Summer Rolls

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As summer rolls to a close, it’s still very warm here in Albuquerque. Certainly not hot, but warm enough that a stew or slow-braised dinner just does not sound appealing, either to cook or eat. These summer rolls are perfect, though. Ground pork is combined with two heads of garlic (yes, you read that correctly) and sugar. Formed into patties and grilled, the fat in the pork renders, the garlic roasts and the sugar caramelizes, resulting in meaty, sweet, savory and just generally delicious little nuggets. Combined with quick-pickled daikon and carrots, fresh herbs, lettuce, cucumber and wrapped in rice paper, this is the perfect dinner for hot weather. Add a zippy dipping sauce and you have a wonderful little slice of Vietnam on your plate.

I’ve not had the opportunity to travel in Asia yet, but I do have a love affair with most Asian cuisines. One of my favorite things about cooking is that you can learn so much about a culture and the people who make up that culture simply by making and eating the foods. It’s like a tiny little trip to the respective country.

This is especially true if you can find a restaurant that is well-decorated and authentic to the foods they serve. There used to be this little French bistro here. It was right at the boundary of our downtown area. It was a small restaurant, maybe at max 20 people could dine there at a time. The ceilings were high, the building was one of the older ones in town, across the street from a Basque-inspired building. Small black and white tiles made up the floor. Your server set down an amuse-bouche of chilled vermouth with house-made pate and pickles on baguette slices as soon as you were settled at your table. Soft French music played in the background. French wines almost exclusively made up the cellar. Fresh peaches sat on the bar, both as decoration and featured in the galette that was on special for dessert. The food was amazing and artfully presented. Both Ethan and I felt we had been transported to Paris for a few hours. It was incredible.

While this is very clearly not a vignette of a Vietnamese, or indeed, even Asian, restaurant, it does show how clearly that between the setting and the food, one can feel in a different world entirely. I love being able to create small little snapshots of the globe in my kitchen. There’s something humbling and quite beautiful, really, about being able to sit down to a home-cooked meal using ingredients and techniques indigenous to peoples hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. Food and cooking are powerful things. A taste of a dish, a whiff of an ingredient, can transport someone to that beautiful Italian villa they honeymooned at, or the distinct smell of kaffir lime leaves may give someone a flash of their village in Thailand.

Food is truly something intimate. At its most basic, you are giving the body sustenance. At the more complex end, you are nourishing someone’s soul, relieving homesickness, bonding with a group of friends. A good meal can do more than some narcotics to bolster spirits.

The point I’m trying to make is that sometimes stepping out of your comfort zone with ingredients or techniques can be a uniquely liberating experience. If you’re anything like me, when a new recipe or ingredient piques your interest, you want to learn more about it. Its origin, uses, what it means to the people who use it in their everyday lives. Enter fish sauce.

I know it’s a totally alien and exotic thing to most American palates, but fish sauce is really quite a versatile condiment. It’s used commonly throughout Southeast Asia and like its Japanese cousin, shoyu, is often used to bump up the umami flavor in almost everything it is used in.

For those of you unfamiliar with umami, it’s a relatively new (at least to the Western world) culinary term. At its most basic, it can be described as a salty, distinctively savory flavor. It’s really quite difficult to describe. However, once you can kind of figure it out, you begin tasting it everywhere.┬áScientifically speaking, umami is most present in foods containing monosodium glutimate, more commonly known as MSG. Before you go screaming off in horror at those three letters, please understand that MSG occurs naturally in a great many foods. Everything from Parmesan cheese, soy sauce and its derivatives (shoyu, tamari, etc.), fish sauce, and kimchee all have quite a bit of naturally-occurring MSG. It’s what makes all those flavors so strong and distinctive.

So what does kimchee and soy sauce have to do with fish sauce, other than the strong presence of umami? Fermentation. Fish, such as sardines and anchovies, are fermented with sea salt and the liquid produced from this is fish sauce. The oldest versions of this process start in a very different part of the world. Both Ancient Greece and Rome had versions of fish sauce that was shipped all through both empires. This sauce was called garum. Although a different sauce resulted from this Mediterranean cousin of the current version, the basic process was very similar. Again, fermentation.

