Throwing a July 4th Menu Curve Ball

Dear Friends,

You’re having a July Fourth picnic tomorrow, right? It’s almost un-American not to. Whether you pack lunch in a cooler for a swimming expedition or fire up the grill in the backyard, dining outdoors is a big part of this laid-back midsummer holiday.

Although I’m a fan of the standard picnic fare of hamburgers, potato salad and baked beans, I like to throw a curve ball into the mix just to make my family nervous. These are the kind of people who, except my niece Heidi and brother-in-law Rob, wrinkle their noses at seafood and consider avocado exotic. I like to mess with them.

I do this to be helpful.  If I keep introducing them to new foods they  may find one they like, thereby enriching their lives. This has actually happened. After a couple of years of demurring, my brother finally abandoned canned cranberry sauce for my homemade whole-berry sauce with apricots and Port. Who knows, my sister may one day try shrimp.

Anyway, when my sister’s family visits for a picnic this week I’ll introduce them to an incredibly yummy salad I dreamed up recently. It’s kind of a slaw, with a Vietnamese bent. I’ve been using my own Vietnamese stir-fry sauce on salads and vegetables all summer because it’s fat free, it has lots of flavor, and it’s handy. I make it in batches and keep a jar in the refrigerator year-round.

Last week I poured some over chopped vegetables left from another recipe – thin-sliced Chinese Napa cabbage, chopped green onions, slivered red bell peppers and grated carrots. I added a handful of fresh cilantro, dressed it with the sauce, and tasted. Wow. All it needed was a scattering of chopped peanuts, which I also had on hand.

I turned the salad into an entrée last week by tossing in some rotisserie chicken, but it would be a fine side salad for a picnic without any added protein. That’s how I’ll serve it at my Independence Day picnic. Just in case, I’ll keep the burgers coming.

SHREDDED ASIAN SALAD WITH CHILI-LIME DRESSING

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  • 2 cups finely sliced Napa cabbage
  • 1 large red bell pepper, finely shredded, or a mixture of bell and hot peppers
  • 6 finely sliced green onions, including green tops
  • 1 large carrot, shredded
  • 1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped
  • 1/2 cup or more Vietnamese Lime and Chili Sauce (recipe below)
  • 1/2 cup chopped peanuts

Combine cabbage, bell pepper, green onions, carrot and cilantro in a medium bowl. Add about 1/2 cup chili-lime sauce and mix well. Refrigerate, mixing occasionally. Just before serving, toss again and top with chopped nuts. Makes about 8 servings.

VIETNAMESE LIME AND CHILI SAUCE
(Makes a big batch)

  • 10 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • Grated zest of 2 1/2 limes
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp. lime juice
  • 5 tbsp. distilled white vinegar
  • 3 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. Nam pla (Vietnamese fish sauce)
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp. soy sauce
  • 7 1/2 tbsp. sugar
  • 5 fresh small red chilies or 1 or 2 jalapenos (or to taste), seeded and minced, or 1 tbsp. crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 1/4 cups papaya or mango nectar or unsweetened pineapple juice

Combine all ingredients in a lidded jar. Keeps for weeks in the refrigerator. Recipe may be cut in half.

HELP U COOK

If you’ve ever used Parmesan cheese, you’ve come up against recipe instructions to “grate” or “shred.” The terms are sometimes used interchangeably, and often used incorrectly.

And how about julienne, chiffonade and matchstick, the fancy cousins of grate and shred? Here are the definitions:

  • Grating is done with a fine-holed implement. It turns food (hard cheese, onions) into crumb-sized pieces.
  • Shredding is accomplished with a large-hole utensil, and produces ragged, wider pieces of various lengths.
  • Julienne is a technique for cutting food into long strips that are thin but not gossamer. The cutting is often done by hand, although it can be done with the julienne disk of a food processor. In France I once bought a hand-held julienne utensil that looked like a vegetable peeler, but with evenly spaced holes along the blade. It didn’t work.
  • Chiffonade is long thin strips of a leafy vegetable or herb. Stack the leaves, roll them and make cuts one-eighth-inch apart.
  • Matchstick pieces are slightly wider than julienne, and about 1 to 2 inches long.

THE MAILBAG   

From Anne:
I searched for a while and finally found this Lobster Crackerjacks recipe that supposedly is what the contestant Johnny B. made for his Master Chef audition. (I was disappointed that he was eliminated, btw).

Johnny B claims that his Lobster Crackerjacks is a favorite dish among his friend and family that is requested at every party, dinner, or gathering that he throws or attends. If you want to give it a shot and make this interesting, but supposedly delicious seafood dessert/snack dish, here’s how.


LOBSTER CRACKERJACKS

  • 1 bag microwave popcorn
  • 6 lobster legs
  • Homemade caramel (recipe follows)
  • Shaved coconut

Johnny B starts out by using a beer bottle to roll the lobster meat out of the lobster legs. He then adds the lobster to a bowl that already has popped popcorn in it. Then Johnny pours his homemade caramel over the lobster and popcorn. Finally, he gently mixes the popcorn, lobster, and caramel so it is all well coated, then spoons it into martini glasses and sprinkles a small handful of coconut on top.


Homemade Caramel:

  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1 1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

In a sauce pan, mix the water and sugar together then cover it and let it cook on low heat until the sugar dissolves. This should take between 5 and 10 minutes.

Without stirring, take the lid off and simply increase to medium heat.

Let the sugar water boil until it is a warm brown (caramel) color – this should take about six minutes. While the color is turning, you will want stir the mixture by swirling the pan. Do not use a spoon. Be very careful not to boil it for too long as caramel can very easily go from sweet to being burned.

Turn the heat off and add the vanilla and cream slowly. Turn the heat back on low and simmer. At this point you will want to stir the caramel constantly until the proper texture is reached.

Dear Anne: Yay! Thanks for finding the recipe. My only quibble is with the lobster legs. Do you think he means claws? Six of those skinny little legs would barely produce a mouthful of meat.

From Nancy Holmes:
Regarding Master Chef, I love to watch Graham Elliot too! Frankly I don’t really know who he is, or why he is a great chef, but I do love to watch him sample food and he mostly says positive things in a nice way to the contestants. I’ll have to go to Wikipedia and check him out. I was dying to taste his soup on the last episode at the wedding, it was gorgeous! I watched the Master Chef show for the first time last year and am now hooked.

I was wondering, do you think that the contestants are given basic recipes for challenges such as the macaroons? I can’t imagine being thrown the ingredients to some of the dishes they are supposed to make with no guidelines whatsoever.

It definitely inspires me to step out of the box a bit too.

Dear Nancy: That’s exactly what I’ve been wondering. How can they prepare something like Hollandaise sauce when they’ve never made it before? Even I have to refresh my memory with a recipe before I begin. I think they must have access to recipes. On the other hand, last season one woman was faulted by other contestants who said she wasn’t a great cook, she merely memorized recipes before she tried out for the show.

From Jan S.:
Great newsletter as always! Just wanted to let you know that your link to the popcorn site should be:  http://www.popcorn.org/. Also, my daughter has been making flavored popcorn for a few years now, and that her favorite flavor is a mixture of cinnamon sugar sprinkled on after popping!  Yum!!  Also, others have made different flavors by lightly sprinkling Jell-O or even pudding right from the box onto the hot popcorn, shaking to coat evenly.

Dear Jan: Thanks for the correction on the Internet address for the Popcorn folks. The cinnamon sugar popcorn sounds good. The Jell-O, not so much.

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