Hội An Feasting and Chả Cá at Vy’s Market Restaurant.

The first time I tasted  Chả Cá Lã Vọng, fried fish La Vong style, was in the famous 120 year old La Vong restaurant in Hanoi in 1996.  It was the only dish served, along with beer and tea, so it saved any confusion about ordering. In those days, you entered the restaurant via steep rickety stairs and soon after, a tiny terracotta brazier was placed on the table, coals glowing, along with a small aluminium frypan, and a platter full of various ingredients, which were quickly cooked, layered and assembled before your hungry eyes.

First step: assemble your ingredients.
Step One: assemble your ingredients.

I always vowed that I would make that dish on my return to Melbourne, once I  had acquired a little authentic table top cooker. I never did, although I often saw some small charcoal braziers, moulded in the shape of a bucket, along Victoria Street in Richmond. Now twenty years have passed and I did not expect to see this famous dish from Hanoi turn up in Hoi An. It was a very good version too and transported me back to the more spartan days of Hanoi, where young women still wore pure white Au Dai and the spirit of Uncle Ho was alive and well.

Step two, light the table top stove and add marinated fish.
Step two, light the table top stove and add marinated fish.

We visited Vy’s Market Restaurant in Hoi An and were surprised to find Cha Ca on the menu. Vy’s  is a huge dining hall  with various cooking stations around the perimeter. You can watch rice pancakes being grilled on hot coals, young apprentices making vegetarian wonton, noodles being stretched and woks tossed. You can learn a lot here without attending their famous cooking school.

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Step three, when the pan gets hot, toss the fish about, using long chopsticks, then add half the herbs and half the peanuts. Toss.
step for. Add the precookd rice noodle or Bun.
Step four. Add the precooked rice vermicelli noodle or Bun and more herbs.
Toss all together then add chilli and final herbs and peanuts. Toss
Toss all together then add chilli and remaining herbs and peanuts. Toss

The  Recipe

Marinade for fish. 

  • 1/2 kilo neutral tasting white fish, cut into 2.5 cm pieces
  • small knob of ginger, grated
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp Nuoc Mam (Vietnamese Fish Sauce)
  • 1 tsp Mam Ruoc (Vietnamese Fermented Shrimp Paste)
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 piece ( small finger) of fresh turmeric, pounded or 1 teas turmeric powder

For Frying

  • A small amount of neutral oil
  • 1 bunch spring onions, chopped into long pieces, white and green parts used. Thick white ends cut through lengthwise.
  • 1 large bunch dill, chopped into 2-inch pieces
  • 2 cloves garlic, smashed
  • roasted unsalted peanuts, chopped
  • Bun (Vietnamese rice vermicelli noodles), soaked or cooked so ready to use.
  • Herbs- rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), tia to (Vietnamese perilla), more dill. ( not basil- the predominant taste is dill)
  • Fresh chopped chilli or chilli sambal
    Cha Ca on the plate.
    Cha Ca on the plate.

    Place the fish in the marinade ingredients and mix well. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1-2 hours.

Place the fish and its marinade in a small frying pan over a table top cooker. ( you can do this on a regular stove but part of the drama of the dish is assembling it before the diner). Pan fry the fish for a few minutes, then begin adding the flavours. First some of the herbs, especially the dill and spring onion, then half the peanuts. Toss about for 30 seconds, then add the rice noodle and perilla, toss about, incorporating the noodles through the fish. Then add the remaining herbs, the chilli and more peanuts. Serve with plain rice.

A little tofu and chilli dish on the side.
A little tofu and chilli dish on the side.

This version of Cha Ca was was enjoyed at Vy’s Market Restaurant and Cooking School, 3 Nguyen Hoang Street, An Hoi Islet, Hoi An and cost a little under AU $10, one of the most expensive items on the menu.The tofu dish cost AU$3.88. A small tiger beer is around AU$2. The prices are a bit higher than many of the local restaurants but the quality here is superb. Highly recommended for those yearning to visit or return to Hoi An.

Capellini Pasta with School Prawns

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Fast food in Summer

It’s hard to become bored with pasta, given all the wonderful shapes, names and colours available. Walking down the long pasta aisles of that famous Italian grocery shop in Melbourne is a step straight back into the supermarkets or alimentari of Lucca, Siena or Roma. Even my Italian visitors are impressed. Reading all the names on offer- little beards, little worms, bridegrooms, ribbons and shoestrings, priest stranglers, corkscrews, smooth or lined pens, partridge’s eyes and melon seeds, just to name a few- excites my culinary imagination and sends my mind into a spin. Capellini ( thin hair) pasta is very fine, though not cut as finely as Angel’s Hair, and is the perfect carrier for light dressings or gentle sauces such as seafood. It is sold in packets of nidi or nests which usually cook in around 3 minutes. Fast food never tasted so good.