Fish sauce caught on in Southeast Asia right around the start of the Middle Ages and some have hypothesized that the Silk Road brought the process into Asia. However, from what I can tell, there’s not a ton of evidence for this. Plus, at this point, garum was a fading ghost of the Empire in Europe and therefore not commonly used. Once the sauce established its roots in Asia, it hasn’t let up since and has become ubiquitous to Vietnamese cuisine.

If you’ve been afraid to try fish sauce due to its name or its strong aroma, you should give it a shot. It has a slightly sweet, nutty flavor; very full-bodied. It’s actually not really very fishy-tasting at all. And that sharp aroma? When mixed with other ingredients, that bouquet is tamed considerably. If you’ve ever ordered summer or spring rolls at a restaurant and had the sweet, non-peanut dipping sauce that usually accompanies the rolls, you, my friend, have had fish sauce. See, it’s not scary, is it?

To make these great rolls, the first step is to make the pickled vegetables, also common in Vietnamese cooking. These add a bright, crisp, slightly vinegary flavor that really helps show off the herbs in the rolls. I’ve found it is best to slice the daikon (a root vegetable, related to the radish) and carrot into matchsticks. Soaking them in salt, sugar and rice vinegar makes for a lovely addition to the rolls.

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Daikon
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Sliced into matchsticks

Next, you’ll add two heads of minced garlic to a pound of ground pork. I know that sounds like a lot; it is a lot. But it’s worth it. Trust me. Just go with it. Trust.

0909151617aAdd some sugar into this, along with a packet of Alsa baking powder, and mix everything together with the pork. Allow the mixture to rest in the refrigerator for at least an hour to allow the flavors to come together.

What the baking powder does is add a certain lightness in the texture of the pork. Obviously, you can make it without the baking powder, but I do prefer it with.

After the rest in the fridge, form the meat into patties and grill. If you don’t have a grill, you could easily do this on a George Foreman or simply pan-saute them. If you have a grill pan, this would be a good recipe to break that bad boy out. However you choose to cook the patties, make sure the temperature is high enough to get a good sear and crust on the patties. No one likes grey meat. Blech.

0909152005One thing I really like about this recipe, and that I hadn’t seen before, is that uses egg roll wrappers to wrap up fresh chives. These are fried and added to the rolls. It adds a really awesome texture and even more herby flavor from the fresh chives. They also add a great visual aspect to the final rolls.

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Once the patties are grilled, get the greens together. I like using a crisp lettuce like romaine hearts, butter lettuce or even iceberg. It adds a nice crunch. Cilantro, mint, Thai basil, sliced scallions, lettuce and cucumbers are all fairly traditional garnishes. Some fresh, sliced jalapeno would also be lovely, if you want to add some heat.

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Once all the components are ready to go, heat up a few quarts or so of water. You want it hot, but still able to tolerate the heat on your hands. This needs to be in a large, wide bowl in order to hydrate the rice paper. Take one sheet of rice paper and dip it into the water, rotating as necessary to make sure all the sheet has been dunked in the water. You want to make sure that the sheet does not fall over onto itself, or else you’ll end up with a blob you can’t really use. Transfer the rice paper to a plate or large cutting board.

Now for the best part! You get to assemble your roll with whatever you want! I like to start with the meat patty down first, slightly off center. I then add the egg roll wrapper next to it, followed by a bit of lettuce on the other side of the patty. Add some of the pickled daikon and carrot on top of that. Add whatever herbs take your fancy on top. I like to finish with cucumbers on top.

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If you look closely, you can see the sphere of the rice paper. It’s delicate, so be gentle in handling it, once hydrated.

After everything is in place, wrap it up like a burrito! Fold the top and bottom towards the center, while simultaneously pulling the fillings slightly towards your non-dominate hand. Wrap the side as fully over the fillings as you can without breaking the rice paper. Tuck the fillings into this little pocket as tightly as possible and continue rolling to the end. Try and keep everything as tight as you can without ripping the rice paper. This will make it easier to eat. I prefer to cut the rolls in half. You get a bit more sauce in each dip, and because the ends are sealed, it doesn’t get everywhere quite a messily as dipping them from the ends and eating them that way. Although there is nothing wrong with making a mess.

