Friday, March 7, 2014

The Phở Story

When I was twelve years old I spent the whole summer sleeping over at my best friend's house. She was Chinese, and practically living with her day to day was like an incredible immersion into the East. We had a lot in common because we both came to America at about nine years old and we had similar experiences trying to fit in, missing our lives back home and trying to figure out how to navigate the treacherous world of a California middle school. Although our cultures were completely different, we saw so many similarities that we naturally gravitated towards each other - our parents were busy but tried to keep us within the bounds and rules of our separate cultures while pushing us into the American world around us.  It was a schizophrenic time, and we took comfort in each other's experiences. She was an artistic spirit who liked poetry, calligraphy and literature and we spent our summer painting, reading Walden and eating. 

That particular summer was the summer that I found out what a rice steamer was, how to eat with chopsticks and was treated to many trips into Vietnamese noodle houses, where my friend's mom's friends marveled at the blond adopted kid who braved on through a whole bowl of phở, slurping and fighting with chopsticks until she reached near perfection. "Where did you find that child??" Followed by goodhearted laughter, quick Chinese chatter, and a pat on the head.
Phở will always be one of the ultimate comfort foods for me. The sweet smell of broth and the texture of velvet rice noodles will create a warm pang in my heart and in my stomach. I have had many species of phở since then, but I've been almost scared to learn how to prepare it, mostly for the fear that it would lose it's magic in my hands.

Part of the wonder of comfort food is that it is a gift, an assurance that is received into our hands from someone else's, like a medicine or a kiss on the forehead when you're sick. I was afraid to spoil that magic. 

On the other hand, there is also a comfort that lies in being able to help yourself when you're not able to go out, in figuring out how to create something so nostalgic and homey without having to change out of pajamas. It was becoming self reliant, like learning how to drive a car or being a cave person who figured out how to make fire and warm themselves. (Too much?) I finally learned how to make basic phở, and realized this was a gateway drug - I was soon experimenting with a multitude of different options, styles and tastes. Duck, pork, dumplings, egg noodles, rice noodles, prawns, basil, hot sauces, plum sauces, chili sauces... The list goes on and on.

This is the recipe to a very basic chicken phở. I love the traditional beef broth but hey - I still have a LOT of chicken broth to get through! There will be more phở later. Much, much more. 

I often experiment with different toppings and different herbs. There are so many of them in any Asian market - I usually pick off a piece of the leaf to see how it tastes - bitter, sour, spicy... Experimenting is great, and I never know what I'm going to find.

I prefer flat rice noodles, but there are hundreds of different options.

Makes one large serving, for a rainy day

1 liter of chicken broth (I like mine more fatty - so I cook it with a little added chicken fat)
2 star anise pods
1 lemon grass stalk, cut up 
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 piece of oxtail, meat on
1/4 lb beef brisket, partially frozen
1/4 onion, sliced
1 bunch green onion, chopped
1 tbsp chicken fat
Flat rice noodles, a fair amount


Sriracha sauce!
Vietnamese basil
Mung Bean Shoots
Limes, sliced

Basic rules of the road:

-NEVER cook noodles and broth in one pot. Cook them seperately.
-To cut beef into paper thin strips partially freeze it first.

In a large pot melt the chicken fat, and sautee the sliced onion.  Put in the star anise, the lemon grass (this is usually not in the recipe, but it adds incredible flavor and hey, this is my recipe ;) ) and oxtail into the simmering onions and brown for about 3 minutes on high heat. Pour in the chicken broth and simmer on low heat for about an hour, or until the meat is tender and falls off the bone. This adds so much more flavor to a plain chicken broth, although it's already delicious. At the end, add fish broth.
With tongs or using a sieve, separate the lemongrass and star anise from the broth (people also use little spice bags for cooking them, but I firmly believe that sauteing them at the beginning adds to the flavor more. You can't saute a muslin bag ;) Then, separate the meat from the bone.
In boiling water, cook the noodles and set them aside in a large bowl. I rinse them, to get rid of any left over rice goo - it will thicken your broth, and I like my broth clear.
Cut the brisket into very thin stripes - I LOVE rare brisket and I probably cut it a bit thicker than most people, but that's the great thing about doing this yourself - you can pick your favorite things about it and go crazy with them. I am planning on doing an "ultimate phở" post, where I can share the pure everything but the kitchen sink insanity that is my perfect phở. Serve and top with favorite toppings!

