Monthly Archives: October 2010

Thai Fresh Rolls

I don’t know why October is party month in my department at work, but it seems to be.  An email went around recently about a Fall Celebration party, with instructions to bring a tapas/appetizer to share.  I thought up all sorts of grand ideas, from a Spanish tortilla to lamb meatballs, but couldn’t figure out how to operationalize any of them.  I needed something portable, something cold or microwavable…a few days before the party, I was still stumped.

“Oh honey,” Susie said, “Just do something easy.  I’m not doing anything fancy.  I’m just going to clean out my fridge.  I thought I’d bring a few kinds of cheeses, and crackers, and some hummus, and bread, and a hazelnut torte, and of course some chips and my homemade salsa…(!!!)”

“I know what I’m going to do,” Bruce said.  “Caprese stacks with a balsamic reduction.”

“I think I’ll bring salumi,” said Tina.

Everyone seemed a-buzz with delicious plans except me.  I was Goldilocks, wandering aimlessly in a house of decisive bears, all of whom had appetizers that were just right.

Finally, prompted by Susie’s mention of cleaning out her fridge, an idea took shape.  I still had all of the leftover ingredients from the Thai Fresh Rolls I had just made as an appetizer for my dumpling party.  I would leave out the shrimp, and they would be vegan, gluten-free, and basically safe for any set of dietary restrictions.  I decided not to make the rolls the night before, but to assemble them at work–as Thai Fresh Rolls should, after all, be very fresh.  Fresh and crunchy.

I still had some cooked tofu matchsticks, and I made some more rice vermicelli noodles.  I chopped my other ingredients, made a dipping sauce, and put everything into small containers.  I also packed up a cutting board, a serving plate, the rice paper rounds, a glass pie plate for soaking the rice paper rounds, and put it all in the refrigerator for the next morning.

Just before the party, I set up an assembly line on the break room table at work and started rolling.  Across from me, Bruce stacked slices of tomato mozzarella, and basil and drizzled them with his special balsamic reduction.  Everyone who strolled through the break room door paused in their lunchtime autopilot path toward the refrigerator, and turned to look more closely at this unusual sight.  It only took about 10 minutes to assemble a dozen fresh rolls, which I then cut in half with scissors.

When I added my plate of Thai Fresh Rolls to the already loaded buffet in our office area, I was amazed by the feast.  This was hardly a run-of-the-mill work potluck.  Meats, cheeses, salads, desserts, homemade salsa–there was even a baking dish of hot crab dip.

There wasn’t much conversation at the party.  Just the occasional “This is good!  Who made it?” punctuated the quiet munching and hums of pleasure.

Thai Fresh Rolls

  • 12 dried rice paper rounds (also called Banh Trang)
  • 3 oz thin vermicelli rice noodles
  • 1 cup small to medium cooked shrimp
  • 4 oz tofu, cut into matchsticks, baked and chilled
  • 4 green onions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
  • 1 small carrot, shredded
  • ½ cup chopped cilantro
  • 12 leaves of lettuce, washed and rib removed

Cook rice noodles according to package directions.  Drain and rinse with cold water.  Prepare all other ingredients.  To assemble the fresh rolls, soak 1 rice paper round in warm water for 3-4 seconds.  It should still be slightly stiff when removed from the water.  Place a small amount of each ingredient in a line across the middle of the rice paper round, leaving an inch on either side.  Fold the ends in, then fold the bottom of the wrapper over the filling, and roll into a tight cylinder, burrito-fashion.  Each roll can be cut in half with scissors, if desired.  Serve with hoisin or other dipping sauce.

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Dumpling Party

Glancing up from trying to form a pleated pea pod, I saw a row of backs, heads down in concentration.  All around my kitchen, using every inch of available counter space, stood friends absorbed in the task of shaping Asian dumplings.  Each had a stack of round gyoza wrappers in front of them, and a bowl of various fillings—pork and napa cabbage, pork and shrimp, or tofu and shiitake mushroom.  Spoons clinked against bowls like muted temple bells.  Fingers flew, jokes were tossed over shoulders, appetizers and drinks were disappearing.  Outside the window the evening was blustery and dark, trees dripping with chill autumn rain.  But here in the kitchen were warmth and light, good smells and good humor.

