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crunchy garden spring rolls with pickled carrots

I’m not generally the type to make friends in transit. I don’t quite go the full sunglasses-and-headphones route, but I usually board the subway or plane with a book and a non-committal smile at the ready for anyone who edges towards small talk.

So it was with little expectation that I surveyed my seatmate on the train this weekend, a small, gray-haired Vietnamese woman with a white bucket hat and her feet tucked under her. We read—me, Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and she a book in Vietnamese—I worked on a few crossword puzzles, and she quietly readjusted her hat and feet. Then, just as we pulled into Los Angeles and an overhead voice made the tragic announcement that corn dogs were no longer available for purchase in the dining car, she turned to me and asked about my cell phone plan.

How the conversation turned from that to grilling vegetables I don’t know, but fifteen minutes later I was gesturing enthusiastically as I tossed imaginary florets of cauliflower in olive oil and slid them into the oven. Olive oil? At 400 degrees? She nodded earnestly and assured me she would try it, confessing she’d been looking for a new way to do vegetables and had never tried roasting them in the oven. In return she shared with me the merits of oxtail, multiple uses for fish sauce, and where to buy spices for a perfect pot of Pho while I frantically scribbled notes on a scrap of paper. As we neared her stop she reached into her bag and pulled out a crusty roll with cucumber, thinly sliced meats, daikon radish and pickled carrots: a homemade Banh Mi. Breaking it in half she offered me the larger portion, and we munched happily while she extracted a thin strand of carrot and told me the method she used to pickle it. As I helped her off the train after a quick hug I was reminded that even friendships that last less than 30 minutes can yield memorable moments–and memorable recipes.

Crunchy Garden Spring Rolls with Pickled Carrots and Peanut Dipping Sauce

These are the easiest–and tastiest–snacks to make, especially if you have lots of veggies on hand. The only tricky part can be finding the rice paper wrappers, but they are widely available at local Asian groceries and some large markets like Whole Foods (the same goes for the slightly more ubiquitous fish sauce and sriracha). Please feel free to play around and add more types of vegetables than I suggest.

For pickled carrots:

2 large carrots

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup rice vinegar

1/4 cup honey

Slice carrots into thin strips and set aside in a shallow bowl. Add water, vinegar, and honey to a small saucepan and bring to a boil, then pour over carrots until they are completely submerged. Soak overnight before sealing and storing in your refrigerator.

For spring rolls:

1 packet Vietnamese rice paper wrappers (round or square)

1 cucumber

1 avocado

2 carrots, pickled (see above)

lettuce leaves

cilantro

Slice cucumber, avocado, and any other veggies you plan to use into thin strips. Tear lettuce leaves in half and cilantro into small sprigs, and arrange all veggies (including pickled carrots) so they are close at hand.

Pour hot (not quite boiling) water into a shallow dish, and dip a sheet of rice paper in the water until soft and pliable. Lay rice paper on a dry surface and arrange lettuce, carrots, avocado, cilantro and other veggies in the center. Roll tightly while tucking in the edges, then cut diagonally in half and serve.

For spicy peanut sauce:

1/4 cup fish sauce

1/4 cup rice vinegar

1/4 cup honey

1/4 cup peanut butter

sriracha hot sauce

Combine the first four ingredients until smooth. At this point, it’s all about taste: more salty? Add fish sauce. More sweet? More honey. More tangy? Bring out the rice vinegar. Adjust with peanut butter for desired thickness, and finally add sriracha for spice.

meyer lemon sherbet with honey

In my running list of potential ingredient combinations, ice cream with quinoa was probably—no, definitely—near the bottom.

But there we were on a Friday at 9 a.m., me and 20 high schoolers, happily munching homemade lemon sherbet studded with quinoa from the bottom of our paper bowls. I’d brought the grain and dessert to share with students at my alma mater Laguna Blanca, the plan being to talk a little about food and blogging and offer first something healthy and breakfasty (quinoa as cereal!) and then something sweet. In the frenzy of serving they ended up together, but what better lesson for young cooks than that making food is often a happy accident?

I’m still a young cook myself, and ingredient adventures are no small part of my kitchen. Often the idea is not wholly my own: a month or so ago I was making a pasta casserole with one of my fellow apprentices when he suggested topping the dish with thinly sliced potatoes. Pasta and potatoes? Together? I tried (unsuccessfully) to veil my skepticism, but I was the one swallowing my words when we cut into our steaming casserole with its perfectly crisped potato topping. Who knew?

