I’d do almost anything to turn the clock back and crowd around my too-small-kitchen table with my two sons and husband for nightly family dinners, the best part of my day for 20 years. But, my sons have both flown the coop—the younger one left for college two years ago, his brother two years before that.
At first, my husband and I pretended this new freedom was great—now we could eat dinner at nine or have leftovers two nights in a row — something we never would have dared when our sons were home. Other times, we misbehaved like children, eating in front of the TV or snacking on cheese and crackers until we lost our appetites for dinner.
So, when my 22-year-old son, Gabe, came home for the summer after a trip to Vietnam, I was overjoyed. I thought we would return to the comfortable dinner-making patterns of his childhood. In those days, he and his brother urged me to try a new recipe almost every night, and in return for this daunting expectation they helped with the chopping and kept me company. I experimented, took risks, and they always gave me honest feedback.
This summer marked a change. Gabe had attended a cooking class at the Hai Café cooking school in Hoi An, Vietnam, and offered to teach me the recipes he had learned. I should explain that this was not primarily a cooking trip. Hoi An, a coastal city about one hour south of Danang, is a beautiful pre-colonial city where the real draw was a hand-made suit, tailored to his measurements for a fraction of the cost of an American equivalent. There was also scuba-diving, completely verbotten, and firing of an M-16 in the Cu Chi tunnels. Perhaps the cooking class was a peace offering, meant to soften the blow of some of these less desirable activities. Whatever the motivation, I was excited to learn to cook something new, and to learn from my son.
I offered to shop for the ingredients, but with time short, I decided to go to only one store, Whole Foods. This meant making several substitutions. Instead of taro root (my son used gloves to handle this in Vietnam so as not to develop an itchy rash, and then had to it cook really well so as not to develop an itchy throat), I got a turnip. Instead of banana leaves to wrap the fish in, I used parchment paper. Instead of choko, I used chayote from Costa Rica, a similar yellow squash. Instead of wood ear mushrooms, I got dried black trumpet mushrooms. And, finally, instead of mackerel, which my son said tasted like a hockey puck, I got red snapper.Still, even with all these short cuts and westernizations, the spring rolls were the most delicious ones any of us had ever tasted, the fish was very rich in flavor, and the recipe easy enough that I would try it soon again.
During Gabe’s growing up, I was the one trying new things in the kitchen. Now, the roles were reversed. Perhaps the compensation for having children leave home is that sometimes they return, willing to share their adventures with us.
11/2 lbs snapper
2 tablespoons lemongrass, crushed and then diced
2 tablespoons shallots,diced
1 tablespoon garlic cloves, diced
3 teaspoons coriander leaves, parsley or cilantro finely chopped
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 tablespoons rum
4 banana leaves of one large piece of parchment paper
– Clean fish. If using whole fish, make 2 or 3 diagonal cuts across the body of one side of the fish.
– In a bowl, combine and mix thoroughly: salt, sugar, coriander, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, pepper, oil, rum.
– If using banana leaves, remove the spine of the leaf, and then soften for rolling by blanching in boiling water or lightly grilling over an open flame. Place fish on the softened leaves or on the parchment paper and cover with half the mixture. Turn the fish over and cover with the remaining mixture. Fill the cuts with some of the mixture as well. Fold the banana leaf over the fish in envelope style and make a tidy package. Or roll the fish in parchment paper and twist the ends, like a piece of taffy.
– If using banana leaves, cook on the barbecue for about 20 minutes, turning at 10 minutes. Alternatively, cook the fish in parchment on a cookie sheet in 375 degree oven.
– Open up the package and cover fish with lime sauce. Serve with steamed rice.
½ teaspoon sugar
Mix all of the ingredients in a bowl.
Spring Rolls, Hoi An style, adapted
1 cup vermicelli noodles, softened in cold water, finely chopped
1/3 lb shrimp, sliced down the middle and then cut in half
1 cup black trumpet mushrooms softened in warm water and finely chopped
1 cup green beans, julienned
1 cup shallots, thinly diced
1 cup carrots finely grated
1 cup chayote finely grated
1 cup turnip finely grated
1 egg yolk
1 pinch salt
1 pinch pepper
½ cup vegetable oil (not more than 1 cm deep in frying pan)
1 packet of rice paper sheets (softened in water) You need 11/2 sheets for each roll.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine filling ingredients: vermicelli noodles, shrimp, mushrooms, beans, shallots, carrots, chayote, turnip, egg yolk, salt, pepper and mix well.
– Place 1 sheet of rice paper on counter, and then put half of another sheet on the part closest to you. Place about 2 tablespoons of the mixture on the double sheet, then roll it up taking care to tuck in the sides as you roll. Repeat to use all the filling which will make about 12 spring rolls. Prick each roll with a fork to help them cook well.
– Heat oil in frying pan. Place spring rolls in the oil and turn once golden on one side. Remove from pan, and drain on paper towels. Then serve with fish sauce.
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon crushed garlic
1 teaspoon jalepeno chile pepper, finely chopped
1 teaspoon sugar
1 lime or lemon
Place all ingredients in a bowl and mix thoroughly until sugar is dissolved.
*Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D., is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School and Director of Family and Couples Therapy at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Dr. Fishel wrote Treating the Adolescent in Family Therapy: A Developmental and Narrative Approach in 1999. Talking about family dinners is a focus of her work with the families she treats in her private practice and with the psychiatry residents she trains to work with families.
Read Family Dinners, Anne’s previous post on PRK.