Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Rolling out the Summer Days: Shrimp Gỏi Cuốn

Vietnamese Summer Rolls: a great way to roll out the summer days.

Growing up my parents had a best hits of Nat King Cole CD that we used to listen to a lot.  Among my many talents I can count the ability to sing every word to songs like "Mona Lisa" or "Unforgettable" or even the lovely and charmingly mispronounced "Non Dimenticare."  Nat is at his best crooning love songs or romantic ballads, but I have to admit that one of my favorite songs was his catchy summertime ditty "Lazy, hazy, crazy days of Summer."  There's just something so idealized and appealing about living out "those days of soda and pretzels and beer" as you "dust off the sun and moon and sing a song of cheer" (dah dah dah-dah-dah!).

Well, I would hardly say that summer in Abu Dhabi features many guys and gals at drive-in movies or many decent 'sandwiches and weenies' given the scarcity of good pork in this part of the world, but at the very least it does provide the warm weather, beach and sunshine, all of which inspire me to cook fresh, quick foods that are both refreshing and feature heavily in local seafood.

One of the random foods that features in my theoretical top 20 foods of all-time (bold statement, I know) is Vietnamese Summer Rolls or Gỏi Cuốn.  Here are my top 5 reasons you should love them too.

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Rolling out Summer: Top 5 Reasons to Eat & Love Gỏi Cuốn
and the dipping sauce


5. A Seasonal Dispute
If you frequent Vietnamese restaurants, as is my wont, you will recognize the ubiquitous Summer or Spring roll always prominently displayed on the appetizer section of the menu.  It is unique because it has nothing to do with its delicious but evily-fattening deep-fried Chinese cousin, the Chinese Spring Roll.  I can't really find a straight answer regarding why some restaurants call Gỏi Cuốn 'Summer' vs 'Spring' rolls but my theory is this:  

Gỏi Cuốn translates literally into "mixed salad rolled" which is a literal and apt description of what you are eating when you eat gỏi cuốn.  I suppose assigning a warm and "fresh" season to the name is more evocative for the Western market, and then on top of that I think some people consider "spring" to be fresher than "summer" which could be one reason for the misnomers.  I think also, sadly, so many people are so unfamiliar with the differences between Asian cuisines (as in, they assume everything is Chinese or Thai) that calling this food a "spring roll" is the only way to evoke the image of a food that is rolled, stuffed and Asian for most consumers.

Whatever the reason, and whatever the season - these rolls are fresh.  And that's the best kind of food in Summer and Spring.

4. The Hoa-Hoa Factor.
Back when I was a college student, I used to visit a friend of mine at the University of Texas Austin quite often.  And everytime I visited I would call ahead and beg him to go to the Dobie Mall to a tiny hole-in-the-wall Chinese/Vietnamese mall foodcourt food stand where I always ate a ridiculous meal that I love to this very day: Vietnamese Summer (Spring) Rolls and Hot and Sour Soup.  He would get me my Spring rolls and soup and bring it to me when I arrived from the airport, and it hit the spot every time.  

To me, the Hoa Hoa Restaurant (apart from having a hilarious name) was a small piece of paradise because it featured all my favorite Chinese take-out standbys paired with what were then extremely exotic-seeming Vietnamese offerings.  When I first saw these rolls, transparent, cool and filled with giant shrimp, I ordered them immediately and I have been "hooked" (sorry Aggies) ever since.  So much so that to this day, I always feel compelled to cook Hot and Sour Soup whenever I have gỏi cuốn, even though I rarely actually do.

3. That finger-licking Dipping Sauce.
Vietnamese food opened up a new world to me with regards to dipping sauces.  Not to overstate the importance or actual quality of the Hoa Hoa (it seriously is just a cheap foodcourt stand), but they also introduced me to two things which I can now no longer live without for my Summer rolls: Sriracha sauce (go on, join the fan club) and Hoisin Peanut dipping sauce, neither of which are actually even Vietnamese.  Sriracha is a Thai chili sauce (which incidentally I cannot find in the UAE so if anyone wants to ship me some that would be great, thanks :P) and Hoisin is Chinese.  Both have strong flavors and are to be used sparingly (though I don't follow that advice myself).   

Anyway, the dipping sauce I prefer to make for my Summer Rolls is Hoa Hoa Style: Hoisin sauce, chunky peanut butter, rice vinegar, minced garlic, salt, pepper and a generous dash of Sriracha at the top.  The flavors are complex and intense and pair perfectly with such a simple, borderline-monotone dish as Summer Rolls.

