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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.

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The francophonic week is over. The spirits of the literary geniuses of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre have fled. Poof. No more Fhench accent for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. No more late night intellectual discussions about the benefits of a Thai massage with a happy ending versus a relaxing afternoon at a local strip joint with a lunch buffet.

Laurent and I go way back. We met years ago when I first moved to New York City. I was as naïve as they come, and he was my guide and a companion while I was getting a fast lesson in life in that city that never sleeps. NYC is not for pussycats. We became instant friends. We took trips around the city taking pictures (Laurent is a brilliant photographer, I kid you not. Just take a look at these for a second: http://www.stock-photo-motion.com).

We partied our asses off. He taught me my un, deux, trois’s and Je m’appelle’s. Then he asked me to be a witness at his wedding, after which he left me, jackass, alone in NYC and moved back to Europe with his wife. OK, not quite alone. By then I already had a family of friends and possibly dated a guy, or two. I went to visit the newlyweds in Versailles. Then life happened, winds of change came, Laurent wandered solo from a country to another, got an MBA to complement his doctorate in chemistry, because why not, and three and a half long years went by before I saw him again.

It’s only a miracle that I’m not married and with 12 kids wrapped around my ankles. Hence, I had the time to take Laurent around the Tinseltown and show him where celebrities come to be “stalked” by paparazzi, and “the stairs” in Santa Monica where they get their asses pushed by the personal trainers. When we strolled down Rodeo Drive he concluded: “I’ve never seen so many fake boobs in my life!”

Now Laurent is gone. Bye, bye Loh-hou. All we have left are a few pictures and a memory of the Pahree-inspired dinner I made for my friend’s arrival. Ratatouille. Mmm…

It is a vegetable stew that for centuries was considered a peasant’s meal. The dish got a facelift over the years, and today the Frenchies serve it in their top restaurants as a posh side dish, and adequately charge big bucks for the bite.

I’ve never made Ratatouille before. However, since I’ve just watched the movie “Ratatouille” not long ago, Laurent’s visit prompted me to try it out. I’m notorious for skipping recipes. And even if there is one to guide me, still I tend to take side trips off the beaten track and fook around with the dish. Hence, when I did my “research”, I simply read on Wikipedia what the most common ingredients used in the stew are. Next, I went to the store, bought the veggies, and I was on my own.

Feel free to follow my steps, as the dinner was quite delightful. However, keep in mind the words of the native Frenchie (Laurent) when he took the first taste: “Hmm…, interesting. I’ve never had a spicy ratatouille.” So goes the authenticity of my stew.

Forget the spicy. THESE ARE THE CLASSICAL COMPONENTS OF RATATOUILLE, more or less (hell with the proportions):

–       1 large eggplant

–       4 medium zucchinis

–       1 red bell pepper

–       2 green bell peppers

–       1 large onion

–       6-8 garlic cloves

–       3 medium carrots

–       2 Roma tomatoes

–       14 oz can of tomatoes

–       fresh marjoram

–       fresh basil

–       fresh parsley

–       2 bay leaves

–       splash of red wine vinegar

–       kosher salt and black pepper to taste

–       1 tsp red pepper flakes

–       1.5 tbsp of paprika

–       1 tbsp of ground nutmeg

–       1 tbsp of freshly ground fennel seeds

–       1 tbsp dry marjoram

–       dash of cayenne pepper

–       olive oil

It’s a one-pot dish, but requires some loving. Ok, it’s a royal pain in the arse, because once you’ve chopped and diced and cubed that mountain of vegetables, now you pretty much have to sauté each one separately. It adds up, so you better clear your schedule for the afternoon. Don’t be discouraged, however, as when you’re done, and that beautifully cooked stew oozes off the sides of the herb-infused rice on your plate, the labor pains are just a vague memory and you’re stupidly ready to do it all over again. The joy of creation. The symphony of flavors. The SATISFACTION!

I used my brand new Dutch oven that I got from Jason’s parents for Christmas. The pot was deflowered by a French classic. Can you see how poetic and romantic that is?

First, heat some olive oil and toss the carrots in. Season with salt and pepper. Remember to cut all the veggies in similar size chunks. After about 10 minutes remover the redheads from the pot and set aside in a large bowl. You’ll keep adding more sautéed vegetables to that bowl as you go. Next, go with the eggplant. That guy is soooo flavorless it’s sad, and this is when I got creative and added a bunch of spices (red pepper flakes, salt, pepper, and chopped marjoram). Add a splash of red wine vinegar to help you deglaze the bottom of the Dutch oven. Give it 10 minutes and out of the pot and into the bowl. Time for the zucchini, and a little more olive oil if needed. Same thing – season with a touch of salt, some paprika, some nutmeg, and the ground fennel seeds. Last but not least, the bell peppers, and you’re half way there. Stir, sauté until softened, and out.

A touch of olive oil and we’re making the sauce that will bind the circus into a proper stew. Toss your sliced onion into the pot, sprinkle with crashed marjoram, and cook until translucent. Don’t salt the onions just yet, as you want to capture the natural sweetness of the onion and let it condense. Salt would prompt all water to evaporate thus drying out the veg too quickly. Add diced tomatoes and cook them along with the onions. Garlic goes in along with the canned tomatoes. Stir and drop in the bay leaves, toss chopped parsley and basil (a handful of each), taste and season with more paprika, nutmeg, cayenne pepper and a touch of salt and pepper. Remember, you’ve seasoned all other veggies with salt already, so be gentle here.

Bring all the vegetables back into the pot, mix together with the tomato and onion sauce, cover with a lid, and place in a preheated oven (400°) for 30 minutes. And you better keep your mittens on.

Voila! You have just made yourself a beautiful, healthy, vegan, and yet quintessential French meal. If missing a bit protein, use ratatouille as a side dish to your chicken breast or a pork chop. Or better, keep it clean and vegetarian with a thick slice of rustic country bread, or over a bowl of steaming rice mixed with more chopped fresh herbs. (The first night we tried it over spaghetti. Not the best choice.)

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