Sunday, December 20, 2009

Banh Tet Chuoi: Vietnamese Sticky Rice with Banana


Out of all the different iterations of sticky rice wrapped in some type of leaf, whether it’s lotus leaf or banana leaf, perhaps my favorite sweet version is Vietnamese sticky rice with banana wrapped in banana leaf.  The sweetness of the sticky rice plays well with the coconut milk that it is cooked in.  This infusion of coconut flavor into the rice combined with banana creates a great flavor profile that can be found in a few other types of banh and che: most notably for me is banh chuoi nuong (Vietnamese banana bread).


Another thing that I love about banana sticky rice is the fragrance.  The banana leaves give off a great leafy aroma and the sticky rice is fairly fragrant, almost akin to basmati rice.  Not only do the leaves give off a grant fragrance, but their leafiness is also imbued into the rice itself. 

To prepare the banana sticky rice, the rice must be soaked for at least a couple hours (overnight even) before cooking.  I’m not really sure why it needs to be soaked, but if I had to take a guess it’s probably because the rice is steamed rather than boiled.  Soaking the rice before steaming may give the rice the proper moisture it needs to soften when cooked. 

Friday, December 11, 2009



Sorry about the brief hiatus.  No excuses.  I’ve just been a little lazy recently.  I thought it’d be a good time to talk about my knives now since I put them to really good use this past weekend. On Monday, I helped cook dinner at the Lincoln Park Community Shelter. We made chicken pot pie, green beans, salad, and caramelized apples with cranberries. I was responsible for sourcing everything and preparing enough chicken pot pie filling for 50 people ahead of time.

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Determined from the get go to make the filling from scratch (even down to the stock, which added a robust chickeniness you can’t find in a can), I had to do a fair amount of mise en place: cutting up 5 pounds of carrots, 3 pounds of celery, 6 pounds of onions, and breaking down 40 pounds of chicken. I was also planning on stemming, blanching, and shocking 12 pounds of green beans, but I simply ran out of time.  With that much mise en place to do, it turned out to be a great opportunity to practice my basic knife skills.

You’ll notice, from left to right in the top picture, that I have an 8” chef’s, 7” santoku, 10” serrated bread knife, 2 paring knives, and a 7” nakiri.  My first three knife purchases were the 8” chef’s, the Victorinox paring knife, and the Victorinox serrated bread knife.  Many people consider these three types of knives to be the three knives you really need if you were to only own the essentials.


The 8” Shun Classic chef’s knife pictured above was my first “real” knife.  I first heard of Shun knives reading through Alton Brown’s book on kitchen gear.  The combination of a Western style blade, Japanese edge/steel/handle intrigued me.  Before I learned of Shun knives, I was already a fan of the Japanese-style D-shaped handles.  My grandma’s Chinese clever had a similar handle that I really enjoyed.  I’ve had this knife for about a year now, and it’s served me well.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

I Love New Pork City, Part 2: Thit Kho


So for part 2 of my pork rampage I decided to make some thit kho (pronounced “tit caw,” and yes I laugh every time I say it out loud because I’m in the second grade), a Vietnamese comfort food from my youth.  Thit kho is basically braised pork with a fishsauce/sugar sauce and is such a great example of the harmonious balance between savory and sweet that one typically finds in Southeast Asian cuisine.  The unique thing about this seemingly simple dish is that the pork gets a coating of caramelized sugar.  My mom’s way of doing this was to first heat sugar in a pan and then brown the pork in the caramelized sugar.  Pork shoulder was typically her choice cut of meat, but for my rendition I wanted to use pork belly.


Despite the fond memories I have of eating thit kho, sometimes the pork would come out dry because my mom would trim a lot of the fat.  This wasn’t a big deal since there is a sauce to add moisture, but it was hard to look past it sometimes because I felt the dish was perfect in every other way.  To alleviate this potential pitfall, I chose pork belly for it’s unctuousness and ability to not dry out due to its layers of fat.  I used some pork shoulder that I set aside when butchering the shoulder for my carnitas so I could compare which cut I liked better: belly or shoulder. 


I mentioned that my mom makes thit kho by first caramelizing sugar in the pan.  I’ve done it this way before, but I’ve been using a new method the last few times I’ve made thit kho.  What I do is simply marinate the meat in a combination of fishsauce, sugar, garlic, shallots, and water.  The marinade later becomes the base of the sauce, and I find that marinating the meat enhances the flavor of the final dish.  Traditionally, though, coconut water is used rather than water for the base of the sauce.  My mom said coconut water is used because it’s so abundant in Vietnam.  I’m guessing it also adds slightly to the overall sweetness of the dish.  After marinating the meat overnight, I brown the meat and the sugar from the marinade caramelizes on the outside of the meat very nicely.