2. They are really Mexican, actually.  
Or not. But kinda. :)
What appeals to me so much about Summer rolls is that they include a lot of flavors common to Mexican cuisine but in an Asian form and presentation.
Firstly, they are made with rice paper and rice noodles (vermicelli): rice is a staple food of Mexico and I am addicted to it.
Secondly, they are rolled with fresh lettuce and herbs, featuring prominently among them cilantro and Vietnamese Cilantro - the first of which is an obvious Mexican (and personal) favorite.  Thirdly, the fresh shrimp: while I suppose shrimp doesn't actually feature more prominently in Mexican cuisine than it does in Italian or Vietnamese or even Danish cooking, it is a national favorite cooking in as many ways as you can possibly imagine.
And lastly, the spicy dipping sauce is a perfect combination of salt, sweet and sour - a flavor combo very commonly found in Mexico anywhere from street stands selling cucumber pieces drenched in lime juice and chili sauce to high end gastronomic restaurants where you can order homemade sweet-sour tamarind water or complex moles made with every ingredient under the sun.

1.They bring out the lazy, hazy and crazy in me.
Lazy: These are SO quick and easy to make if you have the ingredients at home!
Hazy: I go into a trance once they are set in front of me.
Crazy: I can seriously eat 6 of these in one sitting!

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Vietnamese Summer Rolls
Makes 4-6 Rolls

The recipes I used were a combination of pulling from Summer Rolls I have eaten in the past and getting hints from online recipes including this one for pork Summer Rolls.  I also put a little Mexican spin on these by marinating the shrimp in lime and hot sauce (it adds a huge amount of flavor).  You can use any combination of greens and herbs you like - some people leave out the lettuce, others add cucumbers and julienned carrots and some people hate cilantro so they just use basil and mint or no herbs at all.  It's a fun, fresh, fast dish that can be altered and tailored to every palate.

Rice Wrappers
12-15 large shrimp, shelled and deveined
4-6 lettuce leaves (I used Boston lettuce but Romaine or Iceberg would also work)
1/2 pack of rice vermicelli
4-6 rice paper wrappers
1 small bunch clinatro
1 lime
1-2 tbsps sriracha hot sauce

 Dipping Sauce:
2 tbsps Hoisin Sauce
1/2 tbsp chunky peanut butter
1-2 tsps rice vinegar
1 clove garlic, crushed and finely minced
salt and pepper to taste
sriracha sauce to taste (or you can use fresh red chilli, sliced)

1. Bring water to boil in a medium pot, and then throw the shrimp in.  Cover the pot and turn off the heat.  Allow them to cook for 1-2 minutes or until completely opaque but not overdone.  Remove from water, place in an ice bath to stop cooking, then pat dry and set aside in a small bowl.

2. Using the same water you boiled the shrimp in, once again bring it to a boil (adding more water if necessary) and then add the vermicelli.  Again, turn off the heat and cover allowing the noodles to cook (this literally takes 1 minute).  Drain noodles from the water, run cool water over them to stop cooking and then set aside in the refrigerator until the noodles are cold.

3. Once the shrimp are cool, pour the juice of the lime and the sriracha sauce as well as salt and pepper to taste over them.  You can even chop some cilantro and add this to the mix.  Mix well and set aside.
4. Fill a large bowl (large enough to fit one of the rice paper wrappers comfortably) with warm-to-mildly hot water.  You should be able to comfortably hold your hand in the water but it should be hot enough to soften the rice wrappers.

5.  Making only one roll at a time, soften the rice wrapper by gently soaking it in the warm water until soft.  Don't leave it too long or it will soften too much and rip / loose its elasticity.  Place the wrapper on clean counter space, then lay 1 lettuce leaf over it.  On top of that lay a couple of sprigs of cilantro, then a small handful of vermicelli noodles in a bunch, then on top of that 2-3 shrimp, all about an inch from the edge.   Roll into a spring roll shape.  For help, please see this funny video.  You should really make these just before eating as they don't particularly keep well in the fridge or out of it.

6. For the dipping sauce, combine all ingredients to taste and serve with the freshly rolled spring rolls (and some hot and sour soup if you're a freak :) ).

