Thursday, February 26, 2015

Vietnamese Lemon Grass Beef and Noodle Salad (Bun Bo Xao)

I was slurping my umpteenth spoonful of cold-weather soup, staring at my despairing, pasty reflection in this bowl of noodles and broth, dramatically downhearted and glum while trolling various Jetsetter Caribbean vacations I wasn’t going on—yes, I’ll take another helping of self-pity please— when I clicked on a short article in the New York Times Opinion Pages called This Winter Has Gotten Old.
“And long it has been,” the article acknowledged, likening the unbearable infinity of cyclic frigidity, snow, ice, and freezing rain to the sensation of being trapped.  “But check the calendar: This week means we are officially in late February, which means March. March means daffodils, which means this all must eventually end.”
And just like that, my haze of disheartenment lifted. I pictured those yellow daffodils— the most telltale sign of spring—or is it the purple crocuses, peeking up from the snow in the ultimate gesture of awakening? Either way, I was done wallowing. It was time to looking forward, time to anticipate spring!
So I made this extraordinary Vietnamese Lemon Grass Beef and Noodle Salad (called Bun Bo Xao). The flavors—crisp, luminous, and revitalizing—mimicked my newfound positivity. In this recipe, root vegetables carrot and daikon radish give a quick nod to winter, but the fresh herbs, tangy sauces, and spicy chili peppers give the dish fresh, vibrant life.   It’s the perfect precursor to spring.
The standout component of the salad is definitely the beef, vivacious and citrus-kissed with its fragrant lemongrass rub. The other elements are really just accouterments—julienned vegetables, delicate lettuce leaves, paper-thin rice noodles—but their raw simplicity is refreshing; the appropriate underpinning to a sauce bursting with tang and punch. Yes, this recipe is unequivocally authentic Vietnamese, but surprisingly, I was able to find every ingredient (the lemongrass, fish sauce, and rice noodles are the most obscure) at Whole Foods—no trip to an Asian market necessary. (You won’t be able to find Fresno and red/green bird chilies, but habanero and jalapeño will do the trick.)
If you are nervously eyeing the rice noodles’ carb content, try substituting with Shirataki instead: these yam starch noodles contain virtually no calories, and similarly to tofu, are tasteless: a blank canvas for any sauce you choose. Texture-wise, they’re thin and slippery; spot-on for this vermicelli-seeking salad.
This recipe is truly delightful. In addition to achieving bold, intense flavors while remaining buoyant and light, completing the dish feels like quite an accomplishment for the novice Vietnamese cuisine chef.  I’ve always put Vietnamese food in the “only for take-out” category, and it was very exciting to discover how accessible this ethnic food type can be in your own kitchen. So make this dish, think of daffodils and crocuses, and remember: spring is on the way!

Vietnamese Lemon Grass Beef and Noodle Salad (Bun Bo Xao) (by David Tanis)
Serves 4

Ingredients:

For the dipping sauce:
4 tablespoons Demerara or granulated light brown sugar
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
4 tablespoons lime juice, from 2 large limes
4 tablespoons best quality fish sauce, such as Red Boat
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1-inch length ginger, peeled and minced
1 medium-hot red chile, such as Fresno, chopped (or jalapeño/habanero)
1 hot red or green bird chile, thinly sliced

For the stir-fry:
12 ounces rice vermicelli noodles or thin Shiritaki noodles
1 pound beef skirt steak or sirloin, in thin 1/4-inch slices
2 tablespoons best quality fish sauce, such as Red Boat
1 tablespoon Demerara or granulated light brown sugar
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons finely chopped lemon grass, tender centers only
1 head lettuce, such as butter lettuce or Little Gems, tender center leaves separated
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 scallions, slivered
1 medium carrot*, cut in 3-inch lengths, julienned (about 1 cup)
1 small cucumber*, 3-inch lengths, julienned (about 1 cup)
1 3-inch length daikon radish*, julienned (about 1 cup)
 Mixture of cilantro sprigs, mint leaves, basil leaves and small perilla (shiso) leaves, about 3 cups
4 tablespoons crushed roasted peanuts
4 tablespoons fried shallots, available in Asian groceries (I omitted these)
 Small handful bean sprouts or sunflower sprouts (optional)

*I recommend doubling the vegetables, and/or adding julienned red pepper slices and shredded Napa cabbage too. You’ll want them to soak up extra sauce!

Directions:
1. Make the sauce: In a small bowl combine sugar, rice vinegar and lime juice and stir to dissolve. Add fish sauce, garlic, ginger, chiles and ½ cup water and stir together. Let sit for 15 minutes for flavors to meld. (May be prepared a day ahead and refrigerated.)

2. Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Add rice noodles, stir and turn off heat. Let noodles soften (5 to 8 minutes, depending on brand; if using Shiritaki noodles, cook according to package directions), then drain and rinse with cold water. Leave in colander at room temperature.

