Sunday, March 29, 2009

Foodbuzz 24,24,24: Passionfish - Eating Green in Monterey County

Our beautiful planet is groaning under the burden of supporting so many billions of people and our destructive practices. We slash rainforests, poison the oceans, pollute the air, and decimate entire species of animals – for a very long time without nary a thought to the implications those actions may one day have. We are now beginning to feel the effects of our callow disregard. The blinders of ignorance and indifference are slowly being shed, and awareness of the impact our actions have on the environment is growing quickly.

I doubt at this point there is a single soul in the developed world that hasn’t heard of the “green” movement. We’re greening light bulbs, house paint, carpet, and fabrics. We’re searching for alternative fuel sources (ethanol, biodiesel), eco-friendly energy (wind, solar, and hydro), and novel renewable resources (bamboo, corn, hemp). There seems to be nothing bypassed by the crusade of environmentalism, an admirable movement to be sure, and that includes the foods we eat, the wines we drink, and the places we frequent to procure them.

For those of us who dedicate a significant portion of our lives to food – the quest to find new ingredients and methods of preparing them, different breeds or varietals, heirloom this and artisanal that – we are equally dedicated to pursuing our passion in a manner that will not only satisfy our ever-longing palates, but will also sustain the planet for future generations. After all, we that love food often enjoy nothing more than sharing it with someone we care about – if we don’t preserve the planet we have, before long there won’t be anyone to share it with.

The greening of restaurants is just starting to pick up momentum, with little bistros and gastropubs popping up in their chic, planned neighborhoods – touting their eco-consciousness like it’s a banner of coolness. As much as I appreciate the push towards environmentally friendly practices, and no matter the motivation as long as it’s done properly, it seems that the environmental movement has picked up an air of pretentiousness as it’s grown.

Businesses are promoting themselves as eco-friendly to appeal to the consumers that think saving the planet is “the cool thing to do.” And while it most definitely is the cool thing to do, the arrogance of it can sometimes be overwhelming. It seems that the old refrain of reduce, reuse, recycle has turned into a popularity contest. But in the end, I do believe that most often the ends do justify the means. If you’re a business that’s reducing emissions and attempting to utilize more eco-friendly practices just because you think it’s going to increase your bottom-line or make your customers think you’re, “like, way hip, yo” then fine. Good for you. Save the planet because it makes you money or gets people to think you’re awesome. Whatever – just do it.

I do like the virtue behind motivations though. I much prefer to patronize business that don’t tout their sustainability as the hip new trend, but rather truly believe that it is the right thing to do. We live because of this planet, so we must keep constant vigil to ensure that she is healthy. Not because it’s trendy, but because we need her, alive and well, for all the generations that follow us.

Passionfish Restaurant in Pacific Grove, CA is one of these restaurants. Chef Ted Walter and his wife Cindy own and operate Passionfish in sleepy Pacific Grove, a small town on the Monterey Peninsula. Chef Walter is a classically trained French chef who traveled and cooked throughout France before returning to the United States. He has cooked in Lake Tahoe, New York and Carmel, establishing a prestigious reputation along the way. His exquisite cuisine has won the restaurant great attention. Passionfish holds a Zagat rating, has been awarded Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence every year since 1998, and was named to the California Restaurant Association’s Hall of Fame.

Cindy Walter is active in the Monterey Bay community, raising awareness of harmful fishing practices and encouraging education in sustainable seafood. She is Vice President of the Monterey Chapter of the California Restaurant Association, is a member of the Women’s Chefs and Restaurateurs, and the Seafood Choice Alliance.

Although it wasn’t originally something they had planned on doing, Passionfish became Monterey County’s first official green restaurant, and is currently the only certified green restaurant listed on Monterey Bay Area Green Business Program’s web site. The criteria for achieving this title include “reducing water consumption, retrofitting lights and other equipment to conserve energy, reducing solid waste going to landfill by minimizing waste and recycling, and implementing practices that reduce pollution and protect worker safety.”

