Friday, January 29, 2010

Spring Rolls Touch Down at Super Bowl Party

Twenty years ago, as a new college grad setting up my own household, I asked my mom for her recipe for Vietnamese spring rolls. Hers was the best I’ve ever tasted. Her sister, my aunt, also agreed no one else could make them as good. They were present at every celebration; my engagement party, out-of-town guests, 4th of July barbeque, Thanksgiving, or Christmas.

Cha goi, pronounced “chai-yawh”, is smaller, crisper, and less dough than Chinese egg rolls. The authentic version use rice paper for the outer wraps but today many Vietnamese cooks prefer spring roll wrappers that are thinner than egg roll wrappers and tend to tear less.

My Vietnamese-born mother’s technique combined the stuffing’s ingredients and allowed to meld overnight to deepen flavors. My father would wake up early the next morning and fold them into perfect little rolls. After 40 years of marriage the white boy from Idaho had become a pretty good roller. The rolling part is time consuming, so she’d often make extra batches to freeze for future meals.

My mom has been gone for 6 years. She died suddenly a week before Thanksgiving. Between her and her 2 sisters, it was her turn to host the family dinner that year. We gathered at my aunt’s house in a show of family solidarity and attempt for normalcy after the sudden shock of loss. My father was dismayed when he couldn’t find her cha gios in the freezer. It was at that moment that his pent up emotions came out. He cried. A symbol of her nurturing was missing. After a week of numbness, it had finally sunk in for him that she was truly gone.

Since I’ve had her recipe, I’ve only made them twice. I’ve avoided making them because my version doesn’t taste as good. This year, I offered to try again for a friend’s Super Bowl party. After referring to her recipe, I notice that she omitted (purposely?) some key ingredients. Did she do this intentionally or was it her style of measuring ingredients in her hands or by sight?

Luckily, I recall the ingredients and technique from watching her cook with awe and fascination over the years. Like most great cooks, she kept her recipes in her head and cooked from her heart.

A quick search on confirms that there is more than one way to wrap cha gio. Just like the American hamburger or pizza, each family or restaurant have their own favorite combination of ingredients and recommended cooking techniques. Consulting several Vietnamese cookbooks, all with slight variations, I’ve devised the following recipe.

It might not be exactly like mom’s but it’s pretty close. I think of her when I mix, roll, fry, eat and share them. Isn’t that what really matters?

INGREDIENTS - mix all together in large bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator overnight before rolling.

1 lb. Ground pork
8 oz. Shrimp, cleaned, shelled, devined, minced
4 oz. Crab meat, minced
1 med. Carrot, shredded
1 med. Onion, minced
3-5 Black Chinese mushrooms, soaked in hot water for a few minutes then minced
1 1/2 oz. Mung bean vermicelli noodle, soaked & diced
1 tsp. Salt
1/2 tsp. Pepper

Spring roll wrappers, 8-inch squares cut in half into triangles.
Vegetable oil, for frying

Place wrapper on surface with long side facing you (and tip pointing away). Place a heaping tablespoon (almost 1/4 c.) of stuffing mixture near the bottom of the wrapper. Take sides, one at a time, and fold over mixture heap. Starting from the bottom, begin rolling upwards towards the point. You can either seal with lightly beaten egg white or a paste of flour and water before sealing. Place finished roll single layer in container. Place plastic wrap between layers. My mom would freeze the rolls before frying. No need to thaw before frying. But you can fry at this stage as well.

Fry on med. high until golden brown. Drain on paper towels or metal racks. Serve with nuoc mam dipping sauce.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Major Flavor from Minor’s Pecan Brittle

All other brittle I’ve encountered before feature peanuts. I like this one best because it contains another Southern flavor, pecans. Using whole pecans and butter and pushing the caramelization temperature to 310o, instead of 295o as suggested in the nut brittle recipe found in the 1963 version of the Joy of Cooking cookbook, promises meatier nut per bite and lends a deeper and richer, almost smoky, flavor that makes this one of my Christmastime favorite treats.

Handed down to me many Christmases ago by a lifelong Alabama resident, Helen Minor, I look forward to making the first batch of the season shortly after Thanksgiving. Mrs. Minor, now in her mid 80s, lives with her daughter and son in-law in a modern cabin constructed on the mountaintop property once operated as an apply orchard by her father. I hope you enjoy making - and eating - this brittle as much as I do.

