Thursday, April 22, 2010

Sometimes You Just Need a Salad.

Sometimes, after all the noodles and rice and pork and chicken, you just need some green. Lonely Planet told us it would be in our best interest to stay away from salad greens and other potentially washed-with-tap-water uncooked food while on vacation in Cambodia and Thailand. Not wanting to risk the effects of a stomach bug while 30 meters underwater, I figure it was best to play it safe and not risk it.

By the time I got home, all I was craving was an obnoxiously huge salad. Like the kind they serve at restaurants as your entree, and when they set it in front of you, you think there is no way you are ever going to eat it all, but you do anyway, cause you know, it's mostly lettuce right? Right? What was I talking about again?

Oh yeah, so I made this salad, and it hit the spot. Roasted red beets, creamy refreshing avocado, tangy goat cheese, pistachios, fresh spring greens, all topped with an orange-mustard vinaigrette. It was almost my perfect salad. I had an apple out and ready to cut, but my salad was growing to gargantuan proportions so I left it out. I wish I had cut it into matchsticks and put it in to add another more crunchy/crisp element since the salad was pretty creamy all around.

The funny thing is, is that if you knew the teenager version of me, you would be astounded at me now proclaiming my craving for a salad. I wouldn't touch lettuce up until sophomore/junior year of college (and that wasn't that long ago folks). Ah, how times and tastes have changed. I sure am glad they did, because this, ladies and gentlemen, is pretty close to salad perfection in my opinion.

Roasted Beet and Avocado Salad with Orange-Balsamic Vinaigrette
makes one gigantic salad

Two things about this salad. First, the measurements are not important here. Pile the toppings on until your stomach says enough, and mix the dressing according to how your taste buds like it. Second, most people roast beets whole, then peel and chop. This is all fine a dandy, but I prefer mine in nice crispy and caramelized bite sized pieces. I accomplish this by taking the outer skin off by cutting the beet in half, then slicing the skin off with a sharp knife. Think about peeling sweet potatoes, or ginger, or a pineapple for that matter, same principle, just on a smaller scale. Cube, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper, then cook for maximum roasted surface area.
2-3 red beets, peeled and diced into 1/2 inch pieces
1/2 avocado diced into 1/2 inch pieces
1/4 cup shelled pistachios
1 oz crumbled goat cheese
1/2 apple, cored and cut into thin matchsticks
big handful of mixed greens, or whatever kind of lettuce you like
1/4 cup olive oil + extra for tossing with beets
juice of one orange
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Toss diced beets with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and spread in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Roast for 15-25 minutes, until caramelized and cooked through.

Meanwhile, in a seal-able container (such as a Ziploc or mason jar), mix olive oil, vinegar, orange juice, mustard, and salt and pepper. Close tightly and shake the crap out of it until the dressing has emulsified.

Plate your greens, and top with, in no particular order, the beets, avocado, apple, goat cheese, pistachios, and drizzle on your dressing. Go ahead and eat the whole damn thing, cause its mostly lettuce right? Just humor me and say "right Bria". Thank you.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Some Khmer Cookin

I knew when I returned from my trip that it would be back to reality very quickly, but oh what a weird reality it has turned out to be. This morning I found myself back at my old design job. As my plane landed in Chicago last week, and my blackberry starting loading all the emails I had been avoiding, I received a request for some contract work at the product design firm that I had been laid off from last fall. It's like I have actually traveled back in time...I am just sitting at a different desk.

Except that last night I found myself meeting with my good friend to discuss the dessert table at her wedding, which I will be designing and baking myself. Scary huh? I am also training this week for my oh-so-exciting promotion from hostess to server (big money, big money).

So, reality stomped on me hard this week, and Thailand and Cambodia seem like a distant memory. Luckily I was able to find the time to take a step back, amidst all the craziness, and have a quiet night at home, with a (loose) recreation of one of my favorite Khmer dishes, fried ginger with pork. It was a fleeting moment I fear, but it was nice to relive such an amazing vacation, even only for an hour or two, through such a delicious meal.

Khmer Fried Ginger with Pork and Spicy Soy Sauce

1/2-1 pound boneless pork chop, sliced thinly
1/2 pound ginger, preferably young, peeled and cut into very fine matchsticks
1 red bell pepper, sliced into thin strips
8 oz. can/container of sliced bamboo shoots
3 tablespoons vegetable or peanut oil
3-4 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 Tablespoons oyster sauce (they didn't have fish sauce in my grocery store, but if you can find it, use that instead with a little sugar to balance out the flavor)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
3-4 scallions, green and white parts sliced thinly

In a wok (or a large skillet, I do not yet own a wok) heat the oil over medium-high heat. When it is hot, add the garlic and fry for about 20-30 seconds, stirring continuously. Add the meat, and stir-fry until it starts to brown on all sides, about 5-6 minutes. Add the ginger, bell pepper, bamboo shoots, oyster sauce, and soy sauce, and fry until everything is cooked through and tender, stirring constantly, about 4-5 more minutes.