3. Meanwhile, combine beef, fish sauce, sugar, garlic and lemon grass in a bowl. Massage seasoning into beef and let sit for 15 minutes.

4. Line a serving bowl or four individual large wide soup bowls with a few lettuce leaves and top with noodles.

5. Heat the oil in a wok over high heat. When wok is nearly smoking, add beef and quickly stir-fry until lightly browned and just cooked, about 2 minutes. Work in batches if necessary so meat browns and doesn’t steam. (If you do not have a wok, you may use a cast iron skillet and work in batches.) Note: do not overcook! I cooked for 4 minutes, and the beef was way too chewy.

6. Top noodles with cooked beef, scallions, carrot, cucumber and daikon. Sprinkle with herbs, and crushed peanuts (plus fried shallots and sprouts if using). Drizzle lightly with dipping sauce and pass remaining sauce at table.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Whole Roasted Cauliflower with Whipped Goat Cheese

Hailing from the Food52 column entitled "Genius Recipes," I don't even know where to start with the sheer brilliance of this Whole Roasted Cauliflower with Whipped Goat Cheese recipe. Is it the presentation's artistic forte, a perfectly crackled crust atop a dome of bronzed brassicaceae?  Is it the extraordinary aromatic broth, punchy and piquant, precise for poaching? Is it the whipped goat cheese topping, sinfully creamy, finished masterfully with a light drizzle of olive oil and sea salt? Or is it the fact that this silly, under-appreciated vegetable is elevated to steak status, treated with utmost sophistication and refinement?


The answer (D! All of the above!) is obviously a combination of each of these things. And why—in my own streak of genius—I, the cauliflower steak cooking virgin, took the plunge and tried this for the first time on a crowd. Big risk, big reward: it received an overwhelmingly positive response, and therefore I get to share with you!

You heard it here first: cauliflower, broccoli's lesser-loved, pasty cousin, is quickly emerging as the hottest trending vegetable. The culinary world has finally flexed some creative muscle on the blank canvas that is the bland, awkward heft of a vegetable—ironically, the same characteristic that banished it to banality before. Off the top of my head, I've seen it processed into rice, turned into pizza crust, act as the "meat" for vegan buffalo bites, and now whole roasted as a steak. (In restaurants, it's generally served with a large steak knife thrust deeply into the center—now we're just being dramatic.)

Though roasted whole, the cauliflower works best as a side—cut into wedges to split amongst diners. The recipe makes a more than generous amount of whipped goat cheese (its pretty rich), so I recommend halving the recipe if you don't plan to use it as a sauce for other things. (Have faith though, I would literally eat it slathered on a rock.) The poaching liquid, which falls quizzically into the "best thing I ever ate" category despite utilizing only pantry items, can also be reserved for other uses: you can save it to make this recipe again the very next night (I did!) or use as a broth for mussels, pasta, or zuppa di pesce.

The original recipe is written by Alon Shaya for Bon Appetit, was slightly adapted by Kristen Miglore for Food52, and further adapted (lightened up) by me. I've proactively eliminated all butter, cream cheese, and cream; leaving all decadence to the poaching liquid and goat cheese, and of course, the natural flavors of the man of the hour, le cauliflower.

Whole Roasted Cauliflower with Whipped Goat Cheese (adapted from Food52)
Serves 4 side servings

Ingredients:
Roasted Cauliflower:
1 head cauliflower, whole, stem trimmed and leaves removed
2 ½ cups dry white wine
cup olive oil plus more for serving (can use less, but cauliflower may not thoroughly brown and crackle)
kosher salt
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon sugar
1 bay leaf

Whipped Goat Cheese:
4 ounces fresh goat cheese
3 ounces feta cheese
6 ounces plain nonfat Greek yogurt
1 ½ tablespoons olive oil plus more for serving
Coarse sea salt

 Directions:

  1. Heat oven to 475° F. Bring wine, oil, a generous sprinkle of salt, lemon juice, red pepper flakes, sugar, bay leaf, and 8 cups water to a boil in a large pot.
  2. Carefully lower in cauliflower, reduce heat, and simmer, turning occasionally, until a knife easily inserts into center, 12 minutes.
  3. Using 2 slotted spoons or a mesh strainer or spider, transfer cauliflower to a rimmed baking sheet or roasting pan, draining well. Reserve at least ½ cup of poaching liquid.
  4. Roast, rotating pan halfway through, until brown all over, 30 to 40 minutes.
  5. While cauliflower is roasting, make whipped goat cheese: blend goat cheese, feta, yogurt, and 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil in a food processor until smooth; season with sea salt. Transfer to a serving bowl and drizzle with olive oil. (Note: Whipped goat cheese can be made one day ahead. Cover and chill in the refrigerator.)
  6. When cauliflower is finished roasting, transfer to a plate. Spoon a few tablespoons of poaching liquid over the cauliflower. Serve with whipped goat cheese.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Lentils with Broiled Eggplant

