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Spain – Mixed Paella

Football:

Finally, we reach number 1 in the World Cup countdown and instead of talking about Spain in the semi-finals, something its ranking would have made most of us predict, I am trying to remember them actually being in the World Cup elimination was so far back. It’s incredible to think that the lowest (Australia) and highest ranked teams were the first to be eliminated from the competition. As the current holders of the World Cup and Euros, a lot was expected of Spain. Maybe a little bit of complacency set in and also because Barcelona and Real Madrid -where many players ply their trade – had very long seasons players’ tiredness may have contributed to their below par performance.

A couple of days ago I talked about the Portuguese player Eusébio. Today I am going to mention another incredible player from the past, an Argentinian-born striker that was the heart of a great Real Madrid team, and an international for Spain. His name was Alfredo Di Stefano and he passed away on Saturday at the age of 88. Alfredo was nicknamed ‘La Saeta Rubia’ – the blond arrow – and his goal scoring record for Real Madrid was phenomenal with 307 goals during an 11-season period; a period when Real Madrid dominated the European game. He had great skill and presence on the field and even recently was quoted as saying that Zinedine Zidane was the modern-day player most like him in his prime.

He actually never got to play at a World Cup but did play for three international teams; Columbia (which FIFA never recognised), Argentina and Spain (once his Spanish citizenship had come through). He was revered throughout the footballing world and in the words of Brasil legend Pele:

He was a trailblazer, and most of all, he was a legend of the game. God rest his soul.

 

Dish:

Tortilla da patatas or potato omelette was going to be the final dish of this magical World Cup food project. However, a last minute rethink suggested that I throw off the shackles of caution and go for something big, something luxuriant and something so synonymously Spanish that one can almost be forgiven in thinking that it preceded the creation of the country; of course it is paella. And just like how I started this World Cup food countdown with the controversial selection of Pavlova for Australia (ask a Kiwi where it originated) I know that my paella will ruffle some feathers amongst the purists and aficionados.

In researching paella I have seen so many aggressive arguments in forums and recipe websites slamming anybody that dare call a version of paella true paella. You should have seen it go off when someone suggested adding chorizo to paella. I think that taking tradition as an absolute can hold back the evolution of food. What gets me is that even a traditional dish came from somewhere, usually from the evolution of eating practices at the time. I am happy to call a dish a traditional one, or an evolution of a traditional one, if there are components within that dish that others can identify as congruous with that original dish. I think the magic in traditional food is the story of how it came to be.

My paella is a paella, but it may or may not (even I am not quite sure) fit in with a purist’s definition. But alas, I cook food for pleasure and nutrition and so whether it is or isn’t doesn’t matter that much to me. What does matter is that as I bring this World Cup project to an end I can strut forth and declare this dish for Spain as one big knees-up celebration of its cuisine and what has been so far an incredibly exhilarating FIFA World Cup.

 

Serves: 4-6   |   Preparation: 20 minutes   |   Cooking Time: 50-60 minutes

 

Ingredients:

10 Raw king prawns |
2 tbsp. Olive oil |
1 medium Garlic clove | finely diced.
1 medium Squid tube | Cut open, scored diagonally and cut into 1cm strips.
8 large Scallops | Roe removed.
1 Chicken breast | Cut into bite-sized pieces.
1 large  Red onion | Finely diced.
2 medium Garlic cloves | Finely sliced.
½ Red pepper | Diced. Also known as capsicum.
½ Green pepper | Diced. Also known as capsicum.
4 medium Ripe tomatoes | Peeled and diced.
~20 Broad beans | Blanched for 30 seconds in boiling water.
500g Paella rice |
100ml White wine |
600ml Chicken stock |
2 Pinches Saffron strands | Soaked in 50ml of hot water.
850ml Hot water |
Seasoning Sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper |

 

How to:

Firstly devein the prawns by cutting down the back shell of the prawn from the base of the head to the tail. Next using a small sharp knife cut through the back flesh of the prawn, deep enough to reveal the vein. With the end of the small knife pick out the vein and then very carefully pull it out of the prawn – this way you can keep the whole shell on the prawn.

In a large paella dish heat the olive oil until very hot and then add the prawns and the finely diced garlic. Sauté for a minute each side and then remove and set the prawns aside. Now add the squid and sauté for a minute or so on high heat and then set aside. Now repeat for the scallops and then the chicken breast pieces.

Reduce the heat to low-medium and add the onion, sliced garlic cloves and red and green peppers to the paella dish. Cook for about 5-7 minutes until soft and fragrant. Now add the tomatoes and cook for a further two minutes. Add the broad beans and rice, turn the heat to high and cook and stir for 2 minutes. Add the white wine, chicken stock, hot water, the saffron and hot water and seasoning and bring to the boil. Now turn the heat to low, cover the dish and cook for 30 minutes or until all the liquid has been absorbed – stir occasionally. Let the paella rest, covered, for 5 minutes once the heat has been turned off.

Serve hot with a squeeze of lemon.

Portugal – Piri Piri Chicken

Football:

Many years before Ronaldo was bamboozling the opposition with mazy runs and infinite step-overs there was a player who is considered as one of the greatest players to ever play the game; Eusébio da Silva Ferreira, or Eusébio for short. He was a player that was way ahead of his time; very athletic (he could run a sub 11-second 100m), an amazing dribbler that could easily beat defenders, and he had a devastating prowess in front of goal. In fact, his goal scoring record for Benfica, where he played a majority of his career, was 473 goals in 440 competitive games – a phenomenal achievement and statistic.

