Thursday, October 21, 2010

Asian Lettuce Wraps

I love easy meals, and I love meals the kids will eat. I'd say lettuce wraps filled with this sweet and savory, barely tangy filling falls into both categories. I don't have time to nag anyone to eat, and I hate - really hate - to toss perfectly good food in the garbage. An added bonus is this recipe is budget and health conscious, especially when some of the meat is replaced with textured vegetable protein.

Thank goodness this meal comes together for me every time (including today). It's been a rather accident-prone week and a half. I've been dividing my attention among the kids, some work, cooking, etc., and the lack of focus resulted in some newbie disasters. An apple tart Tatin that I've made for years just wouldn't work. I burned the caramel on the first tart. The second tart ended up under-caramelized. I burned my wrist on a hot pot. I'll spare you the entire list. I'd rather not talk about it now.

But this week is already going better. After all, Halloween - one of my favorite holidays - is around the corner and I've already gotten my skull lights out and set up. And tonight's dinner is done.

Asian Lettuce Wraps
Serves 4-6

1 Tablespoon oil (canola or peanut)
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
1 1/4 pounds to 1 1/2 pounds ground turkey (or beef)*

1 Tablespoon oil
1/2 medium onion or 1 shallot, chopped
5 medium or 3 large cloves garlic, chopped

2 Tablespoons brown sugar
2 Tablespoons low sodium soy sauce**
1 Tablespoon fish sauce (I use Three Crabs brand)
1 teaspoon sriracha sauce
1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar
2 or 3 scallions, chopped
1 cup cooked carrot, diced***

8 to 12 lettuce leaves (Boston and red leaf lettuce work well)
garnish: mint or Thai basil leaves and lime wedges to squeeze over filling

1. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a deep 12-inch skillet or wok over medium-high heat, add ginger and ground meat, and cook until just done. Remove meat to a bowl and cover to keep warm. Return pan to stove, reducing heat to medium-low.

Add onions to pan, then make sauce.
2. Heat the other tablespoon of oil, add onions, and cook for 1 minute. Add the garlic, and keep cooking until onions start to turn translucent. While onions and garlic are sweating, combine sugar, soy sauce, fish sauce, sriracha and vinegar. When onions and garlic are translucent (they can just be starting to turn golden at the edges), add sauce, scallions, carrot and cooked meat to pan. Stir until sauce is thoroughly mixed throughout meat. Remove from heat.

Thai basil has a slight anise flavor.
Serve ground meat together with mint or Thai basil wrapped in Boston or red-leaf lettuce leaves, two per person. It also is good served with a salad of napa cabbage or a bowl of mai fun (rice stick) noodles.

* To decrease the amount of meat in our diet, I also have made the filling with a combination of ground meat and textured vegetable protein, or TVP. For this recipe, I use 2/3 pound (0.67 pound) ground meat and 1/2 cup dried TVP (available in the bulk section of a health food store and in small packages at some supermarkets). The TVP I buy looks a little like coarse panko crumbs. To reconstitute the TVP, pour 1/2 cup water into a 1 cup glass measuring cup, place the cup in a microwave and bring to a boil. When the water boils, remove the cup from the microwave, stir in the 1/2 cup TVP and cover. When the onions are nearly done, stir in the TVP and allow to cook a minute or two, then add the rest of the ingredients.
** To make this dish wheat free, use a soy sauce that does not include wheat as an ingredient.
*** I use cooked carrot left over from another meal. If there is no cooked carrot, use 1 cup shredded or julienned raw carrot. It can be added to the onion about a minute before returning the cooked meat to the pan or stirred in last, depending on whether you want the carrot cooked at all. If you don't like carrot, you could use an 8 ounce can of water chestnuts (finely diced) or some chopped bamboo shoots.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

What a Sack of Chips

People don't complain when they think something sucks. Why bother? It wouldn't make a difference.

Or so I thought.

But then Frito-Lay caved like an empty bag when customers bitched about the noise from biodegradable Sun Chips packages. The company's going back to using the old bags for all flavors of Sun Chips except the original.

Power to the people!

So why am I all "What the f?%!" ?

Well, I can't help wondering what these folks were doing — were they wallowing on the couch, their orgy of consumption drowning out the music from "Dancing With the Stars"?

Maybe I'm too harsh. It is pretty complicated to grab a handful of chips or even a bowl. And just because I never noticed the noise from my own bags of SunChips doesn't mean they aren't a major public nuisance.  The bag haters must have good reasons for saying, "Screw the future."

Like this one. Say I'm driving to school one afternoon to pick up my son, with a Sun Chips bag in my lap, because God knows, the car could break down and leave me stranded like "Survivorman" in the desert. So I grab some chips — you know, to build my body's reserves — and I can't hear the radio over the f?%!ing bag! So I lean over to find the volume and BOOM! What was that? A car? A small child?

Screw the future!

At a movie my SunChips bag starts crinkling, just as Julia Roberts starts a romantic scene with Javier Bardem. A mob of fans leaps from their seats to bludgeon me with copies of "Eat, Pray, Love."

And what if I had to snack at church? For God's sake, what if I worked on a bomb squad?!

Thank God something was done!

Now maybe we can move on to whatever's just below Sun Chips on our list of priorities. Maybe — and this is just a shot in the dark — we could demand that oil companies do something to prevent giant oil spills. Or how about food safety laws to prevent outbreaks like the one that sickened thousands of people who ate salmonella-contaminated eggs.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Posole, and a Little Sous Chef

Posole, a hominy and pork soup, uses inexpensive shoulder, or Boston butt.
Posted at 4:09 PM
This past weekend my 3 year olds were sick — and crabby and irrational. And that's different, how? Oh, right. It's even more fun for their 7-year-old brother to rattle their cage. All. The. Time. Think "monkey house on Mountain Dew." The sun was shining, the air was crisp, and the universe had launched its plot to drive me mad. It was working.

