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.

 

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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.

Unique, Delicious and A Supreme Pain in the Ass

The summer roll assembly line -- I was the Henry Ford of wrapped cylindrical foods

No, smarty pants, this isn’t an autobiographical post. The title refers to summer rolls, which I decided to make as a potluck offering for a Fourth of July party. You know, because nothing says “I’m proud to be an American” like pan-Asian food.

(To be perfectly honest, I don’t know whether I mean that last sentence sarcastically, or not.)

More to the point, summer rolls are unique, beautiful and delicious. And unlike so very many delicious foods, they are pretty much fat-free, low-calorie and generally not-too-terrible for you.

They’re also a pain in the ass to make.

Look at those shrimps, all nestled up snug.

That’s why I did as much of the prep work (cooking the chicken, chopping the vegetables and herbs) in advance, and timed it so that I could sit and listen to “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” on the radio. By the time the hour was up, I had two 9×13 covered pans full of summer rolls, all lined up in rows—much like the orphans in Madeline, only tastier. And covered with damp paper towels.

I made two varieties, because I’m an overachiever like that. The chicken rolls had mango, cellophane noodles, carrot, cilantro and chives; the shrimp rolls had cellophane noodles, carrot, cucumber, chives, lettuce and mint. Chicken cozies up to mango and cilantro.

We won’t talk about the dipping sauces that I made and forgot to take to the party, except to say that they would’ve been delicious. Hrmph.

My summer rolls and sauces were adapted from a recipe in the July/August 2010 issue of Everyday Food, but here’s another recipe from Epicurious that looks pretty good, to get you started. Half of the fun of summer rolls is making up your own combinations of fillings, improvising, using up leftovers, and imagining what will look pretty under the transparent rice-paper wrappers. After all (cue patriotic music), isn’t that the foundation on which this fine nation of ours is built? Freedom of choice, freedom of expression, and freedom to eat whatever the hell we please, on any day of the year?

Happy birthday, America.

Something About the Salmon

Full Disclosure: we love salmon around here. At least, 3/4 of us do. Or 3/4 of us think we do…I remember a day, not too terribly long ago, when Mister Six-Going-On-Seven (aka the New York Times Restaurant Critic) would gobble down salmon like it was going out of style–even without ranch dressing to dip it in. These days, it’s a different story, and one that I will spare you.

After all, if you wanted to read tales of surreal hopelessness, you’d already be curled up with your dog-eared copy of the Kafka Omnibus.

Long-Suffering Husband, Baby Girl and I all still cop to loving salmon. There’s something about it, however, that puts me in an Asian-y mood. One of my all-time favorites is Firecracker Salmon, but we’ve had that a lot, and I get burned out easily. Also, I had recently come across Francis Lam’s Scallion-Ginger Sauce, and although I have to take issue with his assertion that it makes literally anything tasty (sheetrock? that deflated soccer ball in my backyard? Hot Pockets?), I was intrigued. Also, I had something like four or five bunches of scallions in my fridge. Don’t ask.

It made our broiled salmon damn tasty. With the salmon and sauce, I served brown rice (happily, this time I was able to actually identify raw brown rice and, ergo, to cook the correct grain) and some green beans sauteed in sesame oil, seasoned with red pepper flakes and sesame seeds. See what I mean? Asian-y. Emphasis on the -y.

No recipe, folks. You can broil salmon, right? And read? Yes. Of course you can.

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