Happy New Year! ¡Feliz Año!

 

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I woke up on New Year’s day after a most vivid dream where I was a spicy, Colombian singer named Shakira. I quickly slid my fingers down the sides of my body, actually hoping that I’d find some curvalicious hips and a quarter-bouncing booty. Nope, still Asian over here. After a few minutes of sulking and cursing my ancestors for having dull and shapeless figures, I looked out the window and saw that snow had fallen and collected to form a powdery, white carpet covering our entire neighborhood. We decided to take a drive downtown and stopped by Island Park on the way. Here are a few photos from our cold and snowy walk through the park.

 

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It was a great way to relax after a fabulous night of partying. For New Year’s Eve, we joined our neighbor, Alfonso and his family and friends for a wonderful fiesta de fin de año. We feasted on delicious Colombian, Peruvian and Puerto Rican food while listening to some awesome cumbia music. Our new friends looked on with curiosity as this SAC (Small Asian Chick) continued to heap onto her plate an ungodly amount of food that included roasted chicken with a garlicky, piquant salsa verde, jamón with mashed pineapple, rice with onion and green beans, pork tenderloin in a dill crust, steamed potatoes, coconut besitos and a few more items that I forget the names of.

And what is a fiesta without dancing? Before we knew it, the vino had gotten to us and Pierre and I were right in the middle of the floor, happily breaking out all our salsa and bachata moves; oh yes, all THREE of them. Not to be outdone by us youngins’, Alfonso also took to the floor and showed us how Colombians do it – with gusto, baby!

During the few times I paused from the revelry, I’d scan the room and see Alfonso’s young nephews kicking around a soccer ball, his friends enjoying wine, chatting and laughing, and everyone else, from his 4 year-old niece to his elder siblings, getting down to the music. I cannot fully describe the joy that emanates from Alfonso and his family. The beautiful food, wine, and dancing – it’s simply in their blood. And this, I believe, is why Latin Americans have an incredible edge on all things party-related.

To Alfonso and his family, muchas gracias for an unforgettable evening.

Now, back to the food. I brought some pasteles de guayaba – guava and cream cheese pastries using store-bought puff pastry. Growing up, we had guava trees in our backyard. Two had fruit that were white-fleshed with very few seeds, ổi xá lị, we called them, and one had fruit with a rose-colored flesh with lots of seeds. I loved picking and eating them right off the tree though I wasn’t allowed to eat it as much as I wanted as mother claimed it can be nóng (literally: hot), disruptive to the chemical balance in your body and cause bodily rashes or worse, pimples. She says the same thing of mango, rambutan, lychee, jackfruit and basically any other amazingly delicious fruit I like.

You can imagine the smirk on my face as I stuffed a couple (okay, three) of these guava pastries in my mouth. Hot my arse. As a bonus, these pastries are just as good as the ones you’d find at Cuban cafes on Calle Ocho. ¡Rico y sabroso!

 

PASTELES DE GUAYABA – GUAVA PASTRIES

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INGREDIENTS:

  • puff pastry sheet, cut into approx. 2.5 inch squares
  • guava paste (pasta de guayaba), cut into 1/2 inch-thick strips, approx. 1/2 inch wide and 2 inches long [I often find these at Latino markets, in round tins next to the membrillo]
  • cream cheese, cut into strips, slightly bigger than the guava strips
  • egg wash (one egg yolk whisked with 1 tsp. water or milk)

STEPS:

  • Preheat the oven to 400F.
  • Place the cream cheese and guava a little off-center on the the pastry square. You may need to push the guava down a bit, into the cheese.
  • Next, fold the sides of the square over the filling and carefully seal the edges.
  • Place the pastry, seam side down onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and brush the top with the egg wash. Repeat with the remainder of the pastry squares.
  • Bake for approx. 18-20 minutes. The tops should be a light golden brown. Serve warm or at room temperature.
¡Buen provecho!

 

Truffes au Chocolat – Chocolate Truffles

 

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I know what you’re thinking…chocolate truffles for Christmas – how truly innovative. And yes, you’ve seen them all before. But scroll down and take a gander at them. Aren’t they a sight to behold? Silky. Creamy. Luscious. Are we still talking about chocolate? Yes. Right.

Though I’m no choco-holic, this week has been a real tug o’ war for me lately. Should I make these, these, or, oh la la, these. Let me start by saying that I’m all for bucking traditional flavors when it comes to chocolate — hot chiles with chocolate (fabulous); smoked salt with chocolate (why didn’t I think of that before?); tea-infused chocolate (caffeine+more caffeine = oh joy!); and even bacon with chocolate (piggy, chocolate-y — mmmm).

In the end, I decided to buck my inclination to buck traditional flavors and made a classic truffle recipe. There’s not too much of a recipe as it is a ganache made from equal parts cream and dark chocolate, which is allowed to chill for a couple of hours before it is rolled into little truffles. With so few ingredients, I reached for some of the good stuff — Callebaut chocolate and Calder Dairy’s heavy cream, one of the loveliest, richest creams this locavore’s tasted in a long time.

