Thai-Style Stir-Fried Beef and Vegetables

Thai Basil

Sometimes that one-pound package of ground beef is begging for an inspired use.  It just sits there, daring me to come up with something slightly out of the norm to give it a sense of higher value.


I worked this up for a quick, weeknight meal with ingredients pretty much on hand.  It works with a variety of vegetables, although including Asian eggplant and Thai basil will increase its authenticity factor – should that matter to you.  Me?  I just want it to taste good.


The farmers at my local farmers market are still bringing in zucchini, eggplants, chiles and basil.  But the harvests are dwindling to a trickle now that we’re into autumn harvests.  Now is the time to give this a try, while these ingredients remain readily available.  I hope you can see the flexibility of this recipe and the wide variety of ingredients you can use.

So Many Eggplant Varieties!


A few advance tips:

Do not fret if you do not have Thai basil.  The dish will be delicious using whatever fresh basil you have.  Try adding fresh mint leaves to the basil for an interesting switch up.


The seeds and membrane of the jalapenos are where the most “heat” lives.  Remove these before mincing if taming the heat is important to you.  Also, wear gloves when handling spicy chiles, and avoid touching anywhere near your eyes if there has been any chile contact with your hands.


Fish sauce is a key ingredient for Southeast Asian cooking.  If you enjoy Thai, Vietnamese and similar cuisines, I highly recommend stocking fish sauce along with soy sauce.  Red Boat, the brand I use, has a 250-ml bottle that’s a good introduction to their product.  A little goes a long way.


Thai-Style Stir-Fried Beef and Vegetables


  • 1 pound ground beef (substitute any ground meat or crumbled, firm tofu, as you prefer)
  • 1 pound zucchini and/or eggplant, diced into 1/ 3” cubes (about 2-3 medium zucchini and/or Asian eggplant); about 3+ cups
  • 1 cup fresh basil leaves, Thai basil if you have them; plus extra leaves for finishing
  • 1/ 2 cup onion, diced
  • 1 tablespoon garlic, minced; about 3 – 4 large cloves
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
  • 1 jalapeno, serrano or Thai chile, minced; or to taste
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce, or to taste (I use Red Boat brand)
  • 1 – 2 teaspoons soy sauce, or to taste
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
  • Fresh lime wedges
  • 2 tablespoons neutral vegetable oil for stir-frying
  • Whole lettuce leaves for serving, such as Bibb or similar pliable leaf variety


  1. Heat a large, heavy skillet (or wok) over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of oil and let heat until it begins to “shimmer”.
  2. Add the onion, garlic, ginger, and chile (the “aromatics”); and stir-fry for just about one minute. Add the ground beef in several pieces and begin breaking it up in the pan with a spatula or wooden spoon.  The goal is to have crumbles of cooked beef that’s well-incorporated with the aromatics.  Remove the cooked beef and aromatics to a plate and set aside.
  3. Add the second 1 tablespoon of oil to the pan and let it heat up over medium-high heat. Add the zucchini and/or eggplant, stir-frying occasionally until lightly browned and nearly cooked through, about 5 – 8 minutes.
  4. Add the cooked beef mixture back into the pan; then add the fish sauce, soy sauce, and black pepper. Stir-fry to mix well, then lastly add the fresh basil leaves and give it a final stir to incorporate them.
  5. Remove from heat and serve in lettuce leaves or with steamed rice. Garnish with fresh basil leaves and include lime wedges for a fresh spritz of acidity to liven things up.

Fresh Herbs and Garlic Cream Cheese Spread

Is it just me, or did September fly by?  I must have been ecstatic last month, (“Time flies when you’re having fun…”).  So it’s with a bit of a rush that I prepare this month’s Piedmont Pantry column for The Piedmont Post, because I blinked and my deadline is nigh.


As it turns out, this recipe is a nice metaphor for making the best when time is of the essence.  Surely you may find yourself in a similar position – the need to pull something together quickly to serve, with ingredients you may already have on hand; or are easy to gather.


High impact with minimal effort – there’s much to love about this easy, homemade cheese spread.  It’s always a crowd pleaser, slathered on sliced baguette, crackers or a variety of vegetables.  Best of all, it takes only a few minutes of chopping and mixing from start to finish.


The instructions say to refrigerate it for a couple of hours before serving to allow for the flavors to fully develop.  Truth be told, it’s perfectly delicious as soon as it’s made – as you will notice when cleaning up the bowl.


Cream cheese is a refrigerator staple in many homes, including ours.  Here we’re fond of cream cheese and smoked salmon on a bagel or toast.  An unopened package of cream cheese will last several months in the ‘fridge.  So why not keep it on hand?


I have a small herb garden, in pots, in our back yard.  It’s easy-peasy for me to head out and snip away as needed.  Bits and pieces from your garden or refrigerator are fine here.


This recipe is flexible.  Mix and match the herbs to suit your taste or availability at hand.  Try using other soft, spreadable cheeses such as fromage blanc, chèvre, or ricotta.


And it’s scalable.  Make only a fraction of the recipe to use up a bit of cream cheese you have, or multiply it for a crowd.  Soon you will be whipping up your own versions on instinct, with no recipe required.


