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Naked patches of dirt around our house, where there used to grow juicy grass, signaled it was time to get off our meatless diet. Last Sunday marked the monthniversary of our eating only combinations of  a veg with another veg over a bowl of grain of some kind.

To celebrate, we invited a few friends over, all foodies, for a potluck dinner. Everybody brought a dish of their own making. Our dining table, barely standing straight under the weight of all the goods, bravely held on its head a giant casserole of Risotto, a glass bowl of Short Ribs with Wild Mushrooms (from Poland!), a tray of Armenian mini Pizzas and Pastry Rolls filled with Cheese. There was Shrimp Ceviche, mean Brussels Sprouts with Pine nuts, another dish of Rosemary Roasted Potatoes, Sauteed Zucchini with Mint Butter, and some Simple Green Salad for common sense. The menu was only complete with a platter the size of the Columbus Circle in New York City filled with THAI LAMB LARB of my creation. Here’s the satellite shot, for it were the only way to capture it whole:

I found the recipe for this colorful appetizer in my recently purchased book “Small Bites” by Jennifer Joyce. As the author explains, “larb” describes ground meat in Thai. She used pork for her dish, however I went with lamb. Shockingly, that’s pretty much the only change I applied to the recipe. (Yes, Mama Linda, for once I followed the instructions!)

Before I list all the ingredients, let me just say that if I were to ever make this again (as hardly ever do I repeat myself on a plate), I’d use BIBB LETTUCE instead of Romaine. The latter seems muscular enough to hold the filling, however its leaves are long and straight-ish. Bibb lettuce not only has a kick-ass name but also its leaves create small and sturdy cups that I imagine would be more practical with this dish.

Having said that, let’s rock & roll. Get yourself the following items:

- 3 stalks lemongrass

- 2 tbsp vegetable oil (I used coconut)

- 1 lb lean ground pork (lamb worked!)

- 1 tbsp soft brown sugar (raw cane variety was just as good)

- 1 sm red onion, finely diced

- 1 ripe but firm mango, diced

- 3 tbsp fresh cilantro leaves, some chopped and some picked leaves for garnish

- 20 heart of Romaine lettuce leaves, chilled to serve (mark my words. I say BIBB!)

Remove the hard parts of the lemon grass and finely chop only the white, soft insides. Toss it into a saute pan with heated oil and stir fry it till soft over medium heat. Now get the fire going and add your larb. Cook it until crispy and brown. Remove from the heat when fully cooked (5 minutes or so), and set aside.

Quickly whip out a DRESSING using the following:

- 3 tbsp palm sugar (again, raw cane rocked!)

- 1 sm red chili pepper, deseeded and finely chopped (wahs your hands THOROUGHLY afterwards and under no circumstances touch your eyes, or nuts if a boy, with those fingers. Trust me!)

- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

- 1 tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and grated

- 1/2 cup fresh lime juice

- 2 tbsp fish sauce.

If you own a mortar and pestle, use it to crush the sugar, pepper, garlic and ginger together until they turn into a paste. Add the lime juice and fish sauce and mix together. In case you didn’t have the ancient tool, simply toss everything into a small jar, close it tight and shake like a mad person until sugar’s dissolved and all the guys inside are seriously dizzy, but happy.

Pour the dressing over the still warm meat, add your onion, mango, and cilantro, toss about and scoop some of the filling onto the prepared lettuce leaves. Done!

The dinner, just like a Thai wedding, went on for days. Or at least it felt like it, especially when we collected all the empty wine bottles in the end.

Jason’s and my celebration of meat went on into the week, and was culminated with our last night’s visit at ANIMAL. This LA restaurant has earned its reputation with the rich meat dishes it serves. It was also featured in various culinary magazines as well as the Food Network, or else known as my televised bible. Can you imagine a better place to PIG OUT? Literally.

We started with a few appetizers to share:

1. Carrot Salad with Parsnip Chips, Green Goddess Dressing and Avocado

2. Hamachi Tostada with Herbs, Fish Sauce Vinaigrette and Peanuts

3. Lamb Meatballs over Golden Rice with Green Garbanzos & Creme Fraiche.

Everything was phenomenal, but the meatballs just blew our minds. It sounds almost like an oxymoron, but those meaty balls were fluffy, almost airy, so light and delicate. Amazing!