The only time he competed in the World Cup was in 1966 in England. He won the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer and is remembered for rescuing Portugal when it was 3-0 down against North Korea by scoring 4 goals which led to a 5-3 victory. He was also an incredible sport, often congratulating opposition goalkeepers for wonderful saves against him. Portugal was eventually beaten 2-1 by England in the semi-final, with Eusébio scoring Portugal’s goal. He was devastated at the end and was consoled by both Portuguese and English players as he left the field in tears.

Eusébio passed away earlier this year at the age of 71, and such was the respect and adoration for this national hero that the Portuguese government declared 3 days of national mourning.

Unfortunately, Portugal suffered an early exit in Brasil, the devastating opening 4-0 loss to Germany making it difficult to come back from. Often, with Ronaldo in the side the air of expectation is higher than it really should be. However, with Portugal being ranked #3 in the world before the World Cup started I did expect a bit more of a fight.

 

Dish:

I remember the best octopus I have ever had was in a restaurant just outside of Lisbon in Portugal. It was a whole one that exuded garlic and was incredibly tender, and I distinctly remember it being presented with its tentacles hugging some saffron rice. I also remember eating the synonymous street food piri piri chicken on the streets of Lisbon. It was tender barbecued chicken with a fiery coating of chilli oil and chilli (piri piri). It was some of the simplest food I have eaten but the wonder of it has stayed with me since; and we are talking a few years ago.

It’s the middle of winter here in Melbourne but the lure and temptation of barbecued piri piri chicken on the day that I am writing and cooking about Portugal was too much to resist. I feel piri piri chicken has somewhat been bastardised by certain fast food chains around the world, so today was about bringing some good old pzazz back in to this Portuguese classic. We’ve got bags of fire with some bird’s-eye chillies and some deep intense flavour with roasted bay leaves, a little oregano and paprika and a good aged red wine vinegar. And of course to add authenticity it needs to be done over a barbecue with the fat from the chicken dripping to create pockets of fire that add a great charcoal flavour and texture to the marinated chicken skin. Surely, some of the ultimate football watching food.

 

Serves: 4   |   Preparation: 15 minutes + 2 hours marinating   |   Cooking Time: 40 minutes

 

Ingredients:

1.6kg Whole chicken |
10 Bird’s-eye chillies | Tops removed.
10 Fresh bay leaves |
1 tsp. Garlic powder |
1 tsp. Dried oregano |
1 tsp. Sea salt |
2 tsp. Sweet paprika |
50ml Red wine vinegar | I used an aged variety.
100ml Grapeseed oil | Or other non-flavoured oil

 

How to:

Preheat an oven to 180°C (360°F).

To make the marinade: put the chillies and bay leaves on a baking sheet and roast in the oven for 10 minutes. Remove and roughly chop. Put the garlic powder, oregano, salt, paprika, vinegar, oil and roasted chilli and bay leaves in a saucepan and simmer for 3 minutes. Allow the marinade to cool and then blitz in a mini-food processor (or using a hand blender) to a purée.

Spatchcock the chicken: to do this cut along one side of the back bone and repeat for the other side to remove the backbone. Place the chicken breast side up and with the palm of your hand gentle press down to flatten the chicken. Skewer the chicken through one breast and the opposite thigh, and then repeat with another skewer for the other side. Rub half the marinade into the whole of the chicken and then seal the chicken in a plastic bag and leave in the fridge to marinate for 2 hours.

Turn on a barbecue and heat to medium. Cook the chicken on the barbecue flipping frequently to ensure even cooking. Baste the chicken with the other half of the marinade during cooking. The bird should be ready in about half an hour. You can cut through one breast to the middle of the chicken to see of it is cooked the whole way through.

Cut the chicken in to portions and serve with chips and a light salad.

USA – Cajun Fried Chicken

Football:

Football (or soccer as it is known) in the USA has always been up against it; trying to compete with the national behemoths of basketball, baseball and of course gridiron. It has had to work hard to be even mentioned in the news over the years, but alas to quote a US icon, “The times they are a- changin’”. Not only have we seen the influx of American players to the top leagues in Europe, the national football team, according to the latest FIFA rankings, is 13th best in the world. That means that football in the USA should be taken very seriously.

Back in 1950 in the World Cup in Brazil, the USA did something quite remarkable. It beat a side that was one of the heavy favourites to win the cup, a side that is very close to my heart, a side that has a history of being in the right place at the wrong time; that’s right, they beat England. It put the US on the map, only briefly, and since then it has been a long time before it has been taken seriously as top opposition.

This World Cup so far has seen the USA just 10 seconds away from qualification to round 2. A last gasp Portuguese goal means that the USA now faces Germany in the last game in an open group where any of the 4 teams can still qualify. It will be very interesting however as one of Germany’s all-time greats (and 3rd equal all-time top scorer) Jürgen Klinsmann is now managing the US; I am sure he will be torn between emotions. A draw will be enough for both teams to progress, but given West Germany’s controversy in 1982 (see Algeria blog post) I am sure both will be going for the jugular.

 

Dish:

One of the things that I want to put to bed here is the general perception that the USA when it comes to food is all about big, bloated, unhealthy portions of fast food that do more for the waist-line than the soul. America has been influenced by so many countries around the globe that if you step back from the fast-food chains and delve a little deeper in to the cuisine you will find some of the tastiest and most eclectic food on the planet. Not only that, there is a massive movement on both East and West Coasts for fresh, organic and locally produced ingredients; a movement that should be a benchmark for the future.

Today’s food in the US has strong roots in Latin America, Scandinavia, England, Holland, Portugal, South East Asia, and the Middle East…it’s one melting pot of great food. Today I am heading down South to Louisiana and to the food influenced by French, Spanish, African, American Indian and Italian cuisine, which to me is the heart of American cooking; you guessed it, Cajun/ Creole. This style of cooking encompasses the elements of roux (white sauce), rice, spices, stock, trinity (known as mirepoix in France), wines and liquors and sauces. It is said that if you master these 7 elements then you will be able to prepare virtually any Cajun/ Creole dish.