If you’ve never made truffles, you can click on the video link in this article to see Mark Bittman of the NY Times demonstrate the minimal (pardon me) effort involved in making truffles. Now, do I really need to tell you how these turned out? Chocolate plus Cream. Cream plus Chocolate. Come ON.

FOR MY GANACHE:

  • 500g Callebaut dark chocolate, finely chopped
  • 500 ml heavy cream

STEPS:

  • In a medium to large saucepan, heat the cream until it begins to steam. Remove pan from heat and add chocolate to the cream. Stir until the chocolate is melted and fully combined with the cream. Allow to cool before placing in the fridge to cool for about 2 hours.
  • Once chilled, you can use a small melon baller or a small spoon to scoop out the ganache and quickly roll it into a ball. You can then roll the truffle in cocoa, nuts, powdered sugar, etc.

 

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My conformist turns notwithstanding, I opted to make another batch of truffles, this time adding a little booze. That always helps things, you know…something my mother taught me. Okay, really, my aunt taught me that.

Rose‘s trio of truffles sure did thrill me, particularly since they use butter instead of cream. They turned out a bit more dense than the cream ganache above yet smooth and every bit delicious. It was also great to use the Cointreau that I had bought during a visit to the original distillery, located on the outskirts of Angers, France. These truffles give those liquor-filled chocolates you find at the market a run for their money. They’ve got just enough orange liqueur and orange zest to brighten the cocoa flavors of the chocolate.

 

TRUFFES AU COINTREAU – CHOCOLATE TRUFFLES WITH COINTREAU

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INGREDIENTS:

recipe adapted from 64sqftkitchen 
  • 170g (~6oz) chocolate
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 75 g butter (~1/3 stick, unsalted butter) softened
  • 1 ½ tsp Cointreau
  • Zest of 1 orange

STEPS:

  • To make the basic mixture, melt the chocolate in double boiler until the chocolate is melted and lukewarm. Remove from the simmering water and add the egg yolks. Stir with a whisk for a few seconds. It will probably tighten and lose its shine.
  • Add the butter in small pieces and whisk well. The mixture may become smooth or it may remain somewhat separated. Do not worry about it. Add the orange zest and Cointreau and whisk.
  • At this point the mixture should become smooth. If it doesn’t, add 1 tsp of hot water to each bowl and whisk until it does. It should not require more than 1 tbsp of water at most. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours.
  • Get the truffles out of the fridge at least 15 minutes before starting shaping them; this way it will be easier to shape them. With a small spoon, scoop out the chocolate and, with the palms of your hands, form into little balls the size of extra-large olives or smaller.
  • They will keep in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks. Serve at room temperature.

 

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Bon appétit!

 

Rillettes de Tours

 

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Rillettes is due for a comeback. This I know. After so much time spent in the dugout while the soul-less, calorie and fat-conscious players took over, it’s back in the game. With a vengeance. Okay, maybe not with a vengeance. More like a whisper. The kind of whisper that tells you this is God’s food; food that really nourishes the heart and soul. It’s the real deal — know what I mean? It’s not the crap-ola that aims to cleanse or detox.

Lest you think I’m about to launch into a diatribe against the Hippie Fat Police, be not ye afraid.

A dish of rillettes, according to Anthony Bourdain, “gets right to the heart of what’s good: pork, pork fat, salt, and pepper….Rillettes is something you serve friends – and people you already know you like.” *

My sentiments exactly. If you’ve never tried it, rillettes is something like a rough, meatier country pâté. Its origins are shared by several regions of France, namely Le Mans, Tours (and Angers), and Orléans. In Le Mans, goose meat is often added to the pork while in Orléans, wild rabbit is often added to make their rillettes, which they serve with fresh walnuts in the fall. In the rillettes of Tours, an all-pork version is made.

Eating this brings me back to the college semester I studied in Angers, located less than an hour’s drive west of Tours. Our midday lunch at school was the one of the highlights that I looked forward to each day. Unlike the cafeterias or dining halls here in the States, where students line up to slop dubious food onto trays, there, we sat family-style in long tables and passed homey platters of rillettes, salades, and fromage around the table.

The last time we were in France, we made sure to bring back some fresh rillettes du Mans – from where Pierre’s grandmother was raised and where his great-aunt had lived most of her life. When that precious stuff was finished, we still had some tins of rillettes that we’d purchased at what I call the French Costco – Carrefour.

Now that all our porky provisions have been depleted, Pierre’s been wondering when he’ll get to eat rillettes again. Well, wonder no more, Mon petit chou! This recipe is from a book I received as a gift from my good friend Zarena. I love this book because its recipes are old-school and just really good and reliable. The photographs aren’t the modern, high contrast, blown-out shots that you often find nowadays. They depict rustic scenes, naturally lit and sometimes underexposed.

As for the recipe, it’s alarmingly simple: Brown meat. Slowly cook meat for a long time. Add seasoning. Shred meat. Enjoy.

