The recent long weekend represented a great opportunity to gather friends, head out of Sydney, down to the home of my best friend, L-bean, and feast! And everytime we catch up, we write another chapter in the book on feasting!
L-bean is more than just a best friend – she’s a sister to me. She is a patient, understanding, nurturing soul – listening to me whinge and wail and reliably supporting me when I clumsily made my way through every teenage milestone, quarter life and all the crises related to getting older. She swapped school lunches with me when it was clear the monotony of my mother’s packed lunches were about to make me cry. She introduced me to the many wonders, flavours and ingredients of Vietnamese food (I can credit her with my obsession with hu tieu noodles). When my mother’s non-negotiable regime of 3 solid meals of rice each day resulted in not weight gain as she’d fervently hoped, but a deeply ingrained rice phobia, L-bean taught me to accept and eventually eat rice through the wonders that are tomato rice and nuoc cham. She ensured I was well-fed with delicious home-cooked dishes when I temporarily moved out of home whilst I was doing my honours degree and was up at all hours conducting experiments and stupid time points at 3am. I owe a lot to L-bean and without a doubt, she has helped shape both me, and my love of food.
Throughout our friendship, she has cooked for me but through intense training, the Co-pilot has taught me the basics of cooking and now, I can cook with or even for L-bean. We’re entering a different and even more fulfilling phase of our friendship and I’m only now becoming acquainted with the pleasure of cooking with my old companion, sharing tips and recipes interspersed with excited chatting, catching up on gossip, and hysterical fits of laughter.
So with all the Thai cooking I’ve been doing recently, on the first night I decided to cook up a Thai feast for everyone, starting with an entree of tom yum goong that featured in a recent post. Again, using 5 bird’s eye chillies and this time fresh oyster and enoki mushrooms and a generous amount of prawns. This time we also took the heads off the prawns and threw them in at the very beginning with the chicken stock and allowed them to thoroughly infuse their flavour into the broth. We simmered the prawn heads for about 5 minutes before scooping them out and starting with the rest of the recipe as per the post. The effect was an even more intensely flavoured soup – so rich in prawn, herbs and spices. This was served with fluffy steamed rice.
For our mains I decided on som tum pu, or Thai green papaya salad with salted black field crabs. You can find the recipe here in an earlier post. I love som tum, but this version is my favourite. The black field crabs aren’t everyone’s cup of tea (the Co-pilot always wrinkles his nose at them), but I adore the pungent, fishy, salty flavours of these critters. Given it was the start of the long weekend and we weren’t in danger of annihilating work colleagues or clients the next day with our garlic breath, I made this som tum particularly garlicky and spicy.
My favourite pairing with a som tum is deep fried soft shell crab. The Thais love crab and it features prominently in many popular Thai dishes from stir fries and noodle soups to fried rice. Whilst the soft shelled variety isn’t strictly a common Thai ingredient, I have a weakness for them and soft shell crab is excellent value! A box of frozen soft shelled crab will hold 4 – 6 crabs depending on their size and at the Sydney fish markets they can be found for about $20.
To prepare the crabs, L-bean and I thawed them out and pulled out the gills (otherwise known as dead man’s fingers). We cut them into quarters and patted them dry of excess liquid. To fry, we dunked the crab pieces into an egg wash, then into corn flour seasoned subtly with salt, pepper, chicken powder and curry powder. The pieces were then dropped into hot oil a few pieces at a time to not crowd the pan and then drained on kitchen towels.
I find the spicy, refreshing flavours and crunchy textures of the som tum complement the heavier flavours of the crispy, meaty fried crab perfectly. It’s a match made in Thai heaven!
I made a very simple but well-loved Asian dessert to finish: sago (hey, I’m not much of a dessert maker so this is about my limit!). The sago was boiled in water until the opaque balls turn clear – this may require you pouring off the water, adding more and continuing to boil if the liquid becomes too thick and gloopy (the liquid becomes saturated so to get efficient cooking you need to increase the volume of water and allow more dissolution). The cooked sago is drained then coconut cream added to lubricate the pearls. I added pureed and whole sweet canned lychee and some of the sugary syrup to flavour it. Simple and a cool, soothing finish to the spicy meal.
