New Ideas for Dinner: Rice Wrappers

Our CSA shares are getting enormous.  The first few weeks of the season, we get a couple heads of lettuce, a variety of greens, like spinach and kale, and maybe a pint or two of strawberries.  But now, we leave with bags overflowing: napa cabbages, spring beets, kohlrabi, early cucumbers, garlic scapes, and early summer squash.  I love this bounty, but I also understand that it can be a little overwhelming for people who are accustomed to shopping in a supermarket and purchasing only the things with which they are familiar. New foods are scary.

New Foods

One bane of the parental existence is trying to get your children to try new foods.  We all succeed at some point or other, to some extent or other, otherwise we would have adults still drinking formula.  It’s like my pediatrician said about potty training, “Eventually they get it.  I have never had a patient go to college in diapers.”  We heavily influence our children’s eating based on our own preferences.  I worked with a woman years ago who was flabbergasted that my children ate fish.  She herself didn’t really like fish, didn’t serve it to her children, and so they grew up thinking that they didn’t like it.

Me?  I didn’t like beets or Brussel sprouts.  The beet thing didn’t bother me, but I always had this thing for Brussel sprouts – I desperately wanted to like them because they are so cute.  My husband made me roasted beets, and I love them.  Now I eat beets roasted, pickled, fermented, and raw.  Since then, I haven’t met a beet that I didn’t like.  The Brussel sprouts he made me were sautéed in bacon fat.  Bacon does make many things better, but it was the sauté, the caramelization, that made them so tasty, and now I love all kinds of brussel sprouts.  So, in my 30’s, I was still trying new foods.

In a weird way, once we are adults, we kind of retreat to toddlerhood when it comes to food.  We know what we like and then we don’t seem to stray from the course. We have a repertoire of dishes we make and we get into a rotation of those things.  Rarely do we venture out into new territory.  Ok, yes, the internet has a gazillion recipes that are available in a flash, but when people search recipes, they are searching for a way to prepare an ingredient with which they are familiar.  One of the beauties of CSA life, of Farmer’s Market life, is seeing new produce and learning what to do with it.

New Food May Mean New Cuisines

A key to meal and menu planning is to try and use ingredients that are in season at the time.  Right now, that means snow and snap peas, napa cabbage, spring onions, garlic scapes, kohlrabi, and early cucumbers.  The cuisines that come to mind for me are Asian.  This is the time of year for beef and snow peas, fermenting kimchee, and making roll-ups with rice paper wrappers.

At our house, we each make our own roll-ups at the table.  I put out a variety of fillings (recipes follow): sautéed napa cabbage, marinated cucumbers, sautéed shrimp; and a variety of raw veg: shredded carrots and kohlrabi, thinly sliced spring onions, snow peas (sometimes I steam these for about 1 minute), chopped cilantro, chopped Thai Basil* (or regular basil, if I can’t find Thai basil). I also add some fermented foods, like kim chee. Because everyone drips water all over the table, I usually put an old towel on the table.

To Make the Roll-ups:

Put a few of the stiff rice wrappers in a shallow pan of water that fits the entire wrapper.  We use a 9×13 pan.  After a couple of minutes, they soften.  Carefully remove the wrapper from the water, and put it on your plate.  Place the fillings of choice in the center of the wrapper, put the bottom of the wrapper up over the filling.  Then flip the sides in over the filling and roll it up.  Although this is a finger food, I always put forks on the table because we sometimes lose some filing in our dipping sauce (what we refer to as “Vietnamese Condiment” – an addictive balance of salty, sweet, sour and hot).

*Thai Basil has a different flavor from Genovese basil (what you commonly find at the grocery store).  If you have cinnamon basil, that is a better substitute than Genovese basil.

 

Sautéed Napa Cabbage

  • 1 Chinese or napa cabbage, shredded
  • 1-2 spring onions, sliced lengthwise
  • 1-2 garlic scapes, chopped fine (if you don’t have scapes, use one medium clove of garlic)
  • 1 T toasted sesame oil
  • 2 T fish sauce

Heat the oil in a large skillet.  Add the garlic scapes and stir around for about 30 seconds; Stir in the onions and saute for another 30 seconds.  Add ½ the cabbage and stir it around.  Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of fish sauce.  The cabbage will start to deflate.  Add the rest of the cabbage and fish sauce and stir around.  This can be made in advance and served at room temperature.

