Blackberry Spring Rolls

2016 Food Blog August-0725Obvious confession: I haven’t been very good at keeping up with my 2016 blog challenge this summer. I mean, I haven’t been stellar at keeping up with blogging in general, but the challenge fell by the wayside pretty significantly. Let’s climb back onto that horse.

2016 Food Blog August-06912016 Food Blog August-0698It’s fun to try to guess why various search term combinations might have led to my site in particular. Some I can’t even begin to imagine, but some – like this one – are fairly obvious. A site eponymously dedicated to the summery multi-faceted gems that are blackberries should really have more berry-centric recipes, despite the fact that the name has nothing to do with my food predilections and everything to do with my inescapable fondness for literature. (Also, if you like spring rolls and haven’t made these, get thee to the kitchen!) Two birds with one recipe, then.

2016 Food Blog August-0700In trying to imagine what a blackberry spring roll would consist of, I veered sweet almost immediately. Blackberries can be tart, but they also have a deep lushness that begs to be bolstered with sugar in some form. Since I can’t see fit to make a spring roll without mint (seriously, it is key), I had to find some kind of filler that paired well with the fresh coolness of mint and the dark tart-sweet of blackberries, and landed on coconut rice. Some shredded coconut in there as well for extra flavor and texture, and a sprinkling of finely chopped crystallized ginger, and these funny little rolls were sounding promising.

2016 Food Blog August--5Filled, pressed, rolled, and sliced, they were indeed promising – delicious, in fact – if a bit odd. When I sampled the first one, I found I wasn’t sure whether I liked it. Then I found myself eating the third, and decided I must. Blackberries and coconut are not a pairing I think of immediately, but henceforth I will, as should you. The tart berry is perfect to cut through the luxurious fattiness of the sweet coconut, like a dish of berries and whipped cream with an extra, tropical flavor. The mint and ginger, since they are good with both, complement equally, adding a breath of freshness and a warm, sweet spice to keep things interesting.

2016 Food Blog August-0703Further, it was an interesting exercise to decide what sort of snack this was. Inescapably sweet, yes, but not quite a dessert. Upon discussion my sister and I decided they would work well as a palate cleanser on an eclectic brunch table, or perhaps an offering at something delicate and fancy, like a certain sort of baby or bridal shower. I used sweetened shredded coconut, but you could certainly use unsweetened and end up with a slightly more savory product.

2016 Food Blog August-0713As with any spring roll, these are a project. You do have to compress the rice filling pretty assertively to get a nice, tight roll, and the blackberries and mint leaves need to be arranged just so to make them pleasingly visible in the finished product. Typically spring rolls are sliced in half on a bias to expose the lovely filling; doing so does bring these closer to bite-size, but it also gives the rice opportunity to spill out, and since the blackberries are only present in a few key spots, it doesn’t have the same aesthetic advantage. The presentation of these rolls is about the exterior – they have a stained glass window effect, as the veins of the mint leaves and the individual little drupelets of the berries press invitingly against the translucent wrapper.

2016 Food Blog August-0723After a few more left the platter, I thought about what else could be done with these. Rice, a blackberry or two, and a few mint leaves are a lovely combination, but perhaps almost too stark. Mango chunks, then, could be added if you want to up the fruit quotient, and in addition to, or perhaps instead of, the crystallized ginger, you could add some lime zest to the rice. Thai basil could replace or supplement the mint for another herbaceous note. I even considered wafer-thin slices of jalapeno, either raw or candied, for a different kind of heat.

2016 Food Blog August--2-32016 Food Blog August-07052016 Food Blog August-07062016 Food Blog August-07072016 Food Blog August-0708

Blackberry spring rolls
10-12 spring rolls (20-24 halves), depending on size and quantity of blackberries
45-60 minutes
1 cup cal rose or other short or medium grain rice
14 ounce can of coconut milk + 2 ounces water
1 cup shredded coconut, sweetened or unsweetened
3 tablespoons finely minced crystallized ginger
30-40 spearmint leaves
1 pint blackberries, rinsed, gently dried, and halved
Rice paper wrappers (I like the brand with the rose on the packaging)
Warm water

