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Recipe time: Comfort food (lemongrass beef)

Monday, April 29, 2013

Being bullied for years has left me with serious touch aversion/exaggerated startle response. There are precisely four people in the world that can touch me unannounced and not have me jump through the roof or try to punch them, and they are my siblings and parents. It's been the death of many a prospective relationship (and contributed to the demise of the last).

Half a world away from those four people, I sometimes feel a little touch-starved. Positive tactile contact is just so rare for me, because I can't have it unless I initiate it, and I can't initiate it unless I trust implicitly, and I can't trust unless I KNOW that person, and I can't know that person because of language barriers (yes, there is a new person, but it's such a struggle to communicate...). So, it's just not happening right now. I get a little of it in my training sessions with M, but the nature of our relationship as personal trainer and trainee necessitates his touch hurts as often as it doesn't, so I'm extra jumpy around him. He always has to warn me about what he's going to do, or I'm going to go into flight-or-fight mode.

What's a newly-in-maintenance-mode, well-rounded, mostly healthy woman to do? Whip up some comfort food, of course! Sorry for the long-winded, whiny intro!

Lemongrass beef is my poison of choice tonight. It's a very flavorful Indonesian dish made of thinly sliced beef, lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaves, chili, tons of vegetables, another ton of soy bean sprouts, and a very careful balance between becoming soapy and being the lemony goodness it should be. I don't have an exact recipe for making it, having learned the dish by taste, smell, and texture. I have to look up what to call half the ingredients in English (ex: Salam leaves, the a's are pronounced more like a Southern "o". Taste and smell similar to bayleaf, but spicier and softer at the same time), but let me just tell you that after combining around fifteen different spices, the tender beef will melt on your tongue with the vermicelli, the crunchy veggies storing the combined flavors in their juices, releasing them with every bite.

It's one of my ultimate comfort foods because it was rare, but special, when I was a child. Mom avoided making it because the Kaffir lime leaves were often treated with DDT and she was wary too much of the toxin would get into our food.

I'm growing my own now (I picked up a little Kaffir lime tree on my herb shopping spree earlier), so THAT concern is a thing of the past. I also picked up several different varieties of strawberries (one of my favorite fruits), including one that's supposed to taste like pineapple! Anyway, back to the food.

I can give you an approximation of a recipe, but it's going to take experimentation and knowledge of your ingredients to turn out just right.

You will need:
about 2lb thinly sliced beef (I use filet because that's what Mom used. Expensive but worth it!)
One or two onions
A piece of ginger, about the size of a pinky finger
young, fresh garlic (about half a clove). Dried works but doesn't taste as good.
gemalen kemiri paste (I THINK it's ground candlenut paste)
tamarind concentrate, about 1 Tbsp
turmeric powder, about 1/4 tsp
Indonesian five-spice blend (or make your own) (mine is aniseed, fennel, cinnamon bark and ginger all dried and blended into a fine powder), about 1/2 tsp
about 5-10 stalks of lemongrass (depending on freshness and intensity of taste/smell). Cut off the ends and smash the bottom to release flavor immediately before adding to the dish.
Sambal assem, about 2 Tbsp
Sweet soy sauce (ketjap manis)
salty soy sauce
a piece of a bhut jolokia (very, very hot chili), or another different very hot chili to taste (I used 1/4 of a bhut jolokia in this version and it made for a very pleasant level of hotness)
Kaffir lime leaves, around 4-8
Salam leaves (apparently also known as Thai bayleaf according to Mom, but might be a literal translation), around 3-5
Ground cardamom, about a pinch or two
galangal root powder (easier to use than fresh root), about 1/4 tsp
spring onions, sliced in rings
1 stalk of leek, sliced in half, then in rings
green beans
sliced bamboo shoots
soy bean sprouts
sliced carrots
more veggies (going to use bok choy, fresh spinach, asparagus and peas this time. It's good to choose leafy greens, and something that will add a different texture)
vermicelli (glass noodles)


Slice your veggies into thin slices about 1/3 inch wide (dimensions of canned bamboo shoots). Wash and rinse your leafy greens, leave whole. Trim your beans to be the same size, pre-cook them. Keep the hot water from cooking the beans, break your vermicelli apart, quickly soak them and drain as soon as they turn transparent.

In mortar, mash ginger, garlic, and onions until they turn into a homogenous paste. Takes around half an hour of hard work.

