Gastrotruck goodness

They reeled me in, those Gastrotruck folks did, to last Wednesday’s food truck court in St. Paul; first, by floating the lure of that day’s menu via Twitter, then dangling the new and unknown in front of me like a shiny, speckled curiosity.

Whenever I go out to eat at most places, my eyes tend to alight on the items that I’ve never tried before or that I don’t often take the time to cook at home.  One of those foods is fish.  Between the high price per pound of most fresh, high quality fish, plus the decision-making dilemma about which fish are sustainable and which are not, I tend to avoid preparing fish at home altogether.

But that Wednesday my stomach was rumbling and, as I perused the menu, I noticed that Gastrotruck was offering “opah skewers and napa cabbage salad with ginger aioli and radish slices” as the daily special.  Hmmm, intriguing.  Just what is opah??

A quick Internet search revealed that opah, also known as moonfish, is an open sea fish that is not a deliberately caught variety but rather, an accidental byproduct of longline fishing for tuna, mahi mahi and other large ocean fish.  It has firm pink flesh that turns whitish when cooked.

OK, sold.  (Reel, reel, reel…)

***

Once in front of the truck, the omnivore’s dilemma reared its ugly head again, as I saw the vegetarian black bean and oat sliders that had initially caught my attention the last time I was at the #foodtruckcourt. Would this be a bait and switch?

Nope, I’d order both.  Existential crisis averted.

While I waited for the food to be ready, I surveyed the assortment of house-made sauces – hot; smoky and mild; and sweet and hot.

And then the colorful trio of relishes – pickled red onions, pickled radishes, and pickled cucumbers (I think?).

My order came up, and I was presented with this beauty of a basket.  I promptly loaded up on some pickled radishes and gave the fish skewers a few dashes of the sweet and hot sauce.

I couldn’t resist piling more pickled red onions and radishes onto the black bean and oat sliders.  This was on top of the smoked jalapeno relish, cucumber and sprouts.  (I’m publicly declaring myself to be a pickled vegetable convert right here and now.  It almost inspires me to have a go at pickling some vegetables myself this season.)

The fish skewers dressed in their punchy ginger aioli and hot sauce delivered a flavor “POW!” The black bean sliders were pleasantly spicy and a nice change from a meat burger.  
It was foodie heaven, and also way too much food for one person to eat.  My eyes were indeed bigger than my stomach.
***
I didn’t dare peek at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch app on my iPhone until after I’d eaten my lunch and returned to the office. When I did, the information about opah was conflicting.  
This app said that opah is a good alternative if it’s caught in Hawaii but should be avoided if it’s imported.  How can a consumer expect to know these details???  I should have asked the Gastrotruck-ers that day but I missed my chance.  
Regardless, it was an awesome work lunch and I can’t wait to stop by Gastrotruck again to see what else they have to offer.  
***
If you live in the Twin Cities, have you tried out Gastrotruck yet?  Have you tried opah?

Asian dinner ideas beyond stir fry

If I had to fly my cooking flag in one international cuisine camp, it would be Asian food. The zingy kick of fresh ginger root, the saltiness of soy sauce, the sweetness of coconut milk, the pungency of fish sauce and curry pastes all wake up my taste buds and make me glad to be eating our home-cooked food.  
Ginger, garlic and cilantro are everyday staples in our kitchen, and we love lemongrass and other accompaniments like hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, coconut milk, chili paste and curry paste.  All of these flavors rock our world.
Asian cooking doesn’t have to be complicated.  Sometimes recipes call for a number of different ingredients but if you stock your kitchen well, pulling together a complexly flavored meal can be a snap. 
We always have ginger, garlic and cilantro on hand. Other fresh staples include spinach, julienned carrots, snow peas or snap peas, red or yellow bell pepper for color, jalapeno or serrano chiles for heat. It’s also nice to have fresh mint on hand;  this grows easily in a pot outside. 
For proteins, it’s good to keep some chicken breasts or thighs, ground pork and shrimp in the freezer and tofu in the fridge.  
In the pantry, keep basmati rice, soba and rice noodles, plus soy or tamari sauce, sriracha sauce, coconut milk and chicken or vegetable broth. In the fridge, store your chili-garlic paste, fish sauce, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, black bean sauce, sesame oil and sesame seeds.
***

Ironically, we don’t do stir fries very often; our Asian cooking has tended more towards other types of dishes.

Here are several of our favorite Asian-influenced meals that are regulars in our dinner rotation. Spinach, napa cabbage, sugar snap peas, snow peas, spring onions, cilantro and fresh garlic can all be found at local farmers markets now.  You can also find local chicken and ground pork at many markets.

