Friday, January 27, 2012

Week Three: A Journey to Vietnam

This week’s journey took me to Vietnam.  Whereas Portuguese and South African cuisines offered a completely new food experience, Vietnamese cuisine presents familiar dishes that I recognize and admire.  I brought expectations to this journey.  I understand that the primary flavor profiles include lemongrass, ginger, chiles, cilantro, mint, and Thai Basil.  I know that beef, chicken, pork, and fish are commonly used as proteins.  I recognize the influences of the French and Chinese on the cuisine.  For that matter, I am so comfortable with it that I know exactly how much sriracha sauce I like in my weekly lunch bowl of pho at Little Saigon, and I can recite my usual order at Miami’s Hy Vong sans menu. (We’ll start with the Spring Rolls and Pork Rolling Cakes.  Then, we’ll each have an order of the pumpkin soup.  For our entrees, we’ll have the Beef with Fresh Rice Noodles and Fresh Fish with Mango.)  I delved into my research and discovered so much more.

In my discovery, I learned about the application of the Yin and Yang principle to cuisine in Vietnam, as well as the importance of the five senses related to a dish.  In essence, the Yin and Yang principles apply to finding balance in several ways:
§  Balance within a dish:  Fish, characterized as cold, is paired with hot elements like chiles.
§  Balance within the human body:  Someone with a cold is advised to eat foods with ginger because of its warm characteristic.
§  Balance with the environment:  In the cold of Winter, Vietnamese eat meat and spicy condiments.

Regarding the expression of the five senses, a well-balanced Vietnamese dish appeals to smell, sight, taste, hearing, and touch.  Consider the experience of pho.
§  Sight:  The colorful plate of herbs that accompanies the dish.
§  Touch:  Crushing fresh herbs before mixing them into the broth for flavoring.
§  Smell:  The fresh aromas of cilantro, thai basil, and chiles when they are stirred into the warm broth.
§  Taste:  The experience of creating personalized flavors by adding herbs and chile sauces to the broth to appeal to one’s personal taste.
§  Hearing:  The crunch of bean sprouts, the clink of chopsticks, and the soupy slurps of noodles in broth.
Without a doubt, the above examples are extremely simplified.  The principles are much more complex than what I can summarize in a short paragraph.  Arte Culinare provides an in-depth description if you are interested in learning more. 

As I considered this week’s Vietnamese menu, I encountered only one issue….editing.  I wanted to make everything!  When I began this project, the only rule that I gave myself for choosing menu items is that I can only make dishes that I’ve never attempted to cook previously.  So, that meant spring rolls with spiced-up fish sauce would not be allowed as I have made many versions of them.  I couldn’t decide if it would be more enlightening to make dishes I had never tried or to make dishes that I love to order in restaurants to better understand the skills and craft involved.  So, I decided to do both, and instead of creating one large menu, I decided on three smaller menus to explore throughout the week. 

Menu #1:  Fish Fillets Poached in Caramel Sauce, Stir-Fried Snow Peas and Rice

In his Best Recipes in the World, Mark Bittman notes his love for the Vietnamese technique of using caramelized sugar as the basis for a savory sauce served with beef, chicken thighs, pork steaks, fish and shrimp.  His book includes a recipe for Fish Fillets Poached in Caramel Sauce.  As a big fan of “sweet & salty” combinations, I eagerly added this dish to my Monday night dinner plans.  I thought it would be an easy weeknight dinner if I served it with stir-fried vegetables seasoned with fish sauce and sesame oil.  In all honesty, it would have been an easy weeknight dinner if I hadn’t burned the first batch of caramel sauce.  (That really wasn’t a surprise though.  Every Christmas I manage to burn my first batch of caramels.  I keep waiting and waiting for the deep rich color, and suddenly golden brown turns to dark brown smelly burnt caramel.)  All of that aside, the dish was incredible!  The combination of the sweet caramel infused with pungent fish sauce achieved a perfect balance of flavors.  I stir-fried snow peas, shredded carrots, and black sesame seeds with rice to serve with it.  I will definitely make this again!

Menu #2a:  Vietnamese Iced Coffee for Breakfast

In the spirit of the week’s project, I made Vietnamese Iced Coffees to go.  Just a little sweetened condensed milk and some strong espresso.  Made a nice morning beach treat!

Menu #2b:  Sauteed Beef with Fresh Rice Noodles, Spicy Eggplant, and “33” Export
One of my favorite Hy Vong dishes is Beef with Fresh Rice Noodles.  I decided to attempt a duplication.  I must say, I was quite impressed with myself for figuring this one out.  I bought the noodles at Vinh an Oriental Market.  I found several different recipes for Grilled Lemongrass Beef, which I used to develop a marinade for my thinly sliced sirloin:  2 garlic cloves, 2 stalks lemongrass crushed/minced, 2 large shallots minced, 2 tsp minced fresh ginger, 2 serrano chiles (stemmed, seeded, and chopped), 2 tbsp sugar, 1 tsp black pepper, ½ tsp salt, ¼ cup fish sauce, 2 tbsp sesame oil, 2 tbsp fresh lime juice, 1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds.  I marinated the beef for two hours in the refrigerator. 

To assemble the dish,
§  I sautéed the beef in a hot skillet for just a few minutes and transferred it to a plate.  I purposely left more marinade on the beef than I normally would so I had residual sauce in the pan for the noodles to soak up later.
§  I dunked the noodles in boiling water for about 10 seconds, rinsed them in cold water, and put them in the skillet with the leftover beef marinade/sauce to warm them up and add some flavor.
§  I placed the noodles on a platter, covered them with the sautéed beef, and sprinkled fried shallots, chopped peanuts, and fresh mint over the top.

