Garlic Butter Noodles

There are secret recipes and there are secret recipes.

Ever since I moved to Northern California, I’ve heard rumors about the famous recipes prepared in the secret kitchen at the An family’s Thanh Long Restaurant. (They also own two branches of the upmarket Crustacean restaurants).

The key to the An Family success story, the secret kitchen is a completely enclosed space within the main kitchen that is off limits to all employees except An Family members where they prepare their money-making recipes such as their much-talked-about garlic noodles.

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Butter and garlic are just 2 ingredients that go into making this an unparalleled dish!

As matriarch Helene An explains on their website, her family recipes, her culinary legacy, are her daughter’s inheritance. In much the same way that Coca-Cola® company stowed their recipes for Coke® in a vault, the An Family Secret Kitchen was created.

I have to admit that I haven’t yet had the opportunity to try these legendary noodles. However, the noodles have been written up numerous times with varying riffs on the supposed recipe. There’s a thread on Yelp.com, and recipes concocted by bloggers Bee of Rasa Malaysia and Andrea of Viet World Kitchen. This fact has not been lost on me.

So when I saw a recipe for garlic butter noodles in Jaden Hair’s just-released Steamy Kitchen Cookbook, I figured it was about time I tried it.

After perusing several garlic noodle recipes inspired by the An family version, I deduced that the recipe’s secret just might lie in Maggi Seasoning, a culinary throwback to my childhood. I can still remember the TV commercials where the smiley-faced, motherly-type on screen would add a dash of Maggi Seasoning to just about every dish she was making, be it scrambled eggs, soup noodles or fried rice.

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Like magic, Maggi Seasoning adds tons of flavor to any dish!

I’d always assumed Maggi was an Asian brand but after a quick Google search, I found it quite to the contrary. Plus a couple of other interesting facts about Maggi Seasoning.

1. Maggi GmbH was actually founded in 1897 by Julius Maggi in the German town of Singen where it is still established today.

2. Maggi Seasoning is a dark, hydrolyzed vegetable protein-based sauce that doesn’t actually contain soy although it tastes similar to soy sauce. Wheat, and its derivatives, seems to be the main ingredient.

3. It was introduced in 1886 as a cheap substitute for meat extract (flavoring?) and is very popular in Switzerland, Austria and especially in Germany.

I haven’t researched how Maggi Seasoning became a pantry staple in Southeast Asia but the wave of nostalgia it brought on sent me tumbling back to my childhood. “Maggi mee, fast to cook, good to eat!” ring a bell? Funny how my fondest memories of Maggi mee is eating them raw in my primary school canteen!

Anyways, I’m glad for the reintroduction. I feel like Jaden’s recipe reacquainted me with a long lost childhood friend AND I have found a new addition to my kitchen repertoire: her absolutely delicious rendition of garlic noodles.

Garlic Butter Noodles
Adapted from The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook

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I honestly don’t have a comparison to the original but these noodles are sure darn good! Be forewarned, you mustn’t be afraid of fat. I can’t wait to try out more of Jaden’s recipes. For more blogger interpretations of The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook recipes, go to White on Rice Couple. Incidentally, they featured the garlic noodles as well, with their own take on the recipe.

Makes: 4 servings
Time: 15 minutes

7 oz dried egg noodles
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup chopped green onions
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons Maggi Seasoning or soy sauce, or to taste
1 tablespoon oyster sauce

Bring a large pot of  water to a boil and cook the noodles according to the package instructions. Drain noodles and wipe the pot clean. Return the pot to medium-high heat and add the butter. When the butter is sizzling and bubbling a bit, add the green onion and the garlic. Fry for 1 minute or until very fragrant; be careful not to let the garlic burn.

Add the brown sugar, Maggi Seasoning and oyster sauce and stir well to mix everything evenly. Add the noodles and toss vigorously to get the good stuff evenly distributed throughout the noodles.

In the Kitchen With …

I’m thrilled to debut a monthly guest column, “In the Kitchen with …” And who might the author be? Why you!

Many of us have spent time in the kitchen with grandma, whether just messing around with dough and shaping  blobs while she makes yaki manju (Japanese bean cookies), or actually alerting our noses and our ears to the sizzle of spices in the wok.  I’d like to dedicate this column to the shared experience of learning to cook with a beloved family member, be it grandma, mom, aunty, or even dad. I invite you to write a brief essay and contribute a recipe, photographs, or even a video, as a tribute to these wonderful people in your life. If you’re interested, please email me at pat@ediblewords.com.

