You can't cook well without advice from someone who's been around the block several times. I'm talking grandparents, parents, aunties and uncles. Though my mom and dad both have plenty to say on Vietnamese food and traditions, this section is dedicated to my mama who's our family's kitchen maven. (That's her photo above!)
Check the "Cooking Tips and Tools" section for more! lengthier blog postings. And, use the comment function below to add your own kitchen wisdom to this list
that I've started.
cha gio (fried imperial rolls)
Make a double or triple batch of the Vietnamese classic, cha gio, and freeze them for another day. The technique I learned from my mom is to fry them until they're set but not fully or deeply browned. Drain the rolls and let them cool. They'll soften up and that's fine. Then put the rolls in small plastic zip top bags (I've fit 4 in a quart-size bag) and then freeze them. When you're in the mood, or when guests are coming, thaw the rolls and let them come to room temperature. Blot them with paper towel to remove excess moisture and then put into a small pot, wok, or high-sided skillet. Pour in oil to cover and then heat over medium heat. After the oil gets boiling, watch the rolls, rotating them as necessary to crisp and brown evenly. The total frying time depends on how brown your rolls were to begin with. Drain and let the rolls cool for about 5 minutes before cutting them up and serving with the usual lettuces, herbs, and dipping sauce. You'll notice that defrosted and refried rolls actually keep their crunch for a long time -- a bonus to the time-saving method.
calories when coconut milk is needed
Anh Tran of Berkeley, CA, writes that instead of using tons of coconut milk in curry, her mom adds a mixture of nonfat yogurt and skim milk. She mixes it well, and then adds the dairy mixture to the curry once it's removed from the heat and just before serving. Anh admits that it's not as sweet or creamy, but certainly healthy!
Ellen added this tip: "For a lower fat version, use coconut essence (not artificial flavour) mixed with evaporated milk (you can use skim). I have found coconut essence in Caribbean stores.There is some loss of flavour, but the resulting fat loss is worth it!" If you're wondering about how 'unhealthy' it is, get the skinny on coconut milk.
substitute for coconut milk
In an effort to eat more healthily, my parents are constantly looking for ingredient substitutes that don't compromise too much of the Vietnamese flavors they love. One of their latest things is using evaporated milk instead coconut milk. My mom has put it into chicken curry and coconut cassava cake. There's a slight loss of flavor but it's not bad!
roasted peanuts for a flavor boost
Unlike old-fashioned Vietnamese cooks, I don't dry roast raw peanuts. Instead, I conveniently buy roasted, unsalted peanuts from a health food store or specialty market and keep them in the freezer, where they stay fresh. Sometimes, the peanuts can have a flat taste. To add depth, I toast them in a skillet over medium heat for a few minutes -- until they are slightly glistening and a few brown spots appear. Then I immediately transfer the peanuts to a bowl to cool completely. Otherwise, they may continue toasting and end up burnt.
chiles and galangal
If you grow or buy chiles, you know you'll have to have a fair amount on hand. Keep them frozen in a zip-top bag and they'll be fine for months. For an investment like galangal, cut the large piece it into 1 to 2-inch chunks and freeze them. Frozen galangal is easier to chop and there's just a slight loss of flavor.
Use an electric coffee grinder just for grining spices for the freshest flavors and strongest aromas. I grind small batches of black pepper and keep it in a jar on my kitchen counter. Avoid pre-ground spices whenever you can. (My exception to this rule is white pepper, which I like super fine and purchase at Chinese markets where there's a fast turnaround.) Buy the seeds (cumin, coriander, etc.) and grind them yourself. Use a dry brush to sweep away the ground up spices. After each use, clean the grinder by grinding a bit of raw rice in it and discarding the powdery rice.
tofu fresh for a long time
Anh also adds that her mom, a vegetarian just like her, extends the shelf life of tofu, esp. silken tofu, by keeping it refrigerated and changing the water everyday. Her mom replaces the old water with boiling water each time she changes it.
a tired or old banh trung (Tet rice cake)
Some people let their Tet sticky rice cakes sit around and get dried out. Others, like my mom, makes 12-16 banh trung a year and keeps them frozen for us to enjoy year round. In the past, she reheated them by steaming or microwaving. During the 2004 Tet season, she pulled out a frozen one from 2003 to do a taste comparison with a new 2004 cake. It dawned upon her that perhaps she could boil her previously frozen cake back to life, mimicking the orginal cooking method. When her experiment worked, she reported back to me, saying, "It's just like new!" Guess what? I tried it and Mom's right.
Here are her reheating/revitalization instructions that will work for new, tired, or previously frozen banh trung:
Fill a 5- to 6-quart Dutch oven 2/3 full of water. Bring it to a rolling boil. As the water is heating up, wrap the banh trung up in heavy duty foil, tie it like you would a gift with cotton string, and then boil the package for an hour. Keep it submerged in water by adding more boiling water, as needed. When the hour's up, take the banh trung out and let it cool for 1 to 2 hours before eating.