And, never wanting to miss an opportunity to add some American lazy to a time-honored French classic, I decided to make this using a slow cooker. And instead of using the French quatre épices, I used my homemade five-spice powder. I’m happy to report that it turned out beautifully.

In case my flip recipe above does not suffice, below is a more detailed version:

 *Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook

 

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RILLETTES DE TOURS

INGREDIENTS: at least 6 servings

  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 4 med-large shallots, quartered
  • 2 sprigs of fresh thyme, crumbled
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 2 lbs. pork belly, cut into 2-inch cubes
  • 1 lb. pork fat (fatback)
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 2 tsp. sea salt
  • pinch of black pepper
  • 1 tsp. five spice powder
  • additional bay leaves (for decoration) optional

STEPS:

  • Flatten the garlic cloves with the side of the hand. Wrap garlic, shallots, thyme, bay leaves and cloves in a square of cheesecloth and tie with kitchen thread.
  • Remove rind (and bones) from the pork belly; cut the meat into 2 inch cubes.
  • Melt the pork fat in a heavy 4qt. saucepan over med-low heat. Add the pieces of pork belly and brown them, turning constantly. Remove the browned meat with a slotted spoon and strain the fat through a sieve into a small bowl. Set aside.
  • Place the browned meat into a slow cooker. Add the cheesecloth bag and the water, cover – leaving a little space for air to escape.
  • Cook on the lowest setting for 5 hours, stirring from time to time, adding a little more water (by the Tablespoon) if the mixture seems too dry. The meat needs to cook low and slow – never to be boiled.
  • At this point, the meat should be tender but not mushy. Remove the bag of seasoning. Stir in the salt and five-spice powder and cook for another 30 minutes.
  • Remove from heat and let cool to lukewarm, then remove meat from the pan and shred using two forks. (The shredded meat will resemble American pulled-pork). Add the reserved fat and mix well.
  • Turn the spread into one large container, or divide it among several smaller ones, top with bay leaves and cover. Store in the refrigerator and serve after two days. The rillettes will keep for about two weeks.

Bon appétit!

 

You Say Salad, I Say Gỏi…

 

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For Thanksgiving this year, we joined our good friends at their home just a few miles from our house for dinner. My contribution was not a savory item but a dessert – an almond dacquoise layered with hazelnut chocolate ganache and whipped cream that was laced with Poire William and topped with carmelized pear slices. With these ingredients, it’s hard to go wrong. Sure, it was yummy, though it didn’t look quite as appealing or stunning as I’d hoped. A recipe for that is forthcoming.

In the meantime, I’ve shifted my focus to preparations during the month I’ve got left before Christmas and New Year’s Eve. In truth, this doesn’t involve buying and wrapping gifts and goodies. Rather, this ritual involves stair climbers, treadmills, some rusty dumbbells and slew of swear words thrown in for good measure. For what? To get my tush into that ridiculous and saucy dress I bought on sale that didn’t fit then and might not ever fit.

Silly, you think? Uh, no. It was On Sale.

My need to purchase clothes two sizes too small seems irrelevant here. What is more salient to this discussion is a description of foods I eat following an indulgent weekend of pure, buttery gluttony. These dishes make me happy for two reasons: 1) They are delicious and full of Southeast Asian spicy, crunchy goodness and; 2) They’re quite healthy and nutritious – so much that eating them provides me the prospect of being that svelte dancer, chassé-ing across the floor and exiting with a grand jeté — all while wearing THAT DRESS.

Bon, let’s get on with it.

In Vietnamese , salad or xà lách (pronounced sa-laht) means lettuce. It’s what is used to wrap bundles of meat, fresh herbs and vegetables in Gỏi Cuốn. It’s also the essential accompaniment to Bánh Xèo, Nem Nướng, Chả Giò, as well as numerous other savory Viet dishes.

At a meal in Viet Nam, you’d be hard-pressed to find just a bowl of xà lách that’s been tossed with oil and vinegar. An otherwise simple and elegant dish, it would lack the the variety and texture that Viets crave and demand of their dishes.

Gỏi is our answer to what the Western world calls Salad. Yet, calling it a Viet version of a salad would be underestimating its true powers and abilities, like calling Bono a singer, when you and I know he’s really a living, breathing, SUPERHERO.

Gỏi can be simple but never, ever boring. How can it be? A combination that features tangy, peppery herbs; crispy, crunchy fruits/vegetables; tender, luscious meat and seafood- all spiked with a spicy, sweet, sour sauce simply commands attention. And like any true superhero, gỏi is fearless. It cares not for distinctions between fruit and vegetable, cooked food or raw food, dried food or fresh food. It embraces them all and gives them their due justice.

As a special treat, we have not one, but three different versions I hope you’ll try soon.

