Saturday, February 21, 2009

Caravanning to Caravelle

After partying like an Ox star at home, it was time to have a more intimate meal with just the family. So my wife and I met her mother, my parents and my brother at one of our favorite Chinese/Vietnamese restaurants in the DFW area, Caravelle. Like many Chinese restaurants, Caravelle was designed to double as a wedding venue. Its interior is a roomy dining hall dominated by large, round tables covered in white linen. A bird's-eye view of the mess hall would resemble a teeny weeny white polka-dot bikini. On the main wall are the requisite golden dragon and phoenix hanging above the 15'x15' wooden portion of the floor which doubles as the dance floor. But don't be fooled. Once the tables are cleared off the dance floor, nobody parties quite like a bunch of old Asian folks doing the Cha cha cha.

Cheese-fried Lobster
Our first dish was my favorite. On the menu, it reads as "lobster baked in cheese." However, it's actually chunks of lobster deep fried in some sort of cheese batter. For all I know, it could be dipped in Cheez Whiz and fried. Whatever the kitchen does to the lobster is nothing short of a work of art and I have never been disappointed with this dish, except that one time my younger cousins mutilated and discarded the large claws that were still packed with meat. The rich, salty cheese gives a similar effect of eating lobster with butter. However, the main difference is that this dish is much funner to eat, especially since other diners in the restaurant didn't leer at me for using my fingers. My strategy of attack starts with me going after the tail pieces, then the claws, and lastly the torso. Here's the play by play:

1. Using the chopsticks in my right hand and the fingers of my left, I tear out all the meaty morsels possible, devouring it with some fluffy white rice.
2. Using my razor-sharp incisors, I scrap all the fried cheesy goodness off the fiery-red shell.
3. Drink a large swallow of my beverage, preferably beer.
4. Repeat steps 1 through 3.

I continue these steps until my area more resembles a lobster graveyard than a dining table. Unfortunately, I only get to eat this on special occassions, mainly because I could easily consume a whole plate by myself and eventually be scolded by both my wife and doctor. Only after we ran out of lobster did I continue onto the following dishes.

Stuffed Tofu
What's the best way to follow up some deep-fried yummies? More deep-fried yummies! These golden-brown cubes are another family favorite, stuffed tofu. Through a magical process that is akin to open-heart surgery, large hunks of silky smooth tofu were stuffed with minced shrimp. Once plump with meat, the cubes are deep-fried (maybe in the same oil as the lobster) and served to wide-eyed patrons. Though the stuffed tofu could have been a meal in of itself, eating it with some rice helped ameliorate the oiliness. After the involved process of eating the lobster, I welcomed some easy eating...until I burned the roof of my mouth. One thing I always forget about tofu is that it has the same characteristics of a styrofoam ice chest, meaning whatever you put inside remains at the same temperature. If you ever want to make a grown hungry man cry, feed him this fresh from the fryer.

Beef Fried Noodles
By now, we were tired of deep-fried dishes and so went for this stir-fried plate. Like Matt McConaughey at UT football games, these beef noodles are a common site at our family meals. The dynamics of the ingredients started with the beef, which needs no further elaboration on its deliciousness. Next, the onions and bean sprouts added a nice crispness to make the dish seem healthier. Finally, the flat rice noodles were infused with all the juices from the beef, onions, and soy sauce. When placed infront of me, I can't help but smile.

Happy Buddha
In an effort to make the meal well-balance, we ordered this plate of mixed vegetables and tofu. The effort would have been successful had the dish not been stir-fried with enough oil to power a lantern. In all seriousness, this plate of veggies was just that, a plate of veggies. Not surprisingly, it was the last dish to be picked cleaned. In my family, food is like the US Army Rangers, no man left behind. We pride ourselves in not leaving with leftovers and we were very proud that night.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Skydiving into 1st Chinese BBQ

For my brother's birthday, he, I and some buddies went skydiving!!! I had been wanting to go for a long time and who better to dive with than my brother? By the way, that's not my brother to whom I'm attached, just in case you were wondering.

