In the mood for Thai!

I didn’t grow up eating Asian food….unless you count the brief period when, as teenagers, my friends and I liked to get won ton soup and fried rice from a local inexpensive “Chinese” restaurant.  Come to think of it, I stopped eating there when I heard a rumor that each won ton in their soup was filled with a tiny little chicken brain.  How embarrassing to think that I believed that they were taking the time to extricate a chicken brain for each and every won ton wrapper!

 
Flash forward a few years and, living in Paris, I discovered the amazing variety of Asian cuisine…. Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, not to mention the many unique provinces of China.  When I first started making these dishes at home, after returning to the States, some of the ingredients were hard to find.  That has really changed in recent years and most big grocery stores have decent Asian sections.  But don’t let that stop you from popping into one of the small Asian markets that may be around town.  The prices are better and you will be inspired by the variety of ingredients!
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Beef with Thai Sweet Basil Leaves

Thai basil has small leaves and a subtle licorice/mint flavor.  It is definitely worth a trip to an Asian market which may offer it in the produce section in the summer months.  For the last couple of years, it has been available here in nurseries so I have been growing it in my herb garden.  If it isn’t to be found near you, another basil variety can be used,  but you may need to tear the leaves if they are large.
1 tablespoon fish sauce
3 tablespoons oyster sauce
4 tablespoons chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion, cut into thin wedges
2 small red chilies, sliced
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
8-10 ounces beef fillet steak, thinly sliced
1 handful Thai sweet basil leaves
Mix the fish sauce, oyster sauce, stock and sugar in a small bowl.  Place a wok or heavy skillet over high heat and add 1/2 tablespoon of the oil.  When very hot, add the onion and chilies and stir fry until just wilted and starting to brown, 2-3 minutes.  Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside while you cook the beef.  Add another 1/2 tablespoon of oil to the wok and then add about half of the beef and half of the chopped garlic.  Scatter the beef slices so that they can cook in a single layer and let them cook undisturbed on one side 1-2 minutes until starting to brown nicely.  Then toss the beef a couple of times quickly and remove it to the plate holding the onion mixture.  Repeat with remaining beef and garlic, adding a bit more oil to the wok only if necessary.  Return everything to the wok and stir in the sauce mixture.  Stir for 30 seconds to let the sauce heat through and to coat the beef. Add the Thai basil leaves and remove from heat.  Serve over Jasmine rice.
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Peanut Shrimp with Rice Noodles

 This recipe is based on one that was published in the New York Times in August of ’09.   This is a wonderful dish because the sauce stays light and fresh while still delivering an amazing amount of flavor.  I like butterflying the shrimp because they curl up quickly into perfect bite sized morsels, but if your shrimp are very small you might want to leave them whole.
1 lime
1/3 cup chunky peanut butter
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
12 ounces flat rice noodles
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 pound raw medium to large shrimp, peeled, deveined and cut in half lengthwise
1 bunch green onions, sliced, white and light green parts only
1 cup grated carrots
2 tablespoons minced fresh garlic
1 minced jalapeno chili
coarse ground black pepper
salt
1/2 cup cilantro leaves, chopped

In a small bowl, combine peanut butter, sugar, fish sauce, the zest and juice from 1 lime, and just enough water to make a smooth sauce.  (about 1/3 cup)
Cook rice noodles in boiling, salted water until just tender, being careful not to overcook or they will become mushy.  Drain.
Heat a large skillet over high heat.  Add oil and quickly stir fry the shrimp until they curl and begin to turn pink.  This should only take a minute or two.  Add scallions, carrots, garlic and jalapeno and toss around until the vegetables soften a bit and the shrimp is just cooked through.  Remove from the heat.
Toss the rice noodles, shrimp and peanut sauce together and season well with the black pepper (and salt if necessary)  Serve hot or room temperature. (Serves 4)
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Cashew Salad

 
In Savoring Southeast Asia, Joyce Jue writes that cashews are grown in abundance the south of Thailand and that this “culinary gem” is a perfect snack to serve with iced limeade or beer.  Be sure and have all of the ingredients prepped and ready to go before you fry the cashews.  And be mindful of the fact that nuts burn very quickly so watch them carefully.  As I did not have any fresh lemongrass, I substituted a bit of fresh lemon zest.  Not the same thing at all but OK in a pinch for this particular recipe.
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 pound raw, large, whole cashews
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1 green onion, thinly sliced (white and light green parts)
1 lemongrass stalk, tender midsection only, finely minced
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped celery leaves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
1 red jalapeno chili, seeded and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 1/2 teaspoons fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves
Place the still hot cashews in a bowl and immediately add the shallots, green onion, lemongrass, celery leaves. mint, and chili.  Toss to mix well.
To make the dressing, combine the lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar in a small bowl.. Stir until the sugar dissolves,  Pour the dressing over the salad and toss well,  Turn out onto a serving plate and garnish with the cilantro leaves.

