Recipe Review

Reviews of recipes from a variety of sources including books, TV Shows, and Internet recipe databases.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Rice Paper Rolls with Peanut Sauce (vegetarian/vegan)

Source: Pamela Sheldon Johns
Vegetarian For All Seasons
ISBN: 0783546122
Time-Life Books

I remember very clearly the first time I tasted a spicy Asian peanut sauce. I was at a restaurant with a vegan friend of mine.

Choosing to be vegan can't be easy - especially in the Midwest. Virtually the only foods people eat around here without meat in them are cheese and Jello. I think the day I fully realized the scope of his dietary dilemma was when I offered him an Altoid and he refused because it contains gelatin (made from animal bones and hooves).

One of the tactics my friend used to make his diet possible was to learn the cuisine of other cultures - particularly cuisines from India and eastern Asia. We would go to a Chinese or Indian restaurant and he would regularly order dishes that weren't even on the menu. Some were simple substitutions of Tofu for meat. Others were more complicated but the restaurants always seemed eager to comply.

On one of these occasions, we were at a Chinese restaurant and he ordered a Thai noodle dish from the menu inside his head. He offered me a taste and I was stunned. It tasted a lot like peanut butter but it was spicy, sweet, and savory at the same time. It crossed lines that usually weren't crossed in western cuisine. It lit up every section of the tongue like a Christmas tree.

Since then, I've tried a wide variety of bottled peanut sauces and all have disappointed. None have compared to that original experience. So, when my wife, who is also a vegetarian, asked me to prepare a recipe containing a peanut sauce from a cookbook of hers, I gladly obliged in hopes of reproducing my experience from years earlier.


Peanut sauce:
1/2 cup coconut milk
1/2 cup peanut butter
1 green onion
1 lemongrass stalk (3 in. long)
2 cloves garlic
juice of 1/2 lime
1 tbs soy sauce
1 tsp curry powder
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp cumin
1 tsp chile paste

1/2 lb dried rice stick noodles
3 tbs peanut oil
1 clove garlic
1/2 teaspoon Asian sesame oil
1/2 lb Chinese broccoli
1 carrot
1/2 cup bean sprouts
fresh mint
fresh cilantro

Rice Paper Rounds

Boston lettuce leaves

Required kitchen wares:

Coffee grinder (or mortar & pestle) for grinding spices
Blender (or food processor) for smoothing sauce
Wok (or large frying pan)

You really want to grind your own spices whenever possible. Once spices are ground, the clock is ticking. They're losing flavor by the day. Before they're ground, most spices will last for years if stored properly. The difference in flavor is truly astounding. It can easily be the difference between a dish that is just edible and a dish that tastes like it came from a 4 star restaurant.

Also, once you get a good feel for how much of what spices you use, you may not want to buy them from your local grocery store. I use cumin and coriander in large quantities. A very small bottle (approx 1.5 oz) of whole cumin seeds is $3-5 at my local grocery store. Luckily, I live a block away from a Penzey's Spices store where I can buy it in larger quantities at a far better price. If you don't live near a good retailer, there's nothing wrong with mail order.

The easiest way to grind your own spice is to buy an electric coffee grinder and use it exclusively for spices (unless you want cumin and coriander flavored coffee I suppose). Alternately, you could go the traditional route and use a mortar and pestle but it's a lot more work.


First comes the peanut sauce:
Mince the green onion, lemongrass, and garlic. Grind the coriander and cumin. Put a saucepan over medium heat and combine all of the peanut sauce ingredients except for the chili paste. Stir it over the heat until it's well combined. Finally, put it in a blender or food processor until it's smooth. Add water as required to thin the sauce. Once it's finished, add the chili paste (don't hesitate to add extra if you want things to be spicier).

I added a few tablespoons of water while blending but decided later that I probably should have added more. Keep in mind, the rice paper that everything is rolled in is somewhat delicate. As such, you want the sauce to be thin enough for dipping without worries of tearing the wrapping. My sauce was a little on the thick side.

Next - the filling:
Bring a quart or so of water to a boil. After it comes to a boil, pour it into a bowl with the rice noodles and let them soak for 15 minutes. After they're soft, drain the water and slice the noodles into 2" long segments. Peel and grate the carrot with a coarse grater. Cut the broccoli into appropriate sized pieces for a roll. Heat the peanut oil in your wok (I used a cast iron pan because the 1970's electric wok I inherited from my parents finally died). Fry the garlic in the wok until golden brown (about 2 minutes). Add the broccoli, carrot, and sesame oil and cook until soft (4-5 minutes). Add the noodles and cook until hot (2-3 minutes). Add the sprouts and toss to heat and soften.

Finally - the wrapping:
Put a piece of rice paper on a flat surface (I used a cookie sheet) and brush with water. In a minute or so it will be soft and pliable. Put a heaping tablespoon of the filling into the middle of the rice paper. Roll it into a cylinder and plate it, sitting on top of the Boston lettuce as a garnish. Serve with the peanut sauce.

I was very happy with the peanut sauce. It was far better than any of the bottled peanut sauces I've tried. It was spicy, sweet, and aromatic. I anticipate using this sauce with other dishes in the future.

