Fish Sauce Junkie

My shoulder has really kept me from the kitchen, but last week I went to Russo’s for the first time in months. There were plums and peaches and pluots, although the apricots were still a touch more than I wanted to spend. And the radishes were a vivid pink, so much so that I couldn’t leave them behind. I started plotting a salad using plums and radishes. Rich was skeptical, but I pushed forward, throwing in cucumber and tomatoes, and a touch of butter lettuce.

I bought plums, but Lilli got a cupcake.

I bought plums, but Lilli got a cupcake.

But what really made this salad was the dressing, the recipe for which has been sitting in my drafts folder for well over a year. I think it’s from Gwyneth Paltrow. I borrowed her cookbooks from the library last year and was happy I did. Think what you will about GOOP, but her dressings are great.

It’s called Vietnamese Salad Dressing, and I think it’s wonderful. Rich does not. I’m an admitted fish sauce junkie, and I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. If you like Vietnamese food, you’ll probably love this dressing, too.

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My friend Caitlyn, who lived in Thailand, advises that Squid is the brand of fish sauce you want to use. I don’t own spicy sesame oil, just regular, so I used that, instead. I keep mine stored in the fridge, by the way. Agave nectar isn’t as healthy as once thought to be, so I use honey; I think palm sugar would actually be perfect for this recipe if you have it on hand.

Vietnamese Salad Dressing

¼ cup fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
2 teaspoons soy sauce
¼ cup fish sauce
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon hot pepper sesame oil
2 tablespoons agave nectar
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon minced ginger
2 tablespoons finely diced red onion or shallot

Combine all ingredients in a jar. Screw on lid, give it a good shake, and go for it.

SA PA: Building a Better Banh Mi

As I have written about here previously, I love Vietnamese food, so much so that I request it coming out from anesthesia. Anything with fish sauce will do, but I also love a good banh mi sandwich, that post-colonial combination of Asian flavors on a crunchy French baguette. When I was working at BU, I would take the 57 bus to get my fix at the Super 88 food court.

I do have one pet peeve about the standard recipe, and that is that almost every banh mi comes with pork pate standard. That’s a no go for me, so I always have to order it without. Don’t get me wrong, I like it without just fine, but sometimes I do feel like I’m missing out on the full banh mi experience.

That’s why I was excited to try out a new Vietnamese place that opened in Cleveland Circle in Brighton, not far from our house. It’s called SA PA, and it’s been open since May. (There’s also a Chinatown location that’s been open longer). The SA PA banh mi is made with a walnut-mushroom pate instead of the standard pork. The owner, Ky, told me he uses the veggie spread because it’s tastier and healthier, to boot.

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The decor is sleek and modern, wood floors and counters with red and sky blue accents. On the walls are photos of the owner’s family from their time in Saigon. The menu is similarly streamlined, with a few entrees available with a choice of protein, a couple sides, and the classic Vietnamese iced beverages. (The Cleveland Circle location also serves beer and liqueur cocktails.) In a nod to the college clientele, you can get your banh mi in a burrito instead of a baguette.

I brought Rich and Lilli along to sample the menu. I got the tofu banh mi with the walnut mushroom “pate”, with a side order of avocado summer rolls, fresh kimchi, and a chili mint limeade to drink. The sandwich came with the standard pickled daikon and carrots and fresh sprigs of cilantro, but also had sliced grapes, a fun and offbeat touch that really worked. It was a great vegetarian sandwich, full of fresh flavors and just the right amount of spice. Another common frustration of mine is shellfish lurking in kimchi, but I chatted with the chef about their version, which turned out to be crustacean-free. Rich got a big bowl of pho soup with slow-braised beef (brisket, we think) and thinly sliced rare beef that cooked in the broth, with crispy eggrolls and a Vietnamese Iced Coffee. We ordered Lilli a big bowl of vermicelli noodles, but she quickly took to Rich’s soup!

We very much enjoyed our meal at SA PA, and perhaps more importantly, I now know where to find a delicious pork-free banh mi without sacrificing an important ingredient.

SA PA has two locations in Boston: 93 Bedford Street in Downtown/Chinatown, and 1952 Beacon Street in Cleveland Circle. Visit http://www.sa-pa.com for menus and directions.

Champagne Wishes and Fish Sauce Dreams

A few weeks ago, I had a quick procedure. Not a big deal, not even worth getting into the details here, but they did need to sedate me. I was a little groggy afterwards, and I was given the instructions not to drive, go to work or operate heavy machinery for the rest of the day. But when Rich brought me home from the hospital, I grabbed a canvas grocery bag from the backseat and started wobbling my way to the market around the corner.

“Um, what are you doing, dear?” Rich asked.

“I have some stuff I need to pick up,” I replied.

“I’m not sure if that’s a good idea, given your condition.”

“Oh, I’m fine. It’s 500 yards from our house, and I promise to use the crosswalks. There’s no heavy machinery involved.”

Rich soon realized this was a battle he would not be able to win, even though his opponent could barely stand up. He watched me steady myself to the end of the street, green sweatpants and all, and turn the corner.

I had had Vietnamese noodles on my mind for the past few weeks, and the chalush (an uncontrollable hankering) was one that not even a minor sedative would keep me from. The secret to Vietnamese noodles is fish sauce, which can be found in Asian markets, and more often than not, in the Asian aisle of most decent grocery stores. It’s usually made of anchovies, and is a bit akin to garum, the stinky fish sauce the Romans doused nearly everything they ate with. Hey, I said the blog is “mostly” vegetarian, cut me some slack.

And the noodles were perfect. They were exactly what I had hoped for. Looking back, I probably should have stayed out of the kitchen that afternoon, and not used the stove or a large chef’s knife. When I tasted the sauce, I thought it was too citrusy, so I stumbled around the kitchen adding a splash of mirin and a dash of soy. Of course, after a few minutes of fussing, I realized I hadn’t actually added the fish sauce; it had been measured and waiting next to the bowl. Oops. But I did succeed in the end, and somehow I managed to photograph it as well.

When Rich returned home from work that night, I greeted him with an offer of the noodles spiked with fish sauce. “Oh,” he said, “so you did end up making them.” “Huh?” I asked. “Oh, you don’t remember? When you came to after the anesthesia, you were mumbling noodles with fish sauce.”

Vietnamese Noodles aka Thai Noodles slightly adapted from Myers + Chang Thai Ginger Chicken Salad, minus the chicken salad, from Bon Appetit September 2011

Ingredients

1 Thai chili, sliced thin

Juice of ½ lime

2 Tablespoon mirin

2 Tablespoon rice vinegar

¼ cup fish sauce

¼ cup sugar

2 teaspoon. ginger, chopped

1 garlic clove, chopped

12 oz. rice stick noodles

4 oz. cubed tofu

4 springs cilantro, stems included, chopped

Directions

Put a large pot of salted water onto boil.

Whisk first 8 ingredients in a small bowl until sugar dissolves. Set dressing aside.

When the water boils, cook noodles until tender, but still firm to the bite, about 3 to 5 minutes. Drain; put in large bowl.

Add cubed tofu to the noodles, pour the dressing, toss to coat, then sprinkle with the chopped cilantro.