Chúc mừng năm mới from Hanoi!

Happy Lunar New Year!

This marks Richard’s and my fourth week of traveling through SE Asia and every 12 hours of experience is the equivalent of 12 months of my North American day-to day. Which works up quite an appetite. Motto for this adventure: “One should go into the unknown on an empty stomach.” (Abraham Garcia)

After eating our way through Bangkok, we had a brief jaunt through Cambodia and then wormed our way up through Vietnam. Now we’re at the finish where I’m currently holed up in a hotel room in Hanoi trying to unravel thoughts about this trip. It’s tough–esp. without my kitchen, my haven where I unwind and reflect. All I’ve got is a tea kettle to smoke out the muse, who insists it’s best to begin where we’re ending.

βℜç

Equating the mindset of the Vietnamese to that of Northern Americans is tricky business.

One analogy could be in comparing traffic patterns. In the United States vehicles flow in tidy linear patterns. In Vietnam—at least to this Western mind—it’s quotidian madness. The streets are thick with every imaginable vehicle, with every imaginable object (inc. infant and fowl) strapped onto said vehicle, going in every imaginable direction possible––including the sidewalks.

If ever a trip had an understatement this would be it: Navigating Vietnam is a dodgy business.

To survive, one must develop a third eye, which comes by walking head-on into the traffic; by noting you’d just paid three times as much for a fried duck then the woman at your side who haggled the vendor down for a bird twice the size; by understanding that the word no is simply an invitation for negotiations. In Vietnam there’s always an in, a way to wiggle through the cracks.

Upon arriving in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, we entered a riotous asylum of screeching scooters and bicyclists hawking their wares from perilously balanced stands on their seats.

Crumbling sidewalks are packed elbow to elbow with vendors selling produce, butchered meats, fish and folks slurping soups—savory Phos—recently ladled from bubbling cauldrons. Merely crossing the street was akin to my panic prior to bungee jumping off a cliff in New Zealand.

Two options: Either plant my flag in a mound of sticky rice, curl up into a fetal position and die, or cowgirl up, grab my camera and plunge into the madness.
Choosing the later, I began deciphering the order in the chaos and discovered the first secret is to walk very slowly, continuously glancing from right to left. They’ll stop—or just bump you a bit. The streets are so jammed that it’s impossible to pick up much speed to do much damage.

Next goal, begin sampling the street foods.  And the street food. Oh, the street food. One evening we took a Seafood Street Food Tour (see above photo; more to follow on that adventure,) and that’s when I fell madly in love with Hanoi, her people and her food. Since we’re entering their Lunar New Year this week, the foods are at their most spectacular and savory right now.

Imagine the traditional foods of Thanksgiving, the spirituality of Chanukah and Christmas and the partying of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day rolled into one big box and you have Tet—the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.
Before the fifteenth of December in the Lunar Calendar, Vietnamese spruce up worship areas in their homes to prepare for the procession of the Kitchen God’s return to heaven by biding farewell to the old year to greet the new.

The Kitchen God, as in neighboring China, is the most important of the domestic gods protecting the hearth and family.

Peach, apricot blossom and kumquat trees are strapped onto scooters and zipped off to decorate homes and alters, paying homage to ancestral Gods. And everyone’s gussied up for the occasion.
Buddhism plays a major role to the Vietnamese so temples and pagodas are more crowded than ever. This week has been a great time for cultural immersion, even though I stand out like a lumbering white beast!
And this lumbering beast is travel weary, looking forward to recreating some of these marvelous foods at home.And when I cook, forever planted in my mind will be the faces of the beautiful people we’ve met and the lessons I’ve learned from this fascinating place, a culture that has much to teach.

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Roasted Cherry Tomato & Goat Cheese Crostini + 2 Favorite Thai-inspired Soups

Before…

For a blast of bright August flavor on a frigid January day, try roasting tomatoes. Baking or roasting transforms the winter tomato, minimizing the mealy texture and maximizing their sweet flavor.

Last weekend I concocted the recipe below, and brought the appetizer (pictured above) to a party. I saved time by having the baker slice the baguette and purchasing pre-made Olive Tapenade from Trader Joe’s. (If you live near one of their stores, get the tapenade that’s found in their refrigerated section, not their shelf-stable product.)

Roasting other vegetables, such as cauliflower or Brussels Sprouts or broccoli, and incorporating them into recipes conjures the same magic.

After!

Tomorrow I wave goodbye to the tundra heading off with my man for a month in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.

After a couple of days in trains, airports and planes (we’re saving a ridiculous amount of money flying out of Chicago instead of Detroit), the ninety degree temps will be a wake-up call to my weary wintry soul.

