Choose Love … and a How-To for Vietnamese Fresh Spring Rolls

 

Romantic Heart form Love Seeds
Romantic Heart form Love Seeds (Photo credit: epSos.de)

Choose love.

These two simple words have been on my mind since they popped out at me from a friend’s Facebook post a few weeks ago. She was recapping her past year and she ended her reflection with “When in doubt, choose love.”

They could mean many things to many people, and I’ve been thinking about what it means for me to “choose love.”

2012 was a challenging year personally and love was often in short supply. Not that I wasn’t loved, but rather that I wasn’t a very loving person. I felt so drained I had no love to give.

I had to get used to the fact that my husband was 6,720 miles away and 12-1/2 hours ahead for an entire 12 months. And I worried (and still do) about his safety, every single day. Plus, I had to adjust to solo-parenting a toddler.

After a three-year hiatus, I worked very hard to develop a book proposal (one that I thought was very sellable and timely) that was quickly shot down. I have yet worked up the nerve to submit it elsewhere.

And I’m sure anyone who lives close to their parents can relate to the stress of having them live a stone’s throw away.

Did I mention I’m solo-parenting a toddler? I definitely have a newfound awe and admiration for single parents everywhere!

While I admit 2012 wasn’t all that bad—there was a trip to Vietnam to meet my husband, a paperback book launch–it was filled with plenty of angst and stress.

I realize now that many of these events and circumstances were beyond my control. Yet I was riddled with unnecessary anxiety and/or reacted negatively to them.

In hindsight, I can come up with any number of “what if?” scenarios.

What if I kept calm and didn’t raise my voice at Isaac when he wasn’t behaving the way I wanted him to? Then maybe I wouldn’t be wracked with guilt in the thereafter believing I was traumatizing my son and ruining him for life.

What if I listened patiently every time my dad complained about a new ache or pain, or expressed concern that his memory wasn’t as sharp as it used to be (aging has nothing to do with it, of course!). Instead, these could have been happy dad-and-daughter moments spent over a cup of coffee, especially if the topic at hand could be diverted.

If I had chosen love in these circumstances, perhaps I wouldn’t have expended superfluous time and energy getting worked up, upset, frustrated, etc., etc., you know what I mean. Thankfully, it’s never too late.

Today is only the 11th day of the new year but I’ve already savored the power of choosing love.

The other day, the cashier at Target had a face so sullen it rivaled Posh Spice’s– a.k.a. Victoria Beckham’s–perpetual pout (am I dating myself with this analogy?). Instead of condemning her off-putting attitude silently in my mind, I complimented her on her gorgeous red top out loud. That coaxed a smile out of both her and me.

When my toddler asks for one more book, yet another sip of water, anything he can think of, to put off going to bed, I take a deep breath, tuck his blanket under his chin and hold him till he falls fast asleep. This phase won’t last forever (I hope, gulp …).

I’m off to a good start, don’t you think?

