Vaguely Vietnamese. Or Something Like That

Sleep, little shrimpies, on your soft bed of scrumptiousness.

When I cook, I don’t generally scruple about authenticity–I have neither time nor expendable income enough to search out (or worse yet, “source”) exotic ingredients, build my own brick oven that’s hot enough to properly char pizza crust, or embark on an epic quest for the perfect baked Buffalo chicken wing. If the ingredients are available at Wegmans, if it tastes good, if it reheats nicely for lunch the next day, then it’s usually good enough for me. Naturally, a dish gets bonus points if there is a reasonable expectation that my children might not sneer derisively at it.

Now, this is not to say that I use swiss cheese on my nachos or anything crazy like that. It just means that taste trumps tradition, for me. And it’s also to say that if this is not authentic, don’t come crying to me. Or yelling at me. Or suing me. Or being snooty with me and telling me how long you lived in Vietnam and that you know everything about Vietnamese cuisine. Or calling me an Ice Princess for no good reason except that you think I might be sleeping with our theatre professor–but I digress.

 

Kinda Sorta Bun Tom Heo Nuong. Ish.

  • 2 scallions, minced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 small Thai chile pepper, minced
  • 2 T fish sauce
  • juice of one lime
  • 2 t. brown sugar or agave nectar
  • 1 dozen raw shrimp, shelled and deveined (if you scruple about veins in shrimp, I don’t)
  • 8 oz rice sticks or rice vermicelli
  • 1 medium carrot, julienned or grated
  • 1 small cucumber, julienned
  • 1 cup fresh bean sprouts
  • Romaine or green leaf lettuce, shredded
  • 1/4 cup roasted peanuts, roughly chopped
  • fresh mint, cilantro, and basil, roughly chopped

Nuoc Cham

  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/4 cup fish sauce
  • 3 T lime juice
  • 2 T unseasoned rice vinegar
  • 2 T sugar
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 small chile pepper, minced
  • 1 T shredded carrot

Combine first six ingredients in a bowl and add shrimp. Stir to coat shrimp and let marinate for half an hour. This would be an ideal time to do your chopping and mincing and julienning, and to mix up the nuoc cham.

Place rice sticks in another large bowl and cover with boiling water. Let stand until they are tender, then divide among plates. Top with the vegetables herbs and nuts, artfully arranged if you so desire.

Saute the shrimp in a hot wok or pan, using a little canola oil, until no longer pink. Add shrimp to each plate, then drizzle with nuoc cham, passing more at the table.

 

An Irishman, An Italian and A Portuguese Walk Into A Kitchen…

Look at this soup, just bursting with healthfulness. Well, that and butter.

Last week, like millions of other mutts all across America, I celebrated my fractional Irish heritage (in my case, the fraction is a respectable 1/4) by cooking a corned beef and a great, warm, buttery pot of colcannon–and then foisting them on my pizza-and-hot-dog-loving family. The children loved the meat, as well as the carrots I’d cooked along with it, and Daughter Dearest even scarfed down most of her colcannon. Who says that “you can’t even TASTE the green stuff!” isn’t a ringing endorsement?

In the following days, the corned beef was put to delicious use as sandwich innards; I had a couple of butter-soaked and Bacon Salt-ed bowls of colcannon late at night, when no one was looking. Nevertheless, I was left with an awful lot of leftovers–including half a large bag of kale. There also happened to be a few cans of white beans and some lovely Yukon Golds in my pantry, so it occurred to me that I might make a batch of caldo verde, or possibly some simple beans and greens. Or–and here inspiration started to gain momentum, like a runaway go-cart headed downhill–both. Together. Beans, greens, potatoes, chicken broth, garlic. With the leftover colcannon! Perfect!

And so was born my bizarre love child stew, the offspring of an Irish side dish, an Italian side dish and a Portuguese soup. Except it’s not bizarre at all, really; it’s rather serendipitous. Greens, garlic and potatoes are all elemental foods in many cuisines, and come together deliciously. The beans add a punch of protein, and the pureed part of the soup imparts creaminess, while leaving some chunks of potato and slivers of kale whole elevates this from the realm of pabulum or sickbed food.

