Saturday, April 27, 2013

Don't Be Afraid of Goi Cuon: Vietnamese Salad Rolls Demystified

You've probably either had these lovely delicacies or at least seen them—translucent-skinned salad roll-ups with shrimp, sprouts, and who-knows-what-else, served at Vietnamese restaurants. They look too cool for words and have a subtlety that is jazzed up by dipping them into some kind of mystery Vietnamese dipping sauce.
Do not be afraid—you can make these bad boys at home. My four-year-old made one herself (with only a little help from the grown-ups). My suggestion is to array the fillings of choice on a platter, have a big bowl of warm water for dipping the rice-paper wrappers in, and maybe a couple of choices of dipping sauces. So fun for guests to pile their own toppings on the rice paper (look for rice paper wrappers [Bahn Trang] at Asian stores or buy online), roll up, and dip. I'm all about participatory eating: Shabu-shabu, Peking Duck, Fondue, Make-your-own-tacos—you name it. If you help create it, somehow, food tastes even better.

So here's a quick-and-dirty how-to for building a Gui Cuon, Vietnamese Salad Rolls (or Spring Rolls) meal:

Potential Filling Ingredients
Choose the ones you like or have handy, but at least have cucumbers, sprouts, and noodles.
  • Fried tofu strips
  • Cilantro
  • Thai basil
  • Mint leaves
  • Shiso leaves
  • Mung bean sprouts
  • Carrots, julienned
  • Cucumber, julienned
  • Rice noodles or bean thread noodles (I prefer bean thread because you are already eating rice with the rice paper wrappers), soaked in hot water until soft for 10 to 15 minutes and then drained
  • Sirloin strips, marinated in lemongrass/garlic/fish sauce/sugar marinade, and grilled
  • Shrimp, deveined, butterflied, cooked
Dipping Sauces

Friday, April 19, 2013

Make Your Own Taco Seasoning or Mexican Red Sauce the Easy Way

A couple of things I know for sure and that is that Mexican home cooks do not keep little containers around their kitchen labeled "Taco Seasoning" or "Chili Powder." Same for Indian home cooks and "Curry Powder." They just don't. Both of those are gringo (or gora) interpretations and simplifications (if not perversions) of Mexican and Indian flavors. But if you are one of those people--like me--who doesn't use garlic powder when there is perfectly good fresh garlic just sitting there waiting to be crushed, then read on.

I started learning how to make the Mexican flavor after I noticed, years ago, that the ingredients in any jar of chili powder are basically, dried ground chilies, salt, garlic, oregano, and cumin. Those are items I have in the pantry, so why pay for some dinky and even expensive packet that serves one or two meals and contains a ton of salt? It makes no sense. Also, I have a treasured copy of a 1970s Sunset cookbook called, Mexican Cooking to give me guidance. And it contains non-gringo-fied authentic recipes that contain actual lard (YUM!) and other mainstays of made-from-scratch Mexican cookery. The Sunset recipe for taco meat is that you first make red sauce. Surprise! If you learn to make red sauce you will not only be able to make the sauce that goes on enchiladas (and that tortillas are dipped in for enchiladas), but you will also be able to whip up tacos-any-flavor, using your preferred meat or fish (or vegetarian equivalent--tempeh tacos, anyone?)

The old-fashioned and correct version is to start with those lovely dried chilies you see in the Mexican section of grocery stores. They could be anchos, pasilla, or California chiles. You toast the dried chiles in the oven, remove, cool, rip out the seeds, soak in water, and then blend. But I am lazy and if it requires going through that dried-to-pureed chili cha-cha, I just won't make tacos or red sauce very often. Here's my lazy cheater's version that still tastes authentico and you probably have the ingredients lying around anyway.

  • Olive oil
  • Fresh garlic, crushed
  • Paprika, smoked paprika, any kind of dried ground chili powder you have on hand (you can buy a variety in the Mexican section of most grocery stores for around $1 per packet--a common one is "Chile California Molido" in El Guapo brand)--any combination of mild ground chiles
  • Oregano--fresh if you have it, dried if not
  • Ground cumin
  • Tomato paste if you have it, if not, ketchup. Yes, ketchup--don't get all snooty on me.
  • Chicken stock (if you get a jar of Better Than Bouillon Chicken Stock on hand, it will last months in the refrigerator
  • Salt to taste
  • Corn starch with water to blend it

Start with olive oil in a frying pan. Add crushed garlic and saute quickly--do not allow to brown. Add any combination of mild ground chiles, as listed above. If paprika is all you have, use that. Be generous--you want it to be red colored. Add chicken stock, tomato paste, cumin, oregano, and stir to mix. Add a slurry of cornstarch and water (1 tablespoon cornstarch per cup of liquid). Stir quickly as it will thicken into a gravy. A Mexican gravy. Taste and adjust seasonings. How much you add of each is up to you. You should have a reddish, savory, just-salty-enough red sauce, also known as salsa de chile rojo.

Ready to convert this into taco seasoning? Add your raw beef, chicken, fish, tempeh, etc., and cook while stirring. That's it. Serve with Mexican trimmings and garnish with lime and cilantro.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Lazy Leftovers Reconfigured

Everyone has lazy days--or at least should to insure stress-reduction that can help us have a longer life. But on a lazy day or night, do you want to eat fast food or takeout? Or do you want to stay in and use what's already in the fridge and transform it into something yummy? Yes. Me too.

We all know the trick of leftover roast chicken one night becoming chicken soup the next day. The same goes for roast beef to beef vegetable soup. But what about risotto (or pilaf or jambalaya) one day into rice soup the next day (this is a great trick--the broth that is in the risotto makes the water into broth as it cooks!)? And what about leftover mashed potatoes or potatoes au gratin turning into potato soup the next day? (Add water, cook until it disintegrates, and then puree.)

Another lazy leftovers trick: Cube leftover meat or tofu you are feeling unenthusiastic about eating again. Cook rice and allow to cool. Toss in Mediterranean items to jazz it up (tomatoes, cukes, marinated artichokes, kalamata olives), as well as olive and red wine vinegar (or your favorite dressing). Form the rice into a mound, surround it by a moat of chopped lettuces, and top with sauteed chunks of the leftover meat. Serve with a smattering of cilantro. Okay--that's a tad less lazy than the others, but you didn't have to drive to the store. Use what you have on hand is my favorite lazy foodie manifesto.

What is your favorite lazy day leftover transformation? Send yours to and we will post them!