Basics

Vietnamese Pho Bo

Vietnamese Pho Bo

Pho is Vietnam’s famous noodle soup that has garnered a legion of devotees around the globe. Traditionally Pho is served first thing in the morning in Vietnam, but there are Pho stalls and shops that are open 24/7 across the country. Making Pho at home does require a lot of ingredients as well as time, so most Vietnamese frequent their local Pho shop for a quick meal on the go. This is a country on the move and in perpetual motion! The energy in the air is mind boggling at first, but then your realize there is an order in this symphony of chaos that envelopes you. Welcome to Vietnam!

Pho became popular during the French colonial period in the mid eighteen hundreds. The French colonists introduced beef into the Vietnamese diet as well as French cooking methods. Some speculate, myself included, that the French beef stew called pot- ou- feu was the likely source for the name Pho, pronounced “fuh”, which is very similar in sound to the French pot-ou-feu.

Vietnamese Pho Bo

Vietnamese Pho Bo

Fortunately, these days Vietnamese restaurants serving Pho can be found in almost any city in the world. Of course you could use a Knorr Oxo beef broth sachet for a quick Pho, but taking the time to make a traditional Pho at home affords you the luxury of a well tended slow cooked broth that reflects the refined essence of this soups mystique. Hand selecting the other fresh ingredients that are added to the piping hot broth insures that the alluring aromas of this sublime Vietnamese soup fills the air as it arrives at the table.

I have to say Vietnamese food is the perfect cuisine for life in the tropics. It’s light, refreshing, cooling in the steamy hot months, and warming in the bracing monsoon and brief cool winter months.

Getting to it then, developing a perfect broth is the first step in mastering an authentic Pho. Traditional broths are poultry, meat, or seafood based, but a vegetarian broth is doable with thoughful seasoning. The Pho Bo I have made here uses a beef based broth, but feel free to substitute a chicken, pork, or vegetable broth if you like. With a well developed broth you are free to create endless variations of this Vietnamese classic.

 

Vietnamese Pho Bo:    serves 6 to 8

Nuoc Dung Bo ( beef broth)  : makes 3 liters

I like to make the broth in advance. You can then cool it, cover, and refrigerate until needed, or freeze it for later use.

  • 6 liters water
  • 3 pounds beef bones
  • 1 hand of ginger root, (unpeeled)
  • 3 medium onions, unpeeled
  • 6 whole star anise 
  • 4  four inch cinnamon sticks (Vietnamese if available)
  • 5 bay leaves
  • 6 whole cloves
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
  • 1 tablespoon white peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
  • a pinch or more of ground Saigon cinnamon (click here) to taste

Place the beef bones on a grill or under the broiler in your oven and brown the bones on all sides. Transfer the bones to a large stock pot and set aside.

Fire up a grill or place a rack directly over an open flame on the stove top. Flame roast the hand of ginger with skin on until it is well charred on all sides. Brush off excess charred bits, break the hand apart into fingers and add them to the stock pot.

Remove excess papery skin from the onions and cut them in half. Grill or flame roast the onions, unpeeled, until they are charred on all sides. Brush off excess charred bits and add them to the stock pot.

Fill the stock pot with the water and add the star anise, cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, cloves, fennel seeds, peppercorns, sugar, and salt. Partially cover with a lid and bring the water to a boil. Uncover and stir. Then reduce the heat until the liquid is just gently simmering. Simmer for 2 ½ hours or until the liquid has reduced by half. Turn off the heat and set aside for an hour or so to cool. Then strain the broth through a fine mesh strainer into a large bowl. Discard all the solids and set the broth aside until you are ready to assemble the Pho, or transfer to containers with lids and refrigerate. As you will probably have more broth than you will need you may want to freeze the rest of the broth.

Beef:

preheat the oven to 400 f/200 c

  • 1 pound good quality beef round or filet
  • flaked sea salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • fish sauce

Salt and pepper the beef on all sides. Gently rub the beef with fish sauce and place it in a preheated sizzling hot skillet. Quickly sear the beef on all sides and transfer to a roasting pan.

Put the beef in the oven and roast for no more than 12 minutes. You want the beef to be very rare in the center. Promptly remove ifrom the oven, cover lightly with foil, and cool to room temperature.

Just before you are ready to serve the Pho  slice the beef as thinly as possible across the grain. Place the slices on a plate and set aside. The beef slices will be slipped into the Pho right before serving.

Noodles:

  • 1 pound dried rice vermicelli or 1 pound thin Chinese egg noodles, fresh or dried.

