Saturday, December 27, 2008

Holiday Vacations, Vietnamese Food & A Lobster Roll Lunch

How lucky we are that holidays allow us to take time off from our daily routines. Right now we are enjoying the in-between time that begins with the day after Christmas, extending until the day before New Year's Eve. In the retail world this is the make-or-break period when the year's profits will tip one way or the other. Besides the year-end sales, a few other price breaks are helping make the season merry.

Lower gas prices definitely help. Filling up for half the cost of a few months ago continues to be a treat. On the food front, while many commodities continue to cost more, a very few have come down in price. One in particular, lobster, surprises and delights. Mark Bittman recently wrote about lobster prices coming down on the East Coast. Even in LA, prices have fallen. At Gelson's, the upscale supermarket, lobster has been on sale for most of December.

For the holiday our family makes a yearly pilgrimage to a week's time share we bought when the boys were young. Less than two hours drive and we're in our home away from home.

Driving south from LA, we have an excuse to stop in Little Saigon, where we can have lunch at Ha Noi and shop at ABC Supermarket. At Ha Noi we had three of our favorite dishes: a shrimp spring roll, pho ga (noodle soup with chicken), and vermicelli noodles with bbq pork and shrimp.

In Vietnamese supermarkets like ABC, the cost of fresh produce, meat, poultry, and seafood tends to be 1/3 to 1/2 the price in mainstream markets. Which means we splurged and bought a lobster and lots of produce, shrimp, and a crab.

Our first lunch on vacation was a simple one: lobster salad and a Persian cucumber salad. The salads are easy to make, fresh tasting, and delicious courses to serve over the holiday or to help you welcome in the new year.

Lobster Salad

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 45 minutes


2 lobsters, 1 1/2 pounds each
1 cup corn kernels
1 cup Italian parsley, washed, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, washed, finely chopped
1/4 cup capers, finely chopped
2 scallions, washed, ends trimmed, finely chopped, white and green parts
1/4 - 1/3 cup mayonnaise
Olive oil
Sea salt and pepper
Cayenne (optional)


The lobsters can be steamed or grilled, either technique is fine. Use the one that's easiest. If steamed, boil 2" of water in a large pot. Hold the live lobsters, head down in the boiling water for 10 seconds. Cover, reduce to a simmer for 10 minutes. Take the lobsters out of the pot, let cool so they can be handled, remove the meat, and clean away the liver.

If you want to make lobster fume for sauces or a soup, reserve the cooking water. Add any liquid inside the lobster and all the shells to the cooking water, simmer for 20 minutes, reducing the liquid by half, strain, and discard the shells and solids. Add the fume to a finely diced saute of olive oil, celery, potatoes, carrots, onions, and garlic, simmer for 30 minutes, strain, use the fume as the base for a pasta sauce or lobster-vegetable soup.

Saute the corn in olive oil, seasoned with sea salt and pepper until lightly browned. Cut the lobster into bite sized pieces and mix with the other ingredients. Season to taste with sea salt, pepper, and (optional) a light dusting of cayenne.

The lobster salad can be served many ways: with romaine lettuce leaves, grilled rolls or a halved baguette with drizzled olive oil or a heated tortilla, either traditional or ones made from brown rice (found at Trader Joe's and favored by my wife, Michelle).

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Yukon Gold Latkes

For dinner on the first night of Hanukkah my mother always started with a romaine lettuce salad topped with scallions and Lawry's French Dressing. Then there was a brisket of beef with carrots and mushroom gravy. But the real stars of the meal were the latkes served with apple sauce and sour cream.

My mother's latke recipe was handed down from her mother: grated potatoes, eggs, flour, a little salt and pepper. She'd fry them in vegetable oil and serve them as soon as they were browned. So simple and yet the result was so soul-comforting: crispy on the outside, soft inside, with just the right amount of oil and salt. There are few dishes that are as satisfying as food and so emotionally evocative.

Like most kids, my sister, Barbara, and I waited eagerly at the table. As soon as the plate full of latkes was passed around, we emptied it. I kept count, because I didn't want her to have more than I did. They were that good. When my grandmother was in town, she and my mother made Hanukkah dinner together. Their relationship was competitive to say the least, so there was always considerable discussion about the right way to make the latkes: flour vs. matzo meal; onions or no onions. My grandmother liked to point out that she had given my mother her latkes recipe but my mom insisted that she hadn't remembered it correctly.

These days we look forward to celebrating all the nights of Hanukkah but the first night is special. That's when both our sons are certain to be home. Now that they're off on their own, we're happy when we can be assured they'll share a meal with us.

Michelle likes to make the Hanukkah latkes and they're always delicious. Her recipe is similar to my mother's. This year I asked her to make a small adjustment. I wanted her to use Yukon Golds instead of Russet potatoes because they're sweeter and less starchy.

After the first night's candle was lit and placed in the menorah, presents were given and opened. Then Michelle made latkes as fast as she could and they disappeared as soon as they arrived at the table. In the end, there were only two left. Michael ate those for a late night snack. The family's opinion was unanimous. The Yukon Gold latkes were a keeper.

Yukon Gold Latkes

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 30 minutes


4 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, washed
2 eggs
1/4 cup white all purpose flour
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper (optional)
1 medium yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped (optional)
1/2 cup parsley, washed, finely chopped (optional)
4 tablespoons safflower or canola oil


Peel the potatoes and keep them covered in a bowl of lightly salted water so they won't discolor. Using the large holes, grate the potatoes by hand. Keep the grated potatoes submerged in the bowl of water.

Take a handful of grated potatoes. Gently squeeze out the water so they are "dry" but still light and fluffy. Put the grated potatoes into a second bowl and mix together with the eggs, flour, and olive oil. Season with sea salt and pepper. Add the parsley and onions (optional). Mix well.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan or griddle. Use a parsley leaf to test the oil. When it sizzles, the oil is hot enough. Form the latkes and fry them in batches. With our griddle, that means we can make 4 or 6 at a time.

Each side will take 4-5 minutes. When they're golden brown on each side, remove them to a plate with several sheets of paper towels to drain off the excess oil. Finish with a light dusting of sea salt.

Serve with sour cream and apple sauce.

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