The requirements for a restaurant to become green are numerous and include the following:

• Reasonable effort must be made to promote the use of local, organic produce.
• Consult with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch advisory to adhere to sustainable seafood sources
• Conscientious maintenance of kitchen equipment to prevent grease from entering the sewers
• Reduce use of water in cleaning, e.g. no hosing down sidewalks, carpets, etc.
• Reduce use of toxic cleaning chemicals
• Encourage employees to carpool or take alternative transportation
• Reduce air pollution in at least two additional ways, e.g. streamlining vendor deliveries, patronizing vendors closest to business, encourage bicycling to work
• If there are more than 5 employees, gas and electricity usage statistics must be posted for employee viewing
• Upgrade at least ten electrical fixtures to reduce energy consumption, e.g. light bulbs, efficient HVAC, water conserving dishwasher, insulate hot water pipes, etc.
• Thermostats must be set at 76 F for cooling and 68 F for heating
• Reduce use of paper in at least 5 different ways, including reducing amount of paper mail that is sent to the restaurant
• Reuse or recycle as many materials as possible
• At least 3 paper products used in the restaurant must be recycled
• All water leaks must be repaired immediately and low-flow aerators must be installed to reduce water use
• Ensure that all landscaping irrigation devices are in working order at all times

This is just a brief overview of the many requirements for achieving green status in Monterey County – a stark contrast to the many restaurants I’ve worked in and patronized over the years. Most of the restaurants I worked in did none of these things to encourage an environmentally friendly and sustainable work atmosphere. Only one took efforts to recycle paper products and compost food waste. It’s actually rather shocking how wasteful most restaurants are.

Thankfully, not so with Passionfish. They’ve made these efforts and more, becoming a beacon of sustainability in the community. They frequently partner with Monterey Bay Aquarium in the annual Cooking for Solutions event. They also encouraged the aquarium’s Seafood Watch program to establish a program for restaurants, to increase awareness of sustainable seafood.

To learn more about the motivation’s behind the Walters’ approach to sustainable seafood, I contacted Cindy Walter with some questions about their inspiration and methodology at Passionfish.

Passionfish was the first "green" restaurant in Monterey County, what motivated you to pioneer such an effort?

"This wasn't something we intended to do. I have severe asthma and food
allergies. I have a really difficult time with heavy perfume, and many
cleaning chemicals. We began using vinegar for cleaning and I was
checking the labels on everything we used. When our hot water heater
quit we switched to an on demand hot water heater, which is much better for the environment and energy consumption. We needed new lights and worked to find lights that consumed the least amount of energy. When we painted, I looked for low VOC paints. And from day one we recycled as much as we could and re-used paper, printing on front and back for internal stuff. The Monterey Health Department created the Green Business Program and I applied. They were helpful by providing some more ideas for recycling and providing containers around the restaurant to help the staff. They have also been a go-between for the Waste company and I. I am also on the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and as I became more aware of the issues of water quality and the effects to our watershed, I became more diligent about the cleaning products we used."

What steps have been taken specifically to ensure that Passionfish is a sustainable, environmentally aware restaurant?

"All of the above, and our fish is purchased mostly from fishermen who are using traps or rod & reels. We do purchase from the Alaskan fisheries quite a bit, which are managed sustainably and we also purchase as much as we can from our local farmers who frequent the farmers markets. Our meats are from 'natural' ranchers, and that has taken a large amount of effort. Probably the hardest thing to do is source sustainable seafood."

Are there any foods or wines that are strictly forbidden at Passionfish and why?

"Seafood that is harvested by pelagic long lines, trawlers or gill nets(Tuna, Swordfish) and finfish farmed in the ocean. White Zinfandel :) The fish is obvious why we forbid it. Our oceans are in deep trouble, and 90% of the pelagic species have been removed. Long lines and gillnets are indiscriminate and trawlers are probably THE most destructive for of fishing created. Not only is it indiscriminate but it devastates the habitat. The wine? Well I guess we are just snobs about that. It’s the only wine I could think of that we would never even bring in or probably choose to taste. The staff loves true Rose but it’s a really tough sell."

(Two cheers for keeping White Zin off the menu!)

Are there any foods or wines that should be prominently featured in this article to promote awareness of sustainable seafood?