Today's inspiration:

"Still Life With the Red Cock"

Monday, March 3, 2014

Have I the Guts?

The weather is turning balmy - there is a teeming new wasps' nest next to my window. New life, new leaves. Romance. It brings the cat constant visual entertainment. Spring bulbs are rising to the surface with a fresh promise of perfume and colors and... what am I talking about? It's still February! I haven't had my fill of hearty, warming soups and stews, scarves and mittens! At this point, the only place where I wore a hat was in Yosemite during new years. I have thrown in the towel on the weather - the only thing I have control over is hearty stews.

Let us have the guts to keep winter around just one more week... Guts. Tripe. Or Flaki, in Polish. A spicy, thick stew dish of... well - tripe. Our version of menudo. My grandma did not make them. My mother certainly did not make them. They were the stuff of restaurants and roadside inns, road trips and someone else's grandma's house. No, not all Polish people like it. Many recoil in apprehension and horror. But I dreamily think of the earthy, spicy broth, thickened with a good roux and full of marjoram, paprika, carrots... Oh, how I long for a bowl.

Here in San Jose, there are many Mexican markets to chose from. Any good Mexican market or carniceria is going to have a fresh picking of white, washed and ready to cook tripe behind the meat counter. I glance over the white lace stacks of it and decide that one pound is enough. I am about to break the family tradition.

Tripe is almost beautiful in it's lacy meatiness. It has an earthy, particular, almost maze smell to it. To prepare it, you have to wash it thoroughly before cooking.

As this is part of the chicken broth challenge, I take out one of the larger jars of broth, and put it in a large pot with pork and beef bones I have collected. The Starving Artist always buys meat on the bone, even when doing stews. It is less expensive, and allows me to cut the meat the way I want it. The bones can be reserved for stocks. Adding extra bones when cooking Flaki will make the broth even more flavorful, especially since I never scrape the bones when cutting meat off of them - there will be plenty of extra pork and beef floating around in this stew. I'm thinking thick, rich, with the added meaty texture of the tripe. I'm thinking I can't wait until this evening...

We begin by cutting the tripe into thin strips, about half an inch wide - or even thinner. Bring the broth and bones to a simmer and put in the cut up tripe.

I immediately toss in a heaping tablespoon of marjoram a teaspoon of paprika and two teaspoons of pepper for good measure. I add more as I taste. I like to slow cook as much as I can, and since I do have time today I will just keep it on low for about 2 to 3 hours. Three is better.

When the tripe turns soft, I add sliced carrots and prepare to make the roux. In Polish, we call this "zasmażka" - or "something fried"... No... more like "fried thing" in the feminine form. Did I mention Polish is super complicated? Let's call it a roux. We use equal amounts of butter and flour. When I was little, about eight years old, my grandfather taught me how to make this basic culinary miracle. I thought that immediately classified me as a grown up. The roux goes in towards the end. Once you put it in you can start tasting the soup for any adjustments - pepper, salt, paprika... Pepper... 

Flaki always come with a ridiculous amount of marjoram and pepper. The spicier the better, and my husband remarked that I haven't put enough in when he came into the house. Before he looked into the pot. Before he even entered the kitchen.

Garnish with parsley (I garnish it with cilantro, Polish-Mex style!) and serve.