Starting with this new year 2013, whatever the season, whatever the mood, always choose love.

~~~

Vietnamese Fresh Spring Rolls (Gỏi Cuốn)

all rolled up

In line with our #LetsLunch theme of new beginnings and first times, I’m going to start a new column about trying dishes I didn’t think I could or would make at home. I’ve been told many times how easy it is to make these fresh rolls but I’ve always been intimidated by the rice paper wrappers. Most sources say to dip the dry rice paper rounds in water until soft but it seems impossible to get just right. While traveling in Vietnam, I learned two other methods of softening the rice paper: one is to wipe it with a wet, non-terry towel until pliable, and the second, use a spray bottle. The rest is easy. Well, the rolling does takes some practice but you’ll eventually get the hang of it. The following recipe/how-to is based on what I learned at a cooking class I took at the Morning Glory Cooking School in the beautiful town of Hoi An in central Vietnam.

Time: 45 minutes prep
Makes: 4 servings

8 sheets rice paper wrappers, plus more in case some break (8 to10-inches across is best)
Red leaf, romaine, or butter lettuce
3 cups fresh herbs: mint, cilantro, Thai (or regular) basil, red perilla, Vietnamese mint, rice paddy herb, bean sprouts (any combination of these is fine)
Carrot and daikon pickles
8 ounces small round rice noodles, cooked according to package directions (look for noodles labeled ‘bun,’ not the super thin vermicelli or bean thread noodles. If you have my cookbook, they are pictured as #1 on pg. 15)
8 small slices pork shoulder, cooked as desired (I like to use char siu, store-bought or home made)
12 large cooked shrimp, peeled and halved
12 (3-inch-length) pieces garlic chives
Dipping Sauce (see below)

Lay all the ingredients out on the table and let everyone make their own rolls.

Soften the rice paper using your method of choice:
1. Dip in a bowl of warm water for about 3-5 seconds (depending on its thickness).
2. Lay on a flat surface and wipe with a wet non-terry towel several times until pliable.
3. Fill a spray bottle with water and spray until pliable.
You want the rice paper to be just soft enough that you can fold it. You will lessen the risk of over-soaking your rice paper wrapper if you use the latter two methods but it is up to you.

Place the wrapper on a work service (a flat plate works fine) and lay a piece of lettuce on the edge closest to you. Grab a handful of herbs and place them on top of the lettuce. Place a handful of noodles on top of the greens. Add some pickles. Arrange 2 slices of pork above the noodles, followed by 3 slices of shrimp, pink-side down.

layout
In case you were wondering, the surprise in the middle is a deep-fried rice paper roll (a tip I learned at the Morning Glory Cooking School). Adds a lovely crunch to it!

Fold the edge closest to you over the ingredients and start rolling, ensuring the roll is snug as you go. When you are about half-way, fold both sides in and  arrange three pieces of garlic chives on the right so that they jut out like palm leaves swaying in the wind. Continue rolling until you have a nice tight roll.

If you tear the rice paper, don’t fret, just start over again. And even if your roll isn’t perfect, so what, it’ll still taste good!

Serve with dipping sauce.

Dipping Sauce (Nước mắm chấm)

Makes: 4 servings

2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 to 2 Thai red chilies, or to taste, sliced
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons lime juice (from about 1 large lime)
2 tablespoons warm water

Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl and stir until all the sugar has dissolved.

~~~

This post is  part of #LetsLunch, our monthly Twitter-inspired food bloggers potluck. This month, it’s new beginnings and first times.

Don’t forget to check out the Let’s Lunchers’ creations below (the list will be constantly updated). And if you’d like to join Let’s Lunch, go to Twitter and post a message with the hashtag #LetsLunch.

Annabelle’s Brown Butter Creamed Greens at Glass of Fancy

Emma’s Gluten-free Pretzels at Dreaming of Pots and Pans

Grace’s Matcha Green Tea Yogurt at Hapa Mama

Jill’s Heavenly Angel Cake at Eating My Words

Lucy’s Mexican Hot Chocolate Cookies at A Cook and Her Books

Lisa’s Da Bombe Alaska at Monday Morning Cooking  Club

Linda‘s Trinidadian Black-eyed Peas  at Spicebox Travels

Nancie’s Vietnamese-style Chicken with Lemongrass at NancieMcDermott

Rashda’s Parathas at Hot Curries and Cold Beer 

Sonja’s Beetroot and Fetta Varenyky at Foodnutzz

 

Last Chance Tomatoes in a Burmese-Style Salad

Supposedly, summer bade us farewell several days ago.

The signs are all there: the sun dips lower in the sky, shadows lengthen, and the occasional nip in the air gently reminds me that summer is winding down and autumn is nudging its way in.

However, all around me, nature is playing tricks on me. Blackberries still peek out from their brambly bushes. The Seattle sky remains clear and blue, with daytime temps lingering in the 70’s. And the tomatoes in my dad’s garden continue to grow plump and heavy on the vine, their green hue merging into red.

Three gorgeous heirloom tomatoes sitting in a row

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I’m relishing each day I can still bare my legs and zip out the door without a coat on. And with every satay stick I grill on the barbecue, I’m hoping it won’t be my last just yet.

This past Saturday, we took a ferry across the Puget Sound and spent a sunny day in Poulsbo where we ate fish and chips al fresco and my son chased seagulls around the marina. The next day, I turned my dad’s ripe tomatoes into a refreshing Burmese-style salad à la Alvina (remember Alvina?). It was a lovely way to commit the last flavors of summer to my taste memory.

Truth be told, I’m not ready to say goodbye.