This lemon sherbet is also the product of experimentation, particularly since I ended up making four batches over the course of last week. Some of you may remember the birthday ice cream maker I purchased for my mom back in October (an ulterior motive gift to be sure), and since my servings of iced desserts usually near half the quart, I decided to play around with ice cream and gelato’s svelter and oft-ignored cousin, sherbet. Made with milk instead of cream, sherbet falls somewhere between ice cream and sorbet, and using Jeni Britton’s ice cream-making method it is nothing short of delicious. The base for my final batch came out of the fridge a tad too tart, but as it was a bit late to add more sugar I spooned in some Avocado-blossom honey. Not quite as odd as potatoes on pasta, but a happy experiment nonetheless.

Meyer Lemon Sherbet with Honey

Meyer lemons have a characteristically mild and fragrant flavor which works wonderfully in sherbet, but I’ve made this recipe successfully with limes and other citrus so feel free to use what you have on hand. The same goes for the milk—I use 2%, but you can easily substitute according to preference.

3 cups milk

1/3 cup sugar

zest of three lemons

1 Tbsp cornstarch

3 Tbsp cream cheese

juice of five Meyer lemons

3 Tbsp honey

Whip cream cheese in a large bowl and set aside. Combine milk, sugar, and lemon zest in a saucepan over medium heat and slowly bring to a simmer. Dissolve cornstarch in a separate cup with a little of the milk from the pan, then pour into the main mixture when it begins to boil. Stir for a minute or so on the heat until the sherbet base thickens slightly, then pour onto the cream cheese and whisk vigorously until mixed. Set in the fridge or freezer to cool.

Juice your lemons and set aside. When the sherbet base is fully cooled, stir in honey and lemon juice a little at a time, tasting after each addition. When your base is the perfect combination of tart and sweet, freeze in your ice cream maker or follow these instructions for freezing your sherbet as a granita.

broccoli soup with white pepper and feta

It’s the New Year and I’m brimming with resolutions. It might be that I spent my new year’s week with all the things that make me most happy—my family, fresh writing projects, and a new novel by Haruki Murakami—but 2012 feels full of promise, and resolution #1 is to sustain that feeling of buoyancy for as long as possible. Resolution #2 (which handily edged out #3: honoring my parents’ orthodontic investment and finding the will to wear my old retainers) is to spend more time with Girl Farm Kitchen, and on that note I have a special introduction to make.

Shepherd Farms is my family’s “home farm”—we live on Shepard Mesa, and the travel time from door to door clocks in at four minutes. We’ve been members since they started their CSA program several years ago, and when I’m home I’m the designated produce shopper, stopping by the farm cart on weekday afternoons to chat with Kjessie and select jewel-toned cabbages and crisp, sweet gnarled carrots.

The welcome is always warm: in the summer two Polish chicks gamboled in a play-pen by the farm cart, and last week they came leaping comically over the nearby rows of rosemary to greet me when I arrived. The farm’s characters don’t end there—regulars are well-acquainted with “Stan” the turkey, who makes soft warbling noises in her throat when you get too close to her chicken friends, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feeds my strawberry tops to the three woolly goats as I leave (lucky for them I’ve usually eaten half the punnet by the time I get to the car). Driving by it’s not unusual to see Tom Shepherd out on his tractor, wide-brimmed hat on head and wandering chickens in tow.

Living in California (especially under the sway of winter heat spells) we’re fortunate to get ripe strawberries and tender lettuce greens year-round, but having planted and tended brassicas at Love Apple I have a sweet spot for broccoli and cauliflower as the traditional winter crops. This soup was a play on the many broccoli and cheese numbers I’ve tasted over the years, and as a lover of feta—especially tangy, moist feta—I thought I’d give that a try. Resolution #4? Celebrate winter veggies, the farms that grow them, and the tables they end up on.

Broccoli Soup with White Pepper and Feta

3 medium heads of broccoli

2 onions, chopped

4 cloves of garlic, crushed

1 good sized potato

5 cups chicken (or vegetable) broth

1/2 cup crumbled feta

1 tsp white pepper

1 tsp ground coriander

1/2 cup yogurt

fresh coriander (cilantro) for garnish

salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut broccoli into small florets and toss with olive oil, salt and pepper, then arrange on a baking sheet and roast for 10-15 minutes, or until florets are nicely browned on the edges. Set aside to cool.

In a large pot, heat oil over medium heat and saute onions and garlic. Cube potato and add in with the broth, then simmer until potato pieces are cooked through, adding broccoli towards the end. Let soup base cool a bit before stirring in feta, and season with white pepper, ground coriander, and salt to taste.

Puree warm soup in a blender in two batches, then return to pot and whisk in yogurt. Reheat if necessary and serve warm, garnished with fresh coriander and crumbled feta.

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