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The Great Leftover Challenge: Take Two

OK, so my first attempt at The Great Leftover Challenge resulted in something that looked only slightly better than dog food. That wasn’t going to get me anywhere (or whet anyone’s appetites, for that matter), so it was time for take two!

By this time I was really running out of food. I still am. (Seriously, I’ve been awful about going to the grocery store.) But I had some fruits and veggies that had been sitting around for a little while and I wanted to use them up before they went bad. I also wanted something light, a departure from the heavy, meatloaf-laced semi-disaster that was my first attempt.

So, for my second try at the leftover challenge, I made “pantry” salad lettuce cups with homemade dressing. I’ve never made my own dressing before, but it’s so, so simple!

The dressing and the salad came only from things I’ve already opened/used, so it was truly a leftovers meal. I opened nothing new to make anything.

The dressing is super-quick and easy and takes about a minute to make. I thought, honestly, though, that it was a bit too acidic, so I’ve adjusted the recipe to what I think would make it work better:

1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
1 tsp soy sauce (I always use the low-sodium kind)
1 1/2-2 tbsp oil (I used extra virgin olive oil, but a lighter oil would work better. I also only used 1 tbsp, but some extra may be necessary to cut down on the acidity.)
1 tsp lime juice (I used 1 1/2 but, like I said, it ended up too acidic.)
1 1/4 tsp whole grain mustard
Drizzle of agave nectar or honey

Whisk the vinegar, soy sauce and lime juice together in a bowl. Add the mustard and whisk in. Drizzle in the oil while whisking into the dressing to incorporate. Add some agave or honey to sweeten to taste.

Dressing

I poured this dressing over my “pantry” salad cups, which sounds like what it is: a salad made up of whatever I found in my fridge and pantry. This can be anything you want to add or have sitting around: fruit, vegetables, cheese, nuts, dried fruit, etc. My salad had the following:

Bibb lettuce cups
Shredded carrots
Diced Macintosh apple
Golden raisins
Craisins
Sliced almonds

Or, as a regular salad!

This is probably not the most creative thing that will come through the leftover challenge, but I was, admittedly, a bit creatively challenged this time–mainly just hungry. But if nothing else, it is still a good way to use up produce on the verge of going bad. Also, making my own dressing is so quick and easy that I’m going to start doing this more often. I love knowing exactly what’s going into my food, unlike a lot of the bottled dressings that are riddled with sugar and chemicals.

Danny’s Kitchen is hosting the Great Leftover Challenge and there are still two days left to participate! If you are creative with leftovers, check out his blog to enter the challenge!

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Thai-Style Lettuce Wraps: It all started with a jar of peanut butter

A jar of spicy peanut butter, to be exact. My mom bought Kevin a jar of Peanut Butter & Co. “The Heat is On” peanut butter as a stocking stuffer this holiday season, and ever since, I’ve been dying to make some kind of Thai-style peanut butter sauce with it.

Peanut Butter & Co. "The Heat is On" spicy peanut butterBetween the two of us (Kevin and I), we decided to make Thai-style lettuce wraps inspired by the ones at the Cheesecake Factory. (Side note: yes, I know it’s a chain, yes I know most of its menu is terrible for you. Nonetheless, those lettuce wraps are awesome. And Kevin’s favorite.) I found various recipes online for all the components, and made some changes along the way. Inevitably, with that many parts, there were some successes–and some failures. (See: peanut sauce. More on that later.)

As I said, there were several components to this recipe. So, to start, here’s the breakdown:

Boston or bibb lettuce leaves (for the wraps)
Thai-marinated grilled chicken
Spicy peanut sauce
Thai sweet chili sauce
Coconut curry noodles
Marinated cucumbers

Extras:
Chopped green onions
Cilantro
Rainbow salad

For many of these, I used recipes based on the actual lettuce wraps served at the restaurant. The rest I found on other Web sites, and some I tweaked.

First things first, make the marinade for the chicken and let the it sit while you prepare other components.

Thai-marinated grilled chicken

1 pound boneless skinless chicken breasts (I used about 1.1 lbs)
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 cloves garlic, minced (or pressed)
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
3/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons water
Pour all ingredients (except chicken) into a large shallow dish or large plastic zip-top bag. (I used the bag method.) Add chicken and stir or toss to coat. Set in fridge to marinate for at least 30 minutes.Marinating chickem
To cook, remove chicken from marinade and place on either a grill, grill pan or indoor grill (I used a George Foreman grill.) If you don’t have access to a grill, go ahead and cook in a pan. During cooking, brush or baste with extra marinade. If using a traditional grill or pan, turn chicken halfway through cooking (just a few minutes on each side, depending on thickness of chicken.) If using a George Foreman or some other kind of press, leave in to cook for about 5 minutes, or until completely white inside.
Remove from cooktop and let rest for a few minutes before cutting into small strips.
Cooked chicken
While the chicken marinates, go   ahead and start making the other components of the dish. I made the marinated  cucumbers next so they could sit in the fridge for some time, as well. (Note: This recipe came from the blog “Meemo’s Kitchen” and I followed it exactly as is. And they were delicious! The marinade would actually make a great salad dressing on its own.)
Marinated cucumbers
1/3 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon course ground black pepper
1 large cucumber seeded
In a small pan, combine vinegar, sugar, water and salt; cook over medium heat, stirring, until liquid boils and sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Peel or score cucumber, if desired and cut lengthwise into quarters; then cut quarters crosswise into 1/8-inch-thick slices. Place in a serving bowl, pour marinade over cucumbers; stir to blend. If made ahead, cover and refrigerate for up to 2 hours.