 

  • Combine the rice, the coconut milk, and the 2 ounces of water in a medium pot, cover, and bring to a boil. Stir quickly, replace the lid, and lower the heat to a simmer. Cook 15-20 minutes, until the liquid is absorbed and the rice cooked through. It will be very creamy, which will help it stick together in the roll.
  • Stir the shredded coconut and the minced ginger into the hot rice, then set aside to cool until just warm or at room temperature.
  • While the rice cools, pluck the mint leaves and prepare the blackberries.
  • To roll, set up an assembly line – mint, then blackberries, then rice mixture. Be sure to have a plate or other vessel on which to place your finished rolls at the end of the line-up. Add warm water to a wide, shallow dish or bowl that the rice paper will fit into. You will address this step first.
  • Submerge one rice paper wrapper in the warm water and let it sit until it becomes completely pliable. I find this tends to take somewhere between 30 and 45 seconds.
  • When the rice paper is ready, remove and place on a flat surface. If you wish, you can briefly spread it on a paper towel to soak up some of the drips, but this isn’t strictly necessary.
  • Place 3-4 mint leaves around the rice paper wrapper, bottom surface facing up. This ensures the top, more attractive side of the leaf will be visible through the wrapper on the finished roll.
  • Now, place two blackberry halves, cut side up, about a half inch apart in the center of the wrapper. Top the cut berries with 2 tablespoons of the rice mixture. With damp hands, press the rice mixture gently together in a log shape down the middle of the wrapper; the idea is to get it to stick together so you end up with a tighter roll. Top the rice mixture with two more blackberry halves, this time cut side down.
  • Now we roll! As the wrapper faces you, fold in the left and right “edges” over the ends of the rice log, so what you have looks like a long oval with two squared-off sides. Next, take the side of the wrapper closest to you and fold it completely over your fillings, then pull tight toward you. Roll up the wrapper, tucking each revolution tightly so the fillings are well contained. The tighter rolled, the better they will stay together.
  • Repeat until you run out of blackberries! You will get a nice rhythm established. I find I can complete a roll in the time it takes a new rice paper wrapper to soften. Then you are all set to start the next.
  • Just before serving, halve each roll on the bias (with a diagonal cut). If you have extra mint, you can press a leaf or a small sprig into the cut end of some of the rolls, for an attractive presentation.
  • These will keep, packaged in an air-tight container in the refrigerator, for 1-3 days. Let them come to room temperature before serving, or if you are in a rush, pop them in the microwave for 20-30 seconds, as the rice paper is tough and unpleasantly dry when cold.

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Coconut and Cumin Fried Plantains

Food Blog June 2014-3874One of my great pleasures in the summer is the hot cooked lunch. I’m a big believer in leftovers, and during the school year it’s easy and delicious (and cheap, let’s be honest) to just pack some of last night’s dinner into a Tupperware and take it to school with me. But in summer, when I’m home and puttering, being able to sashay into the kitchen around lunchtime and cook something quick and tasty is a pleasure I always forget about until suddenly I get to do it again.

Food Blog June 2014-3856This year, I finished my semester a week or so before N., which meant an additional treat when it came to constructing these lunches. We’ve talked before about my bachelor meals. I like to cook for other people, but they don’t always like all the same things that I like, and it’s a sad thing to have to wait for restaurant meals to order some of my favorites. So when I’m eating alone, I try to take advantage of those items my dining partner just isn’t crazy about. Sometimes, Chopped-style, I try to fit as many of these ingredients into my solo meal as possible.

Food Blog June 2014-3858In addition to crustaceans, coconut tops the list of foods N. is just not interested in (this means we never have to squabble over coconut shrimp, the most perfect meal ever invented; I get to eat it ALL). Bananas, too, are an unacceptable item unless they are mashed beyond recognition and folded into quickbread, in which case he’s all over it. Plantains, those longer, starchier relations, look just too much like their cousins to be acceptable as a food product to him. This seemed, to me, a perfect opportunity.