Hot on the tail of my Thai feast, the next night L-bean prepared a Vietnamese feast for us. She’d originally planned to cook Vietnamese campfire beef but that required us leaving the warm, cosy cocoon of her home and venturing out into the icy, windy night to grill the beef on the barbecue. That plan was quickly scuttled and she prepared for the steamboat pan for beef dipped in vinegar (Bỏ nhúng dấm), which is commonly listed as “Vietnamese beef fondue” on menus. This fondue has nothing to do with cheese – the name refers to the action of dipping a thin slice of beef into a bubbling broth to cook it – and then the beef is wrapped with other ingredients in a rice paper roll. It’s like Chinese steamboat or hotpot and given the wintery weather howling outside right now, entirely appropriate.
Vietnamese beef fondue (Bỏ nhúng dấm)
Ingredients (serves 4)
Rice paper roll ingredients:
- 600g of thinly sliced tender cut of beef (we used scotch fillet)
- 1 medium daikon radish, peeled and cut into 3- 4cm long batons
- 1 large carrot, thinly julienned
- 1 bunch of common mint, leaves picked
- 1 bunch of Vietnamese mint, leaves picked
- 2 Lebanese cucumbers, halved lengthways and cut into diagonal slices
- 1 head of butter lettuce, leaves removed and washed
- 3 stacks of rice vermicelli, soaked in hot water and cut into thirds
- 2 birds eye chillies, de-seeded and finely chopped
- 1 sweet pineapple, peeled and cut into small chunks (optional)
- nuoc cham
- white vinegar
- 1 brown onion, sliced into thin rings
- juice of one young coconut (young coconut juice drinks are suffice)
- 1.5L of chicken broth
- splash of white vinegar
- splash of oil
(there are many variations on this sauce – this is the L-bean’s recipe; with volumes for non-engineers or those that have long forgotten ratios and fractions. Makes 200mL)
- 0.9 parts (50mL) fish sauce
- 0.5 parts (30mL) white rice vinegar
- 1.5 parts (80mL) water
- 0.8 parts (40mL) white sugar
- Slivers of pickled carrot and radish to garnish
- Preparing the nuoc cham is smelly business – make sure your kitchen and house is well aerated! Bring the water, vinegar and sugar to a low simmer and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Turn the heat off and stir in most of the fish sauce (turning off the heat at this point makes it a marginally less smelly process). Taste and add the rest of the fish sauce as necessary to bring it to the right level of salty/sweet balance. This step is because the amount of fish sauce depends on the brand and age of the sauce you are using. To prepare the dipping sauce for the rice paper rolls, pour a small amount into a bowl and garnish with a few slivers of pickled radish, carrot and as much chilli as desired.
- To prepare the pickled vegetables, soak the daikon radish and carrot in separate containers filled with water with a healthy splash of white vinegar and sugar. Leave these in the fridge to pickle overnight or at least 4 hours. These can be done a day in advance and will keep for several days.
- Assemble the other fresh herbs onto platters (we used 2 for convenience), and the meat onto a separate platter.
- Prepare the fondue broth at the table using a tabletop stove: heat oil in the pan on medium heat, then add the onions and fry till slightly soft.
- Pour in the young coconut juice, splash in enough vinegar to give it a vinegary tang, then add the chicken broth and bring to the boil. The broth is now ready to use.
- Dip a rice paper sheet into hot water for a second to soften (we used specialty flat rice paper holders but a plate will do. Compile your rice paper roll with all the fresh ingredients you want in preparation for the beef.
- Take a slice of beef and swish it about in the broth till just cooked. Place on top of your rice paper roll ingredients and wrap. Voila! Your rice paper roll is ready to be dipped in the nuoc cham and eaten.
The L-bean’s platters of fresh meat, vegetables and herbs were so pretty, vibrant and colourful. The pineapple isn’t a usual ingredient with beef fondue, but since she’d prepared it for the campfire beef she decided to include it in the platter. I really liked the sweet, fruity flavour it added to the roll.
