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sesame beef bowl

I’ve been spending a bunch of time cooking from Fuchsia Dunlop’s fantastic Every Grain of Rice, especially its vegetable and tofu sections, but some of the cold dishes seem a bit labour-intensive for everyday cooking. I was pondering the Sichuan Numbing and Hot Beef, a party dish, really, that requires slowly simmering a whole beef shin before slicing it thinly for a crowd. And even this is Dunlop’s simplified version of an original that featured various cooking methods of tongue, heart and tripe. I love the combination of Sichuan peppercorn, cilantro and sesame but I wanted something for a weeknight dinner for two, not an impressive party platter. It struck me that, because the original is a cold dish, it might be susceptible to transformation into a yam, or Southeast Asian salad. Regular readers will know of my obsession with Thai and Viet main-dish salads, which can be quite hearty meals, but emphasise herbs and bright spicy flavours. I decided to commit what is probably a shameful bastardisation of a classic dish, and to experiment with a bit of fusion. I replaced the beef shin with a nice rare steak and the cooked sauce with a creamy sesame dressing. I think it ultimately turned into something quite different, but the result was  addictive. The recipe could probably do with some revision – knock yourselves out if you have ideas for improvement – but as experiments go, it was pretty successful. Read the rest of this entry »

There has been lots going on for the Lemurs lately, and I’ve been neglecting the blog. Truth be told, I’ve been neglecting cooking too and that’s always an index of my overall wellbeing. Obviously, it can be pretty fun to be too busy to cook when what’s taking up your time is an endless round of parties and social events, and it can even be exhilarating to find yourself working super hard on an important project. I’ve been doing a bit of both of these and it’s certainly no hardship to attend glamorous book launches, film festival premieres and gallery openings. Nonetheless, I’m enough of an introvert that I need time at home to replenish my energies, and when I’m too tired even to cook, it’s a sign that I ought to slow things down. If I’m going to make it through the festive season in one piece, I need to take a breather and get myself back into the kitchen. Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve been on a bit of a spelt kick lately. I know some of you will be nodding enthusiastically and others grimacing and preparing to click away. Spelt has a bit of a bad rap as cardboard-like health food and that honestly hasn’t been helped by any of the mealy and disgusting spelt bread I’ve eaten in my time. But you know I don’t  like ‘health food’ – I do like food that is healthy but deliciousness is my main motivation and spelt (whisper it) is pretty darn tasty. I found this brand, Amisa, in our local international food store, and not only is it organic but it is dried over beechwood, which gives it a slightly smoky flavour.

Read the rest of this entry »

One of the many bits and bobs I brought home from Thailand was a jar of nam prik pow. Or at least, I think that’s what it is. At one of Chiang Mai’s night markets, I came across a stall selling candied fruits and savoury things in jars. Obviously, I couldn’t actually read any of the labels but I was drawn to a particular set of little plastic pots. The stallholder opened some of them for me and it was clear they were variants of chili and shrimp pastes. I bought two – one an almost black, deeply fishy scented tar with a musty kick, the other a rich jewelled red colour with a lighter garlic, chili and fish sauce smell. They’re obviously mass produced, but they taste a good deal better than any of the jarred nam prik pow you can buy over here. I’ve been dying to try them out. (If anyone reads Thai, I’d love to know what it actually says…)

Unfortunately, my original plan for a variant on yam som-oh went awry at the shops, where basically nothing I wanted to purchase was available. No coconut milk, no grapefruit, etc. I think I went into a bit of a panic because I came home with a completely random Ready Steady Cook style bag of ingredients. Rump steak, portabella mushrooms, spring greens and red peppers? Er, ok. My local greengrocer (i.e. the Mean Polish Store) doesn’t exactly carry a wide range of Asian vegetables but still, I have no idea where those mushrooms came from. That being said, I ended up with a rather nice dish – lots of wok-fried greens and thinly-sliced beef with the roasty hot garlicky flavour of nam prik pow seared onto them.

To make this dish vegetarian, obviously it’s easy enough to omit the beef and just use greens and mushrooms. Likewise, soy sauce can sub for fish sauce in the usual way (use a bit less and dilute more with water as I find soy a bit saltier). More challenging is the nam prik pow but you can buy veggie nam prik pow in many Asian markets. It’s worth seeking out, or indeed making your own, as the stuff’s a wonder to have in the fridge.

