Summer Obsession

Out of all the food magazines out there, Food & Wine has been my favorite for more than a dozen years. So you can imagine how excited I was when the August issue arrived, with its “Vegetables Now” cover touting “25 Creative Fast & Delicious Vegetable Recipes”. So I settled in on the bus (where I do most of my reading these days) and opened up my magazine.

Watermelon and Radish Salad

They should have titled it “Vegetables Eventually,” because I had to flip through 96 pages of burgers and steak and sausages and mussels before I got to the vegetables. But before I got there, I read about Tom Colicchio’s favorite weekend recipes. I am a bit embarrassed to admit this, but I had to Google Top Chef because my knowledge of cooking competition shows begins and ends with the last 15 minutes of the season finale of Master Chef, and that was only because our friend Dave Miller was on it. Top Chef, the one with Salman Rushdie’s ex-wife. Got it.

But I do hope Tom What’s-His-Name reads this and invites me to his estate on Long Island, because I would like to personally thank him for this Thai-style radish and watermelon salad. It’s become my obsession this summer –like, stuffed pumpkin obsessed. I wanted to make it straight away. The radishes from the CSA were waiting in the crisper for me, and I spent my lunch hour collecting the herbs at Super 88. All I needed was the watermelon – not the easiest thing to schlep home on the T. With a baby.

Lilli and Rooster

I wasn’t alone in my obsession. I gchatted with Sylvie, who at the end of the chat left to cut up a melon. “Wait!” I wrote. “Did you see the new Food & Wine? There’s a radish and watermelon salad recipe that I’m obsessed with.” She came back to the screen. “Funny you should say that, because I bought this melon with that recipe in mind.”

After days of waiting and wanting, the weekend finally came, and so did a nasty head cold. I was so nervous about getting Lilli sick that I consulted my stepdad, a physician, about what to do: “Wash your hands like Lady MacBeth and wear a face mask when you’re near her.” His advice worked perfectly, but I knew that there was no way I could make the salad for our friends’ BBQ that weekend. So I put Rich in charge. “You know, dear, this recipe has A LOT of ingredients,” he said after reading the magazine. But he did it.

Finally, at the BBQ, I had a bowl of the salad – and was underwhelmed. I wished it had more punch. Maybe more fish sauce. Just a little more oomph. And then I heard hollering from across the back yard: “Oh my God! You guys, you have to try this watermelon salad! This is the best thing I’ve ever had. This salad, oh my God!” The other guests had spoken. Lesson learned: Don’t trust the girl with the cold when it comes to tasting new dishes.

A few notes: My wonderful friend Caitlyn was in from Portland last week. She lived in Thailand for five years so I had her take a look at the recipe. She said that everything about the recipe, except for the ginger, was dead on. She also made it clear that SQUID brand fish sauce is the only brand to use. Listen to Caitlyn.

Thai-Style Radish and Watermelon Salad by Tom Colicchio from August 2013 Food & Wine

¼ cup plus 2 Tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 Tablespoon Asian fish sauce

1 Tablespoon sambal oelek or other Asian chile sauce (use the Siracha that’s in your fridge)

2 teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

One 5-pound watermelon – rind and seeds removed, flesh cut into 1 1/2 –inch chunks (8 cups)

12 radishes, very thinly sliced

8 scallions, thinly sliced

2 fresh hot red chiles, such as Holland or cayenne, thinly sliced crosswise

¾ cup lightly packed mint leaves, coarsely chopped

¾ cup lightly packed Thai basil leaves, torn

Directions

In a large bowl, whisk the lime juice, fish sauce, sambal oelek and ginger. Season with salt and pepper. Add the watermelon, radishes, scallions and red chiles and toss. Fold in the mint and basil, season with salt and pepper and serve right away.

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Learning Curve

I’d like to establish a new meal train. Remember that meal train that I talked about in February? The one where people from the community would bring us meals during Lilli’s first few weeks? That was great, but, there also should be a meal train for when both parents go back to work full-time. Talk about juggling a schedule!

Lilli in her vest

Until that idea makes the Style Section of The New York Times, I’ll keep on working at that full-time job/daycare/ spending time with my baby/three meals a day balance that I’ve been tackling for these past few weeks. I’ve chatted with some friends who do it — with two toddlers, no less! Some cook meals for the week in a flurry on Sunday night. Others eat a lot of hummus. The crockpot seems to be a tried-and-true friend. (Meat seems to play a large role in that one, though, so I tend to stay away from mine.) I know my pressure cooker will be making a huge comeback on this blog very soon; I’ll just give it a few more weeks. My friend Jason, who’s done a lot of coaching with me, said last week, “Invest in a wok.” Luckily, my cousin Roz gave us a wok as a wedding present, but I have to admit I’ve barely used it in the past six years. That’s about to change, as you’ll see below.