I’d like to thank Cathy Danh of Gas-tron-o-my for being my first guest blogger. Enjoy!!

In the Kitchen with … Ba Ngoai

By Cathy Danh

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Cathy and her Ba Ngoai

I’m a wuss when it comes to preparing Vietnamese foods from scratch. The fear of slaving over a meal that only vaguely resembles the homey dishes that I grew up on is overwhelming enough to send me running to the nearest Vietnamese restaurant.

When I cook Vietnamese food, I want nothing more than for it to taste like my Ba Ngoai (maternal grandmother) made it. If my seasonings are off or the texture isn’t just right, I consider the effort a big ‘ol failure.

For the past two years, I have been trying to get over my complex by learning how to prepare my family’s favorite recipes with Ba Ngoai.

Whenever I’m in San Diego for vacation or just a short visit, I pencil in an afternoon where I can soak in her culinary know-how. Sure, there are countless Vietnamese recipes online and in cookbooks, but what I strive for is the taste of home; in this regard only a tutorial from grandma will do.

Our lessons usually begin with a trip to a bustling Vietnamese grocery store. I love how demanding and picky she is when it comes to buying meat, fish, and produce. The men behind the counter know to only sell the best cuts to Ba Ngoai, lest they want to see her evil eye.

With our bounty in tow, we drive back to her home and start prepping and cooking. Like a lot of Asian grandmothers, Ba Ngoai cooks by feel. She doesn’t think in terms of tablespoons or cups, she just gracefully reaches into her pantry (and arsenal of experiences) for whatever seasonings will make the dish ‘just right.’ Ba Ngoai has taught me the power of nuoc mam (fish sauce), salt, sugar, and pepper. These four simple ingredients bring about incredible depth of flavor with minimal effort.

With each informal lesson, my confidence as a Vietnamese cook gets a boost. There’s a certain rhythm to Vietnamese cooking that’s starting to come naturally with each effort-sauté, season, braise, rest. Learning to cook with Ba Ngoai has demystified Vietnamese food for me, thus making it more accessible and much less intimidating. I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of dishes I want to learn how to prepare, but with my grandmother’s basic tips and crafty tricks in hand; I know that I can master the art of Vietnamese cooking.

Ba Ngoai’s Bánh Bột Lọc (Shrimp and Pork-Stuffed Pouches)

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Photo courtesy of Cathy Danh

Your mouth will be in for a surprise–the shrimp and pork filling is encased in a sticky and chewy skin made from tapioca starch that is toothsome and somewhat akin to gummy bears. Then it’s topped with green onions and crispy pork fat and drizzled with fish sauce. The result? A burst of textures and flavors probably unlike anything you’ve had before (unless you grew up eating this dish!). Cathy’s bà ngoại, Yen Ho, cooks the filling with the heads as well to impart an intense orangey color but you can omit them. But do leave the peels on–they give the dish flavor and crunch and also keep the shrimp moist and juicy. It’s all a matter of preference. If you do decide to leave the peels on, chew them thoroughly! (P.S. Visit Cathy’s blog for more pictures!)

Time: 2 hours

Makes: Makes 4 servings (24 pouches)

Filling:

12 (about 1/4 pound) medium shrimp, unpeeled

5 (about 1/4 pound) large shrimp with or without heads, unpeeled

1/4 pound pork belly with skin and fat

1 tablespoons canola or other neutral oil

1 1/2 teaspoons fish sauce

1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, or to taste

Dough:

2 cups tapioca starch

1 cup water

1 tablespoon oil, plus more for kneading

All-purpose flour for dusting

Topping:

4 ounces pork fat, diced into 1/4-inch cubes

3 tablespoons canola or other neutral oil

4 green onions, cut into thin rings

Fish sauce

To make the filling, remove the shrimps’ tails, legs (called pleopods or swimmerets) and veins, but leave their peels intact. Leave the heads on the large shrimp.

Cut pork into 1/2-inch strips and then cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slivers containing meat, fat, and skin. Set aside.

Preheat a dry 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add pork and stir and cook for 2 minutes until the meat just loses its blush. Add oil, fish sauce, salt, sugar and shrimp. Stir and cook until shrimp is orangey-pink and all the liquid has been absorbed, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove and discard the shrimp heads once they release their color. Sprinkle with black pepper, toss with one last flourish and take off the heat.

