Thursday, May 27, 2010

Rocking the salad roll.

Orchid salad rolls
I wouldn't say I had a complete breakdown on Tuesday, but I wasn't far off. Thankfully I was alone when -- a mere two hours into what I'm calling Project Salad Roll -- I muttered aloud: What the hell was I thinking? An hour later, it slipped out again. Several times. To no one in particular. Then, half an hour after that, as I was bagging up five little boxes each containing five bundles of shrimp, slaw and vermicelli, I burst: These fuckers better be worth it. Forgive me, but I'd invested nearly four hours on what I thought would be a quick snack.

When I arrived at my friend's house a bit later, I was thrilled (nay, relieved) that they still looked good. Sure, they weren't nearly as pretty as the salad rolls I've had in restaurants, and some of them were sporting holes and leaking a bit, but they tasted good. I knew this for a fact because for every half dozen I managed to wrap semi-correctly, I botched at least one, which of course had to be eaten. I thought it a miracle I actually wanted to eat more of them, but I did. They were that good: the gelatinous chew of the vermicelli next to the crunch of the julienned cucumbers; the salty meat of the shrimp dotted with a brilliantly fragrant red cabbage and carrot slaw.

True to my spirit, I'd gone rogue in my planning; what was intended to be a buffet of individually julienned vegetables, turned into a slaw that stole the show. To the cabbage and carrots, I added basil, lovage and raw shallot. At the last minute, there was some raw ginger and lime juice, rice vinegar and sesame oil. Was it too much? Had my delicate dish been compromised?

Carrying the plate from the kitchen to my friends outside, my emotions were akin to a child's on the first day of school. I was excited and a bit nervous, scared of rejection and fearful that everyone but me would be allergic to shellfish. Did I imagine the "oohs" and "aahs" as I lowered the platter to the table? My friends aren't the kind who blow smoke, of that I am certain. So when they said they were good, I believed them. When they went back for seconds, I sighed. And when one friend exclaimed excitedly that my salad rolls looked like orchids, my heart swelled. The hours spent crouched on a step stool next to my kitchen table -- bowls of warm water on both sides, scads of ingredients all around -- did not fade from memory, but almost turned fond.

Yeah, the fuckers were worth it, all right.


You'll forgive me further, I hope, for not sharing the complete salad roll recipe, because there really isn't one to share. Buy a bag of rice papers, some shrimp and vermicelli, channel some patience and experiment like mad. Some tips I found useful:

-- Be sure to soak rice papers in warm warm water. You should be able to touch it, but the water shouldn't be too cool. Change water frequently, if necessary.

-- Compose rolls themselves on the glass plate. Wet rice papers stick to cutting boards.

-- Have a spray bottle of water on hand. Composed rolls should remain damp. I misted mine, then wrapped them in plastic wrap.

-- Relax. You're going to make mistakes. That just means more chances to sample the goods!

If you feel inclined to give salad rolls a go, try using this slaw. It's an attractive and interesting way to compose an otherwise orderly dish. Besides, it makes your prep work a whole lot easier. Salad rolls, I now know, aren't meant to be easy. But no one ever said pleasure was painless.

Asian-style slaw for salad rolls


1 small head red cabbage
5 small carrots, peeled
1 1" piece of raw ginger, peeled
1 small shallot
1/2 cup basil
1/2 cup lovage
1/2 tablespoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
Juice of 1 lime
Sea salt, to taste

Using a food processor (or mandolin, or your own little hands), shred cabbage, carrots, ginger, shallot, basil and lovage.

Whisk together sesame oil, vinegar and lime juice.

In a large bowl, mix vegetables and dressing. It will be fairly dry, that's OK. The vegetables will sweat some.

Salt to taste.

Will make roughly 30 small salad rolls, or individually serve 6-8 people.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Everything but the kitchen sink.

Table detail @ Roberta's
Maine-style lobster roll
I've had a lively run, as of late. I'm not sure whether I should credit the season and the inevitable heart-breakingly beautiful produce it brings, or simply the season itself: warm enough to drive us to seek lush outdoor spaces in which to drink rosé and casually enjoy fingers full of baby greens, shared pizza pies at Roberta's and the first of the year's barbecues. Over the weekend, there were long walks and "Maine-style" lobster rolls (chilled lobster tossed in mayonnaise, versus the "Connecticut-style" of warm lobster drenched in melted butter). And Monday, after an epic bike ride around Brooklyn, I indulged in a truly seasonal feast: the rarest of lamb chops, rubbed with a little extra-virgin olive oil, a sprinkle of sea salt and black pepper, an inspired dash of cumin; minted quinoa with seared shallots; roasted artichoke hearts; and show-stealing spring asparagus. After that, we ate cheese. My friend and I dined picnic-style on the living room rug, sipping wine from tiny glasses while resting our heads on the seat of the couch, faces leaned to the evening breeze creeping in through the open window, the gauzy curtain generously giving way for our enjoyment.