I used the spice element to create a Cajun/ Creole seasoning for this Cajun fried chicken. The key element of getting this one right, apart from the spice mix, is to marinate the chicken overnight in buttermilk. The acidity and enzymes in the buttermilk help tenderise the chicken.

Oh, and the difference between Creole and Cajun cooking? According to the book ‘Cajun and Creole Cooking with Miss Edie and the Colonel’:

…in a nutshell it is downhome country cooking (Cajun) versus fancy city cooking (Creole).

Sounds like this Cajun deep-fried chicken is ideal for the football then. And although I seem to be going against my opening spiel about fast-food, this Cajun beauty is anything but.

 

Serves: 4 |   Preparation: 20 minutes + overnight marinating |   Cooking Time: 10-20 minutes

 

Ingredients:

For the Cajun seasoning:
4 tsp. Sweet paprika |
3 tsp. Dried thyme leaves |
4 tsp. Dried basil leaves |
3 tsp. Dried oregano leaves |
2 tsp. Sea salt |
½ tsp. Hot Cayenne pepper | Or 1 tsp. of regular Cayenne pepper.
2 tsp. Ground black pepper | Freshly ground is preferable.
2 tsp. Ground white pepper | Freshly ground is preferable.
2 tsp. Garlic powder |
2 tsp. Onion powder |

For the chicken:
1 x 1.6kg Whole chicken | Cut in to 10 pieces: wings, drumsticks, thighs, each breast halved.
600ml Buttermilk |
300g Plain flour |
2 Free range eggs | Beaten.
150ml Whole milk |
2 tbsp. Cajun seasoning | Made above.
1-2 litres Cooking oil | For deep frying.

 

How to:

For the seasoning: add all the ingredients to a bowl and mix well. If you have coarse pepper and salt granules use a spice grinder and blend all the ingredients to a powder (or use a pestle and mortar).

For the chicken: Put the chicken pieces in a bowl and cover with the buttermilk (ensure all the chicken is covered). Cover with cling film and let the chicken marinate overnight.

Prepare 3 bowls: one with 150g of flour and 2 tablespoons of seasoning, well mixed; one with the beaten eggs and milk, well mixed; and one with just 150g of plain flour.

In a pan suitable for deep-frying preheat the cooking oil to 180°C (360°F).

Drain the buttermilk from the chicken. First coat all the pieces with the flour and seasoning, ensuring to shake off any excess. Next take a piece of the floured and seasoned chicken, dip it in the egg and milk allowing any excess to drip off, and then finally dust it with the plain flour, again shaking off any excess. Repeat for all the chicken pieces.

Put the chicken pieces in the hot oil. Do in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan. It’s also a good idea to cook similar sized pieces together. The chicken is done when it is golden brown – it took me about 7 minutes per batch, turning the chicken halfway through.

I served this with Cajun style green beans and deep fried potato balls (Brabant potatoes). Maybe I will post these recipes later, after the hectic World Cup schedule.

Mexico – Tamales Rellenos

Football:

The year is 1986, a numerical anagram of 1968; the year Mexico hosted the Olympic Games. This time it was the World Cup and one that had spice, passion, flair and a really good feeling about it. Pique the jalapeño was the logo of the tournament, the Mexican wave, so prevalent around the world at many sporting events even today, was put on the map and controversy and brilliance rubbed shoulders; Maradona being the exponent of both memorable moments.

Mexico the football team took advantage of being at home and won their group in top spot. This was at a time when only 24 teams participated in the World Cup. Unfortunately, Mexico was to come up against a powerful West German side in the quarter-finals, a side that eventually lost out to Argentina in the final. One player from that era that never quite had the effect on the international stage as he did for his clubs, which included Real Madrid, was the iconic Hugo Sanchez. This guy was known for his acrobatic goal scoring and celebrations, and for me it was a disappointment that I didn’t see more goals from him. It’s this kind of player that can etch great memories in football fans.

Mexico face Croatia in the final game of the group stage in this World Cup, either team with a possibility of making it through to the next round. I really think they have a good chance of equalling their best ever result in the World Cup, the quarter-finals.

 

Dish:

I have a fascination with the flavours of Mexico. You have the fresh zesty lime, excellent with a good tequila, through to heavy mole sauces containing chocolate. But the greatest flavour for me is of corn; in tortillas, blue-corn bread and the dish I have chosen for the Mexican World Cup dish, tamales.

Tamales are maize meal dumplings that are usually filled with a deliciously piquant filling and then steamed or boiled to firm up. They are staple in Mexico, in particular in Oaxaca in southern Mexico where the tamales are stuffed with mole negro. They are prevalent throughout Latin America though: In Guatemala tamales are coloured with chocolate; in Peru tamales are made with fresh white corn and are called humitas – wet ones; and in southern Brazil tamale dough is moistened with coconut milk.

We have a Latin American/ Spanish/ Portuguese grocers near where we live and when there I often chat to a great El Salvadoran lady who is full of advice, which I lap up. I said that I was making tamales and I need some yellow corn meal. She shook her head, scuttled off and came back with a very fine white cornmeal in a plain plastic bag,

use this she said; this is for real tamales.

I hope the ones I have made have done her proud.

