Vietnamese Eggrolls- Cha Gio

IMG_9074Food is such a fundamental part of a person’s identity. As an adult, I have found myself searching for my family’s culinary roots because, as a child, I always gravitated toward western food. The ABC show “Fresh Off the Boat” summarized it nicely: I just wanted to fit in and eat the kind of food that everyone around me was eating. Now that I am in my thirties, I feel that I have become more accepting of my identity. Not only do I accept my family’s roots, I want to celebrate them! I am so proud of our culinary traditions and the delicious flavor and texture profiles that they achieve.

So moving forward, I will probably be cooking a lot more Chinese and Vietnamese food. I’m using this little project as a way to learn the traditional ways of cooking from my grandmother, aunts, and mother. Growing up watching my grandmother cook in the kitchen, I always aspired to be as good of a cook as she was. They told us stories about how my grandmother manned her own fresh rice noodle stand in Saigon, Vietnam while taking care of young children at the same time. The dexterity with which my grandmother creates paper-thin and chewy rice noodles with a mere bamboo stick and suspended cloth above a boiling pot of water still astounds me to this day. I have tried my hand at it, but with little success. She handles the noodles when they are hot and fresh, releasing them from the rod that was used to roll them up. Ouch. I’m hoping that I will be able to share and replicate her recipe for fresh rice noodles stuffed with ground pork, shrimp, and woodear fungus. But for today, I thought I would share one of my all-time childhood favorites: her fried eggrolls, or cha gio. These are often served on top of vermicelli noodles with barbecue pork, fresh herbs, and cucumber with a fish sauce.

Vietnamese, Chinese, and Filipino versions of eggrolls are all delicious, but my personal favorite is the Vietnamese one. I am probably biased because of the memories that these eggrolls hold for me. My grandmother’s eggrolls are filled with delicious ground pork, ground shrimp, shallots, grated taro, and black pepper. It’s a simple list of ingredients, but when mixed together, they create a flavor powerhouse.

Cooking notes/tips:

Making eggrolls is really a family event. Invite friends and family over to help you with rolling. It will make the work much more manageable and fun!

Folding eggrolls takes practice. I would suggest looking up some videos of rolling eggrolls online first because the visual learning will go a long way. But in general, the rolling of an eggroll is similar to the rolling of a burrito. There is a wonderful tutorial on how to roll a eggroll. Rather than re-inventing the wheel, I encourage you to visit this wonderful food blog for a different variation of Vietnamese eggrolls and for some helpful instructions on the art of eggroll rolling.

https://www.imnotthenanny.com/2015/02/vietnamese-egg-rolls-recipe.html

Always check oil before frying. Insert a piece of eggroll wrapper in the oil to test if the oil is at the right temperature. If lots of bubbles immediately start forming around the eggroll wrapper your oil is ready for frying.

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Recipe
Serves: 10
Prep Time: 45 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes

 

Ingredients
1 package pre-made eggroll wrappers
½ lb ground pork
½ lb ground shrimp
1 large shallot, finely minced
1 tsp salt, or to taste
1 tsp black pepper, or to taste
1 cup taro root, grated
1 beaten egg (for sealing eggrolls)

Peel and devein shrimp. Then rinse and drain. When shrimp is relatively dry, use a food processor to pulse the shrimp. Pulse until the shrimp is ground up into a coarse paste with some small chunks still left.

Place ground pork, ground shrimp, minced shallots, salt, pepper, and grated taro into a large mixing bowl. Use hands to mix together all ingredients for filling. Once all mixed, set aside.

Sauté a little bit of the filling on a pan to taste for seasoning. Adjust salt & pepper to taste.

Prepare beaten egg mixture

Place ~1 tbsp of filling on the eggroll wrapper and roll eggroll. Right before you seal the eggroll, place egg mixture on the edges of the wrapper that is leftover and then seal the eggroll.

Once eggrolls are rolled, heat a pot of oil to 350 degrees, or use medium high heat to fry eggrolls. Allow the oil to heat up and use a test eggroll wrapper to test the heat of the oil: you’ll know the temperature is right when the oil immediately bubbles up around the wrapper when placed in the hot oil.

When using a pot to fry, do not overcrowd the pot. Fry eggrolls until golden brown (15-25 minutes). The time it takes will depend on how many eggrolls you have put in, as that will drop the temperature of the oil.

When using a device such as a fry-daddy, place eggrolls in vertically as if they are standing up. Fill will eggrolls, put on lid, and fry for 25 minutes. Vertical placement will ensure even cooking. Then remove lid and fry for another 5 minutes or until golden brown.

