December is for Takeout

Somewhere along the way, the month of December started to really stress me out. More than one Christmas has involved crying on my part because it was just SO NOT FUN, in frustrating contrast to my hopes for the day. Last year I made some progress with having a more enjoyable and mellow Christmas, mainly by concentrating on gifts for kids and donating all other gift money to the Vermont Food Bank. (With a matching donation from my employer, our gift became 600 meals for Vermonters in need!)

This year I've made another discovery in getting through December in one less-stressed piece: minimize cooking! Some quick tips to share:

Get takeout! In addition to Chinese and Japanese food from Panda North, we also got pulled pork dinner from Hazel this month. (It's huge and comes with two sides, try collards and mac & cheese.)

Trust in TJ's! Tamales from Trader Joe's are both delicious and Christmasy. We had them on Frank Sinatra's 100th birthday this year, also known as December 12th. Tonight we had Trader Joe's pork gyoza, the savory dumplings that are excellent dipped in homemade Sichuan Chili Oil mixed with soy sauce.

Go local! I recently discovered VT Dinners, Brattleboro-area maker of frozen dinners with emphasis on locally sourced ingredients. I tried their Fill the Freezer offer (it's still going until December 31st if you're in the area!) and am now STOCKED with yummy meals.

Soup it Up! Soup can be dinner, add toast if you want to fill in the corners. We always keep cans of clam chowder and Progresso Chickarina for those just-in-case evenings when I don't know what's for dinner.

PIZZA! Of course.

Photo gallery:

Hearty, savory, and a little spicy—this is the VT Dinners Shepherd's Pie.

VT Dinners is running a "Fill the Freezer" holiday deal (20% off 12 dinners or 6 family packs, use code "freezer" at checkout, expires 12/31/15). I went for it and am inordinately excited to have a freezer-full of double serving meals at my fingertips. I'm also very enthusiastic about VT Dinners in general, it sounds so much like my CSA Gourmet Business Plan come to life! VT Dinners, let me know if you're hiring, haha!


One more VT Dinners photo—I've gotten very strong recommendations to try the mouthwatering Chicken Pot Pie. Next on my list. (By the way, I get no compensation for mentioning anything in this post, this is just what I'm loving right now.)

Trader Joe's is 45 minutes away, near Amherst Massachusetts. Whenever we go anywhere near Amherst we take a cooler along so we can hit Trader Joe's and not have things melt on the way home. Just like soup in the cabinet, we try to have some Trader Joe's always in the freezer.

What are your favorite easy dinners? Do you find the holidays stressful sometimes? I hope yours are very merry and bright!!

Best Holiday Cookies! Oatmeal Coconut Chocolate Chip

Today, at last, I'd like to share the recipe for my famous Oatmeal Coconut Chocolate Chip cookies. They make for a great cookie-tin gift for the holidays. They also happen to be So Delicious.

First, let me walk you through the steps. Then, the recipe!

First thing to add is rolled oats. These cookies are healthy! Kinda.

Add flour and sugar.

Add chocolate chips. The trick here is to add a normal amount of chips, and then add some more.

Next comes brown sugar.

And then, the pi├Ęce de resistance, coconut. Find just regular dried coconut, not sweetened flakes. Other dry ingredients include baking soda and salt.

Melt one stick of unsalted butter.

Beat together 1 egg and some vanilla.

Add wet ingredients to dry. The key here is persistence over doubt. IT WILL SEEM that the egg and butter are not enough to moisten all of the other ingredients. Put these concerns aside. Mix things together by hand with confidence and character. They WILL start to stick together, even just a tiny bit. That is enough.

Squeeze walnut-sized balls of batter together and place on parchment-covered baking sheet. Bits will fall off—that's OK. Press them back in to random cookie balls.

Because these cookies are so ingredient heavy they will not really spread out by themselves. They will need a little "spank" with a metal turner/spatula halfway through baking. Open the oven, and with your favorite tool, gently push down on each cookie to make it flatter.

Cool finished cookies a bit.

Then transfer to rack for further cooling.

Here's the formal recipe:

1 1/4 c. oatmeal (rolled oats)
1 c. flour
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. brown sugar
1 c. flake coconut
1 c. chocolate chips
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
1 stick butter, melted (1/2 c)
1 t. vanilla
1 egg

  • Preheat oven to 325˚ F
  • Combine dry ingredients.
  • Mix in butter, vanilla, egg
  • Drop on parchment-covered cookie sheet
  • Bale 7 minutes, then "spank" with metal turner
  • Bake 5 more minutes.
  • Let cool slightly, then move to rack to cool

Makes about 35 cookies.

Enjoy! Merry Merry!

