Research: Pho & Geneology – Can You Help Find Thu Thi Vo?

24 01 2014

As I was preparing for my Vietnamese Pho Cooking Class tomorrow, I have read a lot of recipes, blog posts, historical accountings, and other articles.  It was certainly a reminder that not all of the recipes you find on the internet are tested or tasty; I’ve been cooking long enough that I can look at some of them and just know it isn’t going to work.  After consuming a well-cited article on Wikipedia for the historical background, I settled in for an educated comparison of recipes.  The fat rose to the top of the stock pot pretty quick when I read Andrea Nguyen’s recipe.  I will follow her method, as I have found that in simple dishes such as this the method and ingredients make all the difference.

I have, of course, heard of this accomplished cook and author before.  I decided to explore her blog while I was there, and among the recent posts I found this one.  It’s the story of Thu Thi Vo, or rather the story of her brother, Minh Hung Vo, who has been looking for her with extremely limited resources for over 2 decades.  You can read the post for yourself, and I hope you will, to garner more details.  Long story short, Thu Thi married an American GI and immigrated to the States.  Brother and sister corresponded for some time, then Minh moved and never heard from his sister again.  The Vietnamese postal system not being quiet as modern and efficient as ours, his sister may have continued writing but nothing more was received by Minh.

Thu Thi Vo

Thu Thi Vo

There is a lot we don’t know for certain – birth dates, married names, children’s names, etc.  But there is certainly enough to narrow this search with all of the electronic records now at our disposal.  Being an armchair geneology researcher for my own family, I feel certain there are at least Census records that would point toward other family members.  I think of this as an old man’s final wish; Minh just wants to know what happened to his beloved sister.

Andrea is a genuinely kind person for taking time to listen to this man’s story and to try to help him.  Some of her readers have already started digging and uncovered possible leads from the comfort of their living rooms.  Perhaps you, too, can join this effort; a simple re-posting of this information with reference back to Andrea’s article would be a big help.  Word of mouth is still the best way to find anything, or anyone.

Meanwhile, I am off to pick up my grass fed beef shanks and get busy following Andrea’s method for my Pho broth.  I will follow up with the results.  Thank you for reading, and for helping a global neighbor.

Passata My Ass – and a great Pomodoro Sauce

27 09 2012

Have I mentioned before what a pain it is to be a food snob?  Working around the food business, owning and now managing a gourmet shop, and eating some seriously good food from New York City to Las Vegas and right here at home has turned me into a snob with a low tolerance for crappy food.  I have an even lower tolerance for people putting their mugs in front of TV cameras and acting as if they know something when they don’t.  I found a fellow blogger who has a seriously hard time with this food TV explosion we are experiencing and I love to read his rants.  Saves me from having to say things myself – I can just agree with him.

As tired as I am of most of the offerings on Food Network and Cooking Channel, I at least respect the fact that they run a tight ship and check their facts before letting their stars say things that aren’t true on camera.  I was watching Rachel Ray’s talk show on CBS the other morning – not on purpose, it was just on.  So she’s dumping this stuff that looks like chunky tomato juice into a pot on her stove and she calls the stuff Passata.  She proceeded to bumble and babble and fall flat on her face trying to explain what the hell passata is – and she failed.  She said it was like fresh tomatoes, but not really, and sold in a jar, not a can, and, well, just get some it’s real good.  Right.  She is clueless.  I don’t know what that stuff was she poured into the pot but it was way too chunky to be true passata.  Apparently she has fallen victim to some clever marketing on the part of someone who put some crushed tomatoes in a jar instead of a can and called it passata.  Americans are so gullible; our love affair with all things European has made a lot of folks very rich and perpetuated some serious BS.  I’m just sayin’.

Passata is, really, a pure tomato juice from which most of the pulp and all of the seeds has been removed through repeated pressing/juicing.  If you make it, it is indeed a very fresh taste that is a fabulous burst of flavor in the winter when fresh tomatoes are not growing in your backyard.  But if, like me, you don’t own a passapomodoro – the machine used to squish all the liquid out of the tomatoes – then you probably buy tomato juice or tomato puree in a can.  Just like me.  If you get the no-salt-added variety it is a delicious addition to many dishes.

Having gotten my knickers in a snit over Rach’s very public fumble that CBS didn’t bother to clean up before it aired on national television, I felt like cooking.  But I was still too sick so I didn’t.  Today, I think I may have turned the corner.  So I ventured out and picked up a few things I didn’t have so I can make lasagna because I need some stick-to-my-ribs comfort food.  Step one:  make the sauce.  I am making extra sauce to put a little in the freezer for later when I don’t want to cook.  If you have a family of four this is probably only enough sauce for one hearty meal.  Since I am but one person (and the dog is on a no-human-food diet), I will have extra.