Aside from the pork, my mom and I make thit kho with eggs and tofu skin, or yuba as it is also called which I recently discovered by dining at Alinea.  Tofu skin comes packaged either as flat sheets or what are often called “sticks” or “threads.”  The sticks/threads are basically flat sheets that are rolled up to resemble a stick.  My mom uses the sticks and breaks them up into 2-inch pieces and I’ve kept that consistent with my thit kho.  The tofu skin needs to be soaked in water before cooking to reconstitute it a bit, but I soaked mine in marinade just for kicks.  When cooked, the tofu skin adds a great chewy texture to the dish.  By nature, tofu skin is only a bit chewy, but tofu skin sticks are even chewier because they are denser because its basically tofu skin folder over onto itself.  And even though some may say tofu is flavorless, I feel that tofu skin has a very distinct flavor and I love it.  One of my favorite dim sum dishes is tofu skin stuffed with mushroom and various other things.  Also, I like the funny logo for the particular brand of tofu skin that I bought, so how can I not enjoy tofu skin?


When it comes to the eggs, they were by far my favorite part of the dish as a kid.  Cooking the eggs with the pork and sauce imparts the general flavor of the dish directly into the eggs.  Eaten alone, the eggs taste great, but there was just something so divine about the combination of thit kho sauce, hard-cooked egg infused with thit kho flavors, and some rice.  The memories of my mom saving the eggs for me because she knew I loved them makes me want to try new things with the general flavor profile of thit kho sauce and eggs.  Perhaps eggs poached in thit kho sauce over rice for breakfast?


Another aspect of my thit kho that breaks away from my mom’s preparation is the recent inclusion of brussels sprouts.  I got the idea spontaneously when I saw some nice brussels sprouts for sale and recalled Tom’s recent use of them in paella.  I didn’t take long for me to realize that the bitterness of brussels sprouts would probably play really nicely with the sweetness of thit kho.  It didn’t hurt that I loved brussels sprouts as a kid and still do specifically for their bitterness.  I was really excited to see how it would come out, but unfortunately when it came time to execute I didn’t think it through very well and added the brussels sprouts to the braise at the very beginning.  Flavor-wise, I wish the brussels sprouts came out a little more bitter, but they did their job and added a new aspect to the dish.  However, the long braising resulted in textures and visuals that I wasn’t going for: a mushy, mopy green sphere.  I wanted some crunch or bite to the brussels sprouts to give some contrast to the other textures of the thit kho and bright green colors to go against the brown color of the sauce.

I fortified the sauce with some homemade beef stock that I made from the 8 bazillion pounds of short rib bones I had from butchering and grinding a ton of short rib meat  for the volunteer dinner I did at a the Lincoln Park Community Shelter.  We made hamburgers that were a mix of chuck and short rib that I freshly ground.

In the end, I felt the addition of brussels sprouts was nice but poorly executed, and I definitely preferred the pieces of pork belly over pork shoulder.  The belly simply had more flavor and was by far more moist.  I’ve already started planning Part 3 of my pork adventure: Chinese BBQ-style roast pork using pork belly.

Friday, November 20, 2009

I Love New Pork City, Part 1: Carnitas

I’ve been going on a pork rampage of sorts lately.  It all started when my dad visited a couple weeks ago.  It seems every time he visits, we end up picking up some Chinese roast pork and Chinese BBQ pork.  I hadn’t had Chinese BBQ in a few months, but it reminded me how awesome pork is.  It’s hard to deny the perfect harmony of a Chinese roast pork’s lean, fat, and crispy skin.  After rekindling my love for pork, I felt it was necessary to plan my next grocery list accordingly.  I picked up some nice pork shoulder and some nice pork belly.  My plan was to use 75% of the shoulder for carnitas and the remaining 25% and the belly for thit kho (Vietnamese caramelized braised pork).  So first up was the carnitas.