One thing about skydiving they don't tell you is that it's a lot like your favorite roller coaster. We were all excited, woke up before the sun rose, got there early just to wait. We waited for nearly two hours AFTER the instructional video. So from the time we got there to the time we jumped was nearly 4 hours. What a bummer. At least at Six Flags I could be munching on a corndog while I wait. No such luck here. By the time their little cafe opened, it was T minus 15 minutes on the launch sequence and I wanted to make sure the only thing projecting from me was the parachute.

So by the time we got back in town, it was well past lunch time and even the adrenaline rush couldn't fight off the grouchy monster and hunger demon. So we went straight to 1st Chinese BBQ for stuff our faces with roasted meat.

Their roast pork is tender, moist love wrapped in crispy happiness. It's slow roasted and then finished with a blow-torch to the skin. It's like a salty, meaty creme brulee.

Red is a suitable color for the sweet char siu (barbecued pork) since it represents the warmth the pork brought to our stomachs and hearts.

This is one of my favorite dishes, roasted duck. Unfortunately, this time they gave me mostly the bottom half of the bird so I didn't get to enjoy all that meaty goodness of the breasts. But at the time I was too hungry to send anything back.

To make ourselves feel better, we ordered a dish of ong choy (water spinach). Never mind that it was drenched in oil and possibly the fat drippings from all the roasted meat. It was green, leafy and teeming with garlic, which lots of health and anti-vampiric benefits.

So after waking up at 6:30 and fasting until 1:30, our skydiving meal was much like this blog...few words with the focus on the food.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Celebrating the Year of the Ox

To usher in the new lunar year, the year of the Ox, my wife and I had friends over for a celebration. Since most of our friends had never before experienced a Vietnamese new year celebration, it was incumbent upon me to show them a good time. We cooked up a storm, bought a whole-roasted suckling pig, and played some traditional games (bau cua) and some non-traditional games (Rock Band 2) into the wee hours of the night.

In other words, we all partied like Ox stars.

Banh Tet
For appetizers, we fried up some banh phong tom (shrimp chips) and home-made banh tet. The shrimp chips we merely bought from the market. However, don't be fooled, the shrimp chips you see in the red bowl does not come in that form. When bought, these chips are packed in a rectangular box in the form of dense, semi-translucent wafers, reminiscent crackers. If you ate these uncooked wafer, you would just get a mouthful of me, I know. The magic happens when the wafers are placed into a deep-fryer. This is when the tiny, dense wafers undergo what I refer to as Hulkification, in which they explode to 10x their original size, resulting in what you see in the red bowl above. And these chips are just as fun to eat as they are to cook. Merely pressing a cooked chip against your tongue will create a suction-cup effect adhering the chip to your taste buds. Like a Disney movie, it's fun for all ages.

My wife made the delicious banh tet, which is a type of rice cake with pork and bean filling. She tells me that making these savory cakes is similar to making huge burritos. She started off with large sheets of banana leaves. Then she added a layer of uncooked glutinous rice mixed with coconut milk and some salt. Next, she added a layer of yellow mung beans. Lastly, she added the strips of raw pork seasoned with garlic, onions, salt and pepper. Once all the ingredients are in place, she tightly rolled this heap of rawness in the banana leaf, ensuring no openings. She then wrapped foil around the cake, turning the big green roll into a big silvery roll. The rolled cake is tightly bound as if she tied a roast. Then she boiled the cakes for 7 hours. During this time, the bound rice is cooked and tries to expand but ends up becoming a sturdy outer shell to the juicy pork inside. Once cooked, the cakes left to cool before serving. Though it's traditionally served by cutting into slices and dipping in fish sauce with chili peppers, we love these "Vietnamese New Year Coins," as a friend refers to them, pan fried to make them warm and crispy. And who can say "no" to some warm and crispy?

Home-made Fried Rice
The fried rice you see here was one of my contributions to the buffet spread. Like I've mentioned in my earlier posts, I'm a fan of balance and simplicity when it comes to food and this philosophy is evident in my cooking. To make this simple yet yummy fried rice, you'll need the following:

4 cups of uncooked Jasmine rice
1 16-oz. package of Chinese sausage, sliced thinly and uniformly
1 16-oz. bag of frozen mixed vegetables
5 eggs scrambled and broken into small pieces
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 cloves of garlic, minced
salt & pepper
cilantro, chopped for garnishing

The night before, cook the rice as directed on the package. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Before frying, separate the cold rice by crumbling with your hands. Set aside.