For my birthday I received the cookbook Plenty, the vegetarian brainchild of Jerusalem author Yotam Ottolenghi. This cookbook could not be more up my alley. Organized into sections by vegetable type, each recipe expertly showcases its main ingredient, yielding dazzling and vibrant dishes abounding with Mediterranean spice and zest.
The entire cookbook looks spectacular, so picking which recipe to tackle first made for an extremely difficult decision. After much thought, I settled on Ottolenghi's Lentils with Broiled Eggplant. And if all of his recipes are great as this one, I am seriously going to pull a Julia & Julia and concoct a new recipe every single day until I've gone through the entire book. (Rachel & Yotam has a nice ring to it, don't you think?) I'm that hooked!

I settled on this particular recipe because I wanted something hearty and warming; a seasonally appropriate winning main dish as opposed to a side. As I examined the recipe, I was thrilled to see that Ottolenghi recommended executing the slow-cooked eggplant—one of my favorite things in the world—via gas stovetop and then oven-broil. As a NYC dweller who constantly pouts over my inability to own a grill (despite loving my gas stove), this was a dream come true: perfect smoky, char-grilled taste achieved sans grill! The secret, Ottolenghi writes, is cooking the eggplant directly on the flame; burning the skin immediately and then letting the flesh oven-cook slowly inside the charred exterior so the flavor seeps through.  It is SO good. My only critique of this recipe is to double the amount of eggplant, because you're definitely going to be wanting more.

Although it's clearly the eggplant that shines in this recipe, the lentils are its perfect foil. Simmering in a homemade stock of onion, carrot, celery and thyme gives them a rich base flavor, while 3 kinds of fresh herbs and crunchy chopped vegetables really make them pop. The lentils are finished with tangy red wine vinegar and smooth olive oil, a lovely acidic contrast to the smoky eggplant.

Last but not least, don't forget the final step: topping the entire concoction with a generous dollop of Greek yogurt. The thick creamy yogurt drizzled with EVOO really brings the whole dish together: a blissful trio of textures, flavors, and fine fettle.

Lentils with Broiled Eggplant (from Plenty)
Serves 4
NOTE: Make sure to pierce the eggplant before broiling to prevent exploding. 
Ingredients:
2 medium eggplants (I suggest using 4 large)
2 tbsp top-quality red wine vinegar
salt and black pepper
1 cup small dark lentils (such as Puy or Castelluccio), rinsed
3 small carrots, peeled
2 celery stalks
1 bay leaf
3 thyme sprigs
1/2 white onion
3 tbsp olive oil, plus extra to finish (I only used 2)
12 cherry tomatoes, halved
1/3 tsp brown sugar
1 tbsp each roughly chopped parsley, cilantro and dill
2 tbsp crème fraîche (or natural yogurt, if you prefer)
Directions:
1. To cook the eggplants on a gas stovetop, which is the most effective way, start by lining the area around the burners with foil to protect them. Put the eggplants directly on two moderate flames and roast for 12 to 15 minutes, turning frequently with metal tongs, until the flesh is soft and smoky and the skin is burnt all over. Keep an eye on them the whole time so they don’t catch fire. For an electric stove, pierce the eggplants with a sharp knife in a few places. Put them on a foil-lined tray and place directly under a hot broiler for 1 hour, turning them a few times. The eggplants need to deflate completely and their skin should burn and break.
2. Remove the eggplants from the heat. If you used an oven broiler, change the oven to its normal setting. Heat the oven to 275°F. Cut a slit down the center of the eggplants and scoop out the flesh into a colander, avoiding the black skin. Leave to drain for at least 15 minutes and only then season with plenty of salt and pepper and 1/2 tablespoon of the vinegar.
3. While the eggplants are broiling, place the lentils in a medium saucepan. Cut one carrot and half a celery stalk into large chunks and throw them in. Add the bay leaf, thyme and onion, cover with plenty of water and bring to the boil. Simmer on a low heat for up to 25 minutes, or until the lentils are tender, skimming away the froth from the surface from time to time. Drain in a sieve. Remove and discard the carrot, celery, bay leaf, thyme and onion and transfer the lentils to a mixing bowl. Add the rest of the vinegar, 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and plenty of salt and pepper; stir and set aside somewhere warm.
4. Cut the remaining carrot and celery into 3/8-inch dice and mix with the tomatoes, the remaining oil, the sugar and some salt. Spread in an ovenproof dish and cook in the oven for about 20 minutes, or until the carrot is tender but still firm.
5. Add the cooked vegetables to the warm lentils, followed by the chopped herbs and stir gently. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Spoon the lentils onto serving plates. Pile some eggplant in the center of each portion and top it with a dollop of crème fraîche or yogurt. Finish with a trickle of oil.