Recipes from Lebanon


Yay it's raining in California! If it carries on like this, the drought might actually end sometime in the next couple of years.

Of course, I really dislike rain most of the time, but I'm not going to say so out loud. We really need the rain.
I was trying to come up with a good segue between rainfall in California and rainfall in this week's destination, but I can't really. Lebanon gets way more rain than we do, even in a good year. That's probably why it's had such a long history of human occupation—people tend to go where the water is.

Lebanon is at the crossroads of the Mediterranean Basin and the Arab world, near Syria and Israel. There is evidence that humans lived there up to 7,000 years ago, which is a very, very long time ago—before human beings started actually recording history.

The earliest known occupants of Lebanon were the Phoenicians, a maritime culture that lived in the region for almost a millennium. Lebanon was later occupied by the Romans, and then by the Arabs, and the result of all that indecisiveness is that today it is a place of great ethnic and religious diversity.

Fun fact: Lebanon has such unique geography that you can go skiing in the morning and swimming in the Mediterranean Sea in the afternoon. Which you could theoretically do in California, too, if the Pacific Ocean wasn't so damned cold.

Baalbek, Lebanon. Photo by Paul Saad. 

The Lebanese eat a lot of seafood, starches, whole grains and vegetables, and chicken is on the menu more often than red meat is. The Lebanese love garlic and lemon juice, which brings me to our main course:

Djej w Batata Bil Sayniyyeh (Baked Garlic Chicken and Potatoes)
(All of this week's recipes come from Mama's Lebanese Kitchen)
  • 4 lbs chicken pieces
  • 5 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced into ½ inch pieces
  • 20 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • Salt to taste
  • A pinch of Lebanese 7-spice
  • Vinegar (optional)
To make this, you'll also need this recipe:

Lebanese 7-Spices
  • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp white pepper
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp coriander
And on the side I made this, though I'm not entirely sure about its accuracy as a side dish (sounds more like a condiment):

Loubieh
  • 3 lbs green beans, rinsed and trimmed
  • 3 medium onions, finely chopped
  • 2/3rd cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 to 2 tsp Lebanese 7-spice
  • 1/2 tsp salt
And for dessert:

Dates Fudge
  • 2 lbs date paste (or grind pitted dates to paste in a food processor)
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1/2 lb of walnuts
  • 1/4 lb coconut flakes
The first thing you will need to make is the Lebanese 7-spice, unless you happen to have some on hand, which I'm guessing you probably don't. It's pretty simple and you can make as much or as little as you want, though you will need at least two teaspoons for this meal. Just mix together the ingredients and you're done.

Now for the chicken:

The first step is to soak the chicken pieces in vinegar for two minutes, though this is optional. When done, rinse in cold water and pat dry.

Now cut a few slits in each chicken piece to allow the marinade to penetrate. Mix two tbsp of the olive oil with a pinch of salt and the Lebanese 7-spice.

Grease a metal roasting pan with olive oil and place the chicken inside. Salt the potato slices and place on top of the chicken.

Bake at 400 degrees for 40 to 50 minutes, or until a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh reads 175 degrees.

While the chicken is cooking, place the garlic in a food processor with ½ tsp of salt and the rest of the olive oil. Pulse for 4 to 5 minutes, then add the lemon juice and pulse for another 4 to 5 minutes.

Remove the chicken from the oven, then drain off the liquid from the bottom of the pan. Pour the garlic sauce over the chicken and toss to make sure everything is coated. Return to the pan and cook under the broiler for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the potatoes are golden.

Meanwhile, make the beans. First saute the onions in olive oil for 15 to 20 minutes, or until they start to brown. Now add the beans, the salt and half of the 7-spice mixture. Mix well, then cover the pot and cook on low for 45 minutes, stirring every 5 to 10 minutes. When the beans are a dark olive-brown color, add the rest of the 7-spice and mix well. You can serve this dish hot or cold.

Now for the fudge, which isn't really anything like fudge:

First, melt butter over a low flame. Pour over the date paste and "knead" by hand. Divide into 28 pieces and then stuff each piece with a walnut half. Roll it into a ball and then dip in coconut flakes. Chill or serve at room temperature.

