Orzo Pasta With Roasted Vegetables

Orzo pasta

It’s the last month of summer and we all should squeeze in every last moment of that lemon drop sunshine–with outdoor baseball games with some chilled brews, cartwheels on the sandy beaches, and lazy Sunday picnics. I have the perfect pasta salad recipe for you to make that will make you the talk of the town; people will be clamoring to get seconds of this delicious melange of complex, but complementing flavors. On top of that, it’s bursting with color and is a gorgeous salad to eat. What’s food without presentational oomph?

Since I grew up in a household that mostly made Chinese food, I rarely had a chance to eat pasta salads as a child. It was foreign, the ultimate “American” dish, yet I never found one that I liked. If I ever did have some, it would be at a friend’s birthday party out of a Ralph’s plastic box, and it would always be cold with lots of pimentos–I hated that. So, I never really gave pasta salads a chance.

However, it wasn’t until I got older (and had a little more income) that I gave my palate some room to blossom and tried the gourmet, farm fresh salads of restaurants like Lemonade in Los Angeles, where even Asian dishes such as soba noodles with kimchi marinated vegetables and toasted peanuts are considered a pasta dish of sorts.

I found a recipe from Ina Garten (that I slightly tweaked) that combines silky orzo pasta, tangy feta cheese, sweet-roasted summer vegetables, fresh herbs, and a hint of smoky toasted pine nuts–all dressed in a lemon vinaigrette. It’s a crowd-pleaser (even your vegetarian friends will be happy) and something I could see myself eating long after a picnic is over (if there are even any leftovers!). Most importantly, the texture of the orzo pasta is what makes this dish special, so don’t try to substitute it with rotini or fusili pasta. And definitely serve it at room temperature–not straight out of the fridge or piping hot–at room temperature.

Adapted from an Ina Garten recipe.

Yields 6 servings.

Ingredients:

1 small eggplant, peeled and 3/4-inch diced
1 red bell pepper, 1-inch diced
1 yellow bell pepper, 1-inch diced
1 red onion, peeled and 1-inch diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 – 3 tbsp good olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 pound orzo or rice-shaped pasta

For the dressing:
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (3 lemons)
1/4 cup good olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

To assemble:
4 scallions, minced (white and green parts)
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
8 oz. block of good feta, 1/2-inch diced (not crumbled)
15 fresh basil leaves, cut into julienne

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

2. Toss the eggplant, bell peppers, onion, and garlic with the olive oil, salt, and pepper on a large sheet pan. Roast for 40 minutes, until browned, turning once with a spatula.

3. Meanwhile, cook the orzo in boiling salted water for 7 to 9 minutes, until tender. Drain and transfer to a large serving bowl. Add the roasted vegetables to the pasta, scraping all the liquid and seasonings from the roasting pan into the pasta bowl.

4. For the dressing, mix together the lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Pour half of the dressing on the pasta and vegetables, mix it together, and then taste it. It’s all relative to taste, so add more if you want more of a citrus flavor. Let cool to room temperature, then add the scallions, pine nuts, feta, and basil. Check the seasonings, and serve at room temperature.

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Din Tai Fung Dumpling House–little packages of delight

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My boss’s father went on a business trip to Taipei, Taiwan and called his son to tell him about this revolutionary dish he had never had before–xiao long bao (also known as “soup dumplings”), a steamed dumpling filled with juicy pork and soup (inside of the dumpling!)–at a restaurant called Din Tai Fung. My boss told him that he already knew about that restaurant and that there was one right in Los Angeles. By the end of his father’s trip through Southeast Asia, every time he had a business meeting, someone would take him to a Din Tai Fung in their country–from Singapore to Japan.

Din Tai Fung is just that big and that amazing.

When I went to Taipei on a vacation in 2006, there wasn’t a direct train route to the restaurant, and I had to take two buses in the rain to get to the flagship location. There was a line outside of the narrow, three-story building; inside, waiters were zooming in and out of the kitchen, up and down the staircase, delivering woven baskets of steamed dumplings to tables. We put in a heap of sliced ginger in a sauce dish, added red vinegar, soy sauce, chili flakes, salt and pepper. The marriage of the two puzzle pieces were almost complete. We dipped the dumpling in the the sauce, put it in a soup spoon, and grabbed a few slices of ginger from the sauce and put it on top, and carefully bit into the juicy dumpling. The first time is like no other.