The platters of thinly sliced scotch fillet were also artfully arranged. It’s important to use a tender cut of meat and have thin slices for this dish. Thick or tough cuts won’t work since the meat needs to break easily with each bite to avoid you awkwardly pulling out the entire slice of beef with the first bite.
To prepare the fondue broth we start by frying the onions – and the great aspect of this dish and similar dishes like steamboat or hot pot is that it’s great fun and everyone gets involved – or at least here, L-bean’s husband, Spamtaro and our friend Dennis do the cooking whilst I balance on a chair trying to get an aerial shot of the action!
Next, the young coconut juice goes in. This was the most intriguing ingredient for me as I don’t often cook with fresh coconut. It added an element of nutty sweetness to the broth.
Once the coconut juice comes to the boil, white vinegar is added – giving the dish it’s Vietnamese name and literal translation “beef dipped in vinegar”. To finish the broth, chicken stock is added.
And finally when the broth is bubbling and hot, the convection currents sending the onion rings on mad dashes around the pot, the beef goes in and we see where “beef fondue” gets its name. Spamtaro kindly pauses mid-dip to allow me to take an action shot. Within seconds, the beef is cooked through.
Tips for perfect rice paper rolls:
- Usually the biggest mistake people make when handling rice paper for the first time is holding the rice paper in the water until it softens. If you’re using hot water all it takes is really a quick dip in the water and straight back out. The residual water will do the rest. If you hold you rice paper in the water until it’s soft, you’ll end up with soggy rice paper with no stretch and no texture.
- Rolling nice rice paper rolls is very much a case of trial and error to test how much you can cram in, and how deft your fingers are at rolling the delicate rice paper around the amount you’ve crammed in. The key to success is NOT being greedy and starting with a modest amount so you get the hang of the rolling technique first (I routinely fail this step and cram more than is reasonable into the first roll). Try spreading the ingredients out so it doesn’t bulge in the centre of the roll and allowing the lettuce to overhang on one end for a prettier presentation effect. Then, whilst holding the ingredients in place, I fold the top down tightly over the ingredients, then fold the end in and secure it, then tightly roll everything down towards the bottom edge.
- Having the rice paper and the other fresh ingredients ready and putting the hot cooked beef on last on top of the other ingredients will help here – putting the beef on the rice paper roll first and allowing it to heat and weaken your fragile rice paper whilst you compile the other ingredients will result in torn rice paper and a mess of a roll.
As ever, the process was interactive, great fun and delicious!
L-bean was ever the considerate host and in the event we got sick of the beef or finished it, she had two flounders waiting in the wings, cleaned, scored and ready to flour and fry. The beef was so deliciously tender and flavourful we were hardly going to get “bored” of it, but since she’d prepared it, we decided to fry up the flounder anyway. The beef was substituted for the flaky white morsels of flounder flesh in the rice paper rolls. L-bean also whipped up a quick green spring onion oil to accompany the flounder, made simply by heating up a few tablespoons of oil in a pan then frying chopped spring onions for a few seconds until just heated through.
Though fried, the flounder was a tasty alternative to the beef rolls and amongst the two options, we all ate more than we should have. A strategic mistake as we were all trundling straight to bed for a few hours of precious shut eye before the Australia vs Germany football match in the 2010 FIFA world cup. Thankfully a belly full of delicious food sent us into quickly into deep food-coma slumber.
The next morning we woke at the ridiculous hour of 4:30am and watched the game. Like the time, the game too was ridiculous. I would have fared better had someone shaken me awake, slapped me in the face with the flounder and put me back to sleep.
To cheer up our deflated Aussie pride, the L-bean fixed us some delicious, fluffy buttermilk pancakes served with sweet fresh strawberries.
The breakfast was delicious and brought a smile back to our dejected faces, sending the humiliating defeat of the Socceroos to the back of our minds. Funny how food can solve most of my problems.
Everyone needs a nurturing, mothering best friend who loves to cook. I’ve got mine and I’m not sharing.
This post was also my contribution to Delicious Vietnam #3, a monthly project run by Anh of A Food Lover’s Journey and Hong & Kim from Ravenous Couple. This month is hosted by Buddha Bellies and you can find out more details about the event through this link.