Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Pho Bo: Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup

Four years back, my hubby and I took a free and easy trip to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.  There, I had my first taste of the classic Vietnamese dish, Pho Bo or Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup.  It was love at first sight!  I like the noodle soup so much, that I had a bowl every other day during my stay in Vietnam.  You see, I love good soup and I love noodles.  Putting these two items together is simply a match made in heaven!  Plus, when one is on overseas holiday, it is better to stick with hot cooked food rather than non-cooked cold dishes, just in case our stomach is not as strong as the locals.  I will tell you a little bit more at the end of this post, with photos illustrations ;)

Ingredients for the broth

Preparation starts with making the broth.  The broth is usually made by simmering beef bones and meat, with charred ginger, charred onion and spices for a few hours.  I did not have any beef bones on hand, so I used chicken bones instead.  Since this is my first attempt with preparing Pho Bo, I took reference over here.  I added my own special spice - lemon grass, as I love the lemony fragrance that it imparts to the chicken broth.  

Sliced beef and garnishes to go with my rice noodles

Once the broth is ready, making a bowl of pho is easy.  I used dried rice noodles and pre-soak the noodles to soften and separate the noodle strands.  It took less than a minute in boiling hot water to cook the rice noodles.  Drain the noodles and place in a deep soup bowl.  The thinly sliced beef needs no cooking at all.  Just place the sliced beef on top of the cooked noodles and pour boiling hot broth over the beef.  See the instant change in colour of the sliced beef from dark red to pinkish red and that's it!  Serve your bowl of piping hot beef noodles soup with fresh mint leaves, basil leaves, red cut chillies, lime wedges and bean sprouts.  I added some baby romaine lettuce for extra greens.

This is the packet of dried Vietnamese rice noodles that I used

(serves 4 to 5 persons)

Preparing the broth
Chicken bones (3 sets of neck, front and back bones)
1 to 2 stalks of lemon grass, crushed
2 medium onions, cut into quarter
3 thick slices of ginger
1 to 2 cinnamon sticks
1 to 2 star anise 
Few cloves
3 cardamom
A small piece of yellow rock sugar
Salt to taste

1) Blanch the chicken bones in hot boiling water for a few minutes to remove impurities.  Remove bones and discard water.
2) Bring a pot of hot water to boil (about 3 litres).  While waiting for water to boil, place the cut onions and sliced ginger in an ungreased non-stick pan and lightly toast the pieces over medium heat.  Turn the onions and ginger pieces to toast on all sides, so that they are slightly charred.  Remove and set aside.
3) Add the chicken bones, charred ginger and onion, and all the ingredients into the boiling water.  Cover and bring to boil on high heat for about 5 minutes.  Skim surface scum, cover, then adjust to low heat and simmer for another 90 minutes.  Add salt to taste.
4) Strain the broth.  Discard the bones and spices.  

Other preparation
1 packet of dried rice noodles
Thinly sliced beef (quantity depends on your preference.  I allocate about 5 to 6 slices per bowl)
Thinly sliced onions, soaked in cold water for 30 minutes, drained

1) Soak the dried rice noodles in cold water for about 20 minutes to soften and loosen the strands.  Drain away the water.
2) Bring a pot of water to boil.  Lightly cook the noodles in the boiling water (takes less than a minute).  Drain and place noodles in deep soup bowl.
3) Place beef slices on top of the noodles.  Add some sliced onions on top.  Ladle hot boiling broth into the bowl.  Serve with a plate of fresh herbs (basil, mint leaves), bean sprouts and lime wedges.
4) To eat, add fresh herbs, bean sprouts to the bowl and squeeze in the lime juice.  Enjoy your hearty noodle soup!

One thing I remember most about Ho Chi Minh City is the insane, unbelievable traffic!  There were cars, vans, buses, motorcycles, bicycles and human traffic, all moving at the same time, at various directions, without much traffic control!  Crossing the roads is by far my most challenging experience on a holiday trip.  There was never a moment where we can wait for the roads to be cleared of traffic.  I just held my hubby's hand tight, closed my eyes and crossed!  And yes, we survived the traffic nightmare. Despite the chaotic traffic, we seldom heard drivers blasting their car horns at each other.  At most, there were a few light beeps here and there as gentle warning.  This friendly gesture is something missing in Singapore.  