 

POMELO SALAD – GỎI BƯỞI

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First up is Pomelo Salad – Gỏi Bưởi. When their season arrives in Viet Nam, vendors will tempt passerbys by stacking pyramids of yellow-green Bưởi, their slightly oblong tops resembling jade mountain caps. Cut through its fragrant peel and you’ll find beautiful light yellow-green or sometimes pink segments that are slightly dry to the touch but plump and juicy when eaten. It has a subtle, sweet flavor that is less acidic and less tart than regular pink or white grapefruits sold here in the U.S.

Making Gỏi with pomelos then, just makes sense. The floral and citrus flavors of the pomelo next the sharp, peppery herbs of Vietnamese coriander (rau răm) and cilantro (rau ngò) is a combination that speaks of more balance than my yoga mat. Throw in some tasty slices of pork, plump shrimp, crunchy carrots and cucumbers to complete the dish.

 

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POMELO SALAD – GỎI BƯỞI

INGREDIENTS: (4-6 servings)

  • 1/2 lb. poached pork tenderloin [chicken breast can also be substituted]
  • 1/2 lb. fresh unpeeled, de-veined shrimp
  • 1 med. carrot, peeled and finely julienned or grated using a mandoline
  • 1 small/med. cucumber, seeds (if any) removed
  • 1 large pomelo, peel and pith removed and cut into segments
  • 2 Tbl. each, Viet. coriander (rau răm) and cilantro (rau ngò)
  • 1 Tbl. lightly toasted white sesame seeds
  • 2 Tbl. Crispy Fried Shallots (hành phi) –
  • sweet-sour dressing – (nước chấm) –
  • freshly roasted peanuts, lightly crushed (optional)
  • shrimp chips (bánh phồng tôm) or Viet sesame rice crackers (bánh tráng mè)

STEPS:

  • Poach the pork until cooked through. The internal temperature should reach 160F. Allow to cool before thinly slicing into 1/4 inch strips. Set aside.
  • In a skillet, dry-fry the shrimp for several minutes until opaque in color. Allow to cool before removing shells. Set aside.
  • Grate the carrot. Peel the cucumber if its skin is tough or bitter. Scoop out any seeds. Cut in half lengthwise and slice into very thin “half-moons.”
  • In a large bowl, combine the pork, shrimp, carrots, cucumbers, pomelo segments with the herbs (I leave the herbs whole, but you can roughly chop them if you prefer).
  • Just before serving, toss the ingredients with 2-3 Tbl. of Nước Chấm (add more or less depending on your taste). Transfer to a serving plate.
  • Scatter sesame seeds, fried shallots and crushed peanuts over the top of the dish.
  • Serve with shrimp chips or sesame rice crackers.

 

LOTUS STEM SALAD – GỎI NGÒ SEN

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Next is a dish that I ordered almost every time we ate out during our trip to Viet Nam. The crisp, crunchy texture of lotus stems (Ngò Sen) are somehow very fun and addictive to eat. In addition, their mellow, rather bland flavor absorbs the spicy, sweet sauce, allowing the shrimp and pork flavors to really come out. This recipe generally serves four but I have eaten the whole lot in one sitting many a time.

I am reminded of a Viet film called Three Seasons (Ba Mùa), directed by Tony Bui. There’s a picturesque scene in the film, where, in the early morning, young women paddle through a misty pond full of lotus blossoms, singing folk songs as they gently pluck the stems and buds for selling later at the market. It’s where I – and you could – imagine being when eating this, and well, wearing that saucy number I keep mentioning, of course.

 

LOTUS STEM SALAD – GỎI NGÒ SEN

INGREDIENTS: (3-4 servings)

  • 1 jar of lotus stems (often labeled lotus rootlets)
  • 1 Tbl. fresh lime juice
  • 1 Tbl. sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 lb. poached pork tenderloin [chicken breast can also be substituted]
  • 1/2 lb. fresh unpeeled, de-veined shrimp
  • 1 med. carrot, peeled and finely julienned or grated using a mandoline
  • 2 Tbl. each, Viet. coriander (rau răm) and cilantro (rau ngò)
  • 1 Tbl. lightly toasted white sesame seeds
  • 2 Tbl. Crispy Fried Shallots (hành phi) –
  • sweet-sour dressing – (nước chấm) –
  • lightly crushed, freshly roasted peanuts (optional)
  • shrimp chips (bánh phồng tôm) or Viet sesame rice crackers (bánh tráng mè)

STEPS:

  • Poach the pork until cooked through. The internal temperature should reach 160F. Allow to cool before thinly slicing into 1/4 inch strips. Set aside.
  • In a skillet, dry-fry the shrimp for several minutes until opaque in color. Allow to cool before removing shells. Set aside.
  • Cut the lotus stems in half, crosswise and then cut in half lengthwise.
  • In a small bowl, dissolve the sugar, lime and salt. Once dissolved, add the cut lotus stems to the bowl and toss to combine. Set aside.
  • Grate the carrot. Set aside.
  • In a large bowl, combine the pork, shrimp, carrots and lotus stems with the herbs (I leave the herbs whole, but you can roughly chop them if you prefer).
  • Just before serving, toss the ingredients with 2-3 Tbl. of Nước Chấm (add more or less depending on your taste). Transfer to a serving plate.
  • Scatter sesame seeds, fried shallots and crushed peanuts (optional) over the top of the dish.
  • Serve with shrimp chips or sesame rice crackers.
*Pickled, Sliced Pig Ears may also be added to this dish.

