Category Archives: Vietnam

A World of Stuffed Peppers

Studying the cuisines of many different countries also leads to the discovery of similarities or overarching themes that cross our cultures.  For example, I have seen a recipe for stuffed peppers in almost every cuisine that I know.  Since the fillings are so different, the dishes must have evolved independently, or at least have been well-customized to local ingredients and palates all over the world.  Peppers have the perfect hollow insides and are already sized for individual servings, so it’s not hard to believe that many people over the years shared the brilliant idea of stuffing them with something.  From the chile rellenos of Mexico, to Indian-spiced potato stuffed peppers, to Cuban peppers stuffed with picadillo, to seafood stuffed peppers of Southeast Asia (see below), every culture puts their own twist on it – and it’s all very, very good!

If I remember correctly, I think my grandmother stuffed raw pepper shells with some kind of cold (not baked) bread stuffing with cheese and maybe water chestnuts – I don’t even remember if it included meat.  I’m making a note to ask if she remembers the recipe the next time I visit with her.  Other stuffed peppers of my childhood in rural Virginia were filled with rice and tomato sauce, and sometimes ground beef.

Rice, tomato and meat seems to a popular combination in Europe and the Middle East, like this Iranian stuffed pepper shown below.  The Persian flavors are of course reflective of that region, with the filling being pretty similar to what you might see in a stuffed grape leaf.

Iranian Stuffed Peppers (or Eggplant)
Prepare vegetables to stuff:  Peppers should be cut in half, seeded and blanched for about 5 minutes in boiling water, then rinsed in cold water and drained well.  Eggplant should be cut in half, shaved slightly in order to stand upright, then flesh removed to leave about ¾-inch shells. Peel and drain with salt for about 20 minutes. Then rinse, pat dry, and brown on all the outer sides in a skillet with oil.

Make Stuffing:  This makes enough to stuff 2 peppers (4 halves), 2 eggplants, or one of each. Boil 2 Tbsp. Basmati rice with 2 Tbsp. yellow split peas in lightly salted water, and simmer for about 20 minutes.  Drain well.  Brown ½ sliced onion, 1 clove garlic, and ½ lb. ground beef in a non-stick pan over medium heat. Add 1 Tbsp. tomato paste and ½ tsp. ground cumin, stir to mix well and then remove from heat.  Add the rice mixture to the meat, along with ½ c. chopped parsley, ¼ c. chopped chives, ½ Tbsp. each dried mint and dried tarragon.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Make sauce:  Mix together ½ c. tomato sauce or chopped tomatoes, 1 Tbsp. lime juice, ¼ c. sugar, ½ tsp. cinnamon, and a pinch of saffron dissolved in hot water.

Assembly:  Fill the eggplant and/or pepper halves with stuffing and place them in a casserole dish. Pour the tomato sauce around the vegetables in the pan. Cover and bake at 400 degrees for about 1 hour, or until the vegetables are tender and flavorful.  Adjust the sauce flavoring after baking, if necessary, and use it as a topping for the stuffed vegetables.

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The other stuffed pepper recipe I made this month was Vietnamese, and probably originally Chinese (?) based on some of the different recipes I perused.  The pepper is stuffed with shrimp and pork and flavored with fish sauce, garlic and sesame. Since it doesn’t have a starch filler like many other stuffed peppers (bread, rice or potatoes usually), I enjoyed this dish with rice on the side. I followed this recipe from a Vietnamese food blogger, and it worked pretty well.

So as summer comes around and you have access to fresh bell peppers, I recommend stuffing them with something – maybe an easy tuna or chicken salad, or one of the options listed above.  Regardless of the filling, it’s a fun way to add some veggies into your life!

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A couple of re-do’s

I have enough cooking experience that most recipes work well enough on the first try. Partly, it’s because I choose good recipes to start with, but I also try to adjust while cooking – whenever the directions or amount of an ingredient seem to be “off” in some way.  However, some recipes require a little more practice and I’m definitely not immune to making mistakes while cooking!