Now, I’m assuming that you don’t have a giant container of leftover colcannon in your fridge, so I’m going to both scale this back and adapt it for scratch cooking.

Caldo Colcannon

6 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 onion, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
smidgen olive or canola oil, or butter, or bacon fat
1 quart chicken broth
1 cup milk
1 can small white beans
1 lb. Kale, washed, chopped and blanched
parsley, if you have it on hand
1 T. lemon juice

Heat the olive oil together with the minced garlic in a large pan or stockpot. When it becomes fragrant, add the onion and potatoes; cook for a few minutes, stirring constantly to ensure that the garlic doesn’t burn. Add the broth and the kale. Lower heat to medium and simmer, for 20-30 minutes, until the potatoes are tender.

Remove several ladlesful of the soup and puree in a blender until smooth. Return to pot. Add milk, beans and remainder of the kale. Simmer for another 5-10 minutes. Add the parsley, if using, salt and pepper to taste, and the lemon juice. If the stew seems too thick, add more milk. Remove from heat and serve. If you like, garnish with cheese (parmesan or cheddar would be nice), bacon crumbles, scallions, or all of the above. Enjoy!

…and a good time was had by all

Deck the antique sideboards with strings of cheap multicolored lights, fa la la la la...

I love to throw parties. No, wait, scratch that–I love to plan parties, and I love to go to parties. What I don’t love so much is all the cleaning and rearranging of furniture; the endless lists and invariable forgetting of at least one item from every list; the last-minute rush to make everything fall perfectly and seemingly effortlessly into place. Mind you, none of these things usually stop me from having parties, but being a hostess tends to bring out the worstest in me, and every time I tell Long-Suffering Husband that I’d like to entertain, I can practically see the effort it’s taking for him to not groan out loud.

This time, however, a lot of the hullaballoo and hecticness was taken care of, by none other than my very favorite grocery store, Wegmans*. In October, I was honored to be chosen as the winner of their “Family Time” contest, the prize for which was an Italian-style Sunday dinner for eight. Rather than try to decide whom among our friends we would ask to join us, LSH and I decided to throw open our doors and celebrate: my having won the contest, our upcoming anniversary, and the holiday season. To make a dinner intended to serve eight actually feed 30-40 people, we asked everyone to bring an Italian appetizer to share. The result? A convivial gathering of friends old and new, much riotous laughter, even more expressions of gustatory pleasure, and a broken wine glass or two (because it’s not a party until something gets broken).

Sorry, partygoers, but before y'all arrived, I squirreled away the summer sausage for private consumption. I love ya, but... it's summer sausage. I'm sure you understand.

But I get ahead of myself. Earlier that afternoon, a friendly fellow from Wegmans showed up with what appeared to be a normal-sized sedan, out of which he kept producing boxes and bags–a veritable parade of offerings. I took fewer trips when I moved into my college dorm. We hauled it all inside, started unpacking and taking pictures, and spent a good fifteen minutes oohing and aahing over it all.

Just like Perkins offers a bottomless cup of coffee, this seemed like the bottomless box of foccacia.

There was a fruit basket, with some cheeses, and the most darling miniature cheese board and cheese cleaver (when I’m done with it, I’m going to give it to the farmer’s wife, since it’s perfectly sized for blind mouse tails). There was a giant focaccia, and underneath that focaccia was another giant focaccia.

There were pans of sauce, pans of pasta, a beautiful long tray of nibbly things (and you know how I adore nibbly things), a box of cannoli that I had to hide from the children, a platter of salad with the same circumference as a hula hoop. Oh, it was an impressive spread, my friends.

It's a sweet little buffet of scrumptiousness. Don't eat the shiny berries in the back, though; they're poisonous

Either Wegmans had a typo, and this was supposed to be "Dinner for 18," or the lovely woman in Catering took extra special care of us.

