Monday, August 20, 2012

Hot Weather, Cool Food

Seattle summers are gorgeous but Seattlelites need to complain about something so instead of just enjoying the cloudless azure skies and 80-90 degree afternoons on the water, we complain that it's too hot. However, not consistently hot enough to have air conditioning.

Quit your whining Seattle. Pour yourself a lemonade and eat some cool food.

Nick is checking out the market goods in Vietnam
Vietnam is always hot and I was aghast that people over there wore long sleeved button ups and trousers in 95 degree weather with a gazillion percent humidity like it's no big deal. How do you spot the tourist? Someone who is wearing a tank top, shorts, flip flops and is sweating puddles. But Vietnamese people eat some delicious and amazing food that is easy to make outside on a BBQ and is refreshing for these warm Seattle evenings and dining al fresco.

The Vietnamese Salad: Gỏi

Gỏi in Hoi An
Gỏi is more of a slaw than a western salad perhaps, but we Vietnamese love our light, crisp and fresh tasting mandolin-sliced veggies thrown together with a light dressing. There are tons of different varieties often named for what protein is served with the veggies. These are easy to make as long as you have some time to wash and slice vegetables. I've linked to recipes although I have yet to try them so I don't know if these recipes are great. An important part of Vietnamese cooking is that you don't necessarily need a list of exact ingredients; use what you have in your kitchen pantry and substitute! You can use cucumber in lieu of daikon or try some mint and parsley if you're missing cilantro. Try different things and see what tastes good.
  • Gỏi ngó sen (Lotus): Lotus stems served with julienned veggies and shrimp or pork
  • Goi tôm (Shrimp): Julienned carrots, cucumbers, daikon and crunchy things topped with shrimp
  • Goi gà (Chicken): A cabbage and chicken salad
  • Goi đu đủ (Papaya): A salad with green papaya served with slices of jerky and a vinegar-y nước mắm pha
I'll cook with my grandma this week or next and make one of these so I can write down a tried and true recipe.

Summer Rolls

Small rolls as part of a multi-course meal in Hoi An
These seem to be most popular at Thai restaurants in Seattle but summer rolls wrapped in rice paper are delicious mini burritos of awesome. If you're throwing a dinner party, you can do a 'summer roll-making party and save yourself some cooking since it requires prep only. The most popular roll is gỏi cuốn although I'm partial to bi cuốn. Either way, set out plates of fillings, a few deep plates or dishes of warm water to wet the rice paper wrappers in and allow your guests to fill their rolls with whatever they choose. The filling bar can include:
  • 8''-9'' inch rice paper round wrappers (bánh tráng)
  • Bean thread noodles (clear or cellophane noodles)
  • Rice noodles (referred to as bún, not to be confused with thicker and flatter phở noodles)
  • Shrimp/prawns which you can slice in half lengthwise
  • Fresh thai basil leaves
  • Cilantro
  • Mint
  • Daikon sprouts
  • Cucumbers sliced into  matchstick-sized pieces (the hothouse seedless English variety works well)
  • Julienned pickled carrots
  • Green and red lettuce leaves
  • Slices of fried firm tofu
  • Slices of seared pork tenderloin
  • Chives
  • Chopped peanuts
Cooking class on the rooftop deck of our Ha Long Bay cruise.
Set up some peanut-hoisin dipping sauce and some nước cham for people to dip their rolls in. A lot of restaurants like adding an extra crunch to their rolls now and will add a long piece of a deep fried rolled up sliver of either egg roll wrapper or a thin rolled up piece of deep fried bean curd lengthwise. Do what you will! You can follow a recipe and make the rolls in advance or try a make-your-own party. Then, you don't have to deal with picky friends who hate cilantro or pals who refuse to eat sprouts or whatever.

Barbecue - Vietnamese Style! 

Street meat in Hanoi. Fanning it is just advertising
Even my Texan pals can agree that Vietnamese-style barbecue is completely delicious! If you go to Vietnam, you smell the spicy-sweet aroma of grilled street meat nearly everywhere you go on little hibachi grills; you can get a full grilled meal or salad indoors at sit-down restaurants.

To beat the Seattle heat, you can grill up toppings in the backyard on a hot summer day and serve it with cold rice noodles (bún again) along with nước cham, a squeeze of lime and the assorted greens: sprouts, mint, cilantro, lettuce, green onions and matchstick-sliced cucumbers. Herbs are a big part of a refreshing Vietnamese diet so you'll see green sprinkled generously on everything.

Bun chả cá in Hanoi, cooking in oil
I love skewers like skewered grilled pork (nem nướng) or Hue regional sugarcane prawns (chạo tôm) which uses a stick of sugarcane for the skewer and allows you to suck on a sweet piece of sugarcane as you bite into the shrimp. If you've been trout or halibut fishing, bun chả cá Thăng Long or La Vong is an herbacious, fragrant and refreshing favorite of mine; it's fish that's either grilled or pan friend with tumeric and served with heaps of fresh dill so it's a great farmers market-type of dish. Nick and I were fortunate enough to have gotten to eat this meal at one of the famous monikered place in Hanoi and it was amazingly tasty. However, it's also a super-expensive dish because of its popularity in Vietnam (six or seven bucks a person if I recall - and that was pricey) but you can make it at home just as easily.

Most of the kebabs are easy to make but you can make marinated beef, pork chops, pork ribs, pork meatballs or saute some tofu. A more difficult but supremely delicious barbecue option is grilled beef in la lot leaves or bò lá lót.

Bun chả cá in my bowl
These dishes are all relatively simple to make on a summer evening but provide a great complexity of flavors and textures so you're not just having a boring salad or one-note barbecue. Here are some recipes I found online - please share if these work out for you or else comment and link to a recipe you love more.

Iced coffee in an Aussie expat bar in Hanoi.
Vietnamese Iced Coffee (cà phê sữa đá)

Vietnamese coffee is well-known because it's absolutely fabulous and another French-influenced fusion product. If you need an afternoon pick-me-up or if you're already dying of heat exhaustion in the morning, this will hit the spot.

You can brew it with actual Vietnamese coffee with a French drip-filter but save some time and use some French roast espresso mixed with sweetened condensed milk and pour it over ice. I've been drinking Vietnamese coffee hot or over ice pretty much my entire life. (When I was younger, my mom only gave me a little bit of coffee and mixed it generously with normal milk so I don't think it's coffee that stunted my growth).

Tiger Beer!
Apparently French colonists introduced coffee to Vietnam, which grows remarkably well there and now Vietnam is a top coffee producer. Because the Vietnamese typically used cows as beasts of burden rather than as milk and beef-producers, there was a shortage of fresh milk so the French couldn't have their cafe au laits. Instead, they used sweetened, condensed milk and thus, this amazingly sweet and refreshing addition. Of course, you can also cool off Vietnamese-style with some bia or beer:

Happy eating! When the weather gets cold, I'll give you a rundown of my favorite Vietnamese noodle soups since there are regional varieties that will warm you up, keep your toasty for hours and make your belly very happy.

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