When I talked to Minh’s mother Anh – I promised her I would try making Banh Xeo (Saigon Sizzling Crepes) again.  When I tried it previously, I enjoyed the results.  But subsequently ordering it at a restaurant, I realized that I hadn’t made the crepes as thin and crispy as they are intended to be, more like the dosas of South India.  Anh showed me this flour mix that she purchases to make Banh Xeo.  The bottom is a rice flour mixture and the top is a separate packet of turmeric.  Anh adds twice as much water as the instructions on this packet call for, and then lets the flour mixture soak overnight.  She then adds the turmeric, coconut milk and beer (this is what she says makes it crispy!) before cooking the crepes.  So that’s what I did this time, though I could tell it was going to make a huge amount of batter, so I only mixed up 1/4 of the packet and still didn’t use it all.

I improvised a really good filling using the remainder of my grilled pork, shrimp, bean sprouts and mushrooms, seasoned with garlic, ginger, scallion and of course the ubiquitous fish sauce. But the cooking of the crepe has to be the trickiest part of this recipe. Even though the batter is incredibly thin, you need to cook each crepe for 8-10 minutes in the pan in order to get the browned crispy texture that is desired.  Once I realized how long it was taking each crepe, I poured some batter into the pan, then went downstairs to get my laundry, folded and put it away before returning to the kitchen.  It still wasn’t finished!  Also, the entire packet makes such a huge amount of batter it could make at least 30 or 40 crepes when they’re poured thinly like this.  I would have to have a Banh Xeo party to eat all those, but it takes so long for each individual crepe to cook that some guests might not be eating until midnight :)

Anh said that she puts part of the filling in half of the pan, then spreads the crepe batter around the entire pan.  When the crepe is finished cooking, she folds the non-filled portion over the filled side.  Done this way, the filling is actually cooked into the crepe.  I tried this, but the half containing the filling was close to burning before the crepe itself would get crispy.  So I went back to the other method of cooking the crepe and then placing the filling onto it just before folding and sliding out of the pan.  Maybe I should have used more oil, that might have also helped to create darker and more even browning of the crepe.

This second attempt at Banh Xeo was tasty, and perhaps a bit closer to the real thing, but still not even close to what I had in the restaurant.  It’s a very involved process, so like pho, I’ll probably just leave this one to the professionals!  Or if I feel like making the filling, I could always wrap it in a more typical French crepe, which I can make more easily at home.  It won’t be authentic, but will still be delicious.

I also wanted to re-try the Coconut Creme Caramel dessert.  The previous time I made this dessert, I didn’t caramelize the sugar syrup enough.  It tasted good, but wasn’t nearly as pretty.  I just made half a batch this time, 4 individual ramekins.  It’s very similar to flan, so will make a good transitional dessert to South America this week :)

Well, that’s it for Vietnamese, off to Argentina!  I’ll leave you with this final Vietnamese proverb, “In food, as in death, we feel the essential oneness of humanity.”

Mint rice with chicken (Rau Thom Com Ga)

A simple and tasty dish, adapted from a recipe in Authentic Vietnamese Cooking by Corinne Trang (my favorite from this month’s cookbooks).

Mint Rice with Chicken (Rau Thom Com Ga)
1 1/2 c. long-grain white rice
2 c. chicken broth (or 1 can, plus enough water to bring it to 2 c.)
2 shallots, minced
1 c. mint leaves, chopped
2 cooked chicken breasts
Nuoc cham sauce, to taste

Rinse the uncooked rice a few times under cold water, and set aside to drain until almost dry.  Removing some of the starch in this way keeps the rice from being too sticky in the end. Cook the rice in the chicken broth on a low simmer in a covered pot, for about 20 minutes or until liquid is absorbed.

Shred the cooked chicken breasts.  Mix the rice with the shallots, mint, and shredded chicken.  Serve it up and allow each person to season with a drizzle of nuoc cham sauce to their own liking.  If you don’t have nuoc cham, or don’t want to have the fish sauce with it, you can season it with some lime juice and black pepper.  Having a bit of sourness with the dish makes all the difference in flavor.

Odds and ends

It’s my last week to explore Vietnamese cuisine as October comes to an end, I will soon be on to November in South America!  But before I leave Vietnam, here are a few miscellaneous items that I wanted to share.

