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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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.

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.

In Which She Chooses Sides in the Great Cilantro Debate

Mmm. Look at all that cilantro.

Homemade salsa (or pico de gallo, for you stickers and purists out there) is my default potluck offering. Especially in summer, when we are overrun with amazing heirloom tomatoes from our garden and our CSA both, we always have a pint (or quart) Mason jar of this in our fridge. And if you come to visit me then, chances are I’ll send you home with a container of it.

Even in the winter, homemade salsa (humor me, OK? It’s six characters shorter than “pico de gallo” and you know what they say about brevity) that uses canned diced tomatoes is still pretty darn good. The key to salsa, though, is fresh cilantro. After all, cilantro is what makes salsa “salsa,” and not just “chopped up tomatoes and onions.”

Are you still with me? Or are you one of them–the people who hate cilantro, who thinks it tastes like dish soap or laundry soap? It’s a love-it-or-hate-it herb, that’s for sure. I mean, you never hear anyone say, “Jeez, I can’t stand basil. Ew.” Obviously, I belong to the lovers. Since I cook a lot of Tex-Mex, curries and Asian-y food, we nearly always have cilantro on hand. I’ve made peanut-cilantro pesto. I’ve even used it in bloody Marys with tomatillos. In short, I pink-puffy-heart cilantro.

Salsa yields a lot of bang for very little buck. It’s so easy–if you can chop things, you can make salsa–but it impresses the hell out of people. “Did you make this?” they’ll say, and you can nod smugly.

I’m giving you approximations, because that’s how I cook. Start with small amounts of the potent stuff (hotness, onions, cilantro) and increase as needed. Remember that it will meld and evolve in the fridge, so try to make it at least a few hours in advance, then taste and adjust before serving.

Homemade Salsa/Pico De Gallo

4-5 big heirloom tomatoes, chopped or run through the food processor, or one 28-oz can diced tomatoes

one medium onion’s worth of mixed allium–onion, red onion, green onion, garlic, shallot–minced

pickled jalepenos or chipotles in adobo, minced, to taste

handful cilantro, chopped

juice of one lime or one-half lemon

Salt and freshly ground pepper

The thing with salsa is that once you make it fresh, you’ll never be able go back to that wretched jarred stuff. Chi-Chi’s, my ass.

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