To make the dough, place the tapioca starch in a large mixing bowl. In a small saucepan, bring water and oil to a rolling boil. While stirring vigorously with a pair of chopsticks or a wooden spoon, gradually pour the boiling water into the bowl until the dough starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl and forms a sticky mass that is still pliable. (Tip: after pouring in half a cup of water, slow it down to a trickle at a time). You may not have to use up all the water. Be very careful during this process. One drop too many and the dough will be too wet and sticky to handle. If the mixture transforms into a pasty sludge (resembling thick Elmers glue), the water wasn’t boiling hot enough. If this happens, you’ll have to start all over again.

Cover with a damp cloth and set aside for 10 minutes or until dough is cool enough to handle. Rub oil on your hands and knead dough on a well-oiled surface for about 5 minutes until it is smooth and pliable.

Wipe down the work surface and dust with flour. Knead dough again for 1 to 2 more minutes until it is very smooth.

To assemble the pouches, divide dough into half and cover unused portion with a damp cloth. Working with one half of the dough at a time, pinch off 12 equal balls (about 1-inch across) and set aside in one corner of work surface. Cover with a damp cloth to keep dough balls from drying out as you work.

With a rolling pin, roll a ball into a flat, even disc about 3-inches in diameter. Place one shrimp and a piece or two of pork in the center and fold in half to form a half-moon. Pinch edges to seal. Set pouches in a single layer on an oiled tray and cover with a damp cloth. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.

In a 3-quart saucepan, bring 6 to 7 cups water to a rolling boil. Prepare a big bowl of cold water. Gently lower 5 to 6 pouches into the water and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. (You can cook more or less pouches at the same time depending on the size of your pot just as long as they are floating freely in the water.) The pouches are done when they float to the surface, the skin is soft and supple, and the edges are turning translucent.

With a slotted spoon, lift out the pouches and dip immediately in the cold water bath to keep them from sticking to each other. After about 3 minutes, drain pouches again, shaking off as much excess water as possible, and set aside on a plate. The pouches should be completely translucent with the orangey-pink shrimp showing through. Repeat until all the pouches are cooked.

Preheat a small dry skillet over medium heat. Add pork fat and stir and cook continuously until pork fat is golden brown and crispy, about 8 to 10 minutes. Cover with a splatter guard to prevent oil from jumping out. Watch carefully and adjust the heat if pork fat starts to burn. When done, drain rendered liquid fat and discard. Reserve the crispy pork fat pieces.

In the same skillet, add oil and stir in green onions. Stir and cook for about 30 to 45 seconds until green onions turn bright green. Add reserved crispy pork fat and toss together until well mixed.

Divide pouches among 4 serving plates and top with the crispy pork fat mixture. Drizzle with fish sauce to taste and serve immediately.

Pat’s notes:

Getting the dough right takes some practice. There’s a very fine line between perfect and pasty. But don’t be disheartened, just keep trying and eventually you’ll get it! When my dough got pasty, I tried to remedy the situation by heating the mixture in a wok over medium heat. I added water a little at a time and the dough gradually came together to form the right consistency.

 

 As grandma always says, please share!

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Vietnam’s Other Noodle Dish

three bowls of bun rieu_small by you.

Phở may be Vietnam’s most famous noodle export but ask many a Vietnamese and they’ll tell you that bún riêu cua, a tangy crab- and tomato-based noodle soup, is the dish that evokes grandma’s homecooking.

Ironically, my first taste of bún riêu cua was at a restaurant in Seattle. I was having lunch with my friend Carol and as we perused the menu together she expressed surprise to find it on the menu. “It’s Vietnamese comfort food for me,” she said, explaining that the dish was a staple at home when she was growing up. Her mom would make a huge pot of it in the morning and they’d have it for lunch and dinner!

I smiled as I slapped the menu shut. My mind was made up.

In no time, a big steaming bowl arrived: The reddish broth was thick and tomatoey and chock full of crab bits. I tore up mint and Thai basil leaves and scattered the strips all over, then squirted some lime juice. As I slurped up the rice noodles, I was as happy as a clam. 

Being the nosy food writer I am, I asked Carol if her mom would show me how to cook the dish.

A couple of Sundays later, I was at Carol’s mom, Thanh Nguyen’s, watching her go through the motions.

When we finally sat down to eat and I sipped the soup, I knew it couldn’t get any better than this. My second experience far exceeded the former. On that rainy spring afternoon, a bowl of bún riêu cua was all the comfort I needed.