Trial and Error

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

#1 Buckwheat, Brown Rice and Wood Ear Pottage

Let's start off with the first jar of chicken broth. I seem to have plenty more where that came from, and I can't wait to get started!! 
It's still a little chilly, and a good, hearty pottage is just the thing. Besides, it started to rain and wild mushrooms are starting to come out! A few months late, but it's much better late then never. Nooo, I haven't actually picked the mushrooms. YET. I went to a local Vietnamese grocery and got a huge tray of wood ear mushrooms and fresh plump Shiitakes. I wrangled some stray vegetables from the fridge, and some buckwheat and brown rice which I always keep around. The mushrooms, roasted buckwheat and a few spices made this dish taste earthy, slightly smoky with a delicate dash of spice.

4 large wood ear mushrooms
4 large shiitakes
1/2 cup roasted buckwheat
1/3 cup of brown rice
3 sliced Brussels sprouts
a hand full of chopped green beans*
chicken broth
1 tsp smoked paprika
cayenne pepper to taste

*you know those abandoned veggies in the refrigerator you've been feeling guilty about. Now is the time. 

Bring chicken stock to a boil and add vegetables, spices, rice and buckwheat. I add the mushrooms too, except for the wood ears. I like them a bit crunchy and wait till the very end - about 4 minutes before serving.  It takes about 10 minutes for the rice and buckwheat to be ready and soft. The broth makes this taste incredible, slow cooked and homey. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

#3 Mushroom, Potato, Barley and Vegetable Soup

The weather here in San Jose turned foggy and rainy. It's a far cry from yesterday's balmy spring day, but I'm not complaining - it's February after all.

In weather like this, I like something hearty and slightly spicy. Something that will warm me up and hug me.
What better than a mix of mushrooms, barley, potatoes and a few vegetables that are still waiting in the fridge? Upon close examination of my pantry and refrigerator I decided that there is no need to go to the store - no need to leave the house before I have to. This soup is so simple that I can make it anytime I have the basics at home - potatoes, mushrooms and a few odds and ends. Even if I don't have fresh mushrooms available I always try to keep dried Porchinis at hand. The Starving Artist has a budget to keep, and getting dry goods in bulk is something that helps out in the kitchen immeasurably.

My secret to this soup is adding half a teaspoon of chili flakes to the broth at the beginning - it gives it a hot kick that warms me up on a foggy day like this. I take a huge spoonful and look out the window at the damp fog and bare trees and I feel better all over.

1 jar (about 4 cups) chicken broth
1/2 cup reserved chicken meat
4 shiitake mushrooms chopped
2 small potatoes diced
4 tbsp corn
2 carrots reserved from the original broth
(if you have any canned vegetables like carrots or peas, they will work wonderfully)
1 tsp pepper flakes
6 tbsp barley
sage leaves for garnish

Put potatoes, pepper flakes, barley and broth into a pot and simmer for about 20 minutes until barley and potatoes are soft. Add mushrooms and simmer for 5 more minutes. At the end, add the chicken and cooked carrots. A good addition would be some grated Parmesan, alas, the Starving Artist has no Parmesan today. 

The collection of chicken broth in the fridge looks untouched. We're going to have to get creative...   

#2 Chicken Pozole Verde

Aaah, new things... I love trying new things but at the same time they make me apprehensive. Especially when cooking something that comes from another culture. I think it's because sometimes, I feel like I'm intruding on the ingredients if they are unfamiliar to me: coming in with my ignorance, abusing them and making a fool of myself. Ever feel that? I have repeated various pozole recipes in my head until they felt like second nature. I have also tasted many pozoles - the pork, the chicken and pork, the vegetarian and the mixed - the verde and the more common versions. I did all of this until I felt like it was becoming "homey" in my head. And here in San Jose, it has become a much loved comfort food for me and after years and years (24 years!) I feel comfortable calling it my own and would love to share that love.

I decided on a pozole verde because it's the most flavorful pozole. I LOVE it with pork, but this time, this is part of the chicken only challenge.