 

Marinated Cucumbers

  • 3-4 Kirby cucumbers (or 1 medium slicer), thinly sliced
  • 1 t salt
  • 1 T rice vinegar

In a medium bowl, toss the cucumber slices with the salt.  Transfer them to a colander, put a plate and a weight (a heavy can or something like that) on top and leave them to “sweat.”  After about an hour, most of the water should be pressed out of the cucumbers.  Toss with the rice vinegar.  You can also add some toasted sesame seeds for a garnish.

 

Sautéed Shrimp

  • 1-2 lbs. of shrimp (depending upon how many people you are feeding. I generally make 1 lb for the four of us)
  • 1 T sesame oil
  • 1-2 T fish sauce
  • The juice of 1 lime

Heat the oil in a large skillet.  Place the shrimp in a single layer in the skillet. Sprinkle with 1 T of the fish sauce.  When the shrimp starts to turn opaque, flip them over and sprinkle with the rest of the fish sauce.  Turn the heat off and cover for 5 minutes.  The residual heat in the pan will finish cooking the shrimp. When you are ready to take the shrimp to the table, add the lime juice and toss.

 

Vietnamese Condiment (We make triple recipes of this so we always have some on hand)

  • 1-2 garlic scapes, minced (or 1 clove garlic, minced)
  • 1 fresh hot chili (heat)
  • 2 t coconut sugar (or 1 t granulated sugar) (sweet)
  • 2 T fish sauce (salty)
  • The juice and pulp of one lime** (sour)

In a small food processor, or mini-blender, mince the scapes (or garlic).  If you like things super-hot, slice the chili pepper and add it to the processor.  If you like things more on the mild side, de-seed the pepper before you add it. Blend the pepper and garlic.  Add the rest of the ingredients and blend.  Adjust the sweet, salty, sour, hot balance to your liking!

** I squeeze the juice out of the lime first and then use a grapefruit spoon to scrape out the pulp.  Try not to get any membrane in there.

Living La Vita Locale: Blueberry Season is Here

Image result for blueberry whitesbog

My heart leaps when I see that little blue sign by the side of the road that says, “U-Pick Blueberries” with a bright orange arrow with “3.5 miles” stenciled across it.  It is the annual symbol that blueberry season is here.  The season for the most valuable crop in New Jersey, the official state fruit.  My little home state ranks fifth in the nation for blueberry production, behind Washington State, Oregon, Georgia and Michigan (not in that order).

Fun fact: The commercial blueberry was first cultivated in Whitesbog, NJ by Elizabeth Coleman White, and agricultural scientist Frederick Coville. The low-bush wild blueberries were very prolific throughout the Pine Barrens, and White read about Coville’s work on the  blueberry in an agriculture journal.  In 1910, she and her father, cranberry barron and landowner, Joseph White, convinced Coville to join them in Whitesbog to continue his work with the added efforts of White.  The result is the blueberry as we know it today.  If you are in the area, you can take a tour of the historic Whitesbog Village, and maybe even pick a few blueberries.

This year, I think I finally perfected a no-bake blueberry pie filling that set up beautifully in about an hour in the fridge.  It is a very straight-forward application that highlights the blueness of the berries, is low sugar, and gluten-free.

No-Bake Blueberry Pie Filling

  • 1 prepared 9-inch pie crust   (use whatever kind of prepared pie crust you like.  The recipe on the link is a traditional flour crust and therefore NOT gluten-fee)
  • 6 cups fresh blueberries, divided
  • 1/2 C water
  • 1 T organic cornstarch*
  • 1/8 t sea salt
  • 1/4 C sugar**
  1. Put 2 C of the blueberries and the sugar in a saucepan.
  2. Whisk together the water, cornstarch, and salt until the salt is dissolved. Pour over the sugar and berries.
  3. Cook over a high heat until bubbles appear.  Reduce the heat and continue cooking, stirring constantly until the berries darken and the mixture gets thick (about 5 minutes). Remove from heat and let is cool for about 5 minutes.
  4. Carefully stir in the remaining 4 C of berries and continue mixing until all of the berries are well-coated.  Let the mixture cool a little more (about 5 minutes).
  5. Pour into your prepared pie crust.
  6. Refrigerate for 2-3 hours to ensure the set.

