Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Hurricane Ike Evacuation, Part 4

Our fourth night as evacuees was spent at my mom's house. This night was special because she was hosting a prayer session in honor of my grandparents and great-grandparents. When she told me this, I was expecting a group of about 10-15 close friends over for dinner and prayer. But oh did I underestimate my mama. Her guestlist included over 70 guests and she prepared the feast for all the guest virtually single-handed.

It wasn't until the 11th hour did she ask for help, i.e., the event started at 7pm and she didn't call on us until 10am that morning. She bought all the groceries herself. The night before the event, she was up until 4 am preparing ingredients for sausage, two types of sticky rice, congee (rice porridge), stir-fried noodles and more. By the time we arrived to help, she had gotten most things to the point she just needed to combine items and put over fire. However, she did need me to grate the cucumbers. The problem was she didn't have a grater. So instead, I had to use a peeler. Yes, one of those things that peels the skin off potatoes and carrots, I used that. To effectively grate 20 lbs of cucumbers for the Vietnamese salad called goi. Yes, 20 lbs!!! I've never hated cucumbers more in my life.

Since I was busy grating cucumbers, I didn't get any fotos of the prep work. But here are some of the results:

Mama's Buffet
Clockwise from the purple rice: purple sticky rice, peanut sticky rice, goi (Vietnamese salad, yay me for grating 20 lbs of cucumbers), stir-fried beef noodles, eggrolls, and fried shrimp chips. The coloring of the purple sticky rice is just for show. Sometimes it made red or just left as plain white. The peanut sticky rice is white sticky rice mixed with peanuts boiled soft so that it almost serves as a creamy compliment to the sweet rice. Because I grew up eating it, I never really knew what it was, but wikipedia can tell you more about sticky rice. The beef noodles are similar to what you'd find at a Chinese restaurant, except my mama's dish is much better. It's not drowned in sauce, not too salty and with a good balance of beef, veggies and rice noodles.

Assorted Meats
For those of you a bit squimish, you may want to skip to the next foto. Here are platters of all things pork not served in 99% of restaurants. In no particular order (because it's all mixed together), there's boiled pork intestine, stomach, tongue, belly, ear and liver. These tasty tidbits were added to the congee made with coagulated pig blood. If the previous 2 sentences sparked more intrigue than indigestion, consider yourself a foodie.

Vietnamese Sausage
Here's the home-made sausage. Well, technically my mama only prepared the filling and had the sausages stuffed by professionals, though I'm sure she seriously considered doing it herself. As you can see that unlike the sausage at the store, which is comprised of evenly ground meats, this sausage is purposedly chunky. Though I'm unsure why we wouldn't just leave the meat chunks out for eat as is, it sure tastes good.

Though there were many other food items, I didn't get more fotos because with over 70 on the guestlist, once the food is laid out, no one waits for the cameraman to get a shot. I'll end this post with some words of wisdom: NEVER get in the way of a woman with a huge pot of boiling soup.


Monday, September 29, 2008

Ike Evacuation, Part 3

Finally got internet at the house again. So I'll be playing catch up these next few posts. Stay tuned.

During our third day back in Dallas we were treated to a Laotian feast fit for kings. Our good friends had a housewarming that included what seemed like 20 family-members from Kansas. And what kind of housewarming would it be without a proper buffet? Several of the visiting family members seemingly worked 16 hours straight so that we could experience a food coma. Here are some fotos of the fruits of their labor.

I apologize in advance for any misunderstandings or misrepresentations of the foods items you are about to see.

Housewarming Lunch
So here's everything laid out in smaller serving bowls. I wish I could give you detailed descriptions about each dish's ingredients and method of cooking, but much like when I was growing up, I was told to not ask questions and finish everything in my bowl. And that's exactly what I did. I've never been one to offend the cook, in this case several Laotian women ready to put me in my place. Though giving you my best guess of each dish would only showcase my ignorance of Laotian cuisine, I do distinctively remember lots of bamboo shoots, roasted pig and beef salad. Once again, that was beef salad. Much like a salad is a bowl full of shredded lettuce, the beef salad was a bowl of thinly-slice beef. Honestly, any cuisine with a meat salad wins my vote.