The chicken was really delicious, I mean really, really delicious. It was not too far removed from stuff I've eaten locally (have you ever been to the Stinking Rose in San Francisco?) but who cares. It was full of flavor and cooked perfectly, if I do say so myself. I liked the beans, too, and so did Martin, but the kids wouldn't touch them. In their defense, though, they won't even touch that bean casserole that everyone makes for Thanksgiving, either. They think vegetables are out to get them.

The dates fudge, mmm. It was dead-simple to make and tasted very Mediterranean, and my kids were not fans. When I say "dessert," they think I mean "cupcakes." I really have to break them of those way-too-American palettes that they have. But oh well, more for me.

Next week: Lesotho
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Recipes from Lazio, Italy


There's something about Italian food that resonates with me, and I'm not really sure why. My mom never did Italian when I was a kid, unless you count spaghetti (and I don't). Italian food is just comforting, even if you have no childhood experience with it. So I always like coming back to Italy, and I even kind of wish I'd broken up the country into smaller sections when I made my list, which would give me a good excuse to make even more Italian food.

Looking back, I've got some Italian provinces earlier in the alphabet I probably should have skipped to before tackling Lazio, but I guess I'm just kind of blindly plowing through the alphabet at this point. Anyway, Lazio is sort of the middle front part of the boot. It’s mainly flat and/or slightly hilly, and it has a nice long coastline.

The city of Rome is in Lazio, which means that all the cool stuff is there, like the Roman Colosseum and the Pantheon. It also has a lot of natural hot springs—if you’ve ever seen images of the ancient Romans in their baths, Lazio was probably the setting for that. For history lovers there is other cool stuff in Lazio, like Villa D’Este and Villa Adriana, which was the residence of the Roman emperor Hadrian. The Appian Way (one of ancient Rome's most strategically important roads) still runs through the region, too.

The Colosseum, Rome. Lazio, Italy. Photo by  Dennis Tang.
The food in this region tends to be simple and easy to cook, which is good for me personally. Vegetables grow well in the area so are a big part of the cuisine, and meat dishes are often very heavily seasoned—this harkens back to the days when the poor lived outside of the cities and often had only the lesser cuts of meat to cook with. For my main course, I chose a chicken dish:

Pollo Arrosto con Arancia ed Uvetta
  • 1 4lb chicken, cut through the backbone and flattened
  • Juice and zest of 1 lemon
  • Juice zest of 1 orange
  • 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 sprig rosemary
  • 1/4 to 1/2 tsp chili flakes
  • 1/4 cup currants
  • 1 and 1/2 tsp salt
And then I did some pasta on the side, because of course you have to do that:

Cacio e Pepe
  • 1 lb fresh spaghetti noodles
  • 4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tsp freshly-ground black pepper
  • 1 cup Pecorino Romano cheese, finely grated
  • 3⁄4 cup Cacio de Roma, finely grated (substitute Pecorino Romano)
And finally:

Roman Artichokes
  • 4 large artichokes
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 to 3 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 1 tbsp mint leaves, chopped fine
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • 1 tsp white wine vinegar
Let's start with the main dish. First, place the chicken in a large casserole dish. Mix everything but the salt together in a large bowl.

Pour over the chicken. Cover and let marinate in the fridge for 24 to 72 hours, turning occasionally.

Now preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Salt the chicken and place breast side down in the roasting pan. Let roast for 45 minutes, basting occasionally. Then flip the chicken over and roast for another 35 minutes, until the chicken is golden and a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh reaches 175 degrees.

Now for the artichokes, which also take a bit of time:

First snap off the leaves about halfway around the outside of the artichokes. I actually found them to be so tough that I had to cut them off with kitchen shears. What you're doing is getting rid of the tough top parts and the stickers and leaving the meatier bottom parts.

Keep at this until you start to see the red tips of the inner leaves. Now take a very sharp kitchen knife and cut off the top of the artichoke, across those red tips. 

Now comes the hard part—scoop out the hairy choke on the inside of the artichoke, and all of those really small stickery leaves. This is really challenging. I found myself in there with a pairing knife trying to loosen up all the stuff that needed to come out, and I still didn't get it all out. When you think you've done an acceptable job, trim the stems.

Now place the artichokes in a pan, stem sides up. Mix the olive oil, salt and pepper with the garlic, mint, lemon juice and vinegar. Now, the recipe said that the liquid should go about halfway up the sides of the artichokes, which let's face it is a ton of olive oil and you'd basically be deep frying them at that point. I didn't use that much oil. My artichokes did come out a little burned at the tops, but I really can't afford to use that much olive oil in one recipe! So I just stuck with a cup—add more if you want. You will probably get better results.

