On the chopping board: water spinach and Thai chilies

For an easy side, I sautéed a bunch of rau muống, or water spinach. In a saucepan, heat up a couple tablespoons of vegetable oil and throw in 2 or 3 chopped cloves of garlic. Once the garlic starts to brown add all the water spinach to the pan. When the spinach starts to wilt, add sliced Thai chilies for color and some kick. I didn’t have fermented cubes of beans for saltiness, so I added about a teaspoon or so of fish sauce. I covered the pan over low heat until the stalks are soft but still crunchy. This dish goes well with a bowl of rice and makes a quick lunch.

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Books I will be reading

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Books that I may or may not need in the near future

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Rambutan

This is one of the weirdest fruits I’ve seen and it’s why I love it. It has a thick skin with bristley (scientific word) hairs growing out of it. It’s a called a rambutan and is a close relative of the lychee (best Pinkberry flavor) and longan.

We went to lunch at a mostly Vietnamese strip mall (or plaza as it’s called) today for father’s day and a shop selling tropical fruits caught my eye. I’m a huge fan of tropical fruits. I think it partly has to do with the fact that they look so weird, partly because they’re super sweet and partly because I grew up eating them.

I’m glad I googled these things before eating them. You have to slice the skin around the widest part of the fruit and then “crack” them open. This kind of reminds me of that scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where they eat monkey brains. The white “meat” inside is similar to lychee and longan: sweet and fleshy.

Along with rambutans, I also picked up a cherimoya (I can’t even start to describe this one) and a dragon fruit (looks like one of Daenerys’s dragon eggs from Game of Thrones). These fruits are making me really excited for Kauai where I plan on stocking up on all things tropical at the farmer’s markets.

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Cha gio/imperial rolls

The quintessential finger food of the Vietnamese has to be the chả giò, or imperial roll. Well, at least to me they are. I can eat them plain as is, wrap them in lettuce and dip in nuoc mam, or as part of a full meal (like in the picture above).

Cha gio usually has a filling of pork, veggies like carrots and mushrooms, glass noodles, and other meats like shrimp and crab. Traditionally they’re rolled in rice paper and then fried to a golden brown. Wheat flour paper can also be used but makes them look more like an egg roll. This causes a lot of confusion, especially for me, since I’ve gone through life calling these egg rolls. I prefer the wheat flour paper to the rice paper since it fries up much nicer. My rice paper version came out bubbly and greyish, though it was my first time so I don’t feel so bad. I guess the trick is to fry them in oil that isn’t too hot so the paper doesn’t bubble up. Even though the rice paper version didn’t turn out cookbook photo perfect, they tasted just fine.

This is a good recipe using rice paper, though I prefer to add mushrooms to it. Here’s one with the mushrooms using wheat flour wrappers. And just for good measure, here’s one using both kinds of wrappers.

It felt good to perfect the wrapping of the rolls since they came out a bit wonky at first. My friend suggested using a cast iron pot (dutch oven) to fry the rolls in because they retain heat better and the oil wouldn’t fluctuate too much in temperature. They’re best a few minutes after coming out of the oil since they lose their crispiness a few hours after cooking. I still  have some in the freezer. You can crisp them up again in the oven if you’re into that kind of thing, but I’m not picky and will eat them anyway I can.

Top: ingredients...meat and veggie mixture, dried mushrooms, mung bean/glass nooodles. Bottom left: with wheat flour wrappers. Bottom right: with rice paper wrapper

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Bo luc lac

Some dishes are so easy and delicious you wonder why you don’t make it all the time. Bò lúc lắc, or shaking beef, is one of them. Whenever I eat this dish, I think of my dad making it for me and my sister when we were younger. It was usually made with sauteed onions and over easy eggs for a late breakfast or lunch.

The dish gets its name from the motion you make with the wok or skillet while the beef is cooking…shaking it. The names of Vietnamese dishes aren’t rocket science, but they’re pretty damned descriptive.

This recipe is pretty legit. I’ve been rating the success of my dishes by how close they are to my family’s cooking and this recipe is spot on. The only difference is that this recipe has the more traditional pickled onions, whereas my dad always made it with sauteed onions. For my dish, I went with the best of both worlds: pickled some red onions and caramelized yellow onions.

I made the bo luc lac for a group of four at my friend’s place before we watched an episode of Game of Thrones. We ate to Joffrey’s early death, but it didn’t happen this time, unfortunately. By the time we dug into it, the heat from the beef had perfectly wilted the bed of watercress. Add the lime sauce to it and you’re a happy clam. The tomatoes make this dish kinda healthy, or as healthy as pan-seared beef can be.

Tip for getting a perfect brown sear on the beef (which I kinda didn’t get on my dish): make sure the heat is high and the oil is just starting to smoke before you add the beef. And when you do, make sure that the beef is in one layer and doesn’t pile up so every piece is touching the pan.

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Banh mi

What do you do when you have leftover meat? You make a sandwich. And that’s what I did when I had some grilled pork left over after making bun thit nuong. A Vietnamese sandwich, or bánh mì, is made with a small baguette and uses condiments like pâté and mayo. Again, the whole French colonialism thing.

The main filling of the sandwich can be anything from different kinds of pork, chicken, head cheese, tofu and even eggs. The obvious exclusion here is beef, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a banh mi before. It makes a great lunch, but I love bringing these to the beach or on a hike…no extra utensils needed.

Here’s what you’ll need to make a banh mi thit nuong (grilled pork sandwich):
– 1 small baguette (you can usually find these really cheap at Asian or Mexican grocery stores. The Mexican produce store across the street from me sells 3 for $1)
– meat of your choice
– cucumbers, sliced length-wise
mayo
do chua
– a few sprigs of cilantro
– some sliced jalapeño peppers for heat

Slice the baguette almost in half length-wise, keeping on side still attached to hold in all the ingredients. You can throw it in the oven to toast, but I like mine untoasted. Spread mayo on the inside (both sides). Place cucumbers and the do chua on the bottom of the sandwich. Next, place the meat on top. Finally, top off with cilantro and jalapeños. Some people like to cut the sandwich in half, but generally I eat it from one end to the other.

This time the bread was a little tough in the final product, but I think that’s because the baguettes were sitting out in a big bin all day at the store. I really loved the cucumbers in the sandwich. It hast a great crunch and gives the sandwich its juiciness. Overall, this turned out pretty well for my first ever home made banh mi.

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