And you, how are you stocking up on summery memories?

~~~

Burmese-Style Tomato Salad

This tomato salad is loosely based on a Burmese salad Alvina once made for me. Her salad comprised shredded cabbage, chopped tomatoes, lime juice, dried shrimp powder, fried garlic, and the fragrant oil leftover from frying the garlic. I took a few liberties, borrowing some ideas from this recipe on Pranee’s blog. Because I already had store-bought fried garlic bits in my pantry (and yes, because I’m lazy) that’s what I used. But I can vouch for the deliciousness of frying your own. The how-to is available on page 126 of my cookbook (and elsewhere online).

Time: 10 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 servings

2 tablespoons lemongrass vinegar
1 teaspoon canola oil
1 teaspoon fish sauce
3 medium tomatoes, cut into crescents
1/2 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1/4 small sweet onion, cut into thin crescents, soaked in water for 30 minutes to tame its bite
1 tablespoon fried garlic, plus more for garnish
1 tablespoon fried onions, plus more for garnish
1 tablespoon roasted pistachios (preferably unsalted), crushed, plus more for garnish
Chopped cilantro for garnish

In a large salad bowl, whisk the lemongrass vinegar, canola oil, and fish sauce together vigorously. Add the remaining ingredients and toss gently. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Sprinkle with fried garlic, fried onions, pistachios, and cilantro, with or without abandon.

~~~

“Many Grandmas'” Asian Pickles

Left to right: Popo, my mum on her 16th birthday, and my mum’s cousin

One of the most common questions I get asked about my cookbook is: “Which one’s your grandma?”

My sad reply: “She’s not in there.”

I didn’t really know either of my grandmothers. My paternal grandmother, whom I called Oma, (I wrote about her in this post) lived in Indonesia while we were growing up in Singapore.

When I was little, Oma would stay with us for extended visits once in awhile and we would make the one-hour flight over to Jakarta once or twice a year. But the language barrier and her ailing health prevented us from developing a deeper relationship.

When I was 24, Oma passed away after being bedridden for many years. I only learned her name then: Sicilianti.

Popo was the maternal grandmother I never knew. As a matter of fact, I just found out that her name was Helli. Popo died of breast cancer when I was very young, before I could make any memories of her.

What I do know is that Popo was a fabulous cook and thankfully her culinary legacy lives on in my mother. However, when I asked my mother for a specific recipe for this post, she told me Popo cooked traditional Indonesian dishes but everything was kira kira, estimated, without ukuran, or measurements.

Over the years, I’ve envied my friends who had grandmothers who cooked for them, regaled them with stories, and gave them presents (ding ding!).

By the powers that be, “The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook” project serendipitously fell into my lap. What became a labor of love also somehow completed me, filling this childhood void.

Today, I am thankful for all the surrogate grandmothers I met during this amazing journey. These women shared their incredible stories with me, many gave me sage advice in and out of the kitchen, and a few still check up on me once in a while.

Above all, they have given me the most meaningful gifts—their treasured recipes that I will continue to cook for my family and pass on to my children.

~~~

“Many Grandmas'” Asian Pickles

This month, my kind #LetsLunch buddies are posting about grandma recipes in honor of my paperback book launch last month. Unfortunately, I don’t have one of my grandmother’s recipes to share but I decided to come up with a “many grandmas'” quick pickle recipe.

I learned some great pickle tips while working on the book. Grandma Nellie taught me to randomly strip the cucumber of peel for a pretty finish, and to salt the vegetables to draw out moisture and make them crunchier (although I never found much difference). She also showed me how to feather the edges of the cucumber so the pieces can absorb the brine chop-chop. (Slicing the cucumber paper-thin as I’ve done below has the same effect). And Grandma Ling used maple syrup (instead of the prepared ginger syrup she was used to back home) to sweeten her brine. Yet another grandma massaged her carrot and daikon sticks before pouring the brine over.

So here is my quick pickle recipe lassoing tips, tricks and ideas learned from all the grandmas (including my mum who is grandma to my son) in my life together with my own adaptations.

Time: 15 minutes plus standing and brining
Makes: 1 pint

2 large seedless cucumbers (European or Persian cucumbers would be lovely too)
1 medium carrot
Salt
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons maple-flavored agave syrup (I used *Wholesome Sweeteners brand. You can also use maple syrup, regular agave syrup or honey, but start with less and adjust the amounts to taste)
1 clove garlic, smashed
Pinch crushed chipotle chilies

Halve each cucumber lengthwise. Place one half flat-side down on your cutting board, and using a vegetable peeler (a ‘Y’-peeler works great), slice the cucumber lengthwise into paper-thin strips. Repeat with the rest of the cucumbers.

Peel the carrot. Using a lemon zester, make nicks at equal intervals down the length of the carrot. Slice the carrot crosswise into thin slices. The slices will look like flowers.

Place the vegetables in a colander and toss with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Let them sit over the sink while you prepare the brine. (Skip this step if you’re in a hurry. I don’t find much different if you don’t salt the veggies first).

In a small bowl, mix together the vinegar, water, maple syrup, sugar, ¼ teaspoon salt, garlic, and chilies. Microwave on medium-high for 30 seconds. Stir the brine, making sure all the sugar has dissolved. Taste and adjust the seasonings if desired. Go read a chapter in a book while you let the brine cool.

Rinse the vegetables and shake dry. Toss them into the bowl with the brine, mix well and chill for at least one hour. Serve with fried rice, noodles, or munch on it throughout the day. This is a great snack if you’re pregnant too!

*I didn’t purchase the Wholesome Sweeteners maple-flavored agave syrup but I use it because I like it, not because it was free.

