13 August 2009

A New Family Tradition: Vietnamese Food!

By now, you all know my sister has a successful food blog. We started blogging around the same time, but she dove into it headfirst and has never looked back. I, on the other hand, have taken various detours and breaks, but somehow continue to plod along. I think it is safe to say that my sister's blogging is part of the reason I push on with mine. Food is one of the strongest bonds we share, and she certainly lets me know when I haven't updated my blog recently. I take it as a compliment. The most fun thing about food blogging with my sister is being able to check out what she's cooking - duh. We always talk about food, but it is different to actually have the recipes and instructions presented to me in a format that I can revisit. This is especially true for Southeast Asian food, which I have loved for a long time, but I have been intimidated to cook at home.

Why would I be intimidated to cook Southeast Asian food at home? I make Mexican, Spanish, Italian, Brasilian, whatever... but Southeast Asian freaks me out a little bit. Because Laura is THAT GOOD of a Southeast Asian cook. She could blow me out of the water - and probably a lot of other people. She makes her own curry paste for heavens sake! With a giant mortar and pestle - the way she learned in Thailand. Who could live up to that?! So my motto has been either eat Southeast Asian food out or have my sister make it for me. I am slowly, but surely trying to change that motto. I still eat it out, and I definitely won't turn down a meal from Laura, but I should really be brave enough to make some of my favorites at home.

Which brings this post full circle... Laura's blog has a lot of delicious, clear, easy-to-follow instructions for many Southeast Asian dishes. Most recently I have decided to master the art of making a Vietnamese Bun Salad at home. Of course, I turned to Laura's blog for the easy ideas and instructions. The pictures for this post are of my second attempt. I actually think my first attempt turned out better because I had more ingredients on hand (like fresh cilantro and steak). This version incorporated the traditional base of lettuce, rice vermicelli, carrots, cucumbers and onions, but I was missing bean sprouts, fresh cilantro, basil and mint. Instead of steak (or pork or chicken or whatever), I pan seared tofu that I tossed in frozen minced basil and cilantro from Trader Joe's. It didn't quite have the flavor punch that fresh herbs would have given it, but it was quite tasty once I added the delicious Nuac Cham dressing.

I am submitting this entry to the monthly Family Recipes: Memories of Food, Family and Fun blog event hosted by HoneyB and my sister. This probably isn't a typical entry for the event, but my sister is making Southeast Asian food a family tradition for her family. I get the benefit of coming along for the ride - and I am thoroughly enjoying learning to incorporate my sister's traditions into my own life. If I haven't already tempted you enough to visit my sister's blog, you should head over there to check out this month's round up.
I am pasting the instructions from Laura's blog for Nuac Cham, but she is right when she says it is an intensely personal concoction. I use a LOT more lime juice and sugar than she does, and I add in a bunch of heat with a ton of garlic chile paste (the easy way out). The fish sauce I currently have is very fishy and salty, so that is why I ended up adjusting the ratios so much. So really you should taste as you go and adjust to personal preference. Visit Laura's blog for all of her instructions on making your own delicious Bun salad.

Nuoc Cham
Every Vietnamese family (and non-Vietnamese but Vietnamese-food-loving family, such as ours) has their own recipe for nuoc cham. Many recipes call for some water to dilute the nuoc cham—I use very little because I love the really strong flavors inherent in the dish. The version I prefer is more commonly prepared in the south, where sugar, garlic and lime juice are added, as opposed to a more simple Northern preparation of fresh chiles in fish sauce. Lately I have left out the chiles because I want my daughters to love the dish and be familiar with these flavors, but if you want the heat, I recommend very thin slices (forming rings) of Thai bird chiles. The measurements I have given are extremely rough—everything is to taste, and it should be to your taste, not mine. I never measure anything for this dish but rather just sit with the ingredients in front of me, adding and tasting until I get it right. Raw garlic bothers my stomach, so for the garlic I add 1-3 smashed cloves of garlic and let it infuse the dressing.

1-3 cloves garlic, smashed
juice of 2 limes
7 T good quality fish sauce (nuoc mam)
3 T sugar
2 T water

Mix ingredients and make sure that the sugar dissolves. If too salty, try more lime juice. If too sour, try more fish sauce. If too overwhelming and/or not sweet enough try water and/or sugar. If too sweet, try some fish sauce and lime juice (or just fish sauce, depending on how sour you like things). The dressing should not really be sweet, but rather just hint at it. IF the condiment is totally new to you and so you are having trouble deciding what it should taste like, I recommend setting it aside until you have the rice vermicelli made, and then drizzling a little on the noodles and judging from that. Much like a salsa that might be too strong on its own but pairs beautifully with a corn tortilla chip, the nuoc cham’s accurate flavor might not be exposed by tasting it on its own.

I usually make nuoc cham the afternoon that I am serving it, to allow it a little time for the flavors to mesh. I will use that day's nuoc cham for the following night as well if we are having leftovers, but I do not bother keeping it beyond that. Maybe I would if we had it frequently, but as much as I love Vietnamese food, there are way too many other cuisines I love as much to commit like that!


Laura said...

Wow I feel like I should print this out and frame it! :) Thanks for submitting and thanks for everything you said. I love that you chose this recipe actually--I do make it all the time and you are my family so I think it is perfect.

Ashley said...

I love the colors in these photos - I want to dive right in!

HoneyB said...

I think it is great to be pushed outside the box by your sister :-) lol. Great post Josie! Thanks :-)

Cate said...

It looks like it's packed with flavor - delish!

theprovidentwoman said...