Food Blog June 2014-3878I’m a big believer in the fried plantain. Whether it’s sliced thick, lightly sautéed, and then mashed flat and returned to the oil to become tostones, or just cut into chunks and fried until golden on all surfaces and mixed into fluffy, buttery rice, I would probably be happy eating plantains every day for lunch all summer long, provided the oil was hot, the edges were crisp, and the salt was liberal. They take a while to ripen – most often they are sold in the grocery store still green, and can languish in a fruit bowl for a full week or two before they soften and their skins get brown and stringy. But I think they are worth it.

Food Blog June 2014-3864For this lunch treat, I decided to take a cue from my delight in the green bean poriyal I made a few months ago and add a liberal showering of N.’s other fruit nemesis. This became all about texture. The cumin, sizzling and fragrant, offers a crunch of earthy perfume. The plantain slices themselves, crisp exteriors tearing effortlessly into creaminess, contrast well with the coconut, which stands up for itself in toasty, chewy-crunchy shards. Add a squeeze of lime, and maybe a few torn leaves of cilantro, and lunch is served. Oh sure, you could dress it up or make it a bit more substantial by adding a scoop of basmati rice, or serving this as a side for shrimp or barbecued chicken. It would also play well, I suspect, with a roasted pork loin dressed in tropical flavors like mango or jerk seasoning. It could be easily doubled, or tripled, and if you are serving it as a side, I’d suggest allowing for about half a plantain per diner. But I gave it a solo, starring role, and I ate every single bite.

Food Blog June 2014-3872It’s a simple lunch, when you come right down to it, but it tastes like summer. And that, delightfully enough, is exactly where I want to be. Food Blog June 2014-3867

Coconut and cumin fried plantain
Serves 1 as a main, 2 as a side
1 ripe plantain (the skin should be dark yellow, well mottled with black or dark brown, and the fruit inside should feel tender)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
½ teaspoon salt
Black or cayenne pepper to taste, if you want a bit of heat
½ cup unsweetened shredded coconut (try an Asian or Indian market, or maybe Whole Foods)
Lime wedge, optional
A few sprigs of cilantro, optional

 

  • Heat the oil and cumin seeds together over medium high heat in a large skillet.
  • While the oil heats, peel and then slice the plantain on a bias into ½ inch slices.
  • When the cumin is sizzling and aromatic, add the plantains to the skillet in a single layer. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, if using.
  • Fry the plantains for 3 minutes, or until the bottoms of each slice are golden brown and have a crisp crust.
  • Flip each slice, turn the heat down to medium, and fry an additional 2 minutes.
  • Add the coconut and agitate the pan a bit to be sure all of the shreds find their way to the oil, then continue to cook for 1-2 minutes more, until the majority of the coconut is toasty-brown, with only a few white strands remaining.
  • Remove from heat and serve with a squeeze of lime and a few sprigs of cilantro, if desired.

Stir fried green beans with coconut (green bean poriyal)

Things are getting busy around here. I’m coursing toward midterms, which means piles upon piles of grading, as the students need to know where they stand at the halfway mark. Spring break approaches, and papers must be returned, research topics and methods must be interrogated, and evaluation work must be completed. There’s little time for a mellow afternoon at home, punctuated by soft cheese oozed onto crackers at an impromptu happy hour, rather than the locomotive “just-one-more, just-one-more” echoing in my head as I face thirty-five opinions about whether Beowulf’s choice to take on a dragon single-handed was admirable or foolhardy.*

Food Blog January 2014-3049So I’m thinking back to my winter break, when I cracked the spines of two new cookbooks (does that make you cringe? It makes N. just ache inside, but dammit, I want them to lie flat!) to devour their offerings. One, Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem, has convinced me our refrigerator should never be devoid of homemade hummus again. The other, Suvir Saran and Stephanie Lyness’s Indian Home Cooking, is a beautiful and fairly accessible interpretation of some classic and some entirely original Indian and Indian-inspired dishes that leave me alternately drooling and scribbling feverish grocery lists to take to my nearest Indian market.

Food Blog January 2014-3037In the vegetable section, Saran and Lyness take on green beans in several ways, almost always doctoring them with chilies and deeply toasted spices. In one, the addition of coconut stopped me in my proverbial tracks. In fact, I’ve now made this recipe three times, as though it’s not possible to turn the page anymore because this one was just too good.