A couple of weeks before, my friend Christie had given a wonderful dinner party while I was visiting her in Eastern Washington.  When she came over to Seattle to stay with me, I thought it was high time for a dinner party of my own.  I wanted to do something interactive, get everyone’s hands dirty helping with dinner.  I had just checked out a gorgeous book from the library–Asian Dumplings: Mastering Gyoza, Spring Rolls, Samosas, and More by Andrea Nguyen, with photos by Penny De Los Santos.  The book was not only full of beautiful photos, it provided excellent recipes and tips for making all sorts of Asian dumplings from scratch—even instructions for making the actual dumpling wrappers, for the intrepid.  Which I am not.

A dumpling party, I decided, should fit the bill.

Christie and I made the rounds of the Asian grocery stores, shopping lists in hand.  We spent the afternoon chopping and measuring and stirring, making the dumpling fillings and dipping sauces.  We folded origami cranes for the table, squinting at a set of instructions and murmuring “fold corner D toward center…” with furrowed brows.  I made Thai fresh rolls for appetizers, and a plum crumble for dessert, and Christie set the table.  Michael  assumed his duties as bartender extraordinaire, mixing Moscow Mules with a liberal hand for the vodka.  All was festive and shining with readiness when the guests arrived.

Maybe those potent drinks had something to do with it, but I had such a good time at my own party.   I had brought together a group of people, many of whom didn’t know each other—a few of my oldest friends, a few I wanted to get to know better–and everyone was busy, engaged, and laughing.  Forget awkward conversational pauses, there were dumplings to make!

Half moons, pleated pea-pods, closed satchels, big hugs, pleated crescents, and some original dumpling designs invented on the spot.  As the finished dumplings piled up, plump and neat as coin purses, all were fitted into the bamboo steamer, to emerge ten minutes later, translucent and puffy.

At last we all gathered at the table, to pass bowls of dumplings, rice, baby bok choy, sesame noodles, and dipping sauces before digging in.   The first bite of each dumpling was a surprise, as we didn’t know which of the three fillings we would get, but all were delicious.  The dumplings were tender, yet chewy.  They burst with the fresh flavors of pork, mushrooms, or shrimp, and the savory notes of ginger and sesame.    Everyone there could feel justifiable pride in the meal before us.

How to Host Your Own Dumpling Party:

It’s fun to have a group of friends in the kitchen, cooking together.  But a little advance planning improves the experience for everyone.  If everything is organized in advance, you and your guests can turn out an abundance of dumplings within half an hour or so. Here are some tips:

Assemble and/or cook your dumpling fillings and dipping sauces earlier in the day or the day before, and refrigerate.  This will allow the flavors to meld, and will allow your dinner guests to concentrate on the fun part—filling and shaping dumplings.

Organize work stations for your guests.  Two people can share a bowl of filling, but everyone will need space to assemble their dumplings, access to a small bowl of water for sealing the edges of the wrappers, a plate for their finished dumplings, and somewhere to put their drink.

Keep the drinks full and the appetizers handy.  Starving dinner guests can be surly guests.  It’s no fun to learn to shape dumplings under those conditions!

Provide brief instructions, and photocopied diagrams of how to fold some common dumpling shapes, for inspiration.  Then let your guests unleash their creativity.

If you want to be able to identify a particular filling, as for vegetarian guests, make sure that all of those dumplings are shaped differently than the rest.  For example, the pleated pea pod shape can be designated for the vegetable dumplings.

If you are planning to serve side dishes with the dumplings, have your ingredients and tools assembled near the stove in advance, to avoid interrupting the groove of your dumpling makers to get at items in drawers and cupboards.  Have the rice in the cooker, the water already in a pot on the stove waiting to be heated for noodles, etc.

Pork and Napa Cabbage Dumplings

(adapted from Asian Dumplings by Andrea Nguyen)

Ingredients

  • 1 package round gyoza wrappers

Filling

  • 2 cups lightly packed finely chopped napa cabbage
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp shredded ginger
  • ¼ cup chopped scallions, white and green parts
  • 2/3 lb ground pork
  • 1/8 tsp pepper
  • ¼ cup chicken stock
  • 1 ½ tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
  • 1 tbsp canola oil
  • 1 ½ tbsp sesame oil

Put the cabbage in a bowl and toss with the salt.  Set aside for about 15 minutes to draw excess moisture from the cabbage.  Drain in a mesh strainer, flush with water, and drain again.  Squeeze cabbage in your hands over sink to remove more moisture.

