Vietnamese Spring Rolls

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Spring rolls are among my favorite of Vietnamese foods. They are easy, healthy, filled with lots of veggies, and are bursting with flavor. Spring rolls are usually my go-to when I am entertaining a large group of friends. They are convenient because people roll them up themselves, which saves me a lot of extra time in the kitchen. All I have to do is wash and cut up veggies, and cook my protein. After tasting pre-made spring rolls from Trader Joes, I’ve realized how good the real thing is compared to what is out there! So do yourself a favor and make some for yourself.

While most American families have a roast for their Sunday night family dinners, my family gatherings usually consisted of an assortment of Vietnamese and Chinese fare. So eating spring rolls became a staple for my family. I am always reminded of fun times eating with my grandmother, aunts, and uncles when I whip up some spring rolls for myself. I am transported back to my pre-adolescent days smiling and nodding along as my family members tried to instruct me on proper spring rolling form. As a youngster, I thought I knew everything, especially about cooking and food. I had spent hours watching Food Network stars every day, so it would only be natural for me to be an expert at this simple food preparation….wrong. It took me a long time to master rolling these babies up. In my adulthood I would finally realize that I was too greedy with my rolls. That was why they would always burst apart. I thought that I could fill them up as full as you would a burrito.

There are many variations on Vietnamese spring rolls. The formula is this:

Spring roll wrapper + protein + lettuce + fresh crunchy veggies (cucumber and carrot) + fresh herbs (mints & basil) + vermicelli rice noodle

Another delicious variation of spring rolls involves having a huge fried fish in the middle of the dinner table. You take small pieces of fish and place them into your spring roll wrapper, filling it with noodles and veggies. I usually make mine without noodles because I am trying to reduce my carbohydrate intake.

In terms of dipping sauces, the two most common ones are: fish sauce or hoisin peanut sauce. I personally prefer fish sauce, but hoisin peanut sauce pairs nicely with spring rolls that are filled with blander proteins, e.g., tofu, boiled shrimp, and boiled pork

Cooking notes/tips:

A common mistake in making spring rolls is that people dip their wrapper in water for much too long or they leave their noodles in water, and then place them in the spring roll. You’ll want to strain and completely dry your noodles before using them for spring rolls. And with the spring roll wrapper, just a quick dip in warm or hot water will be enough to soften the wrap. It takes a minute, so be patient. While you are layering your fillings in the wrapper, it will soften. So by the time you are ready to wrap, it should be perfectly soft enough. If it is not, then wait a minute longer. It might also be an indication that your water for dipping the wrapper needs to be hotter.

The pork marinade shared in this recipe can be used to prepare thin slices of pork that are used for vermicelli noodle salad and Vietnamese broken rice. Or you can just eat it with some white rice and call it a night. Because there is sugar in this marinade, burning will occur if your fire is on too high. Keep heat at medium or even medium low when cooking.

Because Vietnamese food is such a staple for me, I usually have loads of prepared fish sauce on hand. The recipe that I shared is for a smaller portion, but just use equal parts bottled fish sauce, fresh lemon juice, and water, with ½ the amount of sugar for best results. This prepared fish sauce is best when you give it time for its flavors to meld together. I recommend making the sauce the night before for best results. If not, then at least 30 minutes in the refrigerator. Always keep this sauce refrigerated and stored in a clean jar with a lid. This sauce is the same that is used for dipping in many Vietnamese salad and noodle salad dishes, so it is handy dandy to have some around.

Do not over-fill your spring rolls. The ingredients that you layer onto the wrapper should only take up a 1-1.5 inch thick horizontal strip on the edge of your wrapper that is closest to you. Cut up your meat, tofu, and veggies into thin strips to allow them to fit nicely onto your spring roll wrapper. Remember: less is more. As you wrap, make sure that you keep a semi-firm grip on your roll to make sure the wrap is tight.

Spring rolls are best eaten fresh. If they are refrigerated, the wrapper becomes hard. If you need to make them ahead of time, wrap each one individually with saran wrap. Microwaving them for 15 seconds can help to soften them up if they have been refrigerated.

Ingredients
2 pork chops
1 tbsp minced lemongrass
2 cloves minced garlic
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp fish sauce
pinch of sugar
2 tbsp oil

2 tbsp oil
1 block tofu, cut into ½ inch thick pieces

1 cucumber, cut into ½ thick sticks
1 bunch basil
1 bunch cilantro
1 bunch mint (optional)
1 bunch green onion (optional)
1 bunch red or green lettuce
½ carrot, julienned

Dipping Sauce: fish sauce
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp hot water, or to taste
sambal chili sauce to taste

Dipping sauce: hoisin peanut sauce
1 tbsp hoisin sauce
1 tbsp peanut butter
1 tbsp water, or to taste

1 pack spring roll wrappers
1 big pot of hot water

Marinate pork chops in lemongrass, minced garlic, soy sauce, fish sauce, and sugar. Allow to sit at least 1 hour. Overnight preferred.