Do’s & Don’ts

  • Do have at the ready: a candy thermometer, buttered cookie sheet, and an extra set of hands to hold the thermometer in the pot towards the last minutes of caramelization.
  • Do utilize the winter air to help cool the brittle quicker. Allow to cool on the patio table and you’ll be enjoying the brittle sooner.
  • Don’t substitute sugar with another low calorie substitute (i.e. Splenda). It won’t caramelize the same. Light Karo syrup is now available and works just as well as regular syrup.
  • Don’t expect to cut out additional calories by using wax paper in lieu of a buttered sheet. You’ll be unsuccessfully peeling paper that will stuck to the bottom of the brittle. Instead, if you must, consider any of the low cholesterol, vegetable-based options that cook just like butter.
  • Don’t mistake baking powder for baking soda. This last one I learned the hard way.


  • 1 cup sugar
  • ½ cup Karo syrup
  • 12 ounce raw whole pecans
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1 ½ Tablespoon butter, softened
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 ½ teaspoon baking soda

Mix sugar, Karo syrup, pecans and water in saucepan, stir continuously and vigorously with wooden spoon over high heat, to 310o. This will take several minutes.

Remove from heat immediately. Have butter, vanilla and baking soda measured and ready before cooking candy. As soon as candy is removed from heat, add these ingredients. Stir well until blended. Pour onto well buttered pan. Spread as thin as possible, let cool. Break into pieces. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Lesson in Humaneness

While studying in New York, a tribesman from a distance land witnessed first hand the horrors of 9/11. When he returned home to Kenya and shared his tale to the Maasai elders and children, they sat in shock and disbelieve. Untouched by the trappings of modern civilization, the cattle-herding tribe responds to America's loss by offering up their most valued possession. Their act of compassion is extraordinary and a lesson to be shared with all humanity.

Children's author, Carmen Agra Deedy along with illustrator, Thomas Gonzalez retells the tribemen's journey and introduces the philosophy of Ubuntu - the concept of showing empathy for fellow humans - great and small. Here lies the touching story of 14 Cows For America.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Benefits of Failure...

Here is an excerpt from a commencement address by J.K. Rowling at the Annual Meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association. Read the full address here. Below is the portion I thought worthy enough to share.

“The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination”

"...some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.
Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned."

Monday, January 26, 2009

Boots - Part 1, Texas Style

What's a cowgirl to do with only an hour to spare in downtown Fort Worth, Texas? Visit Leddy's Ranch in Sundance Square. The shop, located on the corner of Houston and W. 3rd Street, is where wannabe cowgirls (like me) go when they crave a fancy outfit. Yes, you will find suitable riding gear here but most of the items are over the top and much too nice to ride on the trail or get anywhere near a sweaty horse.

I learned about Leddy's Ranch from a waitress at nearby Reata, an upscale yet rustic cowboy restaurant that serves "calf fries" as an appetizer. I asked my server where I could find a shirt like hers - a fitted black vintage western-style shirt embroidered with yellow roses of Texas on the front and back yolks and mother of pearl snap buttons.

Oy, the selection! I found many options of vintage shirts (like Scully's), as well as gorgeous western jewelry, belts, bedazzled cowgirl leather purses and wallets. I became dizzy when I spied the selection of boots on the other side of the room. Not just any old boots but the most beautiful cowboy boots unlike any I've ever seen before. Sure, there are Luchesses, which are some of the finest factory boots in the world. But the boots from their private line stopped me in my tracks.

Leddy's Ranch is a satellite location of the original family store, M.L. Leddy, located a few miles away at the Fort Worth Stockyards. The family has been making custom boots and saddles for over 75 years. I was professional fitted by Ty, a tall, dapper and slender man. He would have made a believeable, "Slim" with a guitar strapped to his back on his way to the Grand Ole Opry.

Ty explained that a proper fit for boots, unlike a regular shoe, should allow the back of one's heel to slip up and away from the boot. All this time I had mistakenly believed that kind of movement would surely cause blisters but he assured me it wouldn't. He also said that it's a myth that leather boots or shoes need to "break in" over several wearings. While most people believe that leather will stretch from the heat of the foot as you wear them in, in reality if the boots aren't comfortable the first time that you try them on, they won't improve over time.

After he determined my proper boot size, Saundra, a retired banker from Ohio (herself donning a stunning pair of low-heeled glistening boots made from stingray skin) helped me narrow down my choices. I gravitated to the pairs that sported colorful detailed leather inlay. I pity men whose pants cover up the most intricately designed parts, the shaft. I snagged a 3 pairs of boots made from retired lasts, the wooden form used to shape the foot of the boot. I haven't seen anything like them since.