In a skillet over medium heat, brown the ground pork, breaking into small pieces.  Drain fat, and add pork to cabbage in a large bowl, along with all other ingredients.  Stir together.  Cover and set aside for at least 30 minutes.  Filling can be made 1 day ahead and refrigerated.

To make basic dumplings: Place 1 tsp filling in the center of a gyoza skin.  Dip finger in water and run it around the edge of the skin.  Fold in half, to make a half moon shape.  Pinch edges together to close.

Steam dumplings in a bamboo or metal steamer over boiling water, for 8-10 minutes, or until translucent.  Serve with dipping sauce.

Korean Dipping Sauce

  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 3 tbsp unseasoned rice vinegar
  • 2 tbsp water
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp finely shredded ginger
  • 2 tsp minced garlic
  • 1 small scallion, thinly sliced
  • 1 tsp sesame seeds

In a small bowl, combine all ingredients.  Set aside for at least an hour to allow flavor to develop.

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Photo by Christine Rand

From Hawaii, Sweet Hawaii

Photo by Christine Rand

Our week in Kona is flying by all too quickly.  I want to stretch out the days like taffy, savoring every sweet, warm, barefoot moment.

We haven’t been too ambitious.  I can appreciate a vigorous, action-packed vacation, but this is definitely not that sort.

However, between lazing around on the patio or the couch, in the bar, and by the pool, we have found time for a few excursions.  We did go parasailing, something I have long wanted to do. And I made a trip into town with Michael’s mother and sister, to the farmer’s market in Kailua-Kona.

I love farmer’s markets.  At home, I do the rounds of my regular egg, meat, and cheese vendors, then wander around making impulse buys of fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, and flowers.  In Seattle, we’re just finishing up plum season, and the market is full of apples.

At the Kailua-Kona farmer’s market,  there were no animal products to be found.  But the profusion of tropical fruits, vegetables, and flowers were stunning.  There was a garden of eden quality to all of this lush ripeness.

At home, I would be bundled up in a sweater or maybe even a raincoat, as I move from one individual stall to the next.  Here, shorts and flip flops are de rigueur , and all of the vendors are clustered under a big series of tents, circus-style, to shield their wares from the sun.

But farmer’s markets are the same everywhere in that the vendors are proud of their produce, ready to chat and offer advice and samples.  I quickly filled my bag with vegetables.  The fruit vendor sold me some starfruit, then threw in a handful of rambutan for good measure.

The Akaka Falls Farms man lured us in, like the proverbial flies to the honey pot.  He offered so many samples of local jams and honeys that my taste buds nearly went on strike.  I came away with a jar of Tahitian Lime Ginger Jelly, while Christine and Elaine bought approximately a quadrillion jars of various jellies and exotic honey between them.

Stir fry is one of the key dishes in my repertoire.  At least once a week, I like to mix up whatever combination of vegetables, protein, and grains happen to be on hand.   With the booty from the farmer’s market, Michael and I whipped up a sweet, savory shrimp stir fry, Kona-style.

Kona Stir Fry

(serves 4-6)

  • 25 medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • ½ tsp butter or oil
  • 8-10 mushrooms, quartered
  • ½ cup chopped red onion
  • 1 medium zucchini, cut into ½ inch rounds
  • 1 each: red, yellow, and orange bell peppers, cut into bite-sized chunks
  • ½ cup Tahitian Lime Ginger Jelly
  • 1.5 cups quinoa

Bring three cups water to a boil.  Add quinoa, reduce heat, and simmer for 10 minutes.  Or cook in rice cooker.

Meanwhile, sauté shrimp in a large saucepan or skillet over low heat.  Remove from heat and cover when the shrimp look nearly, but not quite done.  They should still be translucent in places.

Over high heat, Saute vegetables in batches to avoid overcrowding, starting with the mushrooms.  Add a splash of water if needed while cooking, to keep vegetables from burning.  As each batch of vegetables becomes crisp-tender, transfer them to the covered skillet with the shrimp.  Finish with the peppers, to prevent them from overcooking.  Toss the shrimp-vegetable mixture with lime ginger jelly and serve over quinoa.

*****

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2010 Hawaii Hula Dancers 6

Kona Pow!