Food Blog January 2014-3039Despite this overwhelmingly positive review, I had my qualms when I first approached the recipe. This dish is called a poriyal in the Tamil language, and as I understand it, this means a stir fry or sauté of vegetables. This one happens to have coconut, split peas, urad dal (black gram beans) and numerous warm, earthy spices along with some dried chilies competing together in a beguilingly spicy umami flavor bath. But the original directions in the recipe call for sautéing the beans for five minutes, then simmering them for ten, and then evaporating the water and stir-frying again for another five – twenty minutes of cook time for green beans! I was horrified by the potential for overcooked, mushy limpness.

Food Blog January 2014-3043But I tried, I really did, to follow the directions, at least as much as I could stand it. I shortened up the cooking time for the green beans a tiny bit, but otherwise left the procedure essentially the same. To my surprise, I ended up with meltingly tender, sublimely flavored beans, with none of the unappealing mushiness I’d feared. They give up any sort of dental resistance, yes, but this is ultimately not a bad thing. The toasty split peas and chewy, deeply bronzed coconut provide sufficient texture, and the beans just give a kind of unctuous, vegetal goodness.

Food Blog January 2014-3045Still, though, there’s something about green beans sautéed until just crisp-tender, and so I revisited the recipe, this time adding the beans later, simmering them a shorter time, and ending up with a just-toasted, still fresh pile of vegetables I couldn’t help but demolish. Though the ingredient list is the same, I’m giving you both sets of procedures, so you can choose how you like your beans. However you want them, though, meltingly tender or still a bit crisp, this combination is worth stopping over.

Food Blog January 2014-3074

* Not really. My students have written on a number of intriguing topics, this only one among them. But sometimes, when I look at my “to be graded” tray, it feels that way.

Food Blog January 2014-3077

Stir Fried Green Beans with Coconut
(Slightly adapted from Indian Home Cooking)
3 tablespoons neutral flavored oil, like canola or vegetable
2 tablespoons split peas (the recipe calls for yellow, but I used green because that was what I had. Both will work fine – you are toasting them thoroughly to provide crunch)
1 tablespoon black mustard seeds (here, though, don’t use yellow instead. The taste is quite different)
1 teaspoon hulled black gram beans (also called urad dal; optional – they are there for the crunch factor, like the split peas)
3 small whole dried red chilies
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ cup unsweetened shredded coconut, divided
¾ pound green beans, ends trimmed, cut on a bias into 1-2 inch pieces
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste (I found I liked a bit less)
1 cup water, for meltingly tender beans, or ½ cup water, for crisp-tender beans

 

For meltingly tender green beans:

  • Add the oil, split peas, and mustard seeds in a large skillet or wok with a lid over medium-high heat. The mustard seeds will pop and splatter, so clap a lid on quickly. Cook, stirring, until the peas turn golden-brown and the mustard seeds begin to crackle, 1-2 minutes.
  • Add the black gram beans, if using, the chilies, and the cumin and cook uncovered, stirring, for one more minute, until the chilies are well oiled and the cumin seeds smell fragrant.
  • Add ¼ cup of the coconut and cook, stirring, 30 seconds. Add the beans and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, for five minutes.
  • Add the remaining ¼ cup coconut and the water. Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook until the beans are tender, about 10 minutes (I tried, I really did, but the best I could manage was five minutes before I got worried about limpness, and the beans were still plenty tender).
  • Uncover and cook, stirring often, until all of the water has evaporated, about five more minutes. Taste for salt and serve piping hot.

 

For crisp-tender green beans:

  • Add the oil, split peas, and mustard seeds in a large skillet or wok with a lid over medium-high heat. The mustard seeds will pop and splatter, so clap a lid on quickly. Cook, stirring, until the peas turn golden-brown and the mustard seeds begin to crackle, 1-2 minutes.
  • Add the black gram beans, if using, the chilies, and the cumin and cook uncovered, stirring, for one more minute, until the chilies are well oiled and the cumin seeds smell fragrant.
  • Add ¼ cup of the coconut and cook, stirring, 30 seconds. Add ½ cup water, salt, beans, and remaining ¼ cup coconut. Immediately clap on the lid and leave it for at least two minutes, or until the splattering stops.
  • Uncover and cook, stirring often, until the water has evaporated and the beans are barely tender and have had a chance to toast a bit – this should take five more minutes at most. Taste for salt and serve piping hot.

