Vietnam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes.
~Kurt Vonnegut

Ursa major is a visible “constellation” (actually, an asterism — a prominent pattern of stars often having a title yet a tad smaller than actual constellations) which is seen in the northern hemisphere.  Fairly linear roads lead to Polaris, a yellow-white super giant and the brightest cephied variable star that pulsates radially and forms the very tail of ursa minor. Take a gander at the Alaska state flag to get a general feeling of how to envisage Polaris.

Both ursa major and ursa minor resemble ladles, pans, cups or bowls even though they tend to be translated as the “larger and smaller she-bear(s)” likely due to their northern latitude locations or some zany look at the Big Dipper picture.

On spring and summer evenings, ursa major and minor shine high on in the sky while in autumn and winter evenings, the asterism lurks closer to the horizon.  If one travels from lines of the Merck (β) to the Dubhe (α) stars of ursa major (from the outer base to the outer tip of the pan) and then go about 5x that distance and, Polaris, the north star, will be notably recognized. Polaris, and other pole stars, are relatively steady and stable.

Ursa Major was catalogued by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy in the 2nd century. Polaris has often been used as a navigational tool having guided sailors, ancient mariners, even escaping slaves on underground railroads.  It is circumpolar, meaning that it never sets in the north or never disappears below the horizon.  However, given that the Earth’s axis moves slowly, and completes a circular path at some 26,000 years or less — so, several stars take turns becoming the pole star over eons.

FLANK STEAK VIETNAMESE

½ C nước mắm Phú Quốc (fish sauce)
2 T nước măn chay pha sản (chili soy sauce)
1 lime, zested
1/2 C fresh lime juice
3 T light brown sugar
2 T fresh, local honey
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
jalapeños, stems and seeds removed, minced
1/2 C ginger, peeled and grated or finely minced

1 flank steak (about 2 lbs)

Rice noodles, just cooked al dente

Sesame seeds, for serving
Mint leaves & cilantro leaves, chopped, for serving

In a small bowl, combine the fish sauce, chili soy sauce, lime zest, lime juice, honey, brown sugar, garlic, jalapeños and ginger. Pour the mixture over the flank steak in a ziploc bag in the frig and let marinate overnight.

Light the grill to medium high, and wipe the steak with a paper towel.  Cook until done, about 3-4 minutes per side for rare to medium rare. Transfer steak to a cutting board and let rest for 10-15 minutes tented in foil while simmering the leftover marinade.

Thinly slice steak across the grain on a bias (perpendicular to the grain) and serve over al dente cooked rice noodles gently drenched with reheated marinade. Garnish meat with sesame seeds and mint leaves and cilantro leaves.

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A highbrow is the kind of person who looks at a sausage and thinks of Picasso.
~A.P. Herbert

Merguez, which has Bedouin and then Tunisian and Moroccan antecedents, has some assorted Arabic spellings:  (mirkas (ﻤﺮﻛﺲ), pl. marākis (ﻤﺮﺍﻛﺲ),mirkās (ﻤﺮﻛﺎﺱ), markas (ﻤﺭﻛﺲ) and mirqāz (ﻤﺮﻗﺲ).  After the French invasion, occupation and colonization of the Maghreb (“sunset” or “west”) which are the lands west of Egypt in coastal North Africa, the lamb/mutton or beef piquante sausage naturally spread to France and elsewhere.  The Maghreb was cordoned off from the rest of the continent by the immense Sahara Desert and peaks of the Atlas Mountains also their ports, often built by Phoenicians, look out on the shimmering Mediterranean Sea.  The area was conquered and settled by the Spanish, Italians, French, Arabs, Ottomans, Vandals, Carthaginians, Romans, Phoenicians, Berbers, Islamics, Turks, to name a few at differing times.  Sadly, there is nothing like conquest to make cuisine sublime.

Merquez is often served grilled, with tajines and stews, next to couscous or lentils, and in baguettes or buns with pommes frites — now, the latter is a scrumptious charcuterie and street food both.

Not that there exist constraints or restraints by any of these culinary means — with the exception of personal imagination.

A must.