"Our local spot prawns are harvested by a fisherman in his 80's. He weaves the traps out of bamboo, and creates them so that the smaller, younger prawns can crawl out, therefore protecting the nursery. We love this little creature, and we are so thankful for a fisherman who has worked to sustain his harvest all these years. We also have sustainably farmed fish, such as Tilapia and Sturgeon. Many guests have never tasted Sturgeon and they are thrilled when they do. When you read our wine list you will notice some have this funny little emblem by them. We try hard to recognize wineries that are working to be sustainable. Perhaps they are using integrated pest management in the vineyard, or biofuels in their vehicles. Some are working hard to repair creeks that flow through their property, attracting trout, and steelheads back to the natural habitat. They are using natural fertilizers instead of nitrogen based ones. Those are the wineries that we want to bring attention to."

The Menu for the Evening

We enjoyed a wide variety of dishes at Passionfish, each unique and meticulously prepared.

To start off I ordered a half bottle of the 2006 Tablas Creek Vineyard Esprit de Beaucastel.

It was perfectly dry with hints of cherry and nutmeg - it paired superbly with the meal. It scored a 93 in Wine Spectator and I wholeheartedly agree with their decision. Tablas Creek Vineyard is entirely organic and received their certification in 2003. If they keep producing wine such as this, they'll have few problems getting more vineyards to jump on the organic bandwagon.

Our first course started with a Braised Kurobuta Pork Belly with Moroccan Carrots and Charmoula

Kurobuta is essentially Japanese raised Berkshire hogs - exquisitely tasty Japanese raised Berkshire hogs. The marbling is delicate and the short muscle fibers translate into an extraordinarily tender piece of meat. This pork belly was sourced from Snake River Farm in Idaho and was cooked to perfection. The fat was silky smooth, just melting on the tongue. Although I wasn't initially impressed with the Moroccan carrots, by the end of the dish I realized that it just wouldn't be complete without their tangy zing to add another layer of flavor.

Mussels steamed in a Spicy Tomato-Cilantro Broth

Prince Edward Island mussels in a perfectly seasoned broth of tomatoes and cilantro, with just the right amount of spicy kick to grab your attention. I think it would truly be a crime against all things good and holy to not sop up that broth with the amazing crusty bread they serve.

I had to have them taken away so I wouldn't dip the entire loaf of bread in the broth and ruin my appetite.

Grilled Shrimp in a Spicy Vietnamese Sauce with Lemongrass Slaw

These shrimp were grilled perfectly to retain the texture of the shrimp. Too often shrimp are cooked until they're rubber, but these were just barely opaque. The sauce was a little too spicy for my tastes, but the lemongrass slaw cooled it down perfectly. The shoots added an earthy coolness to help quench the heat, pairing perfectly with the daikon and red cabbage.

We then moved on to a meat course, of Kurobuta Pork Shank braised in Dark Beer with Apple Mustard and Baked Penne Pasta

The shank was braised to perfection and the greens that accompanied it made an ideal combination of flavors. I wasn't very impressed with the apple mustard, I thought it was much too sweet. The baked penne pasta was skillfully cooked, but disappointingly bland. Even with those minor detractions the shank was superb, and I'd definitely order it again. Perhaps without the apple mustard...

For a poultry course we enjoyed the Duck Confit with a Honey Reduction, Chipotle Potato Cake and Braised Fennel

I think this was one of my husband's favorite dishes - we're both huge fans of duck. The flavor was unparalleled, they really know what they're doing when it comes to French technique. The chipotle potato cake was delicious, just a hint of spice and perfectly creamy. My husband enjoyed the braised fennel and honey reduction with the legs, but they were a little too sweet for my tastes - though that's a matter of personal preference, they were immaculately prepared.

Before stating on the seafood I ordered a white wine to accompany it. Our server, Sara, recommended a 2007 Fumé Blanc from Grgich Hills Estate in Napa.

She was spot on (as she was about everything) - this wine went beautifully with everything. It was fruity with tropical notes, but still pleasingly dry - it was a little minerally too, but not overpoweringly so.

Grgich Hills Estate is certified organic and Biodynamic and the winery is solar powered.

For fish we decided to go with the Sturgeon with Coconut Rice, Sweet Potato Fritter, and Red Curry Vinaigrette

I have to say, very unfortunately, that this was the only thing we tried at Passionfish that I didn't like. The sturgeon was splendidly cooked and the sweet potato fritter was to die for, but the coconut rice was a little gummy (even for sticky rice) and the red curry vinaigrette was not very pleasant. I hate giving the thumbs down to any dish, especially at a place like Passionfish, but had I been dining here and this was the only thing I ordered I would be disappointed. The red curry vinaigrette was so overpowering, spicy, and tangy that it masked the flavors of everything it touched. The sturgeon, while a firm fish, is delicately flavored, so too was the coconut rice. The red curry vinaigrette just didn't suit, in my opinion.