In the mood for Pasta Salad!

I’m picky about pasta salads.  I don’t care for creamy sauces or large pasta shapes in cold or room temperature dishes.  But there are good reasons to have a few pasta salads in your repertoire.  They can be made ahead of time for entertaining and as a matter of fact, most of them taste better after they have had time to marinate a bit.  Also, they are easy to transport to picnics and pot lucks.  So, as you will see, my favorite pasta salads will use the smaller pasta shapes and will have light, flavorful vinaigrettes.

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Orzo Salad with Corn, Tomatoes, Feta, and Chili-Lime Vinaigrette

 
This is a wonderful salad from one of my favorite cookbooks, At Blanchard’s Table, by Melinda and Robert Blanchard.  Please note that in the photo above, I substituted Israeli couscous for the orzo (because I was out of orzo) and left out the feta cheese (because feta wasn’t going to work with the main dish I was serving that particular night).  But I am going to give you the original recipe because I’ve made it many times as written and it is always a hit.  Then you can make your own changes if you want.  I did love the texture of the big Israeli couscous and will definitely use that again.
1 cup fresh corn kernels (about 2 ears of corn)
12 ounces orzo pasta
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon freshly grated lime peel
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
15 grape or cherry tomatoes, quartered
3 ounces feta cheese, drained and crumbled
1 tablespoon mined fresh rosemary
freshly ground black pepper
Bring a medium sauce pan of water to boil, add the corn and cook for 1 minute.  Drain and set aside.
Cook the orzo in a large pot of lightly salted water until it is al dente, 6-8 minutes.  Drain and rinse thoroughly under cold water, Drain well again and transfer to a large bowl.
In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar, lime peel, lime juice, lemon juice, chili powder, salt and pepper.  Toss the dressing with the orzo .  Add the corn, tomatoes, feta, and rosemary, and toss gently to blend,  Taste for salt and pepper, and serve a room temperature.
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Pasta Salad with Tomatoes, Mozzarella, and Fresh Basil Vinaigrette

Here is my go-to recipe for Basil Vinaigrette.  In this dish, I’ve tossed cooked orzo, cherry tomatoes, and bits of fresh mozzarella with the vinaigrette and served it at room temperature seasoned with a pinch of salt and lots of coarse ground black pepper.

Basil Vinaigrette

1 bunch fresh basil
1 clove garlic, peeled
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 cup extra virgin olive oil

In a blender or food processor, chop basil and garlic.  Add the rest of the ingredients and blend to make a smooth vinaigrette.  Taste and season with salt and pepper.

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Sesame Noodles with Cilantro and Scallions

I’m crazy for this particular recipe for sesame noodles and I actually found it on another cooking and recipe blog.  This won’t happen often because 99% of my recipe collection comes from books, magazines, and newspapers, as well as inspiration from my local market or from restaurant menus.  But since I have been making these noodles a lot this summer, I really would like to share the recipe.  So here are my photos, and if you would like to try this recipe, feel free to visit Joanne Choi’s blog at:
http://weekofmenus.blogspot.com/
I do add the optional red pepper flakes to her recipe and then add slivered carrots, cucumber and red bell pepper.
She has a search feature so you can enter the name of the recipe and it is easy to find.
This is the one pasta salad that I actually prefer to serve cold from the refrigerator instead of at room temperature.  It’s the perfect summer side.
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In the mood for Bananas!