And then I had to tart it all up with my tricolor glitter pom-pom sticks. What can I say? I am powerless when there’s glitter afoot; I have to succumb to its sparkly siren song. These little antipasto-on-a-stick numbers were my contribution to the cocktail party, above and beyond the Wegmans bounty. Clearly, I suffer from some kind of neurosis related to not having enough food. Maybe it’s in my genes, since both my grandparents lived through the Depression and, in their later years, liked to collect used light bulbs, twist ties, and toilet-paper tubes. Just in case.

It's Christmas! in Italy! and Glitterland!

My inner bag lady really wanted to fish the used sticks out of the garbage, so they could be reused. But I drowned her with wine.

Just as I finished impaling bocconcini and artyhearts on the sparkle sticks, the guests began to arrive…bearing food. Copious amounts of food. In the event that a freak, flash blizzard made the entire guest list snowbound inside our house, we would even then be eating leftovers for days. There was that much food. Our wonderful friends brought dips, chips, beer bread, more dips, baguettes, pizza bread with a dip, a red cabbage-and-sausage casserole, pate and artisanal ham from The Piggery in Ithaca, more cheeses, beer, wine, vodka and mixers.

Luckily, Dr. Atkins had a prior committment and couldn't make it.

Needless to say, it was all scrumptious. Scrump-diddly-umptious, even. After an initial lap around the living room to socialize, it seemed as though most guests stationed themselves at strategic points around the buffet, in proximity to their favorite foods. The children, who were upstairs watching movies while simultaneously tearing all the bedclothes and mattresses off the beds and playing Legos, would make occasional sallies downstairs for bread and dip, and of course for the cannolis when I eventually, reluctantly put those out.

And although we were very nearly literally pressing food upon people (“Hold still; I’m just going to tuck this meatball into your neckline, OK? It’ll make a great little snack later”), and despite the fact that more than once I was heard to exclaim, in my best Italian nonna voice, “Mangia! Mangia! Eat, you’re too skinny…” we were still left with a staggering amount of food. It was like Thanksgiving all over again; we ate leftovers for lunch and dinner for the next three days, then finally cried Uncle and packed up the rest for the freezer. It’s going to be a long, long time before I have to buy sauce. Or focaccia. But you know what? I’m just fine with that.

*N.B.: I am not professionally affiliated with Wegmans, although it is my devout wish to be so, especially since they recently were named #3 on Fortune‘s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list. Nay, I just adore (and spend way too much money at) Wegmans.

How to Make A Dull Fish Less So

It's so golden! It makes me think of that Brady Bunch song, "Sunshiny Day." You're welcome.

Admit it–tilapia is kind of a boring fish, taste-wise. Maybe in reality, too–maybe it just swims around paging through USA Today and talking about the humidity. Nevertheless, I like tilapia. It’s affordable, it’s sustainable, it’s mild and easy to cook. It’s just that it needs jazzing up.

I have a great recipe for coating the dull little suckers in mayonnaise and cheese (which can make horrid food tolerable and good food delectable, in my book) but when you’re in the mood for something lighter, why not try pan-searing them and topping them with a fresh, delicious, bright orange-parsley salsa?

Pan-Fried Tilapia with Orange-Parsley Salsa

For Tilapia:

You will need one tilapia filet per person, unless you are my four-year-old, in which case you’ll need two per person. We usually buy the kind that are individually wrapped, which is convenient–albeit hell on the planet. Dry the fish filets with paper towels, then dredge them in flour that you’ve seasoned with salt, pepper, maybe a little garlic powder, maybe a smidgen of cayenne if you like that sort of thing. Pan-fry in a few tablespoons of olive or vegetable oil, until the fish is golden brown and flakes when you nudge it with a fork—just a few minutes per side.

For Salsa:

1 orange, supremed (ain’t we classy?)
1 very small red onion, chopped roughly
1 handful parsley, chopped roughly
1 tsp. Olive oil
generous salt and freshly-ground pepper

Mix! Yes, it’s that easy. Oh, and spoon over tilapia when it’s done.