Cover the pan and heat over a medium flame. You're going to get popping sounds like you get anytime you deep fry something, but you're going to let these go for 40 minutes or so, so keep checking to make sure they don't burn or stick.

OK now for the easy part:

Cook the pasta in salted water according to package directions. Drain and set aside, reserving a cup of pasta water.

Meanwhile, heat the oil over a medium flame and cook the pepper for 1 or 2 minutes, or until fragrant.

Add ¾ cup of the pasta water to the skillet with the oil and bring to a boil. Add the pasta, and sprinkle with ¾ cup of the Pecorino Romano and Cacio de Roma.

Toss to combine, then transfer to plates and sprinkle with the remaining cheese and additional black pepper to taste. 

I loved loved loved this meal. It was really simple, and the fresh spaghetti was really good with just that little bit of cheese and black pepper. I also really enjoyed the artichokes, but artichokes are my favorite vegetable so I'd really have to screw them up in order to not enjoy them. The chicken was really good, too. It came out nice and juicy and had great flavor. It was an easy meal and tasty too, with that Italian food comfort on the side.

Next week: Lebanon
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Recipes from Latvia


I'm pretty sure that the weather has something to do with how much I enjoy blog meals. Caribbean food, for example, really is better on a hot day. And Eastern European food is better on cold days.

Sadly, it was nowhere near a cold day when I did my Latvian meal. We still haven't had any really cold days here in California, but it was most definitely not cold a few weeks ago when I did this meal. I actually am starting to wonder if alphabetical was the way to go with this endeavor, or if I maybe should have done this geographically.

Latvia would definitely be a February meal, or maybe early March. It's in the Baltic region of Northern Europe, bordered by fellow cold nations Estonia, Lithuania, Russia and Belarus. In July, it reaches scorchingly hot temperatures in excess of 67 degrees. In February it drops all the way down to 16 degrees. My husband would probably love living there.


 Cēsis Castle, Latvia. Photo by Graham.
Latvia is another one of those nations that got swallowed up by the Soviet Union and then spat back out again after the empire dissolved in the early 90s. During World War II it was also invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany, which is an interesting factoid because it's not something you really hear discussed when people talk about World War II. Through all of it, Latvia maintained its uniquely Latvian culture and language, and today it's actually a prosperous little nation, though it is still cold.

Anyway it makes complete sense that when you live in a freezing cold environment, you eat a lot of rich foods. That's what helps you achieve a layer of insulation to protect you from the elements, right? There's a lot of fat in Latvian food (and not a lot of spices), and typical menu items include potatoes, pork, eggs and cabbage. Here are the recipes I chose:

Breaded Pork Chops
(from Latvian Stuff)
  • 6 pork chops     
  • 3 tbsp light cream
  • 1 egg     
  • 3/4 cup bread crumbs
  • Butter and oil     
  • Salt and pepper     
  • Flour
Kartupeli ar Dillēm (Boiled Potatoes With Dill)
(from Saveur)
  • 2 lb small Yukon Gold potatoes, unpeeled
  • 1/3 cup sour cream
  • 6 tbsp fresh dill, minced
  • 4 tbsp unsalted butter
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Latvian Rye Bread
(from The Rīgas Stradiņa Universitāte)

For the starter:
  • 3 tbsp coarse rye flour
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
  • 1 1/4 tsp sugar 
For the bread:
  • 5 cups coarse rye flour, sifted
  • 2 1/2 cups water
  • Pinch of salt
  • Caraway seeds to taste
Grey peas with bacon (Pelēkie zirņi ar speķīti)
(from Cooking Latvia)
  • 7 oz pigeon peas
  • 4 strips smoked bacon
  • 1 small onion
  • Salt
Jåñi Cheese
(also from The Rīgas Stradiņa Universitāte)
  • 2lb, 3oz skim milk dry cottage cheese*
  • 169 oz whole milk (avoid ultra-pasteurized)
  • 3 1/2 oz sour cream
  • 2 eggs
  • Salt
  • Caraway seeds
  • 3 1/2 oz butter, melted
* I bought milk that wasn't ultra-pasteurized, which is something you need to make cheese. But I think the cottage cheese needed to not be ultra-pasteurized, too.

