up to that point; once we got inside, I quickly forgot all about Drew and went in search of Chinese five spice powder, which I had also been out of for ages, and which is affordably priced at a mere $1.29.  At that price, I couldn’t help but pick up two bottles, then happily flitted about the store, perusing their interesting selections, fascinated by some of the things I’d never seen before.

Then I remembered I was in the prime location for making my dreams of homemade spicy basil beef come true.  Surely I could find fish sauce here!  Off I went in search of fish sauce, and just about burst into tears when all I could find were rows upon rows of soy sauce. It was an educational shopping trip, as I had NO idea there were so many darned soy sauce varieties out there, but dammit, I wanted fish sauce!

That’s when a bottle of it sort of waved at me from the very bottom shelf. I was looking for Squid brand but they didn’t seem to carry it, so I settled for a different brand that I’d seen before that I knew was authentically Thai. At just $1.89 for a fairly large bottle, I practically squealed with delight.  When all was said and done, I left with my fish sauce, two bottles of Chinese five spice, and some lo mein noodles for just under $7. Score!

And that, my friends, is what I call recipe serendipity. I didn’t plan on this; all I had was a random craving for Thai or Thai-inspired food, with no specific dish in mind.  I just wanted the flavors, the aromas, the heat of all those fiery little chilies.  What I got was a fabulous dinner that I can’t wait to put into semi-regular rotation from now on.

Couple of notes before I go: If you can’t find Thai basil in your grocery store or at your farmers’ market, A) try heading to an Asian market to see if they carry it, or B) simply use regular sweet basil. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t use the Thai kind, and this will be just as tasty.

Also, you might see a lot of similar recipes using flank steak or other cuts of meat, and you’re probably wondering why I didn’t do so.  The biggest reason was that I didn’t have that kind of meat on hand (and I wasn’t about to go spend more of my CalFresh money just to buy meat when I already had some).  But I simply took a cue from one of my favorite little restaurants in Sac, Boon Boon Cafe, where they also use ground beef in their version of this dish. It works out perfectly fine either way; just note that you might need a little thickening agent (like a cornstarch + water slurry) to make your sauce more… saucy.  : )

Did I mention this tastes better due to the fact that it only costs $2/serving? Gotta love that!

Spicy Thai Basil Beef (makes 4 servings; total cost per serving: $2)

Ingredients
3 T fish sauce
1 T soy sauce
1 t lime juice
1 T brown sugar
1 T cooking oil (canola works fine)
2 large cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1-2 Thai chilies, finely chopped (jalapeños or serranos will work as well)
1 lb ground sirloin
1/2 lb fresh green beans (cut into 1″ pieces)
1/2 c red bell pepper strips
1 c Thai or sweet basil (loosely packed)
2 c cooked rice

Directions
1.  In a small bowl, whisk together the fish sauce, soy sauce, lime juice and brown sugar. Set aside. Heat the oil in a large skillet or wok and add the garlic.  Cook over medium high heat for about a few seconds, then add the chilies and cook for about a minute or so.

2.  Add the ground beef to the garlic & chilies.  Break up the meat with your spoon as it cooks, taking care to brown completely. Once browned, add the green beans and bell pepper strips, and cook for about 2-3 minutes, until tender. Add the sauce and mix until completely incorporated. Cook for about 30-60 seconds and remove from heat.  Finally, add the basil and mix well.

3.  Serve over cooked brown or white rice. Garnish with a couple extra sprigs of basil and some lime wedges if you like, and enjoy!

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