Sea Vegetables: the New Bacon

Does this thing scream "healthful" or what?

If you know anything about me–from this blog, from other social-media sites, or even from real life (whatever that is, anyway)–you know that I love bacon. In fact, I’ve become rather infamous in some circles for my love of bacon, to the point where people think I love bacon more than I actually do. For the record, although I am intrigued by such products as bacon-flavored lip balm, I do also enjoy many things that are neither meat nor meat-flavored. Like dulse.

“But, but, Nick,” I can practically hear you protesting, “dulse is seaweed! I mean, I think it is…I’m not even sure what it is! All I know is that it’s some kind of liberal-commie-pinko-homo-hippie food!”

Yup. It sure is. And it’s also packed with minerals, and vitamins, and vitameatavegamins, and all sorts of good stuff. In other words, dulse is pretty much the anti-bacon. So, for my veg friends who are all baconned out, and anyone else who wants something a little lighter and more nutritious, but every bit as scrumptious, may I present the DLT?

To be fair, I got this idea from the back of the package of my favorite brand of dulse (are you listening, Maine Coast Sea Vegetables? Hint, hint), but it was my idea to make it into a wrap. Dulse is chewy and savory and umami-rich when it’s raw; when it is toasted, however, it turns crisp, salty, indulgent and fleetingly nommable–much like bacon, making it the ideal stand-in as part of the classic BLT when contrasted with sweet tomato, the tang of mayonnaise, and crisp lettuce.

And after all, who doesn't love a wrap?

Don’t get me wrong–you’re never going to bite into a DLT and exclaim, “Damn! That’s the best bacon EVER!” That is to say, dulse will not fool you into thinking it’s bacon, or satisfy you if bacon is what you really want. But it is a fine food in its own right, and the qualities it shares with bacon means that it, too, pairs well with the L and the T.

The DLT (aka the Anti-Bacon Wrap)

1 wheat tortilla
1 generous handful dulse
1 T. mayonnaise
tomato, sliced or chopped
lettuce

Spray a small skillet with olive-oil spray; over medium-high heat, toast the dulse until it turns from a pliable seaweedy color to a rich, dark, crackly brown. If it doesn’t all transform before the rest of it threatens to burn, that’s OK.

Dress the tortilla with mayo (or condiment of your choice), lettuce and tomato. Salt and pepper generously. Add the pile of dulse, roll up, and dig in.

Hot-Plate Carbonara, OR, the Last of the Homemade Bacon

A few weeks ago I had an amazing experience–I got to spend an entire week at a rural country house with friends from college, most of whom I hadn’t seen in mumbledy-mumble years (and when I say “mumbledy-mumble,” I mean, “upwards of 19 but not that many, for chrissakes, how old do you think I am?”). It was remarkable how comfortable we all were with one another, almost instantly, even though many of us had lost touch for eons and only re-connected via the magic of Facebook. There were few, if any, awkward moments. At least until it came to the cooking.

Now, I was perfectly happy to eat out, or to subsist on nibblies like hummus and pita chips and potato chips and brie and fruit and olives and vodka, and to be sure we did plenty of that. Nevertheless, it’s hard for me to not cook–especially when I am trying to relax, because I enjoy cooking. This house, however (which shall remain nameless, except to say that it is the former home of an eccentric couple who make even eccentricker pottery and home furnishings), did not have a functional stove; it had an Aga Cooker.

Aga Cookers are like really, really expensive pioneer stoves. You can’t just flip one on to whip up a quick omelet or cup of tea. No, these tanks take hours to heat up, and provide heat to the entire county. So in August, in upstate New York? They’re pretty much just decorative.

The vacay house did, however, have an electric teakettle, an abnormally large toaster oven, a microwave, a gas grill and a double hot plate. As one of the reunion attendees said, it was like overdecorated camping. But you know what? I love camping. I love the make-do, improvisational challenge of camp cooking. So I took my teeny baggie of leftover homemade bacon, and some parsley from my CSA, and some eggs from my chickens, and I made Hot-Plate Carbonara.

