Saturday, February 28, 2009

Phở Bến Thành Restaurant

115 Park Street North
Hamilton, Ontario

Phở Bến Thành, or more informally referred as B&T Restaurant, is one of the most popular Vietnamese restaurants in Hamilton. It is actually referred as a Viet-Thai restaurant, although the owners are Chinese and the waiters do not necessarily speak either Vietnamese or Thai. The owners also own The Jade Garden, a few blocks away.

It seems like B&T Restaurant has become a little chain with restaurants all over Southwestern Ontario. The Hamilton location is situated at the corner of Cannon Street, in the heart of Little Vietnam. Ok, I'm exaggerating. It's like maybe two blocks of Chinese and Vietnamese businesses. It is also next door to a Vietnamese grocery store, where I shop very often.

The B&T Restaurant is one of those restaurants with a VERY extensive menu (over 600 items, including the drinks, yikes!), including their specialty phở (Vietnamese beef soup), vermicelli and rice dishes. There are also a dozen of vegetarian items. Like many Vietnamese restaurants, they also have a great offering of Vietnamese shakes. You have to jot down the item number you want on a piece of paper. You can make special requests, like no peanuts, but the waiters are sometimes unresponsive. You might have to repeat a few times and send your dish back.

Since it is still cold here, I decided to go for a phở. I always order the same one: phở tái bò viên (lean beef and meatballs). I was meeting my friend D before he and his wife move back to Halifax and he also went for a phở, minus the bò viên (meatballs). I got a small bowl of #108 for $5.50 while D went for the large #102 for $6.50. I should have taken a pictures of both bowls for a comparison!

#108, phở tái bò viên (lean beef and meatballs), $5.50 for a small bowl.

There are many different ways to eat phở. Usually, you add the bean sprouts, Thai basil and some lime juice in. I always ask for extra lime juice and like my broth extra lime-y. My mom likes to get her bean sprouts blanched because she does not like them raw. I find they cook sufficiently once they are added to the broth. I like to have Hoisin sauce and Sriracha on the side, and dip my various meats in the mixture. Others like to add the sauces directly to the broth. It doesn't matter how you eat it!

The accompanying Thai basil, limes, bean sprouts and hoisin sauce.

I have to admit that I have no interest in learning how to make phở. I think it takes a lot of work and for just one person, it's not worth the effort. I can be satisfied with eating it at restaurants. Maybe one day I will want to learn. I do remember my mom making a ginormous pot on Saturdays and really enjoying it, with pieces of cooked daikon in it. There are no daikon pieces at restaurants!

Once the sprouts are added, you can dig in!

All in all, B&T Restaurant offers affordable Vietnamese dishes. Other than the phở, I also really enjoy the different combinations of vermicelli bowls, such as #303 (grilled pork balls, BBQ pork and spring roll). I will have to write about it next time! I have seen the pad thai and it does not look appealing to me. I doubt their Thai food is authentic and would stay away from them. While the owners are Chinese, they actually grew up/lived in Vietnam and know their Vietnamese food pretty well.

Ben Thanh Viet Thai Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Growing up in a Vietnamese household, I got to eat many tasty Vietnamese dishes. However, Vietnamese are not big on baked goods, specifically cookies; the Vietnamese do like their pandan or cassava flavoured cakes though! I never baked cookies growing up and do not have family baking recipes or traditions passed on from generation to generation. So I got a lot of my favourite baking recipes from my old roommate, and this one is no exception.

I like these cookies because they are soft and chewy on the inside. They are very easy to make, no need for a mixer. I just used a fork! They also freeze very well and are really good, quickly zapped in the microwave.

Chocolate Chip Cookies - makes about 30
I made these recently and did not find the cookies looked like how they should. They were more cluster-like and not flat enough. On the second batch, I realized that flattening them a little helps a lot. I do not remember doing this previously but it works!

* ½ cup butter, unsaled and softened (margarine works too)
* ⅓ cup sugar
* 1 egg
* 1 tsp vanilla extra
* 1 cup flour
* ⅓ cup oatmeal
* ½ tsp baking soda
* ¼ tsp salt
* chocolate chips, as much as you want

Mix the wet ingredients (first 4), until the butter is in small pieces.
Mix the dry ingredients (next 4) in a separate bowl.
Add the dry ingredients to the wet ones and mix.
Add chocolate chips and mix again.
Spoon tablespoons of cookie dough onto parchment paper.
Flatten each (optional) to obtain thinner cookies.
Bake for 8-10 minutes at 350F.
Cool cookies on a rack.

Mixing the wet ingredients.

Dry ingredients and cookie dough.

Spoonfuls of cookie dough (these were not flattened) and cookies being cooled (these had been flattened).

Plateful of chocolate cookies only requires a glass of milk!

Nice and chewy on the inside.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

New Orleans

I have been wanting to write this post for a while. Watching the finale of Top Chef, one of my favourite TV shows right now, that is set in New Orleans prompted me to finish it up this week. And it's Mardi Gras today!!