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Luckily, LA doesn’t just have one Din Tai Fung location, but rather two–and they’re right next to each other. Be prepared for a long wait, but it’s always worth it. If you’re going with a big group, also order a variety of items like pork fried rice, shanghai rice cakes, any of the fried noodle dishes, sauteed green beans with garlic, and don’t forget dessert–red bean dumplings are a must!

Din Tai Fung

1108 S. Baldwin Ave.

Arcadia, CA 91007

Hours:

Mon – Fri: 11:00 am – 9:30 pm

Sat: 10:00 am -9:30 pm

Sun: 10:00 am -9:00 pm

or

1088 S. Baldwin Ave.

Arcadia, CA 91007

Hours:

Mon – Fri: 11:00 am – 3:00 pm; 5:00 pm – 9:30 pm

Sat: 10:30 am – 9:30 pm

Sun: 10:30 am – 9:00 pm

Website:

http://www.dintaifungusa.com/

Shrimp and pork wontons

wontons

Forget about meatloaf or warm apple pie; when I think of comfort food, wontons are among the first things that come to mind. Nothing makes me feel better after a long day out in the cold like a hot bowl of chicken broth soup with little packages of joy floating on top, adorned with ribbons of bok-choy or gai-lan (also known as Chinese broccoli). After all, directly translated from Cantonese to English, wonton means “swallowing clouds”, and if made correctly, these heavenly little meat-filled pillows will taste just like that.

A traditional Chinese staple stemming over 1,000 years, wonton styles vary from region to region, all with different fillings from pork to shrimp to vegetables. The versatility of how they’re prepared as well as how they’re eaten is expansive. I usually make a large batch of wontons, freeze them, and then take them out whenever I want to boil them in some soup, boil them without soup to dip in soy sauce, or even just deep fry them.

When I was growing up, it was sort of a family tradition for all of us to sit together, chat and laugh, and wrap wontons. My parents would usually comment on how we were wrapping them incorrectly or putting too much filling in them – giving us perennial adjustments. At the time, I thought they were being overly critical, but now looking back, I think they were just trying to teach us how to do it right, so that the filling wouldn’t explode out of the wrapper when we boiled them. Fair enough. What better way to learn how to do something right than to get told you’re making a mistake?

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My recipe comes from my father, who makes it seem like making wontons is as easy as riding a bicycle. The marriage of shrimp and pork for this dish is sealed together by a dash of sesame oil and soy sauce with a handful of chopped green onions. Once you get the hang of wrapping them, you’ll find yourself making these wontons quickly.

I find wrapping wontons rather therapeutic (a weird side of me where I enjoy assembly-line sort of work), but the one thing I don’t enjoy very much is deveining shrimp, which should be done. I have to admit that although it’s gotten easier the more times I do it, it still takes me awhile. Don’t be discouraged though and read this tutorial or watch this one (if you need to…because you could be a professional deveiner for all I know!) on how to devein shrimp.

Ingredients:

1  16 oz. package of square wonton wrappers (can be found in your local Asian grocery store) – yields about 45-50 wrappers

1 egg

1/2 lb. of ground pork

1/2 lb. of shrimp, peeled, deveined and chopped

2 – 3 stalks of scallions, thinly chopped

1/2 tbsp of soy sauce

3 tsp of rice vinegar

1 tsp of sesame oil

1 tsp of granulated sugar

pinch of salt

pinch of black pepper

Directions:

1. In a small bowl, lightly beat the egg and set aside.

2. Preparing the filling: In a medium mixing bowl, add the pork, shrimp, scallions, soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, sugar, salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly using one hand.

3. Wrapping the wontons: There are a few different ways to wrap wontons, but I prefer wrapping them like triangles (the easy way) or wrapping them as the boat style (just one extra step!).

Triangle shape: Put one wonton wrapper in the palm of your hand positioned as a diamond pointing upwards. Put half a tablespoon of filling in the center. (Do not overfill the wonton because they will fall apart when you cook them.) Using a spoon, add a thin layer of egg wash alongside the two top edges of the wrapper. Fold the bottom to the top, forming a triangle, pushing out as much air as possible, and then pressing the edges together to seal it.