Looks pretty damn good for an impromptu dish made in an unfamiliar kitchen, huh?

Hot-Plate Carbonara

1 lb. Thin spaghetti or other pasta
2 eggs
½ cup white wine, leftover champagne or pasta cooking water
½ to 1 cup parmigiano-reggiano cheese, finely shredded or grated
small (or large) amount cooked bacon or pancetta
fresh parsley, chopped
salt and pepper

After a thorough (and sometimes frightening) search of the cupboards in your vacation home, take the largest pot or pan you can scrounge up. It will be a crappy, lightweight pot that looks like it spent the better part of the 1990s in a thrift store. That’s OK. Fill it with water and set it on the bigger burner of the hot plate. Go away and read in the hammock for 45 minutes, or until the water comes to a boil.

Take down the biggest pottery bowl from the top shelf of a cupboard, standing on a rickety painted chair if necessary. Wash the dust out of it. Crack your two eggs into it and beat. Add a generous glug of last night’s champagne, which some non-drinker or thoughtful inebriated person corked up with a twist of aluminum foil and left on the counter. Marvel at the fact that the foil actually kept the champers kind of bubbly. Drink the rest of the leftover champagne, even though it’s warm. Add the parmigiano-reggiano to the egg-champagne mixture and stir to combine. Plunk a couple of wooden spoons or salad tongs into the bowl.

When the pasta is cooked to your liking, drain it in an antique colander that looks like something your grandmother would’ve shucked peas into. Working very quickly, dump the hot pasta into the bowl, then start stirring and tossing with alacrity. Why alacrity? What’s at stake, you ask? A delicious, creamy pasta sauce is at stake. Otherwise you will have a bowl of pasta in scrambled egg sauce, and a long damn wait while the pizza delivery guy finds your rural vacation home and putt-putts up the cobblestone driveway in his 1994 Corolla. Or an opportunity to uncork some more champagne, preferably cold this time around, and begin where you left off, telling stories of escapades past and friends not forgotten.

Oh, P.S.: After tossing the heck out of it, top with the parsley and bacon; season with salt and pepper. Duh, Nick!

My Love Affair with Bacon. Part deux

Here she is, all rubbed down with maple syrup and brown sugar and salt and pepper. Mmmm, sweet and salty rub downs...

So as this year’s Nickmas festivities drew nigh, and my dance card became far too full for me to even think about hosting my own party, let alone another decadent ride on the Crazy Carnival of All Things Bacon, I decide to keep it simple. To go back to the land, as it were. So I went out to the barnyard in my old overalls, my “slaughteralls,” as I like to call ’em, and I said, “Sooooey!” and I butchered me a pig.

No, I didn’t. I just went to the Asian market and bought a nice pork belly, bone-in. I removed the rib section and tucked it in the freezer against the next time Long Suffering Husband has a hankerin’ for something meaty, took the rest of the belly, and plopped her skin-side down in a shallow casserole dish. I slathered her up with salt, brown sugar, pepper and a splash from the maple syrup bottle. (Don’t ask me why I keep calling the pork belly a “she”–I’ve no idea.) I massaged the spices into her tender flesh — OK, this is just wrong. At any rate, you know what to do. Smoosh everything in as best you can. cover it with saran wrap or–as the British say, “clingfilm,” marvelous word, that–and stick it in the fridge. For a couple of days. Each day you should take her out and admire her take it out and drain off any accumulated liquid. Re-clingfilm and return to fridge.

When you are ready to actually make the bacon, then it’s time to realize that you are not, in fact, ready to make bacon. First you have to smoke it, if you have a smoker, which we don’t (yet — hear that, LSH?) or bake it in the oven. Because I knew I’d be baking, I also added a liberal dose of liquid smoke to my pre-baked bacon. Then I wrapped her lovingly in a double layer of foil, put her in heavy, lidded pan, and let her bask away in a relaxing sauna/steam room let it bake, covered, in a slow oven  (about 250° F) for several hours.