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Individual Vanilla Bean Banana Puddings

serves 4
As much as I love banana pudding, I never served it until I figured out how to make it a bit more elegant.  Real vanilla beans and brown sugar take it to a new level and serving it in individual portions is key.  This is the perfect make-ahead dessert.
2 cups whole milk
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
6 egg yolks
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 tablespoon cold, unsalted butter
3 bananas (2 diced and 1 sliced)
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon confectioners sugar
mini Nilla Wafers
Heat milk and vanilla bean in small saucepan.  As soon as it reaches a boil, remove from heat and set aside to let the vanilla bean infuse the milk.
     Whisk egg yolks and brown sugar together until fluffy.  Add cornstarch and whisk until smooth.  Remove vanilla bean from warm milk and discard.  Whisk 1/4 of the hot milk into egg mixture until incorporated.  Then whisk in the remaining milk.  Strain this mixture back into the saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until pudding is thick and starting to boil slowly.  Remove from heat and stir in the butter.
Dice 2 of the bananas (about 1/4 inch) and stir into the pudding.  Fill individual ramekins about half full then add a layer of mini Nilla Wafers.  Add pudding to reach the rim of the ramekin.  Cover each ramekin with plastic wrap, pressing wrap to make contact with pudding and refrigerate until cold.  Whip the cream with the confectioner’s sugar.  To serve, garnish puddings with banana slices, a dollop of whipped cream and a mini Nilla Wafer, if desired.
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Banana Muffins

 

I’ve made countless batches of banana muffins over the years and this one is my current favorite.  It is adapted from Sara Foster’s Banana Nut Muffin recipe in her book Fresh Every Day.  I like to put the pecans on top because they get nice and toasty and keep their crunch.  And, this also makes it easier if you want to make a batch of muffins, half with nuts and half without.
 
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
3 over ripe bananas
1/4 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup pecans, broken into pieces
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Line a muffin tin with paper liners and lightly grease the top of the pan.  Whisk together flour, baking powder, soda, nutmeg and salt.  In a separate bowl, beat together butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Add eggs, bananas, sour cream and vanilla and stir until the flour is just incorporated…do not over mix.  Fill the muffin tins until batter is just below the top of the paper liner.  Cover batter with broken pecan pieces and bake 25-30 minutes.  To test for doneness, I gently touch the top center of a muffin…it should spring back lightly.
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Strawberry Banana Crunch

 

When I was trying to decide upon a third banana recipe to add to this post, I suddenly remembered a treat from long ago, when I was in school in Memphis, TN.  The Squash Blossom was a health food store that had soft serve frozen yogurt and this combination of strawberry frozen yogurt, fresh banana slices and granola was my absolute favorite.  This was frozen yogurt that tasted like yogurt…not like fake ice cream.  So I set out to recreate it and was not surprised to find that I still love it.  The frozen yogurt is tart, the bananas sweet and creamy, and the granola adds the perfect crunch. I’m sure that The Squash Blossom had a clever name for this treat but I can’t remember it and they closed years ago.  Here are recipes for an amazing strawberry frozen yogurt and a yummy, easy granola… but don’t forget the bananas!
Strawberry Frozen Yogurt
This is Jeni Britton’s recipe from Food and Wine magazine, June 2008
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice plus 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
One 1/4-ounce package unflavored powdered gelatin
12 ounces strawberries, hulled
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
2 cups plain whole-milk yogurt
1/2 cup heavy cream
 
Fill a large bowl with ice water. Pour the lemon juice into a small bowl. Sprinkle the gelatin on top; let stand for 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a blender, puree the strawberries until smooth; you should have about 1 cup of strawberry puree.
In a small saucepan, combine the strawberry puree with the sugar and corn syrup and bring to a boil. Cook over moderately high heat until the sugar dissolves completely, about 1 minute. Remove the strawberry mixture from the heat and stir in the lemon gelatin until it melts.
In a medium bowl, mix the yogurt with the lemon zest and the hot strawberry puree. Stir in the heavy cream. Set the bowl in the ice water bath and let stand, stirring occasionally, until the strawberry yogurt is cold, about 20 minutes.
Pour the strawberry yogurt into an ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Pack the frozen yogurt into a plastic container. Press a sheet of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the frozen yogurt and close with an airtight lid. Freeze until firm, about 4 hours.
 
 
Vanilla Scented Granola
This recipe was published in Bon Appetit in March of 2002.
 
Nonstick vegetable oil spray
4 cups old fashioned oats
1 cup sliced almonds
1/2 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons sugar
4 teaspoons vanilla extract
 
Preheat oven to 300 degrees.  Lightly spray large baking sheet with nonstick spray.  Mix next 5 ingredients in large bowl. Combine oil, honey, and sugar in small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat.  Remove from heat and stir in vanilla.  Pour hot liquid over oat mixture and stir well.  Using hands, toss mixture until thoroughly mixed.  Spread granola on baking sheet,  Bake until golden brown, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes.  Cool completely.  Store in airtight container at room temp.
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In the mood for a Little Green Salad!