Vietnamese Crab Noodle Soup (Bún Riêu Cua)

bowl of bun rieu_small by you.

In Vietnam, mud crabs (a type of soft-shell crab) are often caught in rice paddy fields for this dish. To extract the crab “juice” essential to this dish, their top shells are removed and pounded with some salt. Water is then added, and the resulting liquid strained through a sieve. Thanh Nguyen proposes a more modern method–whirling the crabs in a blender and then straining. You can find frozen soft shell crabs at the Asian market, or use Dungeness or blue crab meat instead.

Time: 1 hour
Makes: 6 to 8 servings

10 cups water
1 1/2 pounds pork spare ribs, cut into individual 1-inch pieces (available at Asian butchers)
1 cup dried shrimp, rinsed and ground to a coarse powder in a food processor
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
2 cloves garlic, cut into thin slices
1 teaspoon ground paprika
4 tomatoes, each cut into 4 wedges then halved crosswise (3 red and one green for crispness)
1/2 pound (1 whole) soft-shell crab, or lump crab meat
2 tablespoons tamarind paste
4 eggs
1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 cup (half a 7-ounce bottle) shrimp paste in soybean oil (see notes below)
1/4 cup fish sauce
1 tablespoon salt, plus more to taste
1 pound thin round rice noodles (bún) or rice vermicelli, cooked according to package directions

Garnish:
2 cups (6 ounces) fresh mung bean sprouts
1 cup shredded cabbage or lettuce
1 cup cilantro sprigs
1 cup Vietnamese balm leaves (kinh gioi)
1 cup spearmint leaves
1 jalapeño, cut into rings
Chopped green onions
3 limes, cut into wedges

In a large stockpot, bring the water to a rolling boil over high heat with the pork ribs and dried shrimp. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 2 hours, or until the meat is tender.

In a small skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil. Add the garlic and fry until fragrant, about 15 to 30 seconds. Add the paprika and stir for another 10 seconds. Turn off the heat and add everything to the stockpot.

In the same skillet, stir and cook the tomatoes in the remaining oil over medium heat for 1 minute and add to the stockpot.

  blending

In a blender, blend the crab, shells and all, with 1 1/2 cups water for about 15 to 20 seconds until the shells are crushed and the meat is pureed. Strain the juice and add to the stockpot. Add 1 more cup of water to the blender and pulse 2 to 3 times to absorb any remaining flavor. Strain and pour the liquid into the stockpot. Discard the shells and meat. (If using only crab meat, you can add the meat to the soup if desired but be sure to pick out any cartilage.)

crab waste

Throw out the crab remnants

Mix the tamarind paste with 1/2 cup of warm water and add to the stock.

mixing

In a medium bowl, mix the eggs and ground pork with chopsticks or a fork until well combined. Stir in the shrimp paste and mix well. Slowly add the egg and pork mixture to the soup. Do not stir, allowing the meat to cook in clusters for about 8 to 10 minutes.

clusters

Sprinkle with fish sauce and salt and stir gently so that the meat clusters remain intact.

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Divide the cooked rice noodles among individual bowls. Garnish as desired. Pour 2 cups of hot soup over each bowl of noodles, including one or two pork ribs and some pork clusters.

Pat’s notes:
Shrimp paste in soybean oil is a bottled sauce comprising shrimp, garlic, white pepper, soybean oil, and fish sauce. A staple of Southern Thailand, it can be added to fried rice, noodles, stir-fried vegetables, and seafood dishes. Store up to 6 months refrigerated once opened. Thanh Nguyen uses Pantainorasingh brand available at http://www.importfood.com.

Vietnamese balm (kinh gioi) has a concentrated fragrance and flavor akin to that of lemon balm. The slender serrated leaves have a lavender center. Sold in small plastic bags, they will keep for 3 or 4 days in the refrigerator.

A peace offering–Caramelized chicken with lemongrass and chilies

“Are you alright? Haven’t seen any new posts for a while…” This earnest email popped into my email inbox a couple of days ago. The guilt that had been gnawing at me since my last post came bubbling up to the surface.

I am so sorry I disappeared without even a squeak. But I have a very legitimate excuse, several actually, really! It’s been a whirlwind of events these last two months.