I have to admit that I’m a relative carnitas noob.  Even after living in Southern California for a long time, my family didn’t frequent many Mexican restaurants.  If we ever went out for Mexican food, 99% of the time it was strictly for menudo.  I still remember the place though: it was in Monrovia right next to the storefront they used as the pet store in the Beethoven movie.  When it came to taco stands, the only exposure I had was to Taco Treat which was right down the street from where we lived.  As a fat kid growing up, I was addicted to their chimichangas (basically a deep fried bean and cheese burrito) and taquitos.  I’m also a bit ashamed to say that I haven’t taken advantage of the many offerings of the large Hispanic community along Clark Street in Rogers Park which is just a stone’s throw away from me.  My only experience with carnitas is from Chipotle, and I don’t have any other reference to judge whether their carnitas is authentic.  All I know is that I like the general flavors and love pork.


I like my carnitas to have a nice sweetness and a hint tartness.  I’ve seen recipes call for orange juice or colas, but I like to use tamarind.  Fortunately, I can get fresh tamarind pods at my local Food 4 Less thanks to a large Hispanic community in the area rather than having to settle for tamarind paste.  The only problem with buying fresh tamarind pods is that none of the cashiers ever know what it is even when I tell them.  This time around when I told the cashier what it was and spelled it out for her, she couldn’t find it in her little code book because it’s actually listed as “tamarindo” rather than tamarind.  You’d think she’d be able to figure out that tamarindo and tamarind are the same thing and that tamarindo is simply the Spanish word for tamarind.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

My Last Meal and Shoti

I love to watch Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. Bourdain’s cynical attitude is so infectious and entertaining. Every now and then, he’ll ask someone on the show what their last meal would be if they were going to die the next day. I ponder the question myself every time I hear him bring it up. One would think that I’d simply choose whatever is my favorite food is, but different foods can evoke different emotions and memories. My favorite food (the jury is still out on this one) may not carry the sentimental significance as other foods.

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cha giodosa   

The things that would typically come to mind are pho, bot chien, cha gio, murgh makhani, dosa, my grandma’s Thanksgiving turkey, my mom’s “Rice, Butter, Maggi, Egg” (exactly what it sounds like, the egg cooked sunny-side up), jook/congee/chao with fried donut and 1000 year old egg, my grandma’s vegetarian pate chaud, moussaka, unagidon, hummus, and baba ghanoush. (pictures via and


Then I heard David Chang’s response to Bourdain when he was asked “what’s food porn for you?”  Chang’s response was “bread and butter is probably my favorite thing.”  That’s when it hit me.  Bread and butter.  Nothing more. Nothing less.  That’s what I want my last meal on Earth to be.  Whether or not the butter is salted or not is still up for debate, though.

Thursday, November 5, 2009



Pho, while not necessarily my absolute favorite thing to eat, is without a doubt one of my comfort foods.  Everything about it invokes some kind of memory and puts me at ease.  I don’t recall my mom cooking pho too often when I was young, and when she did it seemed like it was usually pho ga which is chicken-based rather than beef-based.  Even so, going out for pho wasn’t uncommon.
The thing about pho is that it’s so personal.  From the cuts of meat that you like in it, to whether or not you put hoisin sauce and sriracha directly into the soup, to whether or not you add bean sprouts or lime, to how you eat it, the list goes on and on and every choice is a personal one.  My idealized version of pho consists of the following:
  • a super beefy stock that is on the sweet side
  • short rib, oxtail, raw flank steak, tendon, and bible tripe
  • green onion, cilantro, and Thai basil
  • slightly chewy noodles
  • 2/3 hoisin mixed with 1/3 sriracha on the side
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For the base of the stock, I like to use a combination of oxtail and marrow bones.  This time, I opted for just oxtail and I like to brown them first so they develop a nice crust for some extra flavor due to the Maillard reaction.  One of the keys to getting a sweet stock is to char the onions and ginger that go into the stock.  I also like to put roasted garlic into my stock for another subtly sweet note.  It was pretty cold outside, so instead of using my grill to char and roast, I used my oven.  An additional sweet component that is traditionally used in pho is yellow rock candy.  Never try to substitute sugar for yellow rock candy.  It just isn’t the same.  A myriad spices including star anise, cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds, cardamom, and coriander seeds give the stock its distinctly anise-y tone.  Lastly, you can’t call something Vietnamese without a decent amount of fish sauce.


As I mentioned earlier, I tried something different this time around: gelatin filtration.  The process took forever, 4 days, because the blocks of stock were pretty thick.  My entire fridge started to smell like pho and I was left with quite a bit of gelatin.  But was it worth it?


