Appetizer


Every now and then I get adventurous and decide to try to replicate something I’ve eaten at a restaurant. I usually don’t get that close to the original, but it’s a fun exercise to go through. Plus, if I’m lucky it still tastes good.

This particular culinary adventure was inspired by a visit to Andy Nguyen’s Restaurant (voted best vegetarian restaurant in Sacramento in 2010). Somehow I got into a conversation about spring rolls with my advisor (we tend to talk about random things like this) and he claimed this was the place to go if you like spring rolls. To sell it even further, he described it as an exotic version of Ding How, a Chinese restaurant in Davis that makes fantastic vegetarian “meat” dishes. While I love Ding How, the ‘exotic’ claim scared me a little. You see, for whatever reason, ‘exotic’ just makes me think of weird, slimy food with random animal parts. I know, how open-minded am I? Knowing this was a little ridiculous and given that this was a vegetarian restaurant, I decided to try the place anyway.

As it turns out, Andy Nguyen’s Restaurant lived up to its hype. There was a wide variety of spring rolls to choose from (among many other interesting dishes), all with funny Buddhism-influenced names, like Enlighten Mind Rolls and Nirvana Lemon Salad. We settled on the Karma Roll as an appetizer, which came with mango, grilled tofu, rice noodles, caramelized onions, mint, cilantro, carrots, and slaw. It was probably the tastiest spring roll I’ve ever had, and within a week I set out to try my own version at home.

I made several alterations in my version, including omitting rice noodles. I guess I was going for a low-carb spring roll? I’m not sure, but including rice noodles would probably make it taste more authentic. The other suggestion I have would be to saute the cabbage to soften it a bit before putting it in the spring rolls. The raw cabbage has a nicer color, but it ended up being a little on the hard-to-digest side, and that comes from a girl who goes out of her way to eat large quantities of fiber. So trust me on that one.

The recipe I included below is a place to start, but you could tweak it in an infinite number of ways, depending on what you like and what’s in season. The dipping sauce we made came from a Thai grilled chicken recipe in the Best Recipes Grilling and Barbecue cookbook. It is simultaneously sweet, tangy and spicy and worked great with these spring rolls, but you could also make a peanut sauce or something soy sauce based if that sounds better to you. With the exception of the dipping sauce, this whole project was an experimental adventure. I’m learning that cooking without a recipe, while sometimes daunting, can be really fun and satisfying! (That said, I still included my recipe below!)

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Mango Tofu Spring Rolls
inspired by the Karma Roll at Andy Nguyen’s Restaurant; dipping sauce from Cook’s Illustrated Guide to Grilling and Barbecue

Ingredients
Dipping sacue
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
1/4 cup lime juice
2 tablespoons fish sauce
3 small garlic cloves, minced or pressed through a garlic press
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Tofu marinade
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup dry sherry
1/6 cup rice vinegar
2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 pound tofu
2 tablespoons peanut oil or vegetable oil

2 ripe mangos, peeled and diced
4 green onions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
2 cups shredded red cabbage (*we used raw, but I would suggest sauteeing it in a bit of oil until it softens; then let it cool to room temperature*)
1/2 cup mint, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup basil, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup cilantro, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup peanuts, coarsely chopped
1 package rice paper wraps
large bowl warm water
sushi rolling mat

Directions
1. Make the dipping sauce.
Whisk the ingrdients in a small bowl until the sugar dissolves. Let stand 1 hour at room temperature to allow the flavors to meld.

2. Bake the tofu.
In a small saucepan, bring the tofu marinade ingredients to a boil. Simmer for 1 minute and remove from the heat. Press tofu between layers of paper towels to remove moisture. Then cut the blocks of tofu into 3 slabs. Place the slabs in a single layer in a nonreactive heatproof pan. Pour the marinade over the tofu, sprinkle on 2 tablespoons of oil, and set aside for about 5 minutes. Preheat the broiler. Broil the tofu for 7 to 8 minutes, until lightly browned; then turn it over with a spatula and brown the other side (another 4-5 minutes). Remove from pan and set aside. When cool, slice the tofu into long “matchsticks,” about 1/4 inch wide.

3. Prepare rice wraps.
Before assembling the spring rolls, you should have all your ingredients handy, including a bowl or warm water and a sushi rolling mat if you have one. Take a rice wrapper and submerge it in the water for about 10-15 seconds to let it soften. Then remove it from the water and center it on the rolling mat, rough side down.

4. Assemble spring rolls.
Layer ingredients in a line along the right-center side of the wrap, leaving 1 1/2 inches of wrap on the top and bottom open. See the pictures above for a guide of how much filling to put in. If anything, put less than you think you need. Next fold in the two ends and start rolling from the right side until the wrap is closed. This is sort of like rolling a really, really delicate burrito. The first few will probably break, but you’ll eventually get the hang of it.

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A couple weeks ago my housemate Tim scored a bunch of free nectarines from the research orchard near campus. He froze as many as would fit in the freezer, but that still left boxes of ever ripening nectarines for us to eat as quickly as possible. Believe me, there are worse plights in life than being surrounded by an abundance of fresh fruit. For a whole week I had sliced nectarines with cottage cheese, one of the most delicious snacks on the face of the planet. But at a certain point your body begins to protest at the inclusion of nectarines in EVERY meal you eat, and you begin to lag in the race to keep up with the rotting fruit. This is why I was thrilled when some friends had a bbq and I got an opportunity to make a nectarine dish that I could at least partially pawn off on OTHER people.


