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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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!

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.

Nick’s No Compromise Pancakes

Look at that perfect freakin' pat of butter

Funny thing about pancakes: I never liked them until I was pregnant with my son, and then suddenly I was having inexplicable cravings for them. My baby daddy (you might know him better as Long Suffering Husband, since I finally roped him into marrying me after two pregnancies) would take me out to Perkins, Denny’s, et. al., and I would order an omelet and hash browns and side of bacon and pancakes. And eat it all.

Ahem.

Anyway, ever since then I have loved pancakes, and my kids love them too. Fortunately, I can stick any old healthy vegetable or fruit into a pancake, and as long as there’s maple syrup, my kids will gobble it down. I’ve experimented a lot with pancakes, and I’m here to tell you that really, as long as you get them roughly the right consistency, you have a lot of pancake leeway. Take today, for example: we are out of whole-wheat flour, so I decided to grind up some oats. We had some leftover sweet potato (sheesh, I initially spelled that the Quayle way: potatoe) so I threw that in. Etc., etc. I’ve even made pancakes with beets, and believe it or not, passed them off as “Pink Princess Pancakes” or some such nonsense.

Motherhood–it’s 90 percent marketing.

Miss Four pronounced these “super good” and two thumbs up. She ate three, Mr. Seven ate two, LSH ate four or five or nine and even said “Mea culpa” because he had pooh-poohed my healthified flapjacks. Oh, and I ate a few too.

Nick’s No Compromise Healthy Delicious Pancakes

1 cup oat flour (pulse rolled oats in food processor or blender till it’s flour)
1 cup whole-wheat or all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
¼ cup wheat germ
¼ cup flaxmeal
½ tsp. cinnamon (optional)

2 cups almond, soy or cow milk
1 cup mashed sweet potato or winter squash
3 eggs
2 tbsp. butter or mild oil
1 tsp vanilla

Mix all of the dry ingredients together in a large bowl or, ideally, one of those nifty batter bowl thingamobs.

Mix together all of the wet ingredients, including squash, in a blender. Pour into the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Here’s the tricky part: adjust the batter to make it pancakey. Too thick? Add some milk. Too thin? Add some flax meal, wheat germ or flour.

Fry them on a griddle. You know, like pancakes. If you don’t know how to make pancakes, go either to someone else’s blog, or back to 7th grade Home Economics.

Enjoy!

(Part of) The Legacy Lives On

fresh from the fryin' pan

Picture it: Lower Manhattan, 1988. I was a wide-eyed naif, fresh off the bus from a small Upstate town, enrolled at NYU but getting my real education on the streets of the big city. It was a year of many firsts: my first iced coffee, my first gay friends, my first VISA card, my first pair of $140 shoes, my first time doing cocaine with drag queens in the men’s room of an exclusive Manhattan nightclub.

And my first taste of falafel, late at night, from the incomparable Mahmoun’s on St. Mark’s Place. Bear in mind that I grew up eating middle-class, Midwestern food: tuna sandwiches, meatloaf, various casseroles combining chicken and Campbell’s Soups. Falafel was a revelation to me, as was Indian food, real Chinese (by “real” I mean “not canned LaChoy from the grocery store”), gyros, Ukrainian fare, and half-moon cookies from the 2nd Avenue Deli.

But, oh, that late-night falafel. We would take the plump little foil-wrapped packets back to our dorm rooms and picnic on the floor in the hallway outside our rooms. After eating, we’d smoke one last cigarette, putting them out on the carpet–the mind reels. What teenage hubris. What insufferable pricks we were! Remember when you could smoke indoors and use the floor as an ashtray?

A lot has changed since then. I don’t smoke anymore, I don’t do cocaine anymore, and I don’t do credit cards. I still have lots of gay friends and I still love falafel. Only now, living some 440 miles from Mahmoun’s, I have learned to make my own. For a while I used those boxed mixes, but I have recently discovered how crazy easy it is to make falafel from scratch, from real honest-to-goodness dried chickpeas. It helps to have a kickass blender, like my Vitamix, but a regular blender and some patience might do the trick. I don’t know; I don’t have either of those things.

Use My Favorite Falafel from Epicurious as a jumping off point, like I did. But, listen, this is so simple it’s laughable. Soak the chickpeas, drain, throw them in your blender, grind. Add some spices and a bit of flour to make a workable dough. Chill. Form into balls or patties. Bake or fry. Stuff into pitas. Devour.

Pita, or as we like to call it, "pouffy bread"--and lest you think I'm closed-minded, some of my best breads are pouffy

Yeah, I’m that kind of pretentious poseur who makes her own pita bread. Sometimes–I do also buy it in the store. But again, this is so easy it’s almost painful. If you have flour and time, you can make pita.

I got this recipe from Pete Bakes! His introductory blurb says, “Hello, my name is Pete, and I like to bake stuff.” Doesn’t that alone make you want to marry him, sight unseen?

An impossible-to-eat-daintily sandwich. But who cares?

We stuffed our homemade pita with the homemade falafel, tomato, cucumber, something called Yoga Sprouts that I bought on a whim from the co-op (and yes, I bought them because they were called Yoga Sprouts, and somewhere in the back of my mind I thought that if I ate them, I would be able to hold Tree Pose a little longer. Long-Suffering Husband doesn’t call me “Madison Avenue’s Bitch” for nothing) and tahini sauce, made from whizzing together tahini paste, some low-fat yogurt, and lemon juice. If I weren’t so exhausted from making every damn thing from scratch, I would’ve thrown some garlic in there too.

It was delicious, though. If I had closed my eyes, I might almost have imagined that I was back in the dorms at NYU, balling up my foil and napkin, inhaling the unmistakable smell of smouldering industrial carpet.

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