Bonus:  This cheese spread is also delicious on pasta.  Boil pasta to desired doneness.  Drain, reserving at least 1/ 2 cup of the boiling liquid.  Add cheese spread to taste and mix until evenly distributed.  A few splashes of the reserved pasta water will help loosen up the sauce and make for a luscious coating on the pasta.  Serve with a generous scattering of grated Parmesan cheese and flourish of more fresh herbs.


Fresh Herbs & Garlic Cream Cheese Spread

Makes about 1 cup


  • 8 ounces cream cheese, softened to room temperature
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1 – 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • 2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh chives, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh herbs, finely chopped (Basil, marjoram, and thyme; alone or in combination, are all delicious.)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, start with about 1/ 4 teaspoon each


  1. Combine the cream cheese and butter in a medium mixing bowl and blend well until they are smooth. This can be done by hand, or with an electric mixer or food processor.  Fold in the garlic and herbs.  Taste and season with salt and pepper to your preference.
  2. Transfer to serving bowl or ramekins, cover and chill in the refrigerator for several hours; up to 2 days.
  3. Serve with sliced breads, crackers, sliced vegetables – whatever you like. It will soften up at room temperature, making it not only spreadable, but “dip-able” with a sturdy celery or carrot stick.



Few and fresh ingredients

Summertime Fruit Cake

There is a slight Goldilocks’ attitude to my preference for a summer time cake featuring fruit.  Not too dense and not to light, but a medium textured, moist cake that seems just right for a satisfying sweet treat during our late summer heat.


If you are a baker, or a fan of simple fruit cakes, you may already be acquainted with Marion Burros’ iconic Original Plum Torte.  It is said to be the New York Times’ most requested recipe, and indeed, was published every September for seven years back in the 1980’s.  Now that’s serious lasting power, and apt appreciation for a genius cake.


Ms. Burros also encourages home bakers to experiment with our own adaptations, and this is one of mine.  Over the years my family has enjoyed several variations, but we seem to especially appreciate using peaches and/or nectarines.


This cake, which is pretty forgiving when it comes to making substitutions, is a brilliant showcase for perfectly ripe stone fruits.  The other bonus for making this now – many of these fruits are at seasonal low pricing from your local farmers.


I hope you’ll give this cake a whirl.  There are only five, FIVE, actual mixing steps to it; fairly short for an outstanding outcome.

A few advance notes:

A combination of two medium peaches and one medium nectarine. Freestone fruit is important here.

  • Experience shows me that fruit sliced on the thinner, 1/ 3-inch side, yields for a baked cake with most of the fruit showing. If this appearance appeals, then you’ll be glad for the tip.  Slightly thicker slices of fruit results in a perfectly delicious cake that shows more cake than fruit on top.  You can always garnish with a bit more fruit, or a dollop of whipped cream.

  • Don’t overdo it with overlapping the sliced fruit. The rising cake batter needs somewhere to go.  You don’t want to weigh it down so much that you end up with a stodgy cake that couldn’t rise for the heft of the fruit topping.

A stunner — If I do say so myself!


Summer Fruit Cake with Peaches and Nectarines

Inspired by Marion Burros’ Plum Torte

Makes one 9” round cake


  • 1-1/ 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/ 2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/ 4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/ 2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/ 2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 eggs, room temperature
  • 1/ 2 cup whole milk yogurt, room temperature (substitute sour cream)
  • 3 medium peaches or nectarines, or large plums
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice, freshly squeezed
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1/ 2 teaspoon cinnamon or ginger or “Dusk” spice blend
  • 1 tablespoon Turbinado sugar, or any coarse grind sugar
  • Additional butter for the pan


  1. Position an oven rack into the center of the oven, preheat oven to 350° Line the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment.  Make sure the pan is securely fastened, then generously butter the sides of the pan.  Set aside.
  2. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a small bowl. Set aside.
  3. Slice the fruit lengthwise and remove the pit. Slice into about 1/ 3” to 1/ 2” thick wedges.  Place in a medium sized bowl; add the lemon juice, lemon zest and spice.  Stir gently to evenly coat the fruit.  Set aside.
  4. In a large mixing bowl, using a handheld electric mixer, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugar and beat on medium until light and fluffy.  Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each.  Add the vanilla.
  5. Add one-half of the flour mix, blend in slightly; then add one-half of the yogurt. Repeat with the remaining flour mix and yogurt, taking care to just mix thoroughly, but do not over beat the batter.  The batter will be thick.
  6. Pour the batter into the prepared springform pan, leveling it with a spatula. Arrange the sliced fruit atop, avoiding too many overlapped pieces.  It is okay if some batter is uncovered, where it will rise during baking.
  7. Bake for about one hour. Test doneness by inserting a toothpick into the center of the cake.  If it comes out clean, with no batter clinging to it, the cake is ready.  Remove and place on a wire rack to cool.  After 10 minutes, remove the sides of the pan.
  8. May be served slightly warm, or completely cooled. Finish with additional fresh fruit, or a dollop of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.  Any leftover, good luck with that, makes delicious breakfast fare.

