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Archive for the ‘Savory’ Category

On the Connecticut River canoeing

Before I moved to the East Coast and actually lived a summer here, I’d never really known about what a “real” summer was like. Back in San Francisco, the land of everyday fog and households ignorant of the need of air conditioners (if you lived in 50-60 degree Fahrenheit weather year-round, would you need central AC?), I lived in complete ignorance of what it is like to change living habits based on the seasons. We never limited ourselves to cooking stews and braises for the winter or making lemonade and sorbets in the summer. We could do whatever we wanted year round, and our kitchen would be at about the same temperature. Cooking was cooking.

Well, I’m no longer in San Francisco now. In my apartment in New York, in which I have lived for over a year, which I will also tell you until yesterday had no AC (my landlord likes me now, so he is loaning me one for the duration of my stay here), if you want to bake blueberry muffins or even do the simplest saute, it will feel as though you are baking yourself. You will just want to throw yourself into the freezer and stay there – forever. I know this because this is how I have felt the few times I have tried to cook this summer. There you have it — my long-winded reason for not updating my blog since June.

Brattleboro Farmers Market fresh produce

Blueberry and I have actually been spending quite a bit of time eating out this summer, partly because of the blistering summer heat, which has just very recently gotten much worse, and partly because we are just out and about in New York and New England and want to try restaurants and check out areas we haven’t yet been to. Last weekend, we wanted to get away and took a day trip to the area around Brattleboro, Vermont. A month ago, a very generous coworker brought me back the most amazing Grade A Dark Amber Vermont maple syrup, and as soon as I’d had a taste on my blueberry pancakes, I knew we had to go to this wondrous maple land that is two hours outside of Boston.

The first stop that we made was at the Brattleboro Farmers Market. It’s considered one of Southern Vermont’s premier farmers markets and has over 50 vendors with everything from Vermont artisanal arts and crafts to local produce and prepared foods from a variety of cultures. The first thing that caught my eye there was this cute Thai food truck run by Anon’s Thai Food:

Anon's Thai Food truck, Brattleboro Farmers Market

This farmers market was probably the nicest farmers market I’ve ever been to — it was bustling with lots of people, and the variety of produce, flowers, food, and items being sold was amazing. The stands themselves looked so rustic, all made of these wooden branches that had little roofs. While I love the New York City Greenmarket and all, it really can’t hold a candle to the depth and breadth of this Vermont farmers market. The vendors themselves were incredibly friendly, too, and more than willing to elaborate on their products and their businesses as a whole, which is not always the case at the Greenmarket back home, unfortunately.

Brattleboro farmers market stands

We picked out some really unique fruit wines from an artisanal winery stand – the Putney Mountain Winery from Putney, VT. One was a sparkling apple wine with a very bright effervescence and a slightly bitter aftertaste. This was definitely a different taste than what I am used to with apple cider-type drinks; the aftertaste was really unique. The other bottle we got was the Vermont Cassis, which is a sweet and tart dessert wine made with local black currants. The woman at the booth who gave us free tastings of all her wines told us that it would be a great topping for ice cream and would last quite a while on the shelf after opening, which was a new idea to us since most wines we have had have lasted only a few days max.

Putney Mountain Winery at the Brattleboro Farmers Market, VT

We also found a prepared food stand that was selling Malian dishes. We had never had Malian food, so we got a combination plate with peanut butter chicken, beef and spinach stew, rice, and a special Malian hot sauce that was hotter than hot. Blueberry, who usually loves heat in his food, tortured himself eating more and more of this fiery sauce. The small reddish-green pile at the bottom right corner is the Hot Sauce of Death. Here’s our plate of Malian food:

our combo Malian plate at the Farmers Market

We also had a cup of hibiscus juice here. It was really refreshing; sweetened with a bit of sugar, it was ideal for a hot summer’s day. The juice had a hint of floral flavor from the hibiscus and seemed to taste more like a sweetened floral tea than an actual juice.

Malian food booth at the Brattleboro Farmers Market

From The Sun-Dried Tomato Mediterranean stand, we got a spinach-mozzarella roll-up and a piece of homemade baklava. Our baklava was incredibly sweet, nutty, and satisfying. Look at all those layers:

freshly made baklava at the farmers market

After the Brattleboro Farmers Market, our next stop was at the Robb Family Farm. The Robb Family Farm is a family-owned farm/business that has been around since 1907. Their farm is about 470 acres right outside of Brattleboro, and they own over 100 cows, half of whose lives are devoted to producing milk and cheese wholesale and for regional companies such as Hood and Cabot Cheese. They also have a big family of maple trees for genuine Vermont maple syrup. Depending on what time of the year you come, you can also schedule tours, hay rides, sleigh rides, and see maple syrup being extracted and produced. They also produce a small amount of raw milk that you can pick up if you are lucky enough to get there early in the mornings. Unfortunately we didn’t get there until early afternoon, so we missed our chance to taste raw milk. I’ve always wanted to drink raw milk, but with all these tough restrictions in the U.S., it’s hard to find it in regular markets near me.