 

WATER SPINACH SALAD – GỎI RAU MUỐNG

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Last up to batter is Gỏi Rau Muống. Rau Muống also goes by common names such as Water Spinach, Ong Choy, and Water Morning Glory, just to name a few. It’s often stir-fried with garlic (Rau Muống Xào) or made into a sweet-sour soup (Canh Chua Rau Muống). Here, the crisp, hollow stems of the plant are cut into extremely thin slices which are then submerged in an ice-bath, causing them to curl into little ringlets that are slightly springy, with a delicate crunch to them . In the past, this tedious and rather tricky task was left to skillful housewives and servants. But now, there’s a handy tool that will quickly and safely split the stems into thin slices – great news for a klutz like me. You can find more info on that tool, called Dao Chẻ Rau Muống. Look for them at Asian grocery stores that stock Viet products.

Once the Rau Muống stems have been split and curled in acidulated cold water, they’re combined with juicy slices of freshly grilled flank steak, sautéed shallots, fresh tomatoes (when in season), crushed peanuts and the ever-ubiquitous Nước Chấm sauce.

 

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WATER SPINACH SALAD – GỎI RAU MUỐNG

INGREDIENTS: (4 servings)

  • 2.5 lbs. fresh water spinach (rau muống), rinsed and drained
  • 1 small lime or lemon
  • 1 lb. beef flank steak
  • 1 large or (2 medium) shallot
  • 2 Tbl. cilantro (rau ngò) optional
  • 2-3 Tbl. freshly roasted peanuts, crushed
  • sweet-sour dressing – (nước chấm) –
  • shrimp chips (bánh phồng tôm) or Viet sesame rice crackers (bánh tráng mè)

STEPS:

  • Separate the leaves of the water spinach from the stems. Reserve the leaves for stir-frying or making soup.
  • Cut the stems into approx. 3-inch segments. Next, soak them in a bowl of cold water for at least 30 min. This will allow the stems to stiffen, thus making it easier to slice.
  • Meanwhile, grill or pan-fry the flank steak to medium rare (or medium). Allow to cool before cutting into thin strips (cut on the bias). Set aside.
  • Next, slice the shallots and quickly sauté them in a pan with oil. Set aside.
  • Once the water spinach stems have stiffened, carefully use the specific tool (Dao Chẻ Rau Muống) to make the super-thin slices.
  • Soak the sliced stems in a bowl of cold water that has been acidulated with fresh lime or lemon juice for about 10-15 min. They should curl into ringlets.
  • Drain the ringlets and dry with a clean towel or in a salad spinner.
  • To assemble the salad: In a large bowl, toss the water spinach ringlets, beef slices, shallots and cilantro.
  • Just before serving, toss the ingredients with 2-3 Tbl. of Nước Chấm (add more or less depending on your taste). Transfer to a serving plate.
  • Scatter crushed peanuts over the top of the dish.
  • Serve with shrimp chips or sesame rice crackers.

 

CRISPY FRIED SHALLOTS (HÀNH PHI)

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INGREDIENTS: (makes approx. 1 1/2 cups)

  • approx. 10 small/medium shallots
  • 2 cups canola or vegetable oil

STEPS:

  • Thinly slice the shallots and blot them with a paper towel to remove excess moisture.
  • In a small saucepan on med-high heat, warm the oil. Add a small slice of shallot into the oil. If it sizzles immediately, the oil is hot enough. (Make sure to not over-heat the oil to the point where it smokes).
  • Carefully add the shallots to the pan (little by little, rather than all at once).
  • Fry the shallots for about 1-2 minutes. As soon as they get light golden, transfer the fried shallots using a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel. Allow to cool before serving. Seal any leftovers in an airtight container. The fried shallots will stay crisp for about a week.

 

THE USUAL SUSPECTS:

NƯỚC CHẤM + SHRIMP CHIPS + SESAME RICE CRACKERS

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SWEET-SOUR DRESSING – NƯỚC CHẤM

INGREDIENTS: (makes approx. 1.5-2 cups)

  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup fish sauce (nước mắm)
  • 1/2 cup raw sugar
  • 1/3 cup fresh lime juice or 1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
  • 1-2 thai bird chilis, thinly sliced or 1 tsp. chili garlic sauce

STEPS:

  • Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and stir to completely dissolve the sugar.
  • Taste and adjust according to your taste, adding more fish sauce/sugar/lime if necessary.
  • Store in a glass jar or plastic container and refrigerate. The dressing will last at least two weeks.