If you are using rice noddles soak them in cold water for 20 minutes. When you are ready to assemble the soup place the soaked vermicelli in a wire mesh basket and lower them into the simmering broth for about 30 seconds and then transfer them to individual bowls, add broth and other ingredients, and serve.

If you are using Chinese egg noodles boil them in a generous pot of salted water as you would pasta, cooked al dente. Transfer to bowls and add broth and other accompanying ingredients, and serve.

Fresh garnishes for Pho Bo: pickled mustars greens, ngo gai(saw tooth coriander), chilies, scallions, coriander and lime wedges,

Fresh garnishes for Pho Bo: pickled mustars greens, ngo gai(saw tooth coriander), chilies, scallions, coriander and lime wedges,

Accompaniments:

The following ingredients should be available in Asian markets. Gather all of the following accompaniments together,  lined up, and ready to add to the bowls of steaming hot Pho just before serving.

  • mung bean sprouts
  • coriander leaves
  • ngo gai (saw tooth coriander, if available), thinly sliced
  • Vietnamese/Thai sweet basil leaves
  • green scallions, thinly sliced
  • finely sliced fresh red chilies, to taste Best to remove the seeds before chopping.
  • pickled mustard greens (du chua)
  • Saigon cinnamon (if available)
  • Lime wedges
  • fish sauce (nuoc mam/nam pla

Serving:

Taste the broth and adjust the seasoning, adding fish sauce and/ or salt, and a pinch or 2 of Saigon cinnamon to your liking. Then bring the broth to a full boil.

Place warmed noodles into individual bowls and ladle broth over the noodles to cover generously. Garnish with bean sprouts, sliced ngo gai (if using), basil leaves, sliced scallions, and some finely sliced red chilies. 

Slip 4 or 5 slices of the thinly sliced beef into each bowl and serve.

Place bowls of sliced pickled mustard greens, grated ginger, finely sliced red chilies, and lime wedges on the table along with a platter or bowl laden with all the leafy garnishes on the table for adding to each individuals tastes. Be sure to have a dispenser of the ubiquitous nuoc mam/ nam pla  (fish sauce) on the table as well.

Bon appetite!

Malfatti;Italian ricotta and spinach dumplings

Malfatti; Italian ricotta and spinach dumplings

 

Malfatti, which loosely  translates as “poorly made” in Italian, are billowy dumplings of ricotta and spinach. Essentially gnocchi, but without the dough casing. A wonderful choice for a gorgeous light meal that is sure to satisfy even die hard meat sauce lovers.

Malfatti speak for themselves. Unlike gnocchi, there is no fiddling about making perfectly shaped dumplings. These have a very rustic homemade allure that harkens back to 17th century northern Italian cooks in the countryside. Malfatti can be steamed, boiled, sauted, or gently cooked in a simple tomato sauce.

I make my own ricotta (see recipes here) paired with the simplest tomato sauce (see recipe here) made with imported Italian tomatoes or tomato passata, fresh Italian tomatoes which have been passed through a food mill to remove the skin and seeds. Imported passata is readily available. To a passata just add onions, garlic, salt and pepper, and olive oil and you have the simplest of red  sauces made in no time.

 

Malfatti: makes about 15    3 servings

Malfatti in red sauce

Malfatti in red sauce

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • large bunch of young spinach leaves, chopped
  • 6oz/170g ricotta cheese
  • 1 organic egg, whisked
  • 1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • ¼ tsp finely grated nutmeg
  • 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
    prepared red sauce
  • whole dried red chiles (optional)

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium high heat. Add the spinach and saute just until the spinach has wilted, about 1 minute. Transfer the spinach to a paper towel to absorb excess water and set aside.

Place the ricotta in a mixing bowl and add the wilted spinach, egg, ¾ cup of Parmegiano-Regiano, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and flour. Fold the ingredients together until just combined and coming together.

Cover the mixture and refrigerate for 30 minutes. This will make the malfatti easier to form.

Then scoop out a generous tablespoon size portions of the mixture and form into elongated egg shapes without being too concerned about their uniformity. Think malfatti!

Place them on a parchment lined tray, cover, and refrigerate until you are ready to cook them in red sauce.

Preheat the oven to 350f/180c

Warm the red sauce and pour a cup or so in a baking dish. Then add the malfatti to the dish and add more sauce to nearly cover the malfatti with only the top exposed. Add the dried chiles if using and transfer the baking dish to the oven and bake for 20 minutes.

Open the oven and add the remaining ¼ cup grated Parmigiano over the tops of the malfatti. Turn the baking dish for even baking and continue baking until just lightly browned, about 15 minutes.