IMPORTANT: Before even turning on the stove, make sure you have all the ingredients prepared and nearby for quick, easy access.

Heat a large wok over medium-high heat until hot. Add the oil, which should begin to smoke almost instantly. Immediately add the Chinese sausage and toss with a spatula for 2 to 3 minutes, until deep red and crispy. Add the garlic and toss until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Leaving it too long will burn the garlic. Add the rice and toss. Now this is where strong forearms are handy. Unfortunately I'm a wuss and tire easily. The title Iron Chef is earned for good reason. But I digress. Constantly toss the rice in a folding motion, as if making souffle. Continue until the rice turns slightly yellow.

Side note - There seems to be some confusion about what makes fried rice yellow. Some will say that it's from the soy sauce added while cooking. Even though soy sauce effectively makes the rice darker in color, traditional fried rice does not incorporate any soy sauce, only salt. The source of the yellow color should come from adding raw eggs to the rice while cooking. Scrambling the eggs in the rice is what makes it yellow and at the same time results in small pieces of cooked eggs. However, this process tends to be time-consuming since it takes a little while for the eggs to become fully cooked. So for efficiency's sake, I scrambled the eggs separate to save my wrist from the throbbing pain associated with constantly tossing the rice until the eggs cooked. This is evident from my pale fried rice that's only lacking in yellow and taste.

As soon as the rice is evenly coated with oil and is a desired color, add the eggs and frozen vegetables and toss until evenly distributed. Then season with salt and pepper to taste and continue tossing until the vegetables are cooked. Serve immediately with some chopped cilantro.

Home-made Rolls
My wife made these eggrolls from scratch. The only problem with these rolls of happiness was that she didn't make enough. There weren't any left over, which made me wish I had spent more time sneaking in eggrolls before the guests arrived than frying the rice. I'd normally share the recipe but this one's an ancient Vietnamese secret. All I can tell you is that the filling is a pork and shrimp combination mixed with a child's laughter and enclosed in the warmth of a mother's hug.

Roasted Pig
As mentioned before, we ordered a whole-roasted suckling pig. What made this pig different from the traditional Chinese-style roasted pig was that it was prepared in a Philippino style of pig roasting. The skin was crispy, like that of a Chinese pig, but that's where the similarities ended. Unlike a Chinese pig, where the meat is firm, this piggy's meat was fall-off-the-bone tender. So instead of chopping up chunks of meat like I would with a Chinese pig, I resorted to pulling the meat by hand, which was amazingly easy. The entire pig was seasoned through with a spice mixture that was new to me, though still based in salt and pepper. The entire pig was seasoned extremely well with no pieces of bland pork to be found. The skin, when eaten with the meat, added a nice crisp crunch that made everyone smile. As triumphant an effort all my guests made, we still ended up with 4 large containers of pork. Though my wife wish she had sent more pork home with our guests, I'm happy that she didn't. I'm still joyfully eating pork to this day and have not yet once thought, " that too much pork?"

Berry Almond Cake
For dessert, my wife make this amazing cake from scratch. Yes, the cake layers and frosting were all from scratch. The only was it would have been more from scratch was if she were to grow the fruit, almonds and grains herself, which I think she's already doing for next year. Though there are strawberries on top, it's actually a raspberry-almond cake. The layers of white cake were separated by layers of almond cream cheese frosting and raspberry preserves. All four layers were enclosed in more almond cream cheese frosting topped with raspberry preserves, strawberries and sliced almonds. Yes, it was as delicious as it sounds. I'm not sure what angels eat in heaven but I think it looks and tastes something like this.

It was an amazingly successful party thanks to all our out-of-town guests who helped in the preparations. It was a great deal of fun thanks to everyone's adventurous willingness to experience a new type of celebration. I can't wait until the next year!