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Nov10

Winterizing our herbs garden : An experiment with hydroponics

We’ve only had one night of frost so far but that was enough to kill all our outdoor tía tô (perilla) plants. Luckily, we’ve already started winterizing our herbs garden. This year, we’re experimenting with hydroponically growing our herbs indoor with the hope that more godlike control over our plants’ world will keep us well supplied with fresh herbs until next spring. Growing hydroponically is a technique for growing plants without soil, with well defined nutrients solutions delivered directly to plant roots. Another advantage for us is the ability to heat up the nutrient solution coursing through the system and keep the plants warm in spite of the cold air temperature in the apartment. Lay the nutrient tubing underneath the other pots and even the non-hydroponic plants will have warm happy feet!

Winter garden : (front) tía tô / perilla, rau răm / Vietnamese coriander, lá chua / sorrel, kinh giới / Vietnamese balm. More of the same in the back & various húng varieties / basil and mints.

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Apr19

Tofu-misozuke: things you can do with your tofu-misozuke & update #4

tofu-misozuke on bread and crisp rice crackers

Tofu misozuke hits many of the same spot as soft cheeses and can be enjoyed in many of the same ways. We originally had it straight up and paired with sake. It’s also great spread on baguettes and bánh đa (tapioca cracklings). On the other hand, the salt content and assertive taste of many crackers make that pairing a hit or miss affair.

Here’s another way of enjoying tofu-misozuke, inspired by how the Vietnamese sometimes eat mắm (fermented fish): spread tofu-misozuke on a slice of cucumber, whose coolness and crispiness provide an excellent contrast to the soft, intense tofu.

Tofu misozuke on cucumber

That’s a great snack all by itself, but we also like to add herbs to all things:

add herb on top of cucumber-tofu misozuke ensemble

Seen above are húng cây (spearmint) and tía tô (shiso). Kinh giới (Vietnamese balm) and lemon balm (kinh giới Mỹ) also work great, especially with the next addition:

add sardines on top to round out the ensemble

Finally, a piece of sardine (cá mòi) cooked and canned in olive oil is placed on top of herbs, tofu misozuke, and cucumber. This combination makes a great hors-d’oeuvre that is filled with textural and flavor contrast. The tofu-misozuke, herbs and sardines are each strongly assertive in their own ways yet blend together into a suprisingly well rounded whole. Just remember to pick a can of sardines that’s low in sodium; they vary wildly.

An aside: Canned sardines, by the way, are totally a part of Vietnamese cuisine after being imported by/for Frenchmen serving in Indochina. The luxurious aura of foreign food during the colonial era and the lean, iron-curtained post-war years helped, but canned sardines are also just plain good (see also: those red cans of Bretel butter, still cherished by those Vietnamese living in the land of fresh butter and innumerable cheeses). I still relish my occasional sardines and baguette breakfast, and the same combination are still offered by many bánh mì stands in Vietnam.

Updates on tofu-misozuke from CA and MI:

– Soft tofu is gone – all eaten 😀

– Medium firm tofu was soft and creamy (and almost gone; half of it should be in Lyon, France by now; another quarter was consumed at a birthday party this past weekend). It was still on the salty side but paired really nicely with a slice of cucumber.

– Firm tofu was creamy on the outside (I didn’t check the middle; it was probably still crumbly inside). It was still on the salty side.

– Firm tofu with lemongrass was still crumbly, which was perplexing. I wonder if the presence of lemongrass inhibited protease activities. I’ll let this run for a few more months to see. The flavor was more complex than just miso, but it was difficult to identify the additional flavor as that of lemongrass.

– Tofu with kelp: the tofu block wrapped in the better grade kelp was starting to become soft and creamy. The taste was amazing: kelp flavor was there in the tofu and blended very well with miso flavor. It was very delicious and mildly pungent. I can’t wait until this one ripens. The excitement was dampened a bit when I had to throw out the block of tofu wrapped in lesser grade kelp. It had all sorts of growth on both sides of the kelp :( Oh well, at least there’s still one good block of tofu to continue this experiment.

– The attempt to control salt content by cutting marinade amount was a success. All arms of the experiment were creamy and rich. The original recipe was creamier than the rest, but only noticeable in a direct comparison. The others will catch up, I’m sure. Most importantly, the tofu with the least marinade was well on its way to being a full-fledged tofu-misozuke, with a much diminished salt presence.

Feb01

Gà hấp muối (salt-steamed chicken)

This is definitely one of the few chicken dishes that I love: it’s very simple to make and the method preserves the flavor and juiciness of the chicken. I don’t ever want to boil a chicken again after knowing this recipe.

 

Fragrant, juicy and flavorful chicken

Before I go further into the step-by-step recipe, though, a warning: this is NOT the chicken that you get at Chinese BBQ shops (Chinese salt-steamed chicken where you cook the chicken in a salt shell) nor is it Hainanese chicken.