I like this recipe because it’s a meatless option, there’s a good dose of vegetables in it and when I choose to marinade the tofu ahead of time, it’s a quick weeknight meal to prep when returning home from work. Definitely use low-sodium soy sauce for this recipe; otherwise, it’s pretty salty.

We’ve made this recipe a couple of times, and the meatballs are very flavorful.  The noodles are somewhat bland but the richly flavored meatballs more than make up for them. 
We sometimes double the meatballs and freeze a batch of cooked meatballs for a later meal – then toss them into chili ramen noodles with baby spinach, shredded carrots, bean sprouts, minced jalapenos and fresh cilantro.  
***
Three others that I’ve mentioned making before are:
Sichuan Pork Noodles, a recipe recommendation from Lynne Rosetto Kasper’s Splendid Table Weeknight Kitchen newsletter which contains ground pork, peanut butter, ginger, oyster sauce and chili-garlic sauce

Spicy Shrimp Noodle Bowl, a quick Cooking Light recipe that includes shrimp, red pepper strips, snap peas and rice noodles in a flavorful ginger-infused seafood broth.  We usually add a little extra chicken broth to this recipe because otherwise the rice noodles tend to soak up much of the liquid.

Thai Green Coconut Curry with Tofu and Vegetables, an easy, malleable stove-top recipe with tofu and whichever seasonal vegetables you wish to add. I like to double this recipe because my husband and I enjoy eating the leftovers for a work lunch.

These three recipes are all good options for a weeknight dinner later during the week, because the fresh ingredients (and tofu) can handle hanging out in the fridge for a couple of days; just remember to thaw the pork / shrimp overnight before the day you plan to make those recipes.

***
Finally, one last dinner that I feel is best suited to preparing on a weekend because of the ingredient prep involved:

Peanut Chicken with Steamed Spinach and Basmati Rice

This meal is based on the recipe for Rich Peanut Dipping Sauce from grill-master Steven Raichlen’s cookbook, Barbecue Bible: Sauces, Rubs and Marinades.
The sauce is a flavor bomb of shallots, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, jalapenos, coconut milk and fish sauce, plus peanut butter.  Steaming fresh spinach in the pan towards the end of the cooking time boosts the nutrition, while a scattering of fresh cilantro brightens the dish and lends further flavor.  
Normally this is a dish that my husband prepares and I’m completely happy to hand over the cooking reins to him because of all of the chopping involved, but when he got tied up installing our new dishwasher yesterday, I had to take over the prep duties.  
It’s challenging to get dinner ready when you’re constantly having to step over your husband’s body to get to the sink and stove top and taking care not to step on his face. Between that and my very slow knife skills, my cooking attention span was pushed to the brink.  
Fortunately for all, I pulled through and got dinner on the table (well, my husband finished up the final steps) before everyone turned into pumpkins.  For that, we said thanks.
Peanut Chicken with Steamed Spinach and Basmati Rice
(Adapted from the Rich Peanut Dipping Sauce recipe in Barbecue Bible:  Sauces, Rubs and Marinades, Bastes, Butters and Glazes by Steven Raichlen, published by Workman Publishing in 2000.  Serves 4.)
Ingredients:
3 shallots, minced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2-3 jalapenos, serrano peppers or Thai chiles, seeded and minced (if you like it hot, keep the seeds)
1 T. minced fresh ginger
1 stalk lemongrass, trimmed and minced
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro, plus extra for garnishing the dish if desired
3 T. fish sauce
1 T. soy or tamari sauce
2 T. fresh lime juice
1 1/2 T. dark brown sugar
1 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup peanut butter
1 1/2 cups unsweetened coconut milk (1 15-oz. can)
1 bunch of fresh spinach (about 6-8 oz., or as much as you can fit into your pan)
1 1/2 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs
2 T. peanut oil
Basmati rice
Instructions:
Mince shallots, garlic, jalapenos, ginger and lemongrass and combine in a small dish. Chop up cilantro.  In another dish, combine fish sauce, soy sauce, lime juice, dark brown sugar, coriander and black pepper. Measure out the peanut butter and coconut milk and set aside. De-stem the spinach if using mature greens. Thinly slice chicken and cut into 1 1/2 inch strips.  
Get your basmati rice cooking.  
Heat the peanut oil in a wok or large saute pan over medium heat, then add the shallot mixture.  Stir fry for about 8-10 minutes, or until the ingredients begin to turn golden brown and caramelize.  Reduce the heat if the ingredients appear to be burning.
Add the peanut butter and stir fry for one minute.  Add the coconut milk, cilantro and the fish sauce mixture and stir with a whisk to combine.  Add the raw chicken strips and simmer on medium heat for about 6-8 minutes, stirring sauce occasionally, until the chicken is cooked through.  Taste the sauce and add additional fish sauce or lime juice if needed.
During the final couple of minutes of cooking time, pile the fresh spinach on top of the mixture, cover the pan with a lid and let the spinach steam for 2-5 minutes, or just until wilted.  
Serve the chicken, sauce and spinach over basmati rice, and garnish with additional fresh chopped cilantro if desired.
***
What’s your favorite Asian recipe for weeknights (besides takeout)?