As I started on a pork and hominy soup called posole, the kids tussled over a little car. Someone yelled in pain. I glanced over. No blood. Good. None of them normally cared about the car, but this particular afternoon two of them chased the car snatcher, yelling and knocking through the kitchen like Capital One barbarians. The moment I leaned into the fridge, someone rammed my backside, nearly planting my nose in the onions.

I snapped at the younger two as I chased them toward the basement. "You're going to play downstairs and be happy, right now!" To big brother, I ordered, "You. You stay with me!"

"I'm bored!" my son whined immediately.

"Here, peel this onion," I blurted. I just knew he'd bicker and I'd lecture him ... But he accepted the two halves of the Vidalia, sat at the kitchen table and started pulling off the outer layer.

He wasn't arguing. He always argued ... to play the Wii, play his DS, watch Sponge Bob, avoid homework, delay bedtime, ... But he wasn't. We weren't.

"Here," I said as the band of tension around my shoulders loosened. "Have another one."

At the kitchen table, we fell into a rythm. I cut an onion lengthwise, he peeled the halves and handed them back, I chopped.

"What's this for?" he asked?

"I'm making posole, you know, that corn soup you asked about last week."

"All right!"

Like me, he gets stoked over Mexican food: homemade tamales, flaky empanadas or our little invention, taco nachos - hors d'oeuvre sized "tacos" made of tortilla scoops, taco filling and cheese. Recently he had asked for "that corn soup" — the cumin-flavored soup of pork shoulder and hominy that we had eaten a lot last winter.

We started chatting about little things, school and food. "Do you want to help cook?" I asked as I turned the heat on under my Dutch oven. "You can bring a chair to the stove."

"Yeah," he said, unusually engaged.

"Ok, first pour in the oil," I instructed, handing him the olive oil and a small measuring cup. "Then you can dump in the onions. Stir them a little until they get soft and more clear. And make sure you don't lean too close or your T-shirt'll catch fire."

I stayed at his right hand, ready to save him from immolation, but he worked carefully. He measured and added the seasonings and I put in the pork and broth before tucking the pot into the oven for a couple hours.

He asked if I was putting the soup into my blog. Sure, I planned to write about this. Could he do it too? Could he! When I helped him start his blog, I'd been hoping he'd practice a little writing instead of playing with the Wii so much.

He spent the next half hour or so putting thoughts into words, checking spelling with me, asking if I could help load a picture into his blog.

I didn't need the soup to warm me inside.

The posole that we made Sunday includes apple, the tarter the better. It won't be too fruity. The apple dissolves into the soup. You could also try adding a strip of orange peel (remove the pith, which is the white fleshy part). If you have time you could use dried posole in place of the ready-to-use canned hominy. My son and his siblings happily emptied their bowls, no argument.

Posole Recipe
Pork Shoulder and Hominy Soup
Serves 4 to 6

1/4 cup olive oil (or canola or corn oil)
2 onions, chopped
3 large cloves garlic, smashed with side of knife
1 apple, roughly cubed or diced
1 Tablespoon dried oregano
1 Tablespoon chili powder
3 pounds pork shoulder (mine was cut as "country style ribs")*
1 quart (4 cups) low salt chicken broth (or homemade pork broth if you have it)

1 to 2 Tablespoons cumin
2 (15 ounce) cans hominy, rinsed and drained
salt and pepper

roasted pepper (poblano, jalapeno or bell pepper)

optional garnishes: cilantro sprigs, lime wedges, crispy tortilla chips or fried tortilla strips, shredded lettuce or shredded cheese, sliced avocado, roasted tomatillo salsa


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Add oil to Dutch oven over medium flame. Cook onions, garlic and apple over medium to medium-low heat until onions soften and turn translucent.
Add oregano and chili powder and stir into the onions. Cook one minute.

2. Season pork with salt and pepper, then add to pot. Pour in the chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Cover and place into the oven until pork easily pulls apart, about 2 hours.

3. Remove soup from oven, and let sit covered 30 minutes. Remove pork and pull apart with two forks or your fingers. Discard fat.**
Return pork to pot, stir in 1 Tablespoon cumin and the hominy. Taste. Add more cumin and salt and pepper if needed. Simmer covered, over low heat, for 20 minutes more.

Top with strips or pieces of roasted pepper. Also add other garnishes as desired.

Use leftover meat to make pulled-pork sandwiches.
* You can get two meals by cooking once if you use a larger package of meat than you need for soup. When I cook extra pork shoulder, I like to use the meat for pulled-pork and cucumber sandwiches or for a meat sauce to go with pasta.
** You can remove more fat from the soup by skimming the oil from the top before returning the meat to the pot. If you make the soup a day ahead, you also can refrigerate the soup separately from the meat and then spoon off the fat that collects on the top. When ready to serve, put the pork back into the soup, add the cumin, hominy and any needed salt and pepper and simmer.

Below: My son wanted to demonstrate mixing in the hominy.

Friday, October 1, 2010

World's Smallest Stuffed Pepper

Posted at 2:22 PM
Among the peppers I've gotten from the farmers market were a few miniature bell peppers. I wasn't sure what I'd do with them at the time. They were just so cute I had to take them home with me.
Finally I decided to fill them with some leftover empanada filling, a bit of cheese and a little green tomatillo salsa.

Unfortunately there were only three. As for the other peppers ...
... the jalapenos got chopped for salsa, the large bell pepper got roasted for a pasta salad, and the poblanos and banana peppers got charred, skinned and reserved in the freezer. I can use them later for a posole or more empanada filling.
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