Monday, May 25, 2009

Spring When It Sizzles -- Vietnamese Banh Xeo Pancakes with Greens

The Oakland Asian Cultural Center is sponsoring a series of Asian cooking lessons with the idea of passing on these traditional foods to those who might not have grown up learning all about Laotian fresh bamboo soup or Thai green curry from their parents or grandparents. The OACC classes (which are supported by the Alliance for California Traditional Arts) put the emphasis on eating seasonally as well. For more info about the classes and how to sign up, click here.

The latest class was on Vietnamese Banh Xeo eaten with fresh greens. Taught by Thy Tran of Wandering Spoon, it was a hands-on class on this classic, which is sometimes known as sizzling or happy sounds crepe or pancake for the sound the batter should make when it hits the hot pan. (You can hear the sizzle and directions here from Tran's website.) For a slideshow featuring highlights of the class, click here.

Thy shared stories of her childhood, food experiences and her amazing mother, who taught her how to make this dish. She was determined to teach the process to us as she had learned it, by watching and then trying. She also passed on lots of tips that only experience can teach, everything from what products she found the best (see recommendations in the recipe) to tricks for peeling ginger and turmeric (use the side of a tablespoon).

Thy had us break into groups to make the rice flour batter from scratch -- from soaked rice. We added turmeric and scallions and ground the rice with water almost into a fine paste. Thy advised a little bit of grit for a better texture crepe. An acceptable option is starting with the pre-ground rice flour (look for Erawan brand with three elephants and be sure to get the kind with a red label) available from Asian markets. (To use it mix with ground turmeric, coconut milk and water until it is a creamy paste then proceed with the recipe.)

Then it was on to happy sounds; the sizzling of the crepe batter hitting the pans. Or, in some cases the not so happy sounds of students having to dump their batter out and starting over again because they used too much oil, too much batter or they started before their pans were hot enough. Thy had us frying in woks, an Indian dosa pan, a cast iron fry pan (class and Thy favorite), and a non-stick fry pan. The woks were the hardest to control, but created the most spectacularly large and golden crepes.

When the bahn xeo better was about half way cooked in the pan, we added our own combinations of cooked mung beans, stir fried pork and/or shrimp, and raw mung bean sprouts. Then we let the crepes cook until they were golden, the edges browned and a spatula inserted underneath could lift the pancake cleanly.

A quick flip of the spatula to fold the pancake in half, a slide onto the plate and it was ready for eating with dipping sauce and lots of Asian greens and red leaf lettuce. While there was a bounty of fresh greens around us, Thy was nostalgic for the really young and tender spring greens she has eaten these crepes with before, especially the ones her mother grows on her Midwestern property. We, her students, had to make do with the greens from the downtown Old Oakland Friday farmer's market (known for its Asian produce). It was a feast, and one we had all made for ourselves. We were the ones making the "happy sounds" as we devoured it all.

Here is the recipe from Thy that we used. I made a very few changes based on my notes, but the recipe is not mine. This recipe is copyright Thy Tran and is used with her permission.

Banh Xeo -- Vietnamese Sizzling Crepe
Recipe Courtesy Thy Tran,

Makes about 8 crepes, enough for 4-5 when served with the Asian Vegetable Platter

2 cups jasmine rice, soaked in water at least 4 hours
1/2 cup of coconut milk (Thy likes Chaokoh brand)
4 scallions, whites only, chopped
1 inch turmeric root, peeled and chopped, OR 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon salt

1 pound pork tenderloin, julienned or coarsely ground pork
1/2 pound whole shrimp, peeled (deveined if desired)
6 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons fish sauce (Thy likes Three Crabs, Golden Boy or Flying Lion brand)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus (lots) extra for cooking filling and crepes
Pinch of sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup dried split mung beans,
2 cups mung bean sprouts
4 scallions, greens only, sliced thinly

To grind the batter: In a blender combine the soaked, drained rice, coconut milk, scallion whites and turmeric root. Add about a cup of cold water and puree until rice is finely ground in a think batter. Drizzle in more water if needed to keep the mixture moving. It should look smooth, but still be a little coarse to the touch. Transfer to a large bowl and stir in additional water, if needed, to obtain the consistency of thick cream. Season to taste with the salt. (Can be refrigerated up to 3 days).

To prepare the filling: Marinate the pork and the shrimp in two separate bowls. Put in each 3 cloves of garlic, 1 1/2 tablespoons of fish sauce and 1 tablespoon of the oil. Season with sugar and black pepper, rubbing the pork and the shrimp to coat evenly with the marinade. (Les sit for at least 30 minutes at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator.)

