Thursday, June 19, 2008

Nime Chow

Making nime chow (or goi cuon or vietnamese spring rolls) is only worth doing if you have a good reason. They require a certain amount of fiddly knife work, a wrapping technique that takes practice, and last minute assembly. That said, they're superdelicious, healthy, festive, good finger food, cheap, and most of the prep work can be done ahead of time. So I'm not trying to convince anyone to make them, but if you do, here's a recipe that worked well.

Makes 15 rolls and plenty of dipping sauce

3 carrots
1 english cucumber
15 rice paper wrappers (banh trang)
1 block firm tofu
thin rice noodles
salt and pepper
15 large basil leaves
30 mint leaves

sauce (nuoc cham):
juice of 2 limes (makes one part)
one part sugar
one part fish sauce
two parts water
2 cloves garlic, minced
chili sauce to taste

Cut carrots and cucumber into 4 or 5 inch long matchsticks.
Cook rice noodles in boiling water until tender, then rinse in cold water.
Measure the juice you get out of the two limes, and then make sauce.
Mix the sugar, water and fish sauce. Heat it to dissolve sugar.
Cool the sugary mixture, then add the lime juice, garlic, and chili sauce.
Squeeze and blot the tofu to get rid of some extra moisture.
Cut it into three flat slabs, then each slab into 5 long bars.
Mix cornstarch with salt and pepper, then dredge the tofu bars in it.
Fry the tofu in a well-oiled non-stick pan until crisp and golden brown.
Set up your work area: carrot, cuke, mint, basil, noodles, and tofu.
Dip one rice paper wrapper in hot water.
Lay the wrapper on a clean tea towel.
Lay one basil leaf and two mint leaves in the middle of the wrapper.
Pile some carrot, cucumber, noodles, and one tofu bar on the leaves.
Wrap like a burrito.
Once you've made all 15, you will have worked out your rice paper technique.
Next time will be easier. Here's some more info.

Substitute cooked shrimp (or other tasty protein) for the fried tofu.
Substitute bean sprouts or iceberg (or other crunchy veg) for the carrot or cuke.
For strict vegetarians, use soy sauce instead of fish sauce.
Skip the rice paper all together, and have a pretty little cold noodle salad.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Fish Tacos

I'm don't have a lot of affection for Martha Stewart. This is not a high-toned feminist or post-feminist position, I just feel like she manages to un-fun a lot of pretty fun stuff: making things, messing around in the garden, and cooking delicious food: all things that are best enjoyed with an experimental attitude and a sense of adventure. Instead, she tends to present The One Way to do things, and emphasizes the product over the process. I find this kind of annoying, but it's probably why I like her food magazine, Everyday Food, when I just want something reliable yet new to make for dinner. In those recipes, the process has been worked out, the product is predictable, and you don't have to do a lot of experimenting. That said, I've probably never been able to truly follow a recipe in my life, so here is the Everyday Food recipe for fish tacos, as altered and rearranged in our kitchen yesterday.

Makes 12 small tacos to serve 4 people.

3 cups finely shredded red cabbage (about a quarter of a cabbage)
1 cup finely sliced scallions
1 jalapeno, minced (de-ribbed and de-seeded if you like)

juice of one lime
zest of that lime
1/4 cup sour cream

1 lb tilapia (or other mild white fish)

12 corn tortillas

Mix the lime juice, lime zest, and sour cream. Salt generously to taste. Mix the cabbage, scallions, and jalapeno with half the sauce and set aside. Save the other half of the sauce for serving. This slaw can be made the day before.

When you're almost ready to eat, cook the fish. I followed the recipe (really!) and fried it in a hot pan in a little oil, but it stuck to the pan, fell apart, and didn't get particularly brown. Despite its inauspicious appearance, it didn't seem to matter to the deliciousness of the end product, so if you have a preferred method of getting fish from raw to cooked, do it now.

As the fish is cooking, heat the tortillas until they're soft and warm. Wrap or cover them to keep them from drying out and cooling off.