Make fish sauce by adding minced garlic, sugar, fish sauce, lemon juice, hot water, and sambal. Allow to sit refrigerated at least 30 minutes.

Make hoisin peanut sauce by heating a saucepan on low. Add in peanut butter and allow to heat up. Then add hoisin sauce and mix in pan for a minute. Then add water to make sauce more runny and sauce-like. Continue stirring and remove from heat when sauce is at desired consistency (slightly thinner than the texture of pudding). Add in sambal (red chili sauce) if desired. Set aside.

Pat dry pieces of tofu to allow them to brown.

Turn on skillet on high. When pan is hot, add oil and reduce heat to medium low. Place tofu in pan and fry for 7-10 minutes on each side without moving the tofu. Fry until each side is golden brown. Turn over and allow the other side to brown ~7-10 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

Prep fresh vegetables and herbs. Set aside.

Turn on skillet on high. When pan is hot, add oil and reduce heat to medium. Add in pork chop and fry on each side until golden brown ~5 minutes each side. Set aside.

Assemble spring roll. Dip spring roll wrapper in pot of hot water. Once both sides are wet, immediately remove from water and place wrapper onto a plate. Place ½ a leaf of lettuce horizontally on edge of the wrapper that is closet to you. Then layer with pork and/or tofu, 1 stick of cucumber, 1 stick of carrot, and small handful of herbs. Place all ingredients in a neat horizontal line that is no more than 1 inch thick.

Then roll spring roll as you would a burrito. Roll horizontally and away from you until ingredients are just covered by the spring roll wrapper. Then fold up the left and right edges inward to close the edges of the roll. Roll the rest of it horizontally away from you and you end up with a spring roll.

Dip your spring roll into the fish sauce or hoisin sauce and enjoy!

Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

Beef and Basil Stir Fry

IMG_1017Growing up in southern California, I have been incredibly fortunate to have a variety of cuisines easily available to me. After visiting Thailand a few years ago and tasting the local cuisine, I realized that immigrants in America are doing a wonderful job retaining the authenticity of their native cuisine. There were a few specialty dishes that I had never even heard of, but the stir fries, noodles, and rice dishes were very comparable between the U.S. and Thailand. I even took a cooking class with my husband, friend, and her boyfriend. We were dropped off in the middle of a rice field, with no buildings in site except for one shack with no walls. I realized that this design was on purpose because it allowed copious airflow into the cooking area and all one could see was green all around. It was breathtaking and stark at the same time. We made tom yum soup, pad Thai, cashew nut chicken, and mangoes with sticky rice in humongous woks, which lit on fire when swerved the right way. This was one of the best meals I have ever had in my life and would highly recommend folks to take a cooking class like this in Thailand.

Thai food is really tricky to make at home because of its delicate balance of flavors. Many dishes have elements of sweet, savory, spicy, and tangy. Garlic, basil, lemongrass, bird chiles, and galangal, are the primary aromatics used. Having all flavors in perfect balance is the culinary goal. Thai stir fries are extra yummy in my opinion because the veggies are barely cooked, retaining a nice crunch and bite to them. This is true even for Thai curries. It’s a great reminder of the freshness of the ingredients being used. One of my favorite dishes in Thailand was a chicken curry noodle soup that hailed from the north. I will never forget the aromatic and slightly spicy broth, delicately kissed with sweetness from fresh coconut milk and palm sugar. Unfortunately, I have yet to figure out how to recreate this dish. That will have to wait for another post.

Stir fries are my go-to for meal prep throughout the week. They are quick and relatively easy to execute. Stir-frying can also be a very healthy technique of preparing food, assuming one does not use an excessive amount of oil. Using a huge ladle of oil for a stir fry is actually considered the authentic method. You’ll find that most of my recipes will find a way around this, as using excessive fat is unhealthy.

 

Cooking notes/tips:

An essential nuance in cooking with a wok is timing and knowing which ingredients to stir fry first, which to stir-fry together, and which must be separately stir-fried and then combined later on with the sauce. Most stir fried veggie dishes start off with the browning of garlic in oil before adding the other ingredients. The problem is that the garlic will quickly burn if it is not given some liquid. To prevent burning of garlic, I usually add a splash of water to my stir-fry after adding the vegetables. Traditional Chinese cooking utilizes LOADS of oil to prevent garlic from burning, but that is a rather unhealthy approach, so I prefer my splash of water.

