I don’t want to harp, really, but I do feel that I must state here again that I do NOT own a mandolin.
I finally got a copy of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Asian Flavors of Jean-Georges, and immediately wanted pretty much everything in it. I was going to do the peking duck, because yum, but the directions instructed me to hang the glazed raw duck from a hook overnight in the fridge, where you’ve also placed a small battery-powered fan to keep air moving around the duck. Thanks for adapting that recipe for the home cooks with normal-sized refrigerators* at whom your book is aimed, Jean-Georges! Really helpful.
Still, I can’t be too angry at him because despite his chef stardom he still eats hot dogs. So I decided to go with his Charred Lamb Salad, a riff on traditional Thai beef and lettuce wraps that sounds MUCH more boring that it actually is.
*Maybe I didn’t read the introduction carefully, maybe it’s only for home cooks with home meat lockers.
Before getting into things, let me state for the record that I don’t actually think fish sauce is evil. It smells evil, but it is not intrinsically evil as a substance. So don’t leave me comments, send me email or post elsewhere about how I’m a tool who willfully misunderstands fish sauce – not that that’s ever happened before, *cough-tofu-cough.* I am not an enemy of the fish sauce.
I started with the dressing components, because most of them have to be brought to a boil, left to steep and cooled back down. Rice wine vinegar, minced garlic, sugar and diced chile in one pot, lemongrass and water in another. This was my first time working with fresh lemongrass, so I turned to the interwebs for some guidance on breaking it down.
The interwebs told me to peel off a few of the outer layers and use only the bottom 5-6 inches of the stalk, either minced or smashed. So that’s what I did, because why would the internet lie? I took out my aggression on the lemongrass with the handle of my knife and the smell. Was. Gorgeous. I thought about dabbing some behind my ears, and only stopped because I don’t wear perfume.
I set both liquids aside to steep and cool, and then turned to the julienning of the vegetables.
Oh, the julienning.
Have I mentioned it? The julienning, I mean.
I minced some more fresh lemongrass, julienned carrots and cucumbers, diced jicama, minced a red chile and roughly chopped cilantro and mint. On one hand, I really enjoy knife work, breaking fruits and veggies down by hand. It’s kinda meditative, and it makes me feel accomplished – like, hey look, I did that! Take that, herbs! En garde, defenseless cucumber! So I’m not going to say that this was all bad.
I am going to say that I almost hacked off the tips of my fingers roughly 17 billion times, and that the vast majority of the time taken up my this meal was consumed by the dicing and julienning.
So maybe you should take another look at those fucking carrots. And the cucumber! Like angel hair! Have you ever?
Still, I’m pretty sure I would trade this feeling of accomplishment for a good mandolin.
The recipe called for a lamb loin, but Whole Foods was low on loin today. They had legs, shanks, a variety of chops, and unidentified “New Zealand Lamb Steaks.” (I mean, they had a name, so they weren’t totally unidentified, but still.) Despite their mysterious provenance they looked the most loiny* – lean, meaty and boneless – so I picked a few up.
They’re seasoned simply with salt and pepper and then seared in a screaming hot pan to form a gorgeous dark crust, hence the “charred.” It would have been fantastic had we thought ahead and done it on the grill, but we’re not what you would call “smart.”
Brian is King of Meats (get your mind out of the gutter) so I left the searing up to him, and he lived up to the name I’ve just given him this very moment by cooking the lamb to a perfect, tender medium. He deglazed the pan with a little stock to make a rich lamb jus.
Just before it was time to eat, I tossed the vegetables and herbs with the vinegar-chile-garlic mix, the lemongrass “tea,” a tablespoon of oil and a few tablespoons of nam pla, or fish sauce. As the title indicates, the nam pla was shockingly inoffensive – the other flavors and scents seemed to absorb its putrescent odor, and no heavy-duty fans or enormous scented candles were necessary.
I made a bed of vegetables on the plate, added some lamb slices, drizzled them with some of the jus and topped the whole with a spring of cilantro, as Jean-Georges suggested.
Here’s the thing about Jean-Georges: he’s famous for a reason, unlike some other chefs I can think of *cough-Tyler Florence-cough.” This dish was the very definition of balanced flavors. It had the classic Thai flavor combo of sweet (sugar, carrots, jicama), spicy (chiles), salty (nam pla, lamb) and tangy (vinegar, lemongrass). No one flavor outshone the other, and no one ingredient outshone the other. If I concentrated, I could taste each individual component, but if I just let myself relax and enjoy the dish it was a cohesive whole. The gamy lamb and rich, flavorful jus were nice counterpoints to the bright salad, and the fresh herbs provided the 6th taste, which I have just this evening discovered, “perkiness.”
The dressing could easily be made in advance and the vegetables need not be so painstakingly chopped, giving this the potential to be a great weeknight meal. Stuffed into lettuce leaves, it would be like the world’s second-best taco (nothing is better than a pork taco).
Final Score: Us, 1; Food 0
You know, the whole scoring thing is utterly meaningless, isn’t it? But I’m not going to stop.