SESAME RICE CRACKERS – BÁNH TRÁNG MÈ

At Asian grocery stores here in the U.S., Viet Sesame Rice Crackers (Bánh Tráng Mè) are often found alongside similarly-packaged Viet Rice Paper Rolls (Bánh Tráng). In Viet Nam, these round disks are traditionally toasted over a charcoal brazier. Here, you can try toasting them over a gas burner but I’ve found that the microwave also produces good results. To do so, place one disk on the rotating plate of your microwave and cook on high for about 2-3 minutes. Keep an eye on it, making sure it doesn’t burn. Initially translucent, it should turn opaque and puff up considerably. Break into large pieces and serve alongside your Gỏi.

SHRIMP CRACKERS – BÁNH PHỒNG TÔM

These small, flat round disks are traditionally deep-fried. Again, following a tip from my mother, I microwave these. Place several disks on the rotating plate of your microwave and cook on high for about 20 seconds (this may vary a bit). Like the Sesame Rice Crackers, they will puff and curl up considerably. Again, keep an eye on them, as they can burn easily. Serve alongside your Gỏi.

Some final notes:

  • The herbs are more than mere garnishes – they’re an integral part of these dishes. Use them with reckless abandon!
  • Freshly toasted peanuts and sesame seeds make a big difference.
  • Store-bought fried shallots aren’t worth your dollar. They really aren’t.
  • A box-grater, while perfectly acceptable, will produce shreds that lack the sharp, crisp edge that a mandoline will produce.

Bon appétit!

Do You Remember…

 

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It’s hard to imagine now, but several weeks ago in Ann Arbor, temperatures soared above 85F. Pierre and I biked down to Kilwin’s Chocolates in downtown to get some of their delicious Traverse City Cherry ice cream. As we were sitting outside with our ice cream, we caught a glimpse of these children gazing through the parlor window, their eyes fixed on the candy maker behind the glass. It’s rather corny, but I feel slightly wistful and nostalgic looking at that photo. (I am a person prone to reminisce a great deal and flashbacks abound here).

I wish wish wish I could turn back the clock and go to that time when I wasn’t hurrying to finish the next project; when I never looked at the calorie content on a label; when a banana seat bicycle was the BE-ALL, END-ALL; when silly phrases like team building and core values meant nothing; and when happiness meant finding all the secret levels in Super Mario Bros. If I could, I’d go there in a heartbeat.

But for now, I’ll find comfort in a bowl of ice cream. The inspiration for my recipes came from David Lebovitz‘ book, The Perfect Scoop. His helpful instructions, unique and classic flavors and lovely photos are reasons it’s the book I turn to for making ice cream.

 

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Unlike most Americans and Westerners, Vietnamese have always enjoyed Avocado as a sweet, often topped with sugar or condensed milk. So, you can imagine my delight when I found his recipe for Avocado Ice Cream. Did he know how much we Viets adore avocado? Truly, I tell you that this ice cream Rocks the Hizzay! It’s the frosty incarnation of my all-time, favorite shake – Sinh Tố Bơ (Avocado Shake). Creamy, luscious, decadent and capable of removing any desire to dwell on the past.

 

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Now I know you’re looking at the above photo. But before you say Oy Vey, please – indulge me for a moment: I found some tasty durian (Sầu Riêng) at the market and thought it’d be nice to make ice cream with it. Yes, tasty Durian, not Stinks-Like-Sulphuric Acid-Durian or What-the-Hell-is-That-Smell Durian, as my dear husband calls it. Yet, he’s not as charitable as the late R.W. Apple, Jr., who once wrote that durian’s aroma would stun a goat. And one of my Viet friends, who’s dined at some far out street joints in South America and Asia, simply will not tolerate it, as he describes its smell to be something “unholy” and “deeply violating”.

I admit that durian’s pungent aroma may be aggressive for some. However, I need not remind you that there are many delicacies which taste good, despite their initially off-putting aroma – for example: fish sauce, pickled turnip, fermented tofu, Feta, Stilton as well as most French cheeses, while we’re at it. Yeah, but Feta doesn’t smell like death warmed over.

Fine.

Consider this, though: Coming from Viet Nam, I grew up eating some crazy stuff – like fuzzy duck embryo and fresh, congealed goose blood. But the first time I smelled blue cheese, I wanted to gag. Then, after a long, long period of wanting to hate it, and then finally tasting well-made samples of it, the flavor sort of crept up on me. I still don’t like the smell at all but I’ve somehow grown extremely fond of eating it nevertheless.

I think once you try fresh or good-quality frozen durian, you can acquire a taste for durian. You might then find it’s unique, sweet-but-not-too-sweet flavor and creamy, custard-like texture as some of the reasons it’s considered the King of Fruits in Asia. I wholeheartedly love it, so much that I wanted it as the filling for my wedding cake. But alas, I was overruled by the powers that be who cited ventilation issues (puh!); and so, went with strawberries instead. C’est dommage.