Once eggrolls are golden brown, remove from oil to drain, and then set on a plate lined with paper towels to cool.

Enjoy with thinly sliced cucumber, sweet and sour Vietnamese fish sauce, fresh herbs, or just as is!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aromatic Tea Shortbread

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I do not consider myself a baker. At all. Actually, I pride myself in saying “I’m a cook, not a baker.” I remember many concoctions that I’ve put together that, in the words of Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, were “underbaked,” “very close in texture”, that did not have all the “layers.” After binge watching 6 hours of the Great British Baking Show on Netflix, I felt empowered to venture into some baking for myself. I feel as though I’ve absorbed some of the baking skills of these talented amateur British bakers and I wanted to see if I could put myself to the task of having a “good bake.”

I happened upon a really great recipe for shortbread on Family Circle’s website (link below)

https://www.familycircle.com/recipe/earl-grey-shortbread/

This was such an excellent recipe to build off of, but I modified a few things to make it fit my own tastes and the tastes of my family who would be helping me to enjoy these shortbread biscuits. In Asian cooking, there is often minimal or moderate use of sugar. Sugar is seen as a nemesis of health and there is a level of shaming that happens when your older relatives catch you eating something sweet. Some people even take pride in saying “I don’t eat sweet things.” That’s actually quite a smart way to avoid unhealthy overconsumption if you think about it. Being the American-Born-Chinese (ABC) that I am, I cannot help but love my sweets, but in moderation of course. Thus, I modified this recipe to intensify aromatic flavors and balance sugar content. Most recipes I find for European-inspired sweets are often too sweet for my own tastes. I hope you enjoy this recipe and get a chance to experiment with your own aromatics and nuts in your shortbread this holiday season!

 

Cooking Tips

I found that grinding my spices with a mortar and pestle intensified the flavors more so than pulsing them in a food processor. Definitely go with a mortar and pestle for this step if you have one at home!

I used to make overly crumbly shortbread because I did not knead or work my dough enough. I found that working it a bit, helped my shortbread to help it build structure and not just crumble at the touch.

If you do not own a food processor large enough to make these cookies (neither do I), I found that using a pastry cutter is a great way to get the job done too. It just requires some elbow grease and arm power.

Ovens are finicky and fickle creatures. Every oven has its own temperament. I find that my oven runs hot, so when certain recipes call for a certain temperature, I make sure that I watch my time closely. I always have to rotate my pans as well, because I have hot spots in my oven and rotating ensures even cooking all around. Experiment with your own oven and see if you can tame the beast that it is to make it work for you and your baking/cooking.

 

Recipe

Time: 45 minutes
Yield: 24 cookies
Ingredients
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1 cup all purpose flour
1/8 cup confectioners sugar
1/8 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp water
2 tbsp of aromatic tea leaves (matcha, earl grey, chai)

Using a mortor and pestle or spice grinder, grind aromatic tea until they become a fine powder. Pass through a sieve to ensure that no large chunks of tea end up in your cookies. Note that this step of grinding your tea is not necessary when you have matcha powder because it already comes in a fine powder.

Combine dry ingredients in a food processor and pulse together with butter until the butter is well incorporated into the flour. There should be no large chunks of butter left.

(Optional: For matcha cookies, add 1 cup chopped walnuts and 1 tbsp honey to dough)

Add in water and continue to pulse until well incorporated.

Pour out dough onto a clean floured surface and knead for 1-2 minutes. This step helps to create gluten, which well help the shortbread have a nice structure instead of crumbling to the touch.

When the dough has come together, roll into a thin log about 1.5-2 inches in diameter. Cover in saran wrap and place in the refrigerator/freezer to set for 5-10 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Cut dough into even 1/4 inch thick slices and place onto a baking sheet, leaving some (but not much) space in between.

(Optional: For matcha cookies, cover the log in a thin layer of brown sugar before cutting cookies)

Bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes until the edges are just starting to brown. Then increase heat to 375 degrees for the last 3-5 minutes of baking.

Rotate your baking tray in the oven to ensure even baking if you notice a hotspot in your oven.

Watch cookies closely at the last few minutes and remove from the oven when the edges are golden brown. Try not to “overbake.” =P

 

Lion’s Head Soup (pork meatball and Napa Cabbage Soup)

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Note: No lions were harmed in the preparation of this food blog post.