Waiting

Yes, local strawberries are finally here!  Kinda. They’ve begun to appear at area farmers markets but the cool, wet weather in Minnesota this spring has meant that u-pick farms are just starting to get going, with limited hours beginning today for some places.  So, I’m waiting until next weekend to go pick my own strawberries for jam-making.

But I have my eyes on a bigger prize yet.

I didn’t get it together to plant any vegetables this year, just cooking herbs in pots.  But this patch?

These canes yield red gold during July.  For a brief couple of weeks, I will hit the motherlode of raspberries, enough to eat them every day plus put some away in jam.  There’s no food more local than what you can harvest from your own backyard.

***

I’ve never thought much about the pollinators of the world – the bees, bats (yes, bats!), hummingbirds and butterflies.

But this year I’m noticing them because, as I learned at the recent TEDxTC Future of Food event, pollinators are responsible for one-third of our food supply.  If the pollinators disappear, will all sorts of food sources also disappear along with them?

The thought is enough to give you pause.  Or at least, it should.

The bees are out in full force right now, busily pollinating my raspberry canes.  

I’m grateful for bees.

***

Check out this amazing video of pollinators that was shown at the TEDxTC event. Happy Friday!

Eating seasonally at Rainbow Chinese

Greens were haunting me, taunting me, stalking me, seducing me last week.  After a weekend of five different kinds of greens from the farmers market prepared in various dishes, I walked in to the latest Minnesota Food Bloggers event and was greeted with yet more greens.

Was the plant world trying to send me a message?

As luck would have it, the theme of this event at Rainbow Chinese Restaurant in south Minneapolis was cooking seasonally using farmers market produce.

Rainbow Chinese restaurateur Tammy Wong is truly remarkable; not only has she successfully operated her restaurant for over 20 years while being a working mom, she is active in her neighborhood, a vocal supporter of the Minneapolis Farmers Market and is focused on using local, seasonal ingredients for her Asian menu items.  What better place to test my new greens knowledge?

At the event, I surveyed the buffet table, where a wide array of peak season vegetables was transformed into an abundant feast. The assortment included:

Chicken egg rolls served with a variety of lettuces and herbs, including spearmint, peppermint, basil, shiso leaf, fish mint and Vietnamese coriander

Asparagus fried rice with anchovy paste

Fried soft tofu coated with cornstarch and sprinkled with five-spice salt, on a bed of blanched baby Asian greens, including mustard greens, choy sum and Shanghai baby bok choy

Cold sesame noodles with fresh pea shoots [Note that Tammy has a recipe for stir-fried pea shoots, along with many other seasonal recipes on her restaurant's website.]


Szechuan wontons (pork and shrimp dumplings) in black bean sauce with spring onions [I will be dreaming of these wontons.]


Coconut-tapioca pudding with a rhubarb compote

It was green, green everywhere; the dominant food color during the spring and early summer months.

Tammy and her kitchen staff really outdid themselves with this display of seasonal bounty.

Prior to this event, I had no idea that Rainbow Chinese had a banquet room.  The gathering took place in a space upstairs which had polished hardwood floors, attractive Asian artwork, a comfortable lounging area with sofas and abundant natural light. 

A beautiful spread complemented by beautiful surroundings – it was a lovely evening all-around.  Thanks again to Rainbow Chinese for providing such warm hospitality and demonstrating how to make seasonal ingredients shine.

Market Talk greens demo

My first-ever cooking demonstration, live at the Minneapolis Farmers Market…how was it going to go?  What would the weather be like?  Which greens would be available?  Cooking with unfamiliar equipment, on a time deadline, in front of an audience…it was going to be a challenge.
In the days leading up, I started thinking of it as a duel – Amy P. vs. the greens.
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