Serving:

Serve the malfatti as pictured in a pool of red sauce along with a mixed greens salad and some crusty bread.

A perfect summer meal!

Meatballs....perfect (Basics)

Meatballs….perfect (Basics)

 

Just a mention of meatballs and spaghetti is probably going to conjure up a flashback to one of those cafeteria lunch offerings we would all rather forget from our childhood. And of course most of us didn’t have an Italian Nona to cook for us, so we were left with the next best option, the ubiquitous Italian American restaurant versions of meatballs and spaghetti which were just often delicious enough to keep us coming back. 

Fortunately, the true glories of meatballs have surfaced in nearly every culture and cuisine throughout the ages. From China’s Qin Dynasty, the Romans, the Persians, and of course the modern day Italian’s cuisine we are all familiar with today.

The recipe that follows does not stray far from the wisdom of the Italian Nona. My one exception is making the meatballs larger than the smaller traditional Italian “polpettes”. I much prefer the tender juiciness of these meatballs that are slowly simmered in a simple traditional “passata” tomato sauce. Serve them as they are or with pasta along with a beautiful crisp salad and you have a perfect pairing for simple meal for any season.

Meatballs (Basics)

Meatballs (Basics)

 

Meatballs…(Basics)     makes twelve 2 ½ oz meatballs

  • 1 pound/ 455 g best quality ground beef
  • 1 pound/ 455 g lean ground pork 
  • 2 thin slices pancetta, minced
  • ½ cup dry breadcrumbs
  • 3 tablespoons whole milk
  • 1 ½ cups grated Parmigiano-Regiano
  • 1 small onion, minced (about ¾ cup)
  • 2 small garlic cloves, minced (about 1 tablespoon)
  • ½ cup finely chopped Italian parsley leaves
  • 1 extra large organic egg, whisked
  • ¾ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
  • 1 ½ teaspoons flaked sea salt + more to taste
  • 1 cup flour
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Passata tomato sauce
  • 3 bay leaves

In a large mixing bowl combine the ground beef, ground pork, and minced pancetta. Toss with your hands until well combined and set aside.

In a small mixing bowl combine the bread crumbs and milk. Set aside for 5 minutes and then squeeze out the excess milk.

In a medium bowl combine the milk soaked bread crumbs, 1 cup grated Parmegiano-Reggiano, minced onion, minced garlic, chopped parsley, whisked egg, ground pepper, pepper flakes, and sea salt. Toss the ingredients together until well combined. Then scatter the mixture over the ground meats and pancetta.

Using your hands, toss all the ingredients together until they are completely combined. Cover the mixture with cling film and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Once the chilled meatball mixture has firmed up, remove from the fridge, and weigh out 12 2 oz portions. Roll each portion gently between the palms of your hands until uniformly rounded. Do not over compress the mixture as you roll the meatballs. The less densely compacted they are the more tender and juicy they will be when cooked.

Gently roll each meatball in the flour until evenly coated. Shake off excess flour and place the meatballs on a tray. Cover the filled tray with cling film and refrigerate for 30 minutes. This will firm up the meatballs so they retain their shape while browning them.

Preheat the oven to 350 F/ 180 C

Remove the chilled meatballs from the fridge. Place the olive oil in a wide shallow braising pan or oven proof skillet set over medium heat. When the oil is nearly smoking add half of the meatballs to the pan and cook them until evenly browned on all sides. When done remove the meatballs and set them aside on a platter while you brown the remaining meatballs.

Once all the meatballs are browned, pour most of the oil out of the pan and remove any remaining bits left in the pan using a paper towel. The pan should look fairly clean. Add a bit more fresh oil if necessary.

Return the browned meatballs to the braising pan and pour the preheated “passata” tomato sauce into the pan until it nearly covers the meatballs leaving just the tops exposed. Tuck the bay leaves into the sauce and transfer the pan to the oven. The braising can also be done on the stove top if an oven is not an option.

After 30 minutes open the oven door, turn the pan, and add more sauce if needed. Return the pan to the oven for another 30 minutes. When finished the sauce should have thickened somewhat and the tops of the meatballs nicely glazed.

If you are serving the meatballs on a bed of pasta as pictured, have the pasta cooked al dente and ready for serving as soon as the meatballs come out of the oven.

Serving: Place the pasta on individual plates and top with 3 meatballs per serving. Spoon sauce over the pasta and a little over the meatballs. Top each meatball with the remaining grated Parmegiano-Reggiano and serve.