~~~

This post is  part of #LetsLunch, our monthly Twitter-inspired food bloggers potluck. This month it’s a tribute to grandmas and their recipes.

Don’t forget to check out the Let’s Lunchers’ creations below (the list will be constantly updated). And if you’d like to join Let’s Lunch, go to Twitter and post a message with the hashtag #LetsLunch.

Charissa‘s Apple, Pecan & Raisin Gluten-Free Depression Cake at Zest Bakery

Cheryl’s My Tanglin Ah-Ma’s Gambling Rice at A Tiger in the Kitchen

Emma‘s Irish, Polish & Korean Grandmothers’ Recipes at Dreaming of Pots & Pans

Jill‘s Stuffed Cabbage at Eating My Words

Karen‘s Semifreddo at GeoFooding

Linda‘s Taiwanese Oyster Omelet at Spicebox Travels

Lisa‘s Polish Potato Cake at Monday Morning Cooking Club

Lucy‘s Grandma Kitty’s Biscuits at A Cook and Her Books

Renee‘s Chinese Grandmother’s Tofu at My Kitchen And I

Indonesian Folk Songs and Spicy Eggplant (Terong Belado)

Like French ratatouille, the summery trio of eggplant, tomatoes, and red pepper make up the main ingredients in terong belado

Two weeks ago, I attended an event to celebrate Singapore’s 47th birthday that fell on August 9th.

By some strange turn of events, I was roped in to lead a few songs in the requisite sing-a-long sessions. We sang popular folk songs like “Burung Kakak Tua,” “Di Tanjung Katong,” and “Bengawan Solo,” all of which are popular across Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia.

While obvious to Indonesians (the Solo River runs through Central and Eastern Java), ownership of “Bengawan Solo” has always been disputed. To dispel all doubts, I did a quick Wikipidea search to reveal that the song was written in 1940 by Indonesian Gesang Martohartono. So there!

I grew up listening to this song in the traditional kroncong style, a popular folk style with Portuguese influences, that my parents played over and over and over again. To me, it sounds like a wailing cat in heat. However, when I looked it up on YouTube recently I found some more contemporary renditions.

Sung by Dutch-Indonesian Anneke Gronloh, this one has the distinctive uptempo beat of 1960’s tunes.

And I am in love with this jazzy version by Japanese songstress Lisa Ono.


Regrettably, I don’t focus on my Indonesian heritage often enough but it so happens Indonesia’s National Day (Hari Merdeka) is coming up on August 17. This year, Indonesia celebrates 67 years of independence from the Dutch who colonized them for 350 years.

So for this week’s post, I decided to spotlight a simple Indonesian dish that slips into the summer lineup effortlessly, its main ingredients comprising eggplant, tomatoes, and red bell pepper. Terong belado, or spicy eggplant, is usually eaten hot with rice. But for those who abhor eating hot foods in hot weather, I don’t see why you can’t eat it cold or at room temperature as a side (like antipasti!) for grilled meat or as a sandwich filling.

Terong, Indonesian for eggplant, cut into strips

In fact, the basic tomato-red pepper sauce is oh-so versatile. To make this dish with egg, called telor belado, fry whole hard-cooked eggs and toss them in the same sauce. Other ideas: drape the sauce over grilled meats, or stir it into potato salad.