We’re sitting in the lukewarm hot tub, talking with a couple from South Carolina.  They find Hawaii cold, it seems.  I let Michael carry the conversational ball while I tilt my head back and gaze up at the evening sky.  I watch a few wispy clouds scud by, then my attention drifts to the palm trees, waving in the breeze like upended feather dusters.  A flock of birds call out from the bushes.  The perfume from the hibiscus flowers is heavy and sweet.  My feet float on the tickly bubbles, and my thoughts float randomly here and there as well.

It has been a good day.  Breakfast on the patio, a run along the immaculately landscaped Waikoloa Beach Drive, a few trips to the pool.  Most importantly, I have no responsibilities, nowhere urgent to be, and nothing that demands my immediate attention.  Maybe later in the week we’ll get to the beach, and I want to try parasailing.  This is the life, I think.   Kona is surely paradise.

I am recalled from my reverie by Michael’s dad, who is waving his arm in a welcoming, gathering-the-flock sort of gesture as he walks by.  “Sun’s over the yard-arm!”  he says, striding toward a little footbridge over a waterfall, which is a shortcut back to the condo.  “Cocktail hour!  Who wants a cocktail?”

Michael’s sister and mother emerge from deck chair and pool respectively, gathering their belongings.  We stand up, dripping, and bid farewell to the South Carolinians.  Then all of us follow in Bill’s wake, as if drawn by the pied piper.

After showering and changing, we gather on the patio.  Michael’s sister serves us a cocktail of her own invention.  Made of Ciroc Red Berry, a flavored vodka, mixed with 7-Up and Pom Wonderful Pomegranate Blackberry Juice, it is crisp, refreshing, and utterly drinkable.  Who knew that among her talents, Christine is a drink inventing prodigy?  We brainstorm names for this new concoction, temporarily settling on the title Kona Pow! with the exclamation point emphasized.

And don’t think that a tall, icy Kona Pow! would only taste good in Hawaii at this time of year, when fall is closing its chilly grip on the mainland.  A Kona Pow! would be just as satisfying as a pre-dinner cocktail in a warm, firelit living room as it is on a patio next to the golf course.

Kona Pow!

Mix equal parts of:

  • Ciroc Red Berry Vodka
  • Pom Wonderful Pomegranate Blackberry Juice
  • 7-Up

Serve over ice in a tall glass with a lime wedge.

Have a suggestion for the official name of the drink currently known as the Kona Pow! ?  I’d love to hear from you.  Leave it in comments!


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Pod People

Oh, that mushroom guy!  I can’t turn away from his siren song.  Once again, I was walking by his stall at the farmer’s market, minding my own business, intent only on buying a carton of eggs, when I heard him instructing a customer to tear up their mushrooms rather than cutting them, because the uneven edges will produce a more satisfying texture when cooked.

Huh? I swiveled in his direction to listen to the rest of the conversation.  And there, on his table, were containers of completely new mushrooms–ones I’d never seen before.

White fringy pom-pom sort of things, like those fuzzy balls on the back of sports socks back in grade school, but about the size of my fist.

“People say they taste like lobster,” he went on.

I moved in for a closer inspection.  The mushroom guy smiled, his freckle-face as open and friendly as a grown-up boy scout.  “They’re called Lion’s Mane Mushrooms,” he said.

There’s just something about this mushroom vendor and his wares that I cannot resist.  Yes, I love mushrooms.  But it’s more than that.  It’s his earnest, wholesome appearance, like an enterprising young fellow from a 1950’s movie–one who grows mushrooms, sells newspapers, and mows lawns to put himself through college.  It’s also the mild frisson of  science fiction-fueled suspicion that any young man selling weird-looking mushrooms might, just might, be inadvertently working for the alien pod people.  You know, to spread their spores?

Well, if you read old-school sci-fi, you know.   I feel a little shiver of delighted, hopeful fear every time I approach that table.

Anyway, the combination is irresistible.  I came away with a paper bag full of Lion’s Mane mushrooms.

After rinsing them and tearing them up as per instructions, I sautéed the mushrooms in butter and garlic, then liberally salted and peppered.  They had a pleasant, bland flavor, which accepts seasoning well.  While their flavor is not particularly reminiscent of seafood, the texture of the cooked mushrooms is very much like lobster—firm and dense.  Next time, I’d like to sauté them in olive oil and white wine, with a bit of garlic and chili powder.

If you see Lion’s Mane mushrooms for sale in your grocery store or farmer’s market, give them a try.  The risk of colonization by the pod people is relatively low.

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