Friday, June 26, 2015

Vietnam’s Scrumptious Street Food

                                               This street vendor is out just after the sun rises.

Street food in Vietnam is an institution.  It’s a way of life.  The poor and the rich do it.  The young and the elderly.  Families and singles.  Locals and tourists.  Each stand has its specialty and it’s not unusual for a vendor to only offer one item.  Delving into the Vietnamese culture doesn’t get any better than at a street food spot where you see all strata of life converging into one delicious spot.

                                             If your lucky, there will be seating.

Seating (if there is any) is very rudimentary---often nothing more than the types of tiny plastic chairs often seen in Kindergartens. (You haven’t lived until you’ve tried to pry yourself out of one of these munchkin size seats.)  It’s not about comfort.  It’s about comfort food.  Service?  The server is the chef---service includes handing you your food.

Two years ago I was taken by a foodie in Saigon on a tour of her favorite street spots.  In Hanoi, I hired a gourmet cooking company to take me to their hidden street gems.  I still dream about both of those evenings.  Very different experiences, but both equally compelling for this die-hard foodie.

One of the most unforgettable places was deep in a residential district of Saigon.  The streets were so small that no cars could enter…only motorcycles or pedestrians.  It was like opening day at Yankee stadium.  The streets were mobbed, there was a palpable excitement in the air.  All bases were loaded at the vendor who specialized in Banh Xeo…a crispy omelette/pancake filled with fresh veggies.  In a hall of fame, this version of Banh Xeo would be served.

                                                     Banh Xeo heaven

The duck Pho soup in Hanoi had me at hello.  This vendor offered small wooden crates for street-side “dining.”  The dishes were washed in front of you right on the street…with the water tossed in the gutter.  I adored every sip and morsel of this extremely complex broth laced with star anise… and the perfectly cooked duck.  Definitely duck nirvana.
                                  I went back 2 days in a row for this duck Pho

Coming on the February 2016 tour to Vietnam?  You’ll visit both of these vendors and several more as we graze through the street foods of these two mouthwatering cities.

Friday, June 19, 2015

A Fishy Fish Story

I was in Williamsburg, Virginia a month ago for a week of wining and dining.  Located about 30 miles from the Chesapeake Bay, the city offers the most preciously preserved colonial town in our country.  One of the restaurants I ate in specialized in seafood.  I had previewed their online menu in advance (including their glowing reviews) and was on a high with anticipation when I arrived.  The restaurant didn’t accept reservations so I had been warned to arrive early.  I arrived at 5:15pm and the parking lot was jammed.  I took that as a positive sign.

Even at this hour on a mid-week night it was a 30 minute wait.  More good news.  My friend and I went to the bar to look at a menu and inquire about any daily specials.  I sought counsel of the bartender who told me he had been at the restaurant for 5 years. The conversation went something like this.

“I’m a crab lover and am torn between the 2 different offerings on the menu.  I need your help in deciding”
----“We’re known for our crab cakes.”

By now people were flooding the bar and I overhear that it is now a 45 minute wait for a table.  Wow!  This food was really going to be great!  
“I want to be sure the crab is fresh.  I don’t want anything frozen.”
---“Sorry, but it’s frozen.”

“I wasn’t sure when your local season is. When does it come in fresh?”
--“Never.  We always use frozen crab as the Chesapeake has been fished out.”

“If the bay is fished out, where do the crabs come from?”
“ O.M.G.”

“All right…then I’ll move to my second choice:  jumbo shrimps.  I just drove today up the coast from North Carolina where I ate delicious dishes made from their uber fresh shrimps.  They are fresh, right?”
---“No, they're frozen.” 
“Frozen from nearby North Carolina?”
---“No.  Frozen from Cambodia.”

By now I hear someone enter the bar and announce to his friend sitting next to me that the wait is now > one hour.  It’s not even 6pm.

“I’m stunned.  Let me ask another question:  what seafood on your menu is fresh?” 
---“Nothing except the scallops.”

