Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fresh Herb and "Chicken" Larb with Sweet Mango Sticky Rice (E.A.T. World: Laos)

It's been great to see E.A.T. World taking off across the blogs, and I've enjoyed travelling with everyone!  Our ongoing mission: to explore new food worlds, to seek out new ingredients and new recipes, to boldly go where I almost certainly have not gone before.  Like Laos!
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My alphabet soup approach to E.A.T. World brings us back to southeast Asia, for an introduction to larb, sometimes called the "national dish" of Laos.  Larb (or laap, larp, laab, or lob...it's one of those words with a slippery spelling as translated to English) is a salad of meat, fresh herbs, lime juice, hot peppers, and an abundance of fresh flavors.

This recipe comes from Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America.  The Hmong are an ethnic group from mountainous regions of Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, and southern China, and the authors of Cooking from the Heart say nobody makes a better larb than Hmong cooks.  I've been curious about Hmong cooking and culture since getting to know some awesome Hmong students in a summer program a few years ago - there is a large Hmong population in Minnesota, especially in the Twin Cities.  This cookbook nicely combines recipes with information about Hmong tradition and culture in Laos and America. 

Vegan Chik'n strips from Morningstar Farms are the meat substitute here, although nicely marinated or seasoned tempeh, seitan, or extra firm tofu would be really good too.  The flavors in this salad are so bold that whatever protein you use will be instantly infused with larby goodness and taste spectacular.  Promise. 

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Regarding all those flavors, this salad is a showcase for a few ingredients I've never used before - Sichuan peppercorns, roasted rice powder, and galangal.  Sichuan peppercorns can be tricky to find because they are quite often not labelled as Sichuan peppercorns, rather "dried pepper corn" like the packet above, or other variations on that theme.  If you're not sure, ask the folks are your local Asian market, like I did.  They have a light citrus scent, and a reputation for causing mild numbness on the tongue.  I toasted these and ground them before adding to the larb, and used a fairly generous amount.  The effect, and I mean this in the most complimentary way, is a little what licking a battery must feel like.  My whole mouth felt all tingly and sparkly after a few larb lettuce rolls.  Really worth checking out, if you haven't tried Sichuan peppercorns before.

Regarding battery-licking, I'm sure you can find a lot of videos of kids doing that on Youtube, if you want to make yourself wish the Internet was never invented.
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Above, from left to right:  Galangal, lemongrass, mint, culantro, and green onions.
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Besides the process of collecting and chopping all of the ingredients, larb is pretty straight-forward to make.  The Chik'n strips were marinated and lightly sauteed in rice wine and lime juice.  To this, I added all kinds of good stuff:  lots of fresh mint and cilantro leaves, fresh culantro, green onions, a red jalapeno pepper, lemon zest, galangal, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, white pepper, more lime juice, and lemongrass.  A few spoonfuls of roasted rice powder, pictured earlier, is added at the end.  It adds a crumbly, sticky texture, and a distinctive and pleasing smell.  You can make your own rice powder too, but it's really cheap to buy.
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Once everything is tossed together, the preferred way to eat larb is in lettuce wraps.  They're really onto something here, as the cool and crisp lettuce wrap is the perfect contrast to the chaotic jumble of flavors inside.  Chaotic might be exactly the wrong word though, because all of these flavors come together in what might be better described as a chorus in perfect harmony.  My ability to come up with a metaphor to describe what larb tastes like ends here, so I can only recommend you try it yourself sometime.  I used butter lettuce, but Boston or good old iceberg lettuce would be fine too.

I'm not reprinting the entire recipe from Cooking from the Heart here, since I'm hesitant to copy recipes out of cookbooks without permission.  There are a lot of larb recipes online, so google away...every one is a little different, so you can adapt to your tastes.
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To settle things down after larb, here's a simple dessert of sweetened sticky rice with coconut milk and mango, also from Cooking from the Heart.  I'm new to sticky rice too, and I screwed this up by overcooking the rice.  It ended up as sweet sticky rice porridge, still pretty tasty, though the rice was supposed to hold together in a neat ball on the plate.  Whatever :)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Potato Pancakes and Mulled Wine (E.A.T. World: Czech Republic)

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We're in the Czech Republic for today's stop on the E.A.T. World tour, enjoying a bit of street food and drink.  These potato pancakes - I see them called bramboráky or bramborová placka - are the essence of the street food ideal: portable, hearty, and fried.  If you'd like something to wash down those greasy golden wonders, you could do worse than svařák, mulled wine served steaming hot.  Sitting here in midwinter, this pair seems pretty appropriate for a chilly weekend afternoon.