 

Serves: 4 (12 dumplings) |   Preparation: An hour or so   |   Cooking Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

 

Ingredients:

For the filling:
250g Chicken breast with skin | Approximate weight of 1 chicken breast on a 1.6kg chicken.
A few Coriander seeds |
A few Black pepper corns |
1 Bay leaf |
2 tbsp. Grapeseed oil | Or other non-flavoured cooking oil.
1 Brown onion | Peeled and finely diced.
2 medium Ripe tomatoes | Peeled and diced.
1 Tamarillo | Peeled and diced. If you can’t get a tamarillo then use an extra tomato instead.
20g Very dark chocolate | I use a Lindt 90% cocoa solids chocolate.
½ tsp. Allspice |
½ tsp. Chilli paste or flakes |
Seasoning Sea salt |

For dough:
450g Fine white corn flour (not cornflour) | Also known as masa lista.
Pinch Sea salt |
3 tbsp. Grapeseed oil or pork lard | The oil works well – the pork lard is traditional and makes for a lighter dough.
As required Warm water | I used about 650ml but this quantity will vary from batch to batch.

Banana leaves, lotus leaves, corn husks or foil | To steam the tamales in. Corn husks are the traditional method, but I used lotus leaves due to availability. Any of the others will be good.

 

How to:

For the filling: place the chicken breast, coriander seeds, black pepper corns and bay leaf in a pan of cold water, ensuring that the water completely covers the chicken. Bring to a simmer and then cook uncovered for 12 minutes. Remove the chicken from the pan and allow to cool for 5 minutes. Discard the seeds, bay leaf and water. Remove and discard the chicken skin and shred the chicken breast with two forks, and put aside.

Heat the oil in a heavy based medium frying pan and add the onion. Sauté for about 5 minutes on a low to medium heat – stir to avoid browning. Add a pinch of salt and the diced tomatoes and tamarillo. Cook on a medium heat for 5 minutes and then mash using a masher or the back of a wooden spoon (whilst still on medium heat). Now add the chocolate, allspice, chilli and more seasoning and cook for a further 5 minutes. Finally add the shredded chicken, stir and adjust seasoning to taste. Remove from the heat.

For the dough: put the corn flour, sea salt and oil in a bowl. Now gradually add warm water whilst mixing with your other hand. Keep adding water until you have a smooth but slightly sticky dough. Knead it for a couple of minutes.

Lay out enough wrapping (corn husk, lotus leaf, banana leaf or foil) to wrap one tamale. Take a large walnut-sized piece of dough and place it on your wrapping and press it out with the heel of your palms to form a rectangular shape. The size should be about the length and width of your hand. Place a teaspoon of filling along the centre and then bring the dough over the filling with the wrapping to create a tube. Seal with a wet finger and tightly wrap the tamale with your wrapping and tie if necessary. Repeat for the other tamales.

Place a steamer over a gently simmering pan of water and steam the tamales for about an hour. I did mine in two batches. The dough should be light and firm. Enjoy just as they are.

Lemongrass and Chilli Chicken

Introduction:

After a morning’s trek with my seven year old son through the misty terraced rice fields that are home to the Hmong tribe, we are approached by a young man who calls himself Alex, or his helmet does, a member of this tribal community in Northern Vietnam. He is wearing non-traditional clothing for his day job – motorcycling tourists back to the main hill station of Sapa.

The month is January, a few weeks before Vietnam celebrates Tet, the festivities of the lunar New Year.

After I agree to take a ride from Alex we talk about life here in the village, and he tells me that their main livelihood is rice; rice feeds the village as well as provides the villagers with income (some of the women of the tribe also earn money by selling locally made crafts to tourists). He tells me that the whole year revolves around two events: the harvesting of the rice and Tet. Rice is the heartbeat of this community and each grain is sown, tended and hand-picked with the utmost care.

As we wend our way through the village to where Alex’s motorcycle is waiting we sidestep and dodge chickens, wild pigs, cows and irritated looking dogs. Alex explains that Tet is the time of year where all the family, including those that have flown the nest of the village to try their luck in modern-day Vietnam, return and celebrate with food and drink. When I asked about the drink he smiled and then giggled

“This is why rice is so important because it makes us even happier and funnier when we drink it”.

He’s referring to the locally brewed rice wine which forms a traditional part of the Lunar New Year celebrations.

We talk about food. He points at some of the animals wandering around and says that they are being prepared for the celebrations, “we eat the whole of the animal, especially the chicken. The whole chicken represents abundance and prosperity and this is the thing we cling to every year – the abundance of rice and prosperity for all our family wherever they are”.

As we approach the motorcycle, I have a wonderful respect for this kind of life; it is hard and parts of it I wouldn’t want, but the importance of food, of family and of having a belief that things will turn out for the good made me feel good. My son’s eyes were also opened to a new world, a new culture and an understanding of life beyond the distractions of our everyday life.

As was customary I haggled a price before the trip up the hill. The journey up the muddy steep track was hair raising but great fun. The last part was so steep that I had to disembark from the motorcycle and walk the rest, whilst Alex continued on with my son to Sapa. When I arrived we smiled, embraced and I paid him, with a little extra. That was the last I saw of Alex.

The humble chicken is such an important part of Vietnamese culture and its presence as a symbolic food is all around; from the blue legged chickens that I saw in Sapa market to the iconic dish of Pho Ga (chicken noodle soup) that is present in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. My memory of this beautiful trip to Vietnam is given to you by means of a dish that I cooked at a cooking class in Sapa; a chicken dish of course. I hope it provides you abundance and prosperity.