My favorite part about traveling is experiencing the food–the ideal gateway to the people and their culture. Food is so easy. Who can be offended when you approach to inquire, “Do you have any suggestions where I can eat?” It’s the starting  point for many interesting conversations. Can’t speak the language? So what. Food is multilingual. Restaurant owners will love, perhaps even invite you into their backstage world,  if you appreciate their food with smiles and thumbs up gestures.

Most of the time will be spent traveling up Viet Nam, the last spot, Hanoi, where we’re spending a week. The city’s a culinary paradise fusing flavors from France, China and Viet Nam. You can believe I’ve been scrutinized the street food and restaurant scene online. I’m wary of Trip Advisor as some of the higher starred places tend to be Asian cooking adapted to the American palate, but this Food Republic site’s been worthy. Scrutinizing their site and the links, I feel as if I’m studying for the Bar (-:

Thai Green Curry Shrimp and Broccoli Soup

Thai Green Curry Shrimp and Broccoli Soup

As scorching as it can be in Southeast Asia, it’s remarkable how insanely popular their hot soups are–the locals eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Something about the heat of the broth and spice that cools you down as you slurp. Whatever. All I know is that for my money, these folks have cornered the market on soup.

I last travelled in Thailand several years back and made a couple of soups–a curried shrimp and a chicken upon my return to the States.

Thai Chicken Noodle Soup

Thai Chicken Noodle Soup

Unless you live in the vicinity of a Pho House or other Asian eatery, they share little resemblance  to the USA versions of winter soups–those that you would find lining grocer’s shelves or steaming on a hot bar.

If inclined, give the recipes a try. The fresh lemongrass, coconut milk, fish sauces and chili’s may very well cure what ails you.

Be well, my friends, and remember to wash your hands often! The flu bug is vicious this year.

Recipe: Crostini with Roasted Tomatoes and Goat Cheese

Ingredients

  • 1 pint red cherry tomatoes, washed
  • 1 pint orange or yellow cherry tomatoes, washed
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • Extra virgin olive oil, as needed
  • 1 baguette, sliced
  • 8 ounces goat cheese, room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • Handful of fresh basil, thinly sliced into a chiffonade

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

2. Toss tomatoes and garlic cloves in 1-2 tablespoon olive oil. Slightly season with kosher salt. Place on foil-lined baking sheet (covering garlic entirely in foil) and roast on middle rack of oven 13-15 minutes or until tomatoes are just beginning to collapse.

3. Meanwhile, spread goat cheese over 18-22 baguette slices.

3. Whisk balsamic vinegar into a tablespoon of olive oil. Chop garlic and stir into vinaigrette. When tomato are cool enough to handle, toss into vinaigrette.

4. Place one red and one yellow or orange tomato on each baguette. (You will have extra tomatoes and juice, which can be reserved for a quick pasta sauce.) Center a small dollop of tapenade in between the two tomatoes on each crostini; arrange basil chiffonade over crostini and serve.

Roast time: 13-15 minutes

Assembly time: 15 minutes

Number of servings (yield): 18-22 pieces

Copyright © Peggy Lampman’s dinnerFeed.

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A Winter’s Tale of Soup

Scarola e Faciole: White Bean and Escarole Soup with Pancetta

Scarola e Faciole: White Bean and Escarole Soup with Pancetta

If you, like me, are suffering through these grey upon grey single-digit days, reading Dostoyevsky while sipping a good Russian vodka could provide some comfort. Sipping said vodka while watching Dr. Zhivago might be another plan. These activities, of course, accompanied by a good cup of soup– always a good leavening agent.

Take Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, “The Brothers Karamazov”. In the midst of a heady conversation between Ivan and Alyosha, soup is brought into the story:

“Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring. I love the blue sky, I love some people, whom one loves you know sometimes without knowing why. I love some great deeds done by men, though I’ve long ceased perhaps to have faith in them, yet from old habit one’s heart prizes them. Here they have brought the soup for you, eat it, it will do you good. It’s first-rate soup, they know how to make it here…”

It’s a random mention, but why not? For the brothers, perhaps soup provides more of a tangible relief from life than than their more ethereal topics at hand.

Oxtail Soup

Oxtail Soup

Unless you’re lucky enough to live in a tropical climate, we’re in Dostoyevsky-mode now, folks.  And may I suggest something that the brothers might have enjoyed? Perhaps  Borscht or an Oxtail Soup? Or maybe a White Bean and Escarole Soup?

Here’s another something/something that helped chase away my blues. My publishing company is reducing (for a limited time) the price of a physical copy of THE WELCOME HOME DINER. I’m grabbing copies for book club signings as I can’t get them any cheaper than this–even with an author discount. (US residents only: $6.99 per paperback. Free shipping for Amazon Prime, recipes included)

 

 

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