Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Vietnamese Spring Rolls

As a happy coincidence, just before I started my forty days of vegetarianism, my mother got me a copy of "Welcome to Claire's", the latest cookbook from Claire Criscuolo, whose organic, vegetarian restaurant Claire's Corner Copia is a New Haven, CT landmark (and the place where I once saw Kirsten Dunst eating a bowl of soup).

The first recipe experiment of Lent 2012 is inspired by one from this cookbook, and turned out pretty delicious. (Although I need a lot more practice in getting the finished product to roll up a little tighter.)

Vietnamese Spring Rolls

3 small organic carrots, cut into thin julienne sticks, 4 inches long (or just a bag of pre-shredded carrot sticks if you want to save some time)
1/2 large organic red bell pepper, seeded and cut into thin strips
1/2 small head organic cabbage, cut into thin strips
16 large organic basil leave, cut in half
16 small organic mint leaves
1 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and finely minced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
juuice from 1 lime
1 tablespoon brown rice vinegar
1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
salt and pepper to taste

8 spring roll wrappers (I had to track these down at an Asian market where the ingredients weren't even in alphabet I understand, let alone language, so I'm not 100% sure what was in them, but this recipe I later found is definitely corn-free if you want to make them yourself, or can't find them at the store.)


1. Place the carrots and pepper strips into a bowl.
2. In a separate bowl, place cabbage, basil, mint, ginger, garlic, and jalapeno.  Toss to combine.
3. Whisk dressing ingredients together, and pour evenly over cabbage mixture, tossing to coat the vegetables well.
4. Spread out a clean dish towel near your bowls of vegetables.  Take one spring roll skin out of the wrapper and run under warm water for 12-15 seconds, rubbing with your thumbs, until it begins to soften. (If you never done this before, it's definitely weird at first.)
5. Place softened roll wrapper on the towel.  Place 2-3 carrot and pepper strips into a row horizontally down the center of the softened skin, leaving about 1 1/2 inches around the filling to roll up.
6. Arrange a generous handfull of the cabbage mixture over carrots and peppers, horizontally down the center of the skin.
Can you see the skin under there?  It's really see-through.
7. Now comes the tricky part.  Lift the side of the skin closest to you over the filling, bring the two sides in to meet the filling, then roll up the spring roll as tightly as you can without tearing the skin.  Turn seam side down.   Transfer to a cutting board and repeat for all eight.

8. Cut rolls in half on the diagonal, and carefully transfer to a serving platter.  Serve with your favorite dipping sauce.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Another Diet Challenge

Since jumping on the sustainable food bandwagon about a year ago, I've put a lot of thought into how culture and diet influence each other; how what's good for the body should be good for the soul and vice versa.  So, I've decided to give up meat for Lent, which starts this Wednesday and lasts until Easter on April 8th.  

As little kids at Our Lady of Mercy, my friends and I almost always gave up some variation of candy or dessert for Lent.  We were all doing the same thing, so no one's motivations were questioned, and we unwittingly helped each other along like grown-ups who use the buddy system to diet:  there just weren't a lot of sweets being brought to school so there wasn't much temptation to break our fast.  (Although this was back in those blissful days when carbs were good for you and high fructose corn syrup was way under the radar, so some things snuck their dubious way into the “healthy snacks” category that, in hindsight, probably didn’t have much more nutrition than a chocolate bunny.)

The other nice thing about the season was counting down the days until the fast was over.  We knew that when Easter Sunday finally came, we'd each have a basket filled with near-Halloween levels of chocolates, and, in the immortally pretentious words of Andy Warhol, "the idea of waiting for something makes it more exciting."

This combination of cultural bond and promised reward made Lenten sacrifice easy and natural.  As a grown-up, things aren't so easy anymore.  Sure, everyone still has dietary restrictions, but they're all different ones, and for all different reasons, lending to a general sense of confusion and lack of success at achieving dietary goals.

I guess that's why I wanted to go back to a diet with centuries-old rules to back it up.  Problem is, the rules have been changing for centuries.  According to the research I did on the subject, the forty days leading up to Easter have always been a time of fasting and quiet reflection, but some traditions take those loose terms more seriously than others.  In fact, there seems to be the same lack of consensus there is today on what we mean when we talk about not eating meat.  The twentieth century Catholic tradition of forgoing meat on Fridays year-round didn't count fish as meat, while some Medieval churches encouraged people to go fully vegan during the fasting period.  It seems that some extremists back then would even go so far as to eat only bread for a large portion of the season.  (Although one would think that with that pesky bubonic plague going around, eating at least some fruits and vegetables would have been a smart move.)

As for my own rules for this month, I'll probably keep it simple: eggs and dairy stay, but no fish.  Look for fun new vegetarian recipes in the weeks to come.  In the meantime, anyone else making diet-related Lent resolutions?