Then the Entrees arrived. Jason ordered Catfish with Gold Rice Succotash, drizzled with Tabasco Butter and topped with King Crab. Every bite melted in his mouth. I can verify it was true, for I have sunk my fork into his plate for examination.

My main course was quite different. I asked for Crispy Rabbit Legs with Peas, Dandelion and Meyer Lemon Aioli. The meat just fell off the bone upon the slightest touch of my utensil. It was cooked to perfection and the flavors did not disappoint. HOWEVER. Yes, there is a “however”. For my liking, the meal was too heavy. There was so much sauce poured all over the meat you could hardly see the Guest of Honor peeking through it. The rabbit, that pour bastard, was DEEP FRIED, I guess the best method for that crisp texture. It’s not the kind of food I enjoy on weekdays, or even a weekend.

The feast did not end there, oh no! We had to try their famous dessert of Bacon Chocolate Crunch Bar dressed with Anglaise. While their Panna Cotta did not kick flip-flops off my feet, and one taste was enough, I could hardly stop myself from stealing the chocolaty bites finished with bacon bits from Jason’s plate. Bacon was written all over that bar, but also it was married to rich and velvety chocolate, and it was a Holy Union I tell you. Alleluia.

After sampling their food it was clear to us why the two chefs from Florida, who created the restaurant, called it ANIMAL. The food was superb, and it stood for its name, but when the dinner was over I considered another meatless month, just for a moment.

And then I found a leftover patch of grass behind our garage.

Remember my recent interview with Stefan Richter I posted on these pages just last week? Little did I know the article would open the gates to some SUPER KEWL STUFF like making ice-cream with liquid nitrogen.

Ok, so maybe it’s not that titillating and super-duper-exhilarating to you. In America you kids get to play with such cool things at your high school lab. However, in post-communistic Poland, where I pushed myself three levels up the educational ladder, there were no funds for such excess. We had books… lots of books, literature, graphs, exercise books, and then physical education. We shared one projector between many classrooms and we lacked props and toilet paper in the restrooms. It wasn’t that bad. We had electricity.

Um, where was I? The interview, yes. Having read the post, Jason Fullilove, an executive chef of Da Vinci Restaurant in Beverly Hills contacted me inquiring if I would review his fancy joint. I hesitated because, let’s be honest, I’m no food critic. I like food, love making it (the food, too), and I’ve been trying to build a career out of that art form as well. Does that mean I have the right to tell people where to spend their hard-earned dollars on food? Yes. No? Maybe.

Nonetheless, I was intrigued enough to do a quick search. I found Jason Fullilove’s bio along with a description of his new high-end food court in the world-famous Beverly Hills. There it was in black and white, clear as the day, bright as the sun in the morning sky, in the chef’s own words:

“We focus on seasonal ingredients purchased locally, modern cooking techniques – like liquid nitrogen – and hyper modern cuisine to increase the flavor and experience.”

LIQUID NITROGEN. Hello! Instantly, I wanted to get into Jason’s kitchen to play chemistry assistant in his food lab so I could blog about it later. I was sold. Well, to be perfectly honest, he had me at his name. JASON. FULLILOVE. And a chef at that. It just doesn’t get any better. The food MUST be amazing at this place, I thought. I grabbed my Jason The Life-Partner and off we went to Da Vinci.

We were seated at the Dean Martin booth, as the rat pack member apparently was a regular at the venue back in the 70’s.

Dean Martin's Booth at Da Vinci Restaurant in Beverly Hills

The place is proud of its history, for its history is dense and curvy. The owner, who mooned over the main floor throughout the evening, eagerly shared stories with us. I would gladly pass them on to you if it weren’t for the excellent choice of wine we were offered at the table: KENWOOD JACK LONDON 30th ANNIVERSARY, CABERNET SAUVIGNON, SONOMA, 2006 – $13/glass. After the second serving of god’s nectar certain details just didn’t sink in.