Yes, this was a lot. Let me just start by cautioning you against ever trying to make cheese and bread on the same day. It's really quite a stupid move.

First we're going to make the bread, because that takes days. Literally. You need between 28 and 36 1/2 hours to make this bread.

First you have to make the starter, which you do a day and a half before baking. Now, I never have any luck with this sort of thing. I've tried a couple of times to make sour dough starter and had no success whatsoever. So I did not have high hopes for this, either.

What you're supposed to do is add the 3 tbsp flour to the buttermilk, then add the sugar and cover. Let ferment in a warm place for eight to 12 hours. I'm assuming that when you're done, it should be frothy. Of course, mine wasn't.

Now heat up the water and add 1/4 cup of flour. The water should be almost (but not quite) boiling. You're trying to form a medium-thick porridge, so keep gradually adding flour until you get the right consistency. Now add the starter and mix well. Cover and let ferment in a warm place for another 8 to 9 hours, or until the mixture gets sour.

Now you need to make a leaven. To do this, mix a third of the flour with hot water and mix with a wooden spoon until smooth. Let cool to about 95 to 105 degrees, then add the starter. Mix until smooth.

Sprinkle some flour over the the dough and let rise in a warm place for 10 to 12 hours. Now start kneading, adding flour, until you have a nice elastic dough. It should be firm and not sticky. Cover and let rise in a warm place for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until it increases in volume by 1/3 or 1/2.
Transfer to a loaf pan and bake at 350 degrees for 1 to 2 hours. The bread is ready when you knock on it and it sounds hollow.

Because my starter never got frothy, I added a small amount of yeast to mine. Cheating!

Now for the cheese. First put the cottage cheese in a food processor and grind it up. Now, this is supposed to be a dry cottage cheese, which is hard to find in the US. So I just tried to drain off some of the liquid after I ground it up.

Now heat your milk until it gets to 194 to 203 degrees. If you've ever made cheese before, you know how important it is to get this right because the temperature of milk affects what kind of cheese you end up with. Pull up a stool and sit there with your wooden spoon, and stir and stir and stir. It will take a long time. When it finally reaches the right temperature, add the cottage cheese to the milk. Keep heating until the temperature reaches somewhere between 185 and 194 degrees.

So now you should start to get a clear whey separating to the top. This did not happen for me, and I think it was because the cottage cheese I used was flash pasteurized, though I could be completely wrong. At any rate, the cottage cheese alone was not enough to convince the mixture to separate, so I ended up adding a little bit of vinegar. That did the trick, but I don't know how much it ended up changing the final product.

Once you have a good separation, poor off the liquid and transfer the solids into a clean, damp piece of cheesecloth. Hold the corners together and roll the cheese back and forth across a wooden surface to remove any excess moisture.

Now place the cheese in a bowl and, using a wooden spoon, mix with the sour cream, eggs, salt and caraway seeds.  Return to a pan with the melted butter and cook over  low heat for 10 to 15 minutes, or until melted and shiny (the temperature should be about 167 to 176 degrees). The higher the temperature and the longer the heating time, the harder your cheese will be.

Now transfer the cheese back to a damp cloth. Tie the corners of the cloth together and place under a weight in the fridge. The cheese is ready to slice when it has cooled.

Now for the easy stuff, starting with the peas. If you're using dried peas, cover them with water the day before (sometime during the process of making the bread). Then add salt and cook the peas until soft. I used canned peas so I skipped this step.

Now fry the bacon and add the onions. Cook until soft. Add the peas to the pan and fry for a few seconds. That's it. I know, simple compared to those last two recipes.

OK, the potatoes. Are you tired yet? First bring 8 quarts of salted water to a boil. Add the potatoes and cook until they can be easily pierced with a fork (about 12 to 15 minutes) Meanwhile, mix the sour cream with the dill, butter, salt and pepper.

Drain the potatoes and remove the pot from the stove. When the potatoes have drained, return them to the pot with the sour cream mixture. Cover the pot and give it a good shake. Transfer to a bowl and add salt and pepper, if needed.

Finally, the pork chops. Start by beating the egg together with the cream. Then mix the bread crumbs with the salt and pepper. Take a meat mallet and tenderize the pork chops on both sides until about a quarter inch thick. Now dip in in the egg mixture, then in the bread crumbs.

