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!

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