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.

Summer Herbs for Winter Use

Black Swallowtail caterpillars feasting on dill
Black Swallowtail caterpillars feasting on dill

A while back, I wrote a post about what to do when you have Basil in Abundance.  One of the suggestions is to make pesto and freeze it in ice-cube trays, pop out the cubes and store them in bags in the freezer for later use.  Not too long ago, I was watching TV and a commercial came on for a wonderful new product to help home cooks speed up dinner making by combining butter, olive oil, spices, and herbs.  We’ve been doing something similar for years: making what is called compound butters and freezing them in little balls or the cubes of ice-cube trays,  preserving herbs of summer for winter use.  While many of the green leafy herbs discolored (they turn dark), the flavor was excellent.  I am not going to say that they all tasted like we just picked them, because they didn’t, but they did taste more summery than dried herbs.  As mid-August approaches, many of the annual herbs are going begin their decline.  Before the summer herbs completely bite the dust, go cut them down and salvage as much as you can.  Here are some of our best combinations:

Cilantro: Make a “pesto” of cilantro leaves and stems, black pepper corns, garlic, toasted sesame oil, and salt to taste.  Freeze in ice-cube trays.

Dill: Snip the feathery dill leaves and mix with butter and salt.  Using a melon-baller, make little balls to freeze.

Oregano:  Pull the tiny leaves from the stems and add to ice-cube trays 1/2 filled with olive oil.  Freeze.

Tarragon:  Combine equal parts butter and olive oil in a bowl.  Add torn tarragon leaves and mix thoroughly.  Chill overnight.  Using a melon-baller, make little balls to freeze.

We also did some mixes, like cilantro and oregano, frozen in a neutral oil, like avocado, and oregano and basil frozen in olive oil.

Basil in Abundance

One of the things I enjoy about gardening is the ebb and flow. This year, my cucumbers are struggling. First it was a battle for germination. I think I had a storage issue over the winter, or for some reason, did not extract my seeds from last year’s fruits correctly. After I finally got sprouts, the plants didn’t mature long enough to develop true leaves – groundhogs bowled over the bunny-fencing, and all the critters were having a feast. And now, because everything got started so late, I am picking off cucumber beetles and squash beetles.

On the other side of the productivity scale, I have basil. My plants this year are about three foot high bushes. When I go out to pick off the tops to prevent them flowering, I come in with 2 or 3 cups packed with leaves. To use them fresh, I just add them to salads, or stack the leaves, roll them, and using kitchen shears, snip the leaves “chiffonade” over grilled vegetables, or sliced tomato, or sliced tomato and mozzarella, drizzle it all with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Basil is also wonderful in salad dressing:

Basil Vinaigrette

  • ½ C olive oil
  • ¼ Balsamic vinegar
  • 2 T sugar or honey
  • 1 t salt
  • ¼ C chopped basil

Combine all ingredients and process in a mini-processor, or blender. You can also just combine all of the ingredients in a jar and shake it up until the sugar/honey is dissolved. The oil won’t emulsify the same way, but it will still taste really great.

How does one preserve this bounty?

Dehydrating is one way. In my opinion, the Genovese Basil, most commonly grown in the garden, does not dry as well as other varieties. The variety I choose to dry is the Purple Basil that when dried has a flavor most similar to fresh Genovese Basil.

Another way is to make pesto, which can be frozen in ice-cube trays (for 2 tablespoon portions: 2 cubes = ¼ cup), or larger quantities in freezer bags. I like both methods. The cubes are handy to add to roasted potatoes for something a little different, and the bags are easy to store, and defrost quickly for a fast dinner. Measure 1 cup of pesto into a small freezer bag and press the air out. In the process you will flatten the bag. Put the bags onto a cookie sheet and place in the freezer overnight. The next morning, take them off the sheet and store them in your freezer. So here’s a quick, easy dinner:

  1. Defrost 1 bag of pesto.
  2. Cook 1 pound of pasta
  3. Beat three eggs in a large bowl
  4. Drain the pasta and combine with the eggs immediately and toss thoroughly. The heat in the pasta will cook the eggs and make them coat the pasta.
  5. Add the pesto and toss until the pesto is well incorporated.

I’ve done this recipe doubled, and frozen half of it. I reheated it in a casserole, topped with extra parmesan.