Boat style: Perform the steps of the triangle shape. Add egg wash to one of the two side tips and overlap one side over the other. The shape will look like a little boat with a pillow of filling in the center.

Boat style wrapping

Boat style wrapping

4. Repeat folding instructions until all the wrappers have been used. Put wontons in a single layer on a baking sheet until finished.

5. Cook the wontons as desired:

To eat wontons alone without soup: Bring a large pot of water to a boil over low-medium heat. Add the wontons in the water (making sure there is enough room for them to move about freely) and gently stir every couple of minutes (to ensure the wontons don’t stick to the bottom of the pot) for about 5 to 8 minutes. You will know when they’re done when they float to the top. Check the wontons for doneness. When the wontons are done cooking, drain the pot and then and put the wontons in a bowl. Serve with soy sauce for dipping.

To eat wontons in soup: Bring a large pot of water to a boil over low-medium heat. Add the wontons in the water (making sure there is enough room for them to move about freely) and gently stir every couple of minutes (to ensure the wontons don’t stick to the bottom of the pot) for about 5 to 8 minutes. You will know when they’re done when they float to the top. Check the wontons for doneness. When the wontons are done cooking, drain the pot and then and put the wontons in a bowl.

While the wontons are cooking, boil chicken broth with some salt and pepper to taste in another pot over medium heat. Add in some sliced bok-choy or gai-lan in the boiling soup for a few minutes until tender. Ladle the soup and vegetables in a large bowl and then add five or six wontons to each bowl. Garnish with some chopped scallions.

To eat the wontons deep-fried: Heat oil in a deep frying pan to 360 degrees F and add wontons in small batches to the oil. Deep fry until they turn a golden brown, about 2 minutes. Remove the wontons with a slotted spoon and drain the oil on paper towels on a plate.

Notes: 

How to freeze wontons: Wrap a baking sheet with saran wrap. Put each wonton in a single layer on the baking sheet (without overcrowding them so they don’t get stuck together). Leave the baking sheet in the freezer overnight. In the morning, remove the wontons and put them in a bag and keep them in the freezer. Do not defrost the wontons if you want to boil them, but do defrost them if you want to deep fry them.

What to do with excess filling: If you end up with any extra filling, a good way to use it up is to roll about a tablespoon of filling into a ball – sort of like a mini-meatball, and repeat until all the filling is used. You can boil these meatballs in soup or freeze them the same way as you’d freeze wontons to use later.

Happy National Cupcake Day!

cupcake

In observance of National Cupcake Day, I made sure to wear my t-shirt that says “Cupcakes…I’z Eatin’ Them” as I headed over to Los Feliz for a lazy Saturday afternoon of drinking and eating. I had gone to a few bakeries in search for the most delectable cupcake, but a number of them were out of cupcakes by the time I had finally left my house in the late afternoon. (Sadly, I can only blame myself for this.) So, I headed over to Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf for a little red velvet cupcake with cream cheese fix and it did the trick.

The real prize of the day was that I rolled into 1739 Public House – one of my favorite local pubs – for one of the best happy hour deals out there. Every day of the week, including weekends, patrons who order a beer at full price at $6.75 get a free personal cheese pizza. The pizza is surprisingly larger than expected for being free; the marinara sauce is sweet and the thin crust has a cheddar/mozzarella blend so stringy that every time you take a bite, you feel like a magician pulling a string of handkerchiefs out of a hat.

Their list of beers on tap is extensive – over 60 domestic and imported. Your senses will probably never be bored as there is every sport imaginable playing on the dozen or so large flat-screen TVs. (Since I’m not a particularly huge sports fan, it was a nice change of pace to see “Forbidden Planet” playing on one of their TVs today and Leslie Nielsen at age 30!)

Summer is the best time to visit this place, as there is an outdoor patio out front on the sidewalk (great for people watching and groups) and the large windows and doors open up for natural light to fill the bar.

Here is a full list of deals Public House offers:

-Mondays and Tuesdays, any meal on the menu is $7 or less

-Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., $9 brunch meals; $3 Bloody Mary or Mimosa with meal

-Mondays through Saturdays from 3 p.m. – 7 p.m. and Sundays from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., free cheese pizza with any full priced beer (or cocktails over $6.75)

1739 Public House

1739 N. Vermont Blvd.

Los Angeles, CA 90027

http://www.1739PublicHouse.com/