Traditional Chinese dinners always involve some kind of broth-based soup that has been simmering for hours to extract nature’s goodness from yummy veggies. This soup is usually the embodiment of love from a hardworking mother, father, or grandparent and sets the tone for the meal to follow. However, as a working professional, it is really difficult to devote that amount of time to make a soup when you’ve got other dishes to prepare as well. There are times I wish I were living with my family so that I can get spoiled with delicious soup. Stubborn as I am, I’m determined to live independently, so I’ve begun experimenting with soups that are nourishing, filling, and most importantly, less time consuming.

Lion’s head soup is a traditional Chinese soup. I’ve kept my version of this traditional soup relatively simple and healthy. This is a wonderful addition to a meal, especially in the fall and winter, when you want a bowl of something hot and steamy to warm your bones. Think of it as a low-carb deconstructed wonton/dumpling soup. This lion’s head meatball is very similar to the fillings of delicious pot stickers and wontons and can be used as a foundation for your next wonton/pot sticker party.

 

Cooking notes/tips:

Chinese-style meatballs are distinct in that they have a very springy and bouncy texture, achieved by working the meat and developing the gluten from the corn starch that has been added. What we are looking for in this meatball is not a loose, soft texture. Rather, we want these meatballs to be firm so that they do not fall apart as they cook in the soup.

You can easily turn this into a wonton soup by stuffing wonton skins with the meatball mixture rather than cooking the meatballs directly in the broth. To do this, you would need to use another pot of boiling water and cook the wontons separately in this pot, strain, and then serving with the broth at the end. In making Chinese noodle soup, it is always recommended to boil noodles and dumplings in a separate pot of water rather than in the pot of broth. This keeps the broth from thickening as a result of the starch from the noodle.

This next tip may sound more like a rant. Apologies ahead of time, but this is something that needs to change in American versions of Chinese/Asian cooking. Many Americanized versions of Asian recipes call for sesame oil in everything, but I feel that this addition is often gratuitous, and a misuse of a popularized Asian ingredient. In other words, it seems that recipes use sesame oil just because it is a well-known Asian ingredient and people want a surefire way to make their food bear a hallmark Asian flavor. Sesame oil has a potent earthy flavor that can overpower a dish when added without forethought. In other words, it can make your food taste like dirt. In Chinese cooking, sesame oil is only used in specific dishes, not in everything that is prepared. That said, it is my opinion that sesame oil should only be used in specific dishes, paired with specific ingredients. Examples of appropriate uses of sesame oil: a small drop in rice congee,  soy sauce & sugar sauce mixes for braising chicken (e.g., 3 cups chicken), marinating fried tofu, and marinating sweet/savory cucumber pickles. Superfluous/unnecessary uses of sesame oil: stir-fries, chow mien, fried rice. Vietnamese dishes rarely use sesame oil. If you find one with this ingredient, you might question its authenticity. Korean cooking, on the other hand, uses sesame oil heavily.

Serves: 6-8
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes

Broth
1 lb pork neck bones
2 tbsp fish sauce or 1-2 tsp salt to taste
4 carrots, chopped into 2-inch pieces
2 cups chopped napa cabbage

Lion’s Head Meatballs
1 lb ground pork
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp minced ginger
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tbsp soy sauce
pinch of salt, to taste
pinch of white or black pepper
1 tsp sugar
1 bunch green onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp corn starch

Directions

Heat a large pot with enough water to cover the pork neck bones. Place bones inside water and boil until meat becomes brown and begins to produce brownish foam ~7-10 minutes. Discard liquid and rinse pork bones. Fill with 2 quarts cold water and bring to a boil. Add in carrots once water begins to boil and turn fire to medium low.

While waiting for water to boil, prepare lion’s head meatballs. Place ground pork, garlic, ginger, sesame oil, soy sauce, salt, pepper, sugar, green onion, and corn starch into a large mixing bowl. Use hands to mix together all ingredients for meatballs. Knead meatballs for 5 minutes, lifting the mixture and using force to toss it back into the mixing bowl. Repeat at least 5 times until mixture begins to stick together. Set aside.

Check broth. Once carrots have softened, begin forming meat mixture into meatballs ~2 inches in diameter. Turn heat on high. Drop meatballs into the soup and allow to cook until their color turns from pink to light brown.

Once meatballs turn light brown, add in Napa cabbage, stirring gently to submerge into the broth. Cook for another 5 minutes or until cabbage has softened. Taste for seasoning and add salt, fish sauce, or sugar to taste.

Spoon into individual bowls and garnish with fresh green onion. If you would like, add a small drop of sesame oil to the broth and serve.

Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

Kung Pao Tofu

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It is not lost on me that I have a blog called “Wok with Me,” yet I have hardly posted any recipes featuring the use of a wok. Cooking with a traditional wok is quite the undertaking because it requires intensely hot and high flame, as well as a space with strong ventilation for the copious amounts of smoke produced from cooking. When I was growing up, my family cooked out of a shed that they had erected to model the way of life in the countryside of Vietnam. I remember staring through the screen door in wonder and awe as my grandpa and mom would brave the cold/heat to cook dinner for us. On more than one occasion, the makeshift shack of plywood and cardboard actually caught fire and we were afraid that our house would also burn down with it.

As a youngster, my parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles would dissuade me from entering the kitchen. “Go and study, “ they would say. Although this was discouraging for me as a child, I now understand that their words and actions embodied sacrifice and love. In their experience, those who worked in the restaurant business had cruelly laborious lives. It was physically demanding to stand in a hot kitchen all day and the compensation was barely enough to sustain a living. So they would undertake the task of preparing meals for me to save me the trouble and physical discomfort. Still, I secretly dreamt of opening up my own restaurant someday while playing my role as a good student. Now that I have finished school, I find that family members still wish to protect me from the physical labor of being in the kitchen. Little do they know that I want to learn their recipes so that I can preserve our family’s culture and history and that I find an inexplicable joy in the simple and almost primal task of preparing my own food.

In a way, every dish I make is a nod to the experiences and people that have shaped who I am. I feel a magical connection to my ancestors and to my roots when I prepare dishes that have been handed down from generation to generation. What’s more, I feel a sense of communion with those from other cultures when I have the pleasure of sampling and cooking their foods.

Kung pao tofu is a very popularized Chinese-American dish that is often served as take-out. Honestly, I’m not sure if it is authentic Chinese cuisine or not as many fusions and blends have occurred from the meeting and mixing of cultures. I would be lying if I said that my family prepared this for me growing up. But the flavors carried by this dish are very familiar to me and I hope that you will enjoy them as well.

 

Cooking notes/tips:

An essential nuance in cooking with a wok is timing and knowing which ingredients to stir fry first, which to stir-fry together, and which must be separately stir-fried and then combined later on with the sauce. Most Chinese stir fried veggie dishes start off with the browning of garlic in oil before adding the other ingredients. The problem is that the garlic will quickly burn if it is not given some liquid. To prevent burning of garlic, I usually add a splash of water to my stir-fry after adding the vegetables. Traditional Chinese cooking utilizes LOADS of oil to prevent garlic from burning, but that is a rather unhealthy approach, so I prefer my splash of water.

In stir-fries involving meat and veggies, I almost always stir-fry the meat first, remove it from the pan, and then stir fry the veggies separately. This allows proper cooking of each ingredient, as cooking them all at once will create a watery mess. They are later combined and stir-fried with the sauce, which is oftentimes soy sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, fermented bean sauce.

Stir-fried vegetables should always retain some level of crunch after cooking. When in doubt, I sometimes slightly undercook my veggies. That way, the residual heat will do the rest of the softening of the veggies. For people who follow a meal prep life, undercooking the veggies is a good strategy to give your veggies the perfect texture after re-heating. This is especially true for broccoli and bok choy.

Dealing with tofu can be tricky depending on its texture. I always go with firm tofu when stir-frying. Always pan-fry your tofu first: this helps to develop flavor and creates a nice crisp exterior. Skipping this step will leave you with a watery mess.

 

Ingredients
½ cup peanuts, toasted
1 tbsp oil
1 block tofu, sliced into ½ inch thick rectangles
1 tbsp oil
½ bell pepper, sliced
¼ onion, sliced
1 tbsp oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
handful of dried red chiles
2 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tsp sugar
1 bunch green onion, chopped into 1-inch pieces

Directions

Turn on oven to 300 degrees F and toast peanuts for 10-15 minutes, or until golden brown.

Meanwhile, prepare tofu.

Use paper towels to absorb excess moisture on the surfaces of the tofu pieces. Heat a skillet on medium high heat and add oil. When oil becomes shimmery, add in tofu and allow to sit in pan for 5-7 minutes until golden brown. DO NOT move the tofu until the crust has formed. Flip and repeat steps until both sides are golden brown. Set aside.

In a separate wok or pan, turn on heat to medium high and add oil. When oil becomes shimmery, add bell pepper and onion. Stir-fry for 1-2 minutes until slightly softened. Remove from wok and set aside.

Turn on a clean wok to high heat and add oil, chilies, and garlic. Sauté until garlic becomes slightly brown, and then add tofu and vegetables. Stir-fry for 1 minute to allow flavors to combine. Then add oyster sauce and sugar. Lastly, add in green onion and toasted peanuts. Serve immediately.

Enjoy!