 

Serves: 2   |   Preparation:   15 minutes   |   Cooking: 30 minutes marinade + 10 minutes cooking

 

Ingredients:

200g Chicken breast or thigh fillet | Cut in to bite sized pieces.
2 cloves Garlic | 1 minced; 1 finely chopped.
2 x 2cm pieces Ginger | 1 minced; 1 finely chopped.
2 tbsp. Peanut oil |
½ medium Brown onion | Chopped.
3 stalks Lemongrass | White part only – finely sliced.
1 medium Red chilli Finely chopped – a medium heat chilli is great.
1 medium Red pepper Chopped.
1 medium Green pepper Chopped.
2 tsp. Soy sauce |
2 tsp. Oyster sauce |
2 Spring onions | White part sliced into 1cm pieces.
1 sprig Coriander and Thai basil | For garnish.

 

 

How To:

To a bowl add the chicken, the minced garlic clove, the minced ginger and some salt and pepper to season, mix well and leave to marinade for 30 minutes.

To a wok add the peanut oil and when hot add the finely chopped clove of garlic, the finely chopped piece of ginger, the onion and lemongrass. Stir fry for about a minute over a medium heat until lightly golden. Take care not burn any of the ingredients as it will add an unwanted bitterness to the dish.

Up the heat to high and add the marinated chicken pieces, chilli, and the red and green peppers. Stir well, and then add the soy sauce and oyster sauce.

Stir fry for a further 2 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked. Now add the coriander/ Thai basil and the spring onions and toss for 10 seconds. Serve immediately with steamed rice and garnish with some coriander or Thai basil.

Vietnam – The best Pho in Hanoi is…

…a very difficult one to call. Before I give the final answer, a subjective one of course, it’s important to define what actually makes a good pho (in case you haven’t read my other Vietnam posts, pho is the general name for the thick rice noodles served in broth). Here is my take on it:

1)      For me the whole dish hinges on the broth. And I found that a Hanoi pho has a distinct broth which is sweet (not by sugar) and homely, and does not contain additives like chilli sauce, vinegar or garlic. I hear that connoisseurs of pho like to lightly stir their noodles in the broth and then take a mouthful of the sweet broth. Straight away you know if it is good or not.

2)      The next thing is the quality of the meat. We came across two main types of pho: pho bo (beef) and pho ga (chicken).

Pho Bo: here brisket is usually used, which is from the front underside of the cow. I came across three variants of pho bo. The first was pho bo chin, which uses a beef that has been boiled, hung up to dry and is then sliced. The second was pho bo tai, where the fat and tendons are removed from the beef. The beef is cut into small pieces, put in a ladle and the ladle is half submerged in the vat of broth. The meat is pulled out when semi-cooked.  The third variant I saw was pho tai nam. This one is similar to pho bo tai except that cooked meat is served with raw meat. In all instances the beef is placed on the noodles in a serving dish and then broth is poured over.

 

Pho Bo Sign in Hanoi

Pho Bo Sign in Hanoi

 

Pho Ga: I only saw one variant of pho ga. In Hanoi only the chicken breast is served in this noodle soup, so to get a good mark, mentally in my head anyway, the breast had to be nice and tender and full of flavour.

 

Pho Ga - Chicken Noodle Soup

Pho Ga – Chicken Noodle Soup

 

3)      The noodles are another important part. They should be nice and slippery with no ‘sliminess’. To be honest all the noodles I tried in Hanoi were near damn perfect.

4)      Additions. This is really about what was served with the pho. Usually the pho is served with spring onions and garlic chives. Also, an additional bowl would be served containing anything from the following; perilla leaves, Asian mint, coriander, Vietnamese mint, crisp lettuce, miniature limes and fiery chilli. I can’t remember any pho being served with bean shoots although when I eat pho in Little Vietnam in Melbourne there are always bean shoots. I actually think the pho is better without them.

I worked out that we have eaten pho at nearly every type of establishment, and have eaten it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Apart from one which was average (it was an international chain of Pho restaurants), all of them have been unique and ‘insanely great’ (stole that one from Mr Jobs, RIP).

We had the honour of eating pho ga on Christmas night with the owners of the apartment and all the other tenants. This was a wonderful experience with in an international group of people socialising, laughing and telling stories whilst lapping up beautiful noodle soup, spring rolls, sticky rice and punchy and herbaceous salads.

We had memorable pho bo and pho ga on the edge of the mountains in Sapa – it was cold there, so the hot noodle broth for breakfast instilled a warmth that would carry you through to lunch.

We have eaten pho at little places we have discovered in Hanoi; usually tiny holes in a wall kitted out with miniature plastic stools and tables, and serving the most incredible pho.

But the winner of the best pho, and the place that completes number 10 in the top ten of must eat street food experiences, goes to a place that is renowned for its pho in Hanoi, and the one that I saved till last to eat in. Located in the middle of the Old Quarters this pho joint is mentioned in a couple of publications that we have in Vietnam with us; Luke Nguyen’s book ‘Songs of Sapa’ and Lonely Planet Vietnam.

I awoke at 6.30 in the morning and took the 25 minute walk from our apartment to Pho Gia Truyen, the name of the pho stall. I was greeted by a queue of locals that were being served by a Vietnamese lady with an intimidating looking meat knife. She was delicately cutting slices from the big piece of brisket.

 

Number 10 -  Pho Bo (Pho Gia Truyen)

Number 10 – Pho Bo (Pho Gia Truyen)

 

As my turn arrived to be served she barely lifted her head, but I could see her eyeballs stretching to look at me. She gave me the look of ‘are you going to order or what?’

Nervously, I said “pho bo, cam on”. She raised her head, gave a little smile and pointed to the menu. There were three things all of which I had never heard of so I plumped for pho tai nam (see above). I sat down at a small table where my knees covered my ears. Everyone let out a big gesticulation of laughter and they pointed to a bigger table. Smiling, I moved and was then served the most sweet, beefy and heart-warming broth that I had eaten in Hanoi.