 

AVOCADO ICE CREAM – KEM TRAÍ BƠ

adapted from The Perfect Scoop

INGREDIENTS: (makes 1 litre)

  • 3 med. sized ripe Hass Avocados
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tsp. freshly squeezed lime juice
  • small pinch of salt

STEPS:

  • Slice the avocados in half and remove the pits. Scoop out the flesh and with a blender, purée the avocado with the sugar, sour cream, heavy cream, lime juice and salt until smooth and the sugar is dissolved.
  • Freeze immediately in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

 

DURIAN ICE CREAM – KEM SẦU RIÊNG

INGREDIENTS: (makes 1.5 litres)

  • 1 lb. fresh durian flesh
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 2 cups of heavy cream
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • small pinch of salt
  • 5 large egg yolks

STEPS:

  • Begin by making a custard: Heat the sugar, milk, cream and salt in a sauce pan until it just begins to boil. Remove from heat.
  • Place the egg yolks in a mixing bowl. Slowly temper the egg yolks with the heated milk+cream until completely combined.
  • Next, pour the heated egg mixture back into the sauce pan (or a double-boiler) and cook on med. heat until the custard coats the back of a spoon. You now have custard.
  • Strain the custard with a metal sieve (just in case you have any cooked egg bits).
  • Immediately cool the custard over an ice bath.
  • Once the custard has cooled completely, blend the durian with the custard using an immersion blender or in a regular blender.
  • Chill the durian-custard in the refrigerator overnight.
  • Churn or freeze the custard in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Bon appétit!

 

Apple-a-Pickin’

 

ERWIN ORCHARDS, SOUTH LYON, MICHIGAN

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On the last day of their visit here in Michigan, we took my parents to a local orchard run by the Erwin family in South Lyon. Erwin Orchards is a third-generation family farm located about 16 miles north of Ann Arbor with approximately 200 acres of fruit, including apples, raspberries, cherries and pumpkins. We tried some of their fresh-pressed, unpasteurized cider and we could see why it won the award for Best Apple Cider from the Michigan Horticultural Society four years in a row. And, according to their website, they are an environmentally friendly orchard, practicing Integrated Pest Management.

We arrived at the orchard less than two hours before closing time. Our friend John met up with us and we approached the window to purchase our 1/2 bushel bag to pick our own apples. I was looking forward to having my parents ride in the big wagon to the picking site. Sure, you may find it somewhat kitschy, but I think it’s fun nevertheless. Moreover, cider mills, wagons and tractors are not at all mundane to city dwellers like my parents and me.

 

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Alas, at this point in the season, the trees that still had fruit were within walking distance from the entrance; there was no need to take the wagon. Without me asking, an orchard employee, Dave, offered to drive us in the wagon anyway. Before taking us to the apple picking trees, he drove us all around the entire orchard first. It was like a private tour of their scenic orchard! I’m pleased to include his photo above; his gentle smile reminding me of our happy outing.

With Thanksgiving and Christmas soon approaching, there is a plethora of apple pie and apple tart recipes saturating our magazine, book and online media. Don’t you love that word – plethora? If you say it with a lisp, it’s even more fun – plethhhhhora.

Anyhow, it seems most recipes come with lofty guarantees – that it’s the best apple-baked-thing-you’ll-ever-taste; that it has a flaky, buttery crust that is both easy and practically effortless to make (ha!); and that upon eating it, you’ll find you’ve actually gone to pie heaven.

I can’t promise you this recipe for Normandy Apple Tart will result in any sort of earth-shaking, religious experience. But you can bet your Euro that it is delicious in a comforting, warm-blanket-and-toasty fireplace-way with its crumbly pâte sablée crust, topped with a rosy, homemade applesauce and buttery slices of Golden Delicious apples. As a bonus, I added some crème de marrons (chestnut cream) to the applesauce that my good friend Mrs. Ellen G. gifted to me. I’ve had this in my cupboard for a while now and I’m happy to have found a great way to use it. It added a nutty, sweet taste to the slightly tart applesauce.

The recipe I used comes from Dorie Greenspan’s latest book, Baking: From My Home to Yours. In France, these tarts are often made with Reinette or Boskoop apples, to which ground almonds or custard may be added. In her variation, Ms. Greenspan suggests making the tart with common American varieties like Golden Delcious, Cortland or Empire. She also suggests making the pâte sablée in a food processor. I prefer to use my good ol’ pastry cutter to prepare the crust. It takes me just as long to clean the food processor afterwards than to simply use the pastry cutter and blend the dough with my own hands. Do what you prefer.

As for the homemade applesauce, it’s not too much work as long as you have a good food mill. You can toss the cooked, quartered apples into the mill and it will purée the apples, while it also separates the peel and pits. If you don’t use a food mill, you’ll need to peel and core the apples before cooking them down to form an applesauce.