In stir-fries involving meat and veggies, I almost always stir-fry the meat first, remove it from the pan, and then stir fry the veggies separately. This allows proper cooking of each ingredient, as cooking them all at once will create a watery mess. They are later combined and stir-fried with the sauce, which is oftentimes soy sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, fermented bean sauce.

Stir-fried vegetables should always retain some level of crunch after cooking. When in doubt, slightly undercook your veggies. That way, the residual heat will do the rest of the softening of the veggies. For people who follow a meal prep life, undercooking the veggies is a good strategy to give your veggies the perfect texture after re-heating.

 

Servings: 4-6
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes

Ingredients
½ lb Flank steak, cut into thin strips
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp corn starch
1 tbsp oil
1 bell pepper, sliced
½ onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 red jalapeno, thinly sliced
2 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tsp sugar
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 bunch basil

Marinate steak in soy sauce and corn starch. Allow to sit at least 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, prep other ingredients.

Turn on wok or skillet on high. When pan is hot, add oil. When oil is shimmery, add flank steak and stir fry for 3-5 minutes until beef is just cooked through. Then remove from heat.

Add oil to the skillet/wok, and when oil is shimmery, add in garlic and red jalapeno. Stir fry for 30 seconds-1 minutes to soften garlic and jalapeno. Then add bell pepper and onions. Stir fry for 3-5 minutes, until vegetables are slightly softened.

Add in beef and stir fry together. Add in oyster sauce, black pepper, and sugar. Stir fry another minute. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed with oyster sauce or additional soy sauce. Add in basil and stir fry until basil has just softened.

Remove from heat and serve.

Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

Rice Congee with Fish

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Rice congee is a classic Chinese breakfast dish. People from all over China and Hong Kong eat this dish. It has even spread to Vietnam, Korea, and Cambodia, and many other Asian countries. It is essentially the oatmeal of the East. The only difference is that congee is cooked down until the rice almost loses all of its original structure, resulting in a thick but wet soup. Another major difference is that rice congee is often eaten as a savory item. It is either cooked with a protein and its broth or with just plain water, then served with pickled savory vegetables. Oftentimes, it is served with a savory long donut for dipping.

When I think of congee, 2 things come to mind: grandmothers and being sick. The latter is not the most pleasant of thoughts, I realize. I have fond memories of having a big bowl of congee made lovingly by one of my grandmothers when I was down with a cold/flu. It was a vehicle for them to convey the warmth and love in their hearts. One grandmother actually made plain white rice porridge for us every day, which led to an eventual aversion to rice congee for much of my adolescence. As an adult, I can now reconnect with my roots and appreciate congee for both its complexity and simplicity.

Some classic congees are: egg, chicken and ginger, fish and ginger, pork and thousand-year egg.

 

Cooking notes/tips:

Make sure that you have an excellent quality broth to cook with your congee, because that is the foundation of flavor. If you rely solely on MSG-filled canned chicken stock, your congee will not be as nutritious or delicious. I always have homemade chicken stock in my freezer because I boil chicken for my dog to eat. If you want to make your own stock, just add some chicken thighs, breast, or bones to a big pot of water and let it simmer for an hour or so, and you’re good to go!

To save time, I use a rice cooker to cook the rice down first, and then I add it to the broth to cook down on the stove. Having the rice do its initial cooking in the rice cooker means that you do not have to monitor or stir until you start cooking it on the stove.

Toppings are everything when it comes to congee. Having fresh green onion and cilantro (unless you are one of those people with a genetically determined aversion to it) is almost a must. If you have time to make the shallot oil, that would be even better. Adding this touch is something I learned from my brother-in-law’s family, who has Cambodian roots. I believe Chinese people tend to drizzle a tiny drop of sesame oil as a topping for their congee.

Recipe
Serves: 4
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 2.5-3 hours

 1 quart chicken broth (homemade preferred)
1 quart water
½ cup michiu (rice wine)
1 cup white Jasmine rice, washed
2 tilapia filets (or other white fish)
4 tbsp minced ginger
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp of white pepper
3 tbsp fish sauce or to taste
1 bunch green onion, finely chopped
1 bunch cilantro, finely chopped
2 tbsp oil
1 shallot, thinly sliced

Heat a large pot with water, chicken broth, and rice wine. Once water begins to boil and turn fire to medium low. Add in rice. Drop a metal or porcelain spoon into pot –this prevents sticking. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking.

Boil for 2 hours until rice begins to cook down, resulting in a thicker consistency. (a thick soup texture). Stir occasionally and scrape bottom of pot to prevent burning and sticking.