Spicy Thai beef and greens

  • 1 small rump steak
  • 1 head of spring greens
  • 2 portabella mushrooms
  • 1 red pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 3 long Thai red chilies
  • 1 tbsp nam prik pow (or to taste)
  • 1/4 cup measure, half filled with fish sauce and half warm water
  • 2 tbsp palm sugar
  • 1 lime

To prepare, slice the meat very thinly, cut the mushrooms and pepper into rather less thin slices, and also slice the greens. Finely chop the garlic and chilies. Get the wok good and hot before adding a glug of oil, then add mushrooms. When they’ve coloured, add garlic and chilies.

Next add the greens and the pepper. Of course, the key thing in wok frying is not adding too much volume. Greens seem pretty volumetastic at first but then cook down pretty fast. Still, don’t make this for more than two people or your wok won’t stay hot enough. You want the greens to get that toasty wok hei flavour.

Finally, add the beef and the nam prik pow and fry for a minute. You want the paste to cook and also sear into the beef and greens. Then add fish sauce, water, and sugar and stir to dissolve the chili paste and sugar into the liquid. Mix everything well. Once that’s done, turn off the heat and add the lime juice. Serve immediately.

I love making feijoada, the Brazilian national dish. It looks like a decadent feast of many components, but it’s easy to achieve and you get to watch the magic of black beans slowly becoming silky and thickened. It’s also fairly healthy for such a heavy dish – the central beans, meat and rice are joined with sliced orange, toasted manioc meal, and kale for a colourful and fully rounded meal. It was the perfect relaxed meal to share with our friend K, who had been working very hard and arrived in the middle of an apocalyptic storm. We passed around the pão de queijo and pretended we were in Rio…

The origins of feijoada are somewhat murky. Mr Lemur, who was born in Brazil, always told me that it was a government invention, designed with the optimal nutrition of a poor population in mind. I haven’t been able to find any sources for this story, so I suspect it’s an oddly socialist urban myth. Many people believe it to have originated in the slave quarters of early colonial Brazil, but this one is a bit of a myth too. These days, it is accepted that the dish has a largely European origin, with the Portuguese bean and pork stews similar to French cassoulet adapted for the black beans of Brazil. There are some native elements, such as the use of black beans rather than white, and the farofa sprinked on top of the beans. And it’s certainly true that African bean and leafy green stews, and indigenous bean and manioc dishes are crucial to Brazilian cuisine in general. But while Brazilians would prefer to view their national dish as emerging from native and African roots, this particular ‘national dish’ seems more likely to have developed in the grand homes of the colonists. No matter who invented it, though, feijoada today does represent elements of each of Brazil’s major historical influences: African, indigenous, and European. Even if, like most traditions, this one turns out to be a nineteenth-century invention, it’s a pretty good one. Read the rest of this entry »

Beef wrapped in lá lốt leaves is a classic Vietnamese dish that I first encountered in the New York Chinatown restauarant helpfully called Vietnam. It has since changed hands and is now apparently not good at all, but back in the day it was the best Viet food in New York. It looked completely unprepossessing – dingy sign outside and you had to go down some scummy stairs into a dark basement space. But the food was amazing. The owner used to boast that unlike many Vietnamese places in town, he had a chef who had come from Vietnam. I’ve no idea if that’s actually something to boast about, but there were certainly dishes there that you didn’t see in the other phở and bun joints in Chinatown. And one of those was thịt bò nướng lá lốt, which was only served on the days that the leaves had arrived. Knowing it was only sporadically available made it all the more exciting.

Lá lốt leaves are also known as pepper leaves and betel leaves, but most menus and Asian stores I’ve seen simply call them by their Viet name. The leaves are rather lovely: glossy on one side and pale on the other. I saw them in London’s Chinatown last weekend and bought them on impulse. The prospect of recreating one of my favourite of Vietnam’s dishes was too tempting… Read the rest of this entry »

Eating arepas last week got me thinking about the cheap and delicious Latin food that used to sustain me when I lived in New York. I ate a lot of Cuban food, especially the ropa vieja from National Cafe, a great little neighbourhood place on First Avenue, now sadly closed. They also made plantains fried in pork fat, stuffed with ground beef and topped with crema. I could cry just thinking about them but it truly wasn’t a place for the diet-conscious. My other favourite haunt was Brisas del Caribe in SoHo – also now tragically gone – which in addition to mouth-watering Cuban sandwiches made amazing maduros, or fried ripe plantains. It was more or less impossible to finish both at one sitting, but there was no way not to order the sweet sweet plantains on the side.

