Monday, November 11, 2013

Vietnamese Noodle Salad with Lemongrass Shrimp

There are many variations on this dish, as well as the sauce. I've tried several, and so far this one is my favorite! At 315 calories a serving, it's also a great dish if you're dieting.

The heart of this dish is the basic Vietnamese Dipping Sauce "Nuoc Cham".

Nuoc Cham (makes about 1 1/2 cups)

3-4 fresh Thai chillis, minced (or use chili paste)
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2/3 cup hot water
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup fish sauce
2-3 Tablespoons fresh lime juice

Stir the sugar into the hot water until it's dissolved, then add the rest of the ingredients. Any unused sauce can be kept in the refrigerator up to one week.

Some versions of Nuoc Cham are made with vinegar instead of the lime juice, which will keep even longer.

Vietnamese Noodle Salad 

2 servings, 315 calories each serving

4 oz. of thin rice noodles (vermicelli), cooked, drained and rinsed with cold water
1 cup of bean sprouts
1 cup shredded lettuce
1/2 cup sliced cucumber
1/2 cup sliced or shredded carrot
1/2 cup Nuoc Cham (above)
1/4 cup of chopped, mixed herbs (I use cilantro and thai basil)
10-12 large raw shrimp, peeled
1 clove of crushed garlic
1 stalk lemongrass, minced.
1-2 teaspoons coconut oil, or whatever oil you like to cook with

Assemble your salad base by placing the bean sprouts, lettuce, cucumber, and carrot in the bottom of two bowls. Scatter the chopped herbs on top.

Cook the vermicelli according to the package directions, then drain and rinse with cold water. Make sure to toss the noodles around in your colander to get as much water off them as possible. Any water remaining on the noodles will dilute the sauce.

Heat the coconut oil in a saute pan over medium heat, then add the lemongrass and crushed garlic. Saute for about 20-30 seconds, until it becomes fragrant. Add the shrimp and toss in the aromatic oil until done. It should not take more than a minute or two for the shrimp to be fully cooked. When done, divide the shrimp on top of the noodles. Be sure to also scrape the lemongrass and garlic into your salad.

Add 1/4 cup Nuoc Cham to each bowl, toss to combine, and serve immediately.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

How to Build a Mini WSM Smoker

The mini WSM is named after the Weber Smoky Mountain smoker. The WSM smoker is a very popular vertical charcoal smoker, priced at about $200. It comes in two sizes: 18.5 inch and 22 inch.
You can build a mini WSM by using a small Weber kettle grill (Smokey Joe), a 32 qt tamale steamer pot, and some assorted hardware. Be sure to check Craiglist for a used Smokey Joe, I've seen them listed there for as little as $10.

The pot I used is a 32 qt tamale steamer pot made by Vasconia, and sold by Phaltzgraff. There are other brands that will work, but I bought the Vasconia because it was known to be a good fit. If you're willing to shop around you can probably find something cheaper that works. Just make sure the pot sits snugly in the Smokey Joe so you won't have any air leaks.

There are two different models of the Smokey Joe grill - Silver and Gold. The main difference between them is the air inlet. The silver has a sliding air inlet on the bottom, the Gold has four 3/4 inch holes on the side. For smoking, many pitmasters prefer the Gold. During a long smoking session, ash can clog up the bottom vents on the Silver, and choke out your fire. I used the gold as well, as the size of the side air vents was perfect to pair with my BBQ Guru stoker.

I also built a charcoal basket for my smoker. (above) This keeps the charcoal close together, allowing ash to fall to the bottom. The bottom of the basket is the Smokey Joe charcoal grate, and the sides are made with 3 inch strips of expanded steel. Expanded steel is available from any of the big box home improvement store. I bought a 12 inch x 24 inch sheet and cut two strips 3 inches high. The sides are secured to the charcoal grate using stainless steel wire.

It is very import to never use galvanized metal of any kind to build a smoker. The galvanized metal will burn off nasty chemicals that can make you sick.

On the sides of the pot you'll need to drill three 1/4" holes for your grill rack. You can see one of them in the picture above, at the top. Through the hole is a 1/4 inch x 3/4 inch stainless steel hex bolt, a nut, two 1/4" steel washers, and an acorn nut on the outside. The 3 holes should be spaced approximately 14.5 inches around the outside of the pot. Below my grill rack bolt, you can see I've installed two 1/4" grommets. These holes will be used for my temperature probes.

