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Wild at Heart

>> Thursday, May 31, 2007

If I present you this seafood dish, will you eat it?

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If then, I tell you that the dish features snails, how’s your reaction?

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I know snails can be intimidating for a lot of people. But if you can get over the “fear”, snails are the few best things you should taste. Having said that, sea snails are the only types I can handle so far. And they are my favorite seafood. One day I will gather some more courage and tackle the famous helix aspersa (brown garden snail).

My knowledge about cooking (freshwater) snails is limited to Vietnamese cuisine. The Vietnamese believe that snails have cold properties so they should be balanced with “hot” ingredients in dishes. Most often, snails are boiled with pomelo leaves or some Chinese herbs and served with a variation of Vietnamese dipping sauce where a lot of ginger is used. It is a very popular snack for the local during winter time. Northern Vietnam also has a really lovely snail noodle soup, which is as popular as pho.

But the best snail dish I have ever eaten is the one made by my mother. It’s sort of a stew that uses fresh herbs, green bananas (or plantains), fried tofu, some meat and one crucial ingredient – fermented rice residual (dấm bỗng or mẻ). This residual has the properties of rice vinegar but a lot milder and sweeter. Sadly, it’s almost impossible to find this overseas. However, I have cooked this dish successfully using verjuice. It works beautifully taste-wise but still lacks the special fragrance of the fermented rice residual. In Australia, I have used periwinkle to replicate my mother’s freshwater snail stew, which works well. But if you have a chance to travel to Vietnam, do try the local freshwater snails. They are simply the best!

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Sea Snails with Green Bananas and Tofu (Ốc nấu chuối đậu)

The amount below is estimation only

Ingredients (for 4 serves as part of a rice meal)

1 kg sea snail or periwinkle

100g ginger, sliced

200g chicken or pork meat

3 medium green bananas or plantains

1 tsp turmeric powder

½ tsp shrimp paste

2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

30g shallots, peeled and minced

100g (or more) fried tofu puffs, cut into bite size

4-5 tablespoons verjuice* (or to taste)

1/2 tsp rice vinegar

20g Vietnamese Perilla (tia to) or Thai Basil, leaves picked and shredded

Fish sauce, to taste

4 cup chicken stock

Oil, as needed


For the snails: soak in water that has been used to wash rice for 8-10 hours. Drain. Cook in a lot of water and ginger – boil for 10 mins. Leave to cool and used a pin to pick the snail meat out. Marinade with ½ tsp shrimp paste and set aside.

Peel banana skin, cut into 2 cm slices and soak in acidulated water to prevent darkening.

Cut the chicken/pork meat into small pieces. Marinade with some fish sauce.

Heat some oil in a large saucepan, add in minced garlic and shallot. Stir until fragrant and add the meat. Next, add the green bananas, turmeric powder, 3-4 tbsp verjuice, rice vinegar and a bit of fish sauce. Add chicken stock, bring to the boil then simmer for 15 mins or until the banana is nearly cooked. Add the snails and tofu. Bring to the boil again. Check seasoning. The stew should be lightly sour.

Just before serving, re-heat the stew. Add in shredded Vietnamese Perilla or Thai Bail. Serve hot with rice.

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This post is my contribution to Bron’s WILD FOOD - Edible Reptile. Please check her roundup for some exotic and wild dishes later on!



>> Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Photo by Khanhpm, originally shared here.

I have been missing in action due to some work- life commitments. Normal cooking and blogging will resume soon with some new inspirations and challenges. I do miss my kitchen!

Meantime, please enjoy photo of Hanoi taken by some online friends of mine. The first photo is Sword Lake, located in the center of the city. There are a lot of good "hawkers-style" food stores and Vietnamese-style cafe within walking distances from here.

Another photo makes me home-sick! It was taken at the very street where my house is located!

Photo by Calabi-Yau Rock , originally shared here.


Back to Comfort Zone

>> Saturday, May 19, 2007

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For this week Weekend Herb Blogging hosted by Rinku of Cooking in Westchester, I have come back to my comfort zone of Vietnamese cuisine and chosen a lovely herb to feature – Wild Betel Leaf (also called Pepper Leaf).

