Friday, January 30, 2009

In Pictures: Learning How to Make Un-pho-gettable Pho Bo

Although I am part Vietnamese, there are many Vietnamese foods that I grew up eating only in restaurants. Such dishes were simply were too much trouble to make at home because they required out-of-the ordinary or expensive ingredients (not readily available to my family in rural Arizona) or required many difficult cooking steps. To our family,
pho bo, or Vietnamese beef noodle soup was one of those foods. It was only consumed in restaurants, and never made at home. It required bean sprouts and basil (which are very rare in rural Arizona, and if we brought bean sprouts or basil back from our trips to Los Angeles, they would be wilted by the heat and miserable by the time we arrived back at home). It also required the chef to parboil the beef bones, to babysit a boiling pot for more than six hours, and to repeatedly skim off foamy scum and slippery pockets of uncoagulated oil. Pho bo was just simply easier and tastier to eat at the restaurants.

Despite these challenges, after living with my sister-in-law (who made
pho bo almost every Sunday), I decided to try my hand at making this laborious beef soup. Although these pictures might look delectable, there is a huge caveat: I am still learning how to make pho bo. There is still something off about the flavor of my soup. I think it may be too much star anise, and too little coriander seed. Perhaps I need more salt, and less fish sauce. But I will update you soon when I find the perfect proportions of spices. I may need to call my sister-in-law a few more times before I can finalize a recipe, but until then, check out Viet World Kitchen, Steamy Kitchen, Wandering Chopsticks, Holy Basil, or Food Network for great takes on pho bo.

I know you are thinking, "Where is the recipe?" Well, there is none yet, but I hope that in the meantime, these pictures inspire you to make
pho bo in the near future! Pho-shizzle!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

An Everyday Pleasure #8: Loose Pork Jerky

One of my favorite rice porridge (
congee or jook) toppings, is roe-tsong, or literally translated, "loose meat." It is also known as "pork floss" in some circles. I am sure you are asking about now, "What is 'loose meat?' Sounds naughty!"

See the mottled fibers in the lower right-hand corner of the image? Loose meat is essentially seasoned and dried pulled pork, and it is packed with barbecued flavors. Imagine taking a piece of regular dried jerky, and pulling the individual meat tendrils apart, one at a time, to yield a tuft of stringy dried meat fibers. That is what it is. Basically it is pulled pork jerky. Perhaps my description sounds unappetizing, but lemme tell ya', it is very tasty. The Chinese always know how to make the most out of a little protein by "extending" it, either by chopping it up into little bite-sized pieces for a stirfry, or by ripping apart pork jerky, to serve as a delicious snack or topping for an entrée. Sound interesting? You should try it! Loose meat is sold in Asian markets everywhere.

For more exotic and unconventional (but tasty) Chinese foods, check out my posts on century/thousand-year-old eggs and on five spice pressed tofu:
And for more of my posts on congee and porridge, check out these two (non-substantive, but food pornish--meaning, there are pictures) of my congee/porridge experiences:

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

My Eyes Are Opened to the Ovo Malt Drink

In addition to Rivella, another popular drink in Switzerland is the "Ovomaltine," a chocolate malt drink that you can find in the refrigerated aisle as the "Ovo Drink." This chocolately beverage has an ephemeral malt aftertaste and light milky fragrance, and is one of Switzerland's top selling refreshments. Therefore, during my Swiss honeymoon, I made sure to load my travel pack with a few plastic bottles of this nutritious drink.

However, my whole experience with these milky malt drinks is clouded in ambiguity. Based on my Switzerland travel guidebook, I was informed that "Ovomaltine" and "Ovo Drinks" were the genuine Swiss food products, while "Ovaltine" (the product that we know in the U.S.) was considered by the Swiss to be merely a cheap imitation. However, Wikipedia informed me that Ovomaltine and Ovaltine are the same drink and made by the same company, but called "Ovomaltine" in Switzerland and "Ovaltine" in England. Irregardless of semantics, I rediscovered and came to love the Ovomaltine/Ovaltine drink during my time in Switzerland.