Next I hear my name being paged:  “Mrs. Dunn---your table is ready.”

I wanted to leave, but my friend was tired and hungry.  We stayed.  And you definitely know what I ordered.  But, what about the hundreds of other diners who flock here?  

The name of the restaurant was "Food for Thought."  It was named appropriately.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Fabulous Farro

                               Farro with Butternut Squash, Goat Cheese, Arugula & Walnuts

I’m in Italy with a group of Wine-Knows at a Renaissance villa in Umbria.  Tomorrow we head to Tuscany for the week at a stupendous 10,000 square foot villa on the sea.  Farro is one of both Tuscany and Umbria’s classical foods, however, until recently it has played second fiddle outside of central Italy to pasta.  Now it’s becoming the latest culinary craze on this side of the Atlantic.

Farro is an ancient grain.  It is not a wheat but a plant and a grain all its own.   A grain of farro looks and tastes somewhat like a lighter brown rice.  In Tuscany the grain dates from the Neolithic era.  Etruscans ate farro.  Farro fueled the Roman armies. But, the grain did not originate in Italy.  Research indicates that farro came from the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia.

Farro is a light starch, but with a big texture and an almost nutty taste.  It has a distinctive texture that I love.  It’s also extremely versatile.  Like pasta, it can be eaten plain, in a soup, or even in a salad.  Farro contains a starch similar to that found in the rice used to make risotto, releasing a creamy, binding liquid when cooked.  But, unlike risotto, farro doesn’t become gummy.  Each grain of farro has a protective layer of bran.  This means that every little morsel retains a tender but distinct bite…ever after it sits for days in your frig after preparation. 

Rich in fiber, farro also offers magnesium, as well as vitamins A, B, C and E.  It grows best in barren, high-altitude terrain, hece, is almost grown without chemical pesticides or fertilizers.  More good news:  because it is so easily digested and so low in gluten, farro can often be eaten by those who are normally gluten-intolderant.  

I've had farro in many preparations, but here is one of my faves:

Farro with Roasted Butternut Squash, Walnuts, Arugula & Goat Cheese


1 C farro
1.5 cups cubed squash
1 C arugula
½ cup crumbled goat cheese
1/3 cup chopped alwanuts
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon walnut  oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vineyar
Salt & pepper


Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Peel and cut squash into ½ inch cubes, toss with olive oil and a pinch of salt.  Put on well oiled baking sheet and roast for 20 min.
In a saucepan bring 2 cups of water with salt to boil, add farro, cover and summer until faro is tender with a slight chew (15-20 min).  Remove from heat and drain.

In a large bowl toss farro with squash, add walnut oil and balsamic, arugula, chopped nuts and goat cheese. Season with salt and pepper.

Note:  can be served either hot or cold

Buon appetito!

Friday, June 5, 2015

June’s Wines

It’s almost summer.  Here are June’s recommendations for sipping this coming season…and all of them can be found for about 20 bucks.
  • Gruner Veltliner:  I’m wild about this white varietal from Austria.  If you don’t know it you should.  Try it…you’ll like it!
  • Cabernet Franc:  I can’t get enough of this light-weight red.  One of the blending varietals used in Bordeaux, it’s not so easy to find it alone.  France’s Loire Valley makes some stunning renditions, and the prices are usually reasonable.  This is a drink-young-wine with approachable tannins.
  • Albarino:  Northwest Spain’s Holy Grail, this dry white is a stunner.  Its small amount of effervescence is perfect for a warm summer’s aperitif. 
  • Torrontes:  Like peaches?  This wine has your name on it.  Made in Argentina, I never tire of this crowd pleaser…or its great quality price ratio of $15-20.
  • Frappato:  Summer is also the season for strawberries.  If this flavor resonates with you, don’t miss this hidden red gem from Sicily.  Bravo!
  • Vermentino:  Last, but in no way least, this white varietal from Italy’s northwestern coast is one of my personal faves.  Love, love, love it.

Happy summer!