Trusty meat thermometer should tell you 160°

When you have removed the bacon from the foil packet, it will look roughly like this. You’ll now want to turn it over and remove the outer layer of fat; this should separate easily from the rest of it (unlike my outer layer of fat, which stays stubbornly attached to the rest of me), and then slice it, as thinly as you can. I suppose if you had access to a meat slicer, that would be the ideal tool. I just used a knife, though, and called it “thick-cut.” It’s alll about the marketing, you know.

Thick-cut bacon -- it's what's for breakfast

And then, like the good little feminist I am, I fried that bacon up in mah pan! Protip: if you start the bacon in a cold pan–and I’m sorry, but you must use a heavy cast-iron pan to fry bacon in (and chicken, but that’s another post). If you are still using that dreadful T-fal nonsense, then I’m going to have to come over to your house with my cast-iron skillet.

And beat you over the head with it.

Behold...BACON!

Voila! Looks like bacon, doesn’t it? Remarkable. It tasted good, too — chewy in some places, crisp in others, the whole offering up just a hint of sweetness from the cure. We gobbled down most of it that day, grabbing a piece or two as we passed through the kitchen, but I did manage to save enough to make Hot-Plate Carbonara on vacation a few days later, but you’ll hear about that soon enough.

In the meantime, go get yourself a $4 pork belly at the Asian market–you can get them boneless, too–and get curin’. Although bacon takes some planning–mine cured for four or five days, I think, although you could get away with three–it’s remarkable easy and mostly hands-off.

I bet it would make a killer BLT, too.

Nearer, My Carrots, To Thee

Yes, I'm a huge Titanic buff; this is a replica mug from the White Star Line. Fun Fact: none of the dishes on the Titanic or other White Star ships had their own names on them, but were made to be interchanged

I love our CSA, of which we’ve been members for five years now. Each Thursday we get a bag or two of local, organic vegetables; we also get first crack at ordering organic berries, apples, eggs, honey and maple syrup. The CSA has thrown some unusual veggies in my path like a gauntlet, daring me to cook something delicious with them. We’ve found some new favorites (mizuna, rainbow chard, lacinato kale, Japanese eggplant), but there’s also a fair amount of headscratchers (pea shoots, pok choi, watercress) and some things that, if I’m the one picking up the vegetables that week, go right into the share bin (arugula, watercress, broccoli).

Until last year, fennel fell into the latter two categories. I’d either take it home to wither away in the crisper, or leave it to my fellow CSA members who are also fennel lovers. It’s confounding, fennel: the fronds, the bulb, the anise-y taste–and it always struck me as more of a novelty than a vegetable.

Last year, however, I stumbled upon Orangette’s recipe for Carrot-Fennel Soup. Made it, liked it, felt particularly accomplished for putting my fennel to good use.

Fast-forward to this year, about five weeks ago, when we started receiving weekly rations of carrots in our CSA share. Normally, this would be a welcome and useful vegetable, but the beginning of Carrotpalooza happened to coincide with my having won a Sam’s Club membership and $50 gift card from Lea Ann at the excellent blog Mommy’s Wish List, and having spent $3 of that windfall on a bag of organic baby carrots that can only be described as “ginormous.” So the rediscovery of carrot-fennel soup was fortuitous indeed.

This soup somehow manages to be creamy, comforting, light and refreshing all at once. None of its flavors predominate; the carrot, orange juice and fennel harmonize like a really pretty folk trio. You could tinker with the ratio to let one of them shine through in a solo, as it were, but I like it just the way it is.

Creamy Carrot and Fennel Soup

(adapted from Orangette)

Several bunches carrots, depending on the carrots’ size–approximately 1-2 pounds, chopped
1 fennel bulb, cleaned and thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 bay leaf
5 c. chicken or vegetable broth
juice of two oranges
2-4 oz. cream cheese, or crème fraiche if you have it on hand
salt and pepper to taste

Heat garlic in olive oil in a stock pot or large sauce pan until aromatic. Add carrots, fennel bulb, bay leaf and stock; simmer 20-40 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Remove the bay leaf. Add the cream cheese (if using crème fraiche, wait). Use a blender or immersion blender to puree the soup, adding additional broth if it is too thick for your liking. Add the orange juice, crème fraiche if using, and salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings. If desired, garnish with reserved fennel fronds; either in a sprig as I’ve done in the picture, or chopped and sprinkled over the soup. I found that, even chopped, they added a texture to the soup that was a bit off-putting, and did not add flavor. Of course, it’s up to you.