Cucumber marinade/dressing

Now the chicken and the cucumbers are marinating and its time to move on to the sauces and the noodles. First, the spicy peanut sauce:
I adapted this recipe from two recipes that I combined, and I added the spicy peanut butter in addition to the regular to give it more of a kick. I actually had to make this sauce twice, though, as the first attempt was an utter disaster. (Yes, I see the irony there.) When I first followed the recipe as it read, the sauce became thick and caramel-like and I had to add water and vinegar as it cooked to bring it to a sauce-like consistency. Then the sauce separated and took on a very unpleasant texture, and it was too spicy for my taste. (Originally I used half spicy peanut butter and half regular. If you like heat, you can still try that ratio, but for me it was too much.)
The second time around with the new adapted recipe worked much better, though the sauce still thickened more than I would have liked as it sat and was not nearly as smooth as I expected. By the time we ate, it had only a slightly thinner consistency than regular peanut butter. It tasted great, but we had to spread it on the lettuce rather than drizzle it over. So, this is the adapted recipe I used, but I’m still searching for a better recipe for a smoother, thinner peanut sauce. (If anyone knows of one, please pass it along!) In the meantime, I’ll have to use trial-and-error.

Failed peanut sauce--Take 1

Spicy peanut sauce
1/4 cup water
2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar
3/4 tablespoon spicy peanut butter (or 1 full tablespoon to up the spice)
3 1/4 tablespoons regular peanut butter (or 3 to 1)
2 teaspoons lime juice
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
Combine all ingredients in a saucepan over low to medium heat. Continue stirring over heat until mixture is combined and smooth and thoroughly heated through. Remove from heat and transfer to serving bowl.
Of course, if you want this recipe less spicy or don’t have spicy peanut butter on hand (because, really, I know it’s not common to), use 4 tablespoons (or 1/4 cup) regular peanut butter and add spices if desired. Try chili powder or chili oil, garlic, cayenne, paprika, crushed red pepper flakes and/or ginger.

Peanut sauce Take 2--Success!

The second sauce, the sweet chili sauce, was also a tweaked recipe. I couldn’t find any red hot chiles in the produce aisle of my supermarket or any plain red chili paste. So we bought one Serrano chili and one green long hot. Most recipes also call for cornstarch as a thickener to create a more gelatinous texture, but we didn’t use it and created a more vinaigrette-style sauce. We grated down the chiles to create something almost paste-like and so there were no large pieces of chili since the original recipe I worked from called for chili paste.
Thai sweet chili sauce
1 fresh Serrano chili, grated
1 fresh long hot pepper, grated
2 teaspoons minced (or pressed) garlic
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
2/3 cup water
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Combine everything except cilantro in a small sauce pan and mix. Once blended, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, let cool and stir in cilantro. Sweet chili sauce
If you want the thickened sauce, add 4 teaspoons of cornstarch to the recipe with everything else in the saucepan. As it cooks down, the cornstarch will thicken the sauce to create more of a dipping sauce than a dressing.
Finally, the last component of the dish is the coconut curry noodles. Again, I adapted this recipe by paring it way down, but it still came out tasty. I made mine with only part of the noodles in the package, but I ended up with way more sauce than noodles and they were a bit over-saturated, so I recommend using the entire package to create a more even noodle-to-sauce ratio.
Coconut curry noodles
1 package flat rice or egg noodles (I used rice noodles)
1 tablespoon minced (or pressed) garlic
1 cup coconut milk + extra for topping
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock (I used vegetable)
1/2 tablespoon to 1 tablespoon curry powder (based on taste)
1/2 tablespoon to 1 tablespoon soy sauce (again based on taste)
1 tablespoon lime juice
Coconut curry noodles
Separate noodles in hot water, as per instructions on the packet. Drain & keep warm. In a medium saucepan, heat the coconut milk on low heat. When it begins to simmer, add in the remaining ingredients. Heat and stir approximately 2 minutes to heat through. Stir in the noodles, drain any excess sauce and serve. If desired, toss with more coconut milk before serving. (I felt it needed more coconut flavor, so I added some more coconut milk and it helped.)
To serve the lettuce wraps, tear full leaves off of a head of Boston lettuce for the wraps and fill with the ingredients however you’d like. Add some bagged rainbow salad (carrot, broccoli, cabbage) or any other vegetables you’d like–bean sprouts, grated carrots and shredded cabbage would work well. Chop plenty of green onions and fresh cilantro for topping.
All in all, it took about two hours from start to finish, including remaking the peanut sauce. It was a lot of work, but so worth it in the end. All of the components of the dish work wonderfully together, and I really believe that is the point. Some of the parts tasted only okay on their own (I kept trying to figure out what the noodles were missing, and the sauces were pretty spicy) but when put together, magic. Crunchy, fresh, spicy, sweet and exotic.

It took all this...

It was a lot of work and time, and I can still see the appeal of going out for Thai food, but it was definitely an experience, and when you consider the amount of leftovers I have (at least one or two more meals’ worth), the time involved doesn’t seem so bad. Also, some of the individual components can make good meals on their own–the marinated chicken would be delicious with just some veggies and rice; the cucumber marinade would make a great dressing. So go ahead and try making some Thai-style food at home. It’s refreshing, delicious and fun!

...to get this. The finished product. Yum!

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