When I was a kid, I preferred to get my malt fix via chocolate-coated Whoppers, and my chocolate milk fix by mixing milk with the gooey chocolate syrup with the Nestle Quix Rabbit on the label. To me, an Ovaltine was just the drink in the Christmas Story movie, and along with Yoohoos, they were beverages of a bygone era that my parents loved but only purchased for me on very, very rare occasions. However, now that I have had the opportunity to rediscover the rich, chocolately and milky aroma of Ovaltine/Ovalmaltine as an adult, I now appreciate its timeless appeal.

If you are interested in more Swiss beverages, check out my previous experience with Rivella:

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Working Eater Series: Mozzarella and Eggplant Panini Sandwiches

A sandwich can make an easy, quick, and immensely satisfying meal. Therefore, even for a busy working person, a great meal is just a few bread slices away. But you don't have to settle for a boring, uninspired sandwich made from plain white Wonder bread and cold cuts. Here is my favorite vegetarian sandwich recipe, for fabulous mozzarella and eggplant panini sandwiches.

Mozzarella and Eggplant Panini Sandwiches
1 large eggplant, cut into 1/4 inch slices and salted, to taste
2 tbsp of olive oil
8 slices of onion or rye bread (preferably onion rye bread, from Trader Joe's)
12 slices of mozzarella (or enough for two layers on each bread slice, and can use sundried tomatoes, instead, if you do not eat dairy)
1/4 jar of marinara sauce (if you have marinara sauce leftover from making pizza or pasta, this is the sandwich for you)
Parmesan cheese, optional

First, heat a non-stick skillet and fry the eggplant in batches on medium-high heat, coating skillet with olive oil before frying each batch. Place the eggplant aside.

Next, smear one side of each bread slice with a coating of marinara sauce. On four of the bread slices, place a layer of mozzarella cheese, eggplant, and mozzarella cheese. If using Parmesan cheese, sprinkle a little on the surface of the eggplant. Finish the sandwiches by topping it with the remaining bread slices, with the marinara sauce side down. (We're making sandwiches here, so this process is pretty self-explanatory.)

Next, place the assembled sandwiches into a panini press or grill for less than 5 minutes on a medium low setting, depending on the strength of your panini press or grill. The sandwiches should be oozing with cheese, and warm, toasted, and golden-crisp on the outside.

And c'est tout! Serve the sandwiches with warm marinara sauce for dipping.

And if you liked this sandwich idea, check out some others from this site:

Friday, January 16, 2009

Working Eater Series: 8 O'Clock Enchiladas

Today, I am going to revive a long ignored series, my old "working eater series" (which features recipes for quick dinners geared towards working people).

I absolutely adore enchiladas, and would love to share with you a bastardized version that I often make at home. These enchiladas make a very easy and relatively quick dinner, perfect for a working person. You can make them as late as 8 o'clock at night, they can be ready for dinner in less an hour, and they can be packed for lunch the next day. In fact, they taste even better the next day. (Oh, and as for the murky shadows on many of the pictures, "Darn you dark kitchen, darn you!"  Just ignore those.  Thanks.)

8 O'Clock Enchiladas
1 chicken thigh, cooked and shredded (can use leftover chicken or boil a fresh chicken thigh on high heat until cooked through--this won't take long)
1 tomato, diced
1 tsp of cumin
1 can (15 oz) of whole black beans, drained
1 can (15 oz) of whole kernel corn, drained
1 can (29 oz) of enchilada sauce
2 cups of monterey jack cheese, shredded
20 corn tortillas

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. In a large bowl, combine the shredded chicken, diced tomato, cumin powder, black beans, and corn kernels. Combine the mixture thoroughly. Then add 1 1/2 cups of the cheese, and enough enchilada sauce to moisten the mixture (~1/2 cup), but do not add all of the sauce in the can. With 1 tbsp of the sauce, coat the bottom of a large baking dish (13' X 9'). Reserve the remainder of the sauce for later.

Corn tortillas break easily, so you can coat them in warm oil (the traditional way to make enchiladas) or spray them with cooking spray and stick them in the oven for 5 minutes to get them pliable and soft. Or, you can do as I do, and just stick them in the microwave for 1 minute with a small dish of water or covered with a damp paper towel. If you use the microwave method, the tortillas may break after you have already rolled them, but it is a tad healthier. Albeit an infinitesimal "tad."