Oh, and if you need any organic baby carrots, just holler.

A Tale of Two Chickens

Their names are Bobby and Cissy, after the dancers on the Lawrence Welk show. Cissy is the one with the white patch on her head.

Technically, it’s four chickens–two live ones, and two chicken dishes. But “A Tale of Four Chickens” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, now, does it?

We got new chickens–chicks, really–last week. They are darling. When they cheep they sound like songbirds. They are palm-sized, so small that we don’t have anything to hold them except for a cardboard box.  At night we take them up to the attic (the only place they will be safe from the cats, one of whom has been eyeing them with obvious relish); during the day they get to roam around the backyard and eat bugs. Mmm, bugs.

It’s a little strange eating chicken dishes when we keep chickens as pets–pets with eggy benefits, as my friend Fernanda says–but we all love to eat chicken, especially when it’s coated in panko, fried, and dipped in ranch or blue cheese dressing. So we compartmentalize the meals and the backyard egg machines, and it all seems to work out fine.

We had just gotten a lovely bunch of Thai basil from the CSA (they also had purple basil, lemon basil and–get this–lime basil. Lime basil! What’s next, pomegranate basil? Chipotle basil? Cheddar basil?), so I decided to make some Thai Basil Chicken for the grownups. Of course, the grownups partook of the nuggets, too.

That place mat looks like it belongs in an ice cream parlor, doesn't it?

I make my children’s nuggets from scratch, because I find the packaged, processed ones only slightly less terrifying than the Michelin Man (who, obviously, terrifies me for reasons that I suspect have to do with my father, but that could be pure conjecture). Years ago the kids and I went to a playdate and were served a lunch of microwaved, dinosaur-shaped nuggets. It was all I could do to keep my mouth shut, let me tell you. Yes, homemade nuggets are a lot of work compared to ripping open a plastic bag, but they’re worth it. And I usually make a large batch and freeze some.

I mean, it’s not like I make my own hot dogs, for crying out loud.

Anyway, here’s how I make my nuggets:

  1. cut chicken breast into pieces
  2. coat in flour
  3. dip in egg wash–this is my one exception to my ironclad rule to never pair chicken and eggs in the same meal, which is just creepy
  4. coat in panko, which are special Japanese breadcrumbs that make things especially crispy. I don’t know how they do it, but from what I know of the Japanese, I imagine robots are involved
  5. Fry in vegetable oil until golden brown
  6. Enjoy.

I can wrap shit in lettuce just like P.F. Chang (who I suspect is fictional anyway). Where's my restaurant chain?

Thai Basil Chicken

½ pound ground chicken (I made my own, using my Vitamix. Not to brag or anything)
1 shallot or small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
3 T fish sauce
1 T soy sauce
1 T brown or raw sugar
minced Thai chilies*, Sriracha or hot pepper flakes, to taste
1 bunch Thai basil
cooked jasmine rice
large, wrap-like lettuce leaves

Heat coconut or olive oil in a large skillet or (preferably; ask me how I know) wok. Stir fry the onion and garlic until fragrant; add the chicken. Cook, breaking up the chicken into pieces, until the chicken is no longer pink. Add the sauces, sugar and source of hotness and stir-fry for a minute. Add the basil; stir and fry until the basil is wilted.

Serve with rice or in lettuce wraps.

*be careful with those little buggers. I mean it.

It’s Beginning To Taste A Lot Like Nickmas

If you like potato pancakes, and corn, and zucchini, and Tex-Mex flavors, and standing over a stove in August frying things, you'll love these!

