Friday, August 30, 2013

Cool as a Cucumber

When it's hot outside, as it is now, cool, refreshing foods and drinks are so satisfying. And when it is this hot, we often don't feel like turning on the stove for fear of making the house even hotter. 

As wildfires rage on all over the West, just the thought of those firefighters having to deal with this makes me uncomfortable, but sometimes I do feel like I'm sweating all the time.

A cold soup is ideal for days like these. I know it sounds weird, but if you've never had it, you might want to try this one. It's refreshingly cool ingredients work harmoniously to keep you cool. I like it with a variety of cold salads for lunch, or before grilled chicken in lieu of a salad. I plan to make this on Labor Day before I grill some fish.

Chilled Cucumber Soup

2-3 English cucumbers
1/4 cup chopped parsley
4 scallions, chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 quart buttermilk
1/2 pint each of plain yogurt and sour cream, or use 1 pint Greek yogurt
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Peel cucumbers and cut them in half, scraping out the seeds. Using English cucumbers makes this step easier, since they have far fewer seeds than regular cucumbers. Sprinkle the cucumbers with salt and let stand for 30 minutes. Drain excess water.

Chop the cucumbers coarsely and put the pieces in a food processor or blender along with everything else. Blend at high speed until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Chill well before serving.

Garnish with tiny minced cucumbers, bay shrimp or sprigs of dill or a combination of those.

NOTE: The soup can be made a few days in advance, allowing the flavors to meld. It actually benefits from it.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Love me some Pho

Sometimes it’s nice to eat light in the evening. A large lunch or a lunch eaten late in the afternoon sometimes warrants very little for dinner. In these cases, a clear soup is ideal. That was what I decided on for dinner the other night.

Pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup consisting of broth, linguine-shaped rice noodles, a few herbs and meat. It is a popular street food in Vietnam and the specialty of a number of restaurant chains around the world. Pho is usually served with either beef or chicken, but can be made with pork or tofu. Styles of pho differ by noodle width, sweetness of broth, and choice of herbs.

Pho originated in the early 20th Century in northern Vietnam. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, refugees brought pho to many countries. In the United States, pho began to enter the mainstream during the 1990’s as relations between the U.S. and Vietnam improved. Today it is ubiquitous in the Vietnamese neighborhoods of larger cities.

The key to good pho is the broth. The broth is made especially flavorful by simmering beef bones (for beef pho) or chicken bones (for chicken pho), roasted onion, roasted ginger along with spices such as Saigon cinnamon, star anise, black cardamom, coriander seed, fennel seed and clove. The spices are often wrapped in cheesecloth or a soaking bag to prevent them from floating all over the pot. Salt is typically added at the end.

Vietnamese dishes can be incredibly healthy as they are typically served with lots of greens, herbs, vegetables, and accompaniments such as dipping sauce, hot and spicy pastes, and a squeeze of lime or lemon juice. 

Toppings for pho typically include green onions and/or white onions, Thai basil (not sweet basil), fresh Thai chili peppers, lemon or lime wedges, bean sprouts and cilantro. Hoisin sauce and chili sauce are usually sitting on the tables of pho restaurants. All these condiments are served alongside the soup on a separate plate, such as in the photo, right. 

Vegetarian variations of pho use vegetable broth as a base, along with tofu for protein and a larger variety of vegetables, such as carrots and broccoli.

Either way you serve it, pho is incredibly light and healthy. Great for a light supper when you don’t want to eat too much.

Roasted chicken bones
In my opinion, the best way to make the broth is by slow cooking it in a slow cooker all day. I do this when I make bone broth. I just throw the carcass of a roasted chicken, for instance, in the slow cooker and let it cook anywhere from 24-48 hours. What's great about this method is that the chicken was roasted beforehand, thereby providing additional flavor; the bones get a chance to be useful instead of being thrown out; the broth contains important minerals that have been extracted from the bones; not to mention that the deep rich flavor that results from cooking it this way cannot be matched by any store-bought chicken broth!
Homemade chicken broth,
deep and rich!

When you've got the broth made, the hard work is done, so that you can quickly assemble the soup in the evening. Prepare the broth the evening before by placing everything in the slow cooker insert and refrigerating it overnight. In the morning, take out the insert and place it into the slow cooker and turn the crock pot on low. When you get home, boil the chicken. While the chicken is cooking, start chopping your herbs and vegetables.