Heat some oil in a frying pan over a medium flame. Fry on one side, then add a tablespoon of butter and flip. When both sides are golden, the chops are done.

So this was very good meal. It would have been more delicious if it was cold outside, because it was very heavy, what with all the pork and the bacon and the stodgy bread. I did like the bread but I think the failure of the starter impacted it--it was quite heavy and didn't really rise completely. The cheese, well, hmm. I don't know what it was supposed to be like so I can't really comment on whether I got it right. It was very soft, like a queso fresco. It also had those caraway seeds, which I don't love. It tasted OK with the bread but I don't think either of them were really worth all of the effort.

Loved the pork chops and potatoes, and of course the pigeon peas because I like pigeon peas in almost any form. And you can't really go wrong with bacon, can you?

It was a very challenging meal and I'm glad I tackled it. I might not be attempting cheese again for a while, though, and I almost certainly won't ever be attempting any home made starter again. But those pork chops and potatoes, give me a nice February evening and I'll do that one again.

Next week: Lazio, Italy
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Recipes from Laos


Look, I'm on "L!" That's not quite halfway through the alphabet, but it sure is close. Yay, progress.

OK let's talk about Laos. We Americans are quite familiar with Asian food—we love our Chinese take-out, and sushi, and Thai food, and Vietnamese and Korean. Although there's a pretty good argument to be made that our Asian favorites are nothing like authentic, but there you go.
We do tend to bypass some of those lesser-known Asian cuisines, though, which is a shame. I've had some great food from places like Burma and Cambodia, and now Laos.

 VangViang, Laos. Photo by Taylor Miles.

Laos, as you may or may not know, is a small place especially when compared to China and some of its other neighbors. Although with a population of 6.5 million people, I guess you can't really use the word "small."

Laos is a low-income economy and in fact has one of the lowest annual incomes in the world. At least a third of its citizens live below the international poverty line, which is less than $1.25 a day. To put that in perspective, the American poverty line is roughly $16 per day, per person--so yes it is true, to poor Laotions poor Americans look like they're pretty filthy stinking rich. Laos is also the 25th hungriest nation in the world, so it almost feels wrong to cook and enjoy Laotian food when so may Laotians can't even do that on a regular basis. And on that note:

Laotians eat a lot of sticky rice, which is their primary staple. It is generally eaten with the hands, which sounds quite messy. The cuisine of Laos has some French influences but is mostly distinctly its own thing, with unique dishes like a spicy green papaya salad and a raw meat dish called “larb.” I didn’t go with the raw meat dish because, you know, kids, but here’s what I did pick:

Mok Pha (Steamed Fish in Banana Leaves) 
(from The Daring Kitchen)
  • 1 lb catfish or tilapia, cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 1/2 cup sticky rice, soaked overnight*
  • 3 shallots, peeled
  • 2 lemongrass stalks, sliced 
  • 1/2 cup green spring onions
  • 10 kaffir lime leaves, finely sliced
  • 4 tbsp fish sauce
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 6 to 8 chili peppers (optional)
  • 4 to 6 banana leaves, cut into 10-inch piece 
* I cooked mine. I didn't think soaking it overnight would make it soft enough. 

Nam Kao (Spicy Red Curry Rice Salad with Shrimp) 
(also from The Daring Kitchen
  • 2 cups of cooked jasmine rice, cooled
  • 1/2 cup of fish sauce
  • 1/2 cup fresh lime juice
  • 1/3 cup red curry paste (Maesri brand)
  • 1/4 cup fresh mint, coarsely chopped 
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup green onion, finely chopped
  • 1/2 lb shrimp, peeled, blanched, and coarsely chopped 
  • 1/2 gallon vegetable oil
  • 2 tsp roasted peanuts, finely chopped (optional)
  • Red pepper flakes (optional)
  • Lettuce or endive
Cheun Yaw (Fried Spring Rolls) 
(from daianddal)
  • Spring roll wrappers
  • 3 to 4 cups vegetable oil 
For the filling:
  • 2 lbs ground pork, cooked
  • 1 1/2 cups carrot, grated
  • 1 1/2 cups cabbage, sliced
  • 1 1/2 cups bean sprouts
  • 1 1/2 cups mung bean noodles
  • 1 cup black fungi mushrooms, soaked for five minutes and sliced
  • 1 large onion, sliced
  • 2-3 stalks green onions, sliced
  • 2 medium eggs
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tbsp oyster sauce
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp chicken bouillion
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp white pepper
Sweet Dressing Sauce 
(also from daianddal)
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • 1/4 cup fish sauce
  • Juice of one lemon
  • 1 tbsp white vinegar
I'm going to start with the spring rolls, because they take the longest. Here we go:

First soak the mung bean noodles in cold water for about five minutes, then drain. Now transfer to a large bowl and mix with the rest of the filling ingredients.

