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The Joy of Lemongrass 

Plus unholy bread, Mary's lamb

I tried out the new Cambodian joint recently, accompanied by a posse of 'rents and friends. I'd heard that some Cambodian food can be completely alien to American palates, but Annie's Cambodian Cuisine turned out to be quite accessible and totally delicious. Cambodian or Khmer cooking is similar to Thai in its liberal use of lemongrass, ginger and coconut -- and apparently there are Vietnamese-French influences. I read that Cambodians back home demand a decent fresh baguette alongside their mountains of steaming jasmine rice. At Annie's, bread would have been superfluous. We couldn't eat even half the rice mountain on the table.

From my readings and Annie's cooking, I learned Cambodian food differs from Thai food in that it's less spicy (less fiery hot), since they prefer black pepper to chili peppers. But they really go nuts over lemongrass. The beef salad, or pleah, was Lemongrass Gone Wild, shaved into the thinnest curlicues and strewn thickly atop thin slices of gingery, intensely flavored beef, interspersed with Thai basil shreds. I don't think I've ever put that much lemongrass directly in my mouth. One way or another the flavor was spakling and vividly intense, demanding rice as a chaser.

The soup was pretty awesome too, mostly because its base was a killer chicken stock. The menu claimed it has tamarind. If that's so, tamarind has less of a presence than I thought it might. To my palate, it produced a rich, meaty broth with heavy accents of lemongrass and notes of coconut and ginger. We ordered it with chicken (fish is another option). The menu listed chayote squash and jicama as other ingredients, but I guess it was their day off, because we got slightly less exotic (but still delicious) papaya, pineapple, tomatoes and Thai basil.

There was hella Thai basil throughout the meal, both on the side and in the dishes, reminding me how much I like the almost-tarragon characteristic of Thai basil. I used a wad in the Banh chiao, which consists of these beautiful thin turmeric-yellow omelet-like crepes that come stuffed with coconutty chicken or beef, bean sprouts and cilantro. You wrap pieces of it in lettuce, add some Thai basil (some places also use fresh mint), roll it up and dip in this thin sweet-and-spicy sauce full of chopped peanuts. We also ordered a somewhat unexciting ginger chicken with lots of green and red bell pepper and a fantastic-looking whole fried tilapia complete with its head on and an eye that glared at me amidst an orgy of crispy, sweet and sour. Frankly I loathe tilapia, but I really want to like it because it's cheap and ecologically friendly. Why can't blue-fin tuna just reproduce faster?

Our meal was really good and reasonably priced. The waitress was warm -- her mother-in-law is Annie, the Cambodian cook. You may have had Annie's food at some local fair since that's been her outlet up until a couple of weeks ago. Try it out and don't just order things that sound familiar. Go for the crepe dish. It's the most authentic Cambodian item on the menu, according to the waitress. Where is it? It's on Highway 101 on 5th Street in Eureka, slightly hidden behind the glare of lights for Sizzler. Pull into the parking lot in back.

I stopped by the Loleta Bakery with my friend Maji the other day. In between throwing loaves of chocolate rye brioche at us and splatting us with coffee, Josh Berger was the most enchanting of hosts. He imbued us all with his luscious French-style pastries while regaling us with stories of working for more difficult pastry employers before landing his current gig with Loleta Bakery's Peter and Jeanne Van Der Zee.

In the bowels of the bakery itself we watched Peter and Eric deftly tapdance around slick blobs of yeasty scented nine-grain dough, beaten into submission and heading into proofing baskets with little Linus-like blankets. I was curious about the narrowness of these soft li'l dough beds, and Josh explained that proofing in containers too wide can create over-expansion and make those wide annoying holes in the slice where the jam falls through.

So what else is new in the Humboldt restaurant scene? Well, over at Luke's Joint, I've really been liking the "Mary Gets The Lamb Munchies," a generous lamb sammy highly spiced in what Luke tells me is "Cape Malawi" style. It involves all sorts of cumin-curryish South African/Mediterranean yum. My hat is off to him for hitting a refreshingly precise combination of hot and meat and garlic. Goes well with the tzadziki.

Luke has also pulled a lot of local farm produce into the mix, including Hokkaido squash from New Moons Organics, which some readers may recall from my previous squash histrionics. Luke has been making this lovely Hokkaido walnut quiche, as well as delicious (although predictable) Hokkaido soup.

Lastly, my obsession with Brussels sprouts continues unabated. I think now is the time to tell you about my secret Brussels sprout chips, which may or may not get your finicky kids or friends to eat them.


Brussels Sprout Chips

Take 20 or so Brussels sprouts. Core viciously, sufficiently so that you can separate out most of the individual leaves.

Toss leaves with:

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

generous grind of pepper

Optional additions:

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon Brewers' yeast

Toss all vigorously in bowl then spread on a baking sheet.

Cook in a preheated oven at 250 degrees for 6-7 minutes, shaking at least once every 2 minutes.

Remove a chip. Does it look crisped and a little brown? If limp, give another 2 minutes.

Drain on paper towels and gorge.

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About The Author

Jada Calypso Brotman

Jada Brotman grew up in Arcata before moving to the U.K. and then New York City, where she cut a wide swath in the world of cheese. Insert joke here. She returned to the home of her fathers four years ago, and now works as a journalist and seasons her crepe pans in downtown Arcata.

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