I served this with brown rice and some spicy soy sauce (which is nothing more than a few slices a jalapeno and red pepper flakes soaking in some soy sauce) but any kind of rice, or even rice noodles would work.
It definitely wasn't exactly like the fried ginger we had in cambodia, but it was delicious in its own right and I would absolutely make it again. If only we could be staring at centuries-old temples or sitting on a beach while eating it. I guess the back deck and 65 degree weather will have to cut it for now.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Back in Chicago and Ready to get in the Kitchen

Well I am back. Sigh...

I just returned from two and a half weeks on the other side of the world. Two and a half weeks spent hiking ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples in Cambodia, riding around in tuk-tuks and eating some serious street food in crazy Bangkok, and tooling around 30 meters underwater with stingrays and schools of giant barracuda while scuba diving in Koh Tao, Thailand.

Oh and did I mention the food? I am not sure if you know this or not, (my guess is yes) but I LOVE thai food. I learned on this trip that I also love khmer (cambodian) food, which I had never had before. There are a lot of similarities between the two, so it came no surprise to me that I would be a pretty happy camper for the duration of our stay. And boy was my tummy a happy camper.

There were so many amazing meals its hard to pick just a few. Between the traditional khmer food in Cambodia, stir-fried red ants in Siem Reap (not my favorite, but interesting to say the least), chinatown's finest street food in bangkok, and life-changing green curry on the beach in Koh Tao, the food was incredible.

Plus I got to eat pad thai for breakfast without feeling guilty.

We had a personal 'chef' cook a meal just for us in a tiny village 100 kilometers outside of the city while staying overnight in a open-air stilted hut (by chef I mean an adorable teeny cambodian woman originally from the village we were staying in).

This quiet, giggly girl cooked in near-darkness as the sun set, before the car-battery generator kicked in, with merely a wok, some pre-steamed rice, and a fire.

We had fried ginger with pork, coconut curry soup, amazing fresh cut fried potatoes, and delicious fruit plates filled with mangos, rambutons, and bannanas for dessert.

It was some of the best food we had on this trip.

Plus this was our view during every meal, so you know, that helped.

The meals matched the solitude and quiet of the distant and more un-touristed temples that we pretty much had all to ourselves that weekend.

It was one thing seeing the enormous and beautiful Angkor Wat temples with upwards of a thousand other people talking too loud and snapping almost constant pictures, but it was truly another to witness a simple yet gorgeous temple with only the sounds of roosters crowing in the background.

We headed on to Bangkok and engaged in some serious street food. We headed straight for chinatown and promptly got lost. After not eating for almost 8 hours while wandering down unfamiliar streets and hovering around street food vendors trying to figure out how and what to order, we finally found our way and scored ourselves some interesting and delicious food.

Bird's nest soup, stir-fried noodles with chicken, soy sauce, and chilies, and a fried mussels and oysters egg-pancake-thingy were all successfully ordered by pointing at someone's plate and holding up the number two with our fingers.

Bangkok was such a crazy, HOT city filled at the time with much turmoil from the red-shirt protestors, camped out by the thousands in the center of the city. We luckily left before things started erring on the violent side, but it was an amazing and humbling experience to see that many people so dedicated to a change. Many of them had been living and sleeping there for weeks, sacrificing jobs and family, to try and restore a democratic government.

Our last stop was in Koh Tao, Thailand. We ate breakfast on the beach every morning, grilled fresh fish while watching the amazing sunsets, and were treated to what was the best curry I have ever had in my entire life.

I didn't really take many pictures of the food on while on the island, I was usually too excited to dig in than to get my camera out and snap some photos. Thats okay though, the visions of those meals will dance around my head at night like sugarplums for many years to come.

Plus I was too busy taking pictures of the live fish not on my plate.

We spent 6 days scuba diving on the island, coming home with our beginner and advanced certification (up to 30 meters), logging 10 dives, and seeing some of the most beautiful landscapes and marine life I have ever seen.

We were only supposed to do the beginner course, but with the prospect of spending 2 more days diving, and enticed by a night dive and shipwreck dive, we just couldn't pass it up.

We are hooked and have already started plotting our next diving adventures.

One last stop at burger king (yeah I know, I caved) in South Korea, we were on our way back to cold chicago, and back to reality. I got a little depressed when we left Thailand and the temperature was 40 degrees Celsius and as we landed our captain told us the current temperature was 37 degrees Fahrenheit.

Jet lag is still killing me right now, but I am so looking forward to getting back into the kitchen this weekend to try and recreate some of the best food memories of the trip, so I can relive these experiences at the drop of a hat, and the switch of a gas burner.

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