If you’re still unsure about this beautiful dish redolent with the floral notes of kaffir lime leaves and the sassy sweetness of sun-ripened tomatoes, think of it as a ratatouille with a touch of the tropics.

~~~

Indonesian Spicy Eggplant (Terong Belado)

What luck! A glossy purple eggplant and a rainbow pint of cherry tomatoes miraculously appeared in my vegetable box this week. My mum prefers the long, slender Chinese eggplants as she thinks the western eggplant has skin that’s tough as leather. But I know better, she’s just used to them. Ah … we’re all creatures of habit.

Time: 30 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 servings

1 large Western eggplant, or 3 Chinese eggplants
2 cloves garlic
2 Asian shallots, roughly chopped (1/3 cup)
1 large red bell pepper, roughly chopped
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved, or 1 large tomato, chopped
3 tablespoons canola oil, divided
1 teaspoon sambal oelek, or to taste
2 kaffir lime leaves
1 small white or yellow onion, chopped (3/4 cup)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar

Cut the eggplant into 3- by-3/4-inch strips. Cut the eggplant lengthwise in half. Cut each half into 3 horizontal layers. Keep them stacked and slice down the vertical into 4 strips. Cut the strips into half crosswise.

Swirl 2 tablespoons of oil into a large skillet or wok. When the oil shimmers, add the eggplant and sauté until the skin wrinkles and the flesh turns translucent and browns, about 5 to 6 minutes. Or do as my mum does and steam it. (You can cover the eggplant with damp paper towels and microwave on high for 2 to 3 minutes.) Remove to a plate and set aside.

In a small food processor, pulse the garlic, shallots, bell pepper, and tomatoes briefly until they form a paste that looks like oatmeal. It will be a little watery but you want confetti sized bits to remain. We’re not making gazpacho here!

In the same skillet or wok, swirl in the last tablespoon of oil, and heat over high heat. When it shimmers, add the paste, sambal, and lime leaves. Fry until you can smell the red pepper and lime leaves, 4 to 5 minutes, and most of the juices have evaporated. Reduce the heat to medium, mix in the chopped onion, and simmer briefly. Add the salt and sugar and taste. The balance of flavors depends on how sweet your pepper and tomatoes are. Adjust if necessary.

Simmer for another 2 minutes until the onion is cooked but still crunchy. Add the eggplant strips and let them roll around in the sauce until well coated.

Serve hot with rice as part of a multi-course meal, or let cool to room temperature.

~~~

Kimchi-Style Corn

Pretty bi-colored corn

As much as I adore canned creamed corn, come summer, I love sinking my teeth into a fresh cob and gnawing off the sweet corn kernels bit by juicy bit. My other favorite way with sweet corn is to toss the niblets into a salad with chopped tomatoes and cucumbers brightened with herbs and a squeeze of lemon juice.

Even though I’ve been eating corn since I was yea high, I realized I didn’t know much about it. So I did a little research and discovered some corn trivia and tips.

First, just-for-fun trivia:

  • An ear of corn always has an even number of rows, with an average ear having 800 kernels arranged in 16 rows.
  • Popcorn, sweet corn and field corn are three distinct varieties. Popcorn is, obviously, made into everyone’s favorite movie-going snack. Sugar-rich sweet corn is cultivated for human consumption, and field corn is cultivated for livestock feed and processed foods.
  • Contrary to popular belief, Orville Redenbacher didn’t invent popcorn (ha ha ha). Evidence of popcorn was found in archaeological remains in New Mexico dating back to 5,600 years ago.
  • Corn is a grass and cornstalks grow between 2 and 20 feet, with the average being 8 feet.
  • Heirloom corn varieties come in a rainbow array of colors, including blue, red, black, and green.

And some practical tips:

  • When buying corn, look for bright green husks that fit snugly around the ear of corn. You don’t have to strip the husks off the ears to check for freshness. Just squeeze down the length of the corn gently to feel for bald spots. If you can’t resist peeking, the kernels should be plump and in tight rows right to the tip.
  • Try and eat the corn as soon as possible after purchase but if you must store it, wrap in damp paper towels for 2 to 3 days in the refrigerator. The kernels become starchier and less sweet the longer the ears are stored. In fact, half the sugars can be converted to starch only 24 hours after sweet corn is picked!
  • For maximum freshness, husk the corn just before cooking.
  • Remove the silk (white hairy threads under the husk) by using a wet a paper towel and wipe down the corn.