MERGUEZ

1/4 C+ extra virgin olive oil
4 pounds spinach, stems removed, washed and dried well

2 medium onions peeled and cut into small cubes
6 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
2 T fresh mint leaves, chopped
2 T fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
2 T harissa
Freshly ground black pepper
2 t  quatre epices (recipe follows)

2 C water
2 C chicken stock
A splash of dry white wine
1/2 lb dried garbanzo or cannellini beans, drained

2 lbs fresh merguez sausage
1 T extra virgin olive oil

1/4 C lemon juice, freshly squeezed
Sea salt

Preheat the oven to 300 F

Heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a heavy Dutch oven over medium high heat. Add the spinach and cook, stirring throughout, until all the spinach has wilted and browned slightly and all the liquid has evaporated, about 20-30 minutes.

Add the onions, garlic, mint, cilantro, harissa, black pepper, and quatre epices and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes.

Pour in 4 cups water and stock and a dollop of dry white wine to the mix above, then add the garbanzos or cannellini beans. Stir, bring to a quiet simmer, and cover. Braise gently in the oven for 2 hours, or until the beans are nearly tender.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining 1 T extra virgin olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Sear the merguez on all sides, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel to drain well.

Stir the lemon juice into the beans and place the seared merguez on top. Cover and continue to braise until the beans are tender and the sausage is cooked through, about 30 minutes more. Season with salt to taste.

Quatre Epices
1 T allspice berries
1 T whole cloves
1 T nutmeg, freshly grated
1 T ground cinnamon

Grate the nutmeg. In a coffee mill or spice grinder, grind the allspice and cloves. Combine all of the spices in a bowl, stirring to mix. Use as needed, then store remainder in a tight, glass container in the cupboard.

Bon appetit!

Watch film? Savor jazz? Take in ball? Follow politics? Ofttimes too much psychic energy is spent on the star, with short shrift given to the supporting cast. So when food scheming, give pause to your sides as they tend to elevate, even eclipse, the leading roles. On that note, throw down some grilled or roasted riffs next to the mains in your medley. Then have a close your eyes moment.

Onions can make even heirs and widows weep.
~Benjamin Franklin

GRILLED ZUCCHINI, YELLOW SQUASH, EGGPLANT & ONIONS

1/2 lb zucchini, sliced 1/2″ on the bias
1/2 lb yellow squash, sliced 1/2″ on the bias
1/2 lb japanese eggplant, sliced 1/2″ on the bias
1/2 lb yellow onions, peeled and sliced 1/2″

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil, to coat well

Red pepper flakes, to taste

Fresh basil, parsley or mint cut in chiffonade (ribbons)
1/2 lemon (optional)
3-4 T pitted Nicoise olives, chopped (optional)
Goat cheese, crumbled or parmigiano reggiano, grated (optional)

Season the zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant and onions with salt and pepper, and then toss or brush thoroughly with olive oil before preparing grill.

Prepare a medium hot grill. Grill the vegetables on each side until the slices are tender, but take care not to overcook. Remove from grill, carefully arrange on a platter, and sprinkle with a pinch of red pepper flakes. Arrange grilled vegetables on a platter or plates. Just before serving, slightly drizzle with lemon juice, strew with chopped olives, add a few goat cheese crumbles or a grating of parm, and scatter your herb of choice over the grilled fare.

Pourboire: once the tomato season arrives (not soon enough), feel free to add heirlooms to the mix — a grilled version that just somewhat resembles classic ratatouille.

The torch of love is lit in the kitchen.
~French proverb

What’s in a name?

In 1803, envoys from the recently founded Nguyễn dynasty gathered in Beijing to establish diplomatic relations with their northern neighbor. The emperor had chosen the name Nam Việt for his ancient realm. The word Việt, a shortened form of Bách Việt (“hundreds of Viets”), was derived from the traditional name for the imperial domain and from those who populated what is now northern and central Vietnam. Nam (south) had been added to acknowledge expansion into lands further south.

The Chinese fervently objected to the proposed name because it conjured up memories of an identically named ancient state that had openly rebelled against China. So, it was resolved to call this culturally diverse land Việt Nam. Ironically, the words Việt Nam had appeared in several carvings and writings centuries earlier. Now, this long curve fingered nation carries the official moniker of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam (Cộng hòa xã hội chủ nghĩa Việt Nam).

The country was often called Annam until 1945, when Emperor Bảo Đại changed the official name back to Việt Nam. During French occupation, it was westerly referred to as Indochine française (Vietnamese: Đông Dương thuộc Pháp, oftened shortened to Đông Pháp).