Chef Fullilove (I can’t get enough of saying it out loud. Admit it, you’re smitten, too!) came out of his kitchen to greet us and shortly thereafter disappeared behind a pair of SQUEEEEAKY doors adjacent to our booth. Minutes later THE SHOW BEGAN.

Just as you’ve seen a million times in various animated cartoons, a river of crisp white plates appeared floating in a single file line from the kitchen chambers, through the SQUEEEAKY door, around the corner, and straight onto our table. Ok, maybe it was a waitress carrying the dishes, but to me it seemed just as magical as the moving pictures on a TV screen when I was five.

One course after another we ploughed through the feast, starting with a basket of fresh, house-made bread. Let me just pause here for a moment to honor each slice with a minute of silence, as I haven’t enjoyed bread this much since leaving my motherland in Europe close to a decade ago. Chef Fullilove explained to me that the secret to such voluptuous texture and round flavor hides in the amount of time the starter is given to develop, about a month.

We tried and tasted, smacked and swallowed, chomped and chewed through all 175 courses (or so). The festival seemed endless; hence I decided to narrow it down to what we thought were the highlights of the night.

Heirloom Beet Salad w/Humbolt Fog Goat Cheese & Pistachio Vinaigrette

It was more than just a Beet Salad. It was a summer romance you wish could last through winter.

Grilled Asparagus w/Chick Pea Puree & Blistered Teardrop Tomatoes

If you’re anything like me, when you hear Chick Pea Puree, your brain automatically turns toward the Middle East in search of pita to scoop your hummus. You could not be more surprised with this appetizer – it tastes nothing like hummus. It also came with deep fried cherry tomatoes. Their skin was crisp like a chip, while the tomato itself took on a flavor metamorphosis I had never witnessed before. Enticing.

Pan-Roasted Sablefish with New Potatoes and Crab Hash

Perfectly crispy skin covers the most velvety and delectable flesh of this white fish served over new potato and baptized with crab hash. Oh, so luxurious.

At that point, after three additional, house-made pasta dishes (and you know what pasta does in your tummy – EXPLODES!), Jason and I were rapidly reaching the critical point of saturation. Secretly, we slid our hands under the veil of the tablecloth and loosened our belts and buttons hoping to find more storage.

Then we heard a drum-roll and the Royalty arrived.

Colorado Spring Lamb Duo w/ house-cured Lamb Bacon & Fennel Puree

I can’t even begin to describe the perfection of this dish. It’s an ode to lamb embellished with house-cured lamb bacon. The meat cooked perfectly – it melted in our mouths. Each bite was silky and rich, ecstatic and comforting. Chef Jason’s dish bequeathed the lamb a second, and who knows if not better life. I will never forget that first bite. Absolutely brilliant!

When the waitress arrived with the desserts, she had to pull us out from underneath the table where we had slid unable to sit upright any longer. When supine, there seemed to be less pressure put on the walls of our four-chambered stomachs.

Meyer Lemon Panna Cotta with Butter Cookie Crumbs

Decadent and delightful. Impeccable presentation.

The night was spectacular. Not only were we served a superb meal of the highest quality (and well beyond our storage limits), but also, and maybe most importantly, it was a celebration of food in general. It was a feast reminding me of my European roots. Not once were we rushed through the courses. In the end, we spent almost THREE hours at the restaurant being allowed to savor and indulge. The chef himself joined us at last and tasted his own sweet creations. I felt home.

The very next day, I went back to snoop around (with chef’s Fullilove’s permission) Da Vinci’s kitchen. He let me take a few pictures of liquid nitrogen in action. Before my very eyes, with the excitement of a six-year old (that would be me), Jason Fullilove made a batch of Mango and then Green-Tea Ice-cream.

Liquid Nitrogen freezing mango and cheese

Mango in Three States of Being after a treatment using liquid nitrogen

The high pitched squeal you heard last Monday, circa 3:30 pm, was me not being able to hold the excitement inside any longer.

Boy, did we have fun at Da Vinci. Thank you, Jason Fullilove. You truly are full of love and it shows in every dish you create. Bravo!

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