The summer found me with an overabundance of blackberries, picked at their ripest and juiciest and too plentiful to be used up on cereal alone. I made a cobbler that turned out right enough but in the end I wanted to try something a little more exotic. In a book on berry desserts checked out from the library I came across a recipe for blackberry semifreddo, an Italian dessert similar to ice cream. It’s basically created by making a simple syrup that is beaten into egg whites, with whipped cream and crushed blackberries folded in. The simplicity of the recipe appealed to me, along with the fact that I didn’t need an ice cream machine to make it. Semifreddo turned out to be the perfect vehicle for my blackberries: it had a very full, round flavor and the berry notes came through loud and clear. It was more flavorsome than any kind of ice cream I’ve had, perhaps because the cream doesn’t drown out the main attraction. Light, delicious, and easy, semifreddo is the perfect thing to bring to a dinner party.
I’ve eaten a lot of fantastic food on this trip. A few of my favorites are:
Bahn mi from street vendors
These aren’t too filling and make a good snack. The baguettes used are small, crusty and delicate, and are filled with the usual suspects (pork, cilantro, cucumber) as well as squirted with chili sauce. Yum.
I had one of these by accident at a little curbside vendor in Hanoi. The sign said “cafe, thé” but when I asked for tea the woman shook her head. She pointed to an avocado and I said “OK!”. She mashed it up and mixed in the blender with coconut milk and sugar. It was smooth, thick and filling.
I had this as a dessert in Chiang Mai. The bird’s nest was soaked in sugar water and was served with sweet gingko beans. It had a texture similar to glass noodles, those thin, transparent rice noodles used in spring rolls. I also tried a bird’s nest drink out of a can in Hué, but this was a disappointment. It was mostly sugary water with a few stray bits of stale bird’s nest in the bottom of the can. Not recommended.
I had this one pleasant, gentle evening at the edge of a river in Hoi An. There were several tiny plastic tables and chairs filled with loud Vietnamese people and there was I, the lone foreigner. A woman excitedly ushered me over to an empty table and put a stick of sugarcane in a giant juicing machine. The drink was good, very sweet of course, but was served with a side of chili salt that, when mixed in, gave the drink a depth of flavor and tempered the sweetness. The table next to me was filled with teenage boys who decided to strike up a conversation by yelling “you!” at me a few times and then inquiring as to my name and where I was from. The conversation didn’t progress much beyond that, partly due to the language barrier and partly because I got up to leave. When I did so my foot bumped the little table and my glass toppled to the ground, shattering on the cement, to my horror and to the great amusement of the boys. Not a classy exit, but a memorable one.
I had this every chance I could get in Thailand. It wasn’t any different from the stuff I get back home but it was much easier to come by. I loved being able to get it anywhere I went.
Mini Custard Pancakes
I’m not sure what these are called but they are quite prevalent in the food markets of Thailand. They are little round bits of fried batter, about the size of a silver dollar, that are formed into a small cup and filled with a coconut milk and green onion custard. The taste is both sweet and savory and very unique.
Now for some of my least favorites:
Salted Lemon Drink
This was a beverage made from preserved lemons, water, and salt, and I tried it at the gift shop of a temple in Hanoi. I had really wanted a lemonade but they were out so they made me this instead. Not wanting to be rude I managed to finish most of it but I had to choke it down. Sour and salty. Gross.
This was probably the most disgusting thing I have ever tried in all my life. I had it at a rather fancy establishment in an expensive hotel in Bangkok. I had heard tell of this dish before so I approached it with cautious curiosity, taking a small, discreet bite. I can’t quite describe the taste, all I can say is that I wanted it out of my mouth as soon as possible. It almost made me naseous. I drank a lot of Thai Tea after to wash the taste away.
I took a Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Yes me, the girl who does not cook. And you know…it was fun! I think that it’s even something I could reenact at home! Part of my aversion to cooking is the intimidation factor. I’m not familiar with cooking and I’ve convinced myself that it’s something I would not be good at. Well, when you have all of the ingredients prepared for you and a professional chef watching your every move to make sure that you are doing things properly it takes some of the anxiety out of it.
My class consisted of a Dutch couple, a British couple, an Irish couple, two Finnish girls, an Australian guy and myself. I cringed when they asked about my nationality but thankfully didn’t get any anti-American sentiments. Our two Thai instructors were very goofy and did the showman bit while demonstrating the cooking procedures. We got a tour through a local market before the cooking portion, where the ingredients were were going to use were explained to us. The class was very hands-on and we cooked every dish ourselves and then ate them for lunch.
So what did I make? And did it taste all right? The menu was yellow curry with chicken and veggies, steamed fish in banana leaves, stir fried chicken with cashews, lemongrass soup, fried fish cakes, phad thai, and spring rolls. And it all tasted pretty fantastic, if I do say so. The amazing thing was that it was all so easy. I feel like the mystery has been taken out of cooking and a door has been opened into the culinary world. I may never cook these dishes again, but I fully believe that if I wanted to, I could.