Of course, I don't eat like this all the time. A typical week consists of a handful of truly indulgent meals, punctuated by seemingly austere ones. Breakfast is usually a smoothie or oatmeal with several cups of black tea, and lunch is almost always quinoa salad. I eat so much of the stuff I sometimes feel like it's all I talk about. Anyone who keeps up with me on Twitter knows that this grain is a staple, but I have yet to spend a lot of time here addressing what exactly I do with it. Sure, quinoa is fine on it's own, made sweet with a little milk and honey, or savory with finely chopped fresh herbs, olive oil and salt. But it's easy to make it into something a whole lot more. On a recent afternoon, I took my love of this complete protein to another level when I created a complete meal with it, a salad I fittingly deemed [gentrified] "Brooklyn" through and through.

"Italian" salad ingredient detail

I tweeted excitedly: "Eating a seriously rad 'Brooklyn' salad: red quinoa/roasted peppers/pickles/sausage tossed w/ ramp pesto/lemon/evoo. I feel triumphant." And I did. So triumphant, in fact, that I've recreated the flavor combination several times. The sausage -- be it real or the imitation kind -- with the pickles and roasted peppers evoke the satisfaction of a sandwich at a street fair, but the soft bits of quinoa and nibbles of crunchy carrot and celery scream healthy salad all the way. The best of both worlds? I added some chia seeds for health and texture, and seasoned it all to taste with fresh lemon, the hot oil from the sausage drippings and the last of my ramp pesto. Variations on this salad abound, and I encourage you to try your own and let me know the results.

"Italian" quinoa salad detail

Quinoa salad :: BK style


1/2 cup dry quinoa, cooked and cooled
1 large carrot, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 large roasted red pepper, chopped
1-2 tablespoons dry chia seed (optional)
2 tablespoons pesto, any variety
1-2 links Italian sausage, real or imitation, sliced into bite-sized pieces
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Sea salt, to taste

In a medium-sized skillet, heat extra-virgin olive oil over medium heat, add sausage and a pinch of salt. Cook until skins brown and juices start to release (4 to 6 minutes).

In large bowl, combine quinoa, carrots, celery, roasted peppers, pesto and chia seeds, mix well. Stir in hot sausage, any remaining oil and lemon juice.

Salt to taste.

Serve as is, or over a bed of leafy greens.

Serves 2-3.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Kind and simple.

Tea towel and jam lid
I know it's not very modern to admit this, but saving time isn't high on my list of priorities. Sure, I respect efficiency, but I'm a fan of putzing and sleeping, in no particular order. I like to linger (over meals, in museums, on a wooded trail), and I believe strongly in the productivity that results from letting our minds wander. I harbor ill feelings toward Racheal Ray not because she's annoyingly chatty and peppy, but because I don't believe in measuring life, especially my food life, in 30-minute intervals. I remember falling prey to her mantra in my early-20s; she made cooking look fast and simple. The only problem was, I didn't want to rush. As I learned to cook, I discovered how much I enjoy spending a leisurely afternoon at the market and in the kitchen, chopping, simmering, smelling and finally eating. Making meals from scratch sounds old-fashioned, but it's immensely satisfying and -- I think -- better for our health. Making the kinds of meals I enjoy eating takes time, and that time -- for me -- is always well-spent.

That all said, I gotta to tell you: what attracted me to this cookie recipe was it's promise of ease. The first time I made them, I had a craving for something sweet, but I was short on time and ingredients. Luckily, the seven called for are house-hold staples. So, I whipped up and baker's dozen in less than 10 minutes, and made a pot of coffee while they baked. Fifteen minutes later, I had a warm cookie in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. It was the perfect little treat, not too sweet (the only sugar used is in the jam) and not at all unhealthy. That first batch was gone in less than two days, and since then these cookies have been appearing on our table frequently. They also slip nicely into a coat pocket or purse, should you want to get lost for a while.

