Monday, February 7, 2011

Asian Super Bowl Feast

I normally love Super Bowl parties - lots of cheering, commentary on commercials, endless dips and snacks - all good things. But this year I had sort of a sad realization about myself. I realized, when it comes to watching things I actually care about on TV, I'm not very good company. In fact, I get downright crotchety.

Case in point: we hosted an Oscar party last winter for our cousins and colleagues in Boston. I was excited about the idea of having lots of people over and making fun foods. But as soon as the Red Carpet coverage started, I wanted complete silence so I could focus on the stars. Hmmm. Silence is hard to come by in a 500-square foot apartment with 20 people.

So this Super Bowl, we declined party invitations and celebrated, just Joe and I, at home. I felt relieved. The only person I'd have to harshly "sshhh" was my sweet husband, and I know he can take it.

I pored over our new wedding cookbooks with a cup of coffee and an open window. It felt wonderful, flipping through gorgeous photos and ingredients lists. I'd had a hankering for Vietnamese Pho thanks to a recent takeout order in Baltimore from Mekong Delta Cafe. So I whipped out our glossy new Williams-Sonoma Asian Cookbook and tried to identify what exactly it was my taste buds were shouting for.

Turns out, they wanted a clear soup. So I decided to make Miso soup, vegetarian spring rolls and Pad Thai all from scratch. Figured we could space out the eating if I got an early enough start cooking.

I schlepped over to Whole Paycheck, I mean Whole Foods, on Cambridge St. with my reusable bags and sloppy list. Produce was no problem, and frankly, I was excited to tackle the Asian aisle with a specific purpose! Usually I just stand in front of those dried foods and rices and think, dear God, what does this translate to, and was it an animal? A vegetable? Hard to say...

And even yesterday with my detailed ingredients list, I still managed to become overwhelmed. I found about 60% of what I needed, but then the packages veered off from the exact terms used on my ingredients list, and I was lost. I didn't know how to translate and find substitutes. For example, what's dashi? And if they don't have dashi, what's a close substitute?

I began Googling on my iPhone immediately and managed to cross off a few more items, but dashi, miso shiro and konbe were still eluding me. Oh, and tamarind paste. Another stumper - what TYPES of foods were these? Should I look for them in the produce or cooler sections or the dry goods aisle? I was starting to sweat as I spun in circles in the Asian aisle and contemplated how these recipes might taste with only 60% of the right ingredients. Maybe I could just improvise.

Finally a very nice employee came over and said, "Ma'am, can I help you?" I said, "Do I look terribly lost?" He said, "I've been watching you stand here for 10 minutes. How can I help you?" Bless his heart.

I happily shoved the remainder of my ingredients list at him. Poor guy. Didn't know he was going to turn into someone's personal shopper. We found everything on the list except for dashi, and he even asked other colleagues if WF carries it. I learned that miso shiro is kept in the cooler section above the orange juices. Who knew?

Humbled yet victorious, I saddled my bags to my shoulders and started the 2-mile walk back home. I felt like a pack mule. I kept thinking, if those fragile rice-paper rounds break in my bags, I'm going to scream. But they didn't.

The miso soup was my first recipe once I got home and rubbed feeling back into my shoulders. These were new ingredients to play with! I was so excited! I'd finally jumped off the cliff and invested in all these Asian cooking oils - sesame oil, mirin, rice vinegar, fish investment, but a worthwhile one.

The kanbe was dried seaweed (again, who knew?), and I soaked it as instructed for 15 minutes in hot water until it was soft. Then I laid it on our wooden cutting board and began cutting long, thin slices. I was so moved by how beautiful this seaweed looked in my house. It was slippery, yet thick and durable. I rubbed my fingers over it several times to get the feel, and then I ripped off a piece to taste. (Since these were all new ingredients to me, I wanted to know what everything tasted like on its own before I mixed it with something else. That way I could better decipher what I needed to add more or less of next time). Kanbe was unremarkable by itself, but I knew it played a key role in the final flavor of miso.

I followed the miso soup recipe to a tee except for the dashi. It said to substitute 6 cups of low sodium chicken broth for dashi, but I opted for vegetable broth instead. Kind of a big difference. It made the soup much thicker than it should have been, and I didn't get that clear broth I was expecting. But now I know - chicken broth does not mean vegetable broth.

The spring rolls were fun and super simple. We shredded and peeled a bunch of veggies and fresh herbs and then added chickpeas as a protein substitute. I was excited to play with the rice paper rounds. They were surprisingly thick and malleable. I had been afraid they'd tear at the slightest touch. We each made our own little rolls, poured a little duck sauce out and had ourselves an appetizer during the pre-game show.

The Pad Thai was a cinch. Joe made the chile paste since he's the Master of the food processor. I think I added too much tamarind paste (even AFTER removing a tablespoon from the pan), so the color of the sauce was much darker than the Pad Thai I'm used to eating. I think I could use less fish sauce next time, too. Little too much salt flavor. Otherwise, it was good. And Joe had seconds, so I guess that's the real telling sign.

And now I have a pantry full of Asian ingredients for more experimenting! That's my kind of game on!

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