Using Lemongrass

Lemongrass is one of those ingredients I had never used until this month, but it’s really quite easy to work with.  This is what it looks like whole.  The botanist in me wants to tell you that it IS an actual grass, native to India.  Look for the stalks with larger stems like this, because for most dishes (unless you’re flavoring a broth and will later remove the tough stems) you want to use only the tender inner part of the stalks.  If you’ve ever used leeks, this is a very similar type of stalk. Trim off the root end, and remove the outer layers of the stem until you get to more tender tissue. Then slice it in half length-wise, and slice those pieces in half, continuing until you have many long thin strips. Cutting across the strips then results in very small minced pieces of lemongrass that should not be tough or noticeable in the final  dish.  As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, you can also purchase lemongrass already minced up in a tube in the herb section of many grocery stores.  It’s more expensive this way, but convenient.  If you’re only using it occasionally this may be a better option, because it will keep for a long time in the refrigerator or freezer.

Vietnamese coffee

I am not a coffee drinker, but from what I have read and what my friend Minh tells me, Vietnamese prepare coffee one small cup at a time, and the coffee is filtered by gravity through a special filter directly into the cup after a certain amount of steeping.  The French press method is a reasonable substitute, and uses a similar size grind of coffee.  Of course, coffee is yet another item that became popular in Vietnam through French influence and is now very common at breakfast.  It is often served with sweetened condensed milk.

Grilled Pork

Grilled pork and pork chops is a meat that I’ve seen and eaten regularly in Vietnamese restaurants.  The grilled pork can be served over vermicelli or in a Vietnamese submarine sandwich called banh mi.  My family has always enjoyed cooking with pork (I’ve been told it’s a Showalter trait, from my dad’s mother’s family?), so I wanted to learn how to marinate and grill this kind of pork.The recipe I found online called for 2 lbs. of pork shoulder, but since the only shoulders I could find at Kroger were 8+ pounds, I decided to buy a top loin roast instead, it had enough fat marbling to provide some good flavor and worked well for this dish.  I put the roast in the freezer for about an hour to stiffen it up for easier slicing and then sliced it thinly.  I marinated the pork slices for about 1.5 hours in a Ziploc before grilling.  It was a bit too salty when I made it, but here is an adjusted recipe that I think will work well;

Grilled pork – Vietnamese style
2 lbs. thinly sliced pork

6 garlic cloves, minced
2 scallions, minced
4 Tbsp. fish sauce
1/4 c. brown sugar
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1 Tbsp. soy sauce

Mix together the marinade ingredients to dissolve sugar.  Marinate sliced pork in the mixture for at least 1 hour.  Grill until cooked through and somewhat charred on both sides (5-10 minutes).

Pho sure

Pho (pronounced “fuh”) is a popular soup that originated in North Vietnam sometime in the late 19th century.  There seems to be some disagreement about whether the development of pho was influenced more by the French or the Chinese, and it was probably a little bit of both.  The French brought a new appreciation of beef to Vietnam, but the soup also has noodles and spices that are shared with the Chinese.

Pho starts with a rich and complex beef broth, flavored with star anise, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and garlic. There are non-beef varieties of pho, but by far the most common is beef, or Pho Bo. The broth is complicated and contains many ingredients, and it takes so long to make that most home cooks don’t bother, especially when they can easily purchase it from their favorite restaurant or street vendor.  Many Vietnamese restaurants here in the U.S. are named after the soup, including a restaurant in Raleigh that I visited yesterday called Pho Cali House of Noodles.  My pastor Duane was brave enough to join me at the restaurant to try something new.

I have eaten pho previously in restaurants and even attempted to make it once or twice at home.  However, this was my first pho experience this month during my “Savor the World” tour.  When I have attempted the broth at home I started with a canned beef broth or stock, which automatically makes an inferior product compared to a proper beef stock made by stewing beef bones, marrow and oxtail.  The broth at Pho Cali was delicious, one of the best I’ve had, with a rich beefy flavor and a nicely-balanced mix of spices.  Pho rice noodles are thin, but slightly flattened, similar to linguine.  The broth is not at all spicy-hot on it’s own, but is provided with jalapeno slices and chili sauce on the side.   Some bean sprouts and herbs are also provided as a garnish, and a squeeze of lime adds a balance of sourness.

This restaurant offers about 15 options for beef pho alone, so that you can choose your favorite combination of beef cuts.  Being a squeamish American, I avoided the tripe and tendon and ordered my pho with shank (of course!), flank and brisket meat.  There were three sizes available as you can see on the menu above – Duane and I both ordered the small bowl, which was quite a generous lunch portion.  The manager pointed out a “regular” large bowl that another customer was eating, which looked huge.  I didn’t see the extra-large bowl, but as you can see on the menu the Vietnamese name translates to “train size”!