Thumbprint cookies

S.H.E. (simple, healthy and easy) thumbprint cookies
Adapted from The Kind Life


1 cup raw almonds
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup spelt flour

1/2 cup grape seed oil
1/4 cup maple syrup

1/4 cup molasses
Jam of your choice

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.

In a food processor, blend almonds and oats until they have the consistency of flour. Transfer to a large bowl, and mix in spelt flour.

In a separate bowl, whisk together grape seed oil, maple syrup and molasses.

Combine wet and dry ingredients. Mix well.

Wet hands and form batter into balls approximately 1-inch in diameter. Using your thumb, press each ball into the cookie sheet, forming an indentation on each top. Fill each cookie with a small spoonful of jam.

Bake for 15 minutes.

Cool and enjoy.

Makes 13-15 cookies.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Localized pleasures.

Earlier this week, I did the unthinkable: I made a breakfast smoothie. I know that doesn't sound too radical, but for a girl who once claimed to not believe in liquid food, trust me: it was a very big deal. I once broke up with a guy because his daily pilgrimage to Jamba Juice upset me so much. And to this day, I defend my reasoning: you can't fall in love over juice. Love is meant to happen over croissants and soft-scrambled eggs, omelettes oozing with goat cheese and herbs, pancakes. Not a styrofoam cup full of soy protein and wheat germ. That stuff, while good for you, is best consumed away from those you hope to be romantic with.

My housemates frequently make smoothies, and typically I haughtily turn my nose up at their offers to share. I struggle with their consumption of so much non-local produce. I'm paralyzed by the number of plastic bags of frozen berries they go through. In the height of summer, our garbage smells like a Caribbean beach after a bonfire: moist and sweet and slightly rotten. It's understandable, then, that my craving the other morning for a banana and wild blueberry smoothie, thickened with coconut oil, flax seed and Greek yogurt, caught me off guard. What made me do it? I suppose the same thing that drives a lot of people to opt for lighter meals: heat and health. It was warm -- uncharacteristically so -- for a spring morning, I was out of eggs and I'm making an effort to eat more fruit (vegetables are never a problem for me, but fruit is, especially in these painful pre-summer months of yearning for ripe local berries, peaches and anything -- God, help me -- other than an apple).

Blob of ramp pesto

Now, here's another confession: that smoothie was delicious: cool and juicy, nutty from the flax seed and tangy from the yogurt. I've made one daily for the past several days, and I've taken to enjoying a little experimentation. One day I used almond milk, another I skipped the coconut oil and used coconut water instead. I've tried yogurts of different consistencies. And they were all fantastic. The best part, though, is I'm developing a more realistic relationship to my food sources. Sure, oranges taste better picked from my mother's backyard in California, but not eating fruit is not really an option for me in terms of my health. Of course, whether I consume non-local or local fruit, I choose organic whenever possible.

Pappardelle w/ ramp pesto

It was in the midst of this non-local fruit affair that I remembered my last bunch of ramps resting in the refrigerator. Immediately, I felt guilty, as if I'd written off all the gorgeous greens from this week's green market in favor of the dazzling violet of non-native crushed berries. The ramps had to be eaten, and soon, as I'd already had them for days and well, it was time. I knew I wanted to make a pesto; it was the vehicle for the pesto I struggled with, since, as I mentioned earlier, I'm making an effort to eat a bit healthier (i.e., less butter, white flour, refined sugar, etc.). I had a bunch of kale and I was craving protein, but I felt tired of quinoa. In the cupboard was a can of chickpeas, which I opened and rinsed. Setting them aside, I set some water to boil for a little pappardelle (I know, not healthy at all, but it was perfect for my plan). While I waited for the water to boil and my pasta to cook, I chopped half a bunch of washed and dried raw kale. Lastly, in the food processor, I made the pesto below. Dinner took less than 20 minutes, but lingered -- thanks to the pungent flavor of the ramps -- much longer. It was light but filling, healthy save the pasta, vegan and utterly satisfying. Would you believe me if I told you I'd have eaten it for breakfast? That is, had there been leftovers, and my smoothie wasn't calling my name.

Ramp pesto


1 bunch ramps -- bulbs and stems, washed, trimmed and cut into 1/2" segments
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Parmesan, to taste (optional)
Sea salt, to taste

In a food processor, combine ramps, a pinch of sea salt, pine nuts and 1/8 cup of olive oil. Blend.

Transfer mixture to a bowl. Stir in additional olive oil, Parmesan and salt to desired consistency and taste.

Serve with pasta, on bruschetta or as a starter for salad dressing.

Yields approximately 1 cup of pesto.