Directions for Chicken Pho

Round up some chicken bones (again, the carcass from a roasted chicken is perfect)*. Place bones, ideally with some meat left on them, in your slow cooker and cover with water. If you have time, roast the following first: 1 chopped white onion and a 1-2” piece of fresh ginger, sliced, until slightly browned. Otherwise, just add them raw to the slow cooker. In addition to the bones and water, onion and ginger, gather 1 stick cinnamon, 1 star anise, 1 tsp. each of cardamom, coriander, fennel seed and 2-3 whole cloves, and place all of the above in the slow cooker and cook all day. 

If making vegetable broth, don’t overdo it. A longer cooking time does not improve a vegetable broth. In fact, sometimes it turns downright bitter. Add as many vegetables as you can that are typically used for veg broth (e.g., carrots, celery, onion and/or leek, bay leaf, peppercorns) in addition to all the spices called for in pho.

Assembling the soup:

Boil a chicken breast or 1-2 thighs per person in some water. When cooked, remove from the water and chop into bite sized pieces, reserving the hot water. Add your rice noodles to that liquid, allowing them to sit there for 5-10 minutes. In the meantime:

Slice a white onion
Chop a few scallions
Wash some bean sprouts
Slice some white mushrooms (optional)
Chop a Thai chili (or a jalapeno)
Wash and dry some Thai basil and cilantro (chop them if you like)

Taste your broth. If it has enough flavor for you, then you’re ready. If it tastes like it needs something, you can add a shot of Bragg’s Liquid Aminos, or a teeny bit of soy sauce or tamari to it.  Taste again. If it lacks any salt at this point, add some.

Place as much meat as you want into a deep noodle bowl, then ladle 1½ - 2 cups of your homemade broth over it. Add a ½ cup of the "cooked" rice noodles, and a little bit of each of the toppings. Serve with Sriracha hot sauce and hoisin sauce as they do in the pho houses. Nom nom!

* For a traditional beef pho, check out this blog article. It's got good advice for preparing the beef bones and what kind of meat to use.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Asian Cabbage Salad

Yesterday I was alone for dinner. Not wanting to make a big production and cook, I decided to keep it light and have a few salads. I love eating this way, and in my quest to avoid sitting too much, I decided to eat everything standing up in the kitchen. It was great. Can’t get away with that with people around!

I love pickled vegetables like sauerkraut, beets, pickles of course, cauliflower and carrots and whatever else is good pickled. My dad and sister recently visited the Kruegermann warehouse and bought a bunch (as in 30 jars’ worth) of pickled vegetables. From that shopping experience, I was fortunate to receive a jar of beets that are out of this world. If you like beets, I highly suggest you seek out Kruegermann’s. If you’re on the fence about beets, again I suggest you get a jar of these babies. They will change your mind. Their brine includes just the right amount of sweetness to balance the acidity of the vinegar that’s added so that you don’t end up with a mouth-puckering product. This German-based company has been making pickles and other pickled foods since 1896. They know what they’re doing. Go to their website to find a local retailer.

My first salad was a mesclun (baby greens) mix on which I placed a hefty supply of Kruegermann’s sliced beets, some crumbled goat cheese and a handful of walnuts. First I made a balsamic vinaigrette to coat my leaves, then added all the goodies on top. This is one of my favorite salads in the world. Everything works so well together and it's so super healthy.

Rice vermicelli
For my next concoction, I had a few Asian ingredients on hand and decided to make a slaw out of them. I cooked some thin rice noodles (vermicelli) I had broken into a more manageable size, then added veggies, seeds, oil and vinegar to it. Since I didn’t follow a recipe, but rather threw things together, I’m not listing quantities. Here it is.

Asian Cabbage Salad

Rice vermicelli, broken into 3” long pieces, cooked and drained
Green cabbage, shredded
Green onions, chopped
Sesame oil
Rice wine vinegar
Sesame seeds
Sliced almonds
Salt & pepper to taste

Cook the noodles according to the directions on the package. Drain and allow to cool. Place noodles in a salad bowl, add the shredded cabbage and scallions, drizzle with a little sesame oil and squirt with a few squirts of vinegar. Taste. Add more of whatever is needed. Then scatter a few spoons of sesame seeds and almonds over the lot, add salt and pepper to taste, toss and taste again. Make adjustments, if necessary. If you want a little bit of kick, add a few red pepper flakes. Enjoy!

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