You could also opt to forgo the rice paper altogether and making a salad out of all the lettuce and herbs. It’s a great way to eat any leftovers and makes for a filling and healthy lunch the next day.

You can find the complete recipe and instructions over at The Ravenous Couple’s website. I love their recipe, as is, and have not altered it at all (which is very, VERY rare for me). Because of this, I’m not going to steal any thunder from them. I’ll do this with recipes that I have not altered, in either ingredients or technique, as credit is fully deserved to those who wrote or published their and their family’s recipes. Please check out their site. They have TONS of great recipes! Enjoy these last rays of summer sun and longer evenings. Share a meal with someone you care about. Let them know you love them. Find a recipe using a new ingredient. Above all, be kind to one another. Till next week, dear readers ­čÖé

Original Recipe from The Ravenous Couple.

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Summer Rolls

Chicken Piccata

Hello! Welcome to The Silver Fork, my little corner of this huge thing we call the Internet. Let me start off my telling you a little bit about myself, for those of you who don’t know me. My name is Madeline and I’m absolutely passionate about food. One of my biggest joys in life is cooking and feeding those I love. I figured it’s time for me to share that with this great big world, hence this little blog. I just don’t have the space to invite you all over for dinner all the time! I am a smartass through and through, so there’s that. I love loyally and fiercely. I will stand up for and protect those I love with everything I have, including my dog Caesar. You’ll hear quite a bit about him and my amazing husband, Ethan. I love reading and will tear through a book like nobody’s business. It’s like escaping to your own little world every time you crack a new book ope. I love it. I cannot abide rude people. I really can’t. This world would be so much of a better place if people were polite to each other, and although I can be temperamental and moody, I try to make sure that I treat those I meet every day with respect and politeness.

Well, enough about me, let’s get to what you’re all here for: the food! My first recipe will be one my mom used to make for my dad and I quite a bit. It’s chicken piccata. I’ve always loved it, and it’s probably my dad’s most requested dinner. Not only is it amazing, but it’s also very quick to make and you likely have most, if not all, of the ingredients in your kitchen already. You can have this on the table in less than half an hour. In addition to those things, which already make it a hella good recipe, it’s also sophisticated enough to serve to guests. You pretty much just brown chicken, make the sauce (only five ingredients in it!), make the pasta, finish the chicken and serve. That’s it! However, due to the fact that it is a very simple dish, it’s incredibly important to use high-quality ingredients, although I think that’s true of whatever it is that you’re making.

A few notes on the sauce: like I mentioned, there’s not a lot that goes into it. The three biggest components are white wine, chicken stock and lemon juice. In regards to the wine, it’s best to use a lighter one here. A mature, oaky chardonnay will completely overpower the other flavors. I would highly suggest using a sauvignon blanc (my favorite!). The clean, minerally flavors meld very well with the other components of the sauce. A pinot grigio also works very well. Be careful with a reisling, as the sweetness may totally dominate. For the love of all things holy, do not use moscato. In fact, just get rid of that crap. Blech.

As for the chicken stock, if you have some homemade in your freezer, now is the time to bust that out. If not, please get a high-quality stock. If you live an area with a Kroger-affiliated store, their Simple Truth Organics brand is a good bet, as is Kitchen Basics. Today, I found this new feature from Progresso and was pleasantly surprised at how good it was. Although it’s a bit on the salty side, it’s the closest I’ve found to a homemade stock. It’s a little pricey ($3.49/carton), so it may not be suited for every day uses in your household, but for a recipe where the taste of the stock will play a big role, it’s worth it.

0908151721aLemons are lemons are lemons. Just please use fresh. None of that squeeze bottle crap, ok?

The one ingredient in this recipe that some of you may not be familiar with is capers. They are the flower buds of the caper bush and come in a liquid brine. They have a distinctive taste; very salty and briny, but not overpowering. I love them. In fact, I love them so much that all my life, I have been known to eat them out of the jar. No joke. When I was a kid, from the time I was about five or so, I would get a jar in my stocking. This continued until I was about 21 or 22 (Mom, if you’re reading this, please start this tradition again), that’s how much I love these things. You can find them at any grocery store. They’re usually with the pickles. The brine also makes a great alternative to olive juice in a martini.