The obvious difference is the relaxed and simple lifestyle in Vietnam.  As we took a cruise down the Mekong River on a sampan ride, we were greeted with many smiles and interesting sights along our way.  There was an elderly woman washing her laundry along the river.

Kids playing in the water.  

Washing hair with water from the dark murky river?  How about washing your pots, plates and bowls too?

I told you at the beginning of this post, that it is better to have piping hot food and avoid the cold, uncooked food.  No joke, this woman is cleaning fish over here.  We wondered if she knew what a little boy did along the same stretch of river, probably just a 100m away, on the upper stream .....

..... wee wee break!!!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Weekend Dinner - 元宵节

Hopes everyone had a good Chinese New Year celebration.  Yesterday marks the end of the Lunar New Year festive and I prepared a 5-plus-1 weekend dinner menu for my family:

 - Apple, Corn and Pork Ribs Soup with Honey Dates and Dried Figs
 - Chinese Long Cabbage braised with Mushroom, Dried Scallops and Imitation Abalone
 - Blanched Pea Sprouts with Egg White and Crab Meat Sauce
 - Steamed Salmon Belly with Tofu in Miso Ginger Sauce
 - Fried Meat Rolls, Ngoh Hiang
 - Braised Roast Pork with Yam, with Fermented Red Bean Curd Sauce and Bean Paste

This is a very typical Chinese dinner menu.  With a little planning ahead, you can also serve this meal at ease. Where possible, include braised, stewed, boiled and steamed dishes in your menu.  For braised or stewed dishes, you can cook them in advance and simply warm up the food before serving.  Steamed dishes (usually the last dish to be cooked) such as steamed fish or meat can be done concurrently while you are laying out your cutleries, scooping the rice etc.  Limit deep-fried and stir fry dishes to one or two, as these dishes typically takes time and  can only be cooked just before meal times.  I hate clutter at the kitchen top and sink during cooking.  Where possible, have someone to help to clear and wash the dishes while you are busy at the stove.  It really helps to speed things up!

With the increasing cost of eating out at restaurants during festive occasions, not forgetting the crowds, long waiting time, traffic jams and parking woes, why not try cooking at home?  

Saturday, February 23, 2013

My weekend Taco Lunch

Just went for a swim this morning while my little girl attends her weekly swimming lesson.  Lunch is a quick assemble of taco shells with lettuce, salsa and meat sauce.  I have prepared the meat sauce in advance and freeze them in small tubs.  It is really handy as you can use the meat sauce for pizza, bread or in this case, filling for taco shells.

The meat sauce is a short cut version.  I ordered BBQ pork ribs in a restaurant and had half a slab left for takeaway.  The serving was huge and I find the meat too tough.   My jaw had a good exercise after the meal.   Back home, I removed the meat and saved the bones for sauce.  By adding some chopped onions & garlics, chilli, canned baked beans, paprika and seasoning, I had a flavourful pot of beans and meat sauce.  So next time when you had leftover BBQ pork ribs, try this!

Here is my simple version of homemade salsa. 

Homemade Salsa
(serves 3)

5 to 6 cherry tomatoes, cut into quarter
Half a cucumber, remove seeds and cut into small cubes
1/2 cup corn kernels (I used this brand)
1/3 red bell pepper, cut into small cubes
Handful of chopped fresh herbs: mint leaves, coriander leaves
1/2 red onion, chopped
1/2 red chili, remove seeds and chopped, optional (I omit this)
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

Seasoning: Juice from half a lemon, 2 tbsp olive oil, salt/pepper to taste

Combine all the ingredients together and mix in the seasoning.  Mix well to combine.  It is best to keep it for an hour before serving, for the flavours to fully develop.

To assemble:
Heat up the taco shells in the oven (as instructed on package).  Fill the warm taco shells with lettuce, meat sauce and top with a generous serving of salsa. Other popular fillings include sour cream, guacamole and some shredded cheese.  

Friday, February 22, 2013

Post CNY dish: Pineapple Rice and Fruit Salad

I do not usually buy a whole pineapple, as I find it too troublesome to peel the tough skin.  But during the Chinese New Year period, I will specially get a whole unripe pineapple for auspicious reason 旺旺!  And now it's time to make good use of my super-ripe pineapple for making pineapple rice.  I pictured in my mind that a fruity seafood salad will be perfect to go with the pineapple rice.

