Monday, May 23, 2011

a hint of mint

Ahhh, sunshine! Let's see how long it lasts. I have jumped at the chance to spend some time in my backyard, now very overgrown with spring blossoms and fresh herbs. This month the poor garden has experienced neglect due to my heavy schedule of catering parties and further hampered by the ambush of rain on my rare days off.
A tangle of mint and chives begins to take over the herb garden.
This week found me making hors d'oeuvres for a cocktail party for thirty people in a spacious Tribeca loft. On the menu: Spring Rolls, naturally, as what could be a more perfect season for them? I like to experiment with different ingredients when I make these, but one addition I always use is mint leaves. The mint adds a freshness and a bit of an eye opening surprise. The rest of the filling is a combination of different pickled vegetables, usually radish and cucumbers with a sprig or two of blanched broccoli and bean thread noodles for some substance.
Ingredients are assembled and ready to go.
I really like playing with this recipe, trying new combinations of fillings. The challenge for me is getting these little guys rolled tightly enough. Having watched a kitchen staff at a Vietnamese restaurant expertly roll them in quick deft movement to produce perfect packages I bemoan my own still less than nimble technique. My friend Rachel, an actress and film maker who is a native of Taiwan, suggested I try using peanuts ground with sugar to help keep the spring rolls tightly wrapped, as her family traditionally does. What a fantastic idea! The results were my usual slightly limp roll, but the addition of the sugar and peanuts gave them a distinctive flavor twist that I loved.
 Peanuts and sugar crushed using morter and pestle.
Assemble your ingredients and practice the art of rolling-up. It is a fun and tasty endevour, worth the slight frustration as you attempt to master the technique.

Spring Rolls with Mint and Peanuts
 2 Tbs. sugar
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1 cup of daikon radish, cut into julienne strips
1.5 cups of cucumber, cut into julienne strips
2 cups of bean thread noodles (also known as cellophane noodles), cooked
2 Tbs. Sesame oil
1/2 cup peanuts
1 bunch of scallions, green part only, cut into julienne strips
20 mint leaves cut into chiffonade ribbons
2 cups of cooked broccoli, cut into long strips
1 package of Spring Roll Wrappers (found in Asian markets)

Mix 1 Tbs sugar with the rice vinegar. Pour half the mixture over the radishes and half over the cucumbers and toss. Toss the bean thread noodles with the sesame oil. Crush the peanuts and 1 Tbs. sugar together in a morter and pestle or food prosesor. Assemble all the ingredients in bowls in front of you to start the rolling.  Fill a bowl with warm water. Quickly dip the rice wrapper in the water and lay it on the counter in front of you. Take a teaspoon of the peanut sugar mixture and spread it out over the wrapper. In the center of the rice wrapper lay a few strands of noodles, radish, cucmber, scallions, broccoli and mint. carefully fold over the edges left and right, to cover the ingredients, then roll up the wrapper from the bottom as tightly as possible to make a fat cigar shape. Set roll aside and continue with the rest of the wrappers, making about ten rolls. Serve immediately.

Dare I attempt this? Deb, if you find this a little challenging, I can only imagine how it will be for me! When I saw "spring rolls", I immediately thought this would be a deep-fried dish. How pleasantly surprised I am to find this is not the case. This looks like a fun, interesting recipe to play around with.

The spring rolls are light, so they call for a wine that is not too heavy. You want the body of the wine to be in synch with the "weight" of the foods you are enjoying. Muscadet is a French wine which is made in the Loire Valley region of the country. The Melon de Bourgogne grape is used (often referred to as melon). Look for wines from the sub-appellation Muscadet-Sevre et Maine (this will be designated on the label).

The wines are most often light  bodied, fresh and crisp, and might even have a "fizzy" sensation. The acidity keeps the wines refreshing, and might even have a "salty" note to them. These wines are best enjoyed young - if you are looking to buy one now, look for the 2010 or 2009 vintages. Muscadet is classicly paired with shellfish, particularly oysters. The wines are typically low-ish in alcohol (12%), which makes them extremely food-friendly.