 

Pho Tai Nam Beef Noodle Soup

Pho Tai Nam Beef Noodle Soup

 

The meat was incredibly tender, the noodles were unctuous and the herbs, although few, harmonised with the whole dish. My best pho in Hanoi.

Vietnam – Chicken Noodle Soup (Phở Gà)

Introduction:

Here is the first of the fruits from my Hanoi experience; chicken noodle soup – phở gà. Along with the beef version this is an absolute staple of locals in Hanoi, and is traditionally served for breakfast. I have been fortunate to eat at a number of street food stalls serving phở, the more general term for noodle soup (its literal translation is noodles), however I have been extremely honoured to have been invited in to the kitchen of the owners of our rented apartment here to see first-hand how this fantastic dish is prepared.

What I have done is taken elements of every version I have eaten and tried to come up with a definitive recipe; which to be honest is not possible as every one that makes phở in Hanoi has their own version and secret ingredient(s) or method.

The first experience of cooking this dish was to procure the chicken from a local market. When you buy a chicken here it looks like a chicken; head and feet intact. Vietnamese chickens are not as ‘fattened’ as the western counterparts, so there tends to be less meat on the carcass. However, they are packed with flavour which is a great basis for the broth – the element which a great phở hinges on. Having bartered for a local chicken I then bought the noodles ready-made. It just makes sense to do it here, as you can buy 1kg of fresh noodles for about $1USD. Finally, I found a stall that sold such an incredible array of local herbs; a cook’s heaven. However, it was the Asian basil (also known as Thai basil) with its sweet, aniseed aroma that stood out from the rest, and so I decided that this should be the one to finish off the soup – of course with some fiery chilli and zesty lime.

 

Serves: 6-8   |   Preparation:  40 minutes   |   Cooking: 1-2 hours

 

Ingredients:

About 1.5kg Chicken | I used a Vietnamese chicken, which seems to have a lot of flavour – definitely use a free-range one, maybe organic, if you’re not in Hanoi!
2 tbsp. Sea Salt | Used to salt the chicken.
6 Spring onions (scallions) | White part only – roughly sliced.
6 cloves Garlic | Garlic bulbs in Hanoi are small, but pack a punch – I used a whole bulb, but 6 medium to large cloves will do.
About a 5cm piece Fresh ginger | Peeled and thinly sliced.
About ½kg Pork bones | These add a ‘sweetness’ to the broth – get them cut into 10cm pieces.
3 tbsp. Fish Sauce | I used a ‘butterfish’ variety that’s available here, but regular fish sauce (good quality) is fine.
2 tsp. Sea salt |
2 tsp. Sugar | Not sure what kind of sugar I used – I bought it from the market, procured from a large sack. Its sweetness was like raw sugar, but its appearance was like golden castor sugar.
2 tsp. Garlic oil | Make garlic oil by frying 6 finely sliced garlic cloves in 250 ml of vegetable oil (at 180 deg. C) until golden brown. Drain the oil. The garlic can be used as garnish and the garlic oil stored in a refrigerator for a week.
1kg Fresh noodles | I had the privilege of being able to buy great noodles here. You can by dried rice noodles and prepare yourself. However for a good consistency it is better to buy fresh packeted rice noodles.
8 Spring onions | Sliced.
8 Garlic chives | Finely sliced.
1 or 2 Red chilli | Finely sliced with seeds.
1 Lime | Cut into 8 wedges.
A few Herbs | To serve. Here I used Asian basil. You can also use Vietnamese mint, perilla leaves, and coriander. The one thing about Hanoians and their phở is that they don’t add too much to the soup – they let the chicken, broth and noodles speak themselves.

 

 

How to:

The first step is to put the chicken in a plastic bag and add the 2 tablespoons of salt. Shake the bag and ensure that the salt is evenly spread around the chicken. Leave this for about an hour then remove the chicken and rinse thoroughly to remove any salt.

In a mortar and pestle pound the spring onion and garlic to a paste. Put the chicken in a large stock pot and add 5 litres of warm water. Over a medium heat bring the water to a gentle simmer and cook the chicken for about ten minutes, skimming away any impurities (foam) from the surface of the water.

Add the spring onion and garlic paste, and the sliced ginger. Cook the chicken for a further hour (vary slightly for smaller/ larger chickens), ensuring that the water does not go past a gentle simmer and also as important turn the chicken every 15 minutes to ensure even cooking. We want to cook the chicken as gently as possible, whilst also extracting the flavour in to the water.

Once cooked, remove the chicken from the water and set aside to completely cool. Now add the pork bones, fish sauce, salt, sugar and garlic oil, and gently simmer for a further 25 minutes. Remove the pork bones and discard, and then strain the broth through a fine sieve and return to the cleaned stock pot.

To serve, heat the broth so that it’s on a gentle simmer and take one portion of noodles (about 125g or so) and blanch them in the broth using a cylindrical strainer (this is the first time I had seen this technique, but it works great). Add the noodles to a serving bowl, then slice a good portion of breast from the chicken (with skin) and add to the bowl along with a couple of pinches of garlic chives and spring onions.

Now pour over the broth until it has completely covered the noodles and chicken. Repeat for the other portions. Serve the chilli, herbs and lime separately. Please enjoy.

 

Notes:

  • This is just one version of this classic dish – it is pretty close to the versions I have eaten here in Hanoi.
  • I originally was going to cook the chicken for about two hours, but the waft of the broth must have risen to the apartment owner’s residence, and in a flash she came down, felt the chicken, picked up two chopsticks, picked up the chicken with the chopsticks, lifted it out of the broth, plonked it on the bench and said ‘ready’. She then toddled off. Of course the chicken was perfect (and so the cooking time is an hour!)