Robb Family Farm barn

However, we were able to go into the barn and see the cows. Here are two of the little calves we saw. These girls are young and feisty, especially the one on the right, which had a slight obsession with licking my arm all over:

Little Cows at the Robb Family Farm

I always romanticize, like a lot of city people do, about how sweet and idyllic it could be if I just lived out in the countryside, owned a farm, and produced all my own food instead of being so far removed from the food production process in a great big metropolis like New York City or San Francisco. Being out there on the farm and seeing all the cows was fun, but I think after a while I could tire of it, especially from the cow dung smell, honestly. 🙂

Milking cow in heat

We left the farm with a large 16 oz. container of Grade A Dark Amber maple syrup from their farm. Since we got it in a metal container, we’re planning to get some mason jars to store the syrup longer, since maple syrup tends to have a longer life in the fridge if you store it in glass.

Afterwards, we stopped by an organic farm called the Lilac Ridge farm and passed by a cute sign that they had up:

Lilac Ridge Farm sign - what you missed

Another place that was on our itinerary was the Grafton Village Cheese Company. While we were excited to taste different cheeses, we were a little disappointed that the cheese company seemed to be more commercial than we had originally hoped. And while the Vermont-made cheddar cheeses were tasty, none of them were so exceptional that we thought we needed to buy them while we were there. We actually thought that our local markets made cheddar cheeses that were just as good, if not better. Sadly, the one cheese we tried that blew us a way — a really nutty, subtly sweet Gruyere — was actually an import from Switzerland. So much for trying to support local, independent businesses.

Grafton Cheese Company

We ended our day in Vermont with canoeing on the Connecticut river and having dinner at a nice Italian restaurant called Fireworks in downtown Brattleboro. It seemed to be a somewhat new restaurant, what they called a “work in progress.” They try to use organic produce whenever possible, use free-range chicken, and cook with cured meats made only by local producers. It was a fun, relaxing day, and we definitely plan to come back to Vermont for autumn hiking when the leaves are changing color and in the early spring when maple syrup is being extracted and processed. For foodies who are interested in learning more about how different foods are produced, especially maple syrup and Vermont cheese, Vermont is definitely a must-see with the added bonus of having beautiful scenery. New England has so many hidden gems; it makes me happy and grateful to be able to live near an area as beautiful as this.

Lilac Ridge Farm organic produce and fields

tomato egg drop soup

One of the fondest childhood food memories I have is eating stir-fried tomato and egg made by my grandma. It’s one of the Chinese comfort food staples that is often made at home, particularly when time is not plentiful and stomachs are growling for food as soon as possible. It’s simple, fast, and light, and assuming you use fresh, fragrant, bright red tomatoes, the pure flavors of the tomatoes and eggs really shine through with just the right amount of seasonings.

ground turkey (substitute)

Although I have always loved stir-fried tomato and egg, once my grandma died when I was about nine years old, I suddenly forgot that I ever ate it. After her passing, no one ever made it for me again, and it was as though the dish had died with her. It seemed like life had always been this way — empty and without one of my favorite foods, my beloved fan qie chao dan (番茄炒蛋).

Then I went to China 11 years later, and it was appearing at restaurant tables everywhere I ate. And as soon as I saw it, it was as though a light bulb had popped into my head, blinking and screaming, “you used to eat this, remember? How the heck did you forget?” One bite (and then a hundred later), and I had fallen in love all over again with the simplicity and purity of the dish. I was home again with my grandma.

Cooking the onions first

Comfort foods like tomato and egg often have different variations within the culture and in surrounding regions, and one that I have recently found and enjoyed has been Andrea Nguyen’s tomato egg drop soup. In Into The Vietnamese Kitchen, Nguyen discusses the origins and influences of many Vietnamese dishes, and it’s no doubt that many Vietnamese traditions and foods have strong Chinese influences.

The ingredients for the recipe are incredibly simple, little more than tomatoes, eggs, onions, and of course, a key Vietnamese ingredient that makes this soup Vietnamese, fish sauce. My favorite brand of Vietnamese fish sauce is this Three Crabs brand. Apparently the employees (who are not Vietnamese) at Hong Kong Supermarket near my apartment even know about this stuff; as I picked up a bottle of it in one of the aisles, one of the Chinese guys goes nuts and starts raving and raving about it in Chinese and how it’s the best of the best! I knew that already, though.

Three Crabs brand fish sauce

Use the freshest, reddest, most fragrant tomatoes you can find. If it smells like a tomato, then it will taste like a tomato. I’ve really been upset at the tomato industry for producing such tasteless “tomatoes” and almost gave up until my roommate Kumquat came home with some red beauties from Trader Joe’s. Thanks to her, I’m currently in love with these TJ’s baby Roma tomatoes. They are small, cute, and blazing red. The last two times I’ve made a trip there, I’ve left with at least three to four boxes of these babies. What can I say — I’m a fan.