Put a little bit of water in a small bowl, and get your spring roll wrappers ready. Put two tbsp of filling into the middle of the first wrapper.

Now bring the sides together so they are just touching. Now fold up the bottom of the wrapper and roll it up like a tiny burrito.

Make sure you have a tight roll, but be careful not to roll it so tightly that you make a hole in the wrapper. Use a little bit of the water to seal the spring roll and then move on to the next one. Keep going until you either run out of filling or wrappers.

When you're ready, start heating the oil up in a large pan over medium-low heat. Test the oil with the non-stirring end of a wooden spoon--if bubbles rise around it, the oil is ready.

Now drop a few of the spring rolls into the oil. There should be plenty of room for them to move around without touching each other--you don't want them to stick. When the rolls are golden on all sides, they're done. Remove and drain on paper towels. Serve at once.

I served these with a sweet dipping sauce, which you make like this:

First mix the sugar and water together and heat over a medium flame. After the sugar dissolves, add the crushed garlic. Now turn off the heat and add the rest of the ingredients. Stir to combine.

OK, next we'll do this crazy weird rice balls thing. Here we go:

First, mix the shrimp with 1/4 cup lime juice and 1/4 cup fish sauce. Let chill in the fridge while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Gently mix the red curry sauce with the rice. Add the egg and 2 tbsp of the fish sauce and mix until sticky.

Now take a small amount of the rice mixture and roll into a two-inch ball. Repeat until all the mixture is gone.

Meanwhile, heat some more oil. Yes, this is a very deep-fried culinary experience. When the oil is ready, drop the balls in and fry until golden. Transfer to a strainer and let drain and cool.

Now crush the rice balls up into roughly 1/4 inch pieces. Stir in the rest of the fish sauce and lime juice. Add the shrimp, herbs, peanuts and red pepper flakes (if using).

Serve over the lettuce or endive. 

OK, now for the fish. The instructions explicitly say that you need to go to the Mekong River to catch a giant catfish, so you'd better get moving on that. I actually cheated and bought some fish at Safeway.

First make the cocktail sauce, like this: put the sticky rice, lemongrass, shallots, chili pepper and green onions into a blender, adding up to a half cup of water as needed. Puree until it is a saucy consistency. Add sugar and salt to taste.

Now put the fish pieces in a large bowl and pour the cocktail sauce over.

Mix gently and add the Kaffir lime leaves and the whole chili peppers (if using).

Now place some of the fish mixture on a banana leaf. Fold into a triangle shape and secure with toothpicks. Steam for 25 minutes (I used a vegetable steamer. It was messy, but it worked fine.)

One thing that really struck me about this meal was this: you would not taste anything like it in a restaurant in the US, at least not one designed to appeal to Americans. It was very, very different. I'd like to say that means it was authentic and I did a good job cooking it, but if I do say that then someone is going to email me and tell me the opposite. So I will say, I've never tasted anything quite like it, and in a good way.

I liked the fish, though it definitely maintained a banana leaf flavor, which for some people can be a bit too earthy. It was also very heavy on Kaffir lime flavor, which I happen to like, but again it's an odd flavor that I don't think a lot of Americans are used to. But over all, not terribly strange. The rice and shrimp salad on the other hand was crazy weird. it was really spicy and the texture was very unusual. The spring rolls were the most familiar of the three dishes. I've had plenty of fried spring rolls, but probably not with these particular fillings. They had a great crunch to them, both inside and out, and the sweet dressing was a perfect match for them. My kids, of course, preferred the spring rolls and not really anything else. Martin was OK with the other two dishes but I think he preferred the spring rolls, too. I liked it all--it was exotic and interesting and tasted great, too.

Moving on down the alphabet now! Next week: Latvia.
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