First, my sister was getting married. Not only was I lady of honor (who knew there were so many responsibilities associated with the title, not to mention official skirt fluffer on the day of the wedding), I also spent several days baking 150 wedding cupcakes in three different flavors: strawberry, pandan, and chocolate in addition to entertaining overseas relatives and friends, and other miscellaneous sister-of-the-bride duties.

Second, we upped and moved from Seattle, Washington to Pacific Grove, California on the Monterey Peninsula. We now live in a little pink cottage with a gorgeous view of the bay from our deck! It’s smaller than our last place but downsizing and purging are great for one’s sanity. I’ve been pottering around my new kitchen and cooking some of the fabulous recipes I’ve gathered for my cookbook. The light-filled space is nice and open, and I was so happy to go from electric to gas, and oh, the stove is actually on an island!

And third, my manuscript was due. But the good news is, I finally handed in my manuscript last week. Woohoo! But I shan’t get too relaxed as edits will soon come round.

Anyway, enough about me.

Here’s a delicious Vietnamese chicken recipe as a piece offering.

Caramelized Chicken with Lemongrass and Chilies (Ga Xao Sa Ot Cay)

IMG_1052 by you.

The subtle, citrusy scent of lemongrass, the bittersweet flavor of caramel, and the heat of red chilies marry very well with chicken in this popular Vietnamese dish. Every Viet cook has his or her own recipe–this version comes from Huong Thu Nguyen. In her words, “It takes a while to make good caramel sauce without burning it,” so keep practicing! You may be tempted to use chicken breast instead of thighs as well as remove the skin. Please don’t. Thigh meat is juicier and more succulent and the skin has tons of flavor, all of which add to this delightful dish.

Time: 45 minutes

Makes: 4 servings as part of a multicourse family-style meal

4 plump stalks lemongrass

1 pound boneless chicken thighs with skin, cut into 1/2-inch chunks (about 4 to 5 thighs)
1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper, plus more to taste

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons sugar

1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic, divided (about 4 to 5 cloves)
1 large yellow onion, halved and cut into thin crescents along the grain

3 red Thai chilies, cut into rounds

2 teaspoons fish sauce, or to taste
Chopped cilantro leaves for garnish

Chopped green onions for garnish

Trim the lemongrass and bruise the stems with a meat pounder or a large knife to release their aroma and oils. Cut into thin ringlets and whirl in a food processor until ground to confetti-sized flakes. Repeat with the remaining stalks. You will get about 3/4 cup (12 tablespoons).

In a medium bowl, season the chicken with salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper and toss together with 3 tablespoons of lemongrass flakes. Set aside.

In a large skillet (if possible, use a pan with a light interior such as stainless steel so you can monitor changes in color), heat the oil over medium-high heat until it becomes runny and starts to shimmer. Add the sugar and stir continuously. After 1 to 2 minutes, the sugar will start to clump together then melt into syrup. After another 2 to 3 minutes, the clear syrup will thicken into a gooey caramel-brown liquid suspended in the oil. You will also smell a pleasant burnt sugar aroma. Watch the caramel closely during this process as it can burn very quickly. If the caramel starts to turn black and smell acrid, pull the skillet off the stove for a few seconds before continuing.

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Don’t let the caramel sauce get any darker than this.

Stir in the remaining lemongrass, onions, and 1 tablespoon garlic, and cook and stir until the ingredients turn golden brown and fragrant, about 1 to 2 minutes.

Add the chicken and raise the heat to high. Toss the chicken in the caramel sauce for about 1 1/2 minutes. If there isn’t enough sauce to evenly coat the chicken, carefully add water, 1 tablespoon at a time. If the mixture starts to sputter aggressively, pull the skillet off the stove until it ceases. Throw in the chilies and keep stirring until the chicken is no longer pink, about 2 to 3 minutes.

When the chicken is just cooked through, add the fish sauce and remaining garlic. Stir with a couple more flourishes to mix well. Taste and adjust seasonings if desired.

Remove from the heat and transfer to a serving platter. Sprinkle with black pepper to taste and garnish with chopped cilantro leaves and green onions. Serve with freshly steamed rice.

Grandma says:

“Add the fish sauce in at the last minutes and it won’t stink up your kitchen or your clothes.”

 

 

 

 

 

Belly belly good

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Chefs are going ga ga over pork belly.

Yes, this fatty, inexpensive cut is fast gaining favor and has risen on the trend-o-meter in the past couple of years. Here in Seattle, pork belly has top billing at fancy restaurants the likes of Tilth, Harvest Vine and Chez Shea.