TJ's baby roma tomatoes - the best!

Lastly, if you don’t have ground pork on hand (and I usually don’t), ground turkey makes a fine substitute. This soup really embodies the pure flavors of the egg and tomato. Adding the egg at the end lends the soup a really satisfying richness, as does the ground pork. It’s a healthy and refreshing first course to a multi-course Vietnamese dinner.

Stewing the tomatoes and onions

Tomato Egg Drop Soup / Canh cà chua trứng
Adapted from Andrea Nguyen’s Into the Vietnamese Kitchen
Serves 4 to 6 with 2 or 3 other dishes

•    1 1/2 tablespoons canola oil
•    1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced
•    3/4 pound very ripe tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped
•    3/4 teaspoon salt
•    1/3 pound ground pork coarsely chopped to loosen
•    4 cups water
•    2 eggs, beaten
•    5-6 springs cilantro, coarsely chopped for garnish (optional)
•    Black or white pepper

In a 4-quart saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook gently, stirring occasionally, for about four minutes, or until fragrant and soft. Add the tomatoes and salt, cover, and cook for 4 to 6 minutes, or until the tomatoes have collapsed into a thick mixture. Stir occasionally and, if necessary, lower the heat to prevent the tomatoes from sticking or scorching.

Uncover and add the fish sauce and pork. Wield chopsticks or use a spoon to move the pork around the pan so that it breaks up into small pieces. This will make it possible to distribute the pork evenly among the bowls when serving. Add the water, raise the heat to high, and bring to a boil, using a ladle to skim and discard any scum that rises to the surface. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the flavors have developed and concentrated sufficiently to produce a rich broth. If you are not serving the soup right away, turn off the heat and cover.

Just before serving, return the soup to a simmer. Taste and add extra salt or fish sauce, if necessary. Turn off the heat. Pour the beaten egg onto the soup in a wide circle, and then stir gently to break it up into chiffon-like pieces. Ladle the soup into a serving bowl. Garnish with the cilantro and a generous sprinkle of pepper and serve immediately.

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Since the first morning I spent wandering around the streets of Shanghai three years ago, I’ve had a mild obsession with street food. It was my first time outside of the U.S., and really my first time ever seeing food prepared on the street — if you don’t count the pretzel and roasted nuts trucks in some areas of Los Angeles.

Despite all the warnings I had from teachers at the local university to my Lonely Planet guide about staying away from street food, it was hard to ignore the sizzling sounds of a batter being spread over flat griddles to make an eggy crepe (dan bing 蛋餅), or the sight of fresh soybeans being pressed to yield hot soybean milk, all coming from these tiny stalls densely lining the bustling streets of one of the most chaotic metropolitan areas in the world.

The Bund/Wai Tan, Shanghai, China

Being cognizant of American snobbery surrounding eating food in foreign lands, I tried my best to eat the same way locals ate, whether that meant eating food out of street stalls or going into tiny and dingy mom-and-pop type shops that were recommended to me by native Chinese friends I had made. It was exhilarating to see all the energy along the streets with people shouting their orders and street vendors quickly stir-frying these noodles or mixing up those sauces. In less than five minutes, a plate of yum could be ready for you to carry and take off wherever you’d like.

Although my experience in China was only in Shanghai and surrounding areas, being there helped me learn more about Chinese culture in general, as well as the prominence of street food in China. Many of the comfort foods that Chinese people who leave China crave and miss are ones that are prepared on the street. These treats, also known in Mandarin Chinese as xiao chi (小吃) or “little eats,” are generally made by vendors who each create a specialized snack, from spicy cold noodles to steamed dumplings to pudding-like bean curd (dou hua 豆花). In the past, street vendors would travel all over the cities or towns where they lived in China to get as much business as possible; it’s been said that in the early twentieth century, street vendors lived or died by the quantity of their food sold, so they consumed themselves with creating unique dishes that would keep people coming back.

Fresh mung bean sprouts

Fuchsia Dunlop, an East Asia Specialist at the BBC World Service, was the first non-Chinese educated at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu, China. After her culinary education in Sichuan, in 2001 she published a cookbook called Land of Plenty, the first-ever Chinese cookbook written by a Western author in English specifically on Sichuanese cuisine. Land of Plenty devotes an entire section to little eats, consisting of many noodle dishes, dumplings, sweets, and other dishes that can be seen being prepared on streets in Chengdu today.

Sauce ingredients

One of the street foods in the book that has most recently been prepared in my kitchen is the spicy cold noodles with chicken slivers. It’s a xiao chi that is distinctively Sichuanese. Thick, cold noodles are served with blanched bean sprouts, cooked chicken slices, and a complex, mouth-tingling sauce that is all at once sweet, salty, sour, hot, and numbing.