Some of the main ingredients
Some of the usual suspects

Capellini con Gamberini, Pomodorini e Basilico- Capellini Pasta with school prawns, cherry tomatoes and basil.

Note: there are no numbers or weights given. Choose the quantities that go with your needs. I usually serve 100 g of pasta per person for a main meal dish, but serve less of the finer cut pasta, letting the ingredients have more limelight. Everything in this dish is kept small, denoted by the suffix ‘ini’ after all those nouns in the title, to go with the thin pasta.

  • Capellini Pasta
  • vine ripened cherry or baby Roma tomatoes, halved
  • garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • chilli flakes
  • EV olive oil
  • a few handfuls of local school prawns, cooked and peeled
  • tiny basil leaves, Globe or Greek
  • salt, pepper.

Boil a large pot of water for the pasta and add ample salt. Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, add the olive oil ( don’t be mean as the oil is part of the sauce) and heat, then add lots of finely chopped garlic and the chilli flakes to taste. Toss around for 1 minute, then add the halved cherry tomatoes until the split. Take off the heat.

Cook the pasta nests for the required amount of time then drain.

Return the frying pan to the heat, add the prawns to the garlic oil, toss about on a high heat, then add the drained pasta, the basil leaves and season. Amalgamate while heating through. Serve in warmed large bowls, with some good oil on the table.

School prawns are usually sold in Australia pre-cooked. They come from trawlers at Lakes Entrance, Victoria and are the sweetest prawns available, despite the amount of peeling to be done.

I have set myself a challenge this week: to complete all my semi- drafted recipes and half written posts.There are usually about 10 or more in the queue and most just fall by the wayside. Mr Tranquillo calls me the post pumper! It won’t last.

Easy Christmas Thai Prawn Salad

The only year I missed Christmas at home was in 1985, when we spent the day in Koh Samui in Thailand, eating crab curry, with the sound of waves gently lapping in the background. Bliss. So it’s only fitting that a Thai seafood dish pops onto my Christmas menu. I have been making this seafood salad for Christmas for around 15 years now. I gleaned the recipe from my well-thumbed copy of Stephanie Alexander’s The Cooks Companion. It has lovely summer flavours and can be made a few hours ahead. The first time I made it, my sister-in-law drank the juice from the bowl, so the saucing is obviously the best part of the dish and I sometimes make extra, with Joanne in mind. The original recipe by Stephanie calls for 6 small calamari. Given that it’s almost impossible to source fresh calamari at Christmas time in Melbourne, especially small ones, I have substituted prawns and I can happily say, it’s still a great dish.

Thai Prawn Salad
Thai Prawn Salad

The quantity may be doubled or doubled again depending on your Christmas crowd. The recipe below made for a substantial lunch dish for two. If serving alongside other seafood, the amount below would be suitable for four. I am planning to quadruple the amount for the big day ahead, but will keep an eye on the balance of ingredeints as I go.

Cook the prawns until just done.
Cook the prawns until just done.

Thai Prawn Salad.

350 gr medium-sized green prawns

1 granny smith apple unpeeled (or any tart apple)

2 brown or purple shallots

1 tablespoon fresh coriander leaves

1 tablespoon fresh torn mint leaves

1 tablespoon fresh torn Thai basil leaves

3 tablespoons chopped peanuts.

Dressing

2 fresh chillies, seeded and finely sliced

1 tablespoon palm sugar (soft brown sugar may be substituted)

2 tablespoons fish sauce

1 tablespoon fresh lime or lemon juice. ( lime is better)

Method

Make the dressing by mixing the ingredients together in a jug.

Bring a large pot of water to the boil, add the prawns and cook for a couple of minutes or until nicely pink. Shell and devein the prawns. (you can do this before or after cooking. I prefer to cook them with the shell on) Halve the prawns vertically. Reserve.

Core the apple but don’t peel it. Julienne into fine sticks. Finely slice the shallots.

In a serving bowl, mix the apple, prawns, shallots, and herbs. Pour on the dressing and gently toss. Add peanuts to finished dish.

If making this dish ahead of time, leave out the herbs and peanuts until ready to serve. Dress the salad of prawns, apple and shallots, cover well, then refrigerate. Bring out around 15 minutes before serving time to take the chill off the dish, and add the torn herbs, toss and then the peanuts. Of course the peanuts are optional- purchased fried shallots would also add some final crunch.

Thai prawn salad.
Thai prawn salad.