Above and to the left is the gelatin after all the liquids had melted.  Above and to the right is the resulting liquid.  It turned out crystal clear.  In fact, I could indeed see the date of a dime at the bottom of a bowl.  In the end, I probably won’t bother filtering my stock in the future through gelatin filtration.  It was just too time consuming even though I didn’t have to do anything.  I mean, how’s a person supposed to wait 4 full days to enjoy some pho after cooking it?  Perhaps if I was trying to impress an audience I’d do it, but for me I don’t care if my stock is murky and full of impurities.


As for how I eat pho, I usually get some noodles, meat, and herbs between my chopsticks and use my spoon to slather on the hoisin/sriracha sauce to what’s hanging off my chopsticks and gorge.  My perfect bite of pho is illustrated above.  Between shoveling noodles and meat into my mouth, I’ll take a sip of broth.  I’m not the biggest gulper of pho broth and like a larger ratio of noodles to broth.  And that’s what pho is to me.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween, Pho, and Gelatin Filtration

A little late for an acknowledgment of Halloween, but oh well.  (Hot dog via WBEZ)

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In other news, I made some pho this weekend (well, really just the stock so far) but I’m trying something different.  I usually don’t bother to clarify the stock because I’m too lazy and I don’t mind that my stock is murky as long as it tastes good.  However, while watching an episode of Heston Blumenthal’s In Search of Perfection  I stumbled upon a technique to clarify stocks without the hassle of using a protein raft.  The technique, gelatin filtration, involves freezing the stock and letting it melt very slowly through a strainer.  The details are described here by the always awesome Harold McGee.  I’m really curious as to how clear the stock is going to come out and if I’m going to miss any of the mouthfeel provided by the gelatin that will be removed.  I’ll update with the results of the clarification process and my thoughts on pho too.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Alinea: 9-06-09, Courses 4-5

LILAC – scallop, shellfish, honeydew


I’d never eaten anything with lilac in it, and I really didn’t know what lilac smells like so I wasn’t sure what to expect.  The lilac was integrated into what the server described as “pillows.”  The pillows were made of kudzu and were silky smooth and melted in my mouth.  They’re the white circular things in the picture.  It might have been the fact that my sense of smell was almost shot, but I couldn’t really taste the lilac.  I feel floral notes tend to be very dependent on aroma, so this could explain it.

Despite this, the lilac was the first dish that really made me think “wow.”  Although the main component of the dish was said to be lilac, the broth was pure essence of briny shellfish and was the real star of the dish.  I thought to myself “this is what clam chowder should taste like.”


A porous bread was served with the dish, which made it an excellent vessel for sopping up broth.  The honeydew foam and tiny balls of honeydew added a nice sweetness to even out the brininess, but I wasn’t completely in love with it.  The server mentioned that Achatz liked pairing shellfish with melon, but I didn’t leave convinced that shellfish and melon was a home run combination.

On to things that I didn’t like.  The scallops were cooked fine, but a couple of the mussels I got were overcooked and a little rubbery which shocked me considering the caliber of the restaurant I was eating at.  Also, there were small slices of raw celery that garnished the top of the dish, and if you know me then you know how much I hate raw celery.  I like to pride myself on how I’m not a picky eater and will eat anything, but more than a few bites of raw celery can make me gag.  I could've done without the celery, but that’s only because of my weird aversion to raw celery.

PIGEONNEAU - á la Saint-Clair


I knew something was up when antique stemware was placed on the table.  The server then described that the next dish would be paired with a drink: a house-made cherry balsamic soda.  It’s probably not fair to compare the soda to black cherry flavored Shasta, but it reminded me of it.  Only way more complex.   The balance of sweetness and tartness was perfect.

Then, the squab came out plated on antique dishes from 1903.  The server explained how on nights with lots of Tours (the dish was only available on the Tour) things can get a little crazy because they only have a limited number of antique dishes.  The story is that Achatz went hunting for the perfect antique dish but fell short because the vendor didn’t have enough.  Apparently Achatz turned to eBay and found someone selling antique dishes that met his aesthetic demands and at a decent quantity.

The squab itself was cooked nicely and laid on a bed of foie gras mousseline inside of a pastry.  Two quenelles of foie gras, mushroom, and onion outlined the circumference of the pastry with a super tasty sauce rounding out the dish.  Each individual component of the dish was amazing, but it wasn’t until I was smart enough to take a small slice of each ingredient, slather some sauce on top, and eat everything in one bite did the dish get elevated to a new level.  I suppose I wasn’t used to so many components to a dish being on the plate; this was the first of several times during the night where I was confused as to how I should eat the food.  What wasn’t confusing, however, was how well the cherry balsamic soda went with the squab.  It vividly reminded me of eating turkey with cranberry sauce.