Spicy numbing sauce for noodles

The “numbing” sensation comes from the Sichuan pepper, or in Chinese, hua jiao 花椒,  which literally translated means “flower pepper.” It’s probably the most important and dominant condiment/spice in Sichuanese cooking. Before being roasted and ground, the Sichuan peppercorns look like this:

Whole Sichuan peppercorns - hua jiao

Once roasted whole, they are then ground finely and added to hot dishes, cold dishes, sauces, and dressings. Sichuan pepper’s strong scent is unmistakable — flowery and spicy at the same time. It adds a distinct taste to Sichuanese dishes and never fails to make your lips tingle after eating it. This is what the pepper looks like after being grounded:

Ground Sichuan pepper

In Chinese supermarkets, Sichuan peppercorns are often not labeled in English, so be sure to look out for these Chinese characters: 花椒.  One problem I’ve had with the peppercorns is that the twigs and leaves of the plant are often still attached to the peppercorns in the packages, so when taking them out to roast and grind, carefully sort through the peppercorns and remove the excess beforehand.

Putting lunch together

This dish makes a satisfying lunch for 2-3, or if you have a full pound of noodles, you could easily double the sauce ingredients and add more chicken if you’d like for a bigger crowd. In case you like heat but not too much of it, try to add about 1 1/2 tablespoons of the chili oil to the sauce to start, and increase it if you’d like more of a kick. The list of ingredients for the sauce seems long, but all of the ingredients are extremely versatile and can be used in any type of Asian cooking. So don’t be afraid to buy them, as you will use them over and over again.

Cold noodles mixed with sauce and chicken

Spicy Cold Noodles with Chicken Slivers
ji si liang mian 雞絲涼麵

Adapted from Fuchsia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty
Serves 2-3 as a main lunch dish

Noodles

  • About 1/2 pound fresh Shanghai-style wheat noodles (slightly thicker than spaghetti)
  • 1 tablespoon peanut or canola oil
  • 5 ounces bean sprouts
  • 1 cooked chicken breast, 2 chicken thighs, or some leftover chicken meat
  • 4 scallions thinly sliced, green parts only

Sauce/Seasonings

  • 2 tablespoons sesame paste, thinned with about 1 tablespoon water
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
  • 1/2 tablespoon light soy sauce
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons Chinkiang or black Chinese vinegar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed and minced
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground roasted Sichuan pepper 花椒
  • 2-3 tablespoons chili oil with chili flakes
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons sesame oil

Cook the noodles in a medium sized pot of boiling water until they are just al dente; take care not to overcook them. Rinse them with hot water from the kettle, then shake them in a colander and quickly spread them out to dry. Sprinkle over the oil and mix it in with chopsticks to prevent the noodles from sticking together.

Blanch the bean sprouts for a few seconds in boiling water, then refresh in cold water. Drain well. Squash the chicken breast or leftover chicken pieces slightly to loosen fibers, and tear or cut into slivers about 1/4-inch thick.

When the noodles and bean sprouts are completely cold, lay the bean sprouts in the bottom of your serving bowl or bowls. Add the noodles.

To serve, either combine all the sauce ingredients in a bowl and pour the mixture over the noodles, or just scatter them over one by one. Top the dish with a small pile of chicken slivers and a scattering of scallions. Allow your guests to toss everything together at the table.

homemade banh xeo with garnishing

One of the nice things about being bi-ethnic is the exposure I’ve had to two unique cultures growing up. My dad’s side is Toisan (台山) Chinese, while my mom’s side is Vietnamese. But since almost everyone on my mom’s side of the family is still in Vietnam until this day, growing up in the Bay Area I have had more exposure to my Chinese roots rather than to my Vietnamese ones.

I didn’t really start learning more about Vietnamese culture until the second half of high school, and then my desire to learn more grew in college when I got involved with my school’s Vietnamese Student Association. I made Vietnamese friends, and through them I learned more about my culture and in the end, myself.

Village in Binh Dinh province, Vietnam

Then in January of last year, I went back to the Motherland; it was my first time in Vietnam. It was slightly disorienting, knowing that halfway around the world I have a hundred relatives who all know who I am, what I look like (their homes have albums with pictures of me at various ages that my mom sent), and what I am doing with my life. I couldn’t communicate with them, as I hadn’t learned any Vietnamese growing up, and I barely knew anything about my relatives there. They all felt like strangers to me, and I constantly questioned how much I really belonged there. Few things felt familiar to me.

You can feel like you belong in a place in different ways. You might physically blend in, or you could speak the native language of that particular country.

…Or you could just eat everything there and feel like gastronomically, your life is complete — which is sort of how I felt while I was in Vietnam.

