recipe: egg roll weekend

One of my favorite aspects of food culture is culinary traditions. In my Italian family, there were a number of dishes - like Christmas Eve crab sauce or St. Joseph's Day zeppoli - that we prepared but once a year. It was these dishes that I dreamed of and still crave today. Yet when it comes the pinnacle of my mother's cooking, many would point to her egg rolls. Now, egg rolls are clearly not Italian. So it was always somewhat surprising and hilarious when, each New Years Eve, my mother arrived at the party with a tray of these freshly fried, mystery-meat-free Chinese treats. Over the years, I was inducted into the egg roll assembly line, but when my parents and I started spending our New Years apart, the tradition faded into the background.

That is, until my sister created "Egg Roll Weekend". At some point, her college friends had gotten wind of the rolls' lore and legend, and demanded that a tasting be arranged. This year, they celebrated their fifth annual festival of eating these homemade delicacies (while I celebrated my fifth year of cooking them).

If anything, the rolls get more delicious each year, and the word has spread. For the first time, we had to schedule two weekends to accommodate the hungry masses.

We fry the egg rolls in a small electric deep fryer and canola oil, but - in theory - we've heard a deep stove-top pan and peanut oil is as good, if not better. You can also bake them if you are scared of frying or trying to be healthy. I find them almost preferable to their greasier, fried cousins.

Freshly Fried - or Baked - Egg Rolls

Ingredients
  • 1-2 packages of egg roll wrappers
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 lb shredded pork
  • 1 1/2 lb shredded cabbage
  • 1 cup shredded celery
  • 1 1/2 cups shredded carrots
  • 1 small package of bean sprouts
  • 1 can water chestnuts, chopped fine
  • 1 can bamboo sprouts, chopped fine
  • 1 bunch scallions, chopped fine

Marinade for pork

  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1 tbsp canola oil
  • 1 tbsp corn starch

Stir-fry seasoning

  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 4 cups canola or peanut oil

Instructions

  1. Mix together the soy sauce, rice vinegar, canola oil and cornstarch. Marinate the pork in this mixture for 20 minutes.
  2. Slice all veggies accordingly (in Cuisinart or food processor is easiest) while pork marinates.
  3. Mix together sesame oil, salt, sugar and black pepper (“seasoning mixture”).
  4. Heat 5 tbsp of oil in a wok, and stir-fry the pork in small batches, adding a bit of seasoning mixture to each batch, as well as chopped veggies.
  5. Repeat until all of the pork and veggies are cooked. Set aside to cool to room temperature.
  6. When mixture has cooled, set out egg roll wrappers as well as a bowl containing a cracked egg.
  7. Lay the wrapper flat, and fill with 2-3 tbsp of the pork/veggies (“filling”).
  8. Pull the filling towards the corner closest to you, and begin to roll the egg roll, folding in the sides like a small envelope.
  9. When you have finished rolling the egg roll, seal the final corner with a bit of egg white.
  10. Bring oil to a steady simmer.
  11. Fry egg rolls carefully, so as to not overcrowd the pan or fryer.
  12. When removing egg rolls from oil, place on a cookie sheet lined with absorptive paper, such as that of brown paper bags.
  13. Serve warm with hot mustard, soy or sweet and sour sauce.
Notes

If you are trying to be healthy, you can actually bake the egg rolls at 375 degrees until golden brown and crunchy. (Start checking them and flipping them over to evenly brown after about 15 minutes. Bake for 20-25 minutes total.)

eater's digest: owen's fish camp

Relaxation (see: “beach vacation”) is not something I do well.  So when my parents requested - for the second year in a row - that we spend our Christmas break on the warmer shores of Florida, I begrudgingly acquiesced, mumbling something under my breath about strip-malls and the “dearth of culture”. But this year, my mother was out to prove me wrong, selecting Sarasota – home to the Ringling estate and museum, as well as the “Best Beach in America”.  It may have taken a few days (and some sifting through local food/travel publications) for me to settle in and truly enjoy myself, but eventually I came round – most notably, due to the literally and figuratively fresh dining scene we discovered in this beach community just south of Tampa.  (And yes, my mother is reading this, all too happy with my public declaration that she “told me so”).

Owen’s Fish Camp sits in an eclectic corner of downtown Sarasota, under the bows of an imposing banyan tree.  Across from a remarkable antiques shop and next door to an art gallery, the vibe is decidedly “trendy bayou”, with patrons in shorts and stilettos alike.

Waiting outside Owen’s is one of the most pleasant aspects of the restaurant.  The quaintly campy outdoor patio features a number of well-curated tchotchkes, including a life-sized, under-shirted “local” in a lawn chair.  The aforementioned antiques shop and art gallery also (wisely) leave their doors open late, reinforcing the laid-back block-party vibe.

Those who choose to grab a drink will find a light-hearted wine list (selections designated as “Good”, “Decent”, or “Cheap”), a solid beer selection and respectable cocktails.  That was where I also first spotted the absolutely delectable-looking pecan pie (more on that later).

I was seated with my family in the restaurant’s back room, oars hanging overhead.  Old-fashioned condiments dressed the table, and the menu was appropriately, a paper placemat.  The offerings were inspired by classic southern seafood, from cornmeal battered catfish to a softshell crab BLT.  We ordered both as entrees, as well as a shrimp basket, with a fried green tomato salad and clam chowder to start.

