Sunday, February 15, 2009

Springrolls in a Saigon Seminary

Chinese New Year always brings back fond memories for me, fireworks in Hong Kong, fire crackers in San Francisco and the fiery questions in Vietnam. In a Catholic Seminary in Saigon, as the South Vietnamese natives call this vibrant town. I was helping student priests practice their English, being asked every question they could think of, some inappropriate. One in particular still stands out in my memory, "Why do Americans have sex before marriage?". As the hour wore painfully on the questions kept coming. "Why are so many Americans divorced?" and "Do you pray for your son to have a vocation?". As they shot these questions at me, and many more, I struggled to answer without offending anyone. They seemed so naive I just couldn't give totally honest answers. I mean how do you explain sex to a priest?

But once my hour of torture ended we were herded downstairs to have dinner in the communal dining room. It was a typical Southeast Asian room, chest high walls with screens stretching to the ceiling. Too much light and floral table cloths, stretched on long family style tables. In other words, utterly charming. As the first course sat before me I remember thinking, thank heavens everyone would be eating and the questions would end. What I was unprepared for was the sweetest, freshest and most tasty Spring Roll I had ever eaten. It consisted of rice noodles, pork, carrots, bits of hot pepper, mint and cilantro. They were served along side a spicy sweet and sour sauce that had been made with Vietnamese fish sauce. It was that moment I fell in love with Vietnamese food. The rest of the meal was delicious pork meatballs with rice noodles in broth, a platter of fresh fruit and fresh coconut juice to drink. But the memory of those spring rolls stayed with me.

Recently I had a request for Spring Rolls from Susanna, an eleven year old who was having a "Chef's Birthday Party". I began researching and making different versions. This one is the closest I have found to the original I enjoyed on that hot, uncomfortable January evening.

Vietnamese Spring Rolls
adapted from Nina Simond's Asian Noodles

½ pound thin rice stick noodles, softened in hot water, cooked until just tender, rinsed under cold water and drained,
1- 6 ounce package Teriyaki Baked Sprout Tofu, julienned*
2 large carrots, peeled and shredded or grated
¾ cups fresh mint leaves, coarsely shredded
¾ cups fresh cilantro leaves, coarsely shredded
1/4 cup finely sliced scallions
35 round rice paper wrappers (about 8 inches in diameter)
2 heads Boston lettuce, leaves separated, rinsed, dried, and tough center ribs trimmed
1 ½ pounds shrimp, poached in boiling water until pink, peeled, sliced in half lengthwise, and deveined

Place rice noodles, tofu, carrots, mint and cilantro in a large bowl and toss to mix.

Place 1 rice paper wrapper in a large skillet filled with 2 inches of warm water. Keep it submerged for 3 seconds, it will begin to soften immediately. The hotter the water the quicker the wrappers soften.

Remove the wrapper from the water and place it on a clean dish towel. Immediately place a piece of lettuce on the side of the wrapper nearest you.

Top it with a handful of the noodle mixture.

Fold the wrapper over the noodle mixture and add 3 shrimp, side by side, below the lettuce and wrap tightly. The shrimp will show thru the wrapper and make a beautiful presentation. Fold the sides in and roll tightly to to seal.

Serve immediately with Spicy Sweet and Sour Dipping Sauce and Peanut Sauce.

Spicy Sweet and Sour Dipping Sauce

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
juice of 3 limes or lemons
¼ cup fish sauce
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 tablespoons grated carrots

In a medium bowl, soak the crushed red pepper in lime juice for 2-3 minutes. Add the fish sauce, sugar, and garlic and stir to dissolve the sugar. Just before serving, add the carrots. Refrigerated, in a covered container, the sauce will keep for up to 5 days.

Peanut Sauce
¼ cup hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons smooth peanut butter
1 ½ teaspoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon sugar
1/3 cup water
1 teaspoon safflower or corn oil
1 ½ teaspoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper

In a small bowl, combine the hoisin, peanut butter, tomato paste, sugar, and water and stir until smooth.
Heat a small heavy saucepan over high heat. Add the oil and heat until hot, about 20 seconds. Add the garlic, and crushed red pepper and stir fry about 5 seconds, until fragrant. Stir in the peanut butter mixture and cook for 3-4 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

*Sold at Whole Foods Market
All photographs and recipes are the sole property of The Gypsy Chef or Pamela Dockery Food, unless otherwise credited.