Gỏi cuốn, often translated as “salad roll,” is a wickedly delicate Vietnamese finger food comprised of pork, shrimp, herbs, bún (rice vermicelli), and chums all serenely swaddled in Bánh tráng (rice paper). This is synergistic stuff chocked with textured, cool nuances and flavorful bursts. Tailor made for a midsummer evening.

GOI CUON (VIETNAMESE SPRING ROLLS)

1/2 lb. pork loin, ground or sliced very thinly
1 T extra virgin olive oil

1/2 lb. medium shrimp
3 stalks of lemon grass, just the thick ends, smashed and roughly chopped
Sea salt
1/4 C whole black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
3-4 thyme sprigs
2 T coriander seeds
2 shallots, peeled and halved lengthwise

1 pkg bún (rice vermicelli)

1 pkg bánh tráng (rice paper)

1 C cucumbers, peeled and petitely julienned
1 C carrots, peeled and petitely julienned
8-10 scallions, sliced thinly
Bean sprouts

1/2 head Napa cabbage or green lettuce leaves, thinly sliced
Mint leaves, cut into chiffonades
Cilantro leaves, roughly chopped

Sesame oil
Rice vinegar

Over medium high heat and in olive oil, saute, then dry and drain pork on paper towels. Meanwhile, prep, clean and dry all vegetables and herbs and place in bowls for assembly. Lightly dress the cabbage in equal parts of sesame oil and rice vinegar.

Place shrimp, lemongrass, sea salt, peppercorns, bay leaf, thyme sprigs, coriander seeds and shallots in a large stock pot. Bring to a boil and allow to cook for about 5 minutes. Then add the shrimp to the boiling water and cook until just cooked through, about 2 minutes, then drain immediately. Please take pains to not overcook as the shrimp will take a tough, rubbery turn for the worse. Once cooled, peel and then cut boiled shrimp in half, lengthwise.

Add the rice vermicelli to boiling water and cook until al dente, about 8 minutes and drain well. All ingredients must be allowed to cool to room temperature before assembly.

Creating the rolls is a one-at-a-time zen task. Dip a single sheet of rice paper into a large baking dish filled partially with lukewarm water. It will soften within seconds. Then lay flat on a work surface. (If the rice paper languishes in the water longer than a few seconds it will become overly soggy and unusable.) Keep the remaining sheets covered with a damp cloth to prevent curling. On one edge, arrange a nest of rice vermicelli, a spoonful of pork, a few shrimp, some cucumbers, carrots, scallions, bean sprouts, cabbage, mint, and cilantro. While laying out the fillings, remain cognizant of how the spring roll will look once complete. Gingerly roll up the now loaded rice paper, tucking in the sides as you go and press to seal so it is snug. Once both sides are folded inward over the filling, roll the spring roll upwards so that it becomes a somewhat uniform cylinder.

Repeat with the remaining wrappers and filling. During the process, arrange finished rolls on a plate and cover with a slightly damp cloth to keep moist as you construct the remaining rolls. Gỏi cuốn should be rolled up firmly, but not too tightly, or the they will split. They should be assembled to your liking, but not overstuffed. While the wrapping may seem difficult at first blush, once you grasp a technique it will go smoothly.

Serve at room temperature or slightly chilled with dipping sauces or concoct one to your liking.

Nuoc Leo (Peanut Sauce)
1 T peanut oil
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 t chili paste
2 T tomato paste

1/2 C chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 t sugar
2 T peanut butter
1/4 C hoisin sauce

1/4 C unsalted roasted peanuts, finely chopped
1 fresh red Thai chile pepper, seeded and thinly sliced

Heat the oil in a small saucepan and then add the garlic, chile paste, and tomato paste. Cook until the garlic is lightly golden but not browned, about 30 seconds. Whisk in the broth, sugar, peanut butter and hoisin sauce. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 3-4 minutes. Cool slightly to room temperature and serve in small bowls, garnished with peanuts, and sliced chile.

Red Curry Peanut Sauce
1/4 C roasted salted peanuts
1 T brown sugar

2-3 t Thai red curry paste
8-10 T water
2 t peanut or vegetable oil
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1/4 C finely chopped shallot (about 1 large)
2 fresh Thai or serrano chilies, including seeds, thinly sliced crosswise

Finely grind 3 tablespoons peanuts in a food processor along with brown sugar. Finely chop remaining tablespoon peanuts by hand and set aside.