One day, I was walking along a street in Quy Nhon, a coastal city in Binh Dinh province in Central Vietnam, and I came across this street vendor preparing something familiar to me:

home style banh xeo on the street in Quy Nhon, Vietnam

It was a type of home-style bánh xèo, a Vietnamese sizzling crepe.. Literally translated, bánh xèo means “sizzling crepe,” as “xèo” is like the “ssssee-oh!” sizzling sound heard when the crepe batter hits the hot frying pan. The crepe is typically made from a batter consisting of ground rice, mung beans, pork, and shrimp, and then filled with fresh mung bean sprouts to be served with fresh vegetables and herbs, rolled in bánh tráng (edible rice paper), and then dipped in nước mắm (Vietnamese fish sauce).

homestyle banh xeo in Quy Nhon, Vietnam

The picture above shows the home-style bánh xèo that the street vendor we befriended had made (which we happily bought and devoured). It reminded me of another type of bánh xèo that I have always loved, one that is most typically found in the southern region of Vietnam. They look like this:

Banh Xeo aka Saigon Crepes

Yellow from the turmeric and mung beans, fragrant from the shrimp, pork shoulder, and coconut milk, and stuffed with fresh mung bean sprouts, these sizzling babies are crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. Bánh xèo is considered one of Southern Vietnam’s most famous dishes, and as a result, if you see this on a menu at a Vietnamese restaurant in the U.S., it will typically be called “Saigon Pancake” or “Saigon Crepe.” At other places, I’ve seen it on the menu as a “Vietnamese moon pancake/crepe” due to the crepe being folded over and resembling a half moon.

Banh Xeo batter

The problem with most Vietnamese restaurants in the U.S. is that they usually use a pre-made mix for the batter, and because of this, the texture of the bánh xèo is always flagrantly off. It ends up being soft and soggy; no bánh xèo should ever be associated with either of those two adjectives. Not to mention that the crepe is usually served by itself without the traditional bánh tráng or at least with large lettuce leaves to wrap the crepes in.

Frying up a banh xeo

The only way to get around this was for me to make it myself. And luckily for me, I had done a lot of digging on Vietnamese cooking and came across Andrea Nguyen’s Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, which probably has some of the most authentic Vietnamese recipes I’ve seen in English. As an added bonus, her bánh xèo recipe was thoroughly researched during her trips to Vietnam, and she was able to replicate the crispy, chewy pancakes in her home kitchen after multiple trials, and then bestow it upon all of us in the States who love these crepes so much but are not literate in Vietnamese. I was in heaven.

Flipping the banh xeo over

You will look at the below recipe(s) and think that this will be a time-consuming endeavor. Well, I’m not going to lie to you: it’s going to take a lot of prep work and a lot of patience with the soaking and the cutting and the washing, but in the end, it will be worth it. Gather up eight or nine of your closest friends or family who you know will appreciate homemade Vietnamese food, and have them sit around the table to enjoy this meal with you. Better yet, get them all to pitch in and help cook the meal, as you will see below that there are quite a number of steps to the final product.

But once that sizzling sound is heard and the first few pieces of the crepes are torn off and eaten, they won’t regret helping out one bit. Bánh xèo doesn’t get any better than this.

Banh xeo wrapped with veggies and banh trang

Bánh Xèo (sizzling crepes)
Adapted from Andrea Nguyen’s Into the Vietnamese Kitchen
8-10 Servings

Nước Mắm – Vietnamese Fish Sauce (for dipping)

•    1/4 cup lime juice
•    2 tablespoons rice vinegar
•    2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
•    1 clove garlic, finely chopped and mashed
•    1 cup boiling water
•    5-8 tablespoons fish sauce
•    1 to 2 Thai bird, dragon or seeded Serrano chilies, thinly sliced

Place the lime juice, rice vinegar, sugar and garlic in a bowl; stir to combine. Add the fish sauce, starting with 5 tablespoons. Then add about 1 cup boiling water. Taste and adjust the flavors. Aim for a balance of tart, sweet and salty. The color of the liquid should be a deep amber.  Add chilies and allow sauce to cool. Serve the sauce chilled. Yields about 1 1/2 cups.

Batter
Yields 3 cups of batter (enough for about 8 crepes).

•    1 cup long-grain or jasmine rice
•    2 tablespoons cooked rice, firmly packed
•    1 tablespoon steamed, ground mung beans, firmly packed
•    1/2 teaspoon salt
•    1/2 teaspoon turmeric
•    1/4 cup coconut milk
•    1 3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons water
•    1 green onion, sliced into thin rings (1/4 cup)

Place the raw rice in a bowl and add enough water to cover by 1 inch. Let soak for 3 to 4 hours. Drain.

Place the soaked rice in a blender with the cooked rice, mung beans, salt, turmeric, coconut milk and water. Blend until very smooth and lemony yellow, about 3 minutes.