Bloody Crepes Suzette

The first time I saw a blood orange I was in a restaurant in Florence, Italy. It was 1980 and we had finished dinner. The waiter had brought a bowl of oranges, a wedge of Gorgonzola Dolce and a bottle of Grappa to the table. As I began peeling the orange, I couldn't believe the color. It was beautiful. Too beautiful to be real. I actually wondered if they added dye to obtain the dramatic, red flesh. The peel had a blush to it and the juice was tart, but sweet. It was at that moment I fell in love with the Blood Orange. The waiter told me they were from Sicily, a variety called Tarocco and were the favored orange of Italy.
When I returned to Manhattan, I began searching the specialty
stores for these Sicilian gems. The only store that stocked them at the time was Balducci's in Greenwich Village and they were only available in Feb and March. Every year I would anticipate their arrival in the market. I would buy loads and use them in tarts, salads, cocktails or place them in bowls on the coffee table for an evening treat.

Over the years they have become available everywhere. But I still find myself anticipating the arrival of the deep red Morro Blood Orange. This year I made Blood Orange Crepes Suzette, perfect as a Valentines Day dessert. Red, sweet and romantic. Enjoy them with a glass of Champagne and the person you love.

Cooks Illustrated has the best crepe batter recipe ever. I use that o
ne, period the end. However that said, the sauce you can certainly play with and change to you hearts delight.

Crepe Batter
adapted from

3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups milk, the original recipe calls for whole milk, but I found skim works well
1/2 cup water

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 tablespoons cognac

3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons oil for greasing the pan

Place all ingredients in the blender 5 seconds, scrape sides and blen
d for another 5 seconds. Allow to rest in the refrigerator 2 hours.
Heat a 9 inch crepe pan and brush with butter. Pour
1/4 cup batter in center of pan. Swirl pan to spread batter all around. Don't worry about small holes, you will fold the crepes, cover them in sauce and believe me, no one will notice a few small holes. If they do they are undeserving of your crepes.

Cook until the crepe looks set, not wet and lightly colored on the bottom, less than one minute.
Loosen the edges with a spatula and turn. Cook another 20 seconds and turn out onto a plate to hold.

Continue until all the batter has been used.
This recipe makes approximately 12 crepes in a 9 inch crepe pan. Serving 4.

Blood Orange Sauce
adapted from

4 tablespoons cognac or brandy
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
1 1/4 cups blood orange juice, from about 4-6 oranges
2 tablespoons triple sec
6 slices of blood orange, halved

Adjust the oven rack to lower position and pre-heat the broiler.

Using an oven proof skillet, add 3 tablespoons of cognac to the skillet. As the cognac heats it's easier to ignite. Hold the handle and tip the skillet away form you, as the cognac reaches the edge of the pan it will ignite and burn for about 30 seconds. Don't let it alarm you, it looks dangerous but it's not. If your timid about igniting the cognac, just heat it and use a chimney match. Shake the pan until the flames subside.
Add the butter, sugar and 1 cup blood orange juice to the pan and simmer briskly over high heat whisking occasionally until it reduces to a thick syrup, 6-8 minutes. You should have just over 1/2 cup of sauce. Do not wash the pan.

Pour the syrup into a large glass measuring cup and add the rest of the orange juice, triple sec, cognac, zest and cover to keep warm.

Using the same skillet, fold the crepes in quarters and place 9 crepes along the sides of the pan, the edges facing outward. Arrange 3 in the center, sprinkling evenly with remaining tablespoon of sugar. Place under the broiler and broil until sugar caramelizes and the crepes start to brown, about 5 minutes. Watch the crepes, you don't want to scorch them.
Remove from the oven and pour half the sauce over the crepes. Place on serving dishes and serve immediately, garnished with an orange slice and pass the extra sauce separately.
All pictures and recipes are the sole property of The Gypsy Chef, unless otherwise credited.