0908151811So, here’s the basic process: butterfly however many chicken breasts you plan on cooking (one per person is a safe bet), season some flour with salt and pepper and dredge the chicken in the flour mixture.

IMG_20150908_185826Heat butter and oil in a skillet over medium to medium high heat. You want both in the pan. The reason is the butter is there for flavor, but it has a low smoking point, making it difficult to get good browning on the chicken. The olive oil helps increase the smoking point of the butter, allowing for browning and flavor to develop.0908151741(1)You don’t need to worry about cooking the chicken all the way through at this point. They’re going back in the pan to finish later. This is a good time to get a pot of water on to boil. Once the chicken is removed from the pan, deglaze the pan with the wine, making sure to get any of those tasty bits stuck to the bottom. Here’s a bit of culinary trivia knowledge for you: the technical term for the browned bits is fond. If you win Jeopardy from that bit of info, please split the winnings with me.

Once the pan is deglazed and the alcohol has cooked out of the wine, add the chicken stock, lemon juice and capers. Once everything is boiling, reduce heat to a simmer allow the sauce to boil down by a third. Be aware that this sauce is going to remain very liquidy. It’s not a thick, tight sauce.Once it’s reduced, add the chicken back to the pan. Allow the chicken to finish cooking uncovered. The flour on the chicken will help the sauce tighten up a bit. Once the chicken has finished cooking and the pasta is done to your liking, throw some chopped Italian parsley into the sauce. Do this at the last minute. It adds a nice color and some subtle savory flavor to counterbalance the acidity of the sauce. Serve with some steamed spinach and a simple salad.

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Do you have an idea for a future post you’d like to see? Let me know! I’m down to try cooking just about anything!

Notes: If the sauce remains too watery after adding the chicken back into the pan, you can add a cornstarch slurry to help things thicken up. This makes for a great lunch the next day. Just be sure to store any leftover pasta separate from the sauce, so it doesn’t get soggy. If you’re feeling really fancy, you can also do this with veal cutlets in place of the chicken. You won’t need to cook further after adding them back into the pan; just warm them in the sauce.

Recipe

Serves 2

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

1 tbs. unsalted butter

1 tbs. olive oil (you don’t need to use extra virgin here; whatever you’ve got on hand)

1 chicken breast per person, sliced through center to create two thinner halves

1/2 cup flour, for dredging

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. freshly ground pepper

1/4 cup white wine

1-1 1/2 cups homemade or high-quality chicken stock

Juice from two lemons

2 tsp. capers

Zest from one lemon (optional)

1 smallish handful of Italian parsley, finely chopped

Pasta, for serving. I like to use spaghetti or angel hair. Fettuccine and linguini are too thick for the delicate sauce.

  1. Set a large skillet on medium to medium high heat and add olive oil and butter. Swirl to mix and melt the butter.
  2. Add the salt and pepper to the flour in a pie tin or large plate and dredge the chicken breasts in the flour mix.
  3. Once the oil/butter mixture is hot and bubbling, add the chicken to the pan. Allow to brown undisturbed; flip when golden. Depending on how many chicken breasts you’re cooking, you may need to do this step in batches, as to not overcrowd the pan. Once all chicken is browned, remove to plate and reserve.
  4. Place a pot of salted water on high heat to boil. Once boiling, add pasta and reduce heat. Cook until al dente.
  5. Do not wipe out the pan. Pour wine into pan and stir to pull up the fond from the bottom of the pan. Allow alcohol to cook out.
  6. Add chicken stock and lemon juice. Bring sauce to a boil and reduce heat to simmer. Allow sauce to reduce by half.
  7. Add the capers and stir.
  8. Place all the chicken back into the pan, with any juices collected on the plate. Spoon sauce over chicken and allow to cook until internal temperature reaches 165 degrees, or juices run clear when poked with a knife.
  9. Add parsley to sauce and stir to distribute.
  10. Divide pasta among plates and place one to two chicken pieces on plate. Spoon sauce over pasta and chicken. Serve immediately.
Chicken Piccata