For added pizzazz, top this with whipped cream, or serve next to a scoop of ice cream.

*I call for organic corn starch as a way to avoid GMO corn.

**You can use many types of sugar, but do not substitute with things like stevia or truvia.  The sugar is part of what thickens the mixture.

This will keep in the refrigerator for about a week.  I mix it in yogurt, top ice cream, and make a no-bake cheesecake with it as well.  So make a double batch!

Why You Should and Can Cook at Home

Sometimes, an afternoon spent playing in the dirt with your son seems like a much better idea than cooking dinner.  In my eyes, practically any afternoon spent playing with my children was not time well spent, but time best spent.  When I speak to people about food, I get many defensive responses.  At the top of the list are: 1) I can’t cook, mostly because I never liked cooking and have grown to hate it, actually, which is very uncool these days because I can’t post a picture of what I just cooked on Instagram; 2) I can’t afford organic food.  It’s ridiculously expensive, and 3) I don’t have the time.  But there are many counterarguments for why you should and can cook at home.

Yes, You Can Cook

I am about to begin publishing a series of posts with recipes that are simple and straightforward, that even the most culinarily-impaired person can prepare.  I promise to include ingredients that most people use and eat on a regular basis.  No special kitchen tools, no ingredients that you have to buy at a specialty store or purchase online.  The goal is to encourage you to get into your kitchen.  Bring your children; bring your wife; bring your husband; bring your dog (ours are very good with clean-up when stuff “hits the deck”).  If you know how to turn on your stove, you are qualified to prepared these recipes.

Yes, You Can Afford Some Organic Food

Organic food is more expensive than conventional food.  I discuss this in another post.  But if you eat at a fast food place, and are feeding a family of four, you will probably spend about $25.  A pound of grass-fed organic beef runs about $6.50.  Add on $2.00 for rolls, $1.29 for organic leaf lettuce, less than a dollar for an organic tomato (less if you grow a tomato plant in a pot on your patio).  And maybe you get frozen fries for $2.50 (Not hard to make your own, but intimidating, so we’ll go with the frozen food section) and a bottle of soda for $1.99 (but you should drink water – it’s a lot better for you and much less expensive if it comes out of your tap and you filter it), you have spent less than $16, had some good bonding time with your family, and eaten organic food, and saved $9.00.

And you’re thinking, ‘Nine dollars?  All that for a nine-dollar savings?”  But let that add up.  Let’s say that you get fast food once a week.  Now it is $9 x 52 weeks a year, which is over $400.  Still not enough to get your attention? What if it also meant that your cholesterol levels returned to the normal zone and you could stop spending money on a prescription or two?  We tend to look at these kinds of things in a small context, but the truth is that what we eat and how we eat affects our physical and mental health.  So factor in time spent at the doctor – what is your time worth an hour?

Time is Relative

And speaking of an hour, the biggest complaint/defense I hear is “I don’t have the time.”  This is also a matter of perspective.  Some days are ridiculous.  We have them, too.  But many days are not; they are more I’d-rather-crash-on-the-couch-than-cook.  Let’s see if we can start to change that.

We can start with

Simple Burgers

  • 1 lb. of ground meat (you choose what you want to use, beef, lamb, turkey, etc.)
  • 1 t salt
  • ¼ t ground pepper
  • ¼ t onion powder

Mix all of this together and form four patties.  Fry them in a pan over a medium heat, about 6 minutes a side.  Put them on a platter in a warm spot.

If there isn’t any fat in the pan, add 1 T olive oil or butter and heat it.  Add 1 T flour and stir it around in the fat.  Add ½ C of milk, and stir until it thickens.  If you have some Worcestershire sauce, you could add a dash of that, but it isn’t necessary. Pour the sauce over the patties and take it to the table.

You can serve this with a salad that you have one of your family members make, or just slice up a head of lettuce and put some dressing on.

Start to finish, this takes about 25 minutes.