To assemble, pile some slaw, some fish, and a drizzle of sauce onto a warm tortilla. Fold in half and eat while dripping pink spots onto your plate.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Easy Spring Pasta

This is easy food. Easy in the shopping, easy in the cooking and easy in the eating, which, as we approach Cooking With Infants time, seems even more important than usual. But this one's actually fairly healthy, tasty and cheap too. Win win win win. Serves two or two and a half.

nine ounces cheese tortellini (fresh-ish, from the refrigerated section)
ten ounces frozen peas (get the good tiny sweet kind—not the giant starchy ones)
1/2 cup chopped ham (or more)
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint (or more)
4 cloves garlic, chopped
grated parmigiano

Cook the tortellini like the package tells you to.
Saute the garlic and ham until the garlic softens and smells good.
Add the frozen peas to the ham and garlic and cook, covered, until peas are hot.
Combine the tortellini, ham mixture, ground pepper, and a big pat of butter.
Add mint and a generous amount of cheese to each serving.

The first time I made this, I used orrechiette and prosciutto instead of tortellini and ham, and it was good too, and more sophisticated-seeming. To make sure the end result wasn't too dry, I tried a flashy new move (new to me, anyway):
Cook the pasta in well-salted water. Save a half cup of the liquid, and drain the pasta before it's quite done. Dump the pasta back into the hot pot, turn the heat to medium, and add the saved water, a bunch of grated parmigiano, tons of ground pepper, and a big hunk of butter. Stir energetically. The starchy, salty water will mix with the cheese and butter, making a flavorful, emulsified juice. The pasta absorbs enough liquid from the sauce that it finishes cooking in a few minutes. Once the pasta's done, add the (still warm) prosciutto and peas. The sauce will lightly coat everything, distribute the flavors, and keep the whole thing from being dry and gummy. So, a good technique if you have the time and inclination, but eminently skippable if you just use cheese tortellini and some butter.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Month Eight: Part Two

It's been hot here lately, and I've been very pregnant. These two factors combine to create a serious gap in my wardrobe. I tried my best to solve this the American way, by shopping my way to a solution, but some moron seems to have convinced the producers of maternity clothing that pregnant women want to wear nothing but clingy polyester dresses when it's ninety-five degrees outside. Well, maybe all the air-conditioned pregnant women like synthetics, but I have a different idea of what I want to wear. Which is: nothing. This weather calls for complete nudity and an icy glass of lemonade. But fear not. I like my neighborhood, and I think they might throw me out if I start waltzing around in the (massive) altogether. So I was shopping for, and not finding, thin cotton dresses. Dresses that would be both wispy and tent-like. Both huge and weightless. Think "gossamuumuu." But no dice. The marketplace failed me, which is how I found myself sweating onto my sewing machine earlier this week, making my own damn dress, and inadvertently learning things:

-The light on the sewing machine throws off an impressive amount of heat, like a little brunch-buffet heat lamp for the prime rib that is your fingers.

-When it's this hot, and one is this pregnant, every ten minutes sitting at a humming sewing machine needs to be balanced out by fifteen minutes of lying motionless right in front of the fan.

-When you're this sweaty, lying motionless in front of the fan is remarkably cooling. Hooray for physics! Or is that hydraulics? Whatever it is, it's a very refreshing demonstration.

-Working for ten minutes and resting for fifteen minutes is actually a very effective way of avoiding stupid mistakes when you're liable to cut corners and be slapdash. Many dumb decisions were avoided at the last minute by the Smart Brain having a chance to catch up to the Lazy Brain and overrule its plans.

-As soon as you finish the Breeziest Garment Ever Conceived, the weather will break and your other clothes will suddenly seem reasonable again.

-If there's not another brutal heat wave this summer, I'll be delighted. If there is, I'll be prepared.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Month Eight: Part One: Best Use of iPhone Yet

If you ever find yourself due to have a baby in late July, here are the cons:
-the first heat wave will turn you into Jabba the Hutt, but sweatier.
-at the first barbecue of the season, it will be impossible not to notice the resemblance between your fingers and your hot dog.
-the onset of prime dumpster-diving season (late sunsets, no more cold drizzle) will coincide with your passage from the Pregnant But Limber phase to the Downright Ungainly phase.
-you will be too ungainly, swollen, and sweaty to make the 500-mile trip to The Wedding Of The Year

And the pros:
-just as you grow out of your winter coat, it'll be warm enough not to need it.
-just as putting on socks becomes a real trial, it'll be sandal weather.
-just as it's warm enough to wear skirts without tights, that's all you'll be able to wear.
-your dad will take pity on your delicate and ungainly condition and live-blog the WOTY for you.