Saute pork and shrimp separately in a small amount of oil in a hot wok or large skillet. Set aside. Boil the mung beans in water until al dente (about 20 minutes), drain and set aside.

When everything is ready, heat a well seasoned wok or large skillet over a medium flame. When hot, add about 1 tablespoon oil. Stir the batter and then ladle in enough batter to make an 8 inch crepe, tilting the pan to spread it evenly. (See the You Tube video above for a demonstration.)
Scatter the bean sprouts, scallion greens, split mung beans and the cooked pork and shrimp over the crepe. Cook, uncovered, until golden and the edges are lightly brown. (Thy drizzles a bit more oil around the edges of the crepe to help them brown.) Fold the crepe in half and slide on individual plates.

Serve with Asian greens, nuoc cham dipping sauce and pickled daikon and carrots (see recipes below).

To eat, take a piece of lettuce or mustard green. Add in some of the herbs and vegetables and break off a piece of the filled crepe. Roll up the herbs, vegetables and crepe morsel inside the leaf. Dip in nuoc cham and eat.

Asian Greens Platter
One head of red-leaf or Boston lettuce, leaves separated and left whole
One bunch of flat-leafed, young mustard greens
One bunch each: fresh mint, cilantro, red perilla (shiso) and rau ram
Mung Bean sprouts
Cucumbers, cut into thin spears

Wash and dry the greens and herbs. Put on platters with vegetables and serve with the crepes.

Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce
1/2 cup fish sauce
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
1/2 cup sugar
3 cloves garlic, mashed and finely minced
2 red Thai chiles, sliced thinly.

In a glass jar, combine all with 1/4 to 1/2 cup water. Shake or stir until sugar is dissolved. Adjust to taste.

Thy also served her crepes with some lightly pickled carrots and daikon. Here are her directions for making them.

Pickled Carrots and Daikon
1/2 cup white vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 carrot, peeled, thinly sliced
1 small, young daikon, peeled a, thinly sliced

In a small saucepan stir together the vinegar, sugar, sale and 1 cup water. Bring to a simmer. Remove from heat, stir in the carrot and daikon and set aside to cool uncovered. Drain before serving. Refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.

The crepes were also served with Rooster brand chile garlic sauce at the table for those who wanted to add a jolt of hotness to their experience.

Banh Xeo Slideshow

While I'm waiting for okay to publish the recipes, here's a slideshow of the recent Oakland Asian Cultural Center class on banh xeo (sizzling crepes) to whet your appetite. Update: Thy Tran of Wandering Spoon and the Asian Culinary Forum graciously okayed the use of her recipes.
You can read about the class experience and see the recipe here.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Postcards from a Broad

I'm sorry I didn't think of the above. It's the blog title for talented, fiesty, funny and wonderful Marlena Spieler. She's tricoastal (or something like that), has an knack for great writing and an instinct for great food.

I'm adding her blog, Postcards from a Broad, to my blog links. I hope you will check it out.

You can see all the blogs on my blogroll here on my links page.

6/9/11 Update: Marlena has been pretty inactive on this blog lately. She seems to update her website more often, so check in with her there.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Food Celebrities' Budget Restaurant Picks

Fresh from my weekly Budget Travel email update -- If you were a food celebrity but wanted to eat on a budget, where would you go?

Check out their "secret" picks for the U.S., Mexico, Europe and Asia here. Budget Travel thinks they are all road trip worthy. Me? If I had my way, my bags would be packed and I'd be cashing in the frequent flier miles. I know my tongue is already hanging out.

Take a look at the list and share what you know about these food celeb choices.

Bonus: Click on comments below to see what secret food fave French Laundry's Thomas Keller chose to share.

Update: June Issue has coupons good for a variety of U.S. restaurants. Click here to get your copy.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Wickedly Good Ginger Brew for Homemade Ginger Ale, Tea or Syrup

I love ginger. Can't get enough -- in savory dishes, crystallized, as a spice in baked goods, in beverages and candy there is no such thing as too much.

When I was at the Koreana Market, I picked up a bag of ginger to make my own ginger brew.

I like my ginger beverages hot, spicy and with a strong bite, so you might want to modify the directions to suit your taste. Remember you can always use less ginger brew in your soda or tea if you make it too strong, or add more sugar if you don't make the syrup sweet enough.