Cut fish into thin pieces (½ inch thick) and marinade with fish sauce and ginger. Allow to sit for at least 10 minutes, then add to porridge. Cook on low fire for another 10 minutes until fish has cooked through and porridge is at desired consistency (much wetter and thinner than cooked oatmeal). Add approximately 4 tbsp of fish sauce, or to taste. Add white pepper.

While porridge finishes cooking, heat 2 tbsp of oil in a pan and place shallots in the oil. Fry on low medium heat until golden brown. Set shallot oil aside for topping.

Spoon into individual bowls and garnish with fresh green onion, cilantro, and some shallot oil.

Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

Chinese Spiced Meatballs

CEA054EE-A857-44BA-8530-9A1E08A3D268 (1)These meatballs transport me back to the past, when my now-husband (then-boyfriend) was completing an internship in Shenzhen, China. We had been a long distance couple since we first started dating. After 6 years of living in different ends of the state, it felt so good to finally live in the same city. We enjoyed 3 years of living together for the first time, and it was challenging but incredible. Unfortunately, after this brief period of bliss, life took us in different directions yet again. Ray was offered an internship in Shenzhen, China following his graduation from architecture school in 2013. He was in China for what felt like an eternity, but in actuality, was 3 months. The time difference and lack of cell phone data made it difficult for us to keep in touch. We had daily chats during his lunch time, when he would tell me about his upcoming weekend adventures or new food finds.

Ray and I are huge fans of good food. My way of showing love for him is to remember his favorites and to try to either recreate them or find a local restaurant that serves them. One of his favorite street foods came up again and again in our conversations: spiced lamb skewers. My family had never made these for us, as their culinary and cultural roots were in the Canton province of China. I had never tried Chinese lamb skewers until I attended the 626 Night Market, when I made it a point to finally sample this special treat. I was blown away by the explosion of flavor in my mouth-there was sweet, salty, spice, and heat all in one bite. After trying the traditional lamb skewers, I have wracked my brain to figure out how to recreate the dish. I did not have lamb available, so I used ground beef instead. When I eat these meatballs, I remember the time that he was in China, as well as the separation that we have weathered as a couple. Sweetness, bitterness, saltiness, and spice-this meatball carries it all; just like what life has to offer. Having these elements in balance is key to a beautiful dish and a beautiful life.

When Ray came back to the States, he was offered a job and had to move away. We were apart yet again. We were reunited in 2015 when I successfully matched to an internship near him. We found an apartment together, took in my family dog, and the rest is history. We are now newlyweds and cannot be more grateful for the amazing life that we have -full of love, family, friends, and wonderful moments. After all these years of distance and missing one another, we have learned to cherish the precious amount of time that we have together.

 

Cooking notes/tips:

When making any meat dish that is marinated, I highly recommend cutting of a small piece to cook and sample to taste for flavor. I prefer not to eat raw meat. So when you make any meatball/meatloaf dish or have a filling for ravioli or dumplings, always taste for seasoning before proceeding with your dish.

Do not over mix meatballs as they can become tough and difficult to eat. Mix just enough for your ingredients to be evenly distributed.

Thai restaurants provide delicious red pepper flakes that would be perfect for this dish. If you are getting takeout from a Thai restaurants, do not throw these red pepper flakes away. Making these spiced meatballs is a great way to use up this often discarded condiment.

Please do not add sesame oil or sesame seeds to a dish just because it is Asian. Not all Asian dishes have sesame oil and sesame seeds in them. In fact, Japanese and Vietnamese cuisines hardly use sesame oil. Korean cuisine uses it the most, followed by Chinese cuisine, and even then, only very specific Chinese dishes use sesame oil. Ok, end rant. Thanks for reading.

Recipe
Serves: 2
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 35 minutes

1 lb ground beef
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp salt
1 tsp seasoned salt (e.g., Trader Joe’s), to taste
1 tbsp red pepper flake
1 tbsp black pepper
2 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp rice wine
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp honey
optional: sambal (red chili sauce)

Directions

Prepare meatballs. Place ground beef, spices, soy sauce, rice wine, and sugar into a large mixing bowl. Use hands to mix together all ingredients. Set aside (preferably for 4 hours or overnight).

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Begin forming meat mixture into meatballs 1-2 inches in diameter.

Place meatballs onto an oiled baking tray, allowing some space between each meatball. Bake for 30 minutes.

Remove 2 tbsp of juices from cooked meatballs and mix with honey. Use this to glaze meatballs after they are cooked.

Optional: top with red chili sauce and serve hot.

Enjoy!