Sri Lankan Chicken Curry

Introduction:

Sri Lanka – one of the places I dearly wish to travel to but have yet to have the pleasure. I would love to see the wonderful country: the beaches and the rainforests; to see the mad Lankans supporting their beloved cricket team (I have Sri Lankan friends so I can vouch for the cricket passion); the high hills with their tea plantations; the history and culture; and of course to eat – no, let that be gorge – the wonderful food.

So what makes a Sri Lankan Chicken curry Sri Lankan? From what I have read and eaten it seems Sri Lankan food is a fusion of the spices from India and the freshness and piquancy of South East Asia.  Fire, citrus and earthiness calmed down with the exotic milk of the coconut. The recipe here is something that I have adapted over a number of years, from various sources. Inspiration has been from close Sri Lankan friends to the wonderful Charmaine Solomon and the inspirational Madhur Jaffrey, as well as my travels to South India, the cuisine of which has similarities to that of Sri Lanka.

The first part of the recipe is jointing the chicken. If you can find it then procure an organic grain fed chicken that’s had a cracking (that means ‘great’ in Yorkshire parlance) life.  The flavour and texture is far superior to most other chickens.

 

Serves: 4   |   Preparation:  30-40 minutes   |   Cooking: About 1 hour 15 minutes

 

Ingredients:

1.6kg Chicken | Jointed in to 8 pieces with skin on; drumsticks, thighs, wings and breasts – I cut each breast piece in half, making 10 pieces in total.
2 Medium Brown onions | Peeled and roughly chopped.
2 Birds eye chillies | Roughly chopped. I like a little fire in this curry so add the seeds. For a milder version discard seeds or use a milder chilli.
30g Fresh ginger | Try and find succulent ginger. A lot of ginger sold is old and fibrous.
2 cloves Garlic | Roughly chopped.
4 tbsp. Peanut oil | 1 tbsp. used in the onion paste, the rest is used for frying.
1½ tsp. Fenugreek seeds | Magnificently fragrant, especially when added to hot oil.
1 sprig of about 10-15 leaves Fresh curry leaves | I buy them in bulk and freeze them – nothing like the crackle, spit and aroma when they hit hot oil.
2 tbsp. Coriander seeds | Toasted and ground.
1 tbsp. Cumin seeds | Toasted and ground.
1 tsp. Fennel seeds | Toasted and ground.
1 tsp. Turmeric – ground | Used to colour, but also has a wonderfully earthy flavour.
1 tsp. Smoky paprika | Not necessarily a ‘Sri Lankan’ ingredient but I like the subtle smoky notes.
1 tbsp. Sea Salt | As a seasoning.
1 tbsp. Rice wine vinegar | Adds a piquancy to the curry.
1 stick Cinnamon | Make sure it is a cinnamon stick as opposed to cassia bark, which is less pungent.
6 Black cardamom pods | Crack with the back of a knife to release its flavour and aroma.
400g Chopped Tomatoes | Either peel and chop 3-4 large ripened tomatoes, or as I do use a tin of chopped tomatoes – which works equally as well.
1 Lemongrass | Bruise lightly, remove the ends and outer skin. Peel away and tie each layer in a knot.
200ml Coconut Milk | If you are feeling adventurous then extract your milk from a fresh coconut – otherwise a tin is by far the easier way to go.
½ lemon Lemon juice | Added just before serving gives a great but subtle piquancy to the curry.

 

 

How To:

I am assuming that the chicken is already jointed in to wonderfully cut organic pieces.

Firstly I prepare the onion paste by adding the onion, garlic, chilli, ginger and 1 tablespoon of peanut oil to a food processor, and then blitz until a course puree is achieved. If you want to use a mortar and pestle instead then cut the ingredients so they are finer.

Next heat a small frying pan on a medium heat. When breathing (the haze that rises from the pan – similar to seeing the mirage of water on a road’s horizon in summer) add the coriander seed, then 10 seconds later the cumin and then 10 second later the fennel seed. When you can see the seeds starting to brown then remove from the heat (don’t let them burn). At this stage I add the seeds to a spice grinder along with the turmeric, smoky paprika and the sea salt. Grind until the spice mix is a fine powder. This can be done in a mortar and pestle – if doing it this way then pass the powder through a sieve and any parts that do not pass through the sieve grind again.

Put a large heavy based pan on a medium to high heat. When breathing add the remaining peanut oil (3 tablespoons) and then add the fenugreek seeds and curry leaves – it will spit. When the curry leaves start to darken, but not burn, add the onion paste, and stir vigorously to prevent sticking. Turn the heat to low-medium and then continue to stir until the onion has softened, but not browned. Turn the heat up to medium and add the spice mix and rice wine vinegar. Stir until mixed – the mix will be dry at this point. Add the chicken and stir for a minute ensuring the chicken is coated in the spice mix and is starting to brown.

Now add the tomatoes, cardamom pods and cinnamon stick. Stir, and then lay the tied lemongrass layers on top. Cover the pan and turn the heat down to its lowest. Cook for about 45-50 minutes.

Carefully remove and discard the lemon grass ties, and then gently stir the curry ensuring that the chicken meat remains intact. Add the coconut milk and cook on low, uncovered for about 10 minutes. Just prior to serving squeeze in the lemon juice. I usually serve the curry with coconut rice or plain roti.

 

Notes:

  • Traditionally the sauce is thick, and clings to the meat. If you want this then reduce till desired. I do like plenty of sauce, so don’t reduce it as much.
  • Pre-ground spices can be used of course, and will give you great results. Toasting and grinding your own takes it to another level though.
  • There was to be a ‘finished product’ photo at the end, however, an impromptu street dinner involving the aforementioned curry put an end to that…though it was great to share it with friends.