I’ll definitely be going back to Pho Cali when the pho craving hits again. With the cooler fall weather upon us (at least it *should* be upon us after the final heat wave we’re having in Raleigh this week), there are few dishes more satisfying than slurping down a nice warm bowl of pho.

Vermicelli dinner party

As a part of this project, I would like to host at least one dinner per month where I invite local friends to help me savor the world’s cuisines.  So when I remembered that I had the day off on Friday, I invited some of my volleyball friends to join me for dinner that night.  I forgot to take a picture of the whole spread before we started eating, but here you can see their happy faces towards the end of the meal :)  From left to right, there are Ben, baby Heidi, Shannon, Julia, and Kha – who happens to be Vietnamese.

We did an “assemble-your-own” vermicelli meal.  Rice noodles come in all sizes and thicknesses, just like the wheat pasta that we are more familiar with in the U.S.  A thin rice noodle is called vermicelli, and it is used in soups and salads, and in this case a base for many different toppings.  I made some vermicelli and three main toppings: grilled pork, lemongrass beef (recipe shared previously on this blog), and a spicy lemongrass tofu.  One of the main garnishes is a bunch of different herbs and greens.
I had some romaine lettuce in the middle of my “table salad”, with cilantro, mint, thai basil, and rau ram, or Vietnamese coriander which I found at Grand Asia market. Assembly of the bowl starts with noodles and one of the proteins, topped with a bunch of herbs, and garnished with carrots, cucumber, peanuts, and bean sprouts.  Nuoc cham (fish sauce with chili and lime juice) is most often used as what we might call a “dressing”, but I also provided a hoisin/peanut butter sauce as a non-spicy flavoring.

Dessert options are limited in Vietnamese cuisine, but I found a recipe for Coconut Creme Caramel (Banh Gan) in the book Authentic Vietnamese Cooking.  It is very similar to a French Creme Caramel or a Flan, though as you can see in the picture, it’s not as brown on the top as it should be.  That was my mistake from not cooking the caramel long enough!  The custard is made from coconut milk, milk, eggs and sugar and then baked slowly in a water bath until the individual custards firm up.  I really enjoyed this dessert, the coconut-flavored custard was smooth and the syrup provided just enough sweetness without being overly sugary.  Fresh fruit is also a nice addition to this dessert, which I discovered as I ate the leftovers with sliced strawberries the next day.  I’ll have to try it again with a darker caramel, which would give it a depth of flavor that was missing this time around.

I had a lot of fun preparing and sharing the meal with friends, and I think they did too!  So local friends, be ready for your invitation sometime during the year, I’ll try to spread the love throughout my church, volleyball and work friends :)

Wine shopping

Yesterday was a brief hiatus from Vietnamese cooking, in the interest of a trip to the State Fair for some fried stuff.  It has been a busy week, so I have mainly been eating leftovers from the weekend.  I am, however, planning a small dinner party tomorrow night with a few friends.  I’ll write more about that menu later, with pictures.

In planning for the meal, I wanted to look into appropriate wines to serve with a Vietnamese meal. As you’ll probably remember, there is a heavy French influence in Vietnamese cuisine.  In my reading, I’ve seen that it is more appropriate to serve wine than beer with a Vietnamese meal.  That’s great news for me, since I don’t really like beer anyway.  And better news yet, the best wines to go with this type of meal are sweet white wines – my favorite!

I haven’t done a lot of exploration on my own beyond pinot grigio, so I went to my local wine shop Barley & Vine for some inspiration and assistance.  Back in the spring, I won a $25 gift certificate in a fundraising raffle which I hadn’t used yet.  Before going shopping, I looked up some ideas online and found the following suggestions for a Vietnamese pairing – riesling, pinot gris, gruner veltliner, rose (from Rhone Valley suggested), vouvray, and sancerre.  When I explained what I was looking for, I ended up purchasing the following 2 suggested wines; Steininger Gruner Veltliner Kamptal, and Leitz Rudesheimer Drachenstein Riesling (recommended as a “not too sweet” Riesling).  They’re chilling as we speak, and I look forward to trying them with the meal tomorrow!

Vietnamese proverb:  Good wine must drink together with good friend