Thai Eggplant and Basil

But first, there are also a few logistical things I’ve figured out that help me to get dinner together as Rich gives Lilli her evening bath: First, I am constantly doing prep work for the next meal. For example, while my salmon and sugar snap peas poached last week, I peeled and sliced up the next night’s parsnips. I chopped the onion for this recipe before Lilli woke up in the early morning, figuring that, if onion makes my eyes water, it can’t be good for a three-month-old. I keep the chopped onion in a designated Tupperware container in the fridge I have marked with a Sharpie pen.

I cleaned a bunch of parsley by resting it in a bowl full of cold water, right next to some cilantro getting the same treatment. I rubbed down mushrooms and soaked escarole in two washes of cold water last night while chatting on the phone with both Sylvie and Gayle. My methods still need tweaking, as I figure out what works the next day. Mango, I learned the hard way, is touch-and-go two days later.

Now, when I now look at a recipe, I break it down into segments, the way we used to parse a sentence in grammar school. But instead of labeling direct objects and clauses, I break down the recipe into steps that can be tackled at different times, sometimes days apart.

Smile

This dish here is a wok dish, so the actual cooking time is very short. I would also advise wearing rubber gloves to chop the hot pepper if you’re going to be in contact with a baby any time following making this dish. I actually picked up the eggplant, sesame oil and Thai basil at Super 88 (Err, sorry, Hong Kong Market) during my lunch break. Now, I’m not expecting all of you to be able to swing by the market during your lunch hour, although I have learned that markets open very early in the morning. There’s a chance you might see me and Lilli at Russo’s at 8am before she gets dropped off at daycare. If you’re wondering who else is at the market between 7am and 8am, the answer is: seniors.

Do you have a rice cooker? Some people don’t like unitaskers in the kitchen, but honestly, I’ve had my rice cooker since I was 18 years old, and it’s more than made up its $20 price tag. I also use it to cook millet; it’s so nice to set it and forget it. (A pressure cooker can do the same thing, although I find a wok and a pressure cooker on our stove to be a bit crowded.) And rice and most grains freeze and defrost very well.

on the table

This is a pretty quick meal once all the ingredients have been assembled. You can make the corn starch slurry and chop the onion, hot pepper and garlic as the eggplant softens and browns in the wok. The Thai basil can rest in a bowl of cold water as you get everything in order on your counter. And, depending on how many are dining, there’s a very good chance there will be leftovers for the next day’s lunch.

Although the original recipe calls for thin strips of red and green pepper, I eliminated them for time’s sake. They’d be great in the dish if you have the time to clean them.

Thai Fried Eggplant with Basil Adapted from Epicurious.com

Ingredients

3 medium-sized Chinese eggplants, halved and chopped into 1” – 1.5” pieces

1 medium onion, chopped into large pieces

3 Thai or Serrano chiles, finely chopped (depending on how hot you like things)

3 Tablespoons chopped garlic

A generous handful of fresh Thai basil leaves, roughly chopped

4 Tablespoons mild-flavored oil, like canola or sunflower, NOT olive

Sauce:

2-3 Tablespoons fish sauce

1 Tablespoon soy sauce

1-2 Tablespoons brown or palm sugar

¾ warm water

Slurry:

2 teaspoons corn starch mixed with 4 Tablespoons cold water

Directions

Mix fish sauce, soy, water and brown sugar; set aside.

Heat wok on medium-high heat. Add 2 Tablespoons oil and eggplants. Fry for 6 minutes on either side, or until they begin to brown and turn soft. Remove from wok.

Add 1 Tablespoon oil to wok. Add onions and fry for 6-7 minutes, or until soft and glossy. Remove from wok.

Heat remaining oil. Add garlic and chiles and fry until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add onions; fry for 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Return eggplant to the wok, and toss to combine.

Add sauce to the wok, stirring for 1 minute. Toss in basil.

Add corn starch, cooking until the sauce becomes thick and coats the vegetables. Serve immediately over hot rice.

Iron Chef: CSA

A few summers ago, I had the privilege of judging a local Iron Chef competition. The secret ingredient was not some creature off the ocean’s floor or an exotic fruit flown in from a far off island. Instead, it was the contents of the contestants’ Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes, to highlight New England’s incredible summer bounties.

The teams used different farms and were assured that they didn’t need to use their entire boxes. To make sure the competition was fair, a list of standard vegetarian ingredients was issued, to be used in moderate quantities to enhance the vegetables: eggs, butter, up to 24 oz of soy products, 1 can beans/chickpeas or up to 2 lbs dried legumes, vegetable broth, garlic, onion,  nuts, flour, rice, quinoa or couscous, cornstarch, cocoa, sugar, up to 6 oz of cheese,  salt, pepper, milk, extra-virgin olive oil, vegetable oil, mustard, vinegar, soy sauce, lemon/lime juice. Contestants were allowed to use any spices but got extra points for fresh herbs.

Some teams really stepped up for the competition and produced terrific dishes, including a refreshing tomato granita served in a hollowed-out cucumber and fresh, homemade pasta. Others, I am sad to report, did not. “A quiche?” I asked one team. “You bring me quiche? Do you want to win?”