My husband enjoyed it, after his tongue accustomed to the strong flavors. After a few bites to try everything I couldn't try it again - though I might give a limb to get the secret of that fritter.

Grilled Monterey Bay Spot Prawns with a Linguine-Cauliflower-Bacon Custard and Lemon Brown Butter

These were some of the most amazing things I've seen. They're enormous - practically the size of a small lobster without the claws. I had no idea we had anything so beautiful and tasty right in our bay - almost makes me want to go for a swim.

The spot prawns have the most exquisite flavor - like a cross between lobster and prawn. They were sweet and tender, perfectly cooked and absolutely the highlight of the meal. They were a bit messy, I had to break them down myself to get at the delicious flesh, but it was oh so very worth it.

When I picked one up I discovered a lovely surprise, the chef had packed the cavity with the roe.

The roe was delicious, tiny and tender - with a delightful little pop as they crushed between the teeth. They had the most splendid flavor of the sea, with just a little bit of saltiness. I'd take these over salmon roe any day of the week!

I was very glad that I saved these for last. Unfortunately our server told us the season is coming to a close for spot prawns so I probably won't get to order them again (we're leaving Monterey this summer), but I am so happy I was able to try this regional treat at least once. I refrained from sucking the heads, though - that's one thing I cannot stomach.

I have to admit the lemon browned butter is a tad superfluous. It covers up the flavor of the prawn a little too much.

To finish we moved onto dessert. My husband had the Mint and Espresso Mud Pie with Chocolate Sauce and Walnuts

He enjoyed it quite thoroughly, devouring the whole thing in a surprisingly short time. I tried it, but I'm not a huge chocolate fan so it didn't exactly ring my trolley.

I had the Grapefruit Panna Cotta with Grapefruit and Vanilla Citrus Sauce

It was exquisite. Light, refreshing, perfectly creamy. It was set just right and topped with a candied kumquat peel. It was silky smooth with just the right amount of tang to it. The only improvement may have been taking the grapefruit juice through a chinoise before setting the panna cotta to improve the texture, but even so I'd order a dozen of these and stuff myself silly.

All in all Passionfish is a gem - I wish that I had discovered it much sooner. They have taken great pains to not only explore the bounty of the earth with their outstanding menu, but also to preserve that bounty, so that others may benefit from it as well. It is a high standard for other restaurants who wish to emulate them, not only in their environmental practices, but also in their quality as a restaurant. The food is amazing, the service impeccable. I cannot wait to visit again soon.

Thank you to Foodbuzz, for giving me the opportunity to do this. Thank you to Cindy Walter, for letting me pick your brain over Passionfish's origins and intentions.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Pork Dubliner - or a Kerrygold Irish Cheese Review

Once again it's time for another product review compliments of Foodbuzz and Kerrygold. This time I tried the Reduced Fat Aged Cheddar and the Dubliner cheeses. I am not going to bother posting anything about the aged cheddar - my momma always said that if I didn't have anything nice to say, not to say anything at all. Or at least I think she did...

The Dubliner, on the other hand, was quite the treat. It reminded me of a cross between manchego and pecorino cheeses - quite nice for grating over a salad, or in this case, crusting a pork loin.

After trying this out, and looking at the photographs, it looks more like a chicken parmesan than I realized. The taste, however, is quite different.

I took a 5 oz. slice of pork loin, egg washed it, crusted it in finely grated Dubliner cheese, pan seared it, then set it to bake at 375 for 12 minutes with a few tablespoons of roasted red bell pepper spread and some goat cheese. It was insanely delicious.

This Dubliner cheese is surprisingly good for just about anything one would use parmesan or romano cheese, with a nice tangy little kick to it. If you're a fan of sheeps milk cheeses I bet you'll love it. It also pairs nicely with tart apples and figs. Go figure.

Try some out, I bet you'll like it.

Thanks Foodbuzz and Kerrygold for letting me try this out!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Lemon Curd French Toast with Minted Strawberries

I was originally going to title this post "What do do when your cake collapses" but the end result was simply too amazing to ignore.