Coconut Bread Pudding with Rum Caramel

Food Blog May 2013-1375When I’m not frying in the summer time, it seems like I’m baking.  But in the on-and-off foggy uncertainty of June gloom, sometimes you need a little baking.  Of course, now it’s July and the whole West Coast is panting and dreaming of snow drifts so, as usual, I’m behind.  This dessert, though, plush with custard and drenched in rum caramel, is worth it.

Food Blog May 2013-1368Food Blog May 2013-1369Food Blog May 2013-1372Bread pudding is an old dish and, like so many of the “comfort foods” we’ve embraced and raised to new levels of trendiness sophistication (I’m looking at you, French onion soup…), it began as a way to use up aging products in a way that made them still taste good.  In this case, it’s combining cubes of stale bread with milk, eggs, sugar, and whatever else you think is particularly delicious, whether that be fruits, nuts, or chocolate.  Savory as well as sweet iterations exist, and though the dish possibly has European origins, versions now exist in Cuba, the Philippines, Argentina, and in probably every gastropub in the U.S. playing the amped-up-comfort-food angle.

Food Blog May 2013-1366For me, bread pudding is a godsend, because N. loves toast, which means we end up with a lot of crusts.  It seems such a shame to throw them away that I forestall the problem by jamming them in the freezer.  At the point that they fill up a shelf all on their own, it’s time to make bread pudding, a dish that I see as appropriate for a steaming dessert, warm breakfast, straight-from-the-fridge-3pm-snack, or even lunch on a day that I’m feeling particularly lazy.

This iteration, though, I wanted to be special.  I wanted something comforting and homey and rich and delicious, but I wanted a twist.  And that’s where summertime, and N., and my dad, all come in.

Husbands are great, aren’t they?  But most of them (sorry, guys) aren’t perfect.  N. is no exception.  He’s close, oh he’s close, but here’s the thing: he doesn’t. like. coconut.  I know.  And it’s not one of those “no thanks on the coconut cream pie, not a fan” kinds of dislikes.  It’s deep.  It’s subconscious.  The man can tell if a granola bar has coconut in it with one bite.  He once declared that a cookie we were sharing tasted “odd,” and sure enough, down at the bottom of the ingredient list was ground coconut.  Curries at Thai restaurants are dangerous business.  And summer, this glorious season, is a hazardous time of year for N. thanks to sunscreen.  Once, decked out for a gardening session, I gave him a kiss and he told me my face smelled funny.  SPF coconut.

Food Blog May 2013-1353But I adore coconut.  It means vacation and swimming and luxury.  It smacks of the tropics: rum-laced drinks.  Shave ice.  Coconut shrimp (N.’s ultimate nightmare).  And, oddly enough, French toast.  When my sister and I were little, every once in a while my dad would pull down the electric skillet from some cabinet too high for anyone else in the family to reach and make coconut French toast for breakfast.  After dredging the bread in milk and eggs, he dipped each side in coconut before subjecting it to the buttery-slicked heat.

The result was a revelation.  The coconut caramelized into a crunchy, lacy, almost-burned web of texture on the outside of the bread, and its flavor made the addition of syrup all but unnecessary.  This, then, was the mission.  I set out to create my own version of this childhood memory.

Food Blog May 2013-1355Food Blog May 2013-1356Generally I soak my bread puddings before cooking them.  I load my baking dish with stale crusty cubes, mix in whatever bits and bobs I want to add (craisins are a frequent suspect), then pour the custard mixture over the top and set a heavy dish on top to press the bread sponges down into the drink.  And then I shove the whole thing into the fridge for a few hours to promote full incorporation.