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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

An Oldy-but-Goody: Tortitas de Atun (Mexican Fishcakes)

Comfort food: Tortitas de Atun
Everyone needs to have a couple of simple, delicious, full-proof recipes in their cooking arsenal: the kind of food that comforts, fulfills, and delights every time it's put on the table.  

In my mom's house one of these such recipes was an old favorite from her own childhood: "tortitas de atun" or, translated from Spanish, "little tunafish patties" (fishcakes, for you foodies out there). We ate these things at least once every two weeks and rarely tired of the perfect combo of potato and fish that has been eaten over the years by numerous cultures in countless permutations.  But in addition to the good taste, there was something comforting about the tortita ritual because you always knew when you saw the stack of fried tortitas on the table that you'd have Mexican tabbouleh to go with them, that there would be plenty of warm corn tortillas to make them into tacos with and that the cream and salsa would sit prominently on the table to garnish them with.  To this day, my sister and I still make them for our own families, which is a testament in and of itself to the deliciousness (and simplicity) of these fishcakes.

My Sous-Chef

While I am an unabashed devotee of my mom's version of tortitas de atun, one day a week ago or so I found myself thinking and wondering the unthinkable and unwonderable: how could I improve upon this old classic and make it a true Mexican-inspired summertime dish?  

Today's recipe is the answer.  This dish is fried but it manages to stay light, especially when served immediately and with a fresh salad on the side. Enjoy.

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Tortitas de Atun: Mexican Style

Makes 14-16

Something most people probably wouldn't know about Mexican food is the way that summer squash features prominently in it.  People in Mexico love to eat "calabacitas" as they call the diminutive and lighter colored zucchini that are so commonly found at markets.  They eat the vegetable (or "fruit") and are completely obsessed with the flowers.  Happily, this type of mini zucchini is also readily available here in the UAE.  It is smaller and lighter in color (sometimes called baby or fingerling) than the variety generally found in the U.S. and I prefer it for that reason as the flavor tends to be more intense the smaller the vegetable. Zucchini is a summer crop by nature (best from May to August) which means that right now is still a good time to grab it.  

For this recipe I used a combination of zucchini with sweet corn and cilantro - all very Mexican flavors - to add a fresher feel to my mom's fishcakes.  I then served them with a quick Chipotle hot sauce that takes two seconds to make and adds the perfect bite.  The result was excellent and I think I will continue to use this version in the future as it is also a great way to get Roman to eat even more veggies.

1 can tunafish in water
~1/2 cup cilantro, chopped coarsley
~1/3 cup parsley, chopped coarsley
1 cup frozen sweet corn
4 small zucchini
1 small onion, chopped
1 medium jalapeno pepper, chopped finely
4-5 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
1 pinch paprika
1 egg
salt and pepper to taste
3/4 cup flour
vegetable oil for frying

Quick Chipotle Sauce
1/2 cup sour cream or plain yogurt
salt to taste

1. Peel and cube the potatoes and then put them to boil in salted water until completely tender - about 15 minutes.  Drain and mash the potatoes until smooth.  Allow to cool for 10 minutes or so.

2. Meanwhile, chop the onion and zucchini into small cubes.

3. Add the chopped herbs, corn, zucchini, onion, jalapeno, mustard, paprika, salt and pepper to the mashed potatoes and mix with your hands.  Once the mixture is well-combined, drain the water from the tuna and add it to the mixture.  Mix it in gently, leaving chunks rather than allowing it to break-up completely.  Add the egg to the mixture and combine completely.

4. On a piece of wax paper or foil pour out the flour.  One by one, form little fishcake patties (about 3 inches in diameter and 1/2 inch high) in your hand, rounding the edges.  Then roll the fishcake gently in the flour, covering all sides, and shaking off excess.  Repeat this process in batches until all the mixture is used, frying some of them as you go so the flour won't soak into the fishcake.

5. Once you have finished forming and flouring the first batch of fishcakes, warm about 3/4 cup to 1 cup of vegetable oil in a large non-stick frying pan.  Then add as many fishcakes as will fit uncrowded to the pan.  Allow them to cook about 1-2 minutes on each side or until nicely golden-brown on both sides.  Remove from the pan to a plate lined with paper towels to soak up the excess oil.

6.  Salt the fishcakes while they are still hot and remove them to a serving dish.

7. Make the chipotle sauce by combining the cream and chipotles/adobo.  You can mix it completely but I prefer to leave some striations of cream and chipotle - not only does it look better, it guarantees more distinct flavors.  Add salt to taste if necessary.

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