Amazingly versatile in the kitchen, corn kernels can be stir-fried with tomatoes and onions, tossed into salads, added to salsa, turned into relish, and, a childhood favorite, churned into ice cream. Or simply grill, boil or roast the ears.

A few weeks ago, I came home from the market with six ears of corn without any inkling of what I wanted to do with them. After rummaging around in the fridge and pantry, I found some leftover garlic scapes and an unopened pouch of Hungarian paprika. I decided to improvise on the ingredients used to make kimchi for a corn side dish. Koreans turn just about any vegetable into banchan so why not corn?

The result is a refreshing summer side dish, crunchy and sweet with a touch of heat and just the right amount of garlicky. It’s lovely with grilled meats or mixed into a green salad.

~~~

Kimchi-Style Sweet Corn

Unless you make kimchi often, it doesn’t make sense to buy the one-pound bags of Korean red pepper powder (gochu-garu) they sell at Asian markets, and some recipes call for both fine- and coarse-ground red pepper! Instead I used paprika powder, specifically one that my friend brought back from Hungary. In my opinion, the kimchi flavor was a close approximation to that made with Korean red pepper.

Time: 15 minutes, plus melding time
Makes: 6 to 8 servings as a side dish

4 fresh ears of corn, husked
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons paprika powder
1 teaspoon sugar
6 garlic scapes, buds and flowers trimmed, remainder chopped, or 3 small cloves garlic, chopped
1 green onion, chopped

In a pot large enough to hold the corn plus water to cover the corn, bring cold water to a rolling boil over high heat. Don’t add salt as it toughens the corn.

Add the corn, cover and bring the water back to a rolling boil which will take 3 to 4 minutes. At this point the kernels will be crisp. If you like them a little softer, cook for 1 to 2 minutes longer but don’t overcook them.

Promptly drain the corn into a colander over the sink and plunge them into cold water to stop the cooking. Do not overcook them. Once cool enough to handle, stand the corn in a large bowl and scrape the kernels off each cob into a bowl using a small, sharp knife.

Add the salt, paprika, sugar, garlic scapes, and green onion. Mix well and refrigerate for at least 2 hours for the flavors to meld.

~~~

This post is  part of #LetsLunch, our monthly Twitter-inspired food bloggers potluck. This month it’s farmers market-inspired dishes!  

Don’t forget to check out the Let’s Lunchers’ creations below (the list will be constantly updated). And if you’d like to join Let’s Lunch, go to Twitter and post a message with the hashtag #LetsLunch.

Annabelle‘s Mixed Berry Shortcakes at Glass of Fancy

Charissa‘s Curried Roasted Cheddar Cheese Cauliflower Soup, Gluten-Free at Zest Bakery

Cheryl‘s Summery Mexican Chicken Stew at A Tiger in the Kitchen 

Grace‘s Yellow Watermelon with Red Chile at HapaMama

Joe‘s Peach Jam with Lemon Basil at Joe Yonan

Juliana‘s Les Halles Market Tomato-Peach Salad at J Loh

Linda‘s Farmers’ Market Fruit Galette at Spicebox Travels

Linda‘s Zucchini or Cucumber Quick Pickles at Free Range Cookies

Lisa‘s Eveleigh Farmers’ Market (in Australia!) Winter Salad at Monday Morning Cooking Club

Lucy‘s Sweet Auburn Curb Market (in Atlanta!) Tomato Gravy at A Cook and Her Books

Nancie‘s Carrboro, N.C., Farmers’ Market Vegetable Plate “Nicoise” with Spoonbread atNancie McDermott

Patricia‘s Kim-Chi-Style Corn at The Asian Grandmother’s Cookbook

Renee‘s Sweet and Sour Salad at My Kitchen and I

Vietnamese Sour Soup Flavored With Spring’s Secret Ingredient–Rhubarb

Vietnamese sour soup
A big bowl of canh ca plus rice makes for a satisfying spring supper. Do you notice the delicate blush of the broth from the rhubarb?

Rhubarb ranks way up there, together with ramps and fava beans, as a local vegetable I have absolutely no clue how to tackle.

In Singapore, where I didn’t eat my first fresh, fuzz-covered peach until I was 14 and imported smoked salmon cost $50 an ounce (okay so maybe not that much, but you get the point), there was nary a stalk of rhubarb in sight.