I got to spend four days in New Orleans in 2004 (a year before Hurricane Katrina hit - I remember watching weather reports, worried a hurricane would hit that year also) when my colleague C and I were sent there for a conference. I had such a great time! It was one of three cities I wanted to visit in the USA (the others being New York and San Francisco). It has such a good vibe. And the food! The FOOD! There is nothing better when you travel to a city like New Orleans than to have all your meals paid for. This meant I had three solid meals a day, with dessert at lunch AND dinner! I probably would not eat so much if I was paying for it myself.

I regret not having a blog (or a digital camera) earlier when I think of instances like my trip to New Orleans. However, at the back of my project diary (to scribble notes during lectures), I had an impromptu food diary. I can assure you that you would not be interested in anything that was in the front of my notebook...

Here are some of the highlights, focused mainly on food, of course:
  • My first meal in New Orleans consisted of crawfish pie and pecan pie at Remoulade. My first taste of crawfish was great. The crawfish pie was spicy and seasoned so well. The pecan pie, the first of many, was great, not too sweet with a generous layer of chopped pecans, not whole like I was used to. The highlight of my trip was leaving Remoulade and encountering a wedding on Bourbon Street with a band, waving white napkins. So fun and festive! That's how I imagine New Orleans!

  • Wedding party on Bourbon Street.

  • On the next day, after going on a swamp tour, C and I went to Central Grocery for a muffaletta for lunch. For such a renown sandwich, I was surprised that it was served in a regular Italian grocery store with a deli counter. Nothing flashy except for the awesome combination of cheese, cold cuts and olives, with a generous dash of olive oil. I especially like the crustry bread with sesame seeds and the pickled vegetables. C & I found a bench by the Mississipi River and ate our muffaletta, while downing cold iced tea.
  • For dinner, C made a reservation to Nola Restaurant, the cheaper of Emeril Lagasse's restaurants. We were offered a complementary choice of different breads and jalapeno corn muffin. I loved the corn muffin!! We had a great meal with very generous (American) portions. I started out with crab cakes as a started and had "pecan crusted flounder with caramelized grapefruit in a meunière sauce" as a main. I remember being especially dazzled by the grapefruit! Dessert was chocolate torte. All very good!

  • C & I having dessert at Nola Restaurant.

  • The first day of the conference, C & I snuck out for lunch. I had my first ever po-boy, which was an oyster one. What can I say, other than deep fried goodness in a sandwich? Yum! Later that day, we took a trolley to the Garden District to admire the beautiful mansions and walked around Audubon Park. My second highlight of the trip was going to Preservation Hall for some jazz! For $5, I enjoyed one of the best concerts in my life. I especially enjoyed the trumpet player who also sang and the clarinet in Gershwin's Summertime! Love, love!

  • C & I woke up early to go have breakfast at Café du Monde before our lectures. There, we had chicory laced coffee with beignets. Deep fried goodness smothered in powder sugar? Need I say more? I thought it was amusing that all the waitresses and the cook were Vietnamese. My people! I thought I was being very smart by buying a tin of coffee there for $4.60, compared to $9 at the hotel. I was sorely disappointed to find out that you can buy that coffee at home, at the Asian grocery store. Supposedly, Café du Monde's coffee is popular among the Vietnamese! I thought that yellow container was familiar...

  • On the same day, C & I ventured right outside of the French Quarter for lunch and had a great authentic meal. The minute you step outside the French Quarter, you know it. Suddenly, everything seems to be rougher and we knew we should not venture much farther out. Our waiter was a tall black man, wearing, what I wrote: "a jazzy outfit with a top hat and all (and of course a gold tooth)". We were served what seemed to be very authentic Southern food. I had soft shell prawns, candied yams and sweet potato pie. C had stewed chicken. I did not write down where we went but I believe it was Praline Connection.

  • For our last meal, we went to Herbsaint, in the Warehouse District. We did not realize it was a pretty fancy restaurant. I had shrimp bisque and tried rabbit for the first time. I finished it with a delicious crème brulée.

  • I never tried gumbo, Jambalaya, turtle soup or alligator, because none of them interested me. There were plenty of other things to try. I did buy and bring back pralines but they were too sweet for my taste and my family did not love it either.

  • Other random things: I loved the architecture in the French Quarter. The French Quarter is crazy at night, beads and all. There are also many crazies, professing the word of the Lord, in New Orleans. I mean N'Awlins. Being a French speaker, I still did not know how to pronounce anything.

Bourbon Street after a night of partying.

I could go on and on. Can you tell I really loved New Orleans? I don't know if I will ever go back since I do believe in travelling to different places. I do recommend that anyone who has never been to go and enjoy the great culture there!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Pan Fried Basa & Asparagus with Crab Sauce

On my continued quest to eat fish once a week, I made another recipe of my mom's: fish and asparagus with a crab sauce. My mom said she tried to imitate a dish from a Chinese restaurant. All I know is that I really enjoy this and it is very easy! (By the way, I found frozen packages of basa filet much cheaper at the Asian grocery store and I thought the fish actually tasted better also.)

