Friday, August 5, 2011

Quick Bites: Vietnamese (Vegetarian) Garden Rolls w/ Peanut Sauce + options

 These are quite often staples at Vietnamese restaurants.  They offer a really healthy alternative to the oil-fried spring rolls and are a great way to serve basically what amounts to a salad.   These are great little appetizers to make up for yourself or for family/guests and take no time at all.  And, while I made these vegetarian, they don't have to be at all.  Quite often, they are made with shrimp and a small strip of pork.  I also made this with a peanut sauce, but I've included 2 different recipes below.  The first is a peanut/hoisin sauce, great for the vegetarian option.  The second is a spicy fish sauce, great for the shrimp.

  The first step is securing yourself some wrappers.  These are basically rice wrappers which are dry and come in a plastic package like this one below (I use these).  You can find these at most any Asian market like H-Mart. 

Rice roll wrappers

Ingredients - What I used:

Iceberg Lettuce, julienned
Carrots, shredded
Spring Onions (green parts, whole length of wrapper)
Fresh Cilantro
Bean Sprouts
Sugar Snap Peas

Additional Ingredients as desired:

Cucumber, thin and cut to length of wrapper (Seedless cucumbers work best)
Fresh Thai Basil (great with shrimp)
Cooked Rice Vermicelli
Fresh Mint
Shrimp, pre-cooked
Pork, sliced into strips and pre-cooked


 Take one roll at a time and dip it into a wide, flat bottom bowl of warm water.  Do this until it starts to become soft and pliable.  It will continue to soften as you go, so don't over do it.  Otherwise, it's like working with Saran wrap which has stuck together.  I threw out my first 2 when they glued to each other and became a rice ball.  Take it out, put it on a flat plate and begin adding your filling in a line from left to right in the middle.  Generally, you fill the most with the lettuce and the vermicelli (if used).  The rest of the items are used sparingly for a little flavor and color, since the wraps are translucent.  Since these are wraps, though, you can put in however much you want and in whatever quantities.  Rememeber, though, these wraps can be very delicate as they soften.  So, don't try to turn these into a Chipotle burrito.

 (Skip this if you're good with wrapping technique)
 Once you are done with your filling, take the edge closest to you and wrap it over top the filling, much like wrapping a present when you're just starting.  Take the two ends and fold them inward rather tightly.  With a hand on either end, hold the ends in while slowly rolling the wrap toward the rest of the wrapper.  Since these wraps are sticky, try to make it as tight as possible without tearing it.  You won't have a chance to really un-do it if you mess up since it pretty much glues itself together.

 When you're done, slice it in half and serve with either sauce below:

Peanut/Hoisin Sauce:

1 part chunky peanut butter
2 parts hoisin sauce
Crushed peanuts

Whisk together the hoisin sauce and the peanut butter.  Add a little water to thin out the mixture to your desired consistency.  Let stand for 10 minutes to blend flavors.  Top with crushed peanuts to serve.

Spicy Fish Sauce:
4 teaspoons fish sauce
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon white sugar (or as desired)
Garlic chili sauce (or Sriracha), to taste

 Whisk all ingredients, let stand for 10 minutes to blend the flavors.

The finished product with peanut sauce

Friday, June 24, 2011

Ingredients: Penzeys Spices

Cooking is all about the right ingredients.  For years, I figured everything was pretty decent and never really looked into the better, pricier, fresher items.  But, once I started growing my own herbs and spices, I found that food took on a whole different meaning.

I'm very much a cook who uses fresh ingredients.  I try to find everything I can alive, fresh and if possible, from the source.  Food just "pops" then.  And for those of you who "eat just to survive", I can tell you I did the same thing for most of my life.  In fact, that's most of the food I grew up with.  I never invested much in eating, but really did enjoy cooking as a creative outlet.  But, in the past few years, I've figured out what it is that makes food wonderful, and for me that is freshness and quality.