Here's the rack inside the steamer pot, with the temperature probes through the grommets.

The next step is to either cut out the bottom out of your steamer pot, or to drill it with holes to allow the heat and smoke to get to your food.

I decided to cut the bottom out of the pot, leaving a little bit of a lip around the edge. Other mini builders I talked to said they thought it burned better without the bottom, and allowed more room for charcoal. The easiest way to cut the bottom is using a jigsaw equipped with a metal cutting blade.
You don't want to cut the entire bottom out, or your pot will become too flimsy. Leave at least a 1/2 inch lip.

To assemble your mini, put the charcoal basket in the bottom of the Smokey Joe and place your steamer pot on top. You can then add the tamale steamer insert as a diffuser (optional), then place your grill grate on top of the bolts, and the Smokey Joe lid on top.

These are two of the holes on the side of the Smokey Joe Gold. The one on the left I plugged up with a 3/4 inch black iron plug. The one on the right has the 3/4 inch BBQ guru adapter, with a 4 cfm stoker fan. This will attach to my BBQ guru DigiQ.

To start the fire, I put some charcoal in the basket, leaving a space in the middle. Then I started a few pieces of charcoal in the chimney starter. When these coals are fully ashed over, I drop those in the space in the middle of the basket. If you're using wood chunks for smoke flavor, intersperse those with your charcoal. This was just a test run, so I left those out.
I coated the inside of the steamer pot with a little bit of oil, so it could season. The pot is aluminum so this just helps seal everything up.

 With everything in place, I set the BBQ Guru for 225 degrees and let it go for 2 hours.

For my first smoke in the mini I decided to reverse sear a tri tip. I took the pot off the Smokey Joe briefly to toss in a chunk of cherry wood for smoke flavor, then put my spice rubbed tri tip on the grill. There is a temperature probe in the meat so I can monitor the internal temperature.
It took about 50 minutes reach 125 degrees internal temp. Then I removed the tri tip from the smoker, removed the steamer pot from the grill, and placed the grill grate on the Smokey Joe right above the coals. I waited a few minutes for the fire to stoke up and get very hot, then placed the tri tip on to sear.
About a minute a side should be all that's needed. By now your internal temp should be up to about 130 for a nice medium rare.

If you like, you can paint the steamer pot with high temperature paint. I used a stencil to trace these pictures and then used the stencil to cut out painters tape. (several strips of tape, slightly overlapping) I used Rustoleum high heat paint, but if you go to an auto parts store, you can find one that's more glossy and will match the Smokey Joe better.
All in all this was a really fun project and costs less than $100. The initial build took about two hours once I had all the parts. And the smoker itself works great!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Reverse Sear

When I purchased my smoker, I had visions of smoking large racks of ribs, briskets, pulled pork, and other big pieces of meat. The meat would cook low and slow for many hours until tender and smoky. Then my friends at the Smoking Meat Forums introduced me to the reverse sear and I had a whole new culinary experience with my smoker.

If you ever watch cooking shows on TV you have probably seen a chef cook a piece of meat or fish on the stove at high heat, searing the outside, then placing the pan in the oven to finish cooking. The reverse sear switches this method around. Instead you cook the meat low and slow to your desired temperature, then quickly sear the outside to finish. With this method you can enjoy a nice medium rare steak AND get the rich, smoky flavor you get from cooking low and slow.

To reverse sear you will need:
  1. A smoker or grill capable of indirect cooking.
  2. A meat thermometer. 
  3. Wood chunks or chips for the smoke flavor.
  4. A thick cut of beef. Hamburgers work well for this method but if you want to cook a steak, get a good quality cut like a rib eye, porterhouse, t-bone, etc. 
It is important to get a good cut of beef because we won't be cooking the meat for long periods of time, which would allow a leaner cut of meat such as a brisket, to break down and be tender. You also want the meat to be at least 1 inch thick or it will cook too quickly and you won't be able to infuse much smoke flavor. This 2 1/2 pound bone-in rib eye is an excellent example:

A smoker is ideal for a reverse sear but you can also use a regular charcoal grill. The grill just needs to be large enough so you can pile all the charcoal on one side of the grill, and cook indirectly by placing the meat on the opposite side. The smaller your grill/smoker, the more you'll also want to flip and rotate your meat during the cooking process so it will cook evenly.

If you're using wood chips, be sure to soak them in water for at least a 1/2 hour before using. If you're using wood chunks, soaking is not necessary.