Pour the batter through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl and discard the solids. Stir in the green onion. Set aside. As the batter sits, it will thicken to a consistency like that of heavy cream. The batter can be made up to 4 hours before serving.

For assembly:

•    1/2 cup canola oil, divided
•    1 1/2 cups thinly sliced yellow onion
•    3/4 pound boneless pork butt, shoulder, or belly, thinly sliced
•    1 (15-ounce) can whole or broken straw mushrooms, drained, cut lengthwise if whole
•    1/2 pound medium (41 to 50 count) white shrimp, trimmed of legs and tails, de-veined
•    1 recipe batter
•    1 recipe steamed, ground mung beans
•    8 ounces bean sprouts (about 2 1/2 cups)

For garnish:

•    Leaves from 2 heads butter lettuce, red leaf lettuce, or romaine lettuce
•    1/2 small English cucumber, halved lengthwise, seeded and thinly sliced (1 1/4 cups)
•    1/4 cup cilantro leaves
•    1/4 cup mint leaves
•    1/4 cup torn tía tô leaves (optional)
•    1 recipe dipping sauce
•    2-3 packages bánh tráng (Vietnamese rice paper; these usually have about 22-25 sheets per package)

For each crepe, heat 2 to 3 teaspoons oil in a 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot enough to gently sizzle a slice of onion on contact, add one-fourth cup onion, one-fourth cup pork, one-fourth cup straw mushrooms and 4 shrimp. Sauté quickly, breaking up the meat and letting the ingredients sear and aromatize, about 1 minute. Visualize a line down the skillet’s middle and roughly arrange the ingredients in the two halves. Anything arranged in the middle will make it hard to neatly fold the crepe.

Give the batter a good stir with the ladle. Pour about one-half cup batter into the skillet, swirling the skillet to cover the bottom. The batter should dramatically sizzle (making that “xèo” noise!) and bubble. When it settles down, scatter 2 tablespoons mung beans over the crepe surface and place a one-third cup bean sprouts on one side. Turn the heat down to medium-low, cover and cook until the bean sprouts have slightly wilted, about 3 minutes.

Remove the lid and drizzle about 1 teaspoon oil around the edge of the crepe. Continue cooking, uncovered, to crisp the pancake. After about 3 to 4 minutes, the edges should have pulled away from the skillet and turned golden brown. At this point, use a spatula to check underneath. From the center to the edge, the crepe should gradually go from being soft to crispy. Lower the heat if you need to cook further. When you are satisfied, use a spatula to fold one half over the other. Either lift the crepe with a spatula or slide it onto a serving dish. Repeat the cooking process. If there’s leftover batter, make the poor man’s crepe without the goodies.

To eat, tear a piece of lettuce roughly the size of your palm and place a piece of the crepe inside (use kitchen scissors or chopsticks to cut the crepe). Add cucumber slices and a few herb leaves. Use your fingers to bundle it up, then dunk it into the dipping sauce.

For a more traditional way of eating the crepes, use the bánh tráng. Prepare a large bowl of warm water and place at the table. With each sheet of bánh tráng, place it into the water, making sure the top and bottom of the sheet comes into contact with the water. Place on a flat plate and allow the rice paper to soften. Once softened, fill with a piece of the crepe, cucumber slices, lettuce, and herb leaves. Then roll it like a thin burrito. Dip into nước mắm and enjoy.

Steamed, ground mung beans
Yields 1 1/4 cups, enough for 8 (10-inch) crepes

•    1/2 cup dried yellow mung beans

Place the mung beans in a bowl and add enough water to cover by 2 inches. Let soak 2 hours.

Drain the beans and place in the steamer basket, spreading them out to an even layer. Fill the steamer bottom halfway with water and bring it to a rolling boil over high heat. Steam the mung beans until tender, about 8 minutes. Remove the basket from the steamer bottom and set aside to cool.

Grind the cooled beans in a food processor to a fluffy consistency. The texture should resemble fine cornmeal, but you’ll be able to pinch together a bit between your fingers. Steamed, ground mung beans may be frozen and defrosted when needed.

Best Roast Chicken

A lot of people, including myself, find roasting a chicken a bit daunting. Maybe it’s the notion of cooking an entire animal that seems scary, or maybe it’s because in the U.S., it’s so easy to stop by any ol’ market and pick up any chicken part you want, cleaned, butchered, and packaged neatly for your culinary convenience. Who needs to cook an entire chicken when you could just get the individual parts that you like the most?

Chicken seasoned before roasting

But there really is an intrinsically satisfying feeling in preparing a whole chicken yourself. Few things are more pleasing than the smell of a whole bird roasting with butter and fresh herbs, wafting through your own home. It almost makes home feel… well, a little more like home.