I must say it was pretty close to Hy Vong…85% as good.  The only real difference was my noodles.  I think their noodles are “fresher” than mine, but all in all, I was pleased with this dish.

I attempt to include at least one vegetable dish in each week’s menus.  Eggplant is a commonly used vegetable in Vietnam, so when I found nice Japanese eggplant at the Asian market, I decided that would be the vegetable dish for the week.  At a website called Food of Vietnam, hundreds of recipes for Vietnamese cuisine are posted in English and Vietnamese.  There is a list of traditional recipes and a grouping designated as Some dishes are for the acquired taste.  With that grouping, they include Eggplant in Spicy Sauce, so I decided to try it out and see if I had the acquired taste necessary to appreciate it.  The recipe is simple. 
§  Fry sliced eggplant until half-cooked. 
§  Crush red chiles, green chiles, and onions. 
§  Fry the chile paste in a skillet. 
§  Add salt and fresh lime juice to the chile paste to make a sauce.
§  Toss the sauce with the eggplant and serve.
The eggplant was delicious.  It had a nice balance of flavors between the sweet eggplant, spicy chiles, and sour lime juice.  I’m not sure why it would be classified as a dish for acquired tastes.  There wasn’t anything unusual about it, but we did enjoy it.

I picked up some “33” Export beer because it was the only Vietnamese beer I could find quickly.  It was okay.  Not the best beer I’ve ever had, but certainly refreshing enough with the complex, rich flavors of the beef and the spiciness of the eggplant.

Menu #3:  Banh Cuon, Pho Bo, Cassava Cake
I invited Sweet Pea Ellman, one of our best friends, to dinner for our third menu, because I know how much she loves Vietnamese cuisine.  She was actually the first person to take us to Hy Vong.  I ambitiously decided to make pork rolling cakes as a first course for that Sunday night dinner.  Then, I planned to serve a rich beef pho and cassava cake for dessert.

Banh Cuon (pork rolling cakes) is one of our favorite appetizers at Hy Vong.  It isn’t always on the menu, and there have been several occasions that we’ve asked about its availability only to hear that Tung didn’t have time to make it that afternoon.  Now, I know why.  It’s a bitch!

After reading several different recipes online, I opted to try out Food & Wine’s “tested and perfected” Banh Cuon.  I started with the filling.  It was easy enough... ground pork, onion, re-hydrated tree ear mushrooms, and fish sauce in a skillet.  The most complicated part of the filling was trying to figure out which bag of “Dried Fungus” at the market was actually a tree ear mushroom.  I’m still not sure I bought the right one. 

The challenging part was making the rice flour crepes.  The recipe stated that it would make 18 crepes.  I assumed that there would be a learning curve for me in the actual technique of cooking the crepes, so I made the full recipe for crepe batter in hopes of making 9 acceptable crepes.  Nothing worked.  No matter what I tried, the final result was a gelatinous glob of rice flour batter.  I tried more batter, less batter, more time covered, less time covered, larger skillets, smaller skillets…nothing worked.  I wondered who had "tested and perfected" this recipe.  Not wanting to be completely defeated, I went to the grocery store, bought some wonton wrappers, and made steamed dumplings with the filling.  I sprinkled them with chopped peanuts and fried shallots.  The end result was not exactly a pork rolling cake, but at least we could enjoy the flavor of the filling in a somewhat similar manner…and they were good!

Maybe it’s because Pho is the first Vietnamese dish I ever tried, but I think of it as the quintessential Vietnamese meal.  My friend Jeff Skipper took me to Pho Que Huong in Birmingham, Alabama, for lunch one day, and I was hooked.  The idea of building my own flavors with the herbs and chile sauces was thrilling.  I loved it!  I know it’s actually a breakfast dish, but in the US, we more often have it for lunch.  Indeed, it isn’t normally considered a dinner entrée, but when I read Mark Bittman’s recipe for Pho Bo, I saw dinner potential. 

The broth cooks for almost four hours infused with beef bones, star anise, cloves, cinnamon stick, onion, ginger, garlic, and boneless chuck.  That direction alone promised a richer, more complex pho than I had experienced.  I had never tasted a pho with such a rich beef stock or with the addition of shredded chuck.  Days after this dinner, my husband and I are still talking about how much flavor was packed into that simple dish.  This one is a winner, and it was worth a full afternoon of simmering over a burner.

Last, but not least, another foray into the world of international desserts.  I poured over lists of desserts and didn’t see anything that really interested me until I read about Cassava Cake.  Part of the reason for my intrigue with this dish is because I closely associate cassava with South American and Caribbean cuisines, not Asian.  It makes sense that they are found in Southern Vietnam.  I also read several different blog posts written by native Vietnamese who wrote about their love of this dish and how it was something special a mother or grandmother would be known for making.  I used a combination of three different recipes I found across the internet. 

My cake included 1 ½ cups shredded cassava, 3 eggs, 1 cup sugar, 1 can coconut milk, 1 tbsp lemon peel, and 2 tbsp rum.  I baked it for 45 minutes in a 375 degree oven.  The cake was moist and somewhat flavorful, but it didn’t have that spark that makes you want to keep going back for another bite.  Maybe I should have used more lemon peel to pep it up.  One recipe called for 4 tbsp, but all of the others called for 1 tbsp, and I opted with the majority.   And so I find myself reporting that I made yet another excellently average dessert. 

This week was one of my most ambitious and rewarding.  I learned so much, and I will definitely be having more Vietnamese dinners at home in the future.

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