To set the scene, come along with me to Český Krumlov, along the winding Vltava River.  I took this photo last January, from the castle overlooking the old town center.  With ice on the river and snow on the ground, mulled wine was the perfect companion as I wandered around the city.  One guy - just up the street from the bridge on the left side of the picture - sold cups of mulled wine at a table on the sidewalk, from one of those big coffee thermos servers.  It's a brilliant idea for getting through winter, and I can't imagine why the concept never caught on here.
We'll get to the wine in a moment, but potato pancakes come first.  They often contain eggs and maybe milk, but vegan bramboráky deliver exactly what a potato pancake should.  They're crispy and golden on the ouside, soft and creamy on the inside, and flavored with onion, garlic, and marjoram.  Sauerkraut is an optional addition.  As a sauerkraut fan, I mixed a healthy dose into the potato batter, and loved the sharp and tangy flavor it added.
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These are easy, and the quantities are pretty flexible.  I found just a couple of tablespoons of all purpose flour was enough to bind about two cups of shredded potaotes while frying.  Here's my quantities, and basic directions:
2 cups raw potatoes, peeled and shredded (use a grater or food processor)
1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup sauerkraut (optional, but very nice if you like sauerkraut)
1 tbps. dried marjoram
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground black pepper
1/3 cup unsweetened almond milk, or any other non-dairy milk, or water
2 tbsp. all purpose flour (maybe a bit more, depending on your first pancake)
Oil for frying, enough to liberally coat the bottom of your pan

Here's what worked for me - mix everything together in a big bowl, keeping a little extra flour on hand.  Test to see if your oil is hot enough by adding a tiny bit of potato - if it sizzles immediately, the oil is ready.  Next, make a small potato patty with your batter as a test run.  Let it brown on one side for a few minutes, then flip over.  If it holds together, you have enough flour.  If it's a little loose, mix another tbsp. of flour into your main bowl of batter, and make another patty.  I mention this just because you might get a little variance in the moisture content of the potatoes or sauerkraut, so the amount of flour needed may fluctuate a little.

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Fry on each side for 3 or 4 minutes, until nice and golden brown.  I found the oil maintained a nice temperature, without cooking too fast, at medium high heat.  After draining on paper towels for just a couple of minutes, enjoy them while they're piping hot and crispy.

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I found a bunch of different takes on mulled wine online, but the fundamentals are red wine, spices, and sweetener.  Here's an excellent article on Czech mulled wine, as well as varieties from other cold countries of Europe.  For the base of my svařák I used a bottle of Yellow Tail cabernet sauvignon, which is vegan - all of their reds are vegan, but not their whites. 

Rather than getting into the whole vegan wine/beer briar patch here, I'd just recommend you check online about whatever brand you like and is available to you.  Many companies - like Yellow Tail - include FAQs on their sites.  And if you don't drink at all, problem solved :)
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Cinnamon and cloves in the mulled wine will make your place smell like the winter holidays.  Orange zest adds a little zing, and agave nectar and brown sugar heightened the sweetness.

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While you can make mulled wine on the stove top, I took a tip from the Czech wine vendor and made it in my coffee pot.  Here's the logic - my coffee machine pot never boils, so I put this on and let it be for almost an hour.  You can do the same thing on the stove top, just as long as you keep the wine from boiling - the alcohol will burn off as the wine boils. 
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For a one liter bottle of red wine, I mixed in 2 tbps. each of agave nectar and brown sugar, 1 tsp. orange zest (lemon is great too), a cinnamon stick, and 4 cloves.  Whether in the coffee pot or on the stove top, keep it hot but not boiling for at least a half hour.  It can be kept hot throughout a party, and leftovers apparently keep pretty well.  I just had a little cup when I made this, and put the rest back in the wine bottle.  Now it's back in the fridge, ready to go whenever the mood for mulled wine strikes...which I think is right about now! 
Na Zdraví!  (That's Cheers!, folks :)
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