It was also interesting using the rice paper rounds to make rolls. I've had similar rolls in Vietnamese and Thai restaurants but I've never made them myself. It was much quicker and easier than I'd expected. These will become a pantry favorite in my household. Coming up with new fillings could be a regular pastime.

As for the filling from this recipe, as I measured it, it produced far too many noodles for the amount of broccoli and carrots. I'm not sure where/if I deviated from it. I would recommend eyeballing the ratio of carrots, broccoli, sprouts, and noodles as opposed to following the measurements here. Shoot for something like 50% noodles, 20% sprouts, 20% broccoli, and 10% carrots.


Ease of preparation: 4/5
Speed of preparation: 3/5
Taste: 4/5


This is a great recipe to try. Not only is it a tasty dish to eat, but the peanut sauce should be usable for other recipes and the rice paper rolls should be great with a wide variety of fillings.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Pan Seared Rib Eye Steak

Source: Alton Brown
Food network’s "Good Eats" – episode: "Steak Your Claim"

When it comes to culinary pursuits, virtually nothing was sacred in my household growing up. Peas were served from a can, macaroni and cheese came from a box, there was always a stock of Velveeta sitting in the crisper and Little Debbie’s stacked on top of the fridge. The oven was used for baking Christmas cookies, the stovetop for frying eggs, and everything else went in the microwave. If it couldn’t be prepared in 1-2 minutes on high, it wasn’t worth the effort. There was, however, one dish that our kitchen just wasn’t good enough for. Not only was our kitchen not sufficiently sacrosanct for it’s preparation but my mother would reverently step aside while my father gravely assumed the preparation duties in a complex ritual involving animal flesh sacrificed to a fire carefully lit atop mount Weber.

The meal in question was, of course, steak. Steak could not be prepared by mere woman in the confines of a kitchen. It required manly labor in the outdoor air – charcoal, lighter fluid, large forks that could take out an eye and knives that were so sharp I wasn’t allowed to touch them. Imagine my surprise when I saw Alton Brown from FoodTV’s Good Eats do the unthinkable – cook steak in a pan.

It was shocking. How dare he? Steak on the stovetop? It railed against everything I knew in my soul about the nature of the universe.

It did look intriguing though. It certainly was fast. It didn’t require spending time outside in the middle of the winter. I could have steak and stay dry even if it was raining outside.

Eventually, I let go of my long held superstitions and broke out the cast iron. Here is my review of Alton Brown’s Pan Seared Rib Eye:

First off, I recommend watching the Episode in question if possible. The episode is available on DVD from the Food Network store. If you don’t want to pay $39.95 for a 3 DVD set, episodes are also generally pretty easy to find via P2P networks such as Gnutella or Bit Torrent. I think the DVD’s are a good value though. Each DVD has 3 episodes in addition to a special segment where Alton Brown answers viewer questions.

On to the ingredients:
1 boneless rib eye steak, 1 1/2-inch thick
Canola oil to coat
Kosher salt and ground black pepper

I’ve substituted Safflower oil for the Canola oil many times. This recipe requires an oil with a very high smoke point though. Do not use normal vegetable oil or butter for this. It’ll be ugly if you do. Also, don’t use table salt for this. You really want to use kosher salt.

The other things you’ll need for this recipe are a cast iron pan, a pair of tongs, a little aluminum foil, and your oven. The cast iron pan is critical. Don’t try this with anything else.

If you don’t have a cast iron pan, go out and buy one at a local retail store or order one online. Cast iron pans must be seasoned before use. This is also very important. Your pan should have come with directions. If it didn't, or if you want a second opinion, you can also search google for “season cast iron”.

Now that you have everything you need collected, toss the cast iron pan into your oven and preheat the oven to 500. While that is preheating, take the steak and coat it liberally on both sides with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Use more salt here than you think you need to. Put a tablespoon or so of oil on the steak and toss it around on a plate until both sides are evenly coated.

Once your oven is preheated, move the cast iron skillet to a burner set to the highest setting. Keep in mind, every single inch of that pan is now insanely hot. Make sure you use a good potholder or pair of oven mitts to remove it. Let the cast iron pan sit on the burner for 5 minutes to get even hotter*.

Finally it’s time to cook the steak. Drop it into the pan for 30 seconds. Let it smoke and sizzle. Do not touch it. After 30 seconds, flip it over and give it another 30 seconds. Next, take the whole pan and toss it into the over for 2 minutes. After 2 minutes, flip the steak over and cook for another 2 minutes.

Remove the steak from the oven and allow it to rest for 5 minutes covered by aluminum foil before eating. Alton Brown rests the steak on a small saucer turned upside-down on a plate to allow grease to drain away from the steak.

At this point you should have a juicy, perfectly seared, medium-rare steak that is the equal of just about any steak you’ve ever grilled - all in about a third of the time it would have taken for the charcoal to be ready.

Ease of preparation: 5/5
Speed of preparation: 5/5
Taste: 5/5

Overall: 5/5

* This is one place where I’ve had to deviate from Alton Brown’s recipe slightly. You may need to as well. If I leave the pan on my stove’s burner for 5 minutes, it actually gets TOO hot. The first time I did this, I filled my entire condo with thick smoke and burned the edges of the steak to charcoal black. I leave the pan on the my burner for about 3 minutes.