Monday, May 21, 2007

I flipped through the latest issue of Gourmet magazine this evening, stopping to glance over a full-page recipe for “Berry Bliss Cake,” which was essentially an ad for Kraft products. Pictured was a “lifestyle expert” preparing this simple dish from instant or frozen ingredients such as Cool Whip, Jello pudding and pound cake. I was insantly filled with conflicting feelings: attracted to the picture-perfect cake, and it’s simplicity but found my nose cringing with my newfound disdain for all foods artificial. Yuck—frozen food, instant pudding, corn syrup...all of a sudden, my thoughts turned to memories of being a kid, making jello...I learned to cook with that kind of stuff. My earliest memories of “cooking” on my own were of putting bologna and “lil’ smokies” sausages in the toaster oven. Hey, that stuff was good!

What are we (the newly enlightened to whole and natural foods) to do when we have kids? I eat quite healthy now, and have nothing instant or artificial in my pantry (except maybe polenta, and ramen). But what happens when my kids have a birthday party, or need treats for a school function? Will it all be from scratch? No Duncan Hines cupcakes? It’s odd, because thinking of this, it becomes apparent that kids or no, I haven’t had any family-style functions in my single life in the past year. No reason to bake treats for a group, no sweet teeth to please (except my own, of course...). I wonder if when the healthy have kids, most prior good habits fall to the wayside in the way of convenience. I mean, my mom was a macrobiotic at one point, next thing she knew, us kids were getting fast food for dinner every Thursday on “town day.” Just like the way a parent finds themselves listening to their 9 year old’s cds in the car... saccharine all around...

Thursday, May 03, 2007


As I loosened my tie (seriously) and removed my coffee-stained “bistro” apron late Sunday afternoon at work, I contemplated my attendance at a dinner party that I’d been invited to that evening. It was to be hosted by a friend of mine from the restaurant, who, motivated by any excuse to make “shabu-shabu” (dressed in a full-length cotton kimono, no less) declared the evening’s theme “Asian.” I figured that the term would be applied loosely since, this being Southeast Portland, there would most likely be no actual Asians present.

I am normally more than enthusiastic about any sort of dinner party, but I worked all weekend, and felt like I didn’t have enough to bring. However, because I heard that one of the city’s buzzworthy young chefs might be in attendance, I didn’t want to miss out. I did think ahead on this, and in the event that I might go, I had made some Chi Chi Dango (coconut mochi) on Friday night just in case.

Mochi treats, particularly Chi Chi Dango, like many Japanese confections, are often made with artificial food coloring, to give sweets their pink color, and pickles that fluorescent yellow. Standing in the baking aisle at the grocery store, however, I couldn’t muster the purchase of liquid chemicals to add to my cooking. So, I concocted a natural alternative. The mochi recipe was to be layered, so one part, at least, could remain naturally white. For the other, I boiled a beet in a little water (which I used later for beetroot salad), and used that beautiful fucshia juice in place of the water in half of the batter. It made the mochi a fabulous dark red, but I admit, when soft against the off-white layer, it bore an unsettling resemblance to body fat. Or steak. One person at the party (while enjoying it) compared it to “raw fish.” Ahem. was definitely well received, and quite tasty. Everybody loves mochi.

On to the next course: appetizers. I was in a time crunch, but my pantry did hold a start—rice wrappers for spring rolls. Desperately flipping pages of all of my cookbooks and magazines for a recipe, I found none (nor directions for turning the rigid wrappers soft), but drew on my own taste and memory to develop a dish. I zoomed up the street on my vintage bike to the grocery store, on a mission for fresh Oregon bay shrimp (in season as of 2 weeks ago), plump, flavorful, tiny, and best of all—cooked. I had some cilantro, so I thought “mint,” and intended to put something else in (carrots? cucumber?) but lost track of any other ingredients as I frantically searched for bean sprouts. That’s what I wanted to use for the bulk of the salad rolls, but after scanning the entire produce section (twice) in vain, I finally asked someone, and a clerk told me that “there was a fire.” At the bean sprout factory? Odd, but I had no time to ponder that one. Onward, I wondered, “what is filling, fresh, and flavorless?” ICEBERG LETTUCE!

It took me a minute, standing there before the mound of lettuce, to accept the fact that I was actually about to buy and prepare conventional iceberg lettuce (never thought I’d see the day), the archenemy of the organic movement. But, it’d do the job, so that’s what I did. And, my friends, those babies were dee-lish. Everyone was impressed. So here’s the recipe:

Lila’s Springtime Rolls
3/4 lb cooked Oregon bay shrimp
1/4 c chopped cilantro
1/8 c chopped spearmint
1/2 lime’s worth of juice
1 t sambal chili sauce
head of iceberg lettuce
grated carrot (optional)
thinly sliced cucumber (optional)
rice spring roll wrappers

Mix the shrimp, lime juice, herbs and sambal in a bowl with salt to taste. Thinly julienne the lettuce. Soak the rice wrappers, about 4 at a time in a pie dish or skillet filled with warm water for about 3 minutes. Here’s where things got experimental: without proper directions, I took the wrappers out one at a time and dried them on clean dishtowels laid all over my kitchen to blot off the moisture. It worked fine. Take a little of the shrimp mixture, place it in a line about 3” long a bit off center (closer to you rolling it), top with a mound of lettuce, and fold/roll away from you once, tuck the sides over, and finish rolling. Repeat until mixture is used up. Serve the rolls with warm, homemade peanut sauce (recipe I used is in the Joy of Cooking). Enjoy!

P.S. Drinking primarily riesling and/or plum wine all night is always a bad idea.