Because they are so comfortable, I find many opportunities to wear them. Whether casual with jeans or with a suit, they have gone to concerts, the board room, dinner out, the hardware store... Otherwise they are prominently displaced on the top closet shelf waiting for their next outing.

Check out more on the art of beautiful boots at

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Harry's Asian Tofu

My favorite item on the prepared food bar at Harry's Farmer's Market (now owned by Whole Foods) is the Asian Tofu; firm cubes of tofu baked in a dark sauce with carrots and sesame seeds. Since the grocery store isn't conveniently close to the house, they haven't published the recipe and working parttime in the catering department to obtain the recipe is just a bit obsessive, I attempted to recreate the dish at home. The ingredients are listed on the placard but didn't include measurements. My husband assumed the ingredients are listed in order of measurements. I winged it and eyeballed the measurements.

Here's my first attempt. It turned out about 75% close to the original at Harry's. It had a little less "gravy" and not as dried firm but still tasty enough that I'll be making it again. I suggest serving it with steamed rice (Thai Jasmine, my favorite) or tossed with Chinese-style egg noodles and garlicky stir-fried greens such as Chinese mustard greens, baby Bok Choy, spinach or kale.

15 oz. extra firm tofu (1 package) drained
2 1/2-3 tablespoons tamarind pulp (if unable, substitute about 1 TB sugar or less)
1/8 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup sesame oil
1 carrot, shredded
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 med. red bell pepper, cored, seeded & julienned
1 green onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons sesame seeds (black or white, or both - your choice)
3 tablespoons peanut butter
1/8 cup sushi or rice vinegar
cilantro (optional)
1 clove garlic
1/2 tablespoon ginger (fresh grated or powdered)
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/8 cup lemon juice
3/4 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoon water (and a little more, if needed before baking)

Drain tofu, squeeze out excess water. Cut into 1x2-inch sticks. Set aside.

Pulse the following ingredients in a food processor: tamarind, soy, sesame oil, crushed pepper, peanut butter, vinegar, garlic, ginger, cayenne, lemon juice, sugar, water. Pour into medium bowl.

Stir in green onions, carrots, sesame seeds, and red bell pepper. Add a little more water if needed. Mix well and carefully tip in tofu cubes. Gently stir as to not to break the tofu cubes. Marinate for at least an hour, overnight if possible, rotating once to ensure all sides are covered.

Bake in 9x9-in. casserole dish in preheated oven at 350 degrees for about 20-30 minutes.

Serve with steamed rice or Chinese egg noodles and garlicky stir-fried greens such as Chinese mustard greens, baby Bok Choy, spinach or kale.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Lily Pond Baby Shower

When our friends, Mark & Narin, were expecting their first child, they didn't want to know the baby's gender in advance. Daddy Mark would address Mommy Narin's growing belly as "Taddy", short for Tadpole. Thus the motif for their baby shower was spawned.

Guests were greeted at the front door by a large helium-filled bullfrog balloon. The gender neutral theme includes a center piece water lily cake. The 18-inch round bottom "lily pad" is covered in tinted rolled fondant, as is the topper, a 9-inch cake layered in varying shades of lilac-tinted petals.

What’s a lily pad without frogs? Easy cupcakes were baked with extra cake dough. Their eyes are mini marshmallows topped with chocolate chips. The table is set with artificial lilies and folded origami napkins to resemble the aquatic flower. The party plates had to be green, of course, to best mimic lily pads under floating flowers.

The lily pond punch is a combination of green-colored fruit punch stirred in with ginger ale for a touch of sparkly fizz. Sliced starfruit (also known as Carambola) replicate floating water lilies.
Afterwards, I wondered if a few purple grapes could be tossed in to imitate tadpoles (sans their tails). Or… would it freak out the guests too much? For those with a goth sensibility, they could prepare a packet of sweet basil seed (found in Asian markets) and serve separately in a clear pitcher. When mixed with water, a gelatinous film will develop around the tiny black seed and look convincing like frog eggs. It’s a common Thai drink.

My mother used to mix it with water sweetened with honey and added cubed grass jelly for effect. As kids, my siblings and I loved drinking it for the novelty and it tasted pretty good too. When I recently saw a picture of it online, I must admit I had an interesting and unique childhood. OK, maybe the “frog egg” drink is a bit too weird for a baby shower. Maybe I should revisit that for a Halloween blog.