(Side note: Before I get a dozen comments from people defending quiche, I just want to say, I get it. In fact, I keep a package of frozen Orinoco pie shells in my freezer, just in case I need to show up at a potluck at an hour’s notice: some eggs, some milk, a softened onion, a jar of roasted red peppers kept in the pantry for this specific food emergency, a fluffy pile of grated cheese. Yes, I get it. But there’s a contest going on, people!)

“Hey,” they responded, “We were at the Springsteen concert last night. It got out late. We didn’t have enough time. The crust is homemade, if that helps.” It helped, a little. Duly noted.

After the parade of dishes, we, the judges huddled upstairs comparing notes, where, a la Twelve Angry Men, I may have provoked a “spirited” conversation about which team should win. My favorite was the first team, which kicked off the competition with fresh summer rolls stuffed with ripe mango, served with a side of peanut dipping sauce. “But Molly,” my judges pointed out, “they broke the rules. There’s no such thing as a mango in a CSA box. There’s no such thing as a local mango, period. It’s New England! And rice papers? Peanut butter? Those things just aren’t allowed.” “But they were my favorite!” I argued. “I loved the mango in the summer rolls; so refreshing in this heat.”

I was outvoted ultimately, and realistically we couldn’t award the CSA Iron Chef competition to fresh mango summer rolls. I relented and begrudgingly shaved points from their score. The winner, I guess I should just mention at this point, was the tomato granita team, which was captained by my sister. Hey, I’m nothing if not impartial.

The fresh mango was such a treat for me. I never buy them, exactly for the reason why my fellow judges felt they had no place in the competition. But here’s the thing: It’s mango season, really and truly. As Melissa Clark wrote last month, springtime is mango season in India and all the hot steamy places mangoes grow. My Facebook feed is now full of photos of friends’ mango trees in Miami, brimming with the orange gems. Considering that we seem to have skipped from winter right into summer (complete with thunderstorms and tornadoes) the time is right for fresh mango summer rolls.

I bought my rice papers at H-Mart in Burlington, but I’ve also picked them up at Super 88 (now Hong Kong Market) at Packard’s Corner. The Thai basil and fresh mint are what makes it taste like a summer roll. I picked up my bunches at Russo’s this time around, but I know H-Mart and Hong Kong Market sells them as well.

If you’ve never made a summer roll before, don’t fret, it’s very simple. Think burrito. Some of the rice papers will rip, but just keep going. And please don’t worry if they don’t all look gorgeous; they’ll still taste delicious. Make sure you have all your ingredients laid out on the counter assembly-line style, starting with a pan of warm water for soaking the rice paper.

To prepare the mango: I peel mine with a peeler, then I stand it up and, with a sharp knife, cut the flesh right up off its pit. For this dish, I slice everything very, very thin, the length and width of two matchsticks.

Most recipes I’ve read for summer rolls call for Napa cabbage, although I’ve never actually been served them that way in a restaurant. After ranch dressing, this is the best use of iceberg lettuce.  I thought that some crisp, sweet red pepper would be nice with the mango, and it was. I also used some fresh tofu, and I’ve seen some restaurants use grilled meat in theirs. I say go for it, if that’s your thing. Otherwise, hello, vegan yumminess!

Fresh Summer Rolls

8 rice papers, but keep more around because some will rip

One head iceberg lettuce, thinly sliced. Use a plastic knife if you’ve got one handy; steel knives will cause the lettuce to brown.

¼ cup Thai basil, julienned

¼ cup fresh mint leaves, julienned

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

Toss all ingredients together in a large bowl.

Half a red pepper, cleaned and sliced the width and length of two matchsticks

One mango, sliced the width and length of two matchsticks

One block tofu, sliced the width and length of two matchsticks

Directions:

Fill a large pan with warm water and set on counter. Next to that, place a large plate. If you have room on your counter, place the herbed lettuce directly in back of the plate. If not, place it right next to the plate. Next to that, set your plate of mango, tofu and red peppers.

Take one sheath of rice paper, gently lay it into the water, swish it between your fingers for about 15 seconds, until it softens.

Remove it from the pan and lay it on the plate.

Place about ¼ cup of lettuce near the bottom of the paper. Add a slice of mango (or two), red pepper and tofu.

Fold up the bottom, then the sides, and roll up to the top.

Repeat.

And please don’t get frustrated if the first two or three, or even the seventh, rips. It will happen.

Peanut Butter Sauce

1 cup peanut butter

1 cup coconut milk

2 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce

1 tablespoon brown sugar

2 cloves chopped garlic

1 tablespoon grated ginger

Juice of half a lime

Mix all ingredients in bowl and give it a taste. Maybe you’ll realize it needs more sugar. Maybe you’ll think it needs more ginger. Definitely fine tune it to your own tastes. Also, this makes a ton of sauce. It will keep in the fridge for a few days. My suggestion is to find yourself some steamed broccoli and some noodles. Maybe brown rice. I promise you at no time will you throw your hands up in the air and shriek that you have too much peanut sauce on hand.