 

“Passata” Tomato Sauce:

  • 2  24 oz bottles or cartons of Italian passata tomato sauce (Mutti brand is very good)
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 ½ to 2 teaspoons sea salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • a pinch of sugar
  • ½ teaspoon ground red chile (optional)
  • chicken stock as needed

“Passata” describes a process where vine ripe Roma tomatoes are passed through a food mill and then cooked. The process removes the seeds and skin from the tomatoes and once cooked makes a simple tomato sauce with just a few added ingredients.

I highly recommend using imported passata. There are several brands available. Mutti is my favorite and makes a beautiful sauce bursting with flavor.

Place a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the olive oil and when nearly smoking pour in the passata and stir. Once the sauce comes back to a boil lower the heat to a simmer. Stir in the salt, black pepper, sugar, and chile powder if using. Cook for 30 minutes, stirring from time to time. Add hot chicken stock if the sauce needs thinning.

Keep the sauce warm on the stove top to add to the meatballs for braising or for saucing pasta before serving.

You will most likely have left over sauce which you can freeze for later use.

Chili (Basics)

Chili (Basics)

 

Who doesn’t love a “bowl of red”, that infamous hot and spicy earthy red chili stew from Texas and the American Southwest. Chili’s popularity really took hold when local chili joints starting popping up across the country in the early 1900’s. A Chili nation was born and chili has been embraced as real North American food ever since!

But hold on, beans, tomatoes, chile peppers, and cacao are all native to the Americas and cultivated by native central American peoples as staple foods along with maize as cornerstones of their diet. Stews not unlike what we now know as chili were likely being cooked up by the Aztecs long before the Europeans ever set foot in the new world. With the arrival of the Spanish and the Portuguese spices like cumin from the eastern Mediterranean and cinnamon from south Asia were introduced into the local native cuisine and influenced the evolving cuisines of Central and South America.

So yes, Chili’s North Americanization and enduring popularity is undeniable, but it is also a testament to the ingenuity of earlier native American cultures as well.

Making an authentic chili is really quite simple. What follows is a very basic recipe to build from. For me, a well made chili hinges on using the very best authentic ingredients. A stellar chili is a stand alone dish that needs little embellishment. Forget the chili season mixes, the cheese, and the sour cream. It is all about savoring the deep the earthy flavors and aromas of chile combined with the earthiness of the beans!

Authentic New Mexico pure ground red chile, ground chipotle chile, Mexican oregano, and chorizo are all available on line if they are not available where you live.

 

Chili:   serves 6

Ingredients:

  • ¼ cup cold pressed peanut or olive oil
  • 4 cups diced onions
  • 5 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt
  • 1 ¼ pounds/570 grams best quality ground beef
  • 3 tablespoons pure ground red chile (New Mexican is ideal)
  • 1 tablespoon ground chipotle chile
  • 2 tablespoons toasted cumin seeds, coarsely ground
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano (Mexican is ideal)
  • 2 tablespoons pure unsweetened cocoa powder
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/3 cup tomato paste (imported Italian is best)
  • 1 quart beef stock, hot
  • 2 cans kidney beans or pinto beans (or home cooked), partially drained
  • 1 oz/28 g thinly sliced chorizo, cut into thin strips
  • 4 chopped fire roasted green chilies
  • diced red onions

Place 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy bottomed soup pot over medium heat. When the oil is hot add the onions and reduce the heat to medium low. Season with a little salt and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are soft and translucent, about 20 minutes. Add the garlic, stir, and cook another couple of minutes.

While the onions are cooking, place a skillet over medium heat and add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. When the oil is hot add the ground beef, season with a little salt, and saute until the beef releases its juices and is lightly brown and crumbly, about 15 minutes.

Transfer the beef to the soup pot with the onions and stir to combine. Add the ground chile, ground chipotle chile, cumin seeds, oregano, cocoa, and cinnamon. Season with a little salt and stir until well combined. Then form a well in the center of the pot and add the tomato paste, smashing it against the bottom of the pan to caramelize the paste for about 2 minutes. Then add about two thirds of the hot stock, stir to combine, and bring the contents back up to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes.

Stir in the beans and add the remaining stock. Bring the contents back to a low simmer, add the chorizo, and cook for another 30 minutes, or until the chilli has thickened and is a beautiful deep red. Taste and add salt if needed.

I like to serve the chili family style with individual chili bowls set out for each person. Be sure to have small bowls of chopped fire roasted green chilies (see here) and diced red onions for those who want to add some fiery heat to their chili. I love to serve my chili with freshly steamed tamales (see here) as well, but a basket of warm flour tortillas or cornbread will do nicely as well.

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