And although individual chicken parts are so ubiquitous today, so are whole chickens in many varieties — hormone-free, free-range, cage-free, kosher, organic — the list goes on. With the chickens already deceased, de-feathered, and with the innards removed, it’s really not as scary as it seems. Plus, if you’re on a budget, it’s generally more economical to get a whole chicken than it is to just get breasts or thighs. And maybe it’s just me, but I love the idea of taking a chicken carcass and all the leftover bones to create homemade stock. Nothing in the world is better than a stock made at home.

Roasted chicken right from the oven

The methods of roasting chicken are quite abundant, but as I was doing research for my very first roast chicken, I wanted to make sure that I stuck with the methods that seemed the most acknowledged and embraced. Some of these tips include:

  • Use butter instead of oil to coat the outside of the chicken. Butter creates a more beautiful, evenly browned exterior. Plus, it’s yummy yummy. Who doesn’t love butter?
  • Make sure to put a good amount of butter inside the cavity of the chicken. Do NOT skip this step. It’s key to creating a moist bird.
  • Nix the twining. It just adds more work to roasting a chicken, and the goal here is to make roasting a chicken as painless as possible. So whenever you can eliminate a step that can enable you to do this in your sleep, go for it.
  • Season your bird well. Salt and pepper should not be tasted when you take bites into your food; they should simply enhance the natural flavor of whatever you are eating. Liberally season inside the cavity and the exterior.
  • If you can, make sure that you have a roasting rack for your chicken to sit on. The rack creates a separation between the chicken and the roasting pan, and this will enable not only even roasting but also a chicken that has a crispy exterior. No sogginess!
  • Use the drippings from the bottom of the pan to baste your chicken. You want to use as much of the chicken as possible to have the chicken-iest chicken experience.
  • Lastly, allow the bird to rest for about 30 minutes before cutting and serving. This way, the chicken will have time to retain its juices as well as even out its temperature and doneness.

So once you have roasted your chicken and it seems about ready, take it out of the oven, and take a cut right at the leg to see if the juices run clear. If the juices are clear, it means that the chicken is done. The juices should look like this:

Chicken juices running clear

We decided to serve our roast chicken with a chicken stock-based polenta and roasted brussel sprouts (we are BIG brussel sprout fans. For those who find these little mini cabbages revolting, we urge you to try them roasted, as roasting brings out the natural sweetness of brussel sprouts that goes completely unnoticed if only boiled or sauteed).

Our bird was quite lovely and was even more rewarding since it was our very first roast chicken. The breast meat was succulent, not even a tad dry. The dark meat proved even juicier, and the skin smelled fragrant from the garlic powder and thyme and had just the right crispness. Who ever thought that something so delicious could be this simple?

Roast chicken, roasted brussel sprouts, and polenta dinner

The Best Roast Chicken
Adapted from multiple sources, including Ina Garten, Tyler Florence, and Allrecipes.com.

  • 1 (approx. 3-4 lb) hormone-free whole chicken, giblets removed
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder, or to taste
  • 1/2 tablespoon dried thyme (or 1 tablespoon fresh)
  • 5-6 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 stalk celery, leaves removed
  • A handful of fresh parsley
  • 1 lemon, cut in half
  • 1/2 bulb of garlic, cut in half

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).

Wash the chicken inside and out with cold water; thoroughly pat dry with paper towels. Allow chicken to air dry either in your kitchen if it is cool enough, or in the fridge for about half an hour. We want a completely dry skin.

Once the chicken is completely dry, place her in a roasting pan and season generously inside and out with salt and pepper. Then sprinkle inside and out with 1 tablespoon of garlic powder.

Rub inside of the chicken with about 2 tablespoons of melted butter. Then sprinkle thyme on the chicken inside and out. Cut the celery into about 4 pieces and place in the chicken cavity with both halves of the lemon, parsley, and the half bulb of garlic.

Spread remaining 3-4 tablespoons of melted butter all over the outside of the chicken.

Bake uncovered for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, to a minimum internal temperature of 180 degrees F (82 degrees C). Remove from heat, and baste with the drippings from the bottom of the pan.

Cover with aluminum foil and allow to rest for about 30 minutes before serving.

Turkey meatballs and spaghetti

I don’t mean to offend anyone when I say this, but I don’t think I could ever live a meatless life. Sure, I could go days and even weeks without having a sliver of chicken or a bite of pork, but in the end I will always have cravings and go back to those things. As much as I like tofu and beans, sometimes they simply will not do.

I often joke with friends that I could never date, much less marry, a vegetarian. With a life partner, I’d want to share all my experiences all the way down to how amazing what I am eating is. If I can’t get my guy to understand why I am so obsessed with my favorite noodles or dessert, what else could he understand? What would an omnivore’s life be without knowing the taste of phở, a rich and complex Vietnamese noodle soup flavored by beef and oxtail bones, or a humble roast chicken, beautifully browned and seasoned?

I don’t want to know. Please excuse my desire for ignorance.