While it’s probably a good thing that my lunches these days tend to involve less deep frying in lard, I do find myself craving Cuban flavours when it’s warm outside. Thus, I’ve been spending the last few days impatiently waiting for the plantains I bought in Brixton market to ripen. To make maduros, you need the plantains to be completely blackened, on the edge of fermenting really. If they were bananas, you’d be giving up on eating them and deciding to make some banana bread instead. But they’re not bananas and they are, at this point, perfect. Read the rest of this entry »

A research trip to Stockholm is providing my latest opportunity for international culinary adventure. I might be slightly held back by the cost though – I spent £25 (about $50) on a three-day metro card and about the same for a sandwich and a coffee in the airport. Eek! I think I’m going to have to forget I know the exchange rate and just put things on my credit card and worry about it later. One thing I did notice in my brief bout of Internet research on the Stockholm restaurant scene is that the fancier the restaurant, the less exorbitant the prices seem. A cheap lunch is several times more than it would be in the UK but a high end meal is just 10% or so more. So clearly, the fancy places are a better deal and I should go there, right?

On our first night we went to Södra Theatre restaurant, which has a beautiful outdoor terrace overlooking the city. Even better, they give you free blankets when the temperature drops, so you can wrap up and enjoy your after dinner drinks in coziness. It’s like a slanket service – genius!

Our starter was amazing: a crayfish and pickled apple roll with Avruga caviar and cheese bread. The pickled apple was sliced thinly and formed the outside of the rolls; the inside was stuffed with fresh crayfish. Little sweet caviar piles were joined by some kind of honey sauce. The whole thing was spectacularly good and completely fulfilled my hopes for new Nordic cuisine.

The main courses were a little disappointing after such a beautiful beginning, and all of us reported a heavy hand with the salt. But they weren’t bad – just not revelatory. I had ox cheek braised in red wine with cheese-flavoured mashed potatoes, fried onions and pickled gherkins. The cheek was rich and meaty, though the potatoes tasted more of salt than cheese.

Consensus of opinion seemed to be that the best dish was lamb with chorizo, beans and lentils, which may have been because of its delicious roast garlic gravy.

We’d already watched desserts go by with some interest (especially the smaller members of our group) so despite being pretty full we went for apple and cardamom pie. The “pie” was deconstructed with apple slices rolled up and placed atop a crumbled base, with sides of custard, apple sorbet and addictive sour apple candy strips. As is often the case with high end restaurants, the smaller, more delicate dishes surpassed the meaty mains for inventiveness, originality and flavour.

I only have a couple of days here in Stockholm, but hopefully I can fit in another culinary foray. I’ll keep you posted.

Sometimes, it’s the simple things that you crave. After a hectic time at work, I’ve been feeling generally run-down and exhausted. Not the best frame of mind for culinary experiments and, after a bunch of work-related travel, not the time for more restaurant food either. I wanted to eat something very simple that would nourish my weary soul. Vietnamese bún was an obvious answer. A big bowl of noodles mixed in with meat, salad, herbs and nuoc cham sauce, bún feels simultaneously nutritious and homely; light and cosy. You can make a fairly elaborate bún, carefully sourcing herbs and deep-frying spring rolls, but you can probably also knock one together from whatever leaves and vegetables you’ve got kicking around in the fridge. This is a pretty basic version but no less tasty for that. I didn’t have any beansprouts or lemongrass, so I focused on cucumber, lime and mint as the main flavours to complement the beef.

Simple beef bún

  • 2 limes
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 3 small red chilies
  • 6 tbsp fish sauce
  • 3 tbsp palm sugar
  • 1 steak
  • 1 carrot
  • 1/2 cucumber
  • a small lettuce
  • a handful of mint
  • a handful of cilantro
  • 1/2 pack of thin rice noodles

For the marinade, zest one lime into a bowl with a microplane grater and then juice it. Add 2 tbsp fish sauce, 1 tbsp palm sugar, and 1 garlic clove and 2 chilies, finely chopped. Mix well. Grill the steak briefly on both sides till medium rare. Let it rest for a couple of minutes then slice it thinly and mix the slices into the marinade along with any meat juices.