 

NORMANDY APPLE TART – LA TARTE NORMANDE

adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours

 

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FOR THE APPLESAUCE:

INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 lbs. apples (in this case, Red and Golden Delicious)
  • 1/3 cup of water + more, if necessary
  • 1 small lump of rock sugar or 1 tsp. raw sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • crème de marrons

STEPS:

  • Cut and quarter the apples. Place them in a 2-3 qt. heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the water, sugar and salt. Cover with a lid.
  • Cook over med-low heat, stirring from time to time, for approximately 20-25 minutes. Apples should be soft enough to be mashed with a spoon.
  • Pass the apples through the food mill, into a bowl.
  • Add about 2 Tbl. of crème de marrons and stir to combine. Set aside to cool slightly.

 

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FOR THE PÂTE SABLÉE:

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 1/2 cups of all purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 9 Tbl. very cold, (or frozen) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 9-inch tart pan

STEPS:

  • In a mixing bowl (preferably glass, ceramic or metal), thoroughly combine the flour, sugar and salt.
  • Using a pastry cutter, blend the butter pieces with the flour mixture. Blend until you get pea-sized bits.
  • Add the egg yolk and blend with a spoon or your hands until just combined, being careful not to overwork the dough.
  • Reserve a small piece of dough for patching up the tart crust, if needed.
  • Pour the dough onto the tart pan and press the dough into the pan and up the sides. (The crumbly nature of this dough makes it difficult to roll, but you can try if you like).
  • Freeze the crust for at least 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 375F.
  • Butter the shiny side of a piece of aluminum foil and fit the foil, butter side down, tightly against the crust.
  • Place the tart pan on a baking sheet and partially bake the crust (on the center rack) for about 20-25 minutes. Remove the foil and patch the crust with the reserved dough, if necessary.
  • Transfer the tart pan onto a cooling rack.

 

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(AND NOW FINALLY) FOR THE TOPPING:

INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 medium apples (preferably Golden Delicious)
  • homemade applesauce [see above recipe]
  • 1 large egg, beaten with 1/2 tsp. water, for egg wash
  • 1/4 cup of apple jelly + 1 tsp. water, for the glaze (optional)

STEPS:

  • Preheat the oven to 375F.
  • Peel the apples. Quarter them and remove the cores.
  • Cut thin slices from each of the quarters (about 7 slices).
  • Next, top the cooled tart crust with the applesauce and spread out in an even layer.
  • Top the applesauce with the apple slices – you can use whatever configuration fancies you. Perhaps a rosette pattern?
  • Brush the apples with the egg wash and bake for approx. 45-50 minutes. The apples should be golden, their edges slightly browned and soft enough to be pierced easily with a tip of a knife.
  • Transfer to a cooling rack.
  • Heat the apple jelly and water in a small sauce pan until liquefied. Using a pastry brush, brush the top of the tart with the glaze.
  • Serve the tart warm or at room temperature.

 

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Bon appétit!

 

Miến Xào Cua – Vietnamese Glass Noodle Stir-fry with Crab

 

My folks visited us for the first time since Pierre and I married and we moved into our new place. It was also their first visit to Ann Arbor and they were treated to some unusually warm weather and lovely fall colors.

 

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At home, my mom’s kitchen is her domain (she’s a fabulous cook with Martin Yan-like dexterity and knife skills). Thus, the prospect of me (the slowest, Asian food chopper ever) preparing and cooking food for us all was daunting, if not slightly amusing.

 

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I managed to get by fairly well, if I don’t say so myself. So I don’t have fastah-fingahs. But I can make a mean stir-fry when I want. (Pun is absolutely intended). Miến Xào Cua is a light, delicious dish that I enjoy having for lunch or as part of a dinner meal. You can purchase good-quality lump crab meat or steam a fresh crab as we did, and pick apart the meat.

I used baby leeks instead of shallots or green onions this time as I love the color and subtle onion flavor they lend to the dish.

MIẾN XÀO CUA

INGREDIENTS: (2-4 servings)

  • 2 bundles of miến (glass noodles), soaked in lukewarm water for about 20 minutes
  • 1 cup of black “wood-ear” mushrooms, soaked in lukewarm water for about 30 minutes, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup of baby leeks, thoroughly cleaned and thinly sliced on the bias (discard the tough green tops, or save it for use in making stock)
  • 1 cup of chopped red bell pepper
  • meat from 1 whole, steamed crab (approx. 1 cup)
  • crab tomalley
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 Tbl. fish sauce + more to taste
  • fresh ground pepper
  • oil, for cooking

STEPS:

  • In a colander or sieve, drain the glass noodles, set aside.
  • In a small bowl, combine the egg, tomalley and fish sauce, set aside.
  • In a wok or deep skillet heated to med-high, add about 1-2 Tbl. of oil.
  • Stir in the leeks and cook until slightly translucent, approx.2-3 minutes
  • Next, add the red bell pepper and mushrooms and stir-fry for about 1-2 minutes
  • Now, add the glass noodles and stir-fry 1-2 minutes. The noodles should be translucent.
  • Pour the egg + tomalley mixture over the noodles and quickly stir fry until the eggs are cooked, between 2-4 minutes.
  • Gently fold the crab meat into the noodles and combine.
  • Serve warm.

Bon appétit!

 

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