Other gift ideas from this blog: Holiday Crafts including personalized mugs & home brew

Bun Thit Nuong, Vermont-Style

On a recent vacation morning, say for example the morning after a national holiday during which I'd eaten a lot of turkey and had some lovely wine, I woke up craving something extremely specific. I wanted a #37 from the Saigon Palace in Toronto, Ontario. We often used to go to the Saigon Palace--on Spadina Avenue just steps away from the University of Toronto's St. George Campus--for all manner of Vietnamese food while I was at U of T. And #37 was my favorite. It was a big bowlful of noodles and stuff--I could try to describe all the stuff, but since it was Vietnamese I didn't know exactly what it was.

In the course of Googling, I reminisced about "The Saigon," as we called it. The Saigon Palace was a diner-like establishment with formica tables and late 80s decor such as pinkish wallpaper and framed Asian-ish prints. It also had a pages-long laminated menu. They served Vietnamese coffee and a million other kinds of drinks, mostly coming in tall parfait-type soda fountain glasses where you could see grass noodles or thick descending drips of sweetened condensed milk through the sides of the glass. Everything seemed a little exotic. Once I ordered what I thought was just hot coffee, and when it came and I gave it a stir, an intact egg yolk came swirling up to the surface to greet me.

A huge bowl of food was super-cheap, maybe about $5 CDN. You could smoke in the back room, which was a big deal to college kids. The back room of the Saigon Palace was the first venue of my eating something on a dare, in this case some kind of small chile pepper that seared my mouth but earned me folding money and a little extra respect. (At least I hoped it was respect, haha!)

Anyway, I learned two things from Google. One is that the Saigon Palace now seems to be closed. The other is that #37 is probably something called Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio, which basically means rice noodles with grilled pork and spring rolls. Yes!

My mission now had focus. My post-Thanksgiving goal would be to replicate Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio as soon as possible and without traveling anywhere. I figured the blogger "Wandering Chopsticks" would know what to do, and sure enough I found some good information on her page for Bun Thit Heo Nuong, Tom, Cha Gio. I also found a second good source at Hapa Nom Nom.

Next came the adapting. Most of the sources I looked at showed a wheat-type wrapping for the spring rolls, but the Saigon Palace always used rice-paper wrapping. It forms a pale, blistery skin on the spring roll that is shatteringly crisp and delicious. While I can actually buy these at the local farmer's market, I didn't have time to do so. So that eliminates the authentic Cha Gio.

But I can narrow my goal and still try for Bun Thit Nuong. As Wandering Chopsticks puts it, this is more an assembly of items than a single recipe. Here's what I put together.

Clockwise from upper right:
  • sliced cucumber, fresh cilantro, fresh mint, bean sprouts
  • crushed peanuts (I put roasted unsalted peanuts in a plastic bag and pounded with a mallet)
  • Rice sticks (called "Vermicelli" as well, by Ka•me)
  • Pickled carrot & purple daikon (Do chua from Wandering Chopsticks)
  • Fish Dipping sauce (Nuoc mam from Wandering Chopsticks)
  • Marinating pork from Hapa Nom Nom (see below)
  • NOT SHOWN: greens—I used tender lettuce leaves and baby kale

While most ingredients are raw and cold, there is a little cooking involved. You need to cook the rice sticks (vermicelli) according to instructions and then rinse in cold water. And after marinating 2+ hours, the pork will be ready to cook. For this part, I used an inexpensive pork chop of some kind—the cheapest pork per pound that I sliced into long thin strips and marinated according to Hapa Nom Nom's recipe. Except... I didn't have molasses, so I made it Vermont-style by using maple syrup instead. I stir-fried the sugar-laden pork for about 10-15 minutes until it was very browned and caramelized. It smelled amazing. I know frying is not grilling, but Wandering Chopsticks says it's OK so I went for it.

Assembly time!

Place lettuce/greens in bottom of bowl. At the Saigon Palace this would be a proper large bowl with pink and blue and yellow designs all over it.

Next, add a generous portion of cold rice noodles.

Garnish around the sides with mint, cilantro, cucumber, pickled vegetables, and still-warm pork.


Top with a sprinkling of peanuts and a generous slosh of fish dipping sauce over all. 

The finishing touch at the Saigon Palace was always a generous squeeze of hot sauce--I used Sriracha.

Notes: This was delightfully close to the rice bowl of memory, I think the Sriracha squeeze and peanuts put it over the top. My fellow eater also really liked it, and he's never been to the Saigon Palace. I would love to include:

eggy steamed meatloaf: This would sometimes turn up in #37 and sometimes not. Wandering Chopsticks has a recipe for this simple Vietnamese classic, also known as Cha Trung Hap

crispy shallots: I ALMOST pulled these off as well, but then I burned the shallots to a char in hot oil. Oops :(

Cha Gio: obviously this would be so much more "#37" if it came with the rice-paper spring rolls

Giant iced Vietnamese coffee: because of course!

Do you have a Vietnamese comfort food? Have you been to the Saigon Palace in Toronto? Do you ever have elaborate cravings that you feel compelled to follow up on?