After a day spent shopping and exploring in Bangkok’s commercial areas, I decided to go for a walk in Lumphini Park, a large pond- and grass-filled area surrounded by skyscrapers and major arterials. After a couple of hours of strolling and reading it was beginning to get dark so I headed back toward the entrance, hoping to get something to eat from the vendors I had seen setting up shop on my way in. What greeted me at the exit defied my expectations. The parking lot had been transformed into an outdoor restaurant; waiters ran between food booths and tables full of chattering Thais, setting out plates of food, bottles of beer and glasses of whiskey for the dining masses. Having envisioned something simpler I was initially a bit lost and wandered aimlessly past the various vendors, eying the menus’ Thai script and hoping for some English. Soon enough a waiter ran up to me and began speaking in rapid Thai. The look I gave was no doubt baffled because he switched over to English, handing me a menu I could read.
I sat alone at a table with boisterous activity all around me. I felt out of place but in a good, excited way. As soon as my whole grilled catfish (delicious) and papaya salad with shrimp (spicy) arrived, the random bolts of lightening that had been playing through the sky all afternoon gave way to a full on thunderstorm. The tables situated on the outskirts of the overhanging tarps were quickly moved closer to the center of the dining area and the ends of the tarps were rolled and fashioned into makeshift gutters, which the water poured down from in great gushes. The sudden downpour brought the diners closer together and we looked at each other conspiratorially, laughing about the rain.
I waited it out as long as I could, but after nearly an hour the rain showed no signs of stopping so there was nothing for it but to trudge home through sheets and lakes of water. I was completely soaked by the time I reached the condo I was staying in, but the dinner was all the more memorable because of it.
They were crispy, they were crunchy, they were fried, they were definitely undisguised in any way, and yes–I liked them. I recently partook of these bugs:
while at a locals’ food market in northern Thailand, and while they weren’t the best thing I’ve ever eaten they were far from the worst. They made for a nice light snack and I wouldn’t turn them down if offered them again.
It seems to me that if bugs are so high in protein and so plentiful and presumably easy to acquire that we should be eating more of them, as a people. This would be a hard sell to the Western world, I realize, what with our social conditioning to view bugs as dirty and disgusting, but grinding them up into hamburger patties doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. It would disguise their appearance and would be a cheap, protein-rich, earth-conscious alternative to land- and resource-wasting beef. Just a thought. In the meantime, they can be found in the local markets of Southeast Asia, and elsewhere.
This one’s for you, Kim.
My good friend That’s What She Said recently grabbed life by the horns, joined the Peace Corps and moved to Cameroon. She left behind not only several beloved friends but lots of good food as well, cheese topping the list of foods she misses most. When she requested that I write about nachos I was initially stumped, nachos not being a food that I eat too often or that I ever order in a restaurant, but I knew that for TWSS’s sake I had to give it a go. Thus the idea for Nacho Night was born. The mission: gather together a group of TWSS’s friends, a couple of bags of tortilla chips, and a wide variety of cheeses, and experiment. On a recent Saturday night I did just that, wrangling up the stellar and incredibly game group of T-bone, Grandmaster Flash, Doogin, Joe-C, Dr. Jones, Cy, Thomas and Lia. The endeavor was met with resounding unanimous approval and I must say from my morning after vantage, detritus covering the counters of my kitchen and the scent of cheese lingering in the air, Nacho Night was an undeniable success. Thanks to everyone for bringing all of the fabulous cheese and toppings and for sharing all of your feedback!
Smoked Cheddar and Swiss
The hickory smoked cheddar and swiss mix was an early favorite. The mellow smoothness of this cheese was interrupted just enough by a punch of smokiness and it melted to a lovely creamy consistency.
This was a good tasting cheese but there was some disappointment about the level of spiciness. There were comments across the board expressing a desire for more kick. Joe-C called it “all cheddar, no spice”. It turned a touch greasy in the oven.
Sharp Cheddar and Olive
A good classic combination but nothing thrilling or exotic. Thomas and Lia described it as a “successful American classic. Refined yet simple; can’t miss”. Use this cheese when you don’t want anything fancy.
The gouda had an interesting sharp flavor but dried out a bit in the oven. Doogin made the observation that it could have used a secondary flavor; I would suggest tomatoes or peppers.
Feta, Olives and Peppers
The Greek salad nachos were made with feta, black olives and red and orange peppers. Actual Greek salad works well because the salty feta and olives are balanced out by the cucumber’s freshness. When you substitute cucumbers with tortilla chips it turns into salt overload. These nachos would have been better with less feta and olives and more peppers, and perhaps a tzatziki to dip them in.
Brie and Date; Chevre and Fig
One of the highlights of the night was the brie and date combination. I was initially concerned about how the brie would melt over the chips, but I needn’t have worried as it came out perfectly and was a nice mellow accompaniment to the dates, while the saltiness of the chips was perfectly suited to the creamy and sweet flavors of the toppings. Dr. Jones called it “soooo addictivly good!”.
Tart chevre is meant to be eaten with figs. The flavor combination of this round was right enough, but a problem derived from the texture of the cheese. Chevre is heavenly when warmed in the oven but doesn’t melt properly for nachos. We were left with little messy globs that didn’t adhere to the chips.