Stir together curry paste (to taste) and 6 tablespoons water until paste is dissolved.

Heat oil in a heavy skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then sauté garlic, shallot, and chiles, stirring, until golden, about 4 minutes. Add ground peanut mixture and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in curry mixture and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in chopped peanuts.

Cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes, then thin with water, 1 tablespoon at a time, to desired consistency.

Rice Vinegar & Soy Sauce
1 T rice vinegar
3 T soy sauce
1 t sugar
1 t red pepper flakes
1 t sesame seeds

In a small bowl, mix together the vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, red pepper flakes and sesame seeds.

Nuoc Cham
1 t crushed red pepper flakes
1 T rice vinegar

1/2 C nuoc mam (fish sauce), available at Asian markets
1/2 C fresh lime juice
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1/2 C turbinado (raw) sugar

In a small bowl, soak the red pepper flakes in the rice wine vinegar for 15 minutes.
In a second bowl, combine the fish sauce, lime juice, garlic, and sugar.
Whisk in 1 1/2 cups boiling water to the pepper & rice wine vinegar mixture.
Add the fish sauce mixture and stir until the sugar is dissolved.

Pourboire: Not surprisingly, rice vermicelli is found in other notable asian cuisines, including chinese (米粉), malay (bihun), and thai (เส้นหมี่ sen mee).

Tacos à Paris? Enfin

June 1, 2011

Paris is always a good idea.
~Audrey Hepburn

A dimunitive spot in the Marais—not really a resto yet almost a caféCandelaria is now the self-annointed first bona fide taqueria in Paris. No doubt that claim will provoke debate on both rives and beyond. With minimal décor, a small counter, one communal table and a bouncer to boot, this venue offers tacos and tostadas to locals and tourists alike. About damn time, but never too late.

I have often been baffled why this eclectic culinary capital or even its overseas territories had not earlier embraced this humble and sumptuous street food. Tacos, un pur délice.

So, given colonial France’s nexus to southeast Asian fare…

SOUTHEAST ASIAN FISH TACOS

1/2 C shoyu
1/4 C coconut milk
1/4 C fresh lime juice
1 T red chile paste
1 T honey
4 fresh plump garlic cloves, peeled and minced
4 Thai bird chiles, stemmed and minced
2 lbs skinless halibut or mahi mahi filets

1/2 C coconut milk
1/2 C peanut butter
1/4 C fresh lime juice
1 T nước mắm Phú Quốc (fish sauce)
2 t sesame oil
1 t red chile paste
Honey
Red pepper flakes, to taste

1 C red cabbage, very thinly sliced
1 C Napa cabbage, very thinly sliced
1/2 medium red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 C pickled carrots and daikon radishes*

Fresh avocado slices
Fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
Fresh mint, roughly chopped

Heated flour tortillas or steamed bao buns

Whisk together shoyu, coconut milk, lime juice, chile paste, honey, garlic and 1/4 cup water to make a marinade. Place fish in a ziploc bag, pour marinade over the top and gently toss to coat. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

Meanwhile, stir together coconut milk, peanut butter, lime juice, fish sauce, sesame oil, and chile paste into a small saucepan over medium low heat. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, for about 5 minutes. Add a drizzle or so of honey and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Stir dressing and set aside.

Put cabbage, onions, pickled carrots/daikon into a large bowl with half of the dressing or so and toss to coat. Set slaw aside. Reserve any remaining dressing.

Prepare grill to medium heat. Drain fish, discarding marinade, and cook on well cleaned and oiled grill until it flakes easily with a fork and is opaque, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer fish to a cutting board, allow to rest for a few minutes and then roughly chop. Serve fish in warm tortillas or steamed bao buns, topped with slaw, avocado slices, dressing, cilantro and mint.

*Pickled Carrots & Daikon
1 C carrots, peeled and julienned (matchstick size)
1 C daikon radish, peeled and julienned (matchstick size)

1/4 C warm water
3/4 C rice wine vinegar
5 T sugar
1 T sea salt

Mix warm water, vinegars, sugar and salt until all is dissolved. Mix carrots and daikon radishes in a tightly lidded glass jar. Pour vinegar mixture into carrots and daikon, stir, cover, and allow to marinade for 3 days or so. Drain off liquid when ready to use.

