$20 dinner with Todd Ginsberg

Bocado's chef shows off his affordable Thai chops

Chef Todd Ginsberg is on a budget these days. The bearded mastermind behind the food at Westside's Bocado has been working on a different project at his Grant Park home: remodeling the kitchen. An expansive spread of white marble countertop dominates the center of the room, surrounded by a wealth of new cabinets and gleaming stainless steel appliances. On top of that, Ginsberg is engaged to be married in June. Asking him to cook dinner on a $20 budget, he says, isn't a challenge as much as a necessary limit. "Maybe this will convince my fiancé that I can actually stick to a budget," he says, laughing a bit sheepishly.

The day we've planned to get together for dinner has already been a busy one for Ginsberg and his fiancé, Liz Emerson. Emerson, a former corporate lawyer who left that field to do Teach for America, officially moved in this morning, bringing the new kitchen's stove with her. As they explain it, the remodeled kitchen and her moving in aren't a coincidence. "More like an ultimatum," she says with a smile. The dinner tonight will be their first together in the new kitchen.

As Emerson's chihuahua, Myrtle, plays with Ginsberg's boxer, Buddy, and the Pixies play on the stereo, Ginsberg and Emerson are happy to share the pleasant surprises of their relationship — being introduced by a customer at Bocado, the whirlwind pace of their engagement, their plans for a simple wedding in Mexico. They are, in a word, cute. The only complication, it seems, was the state of Ginsberg's home kitchen, which, he admits, was in pretty bad shape. "That's your stove?" Ginsberg recalls her saying. After four months of work, the dated cabinets, poorly planned counters, and what Emerson calls "the oldest, grossest stove I've ever seen," have given way to a kitchen fitting for a chef.

Ginsberg has planned a menu of three traditional Thai salads, which might surprise diners who know Bocado for having one of best burgers in Atlanta and a distinctly New American style. Earlier in the afternoon, while shopping at the DeKalb Farmers Market, Ginsberg recalled being introduced to traditional Thai food while living in New York City. He liked the food at Sripraphai, a Thai restaurant in Queens, so much that he credits the place for encouraging him to leave his job in New York and spend months traveling through Thailand and Vietnam in the summer of 2006.

His enthusiasm for those memories — riding mopeds through the street, the unpretentious, humble cooking arrangements, the freshness of the food — is palpable. At times in the grocery store, he'd become entirely distracted from the task at hand, setting down his basket and recalling in specific detail a banana flower salad or a dish prepared with baby lobsters pulled fresh from the water. His ambitious interest in food came not from a lifetime of being exposed to different flavors and culinary traditions, but from being raised in the Northeast on a diet of meat and potatoes. "I didn't even have fish until I was 18," he says.

Getting all of the ingredients for the three dishes for $20 was a challenge, but Ginsberg showed some shrewdness in his shopping. The butcher didn't want to cut any of the large flank steaks into a more affordable piece at first, but a little friendly persuasion by Ginsberg convinced him to make a nice half pound cut. Green mango, which is typically used in the Yum Pla catfish salad, was too expensive, so he opted to use apple instead.

That sort of interchangeable, flexible attitude runs throughout the menu that Ginsberg prepared in his new kitchen. Instead of making the dishes separately, he prepped all the vegetables at the same time, arranging the spread in a set of Pyrex dishes so that he could easily grab among them. "This is how it would be set up in a food stall there," he says. He doesn't bother measuring out the ingredients when tossing the salads, but grabs a handful here, a pinch there, until the dishes are tweaked to his liking.

Part of what's so interesting about the menu that Ginsberg serves is how different the dishes taste, despite many overlapping ingredients. The Yum Pla is dominated by the complex play of flavors between sweet apple and the heat of muddled chili, along with distinctly crunchy catfish. In the Nam Tok, Ginsberg tosses the chili in the salad, rather than muddling it, and that alone brings down the heat considerably. The addition of roasted rice powder gives that salad a distinct, mild smokiness that sets it apart. Adding slivered ginger to the Num Sod, Ginsberg says, "completely changes the flavor profile of it."

The roar of the Pixies has given way to quieter tunes by Townes Van Zandt and Leonard Cohen on Ginsberg's stereo. Myrtle and Buddy lie on the kitchen's new tile floor, exhausted from their efforts to catch scraps from Ginsberg's cooking. Ginsberg, an otherwise energetic presence, seems to have finally let the day catch up with him. The new kitchen is finally broken in.

Todd Ginsberg is the chef at Bocado, 887 Howell Mill Rd. 404-815-1399. www.bocadoatlanta.com.

Next: Four delicious recipes from Todd Ginsberg

Yum Pla Dook Foo

• 1/2 pound catfish belly, skin removed
?• 1/4 cup scallions, thinly sliced
?• 1/4 cup red onion, thinly sliced
?• 1 cup baby romaine, quartered and chopped
?• 1/3 bunch mint, stems removed and roughly chopped
?• 1/3 pink lady apple, thinly sliced
?• 1/4 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped
?• 1/3 cup Thai dressing

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Combine the catfish and oil with a pinch of salt in a small frying pan and bake for five to six minutes. While heating a deep fryer or pan with 1 inch of oil, drain the fish and cut into bite-size chunks. Fry until dark golden brown. Combine cilantro, apple, red onion, scallion, mint, romaine and fish in bowl. Toss with dressing to taste.

Nam Sod

• 3/4 pound ground pork
?• 1/4 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped
?• 1/4 cup scallions, thinly sliced
?• 1/4 cup red onion, thinly sliced
?• 1/2 cup baby romaine, quartered and chopped
?• 1/3 bunch mint, stems removed and roughly chopped
?• 2 fingers ginger, cut into matchstick-like slivers
?• 1/2 cup peanuts, roughly chopped
?• 1/3 cup Thai salad dressing

Brown the ground pork with oil in a skillet over medium heat, breaking up the meat into small pieces with spoon, for four to five minutes. Combine cabbage, peanuts, ginger, cilantro, scallions, onions and pork in a bowl. Toss with dressing to taste.

Nam Tok

• 1/2 pound flank steak
?• 1/2 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped
?• 1/4 cup red onion, thinly sliced
?• 1/2 cup baby romaine, quartered and chopped
?• 1/4 cup mint, stems removed and roughly chopped
?• 1/2 cup Persian cucumber, thinly sliced
?• 2 tablespoons Thai chilis, minced
?• 1/2 tablespoon rice powder
?• 1/3 cup Thai salad dressing
Grill the steak over high heat, three minutes per side for medium-rare. Slice thinly. Combine cilantro, mint, cucumbers, romaine, ginger, rice powder, minced chili and steak in a bowl. Toss with dressing to taste.

Thai Salad Dressing

• 1 cup lime juice
?• 4 tablespoons palm sugar (half that if using regular sugar)
?• 4 tablespoons fish sauce
?• 2 tablespoon minced garlic
?• Minced thai chili, to taste
Combine ingredients in mixing bowl or with a mortar and pestle. Muddling the chili will bring out more flavor and heat. Dress salad to taste.

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