CLEOPATRA: My salad days,
When I was green in judgment: cold in blood,
To say as I said then! But, come, away;
Get me ink and paper:
He shall have every day a several greeting,
Or I’ll unpeople Egypt.

From Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, 1606


To William Shakespeare, “salad days” referred to the carefree days of one’s youth.   No doubt this allusion came from the image the freshness, tenderness, and greenness of the lettuce leaves.  In any case, every day is a salad day at our house because there is rarely a meal served without one.  Here’s hoping that this will keep us young.

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Bibb Lettuce with Tarragon Vinaigrette

  When we were living in Bordeaux, France, we frequented a wonderful restaurant called L’Entrecote,which, translated literally, means “the cut of meat taken from between the ribs”.  They didn’t take reservations and there was almost always  a long line to get in.  Once you were shown to your table, a server would  simply ask three questions. 1. Still or sparkling? (water)  2. Red or Rose? (wine) 3. Rare or Medium? (steak).  And Voila! dinner would begin to arrive.  The first course was a salad similar to this one, tender bibb lettuce with walnut halves in a light vinaigrette.  The salad was promptly followed by a large platter of sliced sirloin steak in a rich fragrant sauce (secret recipe, I was told) and a huge mound of hot, crispy fries.  I see copycat recipes for the L’Entrecote steak sauce from time to time on various foodie web sites.  Maybe someday I’ll try a few and see if any of them are “it”.
     This is a salad from Tyler Florence’s book, Dinner at My Place.  The lightly toasted walnuts in the photo are my addition.
1 small shallot, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 lemon, juice only
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 head Bibb lettuce
1 tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves
Combine shallot, mustard, and lemon juice in a large salad bowl.  Slowly drizzle in oil as you constantly whisk to emulsify the dressing.  Once all of the oil has been incorporated, stir in honey and fold in the 1 tablespoon chopped tarragon.  Season with salt and pepper.
Wash the lettuce and separate the leaves.  Smear the dressing up around the insides of the salad bowl and toss the leaves in the bowl.  (By doing this the leaves pick up a light,even coating of the dressing.)  Fold in the 1 tablespoon tarragon leaves and serve.
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Field Greens with Blue Cheese and Crispy Shallots

This is a wonderful combination of flavors that I like to serve with beef or chicken hot off the grill and big baked potato.   The crispy shallots are an extra step, I know,  but they can be prepared in advance and kept at room temperature for hours.  The first time I made them, I wanted to sprinkle them on everything!  Here is the method for frying the shallots, and a recipe for a nice balsamic vinaigrette that will compliment the flavors of this salad.
For the crispy shallots:
Peel and thinly slice 5-6 large shallots.  Heat 1-2 inches of vegetable oil in a small pan over medium high heat.  Add the shallots to the oil, making sure to separate the rings.  Adjust the heat so that the shallots are cooking at a slow simmer and stir them around every few minutes.  The point is to fry them slowly so that they develop an even, golden brown color.  This should take about 10-15 minutes.  Remove the fried shallots to a paper towel to drain.  Sprinkle lightly with salt.  They will crisp up as they cool.

For the vinaigrette:
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/3 cup olive oil
salt and pepper

Whisk all ingredients in a small bowl.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

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Red and Green Leaf Lettuces with Tomatoes and Peppercorn Ranch

 

Homemade ranch dressing has such a clean, fresh taste.  Try to whip this dressing up the the morning and store in the refrigerator.  It will thicken up nicely and the peppery flavor will have time to develop.

Peppercorn Ranch Dressing

1/2 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon sour cream
1/4 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon dried minced garlic
2 teaspoons coarse ground black pepper
Salt to taste

Whisk all ingredients together in a small bowl.  Season with salt to taste.

In the mood for Lettuce Wraps!

Like many people, our first exposure to lettuce wraps came from PF Changs and soon we were making our own version of their appetizer as seen below.  That was years ago and we still love to make a whole meal of these chicken lettuce wraps.  But why stop there?  There are endless possibilities when it comes to the lettuce wrap concept.  Here are three of our favorites.  While iceberg lettuce is the traditional vessel for the filling, bibb lettuce and even romaine can be a nice change of pace.