Next, put about 2 tbsp of filling into the warm and pliable tortilla, and roll it up. Place the seam side of the rolled tortilla down on the baking dish, and continue to fill and roll the tortillas, until finished. Then, cover all of the rolled tortillas with remaining sauce, and sprinkle the remaining cheese down the middle region of the tortillas. Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil and bake the enchiladas for 30 minutes, or until heated through.

Serve, and enjoy!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Hail to the Halal Cart on 53rd and 6th

In the last post, I told you about the beau's brother ("BB," for short). In this post, I am going to tell you about the BB's wife ("BBW"), a New York Native, who introduced to an eatery I will never forget, the legendary Halal Cart on 53rd and 6th. But I should preface my post with a warning: there will always be a line of eager patrons excitedly entwined around the street vendor, but the lengthy wait is more than worth it.

Orders from the
Halal Cart are packaged in a wrinkled/pleated aluminum takeout pan, and covered with a cardboard disc with a shiny heat-resistant backing. Inside, after your fingers pry open the aluminum ruching, you will find a bit of Halal heaven on earth.

As for my meal, BBW ordered for all of us. She ordered the "mix" combo, which came with spiced long grain rice, chunks of chicken meat, notable gyro meat, pillowy pita bread, and scrappy squares of iceberg lettuce. The two stellar standouts from the entire combo, were the rice and the lamb. The moist, succulent gyro-fied lamb came in delicious flakes, adeptly carved by knives that sweepingly crisscrossed against the grain of the lamb while it was suspended on the vertical spit. The lamb contained the
ideal proportion of gyro spices. The rice was also well-cooked, with each distinct grain the perfect shade of red and perfect flavor of Middle Eastern spices.

My takeout tin of food also came with two plastic containers of sauce, (1) a mysteriously palatable "white sauce" that no one knows the ingredients for, nor ventures to guess at, and (2) an assasinating "hot sauce." The deliciously addictive "white sauce" tastes like a mild ranch dressing, with the same salad dressing consistency. The "white sauce" provides a classic cooling sensation to the meal (just as a yogurty tzatziki sauce would).

As for the "hot sauce". . . Well, that is another matter, entirely. While I love spicy foods, the
Halal Cart's "hot sauce" tastes like hell. By "hell," I don't mean bad, I mean, eyeball-scorchingly evil, like Satan handmade that stuff with all of the sinister, fiery peppers he could get his hands on. One bite and your eyes will water furiously, like gushing waterfalls, and your frightened tongue will recoil so far into your head, you can feel it lodge into your neck. Basically, just imagine those old Looney Tunes cartoons, where Wiley Coyote would accidentally eat some hot peppers, and spew fire from his mouth while his bloodshot eyeballs bulged out several feet from his face. You will feel the sting from the hot sauce for several minutes, before the numbing, tingly pain abates. Legend has it, that the Halal Cart used to incorporate the hot sauce into the meal, but too many people complained (because they "couldn't handle the truth.")

If you are in the Theater District of Manhattan, and are looking for a bite to eat, I would definitely visit the Halal Cart on 53rd and 6th. It is worth the wait, and more.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Becoming Five Potbellied Guys

Southern California has In-N-Out, but the D.C. Area has Five Guys.

Northern California has
Wichcraft, but the D.C. Area has Potbelly Sandwich Works.

California has Passionate Eater, but the D.C. Area has. . . Well. . . You get my drift. I was trying to analogize, but my brain is farting right now, so I have nothing for you.

When I visited the beau's family in D.C., the beau's brother ("BB" to abbreviate) took me out to two heavily frequented D.C. eateries, to give me a "real" taste of D.C.

First, BB took me to every D.C. native's favorite burger joint,
Five Guys. Both he and the beau warned me, that I might fall for Five Guys and forget about my one, true love, In-N-Out.