Meatball ingredients Meatball ingredients incorporated

Everyone has their own comfort foods depending on the culture in which they were brought up. For me, it’s a mix of Chinese, Vietnamese, and American foods — some of them include jook, a rice porridge often made with homemade chicken stock and cuts of chicken, among other toppings; phở, the beef noodle soup I just mentioned, and meatloaf, especially the ones that my dad always made when I was growing up. He often made them with a mix of different meat — sometimes it would be turkey and beef; other times it would be turkey, pork, and beef. It was constantly changing depending on what we had available in the fridge.

Mixing meatball ingredients

So I think my dad would be excited to hear that we recently made our own turkey meatballs and spaghetti. Making meatballs is much like making a meatloaf or a burger patty; the only real difference is the shape. The first time we used Ina Garten’s Real Meatballs and Spaghetti recipe, we used a mix of beef, pork, and lamb ground meat (one pound, half pound, and half pound, respectively), but since we wanted to reduce our red meat intake for last week, we opted to do all-turkey meatballs.

Yes, these didn’t have the same “wow!” factor as the tri-meat meatballs did, but these offered their own deliciousness, one that puts frozen or store-bought meatballs to shame. There’s simply no comparison. These turkey babies are lighter than light, almost airy. Each bite is soft and almost sponge-like. The addition of the chopped parsley as well as the freshly grated parmesan cheese also adds a complexity and freshness to the meatballs that you wouldn’t find in a package of meatballs you’d pick up at the local supermarket.

Tomato sauce ingredients

Some tips for making these meatballs: make sure to use the full amount of seasoning – NO skimping on the salt or pepper! The purpose of adding seasonings is to enhance the natural flavor of the meat, and two teaspoons of salt does just that for two pounds of turkey meat. We used white turkey meat, but you could easily use fattier ground turkey meat if you’d like. I bought two pounds of white ground turkey from the local Trader Joe’s, and it seems that every time when I am stir-frying it or shaping the ground meat into something, it tends to be a lot gooey-er and sticky than other ground turkey that I’ve worked with. Has anyone had the same experience with TJ’s white ground turkey?

Meatballs before frying

We had no store-bought bread at home, just the homemade challah (poor us, right?) I had made the day before, so we threw some slices of that into the food processor for our bread crumbs. We also used whole grain spaghetti because we like our whole grains and wheat. We nixed Ina’s tomato sauce recipe because we preferred Mario Batali’s basic sauce recipe; his recipe is a lot lighter in texture, not too thick, and seemed to go better with the turkey meatballs.

frying meatballs

stirring the turkey meatballs in sauce

Turkey Meatballs and Spaghetti
Meatballs adapted from Ina Garten; Tomato sauce adapted from Mario Batali.
Serves 5-6.

Meatballs:

  • 2 pounds ground turkey
  • 1 1/4 cup fresh white bread crumbs (about 4.5 slices, crusts removed)
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 extra-large egg, beaten
  • Vegetable oil
  • Olive oil

Tomato Sauce:

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion, 1/4-inch dice
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves, or 1 tablespoon dried
  • 1/2 medium carrot, finely grated
  • 2 (28-ounce) cans peeled whole tomatoes, crushed by hand and juices reserved
  • Salt
  • Red pepper flakes (optional)

Spaghetti:

  • 1 1/2 pounds spaghetti, cooked according to package directions
  • Freshly grated Parmesan

Place the ground meat, bread crumbs, parsley, Parmesan, salt, pepper, nutmeg, egg, and 3/4 cup warm water in a bowl. Combine very lightly with a fork. Using your hands, lightly form the mixture into 2-inch meatballs. You should have 14 to 16 meatballs.

Pour equal amounts of vegetable oil and olive oil into a large (12-inch) skillet to a depth of 1/4-inch. Heat the oil. Very carefully, in batches, place the meatballs in the oil and brown them well on all sides over medium-low heat, turning carefully with a spatula or a fork. This should take about 10 minutes for each batch. Don’t crowd the meatballs. Remove the meatballs to a plate covered with paper towels. Discard the oil but don’t clean the pan.

In the same skillet as above, heat the olive oil for the sauce over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, and cook until soft and light golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the thyme and carrot, and cook 5 minutes more, until the carrot is quite soft. Add the tomatoes and juice and bring to a boil, stirring often. Lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes until as thick as hot cereal. Season with salt. Add a sprinkling of red pepper flakes if desired.

Return the meatballs to the sauce, cover, and simmer on the lowest heat for 25 to 30 minutes, until the meatballs are cooked through. Serve hot on cooked spaghetti and sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.



  • itsgrant: I want to goooo! Me next vacation, hopefully
  • Jesslyn: Thank you so much for posting this! My husband (who spent several years in Korea) and I have been searching for a good recipe that will produce Ho Duc
  • Didi: I have been searching everywhere for a recipe for this dish and this was spot on!! Thanks for making me and my boyfriend VERY happy :)

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