But Asians who grew up on this humble cut have long enjoyed its succulent, full-fat flavor. Usually braised for hours on the stovetop — whether prepared the Chinese (red-cooked pork), Vietnamese (thit kho) or Indonesian (babi kecap) way — pork belly speaks of comfort food and brings us home to mama.

Pork belly, however, is not unknown to the American palate–it’s the part of the pig cured and smoked for bacon. The raw, unsmoked version comes with or without the skin and is commonly sold at Asian markets. With its increasing popularity, you should be able to special order pork belly from your local butcher, or try online sources like Flying Pigs Farm or Niman Ranch.

To make Asian braises, skin-on pork belly is essential to create the rich, velvety texture we’re used to, although other preparations may render the skin leathery and inedible. Not many pork cuts can withstand long braising, pork belly being one of the exceptions. In fact, braising is the typical way to cook pork belly, the slow, even heat transforming it into pure unctuous pleasure. Stop there or pan-fry or roast the belly to a crisp in the oven for a delicious crackle and crunch with each bite.

Ah … another reason why we love grandma and mum’s cooking!

Buying belly

Buy belly pieces between 2 and 3 inches thick and choose pieces that come from the front belly as opposed to the back belly for a good balance of meat and fat. How to tell? Look carefully at the layers and select a slab that is about 50/50 lean meat to fat.

Here is a Vietnamese braised pork belly (thit kho) dish adapted from a recipe Cathy Danh learned from her aunt.

Vietnamese Braised Pork Belly (Thit Kho)

Thit kho is one of those dishes rarely found at restaurants but eaten in all Vietnamese households, usually served with a canh (soup) dish for dinner. A meal during Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) would be incomplete without a kho (as these savory-sweet braised dishes based in a caramel sauce are called), and this pork and egg dish is a favorite among Southern Vietnamese. Coconut water (sometimes called juice) is not to be confused with coconut milk. It’s available in clear plastic bags in the frozen section, or canned in the drinks section.

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Boneless, skin-on pork belly (actually uncured/unsmoked bacon,) with the ideal ratio of lean meat to fat, or pork leg (rind-on) are traditional cuts for thit kho; but be warned, the resulting dish is not for the faint-hearted. For a lighter version, substitute the leaner Boston butt or use a mix of cuts. But try not to use all lean meat, the unctuous skin and fat is essential for the rich, velvety texture of this dish.

Time: 2 hrs
Makes: 4 to 6 servings

1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon water
2 pounds pork belly (skin-on) or Boston butt (or 1 pound of each)
3 large garlic cloves, sliced
2 medium shallots, sliced (about 1/2 cup)
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1-1/2 cups coconut water, strained of any meat
6 eggs (or 12 quail eggs), hard-boiled and shelled

Using a sharp knife, scrape off any stray hairs from the pork skin and cut meat into chunks 1-inch thick and 1-1/2 to 2-inches long.

In a 4-quart heavy bottom pan or Dutch oven, heat sugar and water over medium-high heat. Stir continuously until sugar melts. Continue cooking for another 10 to 12 minutes; syrup will form globules, turn a light golden hue and eventually caramelize into a thick amber liquid. You will smell a “burnt sugar” smell.

Add pork and raise heat to high. Stir for 1 minute to render some fat. Add garlic and shallots, and sauté 5 minutes until pork is browned but not cooked through. Lower heat to medium. Add fish sauce and pepper and sauté 1 minute to evenly coat meat.

Add coconut water. The liquid should barely cover pork. Bring to a boil. Add eggs, cover and simmer over low heat for 1 hour (1-1/2 hours or longer if you want your meat melt-in-your-mouth tender), stirring occasionally to ensure eggs and meat are evenly coated with sauce. Pierce meat with the tip of a knife to test for tenderness. If at anytime the sauce drops to a level lower than one-third of pork, add water, 1/4 cup at a time.

Remove from heat and let stand for 10 minutes. Skim fat off surface with a ladle. (If you can wait, refrigerate overnight and allow fat to congeal on surface, making this task much easier.) Reheat over medium-low heat, taste sauce and adjust seasonings. Serve hot with steamed rice.

Small, medium, large, jumbo, colossal

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I’m talking about juicy, succulent, shrimp! (Shame on you if you were thinking otherwise.)

Before I give you my fried shrimp rolls recipe (adapted from a version my friend Carol’s mom fed me), I thought a shrimp tutorial might be useful.