Although I was hungry, I wasn't "that" hungry, so I ordered a "little cheeseburger" (instead of the regular double cheeseburger) from the menu. Don't let the name fool you, the burger is still big enough for a hearty lunch. And I am not a small eater.

Five Guys
gives every diner their choice of a variety of free toppings for each burger, including raw or fried onions, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, sauteed mushrooms, jalapeno or green peppers, and the regular condiments (ketchup, relish, mayonnaise, mustard) and a few odd ones, including relish, A-1, barbecue sauce, and hot sauce. I basically asked for "everything" on my burger. They also have complimentary peanuts you can munch on as you wait for your order.

My burger came wrapped in foil, with its bread bun squished, wrinkly, and slightly perspiring, and thus exhibiting a bit of a brioche sheen. I was impressed by the looks, to say the least. The taste? Greasy, meaty, and burger-licious.

I also ordered the Five Guys style fries, which were coated in a generous dusting of Old Bay. The fries came in an overflowing styrofoam cup, which itself was inside a paper bag. I don't even know why they put a styrofoam cup inside the bag, because they essentially gave me a huge paper bag stuffed full of fries. If I poured the mountain of fries out onto the table and tried to re-cram them inside the cup, I would be direly unsuccessful. The styrofoam cup is basically there just for kicks.

As for the comparison between
Five Guys and In-N-Out? Well, sorry. There is no comparison. Even with all of the free toppings (which actually amounts to very little when all placed on a burger's limited surface area) and the juicy, greasy, and "goes down easy" feel of the Five Guys Zagat rated burger, my heart belongs to the one and only In-N-Out. The burger at Five Guys is just a good burger. A burger at In-N-Out is a marvelously splendid and radiant burger that makes you see rainbows and unicorns. However, I will likely rot as a tormented soul in hell for saying this, but the spicy and flavorful fries at Five Guys are infinitely better than In-N-Out's weird, bleached out styrofoam tasting fries. Yes, I am now guilty of blasphemy/heresy/treason/sabotage/slander, but at least I got that off my chest.

For our second D.C. dining destination, BB took me to
Potbelly, where I split a tuna and "A Wreck" sandwich, and sampled Potbelly's homemade strawberry and Oreo shakes. "A Wreck" is a great name for a sandwich, which is basically made of salami, roast beef, turkey, ham and swiss. Simply put, it is made of everything. I ordered mine on wheat and asked for hot peppers, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, pickles, and a little Italian seasoning.

The toasted sandwiches were quite good, albeit small. The sandwiches were better than
Subway and Quizno's, and there was great atmosphere goin' on in the eatery. The restaurant is decorated like a jazzed up antique store, and you can actually listen to live music on certain days. And the creamy brain freeze-inducing shakes? Definitely a worthy competitor of In-N-Out. (Sorry, I now have In-N-Out on my brain.)

Thanks BB, for taking me out, and for all you others out there visiting or living in the D.C. Area, check out
Five Guys and Potbelly Sandwich Works for some great inauguration-day food!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Recreating Europe #1: Pizza the Wrong Way

If you are a reader of my blog, you may remember that I vowed to the world that I would try to recreate some of my memorable meals from Europe. My beau adored the pizza in Italy, so for the first entry in my "Recreating Europe" series, I wanted to try my hand at making Italian-style pizza.

Although I have regularly made homemade pizza, my pizza has never, ever come out tasting like Italian pizza. My dough is dense, heavy, and bready, rather than the light, chewy, tense, and elastic pizza dough of Italy. Therefore, for my first "Italian pizza," I was going to use semolina flour, instead of using all-purpose flour and plain ole' yeast from the supermarket. I went to the specialty food purveyor in the mall and bought a tiny $6.00 box of semolina pizza flour. After my purchase, I had completed step one in my "Italian pizza" mission.

Following the instructions on the box, I added water and kneaded the flour and water mixture until smooth. I immediately noticed the difference in the "feel" of the dough. The semolina dough was much moister and far more pliable than pizza doughs I had made in the past. Based on the silky and stretchy texture, it seemed like everything was going well.