Heat around 3 Tbsp sesame oil in large wok or pan (sesame oil works best with the taste, but you can substitute a neutral vegetable oil like sunflower). Fry your garlic-ginger-onion paste until lightly browned. Add around a Tbsp of gemalen kemiri paste, your chili, and some tamarind concentrate. Lightly brown.

Add the sliced beef and quickly brown on high heat. Turn down heat, add salty soy sauce, your powdered spices, prepped lemongrass stalks, Kaffir lime leaves, salam leaves, sambal assem. Add sweet soy sauce (maybe 2-3 Tbsp at this point). Add a little more salty soy sauce until there is a slight wet look to your pieces of beef.

Add your vermicelli and veggies except for the soy bean sprouts. Stir well, cover and let cook.

Make rice. I tend to cook mine* with a pandanus leaf and a little salt for Indonesian or Thai food.

Remove Kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass stalks except for one or two, then add soy bean sprouts about 2-5 minutes before serving. Cover again and let them wilt a little into the dish. Taste-test and add sweet soy sauce to taste. Serve on rice and enjoy!

No pictures because I haven't made it yet emoticon Time to get cookin' before M gets here... Making extra because I just know that once he smells it he'll want some emoticon emoticon

Hope I didn't forget anything! Just assume the wet ingredients go in with the other wet ones and the dry ones with the powdered/dry ones!

*I use Jasmine rice or Basmati rice for those cuisines. 1 cup of dry rice, 1 3/4 cup of water, 1/2 tsp salt, 1 fresh or frozen pandanus leaf. I have a rice cooker, so I just throw all of that in there and hit "cook". Seriously, if you have room for just one bigger piece of kitchen equipment in your kitchen, consider a rice cooker. You can make entire meals in there, and it's way less work to clean up than a KitchenAid.
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    Thank you that is very nice of you. I should first go to the Asian shop (not far from where I work) and see if they have the ingredient. I have to admit that I feel silly for have not thought of looking there!!
    1875 days ago
    So glad to hear your daughter is healing! It's still an ongoing process for me, but I'm a lot better now too. I can talk about it!

    Yep, making friends is a hard thing. It's easy to steel yourself and go into a room full of strangers, but you expect every single one of them to be mean and want to hurt you. You talk to them knowing they will destroy you if you give them the opportunity.

    And then they have the opportunity, and they don't, and it's like something happened that you'll never really be able to understand, and you try to, and it's still so magical, and then you start trusting, just a little. That turns to more... and then, without realizing it, you know that you hold in your hands the same power the other person has, and just like you would never use it against them they won't against you, and then you have a friend, and it's so new and shiny!

    Getting a fresh start helped me too- I was too young to travel outside the US while getting my first bachelor's degree, but at the end of it I went to Italy to get a second one. Just speaking a language different from my first was like being given a do-over.

    I'm keeping your daughter in my thoughts! Thank you so much for the warm words!

    If you really want to cook Indonesian and can't find an ingredient, I could send it over from Germany? Most of it isn't really expensive, and I have quite a few Asian supermarkets around here :)
    1877 days ago
    This dish sounds good not sure I can get the ingredient in Iceland though.

    I am sorry to hear that you where bullied. My oldest daughter share´s that experience and it has been difficult journey to heal from. She has come a long way though and here travel around the world right know is doing so much for her. I think for her going to environment (outside of Iceland) that she has a fresh start´s in is helping a lot. She is making friends (very difficult thing for her to trust people enough to call them friends) and she even has a boyfriend right know. I hope he wont break her heart and if they break up it will not make her take a set back.
    1877 days ago
    Thanks for the recipe, I will have to travel to get some of the spices but DW loves it sooooo, maybe she will pick them up as she comes through LR.
    I am so sorry for your challenge. Too often cases of "alleged" abuse come up and everyone is fine now and they want the charge to go away which prosecutors are too eager to accomodate. Due to having seen the abused before "everyone is fine now" I am a real pain and require the prosecutor to Dismiss the charge (the only motion the court has no authority to deny and it is clear that the prosecutor dropped the case which the smart ones know often will come back to bite them and thus seldom move to dismiss), try the case or pleas of guilty and probation with counseling and monitoring for a year. Still have way to many events of violence and we seldom get the bully events. Just see the damage. Any insight you could share would be beneficial in a SparkMail.
    1881 days ago
    Thank you for your honesty in the intro. My mr. only initiates touch and has difficulty/startling if it comes to him-I always thought it was a control thing but he was abused when he was young so it made more sense after reading your experience.
    1881 days ago
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