Before I proceed, I think some clarification is needed about this lovely herb. Wild Betel Leaf (Vietnamese name: La Lot) is a relative of the normal betel leaf used to chewing betel nuts (which is only for old, very old ladies!). Since they have very similar appearance, it is quite confusing even for Vietnamese cooks! The best way to differentiate, in my opinion, is by the fragrance. Wild Betel Leaf has much stronger peppery fragrance. In terms of taste, it is less “spicy” than the normal betel leaf. I know this sounds puzzling for someone who is not familiar with Vietnamese cooking. My advice is to go to a Vietnamese grocery shop and ask for assistance. The shop I go to in Springvale labels this leaf as Pepper Leaf.

Wild Betel Leaf is used throughout Vietnam to flavour various dishes. The most famous one is definitely grilled/pan-fried minced meat wrapped in wild betel leaf. For most parts of Vietnam, mince pork is used and the meat parcel is normally pan-fried. However, in some fancier restaurants, mince beef is preferred and grilling seems more popular. The second method is popularised by the Vietnamese overseas and it has become a not-to-be-missed dish if you dine in a Vietnamese restaurant. Noodlepie has tried and liked it.

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Wild Betel Leaf is one of my top favourite herbs. I usually buy it to make the famous dish above. But any leftover can be used to garnish soup, stir-fry and even salad. My favourite so far is adding them in omelette. However, today I am making the famous minced beef wrapped in wild betel leaves. This is the northern home-style version, which my mom and grandma always make. It is simpler than the restaurant version, but the taste is still superb.

Just another note about the recipe. I have found that the readily minced meat is too fine for this. My mom normally chops the meat herself, which yields much better texture. And being health conscious, she adds egg instead of lard to keep the meat moist during cooking.

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Home-style Minced Beef Wrapped in Wild Betel Leaf

My mom and grandmas’ very own recipe

Ingredients (for 4 generous serves as part of a rice meal)

500g beef steak, coarsely minced using food processor or done by hand

1 spring onion (scallion), finely chopped

1 bunch of wild betel leaf, leaves picked, cleaned and dried

1-2 tbsp fish sauce (*)

1 tsp sugar (optional)

Pinch of salt (or to taste) & a generous amount of ground white pepper

1 small egg

Oil for shallow-frying


  1. Marinade the beef with fish sauce, salt, white pepper. Add in the egg and 1 tsp of finely minced betel leaves. Thoroughly combined. Leave for 15 mins.
  2. Using the largest wild betel leaves, wrap the meat and roll up. You can see the pictorial here. (Scroll down to the middle. The page is in Vietnamese).
  3. Pan-fried in hot oil until crisp on both sides and cooked through. Serve warm with rice and Vietnamese dipping sauce if desired.

(*): fish sauce varies in taste, so use accordingly.


  1. Add some Chinese five-spice powder or finely chopped lemongrass/garlic to the marinade mixture.
  2. For vegetarian option (my grandma’s way), crumble well-drained firm tofu and use this in place of the beef.


Speed Up

>> Tuesday, May 15, 2007

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If you are into bread-making, you will know that slow fermentation is preferred since it gives the final products more flavors. With the help of a refrigerator, the dough can be left to rest overnight or longer. I have even encountered recipe for sourdough with three-day fermentation (excluding the week spent to create initial leaven). But life is more than waiting around for a loaf of bread. I would love to have more free time to bake. However, with tons of responsibilities together with the laziness on my part, it is not always possible. After work or uni, I opt for quick bread, which does not require or benefit greatly from slow fermentation. Flavored or enriched breads are the good choices here.

But no matter what bread you choose, some patience still is needed when working with yeast. The dough should be proved properly, and this takes time. If the weather is hot then fine, things will be done quite quickly. Nevertheless, in winter or on a rainy day, it seems to take forever. There are of course several ways this process can be speeded up:

  1. Put the dough (after kneading) in the oven with the light on and close the oven door. Remember to cover the dough well. This is what I normally do on a very cold day.
  2. If you want to speed up the process further, place a tray of warm water underneath the bowl containing the dough and process as method 1.
  3. Alternatively, put the covered bowl directly in the warm water-bath and let it rise outside the oven.
  4. Of course if your room/kitchen is warm due to heater/cooking process (ideally 27-30C), you can let the dough ferment there.