More photos because this cake is so lovely

Now it’s time to eat from the photo session!

Bhel Puri Chopped Salad

Chopped Salad Ingredients

Several years back our friend, Alf, prepared a traditional bhel puri to whet our appetites before dinner.  These tangy, spicy bites were such a hit that hubby and I both went after more during the main course.  This is no small statement, as Alf is a gifted cook; so in addition to delicious curries and vegetables appearing for the main course, we kept indulging in the bhel puris.


Bhel Puri is an iconic snack of India, often identified with the beaches of Mumbai.  Traditionally it is a puffed rice snack, or chaat.  The flavors of my salad version feature quintessential Indian flavors.  Cilantro-mint and tamarind chutneys mingle with diced potatoes, tomatoes, avocados and cucumbers.  A bit of diced red onion, a sprinkle of spices and your taste buds are doing a happy dance.


We’re fortunate living in the East Bay, where Indian restaurants and grocery stores are plentiful.  Given the size of India, and its many cultures, the wide variety of preparations offers ample opportunity for exploration.  Procuring ingredients is easy, sometimes with a bit too many options!

Indira Chopra of Vik’s Chaat Corner


I enjoy going to Vik’s Chaat & Market on Fourth Street in Berkeley.  I often grab a snack, chaat, to be precise, and do a bit of stocking up for my pantry in their adjoining market.  Indira Chopra began the operation back in 1989.  It’s still a family business, with her son, Amod Chopra at the helm these days.  But if you’re fortunate, you may find Indira behind the counter of their well-stocked grocery section.  She’s friendly and happy to provide guidance to those needing to expand our familiarity with Indian ingredients.


Our local farmers’ markets also provide an opportunity to taste Indian foods.  In addition to fresh and preserved chutneys, local producer/purveyor Suhki’s, offers samples of their samosas, naans and more.


Suhki’s Chutneys

One could prepare the chutneys from scratch as well.  If you’re already making your own fresh chimichurri or salsa verde, you’ve got a handle on making the fresh cilantro-mint chutney.  And the ingredients are readily available.  Tamarind is found at most Asian produce aisles, and I’ve seen it at Berkeley Bowl and Whole Foods too.  Give tamarind-date chutney a whirl too!


Summer’s firm-ripe tomatoes make it a perfect time to enjoy this salad.  The options are nearly endless here, after all, it’s salad!  I encourage you to mix-and-match ingredients to make this your own.

A few advance tips:

  1. The size of the diced pieces is not so important and ensuring they’re fairly uniform. You don’t want to dice them so small they mush and meld together; and not so large they dwarf the pieces of bhel puri when you mix them in.  You might leave the tomatoes and avocado pieces a bit larger than the potatoes and cucumber, as the former do tend to mash or break down a bit.
  2. I prefer the herbaceous cilantro-mint chutney; and less of the sweeter tamarind chutney. But give them each a taste and use a ratio that suits your taste buds.
  3. Adding some minced jalapeno pepper for a bit of heat may suit those who favor it.

Bhel Puri-Inspired Chopped Salad

About four salad course servings


  • 1 medium potato, boiled and diced into 1/ 4” – 1/ 2” cubes; about 1 cup (Use a waxy potato such as Yukon Gold, French fingerling, etc.)
  • 1 large tomato, diced into approximately 1/ 4” – 1/ 2” pieces; about 1 cup
  • 1 medium cucumber, diced into 1/ 4” – 1/ 2” pieces; about 1 cup
  • 1 large avocado, firm-ripe, diced into 1/ 4” – 1/ 2” pieces; about 1 cup
  • 1/ 2 cup red onion, diced fine
  • 1/ 2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped fine
  • 2 – 3 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped fine
  • 2 – 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons cilantro-mint chutney, or to taste
  • 1 tablespoon tamarind chutney, or to taste
  • 1/ 2 teaspoon ground cumin powder
  • 1/ 2 teaspoon ground coriander powder
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Just prior to serving:

  • 1 cup bhel puri snack mix, or amount to preference
  • 1/ 4 – 1/ 2 cup sev, fine; or amount to preference
  • Minced cilantro, for garnish
  • Chopped peanuts, for garnish (optional)


  1. In a large mixing bowl, combine the lemon juice, chutneys, cumin and coriander powders. Stir to blend.  Add the diced potatoes, tomato, cucumber and red onion; stir until mostly well mixed.  Gently fold in the diced avocado, minced cilantro and mint.  Taste and adjust spices, add salt and pepper.
  2. Just prior to serving, add in the bhel puri snack mix and gently fold into the salad. Transfer to serving plates and sprinkle on the sev. Add cilantro and peanuts to garnish.
  3. The bhel puri and sev will begin to soften very quickly once added to the salad. The salad is best eaten whilst they are still crunchy, immediately after they’re added.  If you need to make it in advance, set aside the chopped vegetables in the refrigerator; adding the bhel puri and sev just prior to serving.

Chopped Salad Ingredients Before Adding Bhel Puri and Sev Topping

Well Stocked Snack Aisle at Vik’s, Berkeley, CA

Surati Brand from Canada

Haldiram’s Brand from India