Every spring since I moved stateside, when a friend waxes lyrical about grandma’s strawberry-rhubarb pie, or my inbox overflows with emails linking to the latest and greatest rhubarb recipes, I’d be as elated as a ladybug chewing on a leaf. I simply didn’t get all the hoo-hah that swirled around spring’s first fruit (right, it’s a vegetable but many American cooks think of it as a fruit because it’s a common ingredient in dessert).

After all these years of being reticent about rhubarb, I wondered if I just might be missing out. I also wanted to truly enjoy the Pacific Northwest’s bounty, so I decided to reexamine my feelings toward the pie plant, so named because it’s most commonly used in pie. Of course I had to find a way to use it in an Asianesque preparation. No easy task, mind you.

Inspiration eventually came in the form of a Vietnamese sour soup (canh chua).

We were celebrating my mom’s birthday with about 20 (!) of her friends at a Vietnamese restaurant in Seattle’s Central District when a big, steaming bowl of soup was placed in front of me. I scooped up some of the crystal clear soup brimming with bright red tomatoes, brilliantly-green baby bok choy, bean sprouts as white and unblemished as a bride’s wedding dress, and of course, the requisite bac ha (aka taro stem) into a bowl. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting the broth to have that much flavor. I didn’t think a clear vegetable soup could! But the tamarind-soured soup was tempered by the right amount of sweetness, and the vegetables tasted as fresh as morning’s first dew. I shamelessly ate four bowls!

When I next saw rhubarb at the market, it all came together. Rhubarb is sour. Canh chua is sour. Why not bring them together?

I contemplated the best way to bring out rhubarb’s pucker power in my soup and decided to stirfry it with the aromatics before adding the rest of the ingredients. I liked the subtle tang of the soup as well as the resulting texture of the rhubarb. In a cool coincidence, Marvin at BurntLumpia devised a different method to extract rhubarb’s sourly delights for the Filipino sour soup, sinigang. Have a look. (We didn’t plan this, I swear!)

Perhaps next year when spring rolls around, I’ll have another stroke of genius, this time on the sweet side. At the very least, I’ll be joining the masses in cheering the joys of rhubarb.

If you have an idea for an Asian preparation using rhubarb (especially a sweet one), do leave a comment!

~~~

Vietnamese Sour Vegetable Soup with Rhubarb (Canh Chua Chay)

If you are unfamiliar with rhubarb (like I was!), do read this tutorial about handling and preparation. Be sure to remove all traces of the leaves as they contain toxins. The rhubarb imparts a tang that’s a little more coy than tamarind but you end up with a pretty soup tinged a delicate pink. Plus, the rhubarb develops a soft, spongy texture akin to bac ha (taro stem), the vegetable traditionally added to canh chua.

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, chopped (3/4 cup)
2 small stalks rhubarb, halved lengthwise and chopped into ¼-inch pieces (1 cup)
6 cups vegetable stock (I made mine using Harvest brand MSG-free vegetable bouillon)
2 large firm, ripe tomatoes, cut into eighths
1/2 small Chinese (napa) cabbage, sliced, green leaves and white stalks separated
1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
8 ounces bean sprouts, tails snapped off
Chopped cilantro and green onions for garnish
Lemon wedges to serve (optional)

Time: 20 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 servings as part of a multicourse family meal

Swirl the oil into a large pot and heat over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the garlic and onion and stir and cook until the onion turns translucent, 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the chopped rhubarb and stir and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until the rhubarb pieces soften and turn a shade paler. Pour in the vegetable stock and bring to a boil.

Add the white cabbage stalks and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the cabbage leaves and the tomatoes, and cook for another 1 to 2 minutes until the tomatoes soften a little and the cabbage is cooked but still crisp (or for however long you may like).

Stir in the sugar and the fish sauce. Taste and adjust the flavors as needed. Turn off the heat and add the bean sprouts, they will cook in the residual heat but still be crunchy. Sprinkle with cilantro and green onions with or without abandon.

Serve immediately on the table family style, or in individual bowls with steamed rice and another dish or two. Or just have a huge bowl of it with rice. You can also have lemon wedges on the table if you’d like to spritz some juice on your soup

~~~

If you have an idea for an Asian preparation using rhubarb (especially a sweet one), do leave a comment!