If you have more tips, let me know.

Back to the bread I am featuring today – Tomato and Marjoram Swirl Bread. It is a very lovely looking loaf and taste beautiful, too. The enriched dough is enhanced with the taste of tomato and fragrance of marjoram. I like to use tomato paste imported from Italy which normally tastes just right. For the herbs, add whatever you like – basil, oregano, rosemary or thyme… The choice is up to you. And this bread matches wonderfully with creamy soup.

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Tomato and Marjoram Swirl Bread

Adapted from The Baker’s Companion

Ingredients (yield 1 loaf)

¾ cup (6 ounces) water

1½ ounces butter, at room temperature

1 tbsp sugar

1¼ tsp salt

2 tsp instant yeast

½ cup tomato paste

1 tsp of dried marjoram or herbs of choice

3 cups (12 ¾ ounces) unbleached plain flour


Knead together water, butter, sugar, salt, yeast, ¼ cup tomato paste and 3 cups flour until the dough is smooth and soft. Place in a greased bowl and cover. Let it rise until doubled.

Gently deflate the dough, and pat it into a 6x10 inch rectangle. Combine the remaining tomato paste with marjoram and spread evenly over the surface of the dough.

Starting with the short side, roll the dough up to form a loaf shape. Place it seam side down into a greased 8 ½ x 4 ½ inch pan. Cover and proof until the dogh dome is 1 inch over the rim of the pan.

Bake in a preheated 350F oven for about 35-40 mins. Remove from the oven. Turn out and cool completely.


I would like to submit this entry to Monthly Cooking Tipolog hosted by the lovely Sushma. Make sure to check the round-up for a lot of cooking tips from other bloggers.

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Something new

>> Wednesday, May 09, 2007

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One of many symptoms of being a foodie is that you never have enough of cookbooks or food magazines. Your bookshelves are full of cook-related stuff. No more spaces, they start to invade your desks, kitchen tables, bed side etc. Everything is adding up, but you still want more. Even when you decide that you will stop, a simple review from fellow bloggers or a magazine is enough for you to start searching in Amazon or your local bookstores. Before you know it, the purchase has been finalized and the new book(s) arrives. You may feel a bit guilty but the joy of possessing another cookbook surpasses all. And when the new recipes turn out well, you are more than pleased. Then, before you cook more from the book, a new one is purchased and appears in your house. You cannot help it. All is because you are a foodie!

Does it sound like you? I admit I buy new cookbooks quite often and these are besides the normal food magazine subscriptions. I am trying to slow down but it is not really effective. Sometimes I just fall in love with the book instantly and can’t help but buying it. The perfect example is this gorgeous book called French by Australian chef Damien Pignolet.

This book is the work of a lifetime. Everything is written in great details with a lot of explanations. Damien Pignolet is like a compassionate teacher, explaining all the basics of French cooking techniques and how he has applied those using Australian ingredients. Unlike nowadays celebrity chefs with the usual phrases of “quick and simple” or “the best (…)” or “fabulous”, Damien tells us the art of slow cooking with a great emphasis on techniques and methods. In his words - "It’s not just the recipe, cooking is much more than that.” I can go on telling you how much I treasure this book. The photography is of top quality. The text is excellent. And most of all, it is the author’s attitude and compassion that shine through the whole book.

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I have tried the first recipe, a simple one for pound cake. The technique here is quite different to traditional way of creaming butter and sugar then adding other ingredients. Borrowing Rose Levy Beranbaum’s techniques, this method is said to be simpler and “overcome the potential curdling of batter”.

The following recipe is very much similar to Damien’s. I have added dry figs for a contrast in texture and reduce the amount of sugar slightly. I have also baked them in individual cake tins instead of the 1 litre loaf as suggested. The cake is really beautiful – aromatic and rich. Do use the best saffron & butter you can find. For me, there is no substitution for Lurpak in this type of cake.