I've been noticing a ton of French Yogurt Loafs traipsing around the food blogosphere lately and it piqued my curiosity enough to try it out. From what I'd read it was similar in taste and texture to pound cake, but with a fraction of the fat and calories - sign me up, eh?

Unfortunately it collapsed like one of those fainting goats as soon as I pulled it out of the oven.


It had great flavor, but it was dense and chewy where I wanted it to be light and fluffy...or at least fluffier.

As husband and I were chewing on a piece, and he was mentioning that I don't have great success with cakes (gee, thanks babe), I decided that this would make delicious French toast. As I was pulling the eggs out of the fridge last Saturday morning to make said French toast, I noticed a jar of calamansi curd I'd made a little while ago, canned, and stuck in the fridge door.

Cue lightbulb flickering over head.

This was one of those ideas that's either going to end as a tasty and amazing treat, or with me furiously fanning the damn smoke detector hoping it will shut the hell up.

It was outstanding.

Seriously the best French toast I've ever had in my life. I honestly believe that it is worth it to make the yogurt loaf just to have this French toast again - and I'm a very lazy person, so that's sayin' something.

Lemon Curd French Toast with Minted Strawberries

Serves 2 (One hungry, one not so hungry)

6 slices yogurt loaf ( I used this recipe but converted it to vanilla bean instead of peach)
3 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons lemon curd
2 cups sliced strawberries
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint leaves
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup vanilla yogurt, divided

In a shallow pan mix the lemon curd and beaten eggs until thoroughly combined. Set the slices of yogurt loaf to soak for ten minutes, flip and let soak another ten minutes. Meanwhile, in a small bowl combine the strawberries, mint, lemon juice and sugar. Toss to combine and set aside. Heat a pan, and cook the soaked slices of yogurt loaf until golden brown on each side and set throughout. Set three slices each on two plates, top each with one cup slices strawberries and 1/4 cup vanilla yogurt. Embrace the awesomeness.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Spinach Stuffed Chicken Legs with Dubliner Cheese

I think it's pretty obvious by now that just about everyone is trying to cut back expense-wise. In all honesty it's about damn time - our country has become way too spoiled and wasteful.

On that cheery note, let's talk about how we can cut back on one of the many things that interests me - the grocery bill. Right now there are blogs-a-plenty offering recession-savvy dining tips on how to cut back on your dining excesses:

*Eat beans and rice, lentils, quinoa, etc.

*Stop buying all that processed garbage for your kids, they don't need to be eating it anyways.

*Drink water instead of the sodas and bottled drinks.

*Pay attention to what you're actually eating.

*Look for bargains at the grocery store.

It's that last one that seems to work the best for me. Mr. TA and I already eat plenty of beans, rice, quinoa and the occasional lentil. We rarely buy anything processed or from the freezer section (except fish and edamame), we keep only milk, fresh-brewed iced tea, orange juice, and coffee in the house for drinking, and I plan each week on a menu.

That really only leaves me with shopping the occasional sale at the grocery store to cut back anymore on cost. Of course, I'm sure many people out there are in the same boat.

However, when the item on sale is a whole chicken or chicken leg quarters, many people pass because they either don't like dark meat or are intimidated at the thought of trying to bone something. This is really unfortunate, because when times are as tough as these people need to pinch pennies everywhere they can. And buying a package of leg quarters at 60 cents per pound is exceedingly cheaper than boneless skinless thighs at $2.19 per pound - and don't even get me started on $5.99 per pound for boneless skinless breasts. Plus, if you do decide to bone the chicken you can save the bones in a bag in the freezer for making chicken stock. Win-win, baby.

So, dissecting the two main reasons for why people won't buy something as tasty as chicken leg quarters:

Don't like dark meat/Thigh and leg meat is more fattening than boneless skinless breasts - OK, fair enough, you don't like dark meat. Meh, I doubt you can taste the difference in soups, pot pies, pastas, etc. Stop being a big baby and save some money already. As for the fat content debate, it's true - dark meat has more fat than white meat. Just keep in mind that a thigh-leg portion weighs on average about 6 oz. I've seen many a chicken breast weigh over 14 oz. If you're allotting one chicken breast per family member not only are you wasting the meat by serving enormous portions that no one in their right mind should finish, but the health benefits of the low-fat breast are outweighed by the fact that you're scarfing down more than twice as much meat. Period.