Hello? Seattle?

Seattle Center as night falls. Français : Le c...
The Space Needle and Seattle Center as night falls. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been in a pseudo state of déjà-vu since we returned to Seattle two months ago.

Considering how long I’ve lived here (albeit off and on), I expected to ease into Seattle life as effortlessly as shimmying into a favorite pair of well-worn jeans.

Everything I love about this city still exists. The crisp, cool air that makes believe I’m living and breathing spearmint and wildflowers. Delectable dim sum at Jade Garden, including their pillowy-soft har gao (shrimp dumplings) and sweet and savory char siu sou (bbq pork pastry), for less than $15 per person. A spectacular view of snowcapped mountains in triplicate.

Then, there are the things I don’t love as much. A freeway that is a perpetual parking lot whether or not it’s rush hour. The slate-grey concrete slab that passes for sky and the 50-something temperatures … it’s April for goodness sake! (Although last weekend was fabulously sunshiney!)

Yet somehow, I don’t feel like I’m in my Seattle. My Seattle doesn’t have a toll bridge (paying to cross beautiful Lake Washington is just wrong!). My Seattle doesn’t have a dozen hip restaurants I’ve never been to. Add to that the friends who have moved, or drifted, away.

More likely, I’m feeling the pang of my husband’s absence. He was a huge part of what made Seattle my Seattle.

No sense pining. I figured the only way to remedy the situation was to be like a tourist and reacquaint myself with the city of my past.

A couple of Wednesdays ago, my friend Ivy and I paid a visit to new-to-me Melrose Market. Stepping into the series of conjoined buildings, I was transported to another time and place. What used to be a series of repair and rebuild shops for foreign autos is now a covered shopping arcade housing, among other (mostly food) retailers, Homegrown sustainable sandwiches, Taylor Shellfish Farms, The Calf and the Kid cheese shop, and Rain Shadow Meats.

At the back corner of the market sat a sweet little flower shop called Marigold and Mint. While the blooms were attractive enough, I ended buying a clutch of flowering kale rapini from Oxbow Farms for the one reason that they ping-ponged between being familiar and not. It was my first encounter with these greens but their thick purple stalks and serrated leaves reminded me of purple kale, and the yellow flower clusters, gai lan (Chinese broccoli). I already knew exactly what I was going to do with them. I was going to prepare them the same way I would gai lan.

kale rapini
These gorgeous greens belong as much in a floral bouquet as on your plate!

At home, I gently unraveled the bundle–careful to keep the fragile flowerheads from falling off–to find the inner stalks still glistening. Droplets of morning dew perhaps? I’d like to think so!

I steamed the vegetables in the microwave and plated them. A few lashings of oyster sauce, a drizzle of sesame oil, plus a flurry of fried shallots later, lunch was ready.

As I took a bittersweet, herbaceous bite of my first kale rapini, I decided that even though Seattle this time round feels different, that’s OK. If I can use tried and true techniques to tame novel ingredients, why not approach life in the same way, by weaving the comfort of the familiar into the foreignness of what’s new.

~~~

Steamed Kale Rapini with Oyster Sauce and Sesame Oil

This is more a method than a recipe as I don’t usually bother measuring and eyeball everything, as can you! If you prefer, use an asparagus steamer or simply a pot of boiling water to blanch the vegetables. Just don’t overcook them. Try this with broccolini, kale, or asparagus; the medley of bitter greens, salty-sweet oyster sauce, and nutty sesame oil cannot be beat.

Makes: 1 to 2 servings as part of a multicourse meal
Time: 10 minutes

2 tablespoons oyster sauce
8 ounces flowering kale rapini, trimmed
Sesame oil
Fried shallots

Take your oyster sauce out of the fridge (that’s where I keep mine) and let it stand at room temperature. It will warm up a little, making it easier to drizzle.

Wash the kale rapini and spread the stalks in a shallow dish. Sprinkle with about 2 tablespoons of water and cover with a damp paper towel or microwave food cover (I love these!).

Microwave on high for 2 to 3 minutes until the vegetables turn bright green and are tender to the bite. I like the stems crisp, not soft and floppy. Microwaves vary in power so keep microwaving in 30 second increments until the vegetables are cooked the way you like.

Arrange the vegetables on a large plate. Drizzle with oyster sauce, sesame oil and sprinkle with fried shallots. Serve with freshly steamed rice.