Roasted Pork
Here's a foto of the roasted pig. Each piece had a layer of moist, salty meat, rich, oily fat and crispy, crunchy skin. I think if I were to have a last meal, it would include roast pig.

Peppers for Dipping Sauce
They warned me that the food would be spicy, but seeing as how I love to sweat, I told them how the food was just right. So here's what they whipped up for me to eat with the food. Yes, that's just a bunch of BYA (burn your a**) pepper crushed with salt and sugar. To this they added some sort of soy sauce mixture. Let's just say I didn't again comment on how the food wasn't spicy enough.

Seem like a lot of food? It was. But that was only lunch. After a siesta, we were ready to eat some more...at least expected to.

Dinner Preparations
And why wouldn't everyone be expected to eat more, especially when the out-of-town guests worked so hard on preparations. This foto was only a small portion of what was being prepared for dinner. As soon as the ladies saw me in the kitchen with a camera, threats were made on my life if any fotos were taken of them cooking. I heeded their warnings.


This dish was simply called nem, which is the name of the main ingredient. Though nem is briefly described on wikipedia (last bullet under "Meat Dishes"), wiki fails to mention that it's a slightly sour type of sausage that is usually eaten while drinking beer.

What these ladies did with it wasn't anything short of genius. They crumbled huge pieces of nem by hand, mixed in rice, lime juice and other secret ingredients, reshaped the mixture into balls and deep-fried the newly-formed bundles of joy.

Deep-fried Happiness
The result are crispy spheres that look ready for devouring. Or so I thought until I reached for one and was promptly scolded. The ladies weren't done yet. This was but a mere step in the preparation of this dish.

Ball Breaker
Next came the ball breaking and I'm not talking about them giving me a hard time all day for snapping fotos while they toiled away. The fried, steamy clump of meat and rice was then crumbled to form what almost looked like Chinese fried rice. I guess it technically was still fried rice, but I didn't refer to it as much for fear of offending the lovely ladies preparing the meal.

Laotian Nem
Finally, the mixture is tossed with fresh cilantro and served. The result is a dish combining moist steamed rice, crunchy fried pieces, sour meaty pork chunks and fresh flavorful cilantro. In other words, every bite was a spoonful of "OMG that's good!"

There were so much more delicious Laotian dishes I ate that night, but in all the celebration associated with a housewarming, my focus on fotography blurred as the night went on. Though I ate much more than I should have, my only regret is that I didn't give each lady a hug for the food they made.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Short Interruption

Been without internet at home ever since Hurricane Ike rolled through. Will update as soon as I'm back online. Thanks for checking in!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Ike Evacuation, Part 2

Our second night back was spent at my wife's aunt's place where it's obvious she shares my mother-in-law's hatred of hunger.

Meal @ Aunt Cuc's
Clockwise from the watermelon chunks: mango salad, eggrolls and fried shrimp crackers, fresh greens, rice noodles with pork and various condiments. In addition to this fotos, she also steamed some beautiful blue crabs. However, there's no fotos of the crabs because I was too excited and forgot, which seems to happen more often than I'd like.

Aunt Cuc's Mango Salad
Here's a close-up of the mango salad. This is traditionally prepared with green papaya instead of mango, but my aunt-in-law was experimenting. But unlike my high-school chemistry class, this experiment was wildly successful. The mango was tender, the cucumbers were crisp, the peanuts were crunchy, the shrimp was firm and the herbs were flavorful. All this tossed in a light mixture of vinegar and sugar makes for a refreshing salad that easily fills you up without the guilt.

Aunt Cuc's Eggrolls
Of course the salad has to be guilt-free because here is where all the guilt lies, home-made eggrolls and fried shrimp crackers. Eggrolls are the Vietnamese equivalent to the hamburger. Everyone makes them slightly different and it's very hard to mess up. These were delicious; I had three after I was already full, just to make sure I was full. I think she uses a shrimp and pork mixture. The shrimp crackers are always a favorite of mine. You can buy these things packaged at the store where they look and feel like little squares of uncooked lasagna. However, toss these babies into a pot of boiling oil for 30 seconds and they'll expand into what you see here, crunchy salty shrimp-flavored wafers that make me feel like a kid again. What I like to do with them is just put them against my tongue and as it dissolves on my tongue, a strange vacuum is created causing it to stick. To me, this phenomena is undeniable proof that I was meant to eat it.

