Kelli Mlinarik Marko's passionate love affair with Thai food began within the first week of her first visit to the country.
"I found the (Elephant Nature) Park in 2004 and volunteered for 10 days."
The exotic, sensory-rich experience of dining at the park was beyond anything she had ever encountered.
"You sat on pillows at low tables" on a raised bamboo platform surrounded in all directions by the elephants. "Eight dishes were sat on the table and every one was the best dish I'd ever eaten!"
By the third or fourth day in the park, says Marko, "I was determined - desperate! - for the recipes."
Among her favorites of all the recipes she acquired in Thailand, 30 of which eventually made it into her new cookbook, is one called Jungle Salad.
"My husband, who is a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy, loves this dish and eats it all the time. Actually, this is a favorite at the Park as well."
The unlikely list of ingredients includes coconut milk, Thai chili paste, green beans and tofu.
If it sounds a little too adventuresome for the typical Wood County palate, a single taste will have you ensnared.
If your household is stuck in a green-beans-and-mushroom-soup casserole rut, for heaven's sake, start serving Jungle Salad instead! The hint of lime in combination with the vegetables is a revelation.
"I chose this recipe (for Cook's Corner) because it is simple, flavorful, and you can get all the ingredients easily at the Krogers in Bowling Green," said Marko. "There are no special ingredients to seek out. You can adjust the spice to your taste, too."
She notes that all Thai recipes will be spicy for the average Midwestern palate, "so it's good to start with the smallest amount of spice in the range."
Marko's currently back in town for a week-long visit with parents Richard and Wanda Mlinarik.
The 1987 Bowling Green High School graduate earned a degree in sociology from BGSU in 1991 and immediately moved to Denver, where she teaches part-time at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and has her own jewelry business.
Last September she and Jerry Marko exchanged wedding vows, providing her with a built-in audience for her twin loves of cooking and writing.
"Cooking is like meditation for me," Kelli Marko said. "I do spend a good portion of my days cooking and chopping. Jerry does a lot of dishes!"
Her 60-page cookbook, "A Taste of Heaven: Recipes from Elephant Nature Park," is divided into four sections. The first, "Starters," includes items like spring rolls and samosas. Later sections are devoted to curries, masalas, and other main dishes, reflecting the strong Indian influence on the food served at the elephant park and in that section of Thailand generally.
"Cooking classes are very popular all throughout Thailand, among tourists. But (my) recipes are more accessible. You can get all the ingredients in the U.S."
Marko learned from the head chef at the park perfect Western substitutions for Asian vegetables and spices many of us have never heard of.
The original version of Jungle Salad, for example, actually calls for a five-pointed vegetable called "starfinger" which, when cut up, resembles stars. But its taste and texture are very similar to green beans.
When you try this recipe, she recommends buying Sambal Oelek-brand ground fresh chili paste, sold locally.
And when buying tofu, she notes that the recipe calls for "not silken" tofu. Silken tofu, by contrast, is very creamy and used in puddings or pies.
"I take (Jungle Salad) to casseroles all the time. It makes good leftovers. My husband takes it for lunches all the time, so we freeze it for him."
Other favorites from the cookbook include a lentil masala that Marko said "is really outstanding."
Another dish, masman curry, "I call Christmas curry" because the curry paste includes cinnamon and cardamon, and the dish also includes yams, potatoes and carrots.
The 81/2-by-11 full-color paperback, with a photo from the park on every page, is available at www.lulu.com/content/834615.
Mlinarik's jungle salad
1 lb. firm or extra firm Tofu
2 tablespoon Vegetable Oil
1 cup Onion, coarsely chopped
1 cup Onion, finely chopped
1/2 - 1 tablespoon Thai Chili Paste (to taste)
1 cup Coconut Milk
2 vegetable bouillon cubes
1 small Lime
4 cup Green Beans, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
Squeeze excess water out of block of tofu by pressing between two plates over sink. Or cut tofu into 1/2-inch slabs and lay between towels and press with a cutting board on your counter. When pressed, dice the tofu.
Heat part of the oil on medium high heat and fry tofu, stirring occasionally, until evenly golden brown. Drain on paper towel and set aside.
Add more oil to the pan if needed and add coarsely chopped onion. Stir until golden.
Add chili paste and cook until it smells good. Then add finely chopped onion, coconut milk, tofu and bouillon cubes. Bring to a boil, stirring as needed. Turn off heat and squeeze in the juice of the lime.
Meanwhile, steam the green beans (or other vegetable) until just tender.
Spread green beans on a platter and pour tofu mixture on top. Serve hot, room temperature, or even chilled.
Great with rice and a simple cucumber salad with tomatoes, cilantro and lime!
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