Years ago, before I met the man who would eventually become Long-Suffering Husband, I briefly dated a man from Buffalo. We’ll call him “Briefly Suffering Boyfriend.” I remember only three things about him: he had a tattoo of an old grandfather-clock face, showing the time his son was born, on his arm; he had a room in his house called Jesus’ room because there was a Jesus statuette in there, and not much else; and he coined the term Nickmas, to describe the period of celebration, merriment and indulgence otherwise known as my birthday. He didn’t last long–it could have been the distance between us, or it could have been the Jesus whiff, although as I recall, the statuette was ironic–but “Nickmas” has entered my lexicon, and that of many others, I daresay. The Nickmas season lasts anywhere from a week or 12 days to several weeks, depending on what festivities are planned. This year, since there will be an auspicious, if alarming, number of candles on the cake, I plan on living it up from today right until Labor Day, but the high holy day is the 14th.

Last year, I hosted the First and Only Annual Girls-Only BaconFest, at which eight of us consumed approximately 10 pounds’ worth of bacon, wrapped-and-toothpicked around various small pieces of food (olives, Townhouse crackers, water chestnuts, dates, etc.). I had planned on making an entire bacon-themed menu, from goat-cheese-and-bacon lollipops to peanut-butter-bacon truffles to bacon-dulce-de-leche ice cream, but–due to some BaconFest Eve celebrations that got slightly out of hand, I was too whooped to do more than shove toothpicks in shit and call it a day. What can I say–people get carried away with the Nickmas spirit. Or spirits. Did I mention that we also had bacon-infused bourbon and vodka? Yeah.

This year things are going to be a little tamer and a little less artery-clogging–but no less delicious, I hope. Tonight we kicked off the season with the traditional Nickmas Corn and Zucchini Fritters. After all, it’s right around this time of the year that local sweet corn and zukes tend to overflow the farmer’s market, and taste their most delicious. Since I love Tex-Mex flavors, I spice my fritters with cumin, chili powder and jalepeno, and serve them with a cilantro-lime sour cream. They’d be equally good with some freshly made pico de gallo, or even just plain sour cream.

Nickmas Fritters are both a half-year reminder of Hannukah–the deep-fried holiday–and a tasty way to make the most of seasonal produce. They freeze well (although they won’t be as crisp upon reheating, of course) and also make an excellent breakfast, topped with a fried egg, a spoonful of that pico, and perhaps some queso fresco or shredded jack cheese.

Nickmas Corn and Zucchini Fritters

1 ½ c. masa harina or cornmeal
½ c. all-purpose flour
½ c. parmesan cheese
1 t. baking powder
1 t. garlic powder
½ t. salt
½ t. cumin
½ t. oregano
½ t. chili powder
2 c. fresh corn kernels
3 c. shredded zucchini
2 eggs, beaten
¼ c. minced onion
1-2 jalepenos, minced
1 c. milk
oil for frying

Place shredded zucchini in a colander; sprinkle generously with kosher salt. Let sit 15 minutes in a bowl or in the sink. Squeeze zucchini, removing as much water as possible; you may wish to place it in several layers of clean dish towels and wring. Combine corn kernels, zucchini shreds, eggs, onion and jalepeno.

Stir together dry ingredients. Add to wet ingredients. Begin adding milk, a splash at a time. Depending on how much you squoze your zucchini, you may need anywhere from ½ – 1 cup or even more. You want this about the consistency of pancake batter.

Heat a generous amount of oil in a skillet (hey, if you need more explicit instructions than that, go ask someone who gets money for writing recipes). Using a 1/3 c. measure or ice cream scoop, make pancakes with the batter, flattening slightly. When they brown around the edges, turn. When the bottom is brown, remove to a paper-towel-lined plate (I mean, c’mon, you know how to fry things, right?).

Serve with:

Cilantro-Lime Sour Cream

1 c. sour cream or Mexican crema
juice of 1 lime
½ c. cilantro, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

P.S. Why, yes, I do! Thanks for asking.

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