I could have made a pie or a cobbler or something else sweet, but I wanted to try something a little different. Finally I found a salsa recipe that paired nectarines with yellow tomatoes and arugula and decided to give it a go. The chopping and slicing took a while, but the end product was worth the effort.

We served the salsa with chips and used it to top our grilled fish tacos. It was delicious! The next night we used the leftover corn tortillas and salsa to make chicken tacos. Equally delicious! I’m sure you could substitute peaches or mangos for the nectarines if you find yourself with an overabundance of one of those. Bottom line, if fish tacos are on your menu in the near future, I really encourage you to use this salsa. Top it with some feta, avocado, and cilantro and experience heaven.

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Nectarine salsa
from Bon Appétit

Ingredients
1 1/2 cups 1/3-inch cubes pitted white nectarines (**I used yellow nectarines and removed the peel)
1 1/4 cups chopped yellow or orange tomatoes (8 to 9 ounces)
1/2 cup coarsely chopped arugula
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 3- to 4-inch-long serrano chile, seeded, minced

Mix all ingredients in a medium bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

As soon as I read the Wednesday Chef’s post about her experience in Italy with Bruschetta di Pomodori Gratinati (essentially grilled stuffed tomatoes on bruschetta), I knew it was something I had to try.  I immediately fell in love with the seemingly romantic and ceremonial process of cooking and eating the stuffed tomatoes, each on its own slice of grilled toast.  My old housemate and good friend was visiting Davis from Virginia over the weekend of the 4th, so we had a bbq to celebrate her return and the holiday.  With it being high tomato season and all, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to try this recipe.

Did I mention that it was also very brave of me to try out this dish?  I wasn’t exactly following a detailed recipe.  The “recipe” in the original post was incredibly vague, but there were just enough details to give me inspiration, guide me through the process and help me come up with a recipe which I’ve now shared with you.  Since this is only the first time I’ve tried this, I’m sure there is plenty of room for improvement and if anyone tweaks the recipe with success, I’d love to hear about what you did!

I made the stuffing by sautéing chopped fennel in olive oil over low heat for about 15 minutes.  Once this was almost complete, I added 4 cloves of minced garlic and sautéed a couple minutes longer, until the garlic was aromatic.  I then combined this with bread crumbs, parsley, salt, and olive oil and filled the hollowed out tomatoes.  Then came the fun part.  We loaded all of the stuffed tomatoes into a grill basket and placed it over hot coals on the grill.  Once the bottoms of the tomatoes were blackened, we removed the grill basket and threw slices of country bread onto the grill until lightly browned.  The next steps of the process are highly personalized and I think that’s why everyone enjoyed this dish so much.  You prepare the bruschetta as you like, drizzled with olive oil and/or rubbed with garlic.

Then you take your stuffed tomato, flip it over onto the bread, remove the skin (which is much easier to do when the tomato has had some time to cool down!)  and mash it into the bread with a fork.  Then you take a bite!  And you roll your eyes and nod your head because it tastes that good, and you feel happy that you are enjoying fresh food with friends.

After making these I’m on a heightened look out for recipes with aspects of ceremony or group participation.  I sometimes let my desire for perfection isolate me in the kitchen, but making this reminded me of how much fun cooking can be when done with others.  Cheers to that.
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Bruschetta di Pomodori Gratinati
guidance from The Wednesday Chef

Makes 12 stuffed tomatoes.

Ingredients
12 medium tomatoes (preferably heirloom varietals with flat bottoms), cored and hollowed out (see picture in earlier in post)
1 medium fennel bulb, trimmed of stalks and finely diced (about 1/3 cup)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/4 cups bread crumbs
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
salt to taste
olive oil (1/4 to 1/2 cup)
Loaf of country bread, sliced to 3/4 inch thickness

Directions
1. Once you have removed the seeds and very-inner flesh from the tomatoes, salt the insides and invert over a plate to drain for about 30 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, sauté the fennel in a dollup of olive oil over med-low heat for 12-15 minutes. At this point, add the garlic and sauté a minute or two longer, until the garlic is aromatic, but not browned.

3. Mix together bread crumbs, fennel and garlic mixture, parsley, and salt until combined. Then add olive oil to moisten the mixture. I added enough to make the mixture glisten a bit, but it was still pretty dry. You could add more or less depending on your taste.

4. To give the tomatoes a final chance to dry out a bit more, before stuffing them you can place them on a grill basket, inverted, or in the oven (right side up) under the broiler for a few minutes. Then you fill each tomato with stuffing and arrange them on a grill basket.

5. Grill tomatoes until they are slightly blackened on the bottom, remove from heat, and let sit to cool. Place bread slices on the grill and toast until lightly browned on both sides.

6. Drizzle toasts with olive oil, rub with garlic, and invert a stuffed tomato onto the bruschetta. Remove the charred tomato skin and then mash with a fork to spread the tomato over the bread.