Ike Evacuation, Part 1

Though Hurricane Ike caused some major damage to the Houston area and my neighborhood, one of the silver linings of Ike's storm clouds is that the wife and I spent another weekend in Dallas with some great home-cooking from our families.

We had dinner at my mother-in-law's the first night back and here's what she made:

Mama Minh's Chicken Strips
My mother-in-law felt adventurous this day and experimented with chicken tenders. She created her own batter and served it with a traditional Vietnamese dipping sauce. The combination worked great and I ended up eating much more than I should have.

Mama Minh's Tofu Soup
This tofu soup is a traditional Vietnamese soup. Though this dish and some rice is typically all a person would need for a meal, my mother-in-law must have decided that, since we were evacuees, we must also be suffering from famine because she also served the following:

Meal @ Mama Minh's
She served some stewed catfish and steamed chicken. As you can see, hunger is four-letter word in my mother-in-law's home. Of course I'm not complaining, rather merely stating a wonderful fact.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Mama's cooking

While in Dallas over the weekend, I got to enjoy some of my wife's mama's cooking. Whenever we visit her, she always sends us home with at least 3 dishes. Though the leftovers are delicious, there's nothing like enjoying home-cooking fresh of the heat.

So here are some of the dishes we got to stuff in our face. The fotos are only of those dishes prepared by my mother-in-law. Sdaly, I forgot to take fotos of my mama's dishes for posting. Thank goodness she doesn't have internet otherwise her feelings might be hurt.

Sea Bass Congee
This was congee, which is a type of rice porridge. This one was made with sea bass and garnished with green onions. Congee, like ramen, provides a bottom-less bowl of possibilities. You could have congee with poultry, beef, pork, eggs, veggies, tofu, SPAM, anything.

Thit Kho & Rau
The next meal consisted of stewed pork and hard-boiled eggs served with stir-fried spinach. This is similary to the recipe I used on beef shanks recently. At first, the thought of pork and hard-boiled eggs seem odd for a stew, but it's just as good of a pairing as bacon and eggs.

And for dessert, simply strawberries. These were some of the most beautiful strawberries I'd ever seen. Their near perfect red complexion almost seemed to have been painted on by a team of food artists, but yet, they had merely been rinsed under the faucet and served. These morsels of mother nature were very sweet and juicy and completely satisfied my sweet tooth, which sometimes seems insatiable.

Though my mother-in-law's cooking is difference than my mama's, it's just as yummy. One thing the two mamas have in common is they both are compelled to make much more food than necessary. Though I've tried to explain that exceeding expectations isn't always necessary, it never sticks. What makes their food so great is the passion with which they cook. They spend a significant part of the day cooking. As if the act of cooking wasn't time consuming enough, they spend plenty of brain power planning the meals, determing the courses, shopping for ingredients and taking no shortcuts when it comes to cook time. For the longest time, I couldn't understand why sometimes it feels they're only a few seconds away from force-feeding us. But now I realize that this is their way of loving us. My wife and I are no longer little children for them to hug and pinch our cheeks. To get around that, they make us pinch our bellies. The time they spend cooking for us would be enough for them to throw a Martha Stewart-style party. But instead, it's all for us. And though we tell them we love them, it's no substitute for us eating everything they serve us.

In light of approaching Hurricane Ike, we'll be visiting Dallas again this weekend for more gluttony. Unlike our last visit, I'll remember to bring the camera to my mom's house too.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Sake to me

During our visit to Dallas, we stopped into our favorite DFW sushi restaurant Sushi Sake. Over 10 years ago, we first set foot into their original location in a nearby strip mall and it was love at first bite. Though we've tried other DFW sushi establishments since, Sushi Sake is still our #1.