Pistachio, Fig and Saffron Individual Cake

Ingredients (yield 5 individual cakes)

45 ml milk

½ tsp saffron strands

3 large eggs, at room temperature

½ tsp of vanilla extract

150g plain flour, sifted

120g castor sugar

¾ tsp baking powder

¼ tsp salt

180g soft unsalted butter, cut into pieces

60g pistachio, ach cut into 3 pieces

3 small dried figs, cut into small pieces


  1. Preheat oven to 175C. Grease your cake tin(s).
  2. In a small saucepan, warm the milk with the saffron to blood heat. Set aside for 5 mins to cool. Lightly beat the eggs and vanilla then add the saffron mixture. Mix well using a spoon (the stamens tend to caught up in a whisk).
  3. Put the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Combine. Add butter and half of the egg and milk mixture. Mix at medium speed for 1 min. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add half the remaining mixture, beat for 20 secs. Scrape down again, pour the rest of the egg-milk mixture along with the nuts and figs. Mix for another 20 secs.
  4. Transfer to the greased pans. Gently tap on the bench to dispel any air bubbles. Bake until done (depending on the size of the tins. Mine took about 20 mins. The loaf may take 40 mins).
  5. Rest on a wire rack for 10 mins before turning out onto the rack to cool completely.


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This post is my entry for Weekend Cookbook Challenge. The theme of this month is Something New and hosted by Sara of I like to cook.


Meme – 5 things you don’t know about me

>> Monday, May 07, 2007

Mae of Rice and Noodles has tagged me for this lovely meme. Thanks for remembering me, Mae. So here they are: 5 things that you (probably) don’t know about me…

  1. I am the first child in my family and my sister is 9 years younger than me. Growing up in Hanoi Vietnam, I came to Melbourne about 6 years ago for undergraduate, honours and now PHD studies. I didn’t intend to stay in Australia this long but you never know what life leads you to!
  2. I am a coffee addict. I drink black coffee like water and can go for three cups in the row without noticing. I took a coffee course some time back just to know more and get fussier with my coffee.
  3. My worst subject at school is physics. My parents are very good at science but the only science subject I am ok with is maths. Other than that, all science subjects gave me nightmares!
  4. I love soccer (football). I have been a big fan of Manchester United since Eric Cantona’s time. I can get up at middle of the night (say 2-3 am) just to watch a good match. And no, I don't really like David Beckham. :D
  5. Ok, this is a secret one. I used to ride motorbike illegally in Vietnam. Since having my own bike at the age of 16, I have never had a proper license. But believe me, I am a safe and skillful rider. I can ride through the crowded, crazy and scary streets of Hanoi easily without any severe accidents (I haven’t had any actually). Need more proof? My BF, who grew up in Australia, let me ride him on my bike around Hanoi. Imagine riding a motorbike with Anh, isn’t it fun? ;)

Hopefully you know a bit more about me through this meme. I won’t tag anyone in particular, but if you haven’t done it, feel free to write 5 things about yourself and let me know!

Lastly, Patricia of Technicolor Kitchen has just nominated me for the Thinking Blogger Award. Thanks Pat for all your sweet words and encouragements. I’ll do my job, nominating 5 bloggers that I love soon.

Picture: Motorbikes in Hanoi streets, courtesy of this page.


Renewed love

>> Saturday, May 05, 2007

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Cauliflower is one of my most favorite vegetables as a child. But growing up, I often regard it as bland and uninteresting. I normally buy cauliflower, not knowing exactly how to cook it well. And it will be just stir-fry, bake or steam. Sound boring, doesn’t it?

But my thought changes when I try a new recipe for a cheesy and creamy cauliflower soup. I realize the reason why my previous attempts to make cauliflower soup failed – I didn’t braise the vegetables long enough to bring out its beautiful natural sweetness. It’s better to take it slow for the full flavors to develop. The cheddar cheese, then, adds a beautiful creamy final touch. I particularly like the addition of mustard seeds since they lend an interesting contrast to the creaminess and sweetness of the soup.

This recipe is from an article in The Baker’s Companion which features different combination of bread and soup. The bread accompanied this smooth and creamy soup is swirl tomato bread (recipe coming up), which is not only easy but also very tasty. The combo is excellent and has become my new winter favorite…

Just a note to the recipe. If you don’t like cheese (remember the recipe calls for strong cheddar cheese), omit it. The soup is still creamy. But for me, who love cheese, its addition is a must for a complete taste.

This is my entry for Weekend Herb Blogging, which returns to Kalyn this week. The featured vegetable is of course cauliflower.