When you pick out ginger for this brew (or any other use), look for firm, fresh, hard pieces without bruising or mold. Avoid pieces that look wrinkled or dehydrated. Ginger keeps well in the fridge for a few weeks.

Wickedly Good Ginger Brew

This makes about 4 - 4 1/2 cups of unsweetened ginger brew. See variations below for sweetened syrup.

About 3/4 pound of whole, fresh ginger root
About 4 1/2 cups of water

Using a sturdy tablespoon, scrape the peel off the ginger roots. Slice the roots into 1/4" to 1/2" chunks.
Put in a medium saucepan and add the water. Bring to boil, cover and simmer until the ginger brew is potent enough for you. Taste periodically to see how it is. Remember it will be served diluted with water or seltzer and possibly sweetened. I left mine to simmer for almost an hour.

Remove from heat. Cool and strain, discarding ginger solids. Pour into a clean glass bottle with a lid or cap. Store in the refrigerator.

For Ginger Ale: In a large 12-ounce glass, put in sweetener to taste (sugar, sugar syrup honey, agave nectar, stevia, etc.) Add about 1/4 cup of the ginger brew and stir well until sweetener is dissolved. Add ice if desired, top with cold seltzer, stir gently. Serve.

For Ginger Tea: In a small pan, add about a half cup of ginger brew and a half cup of water. Add sweetener to taste if desired. Simmer to desired temperature, stirring occasionally.

To Make Ginger Syrup: After you have strained the liquid from the ginger solids, measure out how much of the ginger brew you want to turn into syrup and add the liquid back to the empty saucepan. Add an equal measure of sugar, honey or agave nectar (or to your taste, I usually use 1 part sugar to 2 parts ginger brew, but 1 to 1 is more traditional). Stir well. Bring back to a boil and then simmer uncovered until the sugar is fully incorporated and the brew has reduced down some. Cool and store in a glass jar or bottle with lid or cap in the refrigerator. Use cold or warm as desired. Try using in sodas, as a syrup for ice cream, waffles, etc., to flavor teas or fruit compotes or stewed fruits, etc.

Yet another good use for using seltzer!
About the photo -- My ginger brew and a glass of homemade ginger ale.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Korean on a Plate and From the Store -- Spicy Chicken, Potato and Spinach Stew

To say I enjoy exploring ethnic markets is a serious understatement. I love to spelunk the racks of unfamiliar spices, marvel at the vaguely other-worldly produce, climb over piles of not-quite-sure-how-you-use-it cookware and generally try to stuff myself with the food and experiences of another country's cuisine. An ethnic cookbook is always a good guide, especially if there are phonetic or foreign language spellings I can show a helpful clerk. An even better guide is a native eater and cook to help translate the experience for me, recommend products and brands and share recipes.

A few months ago I was driving down Telegraph Avenue in Oakland CA headed somewhere else (I think I was headed toward Whole Foods) when I spotted Koreana Plaza. I made a quick u-turn, parked and entered ethnic market nirvana. The first impression was the scent of sesame oil, garlic and soy. It was heavenly. Then I noticed the aisles of hot and cold prepared foods, a bakery counter, fish market, produce store, frozen delicacies and lots and lots of dried and canned Korean, Japanese and Chinese speciality products were there. There was even a whole aisle of red pepper paste, red pepper flakes, ground red pepper, red pepper threads and other incendiary versions of that spicy capsicum. (I may have been hallucinating because the next time I went it really wasn't a whole aisle.) Plus an entire, separate building of Korean house and kitchen wares.

I was shopping for a Super Bowl party and quickly abandoned my vague plans of fresh veggies and dips for a Korean feast. I bought everything from the ready-to-eat counter. To be honest I wasn't really sure what I was buying but I just dug right in for the adventure. The hit of the appetizers I set out was with the crab pancakes or fritters you see in the photo above.

While I've always enjoyed Korean food, I've never really tried to cook it and didn't even own a dedicated cookbook on the cuisine (quite a feat when you have as many cookbooks as I do). I began some research and have begun exploring more of the store and cuisine. A Korean friend while not exactly dismissive of the store tells me if I think Koreana Plaza is amazing I should see the Korean grocery stores in Los Angeles. My response to her -- when can we go?

