Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Around the World in 80 Dishes: Laos

My personal culinary challenge -- Around the World in 80 Dishes -- has figuratively taken me around the world.  I have made a main course based on the cuisine of countries From Andorra to Australia, as well as many places in between.  The next challenge takes me to a region where I have not a challenge ... southeast Asia.  The next challenge requires me to make a main course from the country of Laos.  But, first, a few quick notes about Laotian cuisine.

While Laos is nestled in between Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, its cuisine sets itself apart from its neighbors.  Laotian cuisine tends to be spicier than Cambodian and Vietnamese cuisine, due to the use of local chiles. A cornerstone of many dishes is the use of sticky rice, which could be served with breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Those chiles and fresh herbs -- including galangal, kaffir lime leaves, and lemongrass -- contribute pungent, spicy notes to dishes.

Many of those dishes may be more familiar to people than most realize.  Over the years, many Lao emigrated from their home to neighboring countries, particularly Thailand.  Some dishes that are assumed to be Thai, are actually Lao in origin.  Indeed, in southeast Asia, there is a shared heritage between the Thais and Lao, as well as the Vietnamese and Cambodians, that many dishes of each country's cuisine share common characteristics of those prepare by cooks in the countries. 


Whenever I select a main course as part of my Around the World in 80 Dishes culinary challenge, my research often turns up what is labelled  the "national dish" or "official dish" of a country.  However, what really interests me is not what someone or some people call a country's "national dish," but what is commonly eaten by the people of that country. 

In the case of Laos, that dish would be Larb (or Laab). Generally, Laotian larb is a meat salad prepared with vegetables, fish sauce, lime and chiles served on lettuce with even more vegetables.  The result is a spicy, slightly sour dish that sets it apart from other larb dishes, such as those prepared in northern Thailand.  I have made the Thai version in the past using pork, as well as a version with shrimp, so I have a basic idea as to how to prepare the dish.  (It's kind of like cheating, but in a delicious way.)

Larb can be made with any protein, such as beef and chicken.  Beef is difficult to find in Laos, but it seemed appropriate given that the dish is often used to mark special occasion such as a housewarming, the birth of child or a holiday.  If I was in Laos, I would more than likely have the dish made with chicken, pork or duck.  (All of which sounds delicious, by the way.) 

Recipe from Bois de Jasmine
Serves 4 as appetizer, 2 as main dish

Ingredients (for the dish):
1 pound ground beef
4 shallots (2 sliced in thin rounds, 2 minced)
5 spring onions, sliced in thin rounds
2 garlic cloves, sliced in thin rounds
2 hot chile peppers, sliced in thin rounds
1 teaspoon of sugar
1 tablespoon of fish saucea
2 tablespoons of khao khua (roasted rice powder)

Ingredients (for the garnish):
Herbs (spring onions, mint, cilantro)
Lettuce leaves
Cucumber, sliced
Chiles, sliced (to taste)
1 lime, sliced
String beans (optional)

1.  Make the khao khua.  Put two tablespoons of rice into a frying pan without oil and toast, stirring frequently, over medium low heat until it turns brown and smells well-toasted.  Remove from the stove adn crush into powder. 

2.  Make the Larb.  Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a frying pan, then add the sliced shallots, garlic, spring onions and chiles.  When they have browned, add the beef, sugar and fish sauce.  Once the beef is well cooked, add more salt, lime juice and adjust the seasonings.  Set aside and let cool.

3.  Finish the dish.  Toss beef with herbs, minced shallots and roasted rice powder.  Serve with garnishes on a side.  

*      *     *

This challenge was inspired by my desire to make larb, and, it was -- like my prior efforts -- a very delicious dish.  The relative simplicity of the dish makes it one that could be made quickly after a busy day at work.  It is one that I will make again ... and again ... and again.  Until next time ...


Saturday, March 18, 2017

A (Non-Traditional) New England Clam Chowder

I am back.  It has been several months since I have posted anything on this blog.  I have been cooking, although not as much as I would like or with the experimentation that fuels this blog.  The problem is that I have not been writing blog posts, because things have been very busy around here.

Still, the recipes mull around in the back of my mind.  One such recipe is this New England Clam Chowder.  I made this chowder for the Savage Boleks Super Bowl Party, as the dish representing New England.   

Indeed, clam chowder is a quintessential dish in New England.  The history of the dish can be traced back to at least the 1700s, but it rose to prominence in the region in the early part of the 19th century.  The chowder gained a wider audience when it was described by Herman Melville in the classic, Moby Dick.  Melville described clam chowder served by Trys Pot, a chowder house in Nantucket, Massachusetts.  Melville wrote in some rather tasty terms:

However, a warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained.  Oh, sweet friends! hearken to me.  It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt. 

Fast forward one hundred and sixty six years and you find myself getting ready to make a big pot of New England Clam Chowder for my family and friends.  While I have made clam chowder in the past, this dish represents my best effort to date. And, after much thought, I think there are two reasons for that.

First, I decided to alter the recipe in one major way.  The original recipe, which I got from Bon Appetit called for cherrystone clams, which would be chopped into "bite size pieces."  I bought littleneck clams, which are smaller than cherrystone clams (you get about 7-10 littleneck clams per pound, while you get 6 to 9 cherrystone clams per pound).  Given they were smaller, I decided not to chop the clams.  This left small, whole clams in the chowder.  Something that I think would be reminiscent of, albeit slightly larger than, the "hazel nut" sized clams described by Herman Melville.

Second, I decided to use hickory smoked bacon, rather than just plain old bacon. This choice goes against convention.  Traditional clam chowders are made with salt pork, which is not smoked.  Most restaurants substitute un-smoked bacon.  The rationale behind the use of un-smoked bacon is that one wants to enjoy the brininess of the clams, which could get lost with smoked bacon.  Given I decided to keep the clams whole, rather than chop them into pieces, I decided to take a risk and use smoked bacon.  I think the risk paid off, because it added another layer of flavor to the chowder.

In the end, I think my family and friends enjoyed this chowder.  I certainly liked this chowder a lot.  So much that the thought of writing this blog post persevered even through the most busiest of times.  There are other posts like this one, although they will have to wait for another day.

Recipe adapted from Bon Appetit
Serves many


10 pounds of littleneck clams, scrubbed
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
8 ounces bacon, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
2 celery stalks, minced
1 large onion, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
6 cups clam juice (or reserved broth from steaming clams)
2 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 cups heavy cream
Kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
Flat leaf parsley, chopped
Oyster crackers

1.  Steam the clams.  Bring clams and 4 cups of water to a boil in a large pot over high heat.  Cook until clams just open, 8 to 10 minutes (discard any that do not open).  using a large slotted spoon, transfer clams to a large rimmed baking sheet; set broth aside.  Let clams cool slightly, pull meat from shells and discard the shells.  

2.  Make the base.  Melt butter in a large heavy pot over medium heat.  Add bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until fat is rendered and bacon begins to brown, about 8 minutes.  Add celery, onions and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is translucent, about 10 minutes.  Add reserved broth (or 6 cups of clam juice), potatoes, thyme and bay leaf.  Bring chowder base to a simmer.  Cook until potatoes are tender, about 20 to 25 minutes.  

3.  Add cornstarch slurry.  Stir cornstarch and 2 tablespoons of water in a small bowl to form a slurry.  Stir slurry into chowder base.  Return to a boil to thicken.

4.  Finish the dish.  Remove base from heat.  Discard bay leaf.  Stir in reserve clams and cream  Season with salt (if needed, because the brininess of clams varies) and pepper.  Divide chowder among bowls and garnish with the parsley and serve with oyster crackers.