Now for the second reason: intimidated by deboning? Easy-peasy. Let me show you how.

First, use a very, very sharp knife. It sounds backwards, but using a sharp knife is much safer than using a dull one. Now that you've got your sharpest knife in hand, don't shank yourself.

Don't worry, this is much easier than it appears. (Not the shanking, the boning.)

Start with your leg quarter:

Cut through the skin and tissue right at the end of the leg bone (the part you hold on to when eating a fried chicken leg). Slice all the way around the bone.

Use your knife to slit the skin on the underside of the leg. The skin will peel back nice and easy down the entire piece of meat, usually with just a little coaxing from the knife here and there to release the skin.

Peel all the skin off and release it around the edges with your knife. The end result will be this:

Next, flip the whole piece over and slice down the underside of the leg bone like so:

Open up the skin around the leg and slice down each side, freeing it from the bone:

Now, slip the tip of your knife behind the bone and run it down until you hit the joint, releasing the meat entirely from the leg bone:

Now, slice under the leg joint and locate the thigh bone with your finger tips. Run the tip of your knife down the length of the thigh bone towards the bottom of the piece, like this:

Keep sneaking around until you hit where the thigh bone connects to the rest of the body:

After that, lift up the leg bone, cut underneath the leg joint and along the bottom of the thigh bone until you come out clean on the other side:

Now you can pop all the bones out of the meat and slice any residual cartilage left on. Now is the time to trim all the excess fat off the meat too.

You'll be left with an underside that looks like you chewed it from the bone,

But the top will be nice and neat,

Ta da! You've just deboned a chicken leg quarter! That wasn't hard at all, was it?

I usually like to buy several package of the leg quarters when they go on sale, spend a half hour or so deboning them and then throw them in the freezer in packages appropriate for the sizes of meals I typically make.

Now you can use the meat for all sorts of things, soups, stews, quesadillas, pot pies, pastas, skewers - you name it, you can do it.

My favorite thing to do with chicken legs though is to stuff them. Gordon Ramsay has a delicious recipe I've tried out before, for Sausage Stuffed Chicken Legs . This time I took a slightly more healthful approach and stuffed the legs with pastrami, spinach, and KerryGold's Dubliner cheese.

It was delicious.

Let me show you how.

First, lay out a sheet of foil and season it with a little salt and pepper. Lay out your boned leg quarter.

Top it with a couple pieces of pastrami,

Next comes some spinach sauteed with a little shallot,

Now for the sticks of Dubliner,

Now start the rolling. Roll it onto itself like a jellyroll, then grab the foil to keep it tight:

Wrap it up into a tight little package and twist the ends real tight.

Now you're going to poach this in a pot of boiling water for twenty minutes.

Pull them out and let them cool off for a minute or so and peel off the foil.

Brown them in a hot skillet with a little melted butter and then slice on the diagonal to serve.

Whoever said eating cheap couldn't taste good?

Plus a thank-you to Foodbuzz for supplying me with plenty of KerryGold cheese to try out for St. Paddy's.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


I took a brief break from my studies and meandered out to Death Valley with a friend for a few days.

While I was there I decided this mountain needed climbing.

If you look real hard you can find me.

I'll be returning shortly to making tasty treats and telling you about them.

Right after I finish the paper that's due on Friday...

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Fresh Spring Rolls

Oh Fresh Spring Rolls, are you Thai? Are you Vietnamese? Are you some sort of creation thought up by crazy Americans and passed off as authentic Asian cuisine? Tell me your secrets!

Though I have no idea where these tasty treats hail from, and after at least three minutes of exhaustively googling them I came up with no conclusive evidence, I still love them. The first time I had them was on one of my first dates with Mr. TA before we got married. He really likes Asian cuisine, all kinds, and he took me to this really cute little Thai place in Washington. We had Phad Thai, Chicken Satay, Mangoes with Coconut Sticky Rice, and Fresh Spring Rolls. Everything was delicious and Mr. TA and I were well on our way to everlasting mushiness - or more typically driving each other as crazy as possible. We like to keep things fresh.