To begin, season the meat. You can use an elaborate spice rub, or just simple salt and pepper. Some people like to coat the meat with oil first to help the rub stick but I find this usually isn't necessary. Leave the meat sitting out at room temperature while you prepare the grill/smoker.

Prepare your grill or smoker for indirect cooking. You want to smoke the meat at a low temperature, a range of 210-225 degrees is ideal but dropping as low as 200 will also be fine.

This picture shows a kettle grill set up for indirect cooking. The pan isn't really necessary, but you can include it if you like.

Once your fire is ready, add the smoke chips or chunks to the coals. Don't overdo it. Just a small handful of chips should be all that's needed. If using wood chunks, one or two small pieces.

Some good choices for smoke flavor include:
  • Cherry - A mild, fruity flavor that pairs really well with beef.
  • Oak - Also mild.
  • Hickory - A standard smoke flavor that works well with all kinds of meat. Hickory has much stronger smoke flavor than cherry or oak, so go easy on it.
  • Mesquite - I personally never use mesquite for smoking but others swear by it. This is also a strong flavor, so go easy.
For a rib eye, I like a combination of oak and cherry. I still want to be able to taste the flavor of the beef so prefer to keep it mild. For hamburgers, I use hickory and cherry. Cherry also gives a pinkish hue to the meat, which shows up nicely on this burger:

This is the rib eye, placed on the smoker at about 225 degrees. The probe thermometer is in the center of the meat so I can monitor the internal temperature. Be sure the probe is not touching fat or bone.

Smoke the meat to about 5 degrees shy of your desired finishing temperature. I was shooting for medium rare, so I cooked the meat to 125 degrees. When done, remove to a plate and let rest briefly while you prepare the fire for searing. On my smoker that involved opening up the lid and air vents on the fire box until the fire and grill grates were red hot.

Sear the meat over the hot coals. About a minute a side should be all that's needed.
Rest the meat. This is one of the most important and difficult parts of the process. Allow the meat to rest so that the juices can reabsorb into the meat. For a large cut like this rib eye, 20 minutes is ideal. For a hamburger or small steak, you can probably get away with as little as 10 minutes.

Timing will vary according to your smoker temperature and thickness of the meat, but this rib eye took 2 hours to get to 125 and the hamburger took a little less than an hour. Enjoy!

Friday, May 24, 2013

How to Make Pad See Ew

This is one of my favorite Thai dishes and it's quite simple to make. The name literally translates to mean "fried (with) soy sauce".

I used to think that you had to make fresh rice noodles for this dish. That was until I found these "Rice Flake" noodles. They are dried, flat squares of rice noodles and they cook very quickly, only a few minutes in boiling water.


Makes 1 generous serving
  • One serving of rice flake noodles, boiled until tender. (or fresh rice noodles)
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 large clove of garlic, minced
  • 1/2 - 1 teaspoon dried chili
  • 2-3 oz pork, thinly sliced
  • 1 bunch Chinese broccoli (substitute regular broccoli)
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons sweet soy sauce
  • 1/8 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tablespoons of stir fry sauce (see below)

Stir Fry Sauce: (store what you don't use in the refrigerator)

  • 1/4 cup oyster sauce
  • 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoons golden mountain sauce (or substitute more light soy)
  • 2 teaspoons fish sauce
I used regular broccoli this time, cut into long pieces, and microwaved for about 30 seconds. Because the dish cooks so quickly, this just ensures it gets fully cooked.

To begin, add 1 tablespoon of oil to the pan and heat until hot. Add the garlic (and chili, if using) and stir fry until fragrant. Then add the pork and stir fry for about 1 minute, or until browned.

Add the broccoli, sugar and white pepper and stir to combine. Add the drained noodles and 2 tablespoons stir fry sauce. Once fully combined, add the sweet soy sauce.

Push the ingredients to the outside of the pan, then add the egg. 

Once the egg starts to set, stir it into the rest of the dish. Once egg is done, the dish is ready to serve. Serve immediately, as it tends to dry out as it sits.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Building a Spring Lasagna Garden

Lasagna gardening (sometimes called sheet composting) is a method of building a raised garden bed out of waste materials that eventually break down into compost. Your "lasagna" layers are built up of alternating brown and green materials that interact with each other, creating a rich growing medium for your vegetable garden.

Ideally, you would build your lasagna garden in the Fall, giving it time to "marinate" through the cold weather months, before planting in Spring. But if you're getting a late start, like me, you can build one in the Spring. You'll just need to use more soil and compost in the mix, since you won't have enough time for the soil to fully develop.