Bouquet Garni for Chicken and Meat

Introduction:

I remember in years past following recipes that asked for a bouquet garni and being quite put out by the need to collect numerous species of herbaceous plants, plus a few other odds and sods, and then have to wrap my gathering in muslin cloth or tie it with ‘kitchen’ string (which of course never existed in my culinary world), and all for what? No, it was way too much hassle to even consider something that would only be thrown away at the end of cooking. And by the way some clever company had designed some teabag like contraption which contained the dried variety of everything you needed to flavour your stew or casserole – no, I never used those either.

Roll on to recent times, and you will see a different outtake on the humble bouquet garni. If flavour is what is important in your cooking, and I am bordering on the rhetoric there, then a bouquet garni is what will deliver that piece de resistance in terms of that flavour. For me it is now an empirical part of any stock that I make, and is used when appropriate to flavour sauces and casseroles. The beauty of it is that it can, and should, be a representation of what you can obtain locally. For example in Provence rosemary is always added, whereas in Old French cookery cloves and various herbs were bundled together and wrapped in a thin rasher of bacon. In Italy there is the mazzetto, which contains rosemary, sage and often celery, leek or orange peel.

The composition is unlimited, but always consider the harmony that is trying to be achieved with the final dish or stock.

This basic recipe is for a bouquet garni that I use when chicken or meat (lamb and veal) is the principal component, mostly in stocks. The inspiration was from Michel Roux – the idea of wrapping everything in a leek is genius, just as long as I have some of that kitchen string (which I now get from the local butcher in 500km…ish balls).

 

Serves: 1 stock or casserole   |   Preparation:  10 minutes   |   Cooking: Dependent on the dish

 

Ingredients:

1 medium sized Leek | Trim the ends keeping the white part – remove the outer layer and use the next two layers.
2 Bay leaves | I use fresh bay leaves for their more vibrant flavour (not necessarily more intense). Dried can certainly be used.
½ stalk Celery | Cut into thin  strips.
6 Parsley stalks | The stalks have an intense flavour.
1 sprig Tarragon | Fresh.
1 sprig Thyme | Fresh.
6 whole White pepper corns |
4 whole Black pepper corns |

 

 

How To:

Take the two leek layers that have been prepared. Lay them out flat with the top of one layer overlapping the bottom of the other layer.

Over the leek layers lay the bay leaves, celery strips, parsley stalks, tarragon sprig, thyme sprig, white peppercorns and the black peppercorns. Now the slightly tricky bit – wrap the leek fairly tightly round the ingredients and then tie each end with kitchen string, tight enough to hold the bundle together, but not too tight as to cut through the leek. Now that’s done put it in your stock or the dish that you’re preparing, sit back and enjoy the aromas from the kitchen.

Notes:

  • It’s important that the leek is really fresh for this to work. I have had countless times where when trying to wrap the leeks they just snap. I rarely have this problem with fresh leeks.

Chicken Stock

Introduction:

This is one of the staple basics of cooking, especially for sauces and soups. I have played around with a number of variations of chicken stock, ranging from the lightly fragrant to the deeply intense. What I have personally settled on is a stock that meets somewhere in the middle. I will use this unreduced when I want to take advantage of the delicate flavours within the stock, for example in light soups and when used for poaching. Reduced, this stock has a richly deep flavour and ideal for rich sauces. One of the great flavour enhancers in this stock is to roast the chicken wings sprinkled with milk powder (this idea was inspired by Heston Blumenthal). The protein in milk powder (casein) seems to promote the browning, or Maillard reaction, of the chicken during the roasting process – the more browning the more intense the flavour.

 

Serves: About 3 litres  |   Preparation: 30 minutes   |   Cooking: 2.5 hours

 

Ingredients:

For the Chicken Wings
1kg  Free range chicken wings |
Sprinkling Dried Milk Powder | This should be a light sprinkling.
100ml Hot water | Used for deglazing.
For the Stock
2 Free range chicken carcasses | Cut into 10cm pieces.
4 Cold Water | About 1 litre is lost during simmering.
1 Carrot | Peeled and roughly chopped.
1 Onion | Halved.
2 Cloves | 1 clove studded in each onion half.
1 Celery stalk | Ensure the stalk is green – roughly chopped.
100g Swiss brown mushrooms | Thinly sliced – do not rinse as this tends to wash away some of the flavour.
1 Leek | White part only – roughly chopped.
1 Bouquet Garni | Click here for Bouquet Garni.

 

How To:

Put the chicken wings in a roasting tin so that they fit snugly. Sprinkle with milk powder and put in an oven which has been preheated to 200 deg C. Roast for approximately 45 minutes, or until they are a deep sticky brown. Remove from the roasting tin, drain the fat from the roasting tin and then deglaze the tin with the hot water. The deglaze has an intense flavour.

In a stock pot add the roasted chicken wings, deglaze, chicken carcass pieces and cold water. Bring to the boil and then simmer gently, skimming the foamy scum that forms on top. I use a small ladle and create a swirling motion from the centre of the pot which forces the foam to the edge. This foam is then skimmed from the surface. The foam is a result of proteins breaking down and aggregating on the surface. By clearing the foam you have a much better chance of having a clear stock.

After about 4-5 minutes add the rest of the ingredients, and then simmer the stock gently and uncovered for 1.5 hours. Filter the stock through a fine meshed sieve, and allow to cool. Once cool store in the fridge overnight so that the fat hardens and is easy to skim from the surface. Once most of the fat has been removed use within a week or freeze for later.

 

Notes:

  • I personally don’t add salt to a stock, as I will season the dish that the stock goes in to.
  • I pour the stock in to 250ml disposable cups covered with lids made from foil, and then freeze.