The Gorgonzola nachos were much too salty, mainly due to my mistake of putting on twice as much cheese as was necessary. With a lighter sprinkling and some fresh veggies to counteract the salt they might have worked well.
Chained to the stove
The award for most failed experiment of the night has to go to the Kraft single nachos. These moved past the territory of merely “not good” straight through to the realm of disgusting. It reminded one of melted plastic. Grandmaster Flash ventured the opinion that they might go over well if served in a Midwestern diner, or perhaps at a bowling alley. I think he’s giving them too much credit. DO NOT MAKE THESE NACHOS.
Salt and Pepper Kettle Chips with Cheddar and Mozzarella
A last minute experiment was made of some salt and ground pepper Kettle Chips found in the back of Cy and Dr. Jones’s car. Feeling the spirit of adventure we decided to make a go of it and stuck them in the oven with some sharp cheddar and mozzarella. “I wonder if potato chip nachos would be good?” queried T-bone. A minute later she answered herself with a resounding “yes!”. This batch was definitely the sleeper of the night and, even though it was the last one to be made and we were all full to bursting when they came out of the oven, people continued to pick at them for the remainder of the party. They reminded one of a baked potato with cheese, but greasier and crispier.
Whew! I don’t think any of us had eaten so many different kinds of cheese in such a short period of time and let me tell you that it required some stamina. I now have a fridge full of leftover cheese and absolutely no desire to eat any of it. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed Nacho Night and hope to have more in the future. I need an excuse to try out my idea for elephant ear nachos! Next time…
Oh, the mess…
As regular readers of this blog have no doubt come to realize, I have an immense love for all things sugary. If it’s a dessert, I like it, especially if there’s chocolate involved. I try to limit my chocolate intake to the high quality organic stuff, but sometimes I crave a good old fashioned candy bar. Sadly, there aren’t too many candy bars out there that really do it for me anymore…there weren’t, that is, until I discovered Canada’s fantastic candy selection and a brave new world of candy opened up for me. Canada has, along with the usual suspects, several varieties of candy we can’t get in the U.S., many of them European. It’s a whole different ball game up there. On a recent trip to Vancouver one of the first things I did was pop into a drug store to stock up on some bars. I made a beeline for the candy aisle and stood there, giddy with excitement, squeals of delight barely contained, basking in the glow of candy variety. Here are a few I tried:
The Wunderbar, made by Cadbury, has a core of light, crispy peanut butter that is surrounded by chewy caramel and then covered with milk chocolate. This is a very unusual bar. Peanut butter and chocolate are great together but they are both so heavy and dense that the combination can easily become overkill. The Wunderbar avoids this pitfall by keeping the peanut butter airy and light and scattering rice crisps into the mix. The result is a bar that is at the same time chewy, crunchy and smooth. This is one of my favorite candy bars ever. It is, as the name would have you believe, truly wonderful.
Kit Kat Peanut Butter
I LOVE Kit Kats. There’s something about the perky crunch of the wafer contrasted with the smoothness of the chocolate, along with the boxy feel of the angular pieces, that is very satisfying to the tongue. I’ve noticed several types of Kit Kat in other countries but most are hard to find in the U.S. In Japan I’ve tried green tea, cherry blossom, and raspberry parfait, and in Canada and Europe dark chocolate (perhaps the best), caramel and peanut butter. It was the peanut butter I tried this time around and it was fantastic. Rather than four small bars to a package, the peanut butter variety (as well as the caramel) comes as one large chunky bar. This thing is solid. The peanut butter goes beautifully with the crunchy wafer and the chocolate gets thick around the edge and frames the bar like a picture.
The Cadbury Crispy Crunch is much like a Butterfinger, but it’s wider, thinner, and is made with a better quality chocolate. I prefer the shape of the Crispy Crunch to that of the Butterfinger because I find that its more balanced chocoalte/filling ratio doesn’t overwhelm you with sweetness. The peanut-y layers stop short of being cloying or overpowering and instead concentrate on being flaky and delicious.
The European Mars bar is basically the same as an American Milky Way and is made with a nougat and caramel center and covered with chocolate. I tried the dark chocolate variety, which adds more depth of flavor than the regular milk.
I must be honest and admit that Aero bars are not my favorite. I like the idea behind them: made with tiny pockets of air folded inside, the chocolate is meant to “bubble” on the tongue when eaten. The problem is in the execution. I’ve never noticed anything about Aero’s texture that would set it apart from the other chocolate bars out there, although I keep giving them a chance hoping I’ll come around. I also don’t think that the quality of chocolate is very good in the Aero bars. They are made by Nestle and I’ve always found that Nestle’s chocolate has a disquieting waxy texture and taste. Still, I appreciate the variety of flavors the Aero can be found in, including milk, mint, caramel, orange, and cappuccino.
Made with creamy hazelnut filling, paper thin wafer and milk chocolate, the Kinder Bueno is possibly the best candy bar in the world. See my previous post about this delightful bar for more information.
That’s just a sampling of the fantastic European candy to be found with our commonwealth neighbors. Next time you’re up there give one a try!