The starters were remarkable, almost the best part of the meal.  The cornmeal-crusted FGTs (fried green tomatoes) were served over arugula and romaine with chevre chaud, crisped country ham, cucumber, red onion, and an herb-buttermilk dressing.  Light, refreshing and impossible to resist – this was hands-down the best savory item we ate.  The creamy chowder was also noteworthy, with an almost lobster bisque-y flavor (enhanced by applewood bacon) and chock-full-of-clams.

Even compared with that rousing first round, our entrees proved to be excellent.  The shrimp basket arrived light and piping hot, with thin fries begging to be dressed with malt vinegar.  Crunching through the cornmeal crust, the catfish was flaky and fresh, almost shockingly moist.  And the sandwiched softshell poked out from its bun, spicy, tangy, “crabby” and undeniably indulgent.  But let’s not forget the savory sides, most especially the vinegar-y collards and robust, smoky succotash.

After all this soul-warming southern cooking, I could have easily bypassed dessert – but then again, I had already spotted the pecan pie.  We ordered this and the deep-fried blackberry pies, flaky half-moon dessert “pierogies” that sounded promising but lacked a true pie’s high fruit-to-crust ratio.  The pecan pie, however, was the very best item of the evening, a seemingly simple tart of pecans and honey, topped with homemade whipped cream.  The crust wasn’t overcooked, nor the nuts over-sweetened.  In fact, even my dessert-disdaining sister dove back in for seconds.

As we strolled out of the fish camp into the chilly (for Florida) night air, I knew this was hands-down the best meal I’d ever eaten in the popular coastal state.  Jumping on the moment of opportunity, my mother turned and asked, “Would you visit if we lived here a few months a year?”  In my satisfied stupor, I couldn’t help but murmur “yes, but make it Sarasota.”

Owen's Fish Camp 516 Burns Court, Sarasota, FL 941.951.6936 (no reservations accepted)

recipe revisited : fried green tomatoes

Nothing (to me) says market-fresh-produce like green tomatoes.  I've often mistaken green versions of ripe, ready-to-be-eaten-raw tomatoes for these elusive beauties - much to my disappointment. But while I love a classic plate of FGTs piled high, I have a notoriously hard time following other people's recipes.  So in the spirit of "improving" a classic, I recently served up an end-of-summer FG'BLT at my folk's beachside diggs.  However, this evening, (going solo) I wasn't quite craving the "oof" factor of this gut-greasing treat.  So I invented a much healthier (and might I add - just as, if not more, delicious) way to revisit the luscious acidity of FGTs without frying them up in a bottom-of-pan pool of bacon grease.

Fried Green Tomatoes (Two Ways):

End-of-summer FG'BLTs (Fried Green Bacon-Lettuce-Tomato Sandwiches)

  • green tomatoes (ideally market-fresh)
  • cornmeal
  • bread (I like a crusty, slice-it-yourself sourdough boule or a dark hearty grain)
  • bacon (I went for hickory-smoked organic)
  • butter lettuce (I chose this because it's got a nice crunch - and more flavor than romaine - but less bitterness/spice than arugula, for example)
  • herb mayo (try this home-made version, or you can use store mayo with garden herbs snipped and mixed in.  My mother put the kabosh on my dreams of home-made mayo, so I just added a little extra virgin olive oil, lemon, sage, parsley and fresh thyme to Helman's.  But the home-made would taste much better - and be better for you!)
If you are making homemade mayo, I would suggest doing that in advance (not simultaneously)
1. Heat up a fry pan and cook the bacon, nice and crisp.  Simultaneously wash and cut the GTs into slices (half-inch is a good thickness).
2. Lay out crisped bacon on a plate w/paper towel to cool.
3. Pour off some of the bacon grease into the trash or a jar to keep for later.  Leave just a half-centimeter, tops, to fry up the tomatoes.
4. Quickly bread the GTs in cornmeal (no egg, milk, or other "wash" needed) and place carefully in pan.
5. Keeping an eye on the (not quite fried) GTs, wash/dry your butter lettuce,slice/toast your bread, make store-bought mayo mix (if not going for the homemade).
6. Cook the GTs until crispy golden-brown on each side.
7. Prepare the sandwich to your liking!  If it's not salty enough for you with the bacon, fleur de sel or another high-quality sea salt is a nice finish. I recommend eating it closed-faced, as open can be a bit messy... (FGTs are slippery suckers!)

BGTs - Baked Green Tomatoes

  • green tomatoes
  • golden flaxseed meal (this provides more health benefits than cornmeal)
  • olive oil 
1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees.  Oil a baking sheet lightly with olive oil.
2. Wash and slice your GTs (half-inch slices are a good thickness).  Bread with flaxseed meal (no egg/milk wash needed) and place slices on baking sheet.
3. If you have a spray olive oil, this is a great time to use it to "spritz" the tomatoes.  Otherwise, block the top of your olive oil holder with your finder and just splash a little oil over each tomato.  Also, toss some high-quality sea salt on the tomatoes.  I like grey sea salt from Brittany.

4. Bake for 20-or-so minutes, and turn to broil if you want them really crispy/almost blackened.

5. Serve plain - or however you like!
I have to say, I actually found the BGTs far more tasty than the FGTs.  The slow-roasting method really brought out their flavor - and the flaxseed meal was absolutely delicious.  A true recipe redo success!  Never ceases to amaze me how "healthy" can taste this good...