Pourboire: of course, there are many ways to skin this quasi cat, but consider adding some red curry paste in lieu of or in addition to the red chile pastes in both the fish marinade and the slaw; or drizzle with a mix of sriracha and/or red curry paste and crema.

Lamb Down & Tzatziki

May 14, 2011

Not life, but good life, is to be chiefly valued.
~Socrates

Tomorrow, another young ruminant bites the dust. A whole roasted spring lamb with Greek fixings, including tzatziki, awaits. Having been assured that this spring sacrifice was not lured from a local childrens’ petting zoo with rodent pellets, I will sleep soundly tonight. Mary’s little lamb, on the other hand, is sleeping fleeceless with the fishes…only to be almost miraculously resurrected over glowing coals.

Cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) are cultivated creeping vines from the gourd family which bear cylindrical fruit. With south Asian origins dating back some 10,000 years, several different cucumber cultivars have emerged over time. English cucumbers have thin, tender, edible skins and a relative lack of seeds which lends sweetness.

Tzatziki (τζατζίκι) is the omnipresent and ever versatile Grecian meze, served as a dip, soup, sauce or salad. Common to Mediterranean cuisines, this delicate yet tangy mingling of cucumber, yogurt, garlic, lemon and mint often graces gyros, souvlaki, vegetables, and grilled or roasted meats, to name a few. Offer when cool as a cucumber.

TZATZIKI

1 English cucumber, peeled and diced
Sea salt

2 C Greek yogurt (yiaourti)
Juice and zest of 2 lemons
3 plump garlic cloves, peeled, smashed and finely minced
Freshly ground black pepper
Sea salt
1/2 C fresh mint leaves, cut into ribbons

Salt the cucumber and place over a wire mesh strainer positioned over a bowl. Set aside to drain for 2 hours or so.

Meanwhile, in another bowl, combine the yogurt, lemon juice and zest, garlic, black pepper, another pinch of salt, and fresh mint chiffonade.

Squeeze out the excess moisture from the cucumbers and add to the yogurt mixture. Stir well to combine. Allow to rest in refrigerator for at least two hours before serving so the flavors can marry.

Pourboire: you may also wish to drain the yogurt overnight through a cheesecloth or muslin bag suspended over a bowl. Discard the liquid in the bowl and use the thickened result. This step is mandatory should Greek yogurt be unavailable.

Mint-Basil Pesto

August 25, 2009

As for the garden of mint, the very smell of it alone recovers and refreshes our spirits, as the taste stirs up our appetite for meat.
~Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD)

This is a little follow up from an earlier pesto post…a variation on a theme.

A perennial flowering herb, mint (genus Mentha) belongs to the family Lamiaceae. Decidedly aromatic, with bright zest on the front end and a cool finish, mint is a culinary one man band—used fresh, but also in sauces, teas, beverages, cocktails, jellies, syrups, candies, and ice creams.

In Greek mythology, Minthe was a beautiful naiad (river nymph) who was obsessively charmed by Hades, the stern ruler of the Underworld and husband of the goddess Persephone. Minthe and Hades succumbed to their carnal urges and engaged in an illicit—but far from discreet—affair. The spurned wife took revenge on her husband’s mistress by savagely kicking Minthe repeatedly, transforming her into a pungently sweet mint plant. With each blow from Persephone’s foot, the plant countered by releasing her delightful aroma.

A garden caveat: the root growth of mint is aggressive, vigorous and expansive. Left to its own devices, mint will spread quickly and become a Medusa-like nuisance, so consider planting the starters in a can or bucket first before introducing it to your garden.

A beloved summer aside, mint-basil pesto mates especially well with grilled lamb, chicken and fish.

MINT-BASIL PESTO

2 C fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped
1 C fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
4 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1/4 C pine nuts or walnuts, lightly toasted
Pinch of sea salt

1/4 C parmigiano-reggiano, grated
1/4 C pecorino-romano, grated

1/2 C extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Put the mint, basil, garlic, pine nuts and salt into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Process in pulses into a paste. Add the olive oil and process further until smooth. Transfer to a bowl, stir in the cheeses and add more oil if necessary. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.