Aside from the amazing taste of the dish, I couldn’t help but grin with glee and chuckle inside.  I took the fact that Achatz did such a classic dish prepared so classically as a retort to all the critics who may label his progressive style of cooking as heartless molecular gastronomy that strays away too far from what cuisine should be.  To me, it was Achatz saying “I’m more than just fancy foams and jiggly gels.”  The contrast of this dish with the rest of the meal was a nice touch.

After 2 incredible and substantial dishes, we would experience what is arguably Achatz’s signature dish: Black Truffle Explosion.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Alinea: 9-06-09, Courses 1-3

The day to eat at Alinea finally came and I had one of the worst colds I’ve ever had in recent memory.  I was coughing pretty much nonstop, my body was rundown, my sense of smell was at limited capacity, but there was no way I was backing out.  Plus, I would’ve been charged a hefty cancellation fee.

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I think it’s fairly well known by now how unassuming Alinea’s facade is on the street, but for the uninitiated, the only signage for Alinea is its valet parking sign.  One could easily walk right by the building and wonder where arguably the finest restaurant in Chicago is located if they miss the sign.  This was just the start of Alinea challenging one’s sense of how things should be.


Ah, the infamous hallway.  I had read about it before, so I knew what to expect.  I forgot to take a picture of the hallway (picture via, but my mom who lead the way pretty much ended up like the guy in the picture.  The hallway is an optical illusion of sorts, making you believe there is an entrance at the end by gradually funneling you to the end.  However, once you get to the end, you’re taken by surprise by a sliding door behind you to the left and you must make your way back a few steps.

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We were greeted by the hostess who led us to our table on the first floor.  At the table, there awaited 3 servers behind each of our chairs to seat us.  I snapped a picture of the linens, which had a Alinea’s namesake on it.  After confirming that we would be having the Tour, typically about 24 courses, and that we had no dietary restrictions, the centerpiece for the night was place at one end of our table.  It looked like a ceramic gourd filled with what was thought to be dry ice due to the condensation and frost that slowly built up on the outside.  The centerpiece comes into play later on in the meal, and I was pretty excited to see what it would eventually be used for.

OSETRA – traditional garnishes

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The first dish out was osetra caviar with “traditional garnishes” prepared in an untraditional way.  The server described how Achatz wished to highlight the mouthfeel of the caviar, and so rather than serving it traditionally with some type of bread or cracker it was served along side a foam brioche.  The foam tasted so much like brioche.  It kind of blew my mind how a foam could taste exactly like bread.  Capers, onions, and dill were distilled and made into a gel to round out the traditional flavors alongside an egg yolk emulsion and crème fraîche.

 PORK BELLY – iceberg, cucumber, thai distillation


The second dish was a Thai-inspired pork belly dish served with a distillation of Thai chili, lemongrass, and fish sauce.  The distillation was taken like a shot and was meant to set the palette for the types of flavors in the pork belly.  The smell of the distillation was overwhelmingly of Thai chili, with traces of lemongrass and fish sauce.  The distillation tasted like mildly salty water, but not in a bad way as the saltiness subsided almost immediately.  Ultimately, I didn’t think the distillation added anything to the dish other than the initial aroma of Thai chili.

The pork belly was cooked incredibly well and sandwiched between two piece of crispy iceberg lettuce, topped with various herbs, and rested atop a pool of basil seeds.  I’d never had basil seeds in anything but Vietnamese basil seed drink (nuoc hot e, referred to as the “tadpole” drink when I was young), so having it part of the dish was neat and reminded me of my youth.  Another point of familiarity for me was the fact that the pork belly was paired with crispy lettuce.  This is such a common practice in Vietnamese cuisine: I’ve been wrapping cha giò in lettuce since I can remember.


The pork belly arrived with a bread accompaniment: a cilantro roll.  The two butters served were a butter made in-house topped with black lava salt and another butter from Wisconsin.  The cilantro roll made perfect sense going with the Southeast Asian tone of the pork belly.

OXALIS – juniper, gin, sugar 


The oxalis came incased in a gel on what is probably best described as a metal guitar tab with a curve at the tip.  At the time of eating, I had no idea what oxalis was, but it gave the bite a fresh bitter greens/floral taste.  Combined with the subtle sweetness of the gel, it served as a nice palette cleanser since Southeast Asian flavors can tend to be very in your face and set things up for the first substantial dish of the night: the lilac dish.