Ah, Canh Rau Răm / Vietnamese Coriander Soup. Such a perfectly simple soup, needing only 4 ingredients – rau răm, beef, garlic, and tomato – to achieve a balanced, flavorful broth that is light and refreshing, even when served hot. That the broth itself contained the highlights and the majority of the experience of the dish made this soup an ideal candidate to test out the modernist/stunt cuisine techniques of clarification. The goal was to produce a clear broth that delivered all the flavors of canh rau răm, We’ve decided to call the clarified soup Trà Canh Rau Răm (lit. Vietnamese Coriander Soup Tea) to avoid confusion .
First we needed to make canh rau răm – no worries, it was a quick, easy and pretty much idiot proof recipe, one ideal for both a harried parent whipping together a quick family dinner and her bumbling, impatient child in college craving a bit of comforting flavors from home. Pretty sure it was the first dish I learned how to make without having to ask my mother for her recipe. My little cousin, independent of any input from me, also converged on this dish as he learned to cook for himself in college.
Ingredients prepping consisted of cutting a tomato into 1 inch pieces and roughly chopping a few cloves of garlic and separately, a handful of rau ram leaves. I sauteed the chopped garlic for a minute or so in a pot. Keeping the heat low allowed me to use olive oil (healthful!) and minimized the chance of my absentmindedly burning the garlic. Then I added about a quarter pound of ground beef and sauteed that for a few minutes. Then added tomato pieces and sauteed for a few minutes. Finally, added water, brought to a boil, added fish sauce to taste, and finished with a handful of rau răm leaves, roughly chopped. That was all.
Onto clarification. There are two main ways – agar and gelatin clarification. Both rely on the mesh created by agar or gelatin gels to trap the large protein aggregates that cause cloudiness in broth. Gelatin clarification also achieves concentration of flavor, but requires a lengthy freezing and thawing times. We’ll save that technique for a different occasion. We’ll use agar clarification instead. (The protocol described below came from Cooking Issues but is built on previous works by Ideas in Food and many others.)
I strained the soup to take out the solids. The beef, tomato, and rau ram makes a nice pseudo sauteed dish and should be saved. When the broth cooled down some, 0.5% agar weight to broth volume was added and stirred briskly into the broth. Then I brought the broth back to a boil for 5 minutes then turned off the stove and let the broth cool to form a gel.
To release the clarified broth, the gel needed to be broken up into tiny little pieces. I used a pair of chopstick, 1 stick in each hand and scissored the sticks across the gel. I could also have used a whisk. The little pieces of agar and broth were spooned into a cheese cloth bag and squeezed over a strainer with a coffee filter in it. The filter was there to catch little pieces of agar that squirted out of the cheesecloth.
The clarified Canh Trà Rau Răm was now ready to be served, garnished with a sprig of fresh rau răm. After experimentation and taste tests, we found Canh Trà Rau Răm was best served cold. All the flavors of the original canh rau răm were there, in a presentation that accentuated the light refreshing quality of the soup. The idea of a savory cold soup was initially baffling to us and our Vietnamese guests, but after tasting Trà Canh Rau Răm, people warmed up to it.
PS: Just a reminder we will be at the San Francisco Street Food Festival this Saturday August 20th, 2011. We’ll be serving our all natural nem chua. Should be fun, with lots of great international cuisine to sample. Be sure to stop by and say hi!