Next, after using a rolling pin to roll out a wide crust, I judiciously spread a thin layer of marinara sauce on the face of the exposed dough surface and nestled a few slices of mozzarella cheese into the sauce. I didn't shred the cheese or blanket the entire pizza in a snowstorm of mozzarella, like how I usually do. Just a few slices, here and there. I then excitedly slid the picture-perfect pizza into the preheated oven, and victoriously wiped my soiled hands on my apron.

When the pizza came out of the oven after 10 short minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit, I picked off verdant leaves of basil, and placed them decoratively on the pizza. Also, I grabbed a bottle of olive oil and drizzled a bit over the basil leaves. I was ready for the taste!

Unfortunately, as I bit into the pizza slice, I instantly felt a huge letdown (in my stomach and my mind).

The pizza was far too sugary to taste anything like authentic Italian pizza. In Italy, the only sweetness in marinara sauce is from the natural sugars in the tomatoes. In fact, Italian pizza sauce tastes saltier, than it does sweet. For my pizza sauce, I lazily used a glass jar of Chunky Ragu, "Tomato, Garlic, and Onion" flavor. I knew in advance that Ragu, Prego, and other American brands of marinara and spaghetti sauce are loaded with corn syrup and other cloying sweeteners, and yet I used Ragu on the pizza anyway. Mistake number one.

Also, the dough from my pizza even tasted sweet, and straight-up generic. In fact, it tasted like Costco pizza crust, which was a disconcerting reality for me, given that I paid $6.00 for a box of the pizza flour, and a whole, cooked Costco pizza only costs $10.00. Man. Mistake number two.

Finally, the instructions on the box of pizza flour didn't say anything about oiling the baking sheet before placing the pizza on the sheet. I read the instructions twice, but thought maybe the olive oil inside the dough would prevent the crust from sticking on the baking sheet. Trusting the instructions without question, was my mistake number three.

Well, my pizza night wasn't a complete failure. The pizza was decent, though it still tasted Americanized, and therefore would have been substantially benefited by extra toppings, such as pepperoni, sausage, artichokes, pineapple, peppers, mushrooms, anchovies, onions, zucchini, and more cheese. Also, I learned several valuable lessons for the next time. For instance, for my next Italian pizza, I will make my own dough with semolina flour and salt, and make my own marinara sauce, without any help from the American spaghetti sauce makers.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Jocking for Jacques-Imo's

While I lived in New Orleans, one of my favorite go-to restaurants was Jacques-Imo's Cafe, a restaurant heavily frequented by Tulane students and alumni, among other eager New Orleans residents. If you want to dine at Jacques-Imo's, you have to arrive early and free your schedule of all evening plans, as you are guaranteed to wait in line to be seated at this popular eatery, even with reservations.

Each meal at
Jacques-Imo's begins with a moist cornbread muffin garnished with feathery chopped parsley and a light plate of complimentary spinach salad. The salad is drizzled with biting balsamic vinegar and topped with a flavorful "crouton of the sea," a battered, breaded, and deep-fried oyster with luscious green entrails.

Next, after the salad, comes
Jacques-Imo's appetizers. I've enjoyed the crab cakes at Jacques-Imo's. Their crab cakes are served on a delicate bed of greens and dressed with a silken, coral-colored remoulade sauce. The crab cakes are made with blue crab (which is prevalent on the East Coast) and seasoned with fiery Bayou spices. The crab meat in the cakes does not come in large chunks, but wispy, stringy threads, and the meat is bound together with heavy seasoned breading that has classic Southern undertones of Thanksgiving stuffing.

I highly recommend the oysters brochette appetizer, which is made of oysters wrapped in a thick-cut pieces of fat-laden bacon. The bacon-wrapped oyster is coated in cornmeal, deep-fried until golden-brown and served either on oyster shells or a hot serving plate doused with a luxuriously thick and flavorful oyster gravy and simply garnished with chopped scallions and parsley. The fresh herbs bring out the meaty and welcoming flavors of the bacon and the velvety texture of the oysters. As a warning, this is not an appetizer for the cholesterol-adverse.