Without much further ado, here is the recipe with photos for the major steps:

1. Line a thick, large pot with aluminum foil. Be generous with the foil as you can use the remaining foil at the top to make a closed packet to keep the moisture in

 

aluminum foil-lined pot

2. Next, line the foil with coarse salt. The amount of salt used depends on the size of the pot. I used about ~1.5 bowl of salt this time, to completely cover the bottom of the pot

Add coarse salt

3. Then crush 6-8 lemongrass stalks, cut them into shorter length to fit in the pot. Lay the lemongrass stalks on the salt to form a lattice of sort.

Lattice of crushed lemongrass stalks

4. Then lay lime leaves on top and in between the lemongrass stalks

Next come the lime leaves

5. Next add rau răm (Vietnamese coriander) and ginger (optional). All the herbs should be laid down in such a way that the chicken will not come into contact with the coarse salt at the bottom

Rau răm (Vietnamese coriander) and ginger round out the bedding

6. Then, stuff a few lá chanh (lime leaves) and a bunch of rau răm (Vietnamese coriander) inside the chicken, rub the skin with generous amount of salt and pepper, then lay the chicken on top of all the herbs

Main feature: free-range chicken

7. Cover the chicken with more herbs: lá chanh (lime leaves), rau răm (Vietnamese coriander) & ginger

Chicken is covered with lime leaves, rau răm and ginger

8. Fold the aluminum foil sheet down to make a closed packet

completed foil packet, ready to go on the stove

9. Cover the pot and cook on medium high heat for ~35-40 minutes (depending on how hot your stove is, you might want to turn the heat down a bit after having it on medium high for 10-15′ to avoid burning the salt too much). Turn off the heat and leave it on the stove for another 10 minutes. Take it off the stove & open up the packet:

Careful with the steam

Remember to take the herb stuffing out of the chicken before serving.

The chicken can be cut into manageable pieces with a cleaver, or you can just dig in with your hands. The first time I made this chicken, I definitely couldn’t resist the urge to immediately tear off a thigh. It’s more fun to eat with your hands anyway :). If there’s still a lá chanh (lime leaf) left, it can be sliced into very thin strips and sprinkle on top of the chicken. This last step is not necessary because the chicken is already very fragrant with lá chanh (lime leaves) and rau răm (Vietnamese coriander) flavors.

Forgot to add a note about the chicken: it’s best if you use free-range chicken for this. Normal chicken from a supermarket might be ok. The thing you should avoid is frozen chickens that have been injected with saline. That type of chicken will mess up this dish because the saline fluid will ooze out and dissolve the salt, which will turn your dry-steamed chicken dish into salt-water boiled chicken. Definitely not appetizing.

Dec06

Our amazing find this weekend: fresh sea urchin (nhím biển)

Fresh out of the pod sea urchin roe

Fresh from Maine. Also got a masterclass in sea urchin cracking from Mike of Monahan’s Seafood. Apparently, most of the sea urchins harvested here and around the world are sold to sushi shop suppliers in Japan. So what we ate today is possibly the same sea urchin roe we’ve been eating at sushi places – before they were flown to Japan and back.

Oh man what a revelation to eat fresh fresh fresh sea urchin roe! It was rich deliciously rich, with a slight oceany flavor and a very intense sweetness. Never had it remotely close to this, not even at Tsukiji market.

We scarfed down half of our purchase for lunch – garnished the Japanese way w/ soy sauce and wasabi and/or with lá chua (sorrel) and rau răm (Vietnamese coriander).

Sea urchin with sorrel and Vietnamese coriander

We treated a friend to some fresh sea urchin roe for dinner that same day. He’s never had it before – what an introduction! Six hours later the sea urchins were still amazing, but already also noticeably different and more similar to what we’re used to getting from sushi shops. The intense sweetness was more subdued, while the scent of the sea was more prominent.

Lastly, my working translation for sea urchin into Vietnamese was bụi đời biển, but alas that’s not the real term for these things.

Nov15

Ốc xào nước dừa (Periwinkles with chilli lemongrass and coconut)

Periwinkle sauteed with lemongrass chilli and coconut milk

Saw fresh periwinkles at Monahan’s Seafood and the only question was how much should I get.

Ốc xào nước dừa is a fixture on both the Vietnamese street food and drinking food scenes. In drinking establishments (quán nhậu), there’s a plethora of food smells – grilled food, smoke and spices and ốc xào nước dừa is just one of the choices. However out on the fringes of Vietnamese markets where the hawkers’ stalls are, the scent of ốc xào nước dừa is prominent and irresistable. The cloud of rich coconut, clean lemongrass and sharp chilli announces that one’s errands are past, jostling and bargaining done with. Time for a well deserved reward.

Periwinkles (fresh, not frozen) were soaked in chilli water to make them give up grits. They were then sauteed with garlic, chilli, and lemongrass. Coconut milk was added towards the end and seasoned to taste with nước mắm (fish sauce) and more chilli. Served with rau răm (Vietnamese coriander) (can also be added while sauteeing) and beer or wine. I had some Syrah this time.