There are two things I normally like to have for my tomato sauce that I didn’t have today: bay leaves and celery (you know I like my bay leaves because I ran out; most people have them forever, like, that same jar).  Hey, I’m not Italian, so there are no rules in my kitchen other than don’t burn anything if you can help it.  I know some Italians that would object to the bay leaves saying it was a Greek thing or a Turkish thing.  What.  Ever.  Anyhow, today I didn’t have bay leaves or celery, so I used the other usual suspects:  half a large onion; several small carrots; 4 large cloves of garlic that I chopped up fine with a teaspoon of salt; and a small summer squash (seeded) in lieu of the celery I didn’t have.  My seasonings were 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper, 1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves (sort of in lieu of the bay leaves; the Italians would say it’s more of a pizzaiola sauce with the addition of the oregano – whatever), 1 teaspoon dried basil leaves, and another tablespoon of salt.  My tomato products were a large can (28 oz) of no-salt-added crushed tomatoes and a small can (6 oz) of no-salt-added tomato paste which I reconstituted in 3 cans of water (that’s 18 ounces of water for my math challenged friends).  I sautéed the diced vegetables in a couple tablespoons of olive oil until the onions were clear, then added the seasonings and tomato products.  Once the simmering starts in earnest, turn down to a bare simmer and just keep cooking, stirring every 15 minutes or so, until all the flavors develop and the sauce is thickened, about an hour.  I leave a lid on the pot tilted a bit so some steam can escape.  Now taste and adjust your seasonings.  I added a heaping tablespoon of sugar because the sauce was very acidic – a common problem with canned tomato products.  This does not make the sauce sweet at all; it neutralizes the acidity and makes the tomato flavor really rich.

The can makes a handy spoon rest too!

Now you can do anything you want with this sauce – dip bread in it, use it for your lasagna, toss it on pasta, dress your meatballs with it, use it as a pizza sauce – just any little thing you’d like to do!  You can easily double or triple this recipe for a big family gathering.  You can add some elegance with a ½ cup or so of dry red wine added to the veggies and cooked off for about 5 minutes before adding the tomato products.  You can use an immersion blender to completely puree the veggies to make this sauce smooth as silk.  Whatever floats your boat.  This is so much better than any sauce you can buy prepared, and it took me only 10 minutes to prepare and an hour to cook with very little effort on my part.  Low sodium, big flavor, easy peasy.

OK, time for me to eat.  Did I mention that my friend Roberta and her husband Jim have a bakery?  (Roberta is one of those Italians that would probably not approve of my bay leaf addition to the tomato sauce.)  If you are on Facebook check them out here.  She brought me bread and cookies yesterday.  That must be why I feel better today!  Yum.

The Pizza Project 1.1: Make Your Own

5 04 2012

If you don’t know what this whole “Pizza Project” thing is about, you can read my intro here  Or not.  Right now, I’m talking about making your own pizza at home.

It’s too easy, really.  If you typically don’t have time to wait for the dough to rise, make it and freeze it.  Or call the delivery guy – but that’s another stop on the pizza project road.  All you really need is dry active yeast, water, and the flour of your choosing.  And toppings – though to some, those are even optional.

When I first started writing this, it was taking forever.  I realized that I was taking something so very simple and complicating it.  So I threw out that draft and now present a sort of pizza-by-the-numbers thing.  I ramble on here about the process, but you can probably just follow the pictures and do fine.

Keep in mind that flour does not come seasoned, nor does water.  So if you want your pizza dough to taste like something other than cardboard, get out the salt grinder, some olive oil, and whatever else appeals to you – parmesan, herbs, hot sauce, whatever.  You are limited only by your imagination and the laws of kitchen chemistry (don’t put tomatoes in the dough – they are just too wet; but sundried tomatoes are do-able).

Basic pizza dough recipe:  1 package dry active yeast + 1 cup water + 2-3 cups flour

With regard to the flour:  Whole wheat flour is more dense, therefore you will need less; I like to blend the wheat with white flour for the optimum texture, about half and half; if using gluten-free flours, I again recommend a blend of flours, such as garbanzo flour and tapioca starch, for optimum texture.

How much flour is needed will vary depending on factors such as flour type and the heat & humidity in your kitchen.

Sprinkle the packet of yeast in a bowl.  Add the water.  Stir.  When the yeast has dissolved and the bowl contents looks like dirty water, you are ready to proceed, usually about 3-5 minutes.  If adding any flavorings, do so at this point.  I recommend at least a tablespoon each of sugar and salt, I like 2 tablespoons of salt in my dough.  I also added fresh thyme, because I had it.

Add 1 cup of flour and stir to combine well.  A few small lumps are fine.  The consistency should be like thick pancake batter, which is referred to in bread making as the “sponge.”  Let this rest until you see a few bubbles in the sponge, usually about 5 minutes.  Using a stiff spoon (I like a wooden spoon for this), stir in additional flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until the mixture starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl and looks shaggy.  When the dough is at this stage, it will be somewhat sticky.  You will be working in a bit more flour, taking it past the sticky stage, as you kneed the dough.

Turn the shaggy dough out onto a floured work surface.  I like to have a little extra flour on the side that I can pull in with my hands as needed while working with the dough.  Kneed the dough using the heel of your hands to press and fold repeatedly.  As you do, you will encounter more sticky spots.  Dust with a bit more flour and kneed the dough for about 3 minutes until it becomes somewhat smooth and elastic – where you can stretch it a bit without it breaking.

Form into a ball and place in an oiled bowl.  Turn to coat all sides of the dough with oil.  Cover the bowl lightly with plastic wrap or a towel and let rest in a draft-free place until doubled in volume.

Spread the dough on a baking sheet or stone.  This recipe should easily make a 16″ round or a 18″ X 13″ rectangular sheet pan (cookie sheet).  If you want thicker dough, don’t make it so big.  Ahem. You may want to line your baking sheet with parchment to ensure it does not stick.  My baking stone is well seasoned, so I place it directly on the stone.  Use a fork to prick the dough all over to prevent bubbles during baking.  This is called “docking” the dough.

Pre-heat the oven to 400F.  Par-bake the crust for 5 minutes.  This prevents raw dough in the center of your finished pizza.

Remove from oven, top as desired, return to oven until it looks done enough to you – 10 minutes, give or take.

Eat.  Enjoy.  Now wasn’t that easy?

I think it’s time to go out for pizza.  I’m tired.


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