Monday, March 27, 2006

Khmer-ical food

Another meal, another country. To an untraveled American of a certain vintage, the word Cambodia summons up horrible images of southeast Asian wars. But Cambodia is a place that people call home and cook in. My current source for Cambodian recipes is Alford and Duguid's Hot Sour Salty Sweet, an excellent cookbook for those who seek regional trends in cuisines. The Mekong River is the book's backbone as it curves from China past Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The book is full of travelers' stories, gorgeous photos and excellent recipes. I'm not a fan of the big coffee-table genre of cookbook, but this is an exception to that rule. I hope I don't wind up spilling fish sauce on the pages someday, but I suspect that the authors would be delighted if that happened. As pretty as the book is, it's grounded in real travels and real cooking. This is not one of those cookbooks that are all glitz and no substance.

So, as a way of expanding my culinary horizons, I decided to cook the recipe for "Khmer Stir-Fried Ginger and Beef." It's recommended as part of a rice meal due to the beef gravy that is a collateral result of the cooking process. The ingredients are minimal: half a pound each of sliced lean beef and julienned young ginger, three tablespoons of peanut or vegetable oil, three to four smashed garlic cloves, two tablespoons fish sauce and two teaspoons sugar. Stir-fry the garlic in the oil until golden, then add the meat and stir-fry until most of it changes color. Add the remaining ingredients and stir-fry "until just tender."

This meal was an object lesson for those who unplug the phone while they're cooking. The Lurker called while I was in mid-stir-fry mode. Normally, I'd call him back, but something in me wanted to live dangerously, and besides, we were cobbling together Plans for the following day. Since Plans are a rare and fragile commodity among our lackadaisical crowd, one really needs to seize the moment when the mirage of planning appears on the horizon. So I did the "shoulder holding the phone up to the ear" trick and continued stir-frying. I thought I carried it off pretty well, until I got off the phone, decanted the stir-fry onto the jasmine rice and realized that I had forgotten to add the ginger to the pan!

There was only one thing to do. I turned the burner back on, called the skillet back to active duty and stir-fried the julienned ginger in the leftover juices for a couple of minutes. Not the desired method, perhaps, but it did the job.

It really is essential to use young ginger for this dish. Its relatively mild taste means that you can use half a pound of it and not be overwhelmed by spiciness. Other than that, what you get is ginger and beef. It's a minimalist dish, where the quality of the ingredients makes a difference. I'm tempted to play with a few tasteful embelishments, but even without those, it made a pile of tasty simple food. You can't argue with that.

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