The light, crisp nature of the wine is ideal for the spring rolls. Neither will overpower the other. La Touche Muscadet is a favorite of mine ($11.99). It has wonderful zippy acidity and beautiful minerality. Perfect for Deb's Spring Rolls!

Monday, May 9, 2011

herbs and grains


This is my favorite season in the garden. Everything looks fresh, green, tender, and not yet overgrown. We have waited so long for this moment and the reward is heavenly. The dogwood tree planted last year which did not flower that first spring is now covered in blossoms! Ahhh!!

I do not posses the greenest of thumbs despite my passionate gardening heart. I seem to have the most success with herbs, which I use abundantly in cooking. The tenderest of herb shoots are now spreading themselves out in my planting beds and I am ready to make the most of them.

Lemon Balm grows like a weed! I love it in iced tea. 

I happened to be scurrying around Chelsea Market yesterday, sourcing ingredients for a big catering event, and tripped over a pop up restaurant being hosted by the James Beard Foundation. I had only minutes to spare, but managed to swoop around, hitting all the free tastings and I even checked out their lunch menu, which featured some very attractive grain salads. Not having time to actually sample one, I decided to go home and make my own.
Sorrel has a tangy sharp flavor. This varigated variety is so pretty.

Grains and fresh herbs seem like a perfect springtime combination. I wanted to also include the Turkish olive oil my sister brought home for me from her recent travels. The rice blend I used had a satisfying, chewy-nutty flavor and it paired perfectly with the intense herby-garlicky vinaigrette that I doused it in. My first bite immediately made me wish for some feta cheese, so I would recommend that addition to this recipe.

Rice Salad with Feta Cheese and Fresh Herb Vinaigrette

1 cup of brown rice (or a brown rice blend)
1 quart of water
1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup finely chopped mixed *fresh herbs
1 garlic clove finely minced
3 Tbs. red wine vinegar
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
salt & pepper to taste

1/2 cup green olives, chopped
1/2 cup feta cheese, cut in 1" cubes
1 cup of fresh spinach or sorrel leaves, sliced into ribbons

In a sauce pan, bring the water to a boil, add the rice and the salt and cook till rice is tender, about 25 minutes for brown rice. Drain Rice.
Make the vinaigrette: combine the herbs, garlic, vinegar, salt and pepper in a small bowl (you can set this up while the rice is boiling to allow the herbs to infuse the vinegar with their flavor).  Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, whisking as you go. Combine the warm rice to the vinaigrette, add the olives, feta cheese and the spinach or sorrel.

Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Allow the herbs time to infuse the vinegar
to intensify the flavor

*the herbs I used from my garden for this recipe: lemon balm, oregano, sorrel, chives
Also good would be: dill. basil, tarragon, parsley, savory, chervil

Looks gorgeous! Your pictures are the impetus for me to get my own herb garden started! In an effort to cut down on my lunch expenses at work, I like to make a big batch of "something" on Sundays that I can bring to work the following week. In the wintertime, I spend a good 2-3 hours over the weekends preparing healthy, hearty soups. For some reason, I have a harder time coming up with spring/summertime options. Gazpacho is one of my staples. And, now Deb's rice salad is a new addition! I will be making a batch of it this weekend!

There are many, many wine choices that come to mind. There are definitely reds that will work here. However, this time of year I stick to mostly whites. I have a hard time enjoying reds in the warmer weather, especially as summer draws near. But Pinot Noir and Beaujolais are good choices if red is what grabs you. And, both wines are wonderful served with a little chill. The softness of Pinot Noir and its abundance of fruit in particular are great qualities to contrast the saltiness of the feta and olives.

My first choice, however, would be a domestic Pinot Gris - something from Oregon. These wines can be "off-dry" (slightly sweet) which again, provides contrast to the salty nature of some of the salad ingredients. A to Z winery in Oregon produces a favorite Pinot Gris of mine. Juicy and rich, flavors of pear and vanilla abound, and a fresh acidity gives lift to some of that richness. My mouth waters as I consider this wine with Deb's salad! This Pinot Gris can be found for about $14.