Having dinner here almost feels like dining into Edo-era Japan. We were graciously greeted by the hostess, who used to don a kimono but not so in our recent visits. Maybe the kinomos were sent to the cleaners in Japan. From the entrance looking in, sushi bar is to the left where a few of the chefs were the same ones we first saw 10 years ago. With sake barrels stacked from floor to ceiling and the specials that'll make anyone hungry, it's not hard to see why these chefs are always smiling. The main dining room has two rows of picnic-style tables and seats. Small parties should be prepared to share a table with strangers. The back dining room provides an even more authentic experience for larger parties with tables that give the appearance of sitting on the ground and lighting that mimics candlelight.

Now onto the food:

Seaweed Salad
Started the meal with seaweed salad, which is a standard appetizer for us at sushi restaurants.

Assorted appetizers
Clockwise from back left: Miso-marinated sea bass, kaki fry (fried oysters), tempura dipping sauce, kisu tempura (fried whitefish).

Though the miso-marinated sea bass didn't look like others we've had (see my trip to Arubiya Kinnosuke), it was still very tasty. And even though the other two dishes are fried, we still consider it healthy because it's in a sushi restaurant.

Assorted Nigiri
From front to back:
Left column: ikura (salmon roe), tobiko (flying-fish roe), uni (sea urchin), amaebi (sweet shrimp), fried shrimp head
Middle column: unagi (fresh-water eel), anago (sea eel), hotate (scallop), aji (mackerel)
Right column: unagi, ika (squid), smoked salmon, sake (fresh salmon)

Though everything was delicious, my favorite of the evening was the aji. It was extremely fresh this night and seemed more wonderfully fatty than usual. Thank goodness we ordered extra.

No-rice Tiger-eye
Here's a blast from the past, their beloved tiger-eye. This item hasn't been on their menu for many years, but we always write it in and they always make it for us. Unlike tiger-eyes at other places, here they make it without rice. Asparagus wrapped in smoked salmon wrapped in squid wrapped in joy. It's served warm, which may explain the warmth in our hearts after eating it.

One of my wife's favorite is chawanmushi, which is a mixture of egg whites, broth, mushrooms, chicken, shrimp, spinach, ginko bean, and other items steamed forming a piping hot, savory flan. Well worth the 20-minute wait it takes for them to bring it out.

Mango & Green Tea Ice Cream
For dessert, mango and green-tea ice cream. If those words don't make you want some, then you probably haven't had any. It's a healthy indulgence because everyone knows that mangos and green tea are good for us.

I love this place so much I've written a haiku:

Oh Sushi Sake
So much I want to order
Rubs tummy and smiles

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Braised Beef

The other night I made braised beef. It was an experiment actually. My wife had a company dinner so I was left to fend for myself. In the fridge was about 2 lbs. of beef shank originally intended for osso bucco. However, I felt adventurous and decided to experiment, i.e., I didn't want to go through the hassles of a fancy Milanese recipe.

Being a lazy bum, I braised the shanks using a simple Vietnamese recipe that's intended for pork.

2 lbs. beef shank
3 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoon fish sauce
2 cups boiling water

Add the sugar to a pot on medium heat (I used a clay pot but any will do). Let sugar become a dark caramel, somewhere between the point of caramelizing and burning. Add the water and fish sauce, stir and bring to a boil. Add the beef shanks and reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer for at least an hour, periodically checking liquid levels. Add as much pepper as you'd like and serve. That's it; nice and simple, like me.

Vietnamese Braised Beef

With my first bite, it was obvious this recipe was meant for pork. The beef flavor overpowered the sauce. Now don't get me wrong, I loved the tender beef as much as I loved the fatty sauce it simmered in, but I just loved them separately. After living my whole life with this dish made only with pork, it took a some time to acclimate.

Vietnamese Braised Beef Served

I had it with some boiled spinach. This dish is an example of the heart of most Vietnamese meals. Stewed protein served with boiled veggies on top of a bed of rice. This maybe the origin of my love for well-balanced dishes. The earthy veggies checks against the salty, fatty beef all balanced with the bland rice resulting in a ménage à trois for your taste buds.

All in all, though it wasn't a combination I was used to, I'd make it again. Especially since I got to enjoy some delicious marrow, AKA butter of the gods.

Update: My wife and I had the leftovers the following night and she said she loved it. Though I'd like to believe her, I can't help to think what she really meant was that she loved me for trying. =D