This time, though, I decided to employ a different method.  I mixed up the custard with coconut milk and coconut cream instead of regular dairy, and dumped in the bread and, after a moment’s consideration, most of a bag of sweetened shredded coconut.  Thorough mixing followed, and the result – a bowl of creamy soft crumbles of bread and the heady smell of the Hawaiian vacation I wish I were on – spoke summer.  All I could think of, while I pushed the baking dish into the oven, was a piña colada.

Food Blog May 2013-1361Food Blog May 2013-1364The problem with piña coladas, though, is that pesky piña part.  I’ve got no hatred for pineapples, don’t get me wrong, but their aggressive tartness sometimes overpowers the gentle, creamy sweetness of coconut and the spicy complexity of the rum.  A bread pudding sodden with coconut and no pineapple to be found seemed like the perfect excuse for, let’s say, a rum caramel sauce.  Why not?  It’s summer… Dark rum.  Sugar.  A daring sprinkle of garam masala.  Bubbled away in a tiny pot until barely thickened, and the dessert went from homey and comforting to decadent and warming and, oddly enough, somehow reminiscent of camping.  I swear my parents didn’t give us rum when we sat around the fire toasting marshmallows, so all I can figure is that the sweet spiciness reminded me of gingersnaps or molasses cookies or some other well-spiced treat.

Food Blog May 2013-1386Once this heat wave breaks, I think you should make this bread pudding, with or without the sauce.  You won’t, unless you are like my coconut-hating husband, be disappointed.  And if you are, well, someone in your family will be glad they don’t have to share.  Food Blog May 2013-1388

Coconut bread pudding
Serves 8-10
4 eggs
½ cup sugar
14 oz. coconut cream
14 oz. coconut milk
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups shredded coconut – mine was sweetened.  If yours was not, you might add up to 1 cup of sugar above.
10-12 slices sourdough bread, cut or torn into cubes
  • Preheat your oven to 350F and spray or oil a 9 inch square baking dish.
  • To measure how much bread you will need, tear the slices directly into the baking dish.  Press them down once or twice, packing them until they mound up just a little over the edge of the dish in the center.  This gives you the right amount of bread to mix into the custard.
  • In a large bowl, beat the eggs and sugar together for a minute or two, until the mixture is homogenized.
  • Add the coconut milk, cream, and vanilla, and whisk until well blended.
  • Tumble the shredded coconut and torn or cut pieces of bread into the custard and mix well, ensuring that every bread cube is well moistened and the sticky clumps of coconut loosen and disperse through the mixture.  I used a wide bladed spatula and it seemed to do the job well.
  • Carefully relocate the custard-soaked bread to your prepared baking dish, pushing it down if needed to fit everything in.
  • Bake at 350F for 45-60 minutes.  This seems like a wide range of time, but depending on your oven and the relative staleness of your bread (which will determine how much custard it soaks up) your cooking time may vary a bit.
  • To determine doneness, check to see that the center of the pudding has puffed up, and the top is nicely browned.  Some of the coconut shreds will toast to a dark gold.
  • When done, let it sit for 10-15 minutes to allow the custard to firm up a bit.  This will make it easier to cut or spoon out.
  • For an elegant presentation, cut into squares and set on a puddle of rum caramel, or drizzle the caramel liberally over the top.  Or forgo elegance, and scoop out big spoonfuls to pile into your bowl or plate.

 

Rum caramel sauce
Makes a scant ½ cup
½ cup sugar
½ cup dark rum
½ tsp garam masala (or more to taste – I used a full teaspoon and it was quite strong)
2 TB cream, optional
  • Combine the sugar, rum, and garam masala in a small saucepan and cook over medium low heat for 10-15 minutes, until sugar is dissolved and sauce thickens and becomes slightly syrupy.  Stir or swirl frequently to prevent sugar from burning.
  • If you want your caramel thicker or more luscious, stir in the optional 2 TB cream.  Stand back as you add the cream, as the caramel may bubble up upon contact.
  • Cool slightly before serving.

This is dynamite with coconut bread pudding, but would be equally delicious dribbled over ice cream, or mixed into a milkshake, or maybe even as a puddled base for your 4th of July slice of apple pie.