Prepare the nuoc cham. Pound the remaining garlic and chilies to a paste in a mortar and pestle. Add remaining palm sugar and pound well until the sugar is gloopy. Add fish sauce and the juice of the other lime with several tbsps of warm water to loosen the sauce. Stir until the sugar is dissolved and taste for balance. You might need more lime juice.

Next, make the noodles. Heat a pot of water and, as soon as it comes to the boil, turn off the heat. Add the noodles, stir and cover. They should be done in a couple of minutes. Drain them in a large colander with plenty of cold water to cool them down, then let them dry out.

Now prepare the vegetables. Cut carrots and cucumber into matchsticks, and slice the lettuce thinly. Wash, dry, and chop herbs. To assemble the dish pile noodles in a large bowl for each person and top with beef, lettuce, cucumber, carrot and herbs. Serve with nuoc cham and sriracha.

Serves 2

This weekend featured both a bank holiday and lovely warm weather, with the result that apparently every single person in Brighton had a barbeque. Since we’d opened the doors to the garden, our house smelled of grilling meat for three days straight. I’m not an outdoor grilling kind of gal, and I don’t even like burgers especially, but since I had the lovely and vegetarian Thrifty Gal to stay, I wasn’t eating any meat at all and by Monday I was starting to crave flesh. Regular readers will know that I am far from a traditional carnivore – or rather, I have a relationship to meat that is actually very traditional for many cultures. I eat non-meat meals as often as I eat meat ones, and when I do cook with meat it is usually one ingredient among many rather than a giant hunk of animal flesh. But I do really appreciate the meat I eat and after a weekend smelling the stuff, I was ready for some omnivorous cooking closer to my heart than clumps of ground beef on bread.

I knew I wanted a spicy salad featuring beef – something like a Thai Yue Num Tok – but I also couldn’t resist buying some more local asparagus. I considered for a moment switching to a stir fry dish of beef and asparagus when it hit me that the answer was to keep my salad plan and use the asparagus raw. There’s been a bit of a trend for thinly sliced raw asparagus in the last couple of years, from Jonathan Waxman’s use of it in Barbuto to blog posts like this asparagus and manchego recipe at Yum Sugar. Asparagus isn’t a traditional ingredient in Southeast Asia but I’ve heard it has become popular there, and it makes perfect sense as an addition to the type of Vietnamese salads that combine cooked meat with crunchy raw vegetables. Despite the reservations of Mr Lemur, who quite likes his asparagus cooked thanksverymuch, I couldn’t resist the combination of a new technique with the reliable pleasures of hot meat and plenty of chilies.

Vietnamese beef and asparagus salad

  • 1 steak, not an expensive cut
  • 2 Spanish red peppers
  • 1 bunch of asparagus
  • 2 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 4 shallots
  • 7 small red chilies (prik kee noo) or to taste
  • 1 little gem lettuce
  • handful of cilantro
  • handful of mint
  • 4 tbsps lime juice
  • 4 tbsps fine sugar
  • 2 tbsp fish sauce
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 lemon

First slice your asparagus in a mandoline or with a potato peeler. (Honestly, I’m not sure I’d want to do it without the mandoline as it’s fiddly enough with it.) Do this part vewwwy carefully! Really, I’ve heard stories that would make your hair curl about mandoline accidents. I generally advocate buying and using a substantial hand guard but the asparagus require such careful guidance that you have to dispense with the protector and just be super careful. I’ve seen pictures of spears immaculately sliced with the tips still on them, but mine started to crumble immediately, so I chopped the tips off and cooked them separately. While you’re working, place the sliced spears in a bowl of water with the lemon squeezed in to keep them green. Once sliced, replace the lemon water with 2 tbsp of the sugar and the vinegar, plus a little water. You want the minimum water needed to cover them.

Next, slice thinly all but one of the chilies, the red peppers, shallots and lettuce. Pick leaves off herbs. Put them in a bowl.

Now it’s time for the steak. I don’t post a lot of raw meat pics but this one seemed rather deserving.

Fry the steak in a little oil, along with two of the garlic cloves, chopped, and the asparagus tips. Cook till you like it but this recipe should err on the rare side. Let rest and then slice very thinly. Meanwhile, make the dressing: mix the lime juice, 2 tbsp of sugar, fish sauce and one garlic clove and one chili, crushed and pounded. Discard the vinegar mix, wash the asparagus, and add to the mixing bowl, along with the sliced meat. Pour over the dressing, toss well and serve over jasmine or sticky rice.

Serves 3-ish

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