Now, I’ve always thought shrimp is shrimp. You head to the supermarket or your favorite seafood monger and just pick out what you want. But as it turns out, shrimp-buying requires some sleuthing.

Shrimp size

Shrimp is sold by size and the sizes are expressed in counts per pound. For example, 16/20 means 16 to 20 shrimp per pound. The larger sizes are expressed as U/10 or U/12 which means “under” 10 or 12. Small sizes like coldwater cooked and peeled shrimp will have counts ranging from 150/250 to 250/300. Just remember, the smaller the count, the larger the size of the shrimp.

Very often you see terms like jumbo shrimp, and many recipes call for small, medium, or large shrimp. However, there isn’t an official guideline on what these names signify so it’s best to pay attention to the shrimp count per pound.

To make things even more complicated, peeled and/or cooked shrimp have different counts. You will, of course, get more peeled shrimp for the pound. But let’s not go there.

The table below refers to unpeeled shrimp without their heads.

Shrimp Sizing Guide (courtesy of Oceangarden.com)

Shrimp Size Count Average number of Shrimp Shrimp
(per pound) (per pound) (per 4 oz serving) (per 5 lb box)
Extra Colossal U/10  40-49 
Colossal U/12  50-59 
Colossal U/15  14  60-74 
Extra Jumbo 16/20  18  75-97 
Jumbo 21/25  23  98-120 
Extra Large 26/30  28  121-145 
Large 31/35  33  146-173 
Medium Large 36/40  38  10  174-190 
Medium 41/50  45  12  191-240 
Small 51/60  55  14  241-290 
Extra Small 61/70  65  16  291-340

Familiarizing yourself with the range of sizes and counts is useful for planning purposes, not just for the numbers but also because each size is suited for different cooking methods. Jumbo shrimp holds up well to the heat of the grill, while small shrimp adds delicious flavor and make for tiny surprises in a Shrimp Louie or bisque.

Fresh or Frozen

Not everyone has the luxury of buying really fresh (off the boat) shrimp. If fresh is not available to you, buy frozen as most “fresh” shrimp in the grocery stores is thawed-out frozen shrimp. Thawed shrimp has a shelf-life of only a couple of days versus frozen shrimp which retains their quality for several weeks. However, avoid frozen shrimp that has already been peeled and deveined which can cause a loss of flavor and texture.

Defrost shrimp in the refrigerator or in cold water. Shrimp cooks very quickly so defrosting in the sink or microwave is a big no-no.

Sustainable seafood

While we’re on the topic, I’m a big believer in consuming sustainable foods (whenever location, pockets and circumstances allow it), and this includes seafood. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a guide to purchasing sustainable seafood, including shrimp, on their Web site. Please visit and see how you can help our oceans and sea life thrive.

Fried Shrimp Rolls

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Fried shrimp rolls are great appetizers for parties and you can adjust the numbers up or down depending on how many people you’re feeding. Be warned, these bite-sized nibbles go fast! If you buy unpeeled shrimp, don’t be afraid of deveining them. Check out this video or step-by-step photos.

Time: 30 minutes (depending on how fast you can wrap the rolls)
Makes: 20-25

1/2-pound raw medium shrimp (41/50 count), peeled, deveined, tail-on
Salt and pepper to taste
4×4-inch square spring roll wrappers (although as I explained here, won ton skins worked great too)
1 cup canola oil for frying (or about 1-inch of oil in skillet)

Sprinkle shrimp with salt and pepper on both sides.

Peel spring roll wrappers one at a time. Lay wrapper on a clean work surface and place shrimp horizontally on the bottom right edge of the wrapper with tail protruding from the edge.

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Taking the left edge of the wrapper, fold over on the vertical so that shrimp is half covered.

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Dip finger in a bowl of water and moisten all edges. Roll the shrimp tightly in the wrapper. Moisten top edge again to ensure it seals.

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Lay each roll seam side down on a lightly floured plate or sheet pan.

In a large 10-inch skillet, heat oil until you see a wavy pattern, about 350 F. (Or test fry a roll–dip one in skillet and if oil sizzles, it’s ready.) Fry shrimp rolls in 2 to 3 batches, do not crowd the pan. Turn often–gently!–until crisp and an even golden brown on all sides, about 2 to 3 minutes.

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Drain on paper towels.  

Serve with Thai sweet chili sauce or Japanese mayonnaise.