Hominy. For the longest time I had no idea what it was. As a newcomer to California 24 years ago, I didn't know what to think of it because it was a taste so new and so foreign. Now, I don't think I could live without it. Hominy is dried maize which have been nixtamalized, or treated with an alkali. Sound strange? One of the first mentions of it is in the General History of the Things of New Spain, written by Bernardino de Sahagun, a Franciscan Friar.  This was a common way of treating maize in South America. Pozole is a traditional Mexican dish, served on special occasions.

My pozole verde is heavy on the citrusy tomatillos - the combination of their sour and savory flavor combined with the plump and corny hominy makes me want to use the whole five gallons of my chicken stock just for the pozole!

1 jar chicken broth (in this case about 4 cups)
1/2 cup chicken meat reserved from when I made the broth
1 large can hominy
handful of cilantro
half avocado, sliced or diced into squares
two red radishes
tbsp red onion, diced
3 large tomatillos, washed carefully

In a food processor, blend the tomatillos until smooth. Put into a pot with the chicken broth and slowly simmer. Simmer away for about 20 minutes. The color will change from bright raw green, to a calmer more sedate dark green. Open and drain one can of hominy, and add to the pot. Simmer 3 more minutes and add the reserved chicken meat. Serve in a large bowl. To garnish, use the avocado, cilantro, red onion and radishes. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Five Gallon Start

I'm not sure how it happened. We put a 5 gallon stock pot in our wedding registry. We have been generously gifted the said stock pot. It has been used once  for primary fermentation of one gallon of plum wine. Once we put the cat in it to see if he fits. But ever since then, it has been sitting on top of the refrigerator looking useful, but unused.

I finally decided to make proper use of it and cooked a full pot of chicken stock in it and I'm not sure how it happened that I never realized how much liquid 5 gallons really is. It turns out that five gallons is a LOT of liquid. A bit distressed,  I used every available jar in the house to store it, and now I could either feed an army with chicken stock or survive for the rest of winter. 

I got a bit more than I bargained for. I am not only the proud owner of 25 various sized jars of beautiful, honey colored broth, but a beautiful jar of golden shmaltz. 

Now... shmaltz. Where I grew up, shmaltz was something white, made out of pork fat, with a layer of apples and little pieces of crispy bacon. It was unforgettable on bread, almost a religious experience, however bad for you. Shmaltz can mean any type of rendered animal fat, and as is the case now, I have chicken fat. It has been a traditional animal fat used by many cultures, including the Ashkenazi Jews in Europe. I have never had much experience in it, but there was so much of it after this five gallon escapade that I kept it and decided to learn some traditional ways to use it. 

5 Gallons of Broth

5 gallons of water
6 chicken legs, with thighs and skin
1 bunch of parsley
2 large yellow onions
10 large carrots
2 large parsnips 
(let's face it - everything needs to be large)
two tablespoons of salt
tbsp whole black pepper
1 tbsp allspice
5 bay leaves
two leeks (washed carefully)

I added two large beef bones too - it helps to round the flavor a little bit)

Wash the chicken legs thoroughly and put all the other ingredients in the pot. The onion doesn't need to be peeled as the skin helps to add color to the broth. Fill the pot with cold water. Turn the heat on medium low and... wait. For a VERY long time. It is very important to not let it boil. The key is very slow simmering over a long period of time. I simmered my pot for 6 hours, then waited overnight and simmered it for two hours more. It is also important to can it when it's still hot. 

Shmaltz - 
At this point, the chicken fat is melted and floats to the top of the hot broth. It's the easiest to see when you put it in jars. It will be that slick, thick, and you'll be able to take it out no problem with a turkey baster. Put it in a separate jar. It will set overnight!

To jar the broth - 
Carefully wash your jars and lids. Take a large funnel, a sieve and let's get going! I use a sieve to prevent any large particles from getting in the jars. After such a long period of cooking, there will be a lot of vegetable particles floating around. The funnel is not necessary but helpful. After putting the lids on, let the jars sit and cool down before putting them in the fridge. You will hear a loud "pop!" as they cool. That's the lids sealing themselves. 

This will sure last for a long time. Total cost - about 13$. 

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