Focus on One: Kick the Can

Remember that game? Kick the Can? That brings back summer memories when half the neighborhood convened in our backyard for the after dinner games. The first was always “Kill the Man” which involved everyone running after and trying to tackle whoever had the ball – there were no teams, just every boy for himself (or girl for herself). My sister was great at this game because she was fast and agile and no one could catch her. Then, once it was getting dark, was Flashlight Tag or Kick the Can. And we never had to worry about mosquito bites because the DDT fogger trucks came through every evening.

And while getting out and playing a game after dinner would be a great focus for a month, May is probably not the month – kids are still in school; most sports teams are still playing; in our district it is the time for band concerts and art shows. IMG_0452But May is the month for early summer berries like strawberries and early raspberries. Our favorite ways to enjoy either of these berries is topped with whipped cream or made into ice-cream.

What is your idea of whipped cream? Growing up, we used a lot of Cool-Whip® and I think that was because originally it was marketed as non-dairy. And we loved it – it was a sweet, creamy topping.

Then, one fateful night, my mother bought whipped cream – the kind that comes in an aerosol can. She topped the pudding we were having for dessert and once we had that, Cool-Whip® had to move over.

For a long time I thought whipped cream came out of a can. Imagine my surprise finding a recipe in an old cookbook for whipped cream. On my first attempt, I made clotted cream because I left it whip for too long. It was delicious on scones, but not so great for fresh berries. What follows isn’t a recipe with measurements, it’s more of a technique. Depending on the sweetness of the berries, I add more or less sugar (usually about 2T sugar to 1 C of heavy cream). If I am making a dessert layering berries and sponge cake for example, I will add about ¼ t of vanilla.

There is much made of being sure your bowl and beaters are all very cold before you begin. I found no noticeable difference between room temperature equipment and cold equipment. The big issue is keeping a close eye on the product as it whips. You know what whipped cream is supposed to look like, so whip it until it gets to look like that. The TRICK is not to look away. Do not walk away to do anything else while you are whipping the cream. I am famous for doing things like putting onions on to sauté and then running out to snip rosemary. That is an absolute no-no when you are whipping cream.

You cannot use light cream. You need either heavy cream or Whipping Cream. They are not synonymous! The whipped cream from heavy cream (35-37% milk fat) will hold it’s shape longer than that from whipping cream (29-31% milk fat), but whipping cream whips up faster and fluffier.

Pour the cream into a bowl and start the beaters. Increase to high speed. Slowly add the sugar and patiently watch as the cream whips up. If you are adding vanilla, do so when it gets to the “soft peaks” stage: when the beaters are leaving a trail through the cream, but it is still very soft.

Another Snow Day, Another Activity

DSC_6068This winter has been ridiculous.

I was joking with my students the other day that they might have fireworks at graduation, since it might not be until the 4th of July!  They weren’t amused.

Are you out of snow day activity ideas?  How about mixing up some granola.  It is an easy activity that my children can do with a little supervision from me (translation: I can sit at the kitchen table and grade papers while they take care of this one).

Fast Granola Recipe

  • 4 C rolled oats
  • 3 C chopped nuts of choice and/or seeds (we like a combination of almonds, sunflower and pecans)
  • 1/3 C honey
  • 1/3 C melted butter
  • 1 C chopped dried fruit
  1. Preheat oven to 275° F
  2. Combine honey with melted butter
  3. Combine oats and nuts/seeds and coat with the honey butter mixture
  4.  Spread in a 9 x 13 baking dish and put in the oven for 15 minutes
  5. Take out and stir the mixture.  Put back in the oven for 15 minutes. Repeat until mixture turns golden (not brown). 45 minutes to one hour total cooking time.
  6. Remove from oven.  Stir in dried fruit
  7. Let cool and enjoy.  Store in refrigerator.

I have a slow granola recipe as well.  We have found that soaking grains has made them more digestible for some members of the family.  If you have some trouble digesting grains, try soaking the oats overnight and then dry on screens in your dehydrator, or by spreading the oats on cookie sheets in a very low oven (150° F).  We also soak our nuts and seeds in a salt water solution and dry them in the dehydrator or low oven.  We like this because it makes a “salty-sweet” snack!