So, more importantly, fresh spring rolls are a rice paper wrapper filled with lettuce, an assortment of herbs, chicken, and shrimp. Many recipes also require the addition of other vegetables like carrots or cabbage and many times noodles are added. I prefer to stick to the style we first had on our date, so I use only lettuce, basil, cilantro, mint, chicken, and shrimp. Top it off with some out of this world peanut sauce and you're good to go.

Speaking of peanut sauce, talk about a crapshoot when you're looking for a good recipe, eh? I've made peanut sauce countless times, and I've never been quite satisfied with any of them. They're either too sweet, too peanutty, too spicy, or too oily. I like my peanut sauce to contain a myriad of flavors - heat, sweetness, spice, and of course the peanuts. It needs to blend effortlessly into a flavor that complements the dish it's adorning, not covering it up. Peanut sauce isn't really an Asian creation (invented by crazy Westerners), so it's little surprise it's now basically the Asian ketchup. We throw it on everything, and instead of adding an additional level of flavor, it masks everything else until all we can taste is the peanut sauce.

I'll pass.

That's why I attempted to create my own recipe completely from scratch. Usually when I attempt something like this it ends in an Epic FAIL. This time, it actually worked. It's the best peanut sauce I've ever had - restaurant or otherwise. It was one of those recipes that as I was mixing everything I knew that it was either going to be the most amazing thing I've ever created - or lump of goo not fit for the neighbor's cat that keeps pooping in my flower beds.

And believe me, at this point I'd feed that cat all sorts of weird crap. That's right, poop in your owners house - not my chrysanthemums.

I've heard that working with some Asian ingredients and techniques can be a little intimidating for some, so I've included some step-by-step photos to guide through the process. They're really so simple, I can't think of any reason for not trying them.

Fresh Spring Rolls

Makes 6

For the Rolls:

6 sheets rice spring roll wrapper (available at any Asian market)
6 leaves green or red leaf lettuce (romaine and iceberg are too firm, they may tear the wrapper)
1 cup cilantro leaves
1 cup mint leaves
1 cup basil leaves
12 shrimp (preferably 25-30 ct.), raw, shelled and deveined
10 oz chicken (1 medium boneless, skinless breast), cut into small strips about 1 oz each
4 tablespoons butter, divided

For the Peanut Sauce:

1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
1 teaspoon red curry paste
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon palm sugar, grated
1/2 tablespoon rice vinegar
1/3 cup coconut milk

In a heavy bottomed skillet over medium-high heat melt two tablespoons butter. Add the shrimp, season to taste with salt and cracked pepper. Cook until pink and opaque throughout. Remove from skillet and set aside to cool. Melt the remaining two tablespoons butter and add the chicken strips. Cook completely. Remove from skillet and set aside. Turn off the heat, but keep the pan on the burner (gas stoves may require lowest flame). Using the residual heat, melt the peanut butter for the peanut sauce, in effect deglazing the skillet with the peanut butter. Add remaining ingredients, combine thoroughly and let meld for at least two minutes - adjust to taste if necessary. Remove from skillet into a ramekin or other small dish and set aside.

For assembling the rolls:

Start with your rice wrappers

This is what they look like when they're dry, out of the package

In a wide, shallow dish ( I use a large pie plate) fill halfway with hot water (from the tap is fine). Soak the wrapper for about 45 seconds, lift it out of the water carefully and let excess water drip off. Now it will look like this:

A quick tip, dry to keep your work area as dry as possible. It needs to be moist, but if the area is soaking wet the wrapper will stay soaking wet too - and it needs to start to dry out a little as you're working or when you start the rolling it will be too slippery to stick to itself. Keep a kitchen towel handy and wipe down the surface after every roll.

Start the assembly by placing two cooked shrimp, side to side in the center of the wrapper.

On top of the shrimp, layer the herbs in equal amounts and top with a strip or two of the cooked chicken.

Top with a lettuce leaf. Now, start to roll it like a burrito. Flip the edge nearest you over the top of filling, pull taught, and fold in each side.

Now just keep rolling until it's sealed.

If you're awesome you end up with the shrimp showing through the top of the wrapper. However, I am not awesome, and after rolling all six of mine I still didn't get one to work properly - so they look all plain and boring like this:

Now you're all finished. You can serve them whole or cut on the diagonal.

Top with the peanut sauce, but not too much...

Now devour at will.