Penzeys Spices was introduced to me many years ago by my sister-in-law.  I didn't have much need for it then but when I picked up a job in Maryland, I found a brick-and-mortar store right around the corner.  I went in to check it out and they had literally everything under the sun.  3 kinds of Paprika, 4 kinds of Cinnamon; rubs, mixes, stock bases and anything else you could name.  I found that sumac, which I always thought was poisonous when I was young, can be bought there and used on classic middle eastern breads and dishes.

To the right is a photo of what I picked up today.  Compare store bought (local Safeway) vs. Penzeys prices and quantity:

Mccormick Gourmet Paprika - 1.62 Oz  -  $6.89
Mccormick Gourmet Smoked Paprika Seasoning - 1.62 Oz - $7.25
Mccormick Gourmet Pepper Ground White - 1.75 Oz - $6.55
McCormick Gourmet Collection Fennel Seed - 1.5Oz - $4.99
Dried Chipotle Chiles -  Good luck

Hungarian Sweet Kulonleges Paprika 4 oz. bag - $4.69
Spanish Style Smoked Paprika 4 oz. bag - $4.99
Indonesian Fine Ground White Pepper 4 oz. bag - $4.69
Whole Red Chipotle Peppers 1 oz. bag - $4.99
Indian Fennel Seed 4 oz. bag - $2.55

If you look, you get roughly 2.5x the spices for almost $10 less (minus the Chipotle). The great thing about Penzeys is they are predominantly a mail-order company.  They now have quite a few B&M stores around the country but mostly they are online and through catalog.  And... they are very inexpensive!  But don't get fooled by the prices.  Their quality is absolutely some of the best you'll find.  Again, I'm a fresh herb/spice kinda guy.  But when I need something random, something out of season, quantity or which just isn't available fresh, I go there every time.  Some spices are only harvested once a year so you're really not going to find them "new and fresh".   They, by far, have the best Cinnamon.  Their stock bases are great because they last forever and add a lot of flavor which bullion cubes just can't match with their high salt content.  The fennel is very aromatic and is the only brand I'll use when I make my homemade sausage.   With chain grocery stores, you really can't guarantee how fresh they are.  They could be sitting there for months and months and the people who stock them probably don't rotate stock as often as they should. 

If you get a chance and have a store nearby, stop in.  They have all their items in jars so you can smell them and experience them first hand.  You can learn what they're all about too and probably learn about more herbs and spices than you ever thought were available.  I'd also recommend, if you're buying through the catalog or online, to go in with some friends.  The shipping sometimes can be pricy and for the volume, it is worth it to share across a group, since quite often you don't need 4-8oz of herbs and spices.  You can buy a lot and divide them among friends. 

Maybe on my move west, I'll stop by their place in Wisconsin and do another write-up about the company!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Cooking Experiment: Home Cured Pancetta - Part 2 - The recap and photos

A few weeks ago began the whole process of making home cured Pancetta.  Having never done this before, I had no expectations of success whatsoever and wasn't sure I'd walk away with anything useful. 3 weeks later and I have an extremely delicious slab of Pancetta, ready for cooking and further experimentation.  Below are some photos following the stages of its cure.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Cooking Experiment: Homemade (Italian) Sausage

  This one isn't an experiment for me, but considering most people don't make their own, I wanted to show how simple it can actually be.  Homemade sausage is something I vividly remember all through growing up in my family. My dad would make it from time to time, usually just grinding up some pork for a breakfast here and there or to make sausage for spaghetti or the summer. Italian sausage was the standard for my dad, but it was always the best.  My family was never a bunch of foodies growing up, and even to this day, only my oldest brother shares in the same cooking passions as I.   But, on a warm summer day, there was nothing like a fresh one you made that morning.  The flavor was just that much better.

70's yellow included in price
  Fast forward to a few years ago, when I got on the kick.  I started making it with my dad again and it was so much fun I decided I was going to head out on my own and begin my own home sausage empire.  Basically, that amounted to the fact that I wouldn't be stuck using his 40+ year old Oster, in off-yellow color.  (Which at the time was apparently an amazing deal.  Grinder, blender, mixer and vegetable slicing attachments for $129... and still works today!)