This is layer one, which consists of cardboard and newspaper. I wet it down to keep it from blowing away. Be sure to remove any packing tape from the cardboard boxes. This layer, as it breaks down will also attract earthworms.

Next step, I went out into the woods to find the next layer - browns. This layer can consist of leaves, pine needles, twigs, etc. If you don't have ready access to these types of materials, you can use straw.

Here's my layer of brown on top of the cardboard and newspaper.

Next is a green layer. Greens were harder to come by since it was early Spring and my lawn did not need mowing yet. Your green layer should be about half the thickness of your brown layer and can consist of weeds (not gone to seed), grass clippings, animal manure, vegetable scraps or egg shells.

Since greens were scarce, I added some bone meal fertilizer. This contributed the extra nitrogen I needed to get the chemical reaction started.

Next, I continued alternating brown and green layers in a 2-1 ratio. After the first layer, I started using compost for my green layer, sprinkled with some more of the bone meal fertilizer.

Here's my last brown layer. At this point my bed was just under 2/3 of the way full.

Since I plan on using the bed right away, I filled it the rest of the way with a 50-50 soil/compost mix. This way the plants can grow on the top, while the layers underneath start breaking down. The roots of the vegetable plants will also help this process along as they snake down through the layers.

My filled garden bed (ow, my aching back!) Normally I would not fill it quite this full, but I'm expecting the layers to compress a bit, so it should end up at a nice level by the time I'm ready to plant.

I will post updates as the season goes on!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Tom Kha Gai

This soup comes together amazingly fast, so it is great for a weekend lunch. The dish is very well balanced from the richness of the coconut milk, the saltiness of the fish sauce, and the tartness of the lime. Kaffir lime leaves can be difficult to the find. If you can't find them, try adding a bit of lime zest. 

2 side dish servings, or add steamed jasmine rice to make it a main course.
190 calories per serving. (without rice)

  • 2 cups chicken stock (low sodium)
  • 4 kaffir lime leaves, shredded
  • 3-4 one inch pieces of lemon grass, smashed slightly to release the flavor
  • 1 inch cube galangal (thai ginger), sliced thinly (use ginger if you can't find it)
  • 4 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice
  • 4 ounces chicken breast, cut into bite sized pieces
  • 5 ounces full fat coconut milk
  • 1/2 cup sliced oyster or straw mushrooms
  • small red Thai chili peppers, slightly crushed (to taste)
  • chopped cilantro, to taste
Heat up the stock, add the lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal, fish sauce, thai chillis and lime juice. Stir thoroughly and bring to a boil. Add the coconut milk, chicken. and mushrooms. Simmer for 2 minutes, or until chicken is cooked through. Pour into 2 bowls, add the cilantro, and serve.

Variation: The Tom Kha in the picture below has a small amount of Nam Prik Pao added. This is a very common Thai condiment and you should be able to find it in your Asian grocery store. It is a sweet, roasted chili paste in soybean oil, and is the main flavor component of Tom Yum soup. It's a nice way to spike up the flavor of your Tom Kha. Many American Thai restaurants serve it this way, but is not exactly traditional.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Thai Green Chicken Curry

I made this recipe once with lite coconut milk and that was a mistake. You really need the richness of regular coconut milk in this sauce. Combining that richness with the lime juice, Thai basil, and the complexity of the green curry paste is an unbeatable combination. If you can afford the calories, add more rice to soak up the yummy sauce!

2 servings. 485 calories each, when served with 1 cup of cooked brown rice

  • 1 teaspoon canola oil
  • 1/3 cup sliced shallots or red onion
  • 2 teaspoons green curry paste
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 2 teaspoons fish sauce
  • 1 chicken breast, cut into thin strips
  • 1/2 red pepper, thinly sliced
  • 2 Tablespoons Thai basil leaves, chopped
  • 1 Tablespoon fresh lime juice
Heat the oil in a saute pan over medium heat. Add the shallots and curry paste; stir until the shallots soften, about 2 minutes.

Add the chicken and stir fry briefly until slightly browned (not cooked through), add the red pepper.

Stir in the coconut milk and fish sauce and bring to a boil. Stir to combine and cook for a few minutes, just until chicken is cooked through.

Sir in the chopped basil and lime juice. Serve over plenty of rice to soak up the delicious sauce!