A Korean Feast

For the joint birthdays of one of our best friends who is like an aunt to our sons and our youngest son we had a Korean feast. It was a weekday and I didn't have much time so I picked up the appetizers and all the banchan (sometimes spelled panchan), or little side dishes or salads, pre-made at Koreana Plaza. These included a seaweed salad, seasoned black beans, a mung bean sprouts dish, pickled radish, napa cabbage kimchi, Japanese cucumber kimchi, pickled garlic, garlic stem kimchi and more. For appetizers I picked up a kind of Korean sushi made with fish cakes and the little crab crepes that were a hit at the Super Bowl party. I also made some fresh soy beans to munch on and had some Japanese rice crackers.

To serve with all those side dishes, I grilled the pre-marinated beef short ribs ($5.99 a pound) I had gotten from Koreana Plaza. They were juicy, tasty and irresistible. I also made a vegetable and fresh rice noodle dish, white rice, cucumber salad (which I kept on the bland side for those who don't relish setting their palette on fire with all the red pepper taste I had going in the meal) and a Korean-inspired Spicy Chicken, Potato and Spinach Stew.

While I had green tea with roasted barley (a Korean standby), the adults stuck to red wine or sake, the kids grape or mango juice.

Here's the recipe for the stew. Watch for more Korean-inspired food as I continue exploring Koreana Plaza and other Korean resources in the San Francisco Bay area.

Spicy Chicken, Potato and Spinach Stew

Serves Six

This recipe was inspired by the recipe for Stewed Chicken With Potatoes in Dok Suni: Recipes from My Mother's Korean Kitchen by Jenny Kwak. My copy of the book was borrowed from the Oakland (CA) Public Library. Exploring the ethnic cookbooks from the library has always been one of my favorite ways to get up to plan my "trip" to a new cuisine.

This stew is spicy, true, but not the burn your lips and leave you sputtering kind of spicy. The broth kind of excites the taste buds and gives a gentle burn in the back of throat. Feel free to adjust the seasoning to your taste. The combination of pepper, garlic, sesame oil, sesame seeds and soy sauce is unbeatable. This makes a very soupy stew. Serve it in a bowl, with rice if you would like.

2 tablespoons cooking oil
2 medium onions, roughly chopped
4-6 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed or minced
3-4 pounds chicken thighs on the bone
6 large new red potatoes, sliced into 1/2-inch slices
4 tablespoons red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup of soy sauce (low sodium okay)
2 tablespoons of sake (Japanese rice wine), Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
1 tablespoon of Asian sesame oil
1 to 1 and 1/2 cups of water (or more)
2 bunches (about 1 1/2 pounds) of spinach, cleaned, stemmed and roughly chopped
Salt if needed
4 whole green onions (scallions), cleaned, roots cut off and sliced into 1" lengths (including greens)
2 tablespoons sesame seeds

Put the cooking oil in a large, deep skillet or in a large soup pot. Heat to medium high and add onions and saute until golden. Add garlic and saute until lightly brown. Add chicken, skin side down. Brown top and bottom. (Work in batches if needed). Add potatoes, red pepper flakes, sugar, soy sauce, wine and sesame oil. Mix well. Saute for a minute or two to blend flavors. Add water, stir well to combine. Cover and cook about 20-30 minutes over a medium heat.

Periodically check and add more water if needed. When the chicken is almost cooked through and the potatoes are tender, stir in the spinach. Cover and cook until the chicken and spinach are done, then taste and correct the seasoning with the salt if needed. Add in the sliced green onions. Stir well and cook until the onions are wilted, (about 2-3 minutes). Remove stew from the heat and transfer to a serving bowl if desired. Sprinkle with the sesame seeds.


By the way, I started preparing this whole meal at 4:30 and was ready for company at 6:30, mostly thanks to the prepared foods I picked up at Koreana Plaza. In addition to the Oakland location, the store has another location outside Sacramento, CA. Check the website for more info.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Stamp Out Hunger -- Saturday, May 9

This Saturday is the National Association of Letter Carriers and the U.S. Postal Service's Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive.

To participate, simply put out some non-perishable foods in a bag and leave it by your mailbox on Saturday, May 9. Just be sure to put out the goods before your regular mail delivery time and your letter carrier will pick it up and deliver it to your local food bank. More info is available at Help Stamp Out Hunger.

Photos of stamps from Microsoft Clip Art

Return to Laos -- Oakland Asian Cultural Center Cooking Class

I'm going to post a lot more about last weekend's cooking class at the OACC, I just haven't had time! While you wait for that, here's some of the photos I took while we made Fresh Bamboo Soup and Watercress Salad.