 

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Chicken Lettuce Wraps

I like the texture of hand minced chicken much better than that of ground chicken.  It’s very quick and easy to do if you have a good sharp knife.  It is important not to overcook chicken breast meat or it will be dry and tough.  My method of letting the minced chicken sit undisturbed in a single layer until almost cooked through will keep it moist and tender.  This is necessary because our home cook tops just don’t get hot enough stir fry effectively.
4 large boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons peanut oil
salt
1 can bamboo shoots, diced
1 can water chestnuts, diced
1/2 cup scallions, sliced
3/4 cup celery, diced
3 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2  teaspoon red pepper flakes, or more to taste
1 teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon white sesame seeds
salt and pepper to taste
lettuce leaves for wrapping
Sauce:
1/4 cup Hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Trim chicken of all visible fat and, using a large knife, slice lengthwise and then crosswise to get 1/4 inch minced pieces.  Season with 1 tablespoon soy sauce, a sprinkle of salt and pepper, and set aside.  Heat 2 tablespoons oil in wok or large skillet until very hot.  Sprinkle the oil with a pinch of salt and add 1/2 of the minced chicken and quickly spread it out to cook evenly.  Let cook undisturbed for about 2-3 minutes or until the the chicken is golden brown on the bottom.  Then toss the minced chicken around a for a few seconds (at which point the chicken will be almost cooked through)  then remove to a platter while you repeat with the remaining chicken.  After the last of the chicken has been cooked and set aside, stir fry the bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, scallions and celery for 2 minutes, adding a bit more oil only if necessary.  Return chicken to the pan. Add the oyster sauce, soy sauce, sugar, red pepper flakes, and cornstarch mixture and cook, tossing constantly, until chicken is cooked through and all ingredients are nicely glazed.  Remove from heat and drizzle with sesame oil and sprinkle with sesame seeds.  Taste and season with salt and black pepper if necessary.   Mix sauce ingredients together in small serving bowl.  Arrange serving platter with lettuce leaves, minced chicken and sauce.
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Ginger Shrimp Lettuce Wraps

 

1 pound fresh shrimp, peeled, deveined and chopped coarsely
1 can sliced water chestnuts, drained and chopped
6 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced (white and light green parts only, saving some of the dark green tops for the sauce below)
1 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons white sesame seeds
black pepper and salt to taste
1/4 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon chopped green scallions
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
Fresh lettuce leaves for wrapping
Stir together first five ingredients.  Heat the oil in a large skillet or wok over high heat.  Sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon salt over the oil then spread shrimp mixture evenly in the pan and let sit undisturbed for about 45 seconds.   Then, using two spoons or spatulas, toss and stir fry the mixture until the shrimp is just cooked through, another minute or two.  Sprinkle with sesame seeds and season with pepper and extra salt if necessary.   Stir together soy sauce, water, ginger, brown sugar, sesame oil, scallions and lemon juice for sauce and serve with lettuce leaves for wrapping.
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Char Sui Pork Lettuce Rolls

 

 Char Sui is the name for the roast pork dish found in most Chinese restaurants.  This recipe is adapted from Barbecue Bible, by Ainsley Harriet.  This will serve 4 as a main course or 6-8 as an appetizer.
2 pork tenderloins
2 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled
1 large garlic clove crushed
2 tablespoons Hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 teaspoons light brown sugar
1 teaspoon five-spice powder
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons honey
to serve:
1/2 cucumber
6 scallions
1 large iceberg or bibb lettuce, broken into leaves
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
1/4 cup Chinese plum sauce
Trim any fat and membranes of the outside of the pork tenderloin.
Finely grate the ginger and squeeze out the juice into a shallow non-metallic dish.  Stir in the rest of the marinade ingredients.
Add the pork tenderloins and turn the over in the mixture until they are really well coated.  Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon.  Cut into thin strips about 3 inches long.  Halve the scallions and cut lengthwise into very thin shreds.  Arrange on a serving plate in separate piles along with the lettuce leaves and a small bowl of the plum sauce mixed with the Dijon mustard.
Barbecue the pork over medium hot heat for about15- 20 minutes turning now and then and basting with the leftover marinade.
Transfer the pork to a board, carve it into very thin slices, and lay it on the serving plate.  Instruct everyone to take a lettuce leaf and place a row of cucumber strips, shredded scallion and sliced pork down the center.  Then spoon a little of the plum sauce mixture over them and roll up the lettuce leaf into a parcel to eat!
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