As for entrées, I can unequivocally say that the best entrée in all of
Jacques-Imo's, is the signature carpetbagger steak, which comes topped with a hamburger-sized slice of grilled red onion. The menu claims that the onion is caramelized, but in my several visits to Jacques-Imo's, I noticed a bit of a crunch to the sweet red onion slice. The tender, melt-in-your-mouth steak is really the masterful centerpiece of the entrée. The steak is a supple filet cut, and is enriched with the decadent blue cheese and oyster tasso dressing. Each buttery bite of the steak finishes on a high note with the tangy blue cheese gravy, and you might catch a surprising chunk of briny oyster in each forkful.

Jacques-Imo's also serves a variety of fish entrées, including mirliton with oyster tasso hollandaise, but I suggest you order the carpetbagger steak over any fish selection.

Also, included with your meal at
Jacques-Imo's, is your choice of classic Southern side dishes, including slow-cooked collard greens, long-grain white rice, soupy butter beans, buttered and spiced corn, and cubed beets.

You won't have room for dessert if your order the oysters brochette and carpetbagger steak. Your pants will be unzipped before you have finished half of the entrée. But I promise, at the end of your meal at
Jacques-Imo's, your bursting stomach will already be thanking you profusely.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Red Currants

Since most of us are trying to follow through with the common New Year’s resolution of losing weight, I might as well post about a gorgeous fruit that I had an opportunity to sample in Switzerland—the red currant.

Though quite similar in taste and texture to a lightly sour raspberry, the glistening, shining surface of the tart orb is more comparable to the skin of a tender blueberry. Red currants are endowed with woody stems on their navels and their semi-translucent bodies are filled with a nucleus of tiny, hardened seeds that may lodge deep within the crevices of your molars. They come in grape-like clusters, dangling like heavy beads suspended on a wisteria branch. The tiny globe-shaped currants easily burst in your mouth and the sweet pulp will stain your eager lips. When red currants are deemed too sour for raw consumption, they are often used in fruit preserves, berry tarts, syrupy glazes, or even in yogurts or to be steeped in teas. I guarantee that one taste will have you requesting more!

Monday, January 05, 2009

Start Spreading the News

I just returned from a relaxing holiday vacation to the East Coast, cannot wait to get back to blogging about my travels and meals! I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season, and rang in the New Year the right way!

Originally, the beau and I were planning to spend the holidays exclusively in the Washington D.C. area, but at the last minute, we decided to take an inpromptu day trip to New York City. Our first and most important stop in the State of New York, was in Flushing, New York, to Joe’s Shanghai Restaurant for the beau’s favorite
shao loeng baos, or small pork dumplings, steamed in bamboo baskets lined with napa cabbage. When I had visited Joe’s Shanghai back in 2005, I remember eating large dumplings, but this time around, the dainty pork-filled dumplings were perky and bite-sized, unlike the oversized and baggy cousins I previously consumed. However, the signature soup within the shao loeng baos was still thick and dense with savory pork flavor, and not as light and brothy as other shao loeng baos I have had in California.

But my
shao loeng bao experience is not the main point of this terrific story.

That blustery day, the chilly NYC wind was especially unforgiving as it whipped our numbed, raw, and chapped noses and cheeks. Thus, soon after we ate, we randomly dove for shelter through a swinging door papered with flyers and followed steps underground into a crowded, fluorescently lit underground mall for an amazing discovery. Tucked underneath the unkempt streets of New York's Chinese enclave, was a swap meet-like amalgamation of vendors selling fantastic items, such as unlabeled DVDs of blockbuster movies for $1 dollar, and Coach, Gucci, and Versace look-alike items labeled as "Goach," "Cucci," and "Versacce." Best of all, we unearthed a bounty of small food vendors that sold mismatched plastic or Styrofoam bowls abundant with hearty noodle soups and handmade dumplings.

We saw several food stalls where the food was being prepared in plastic pastel-colored Chinatown buckets, and knew we had arrived at a special place, where the food
had to be good.

Unfortunately, there was no additional room in our stomachs because of our earlier visit to
Joe’s Shanghai, but now we know where to go eat when we return to NYC. I hope these pictures give you an idea of this underground mall--I had to "start spreading the news" about this wonderful New York place.
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