Permaculture Dreams and Beef Rendang

The closer we get to moving, the more preoccupied I am with planning the New Garden. Now, in truth I don’t even know what the New Garden is going to look like, how big it is, anything. That in no way keeps me from daydreaming about it. A great deal of my dreaming right now revolves around permaculture plans. What is possible here? What perennials can I grow? What about a mini-Food Forest? I’m not sure if any landlord is going to let me cut swales or install greywater systems, but who would say no to a free butterfly garden on their property?

My current (tiny) back flowerbed is my first attempt at permaculture, mixing sage and lemongrass among the flowering salvias, lantanas, and potted orchids and pitcher plants. I mostly forget about the lemongrass since its unobtrusive presence gets a little lost amongst the rambunctious sprawling lantanas. Then I saw this recipe and realized that I had every ingredient… except lemongrass.

Wait. I have lemongrass growing in the backyard. 

This is exactly permaculture. It’s growing food outside of “garden beds” and annuals planted every spring. It’s growing food that comes back year after year, and carefully designing mixes of plants that fulfill both our human needs and each other’s needs as an ecosystem. I’m just enthralled.  And I didn’t just have the lemongrass in my yard, either. I harvested lime leaves and grapefruit leaves off my grafted citrus. Bruise them and a wonderful citrus aroma arises, stronger than any imported frozen “kaffir lime” leaf I’ve ever purchased. We had fresh chili peppers off Jim’s plants, too.

Beef Rendang

Combination of this rendang recipe and this one. This looks like a very complicated dish but it comes together quickly, just be prepared for a long simmer and lots of stirring.

2 lb beef roast, sliced into chunks
1/4 c sunflower oil, divided

Spice paste:
1 tbl tamarind paste
2 tsp turmeric
5 purple-skinned shallots
1 inch galangal, sliced
5 cloves garlic
1 inch ginger
1 tbs brown sugar or jaggery
1 tsp salt (or to taste)


1 cinnamon stick
3 cloves
3 star anise
3 cardamom pods
1 can coconut milk
6 tbs unsweetened shredded coconut, toasted
4 fresh citrus leaves, bruised
2 stalk fresh lemongrass, bruised and knotted
4 fresh green chilies, seeded

First put all of the spice paste ingredients in a food processor and process to a fine paste. If you don’t have a food processor, put everything in a blender. Add 2 tbl of oil, and then add water a tablespoon at a time until it blends to a fine paste. Then gather all of the rest of the ingredients near you (mise en place! mise en place!) because this part goes kind of quickly.

Heat a large skillet or wok with the other 2 tbl of oil over high or medium high heat, depending on your self-confidence. When the oil is very hot, add the spice paste all at once. It will spatter like mad! Stir briskly until it reduces and starts to change color. You should start to see the oil coming out. What you’re seeing is the water evaporating out of the paste and the flavors melding and becoming concentrated. Once the oil starts to show around the edges, add the beef and stir like mad until the paste really starts to caramelize and get darker.

The second you are afraid the paste + meat might be starting to burn, take the pan off the fire and add the coconut milk and stir like crazy. It will bubble and steam, keep stirring. Once it settles down a little, put it back on the fire and turn the burner down to medium or medium-low. Add the cinnamon stick through the chilis.

Now comes the long bit. The curry needs to simmer for at least an hour. Mine took almost two hours. Stir every 5-10 minutes. After an hour you’ll see the sauce thicken and darken as the water evaporates and the sugars caramelize more. The sauce is getting happy. (I was an Emeril Lagasse fan for a little while.) After an hour, how far to reduce the sauce is up to you. Rendang is supposed to be a dry curry, meaning you keep stirring until the sauce dries to a thick coating on the meat and fries in the oil that comes out. You can also stop before this point if you want a little more sauce, and that’s okay, too.

Serve with rice, sliced limes, and chili paste.

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