Forming nice bundles of bun (thin rice noodles)
For dishes like bun cha Hanoi (grilled pork Hanoi style with herbs and noodles), you have to display small, pre-portioned mounds of bun noodles for people to conveniently pick up. A visitor from Jax, Florida suggests using a pair of chopsticks and rolling a portion of noodles into small attractive clumps which can be nicely displayed on a pretty dish. As they say in Vietnamese, a trick like this one is a sign that a cook is "kheo" -- that is, careful, measured and skilled.
Microwaving shrimp chips
Heating up the oil to fry shrimp chips sometimes seems to take forever. You stand there waiting for the oil, all the while fantasizing about eating the puffy, crispy chips. One visitor reports that her mom heads for the microwave to make her chips. Pretty nifty. (Note that in my experience, this works best with thinner chips, not the thick Indonesian krupuk variety.)
Transporting fish sauce bottles
When bringing home your bottle of fish sauce (or any other kind of condiment), avoid laying them down in the bag or in your car. The bottles are seldom packaged with tight seals and can leak.
Avoiding seeds when cutting limes and lemons
Seeds are hard to remove once a lime or lemon has been cut into wedges. Viet cooks traditionally do not cut through the center of fruit, where most of the seeds congregate. Instead they efficiently cut off-center caps and discard the center core. The variety of limes commonly sold in the States are often devoid of seeds, so this practice has become obsolete. However, if you're using Mexican or Key limes, which have the 'true' lime taste but come with seeds, this trick will come in handy. (Contributed by Ms. Thuy Mac.)
Eyeing flavor in dipping sauce
When is your multipurpose fish sauce dipping sauce (nuoc cham) close to perfection? It's hard to tell for the novice. After more than half a century of cooking, my mother looks for color to gauge her dipping sauce. When it's a light honey or amber color, she knows she's close. Aim for a bold, forward finish because most likely, you'll be dipping food that includes lettuce and herbs, which are unsalted and require an extra flavor lift at the end to heighten the eating experience.
Keeping stinky foods fresh longer
Vietnamese cooks traditionally keep stinky staples such as fish sauce (nuoc mam) or shrimp paste/sauce (mam ruoc/tom) in the kitchen cupboard. Regular usage means a quick turnaround for such ingredients, which after all, are salted for long-term preservation in the first place. For cooks who don't regularly cook Vietnamese food, such ingredients should be kept in the fridge where they'll last longer. Odors are usually not an issue because the ingredient normally comes in a glass jar or bottle.
New crop rice
Every year, bags of jasmine rice labeled "new crop" have extra tags or instructions telling cooks to use less water to prevent the rice from getting mushy. Well, sometimes no matter how low you go with that water level, the rice still cooks up gummy. Even worse, you're stuck with a 25 pound (or 50 pound!) bag of raw rice that you know won't cook up to perfection. You don't dare throw the bag out-that would be sacrilege. What to do? My mom's solution is to mix this new crop rice with regular long-grain rice that she buys from Costco or mainstream supermarkets. She uses a 1:1 ratio, which works every time I've found. The rice cooks up normally, and though you've got to keep extra rice around, the foundation of your meals is not spoiled.
in a dish
To ensure that a dish looks appetizing, include ingredients of different colors, namely red, orange, green and yellow.
Measuring large quantities
I come from a family of seven and when we were young, my mom made large quantities of food to save money and time. In doubling or tripling recipes, she'd end up having me measure numerous tablespoons of fish sauce, corn starch, sugar, tapioca starch, water, etc. for one dish. We didn't cook according to American measurements so 4 tablespoons were never converted to a quarter cup. So, we just multiplied and I was left to measure. To make sure I didn't lose count, my mother made me count out loud. Good training for a young cook.
Storing dried shrimp
Those orangey dried salted shrimp pick up a terrible ammonia odor when left to sit too long at room temperature. Put the bag in a plastic Ziploc bag and store in the fridge. They keep for a good 6 months that way.
To get extra flavor from the coffee you brew, grind the beans extra fine and don't use large machines to make a small amount. For some reason, the flavor is not as intense. Her little four-cup coffee maker yield inky stuff that stands right up against the strong flavors of the sweetened condensed milk that's mixed in. The beans she uses? Dark roasted anything. If you want, Café Du Monde from New Orleans is particularly good. So are brands sold at Vietnamese markets.
Keep cooked noodles from clumping
Invert a cup or rice bowl at the bottom of your strainer or colander. Pour in the cooked noodles and rinse with cold water. The cup/bowl prevents the noodles from gathering at the bottom, cooling as a clump and sticking together!
Freeze sections (4-5 inches long) of lemongrass for long-term use. Remember to trim the ends and remove any loose and unsightly outer leaves first! You'll find the defrosted lemongrass is easier to cut up. It retains most of its flavor. Better yet, freezing breaks down the fibers, making the lemongrass a breeze to chop. For minced lemongrass, roughly chop up each section and let your food processor or mini chopper go to work!