Lots of colourful fruits for dinner

I had a few frozen scallops from an opened packet, a handful of frozen prawns and some imitation crab meat chunks.  Just enough for the salad!  I love colours in my food, so I will usually include a colourful range of fruits and vegetables.  Throw in a few strawberries, one kiwi fruit, half a mandarin orange, some pineapple chunks and some melon balls.  I have also added half a cucumber for extra crunch.  You can also use canned fruits, like peaches and lychee. 

To prepare Fruity Seafood Salad:
(serves 3 to 4 as a side dish)

A few scallops, sliced into half horizontally
A few imitation crab meat, lightly blanched in hot water
Fruits of your choice
Half cucumber, remove seeds and cut into small cubes
Mint leaves, rolled and thinly cut - 1 to 2 tbsp
1 to 2 tbsp Kwepie Mentaiko dressing (or your preferred salad dressing)

1) Add a pinch of salt and pepper to the scallops.  Heat a frying pan on high heat, add very little oil and pan fry the scallops on both sides for about a minute.  Remove scallops from the pan and set aside.

2) Shred the imitation crab meat into chunks.

3) Combine all fruits together, add in the mint leaves and toss with salad dressing.  Add in the shredded imitation crab meat (reserved a few for garnish) and mix well.  

4) Serve salad on plate and place the pan fried scallops on top.

The method for preparing pineapple fried rice can be found here.  The main changes that I did was to replace plain white rice with brown rice, having prawns instead of chicken and garnished with toasted almond flakes instead of roasted cashew nuts.  So long you can cook fried rice, preparing this is really easy.  

Monday, February 4, 2013

Olive and Sun-dried Tomato Bread Stick

Do you like to have some warm bread sticks to go with your soup?  These bread sticks are easy to make and delicious to have with soup or simply as a snack.

I adapted the recipe from the book 《原味》Original Flavor by Carol.  This is her latest book on bread-making and I really enjoy looking through the wide variety of bread recipes in the book.  Special thanks to Cathy, for getting the book for me ^_^


250g bread flour
50g oat bran (or replaced with wholemeal flour or plain flour)
15g fine sugar
3/4 tsp salt
1 tsp instant dried yeast
190ml water
2 tbsp olive oil

Fillings: 2 to 3 tbsp each of chopped olives, sun-dried tomatoes, spring onion and corn niblets

Egg wash: 2 tbsp beaten egg + 1 tbsp water

Garnish: Sesame seeds

[Source: Adapted from <Original Flavour> by Carol]

1) Place all the bread dough ingredients into a mixer, except water and olive oil.  Mix well.  Slowly pour in the water (reserved about 30ml) and mix with the dry ingredients.  Gradually add in the remaining reserved water and knead the dough for about 5 minutes.  Add in the olive oil and knead for a further 5 minutes.  

2) Add in the filling ingredients and gently knead to obtain a smooth round dough.  Cover the dough and let it rest for about 30 to 45 minutes, or till doubled in size.

3) Gently knead the dough, cover and let it rest for about 10 minutes.  Roll the dough to a square or rectangular sheet.  Use a pizza cutter to cut the dough into desired long thin strips.  Transfer the strips of dough to your baking pan.  Cover and rest the dough for about 30 minutes.

4) Lightly brush the dough with egg wash and sprinkle some sesame seeds on top.  Bake in preheated oven at 185C for about 15 to 18 minutes.  Transfer to rack to cool.

I especially baked these yummy bread sticks for my earlier split pea soup.  These bread sticks are great as a snack too.  I packed a few of these bread sticks and a small cup of yogurt for my girl's tea-break.  She dipped these bread sticks into her favorite berries yogurt for a quick and healthy snack. 

As the texture of these bread stick is quite similar to soft pizza crust, I made a batch of pizza bread sticks for breakfast.  

1) Lightly toast the bread sticks in an oven or toaster (175C) for about 3 to 5 minutes.
2) Spread a thin layer of tomato pizza sauce (I used some leftover minced chicken tomato paste) on the bread sticks.  Sprinkle some chopped bell peppers, spring onion, olives and shredded cheese on top and bake till the cheese melts.

For variations, you can try with tuna fish mayo and corn niblets, or a Japanese fusion flavour of chopped unagi with wasabi mayo and shredded seaweed, or maybe a localised version of otak spread with chopped onion.    

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