 

Serve with a French Rosé wine. Salute!

Adapted from The Cook’s Companion, Stephanie Alexander, 1996 edition, page 689.

 

Salmoriglio- The Sicilian Dressing

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Spiedini di salmone alla griglia con salmoriglio. – Grilled salmon kebabs with salmoriglio dressing.

One of my most vivid memories of Palermo is its famous dressing, Salmoriglio, probably because it is so easy to recreate, especially during late Spring when the patch of oregano is at its peak. When I first tried this in a restaurant Palermo, it came drizzled over a thinly cut fillet of pesce spada, or swordfish, along with contorni, a platter of simply grilled vegetables.  According to Marisa Raniolo Wilkins, in her cookbook, Sicilian Seafood Cooking, the name comes from its three main ingredients – salt (sale), lemon (limone), and oregano (origano).

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Salmoriglio  (or Salmorigano) Dressing.

  • 4 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves
  • 1 scant tablespoons sea salt flakes
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 8 tablespoons EV olive oil
  • black pepper

Pound the oregano leaves with the salt in a mortar and pestle. When it forms a paste, add the lemon juice, then the oil and grind in some black pepper. Store in a jar and see how many ways you can use it over a week. As a cold sauce, it is best applied to hot food and then smell all the elements of the ingredients come alive.

 

 

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Drizzled over a Pizza Romana

 

 

 

 

In My Kitchen, a Very Fishy Post. November 15

There have been lots of fishy things happening in my kitchen this month, or should I say, in cabin kitchens along the East Coast of Victoria and New South Wales. I love the challenge of cabin kitchens: they are all so idiosyncratic and designed for the user of microwaves or non cooks. Challenges include how to drain pasta without a colander, chopping on thin plastic boards that have warped into canoes, looking for a non-existent grater and salad bowl and dealing with an oven that doesn’t cook.  But I’m jumping ahead.

Let me introduce you to the first kitchen I popped into on my coastal road trip. I met up with Maree, from Around the Mulberry Tree, in her kitchen in Trafalgar. She was having a garden open day and I just happened to be passing by. Her garden was looking magnificent with its well designed chook house and wicking beds, but I was keen to see the progress on her kitchen renovation and her ‘toy oven’, in which she makes beautiful sourdough loaves! I can report that it is all true, and it just goes to show that with a bit of imagination, a good loaf can be made in a tiny little pie warmer of an oven! Neither of us are too keen on having our photos on our posts: I think this one sums it all up.

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In Maree’s kitchen, the blues sisters.

The first night in our Lake Tyers kitchen we feasted on a seafood paella or Paella de Marisco. The seafood co-op at Lakes Entrance provided the goodies for this- fresh squid, prawns ( from South Australia) and a few scallops. I used the prawn heads and shells to make a quick prawn bisque for the stock. I love the first stage of making paella when the smoky pimenton is added to the stock. bbb

Travelling with me always are these ingredients, as well as a good pan with fitting lid, a decent knife, a pasta pot, and fresh herbs and spices from home.

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, Calasparra rice, saffron and smoky pimento – the key items for a good paella.

The kitchen in Lake Tyers was pretty good as far as cabin kitchens go except for the dodgy oven which only worked on the grill function. This was the setting for our scallop feast.

1-2015-10-25 19.51.13_resizedThe kids were happy to eat their way through piles of flathead tails, also readily available from the local seafood co-op.  A large bag of panko crumbs from Costco and eggs from home are also part of my travelling kit.

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Flathead tails, with panko crumbs. Hands up who wants more!

Eden was the next stop for seafood along this route, with blue mussels available near the jetty and a local smokehouse. Kyle bought a bag of smoked mussels: I like his cooking style. Pour the smoked mussels out of the bag and into a bowl, and compete to see who gets to eat the most. No photo for this treat as they disappeared in a flash.

The lakes of Pambula provided the next briny piatto del giorno. Two dozen oysters, freshly shucked, only required a picnic table, a lemon, and a loaf of ciabatta. Needing lemons?  Head to the country op-shops for cheap home-grown bags full.

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Sydney Rock oysters from Pambula Lakes.

Heading back down south, and passing my favourite Co-op again, these pretty creatures were available for $13.50 a kilo. Packed on ice, they are now in my home kitchen and will give us at least three more meals. Calamari and squid are the most sustainable seafood species you can find in Australia.

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shiny calamari ready to be cleaned.
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calamari, stir fried chard, garlic, chill, kecap manis, lemon, sesame oil.

Thanks Celia once again for hosting this marvellous monthly series. You may find more like-minded souls at Fig Jam and Lime Cordial, Living well in the Urban Village.