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Creamy and Cheesy Cauliflower Soup

Adapted from The Baker’s Companion

Ingredients (for 4-5 generous serves)

Butter, as needed

1 medium onion, peeled and diced

2 tbsp flour

3 cups chicken/veggie broth

1 pound fresh cauliflower florets

2 tsp small black mustard seeds

1 ½ cup light cream (or evaporated milk)

About 1 cup (or to taste) sharp cheedar cheese, shredded


Cook the onion with butter until soften- about 5 mins. Stir in flour, then the broth, cauliflower, a pinch of sea salt and mustard. Let the soup simmer for 25 mins over very low heat or until the cauliflower is very soft.

Let the mixture cool a little then process in a blender or food processor.

Return the soup to the pot. Stir in the cream/milk and cheese. Adjust seasoning. Cook very gently until the cheese just melts. Serve the soup hot. Garnish with fresh chives.


A Taste of Yellow

>> Wednesday, May 02, 2007

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Barbara of Winos and Foodies is hosting a lovely event called A Taste of Yellow. If you visit Barbara’s blog, you will know that she is not only an incredible cook and baker but also a brave woman who has been fighting against cancer. This event is a chance for Barbara to spread the awareness for cancer and honour a brave fighter – Lance Armstrong.

I first encountered cancer as a child when a close friend lost his mom due to this disease. It was so sudden, we were all shocked. Years later, my grandfather was diagnosed. Luckily with a lot of blessing, supports and his own efforts, my grandfather is getting better. And now, a friend of our family is also fighting against cancer.

We all, then, should be aware of this disease and support those who are fighting against it. And this event is a great way to spread the awareness by cooking or baking with something yellow. The possibilities are endless but I have settled down with polenta.

I have used polenta to make incredible pastry dough for empanadillas. The recipe comes from Momo, a famous restaurant located in London. Combining polenta with bread flour, the result is the dough that is half pastry and half bread dough. It has a very interesting texture, almost “sandy” when I first chew it. But the more I eat it, the more I like it.

Now, this recipe is definitely a keeper. The filling is very delicious. I have done several variations (e.g. making vegetarian filling) but always kept the spices portion. It is worth a try although you may find that the dough is stiffer than usual due to the polenta. Extra efforts may be necessary to roll the dough to the desired thickness. Good way to work out your hand muscles!

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Based on recipe from Momo Restaurant, as appeared in Delicious Magazine March 2007 Australian Edition


3 tbsp olive oil

500g mince pork/chicken or cubed potatoes for vegetarian filling

2 large onion, finely chopped

2 red capsicum, finely chopped

4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

½ cup roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley

2 tsp fennel seeds, ground

1 tbsp tomato paste

1 tsp hot smoked paprika

2 tsp sweet paprika

1 tbp chopped pickle hot chili pepper (optional)

1 tomato, seeded and finely chopped (optional)


400g unbleached strong white flour

100g coarse or instant polenta, plus extra for dusting

1/3 cup olive oil

50g unsalted butter, melted

75ml dry white wine

½ tsp castor sugar


For the dough, blend all ingredients with ½ tsp sea salt in a processor until the mixture comes together. Transfer to a board; knead with 3 tablespoons of warm water. Add little more if needed – I don’t need any. You need to be patient since the dough will come together slowly. Cover and rest for 1 hour.

For the filling, heat half of the oil in a large saucepan. Add the meat and brown quickly. Remove and set aside. Add oil to the same pan, add capsicum and onion. Cook for 5-6 mins to soften and start to caramelize. Add garlic, parsley and fennel (and potatoes + tomatoes, if using). Cook for further 10 mins. Return meat to the pan with tomato paste and paprika. Season with salt and pepper.

Divide the dough into 28-30 walnut-sized pieces (or larger if you prefer). Dust the workspace with polenta and roll out each ball until thin and fairly round in shape. Add the filling (1 tsp for each), fold the dough in half and push the edged with a fork to seal. Trim off the excess. Repeat with the rest of the dough.

Preheat the oven to 220C. Sprinkle baking tray with polenta. Place the empanadillas on. Glaze with beaten egg. Bake for 10-15 mins or until golden brown.

Serve hot or warm.

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