Pan Fried Basa & Asparagus with Crab Sauce
I remember my mom making this dish with deep fried, battered fish but she makes it by pan frying it now. Deep frying could be an option for a once in a while treat.

* pan fried basa filet
* oil
* ½ onion, thinly sliced
* 100 g (¼ lb.) crab, frozen, canned or even better, fresh!
* salt, to taste
* pepper, to taste
* water
* flour
* ½ bunch of asparagus, washed and cut into 1" pieces

Pan fry a basa filet and set aside.
Stir fry onion in a bit of oil until softened.
Add the crab and break apart.
Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Mix a little flour (1 tsp) in water and add to the crab to help thicken the sauce.
Set aside half the sauce for the fish.
Add the asparagus to the remaining sauce until cooked.
Add some water if it becomes too dry.
Top the fish with half the crab sauce.
Serve with the asparagus.

Stir frying the crab and adding the asparagus.

Sauce with asparagus sauce.

Filet topped with asparagus sauce.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Vegetable Pot Pie

For the main dish of my dinner with my old colleagues S and L, I decided to make a vegetable pot pie. I had leftover puff pastry in the freezer from making the Tarte Tatin I made before Christmas. I thought a pot pie would be a hearty main dish.

I followed the same recipe as the Curry Chicken Pot Pie, except for the filling. I roasted some vegetables instead for the filling. The recipe was easy as pie, pun intended!

Vegetable Pot Pie - Serves 4-6
Adapted from Alton Brown's Curry Chicken Pot Pie.
You can really use any combination of vegetables you like. I tried to go for a colourful combination. I had initially thought about cooking potatoes and squash first, then quickly stir frying them. At the last minute, I thought of roasting them. I am sure either way is fine but the vegetables should definitely be pre-cooked. I accidentally added quite a bit of chili but I really enjoyed the nice kick; alternately, you can add curry powder.

* 2 large potatoes, diced small
* ½ butternut squash, peeled and diced a bit larger than the potatoes - since I found they cook faster and soften very much
* 1 carrot, diced small
* olive oil
* salt, to taste
* pepper, to taste
* dried chili flakes, to taste
* dried/fresh herbs: oregano, parsley, thyme, rosemary
* ½ bunch of asparagus, sliced in 1" sections
* 1 onion, finely diced
* 3 celery stalks, sliced
* 3 tbsp butter
* 3 tbsp flour
* 1-½ cup vegetable broth, homemade or store bought
* ½ cup milk - I used skim milk
* corn and peas, 3/4 cups each, thawed
* puff pastry

Toss the potatoes, carrot and squash with olive oil, salt, pepper, chili and herbs.
Roast until the potatoes are nearly cooked (about 30 minutes at 350F).
Add the asparagus and roast for another 5 minutes.
Set the vegetable mixture aside.

Diced vegetables to be roasted.

In a little pot, heat up the broth and milk.
Cook onion and celery in 1 tbsp of butter, in a separate large pot, until they have softened.
Add 2 tbsp of butter until melted.
Add the flour and cook for 1-2 minutes.
Ladle the hot milk mixture while whisking.
Season the mixture with salt (1 tsp), pepper and some parsley.
Cook until the mixture has thickened.
Add the corn, peas and roasted vegetable mixture and mix.

Add asparagus at the end of roasting and stir fry some celery.

Pour into a 9x9" deep baking dish.
Top the dish with puff pastry - rolled down if required.
Bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes at 400F until golden brown.

Colourful vegetable mixture topped with puff pastry.

The filling was creamy with a small amount of milk and butter, no cream!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Curried Olive & Cheddar Topped Triscuits

My old colleagues S and L (whom I call my "biological mother") decided to have a little get-together. I suggested a mini-potluck between the three of us at my place since L had never seen my house. I asked S to bring dessert since she's the only one who was working. L brought a soup and salad, while I made an appetizer and the main dish.

S is vegetarian so our meal was meat free. To start us off, I thought I would make little Triscuit treats, with olives and cheese. Unfortunately, while I remembered S disliked mushrooms, I did not realize she is also not a fan of olives! This appetizer combines ingredients that seem a bit odd together, like curry and olives, but I really like these!

Curried Olive & Cheddar Topped Triscuits
* ¼ small onion, chopped finely
* ⅓ cup cheddar cheese, grated
* ¼ cup black olives, roughly chopped
* 2-3 tbsp mayonnaise
* ½ tsp curry powder, or to taste
* about 16 Triscuit, or another type of cracker

Combine the first 5 ingredients and mix.
Top Triscuits with a spoonful of the mixture.
Broil until the cheese is nicely melted.

Cheddar, olive, onion, curry and mayo mixture.

Ready for the oven.

I could eat a ridiculous amount of these Triscuits!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Eggplant Parmesan

I learned how to make eggplant parmesan with the instructions of my ex-colleague A. A gave up his job to go to culinary school and work as a chef, only to come back to the metals' industry. Working as a chef is hard work and does not necessarily pay well. I did get to spend numerous lunch hours discussing food with A. When I asked him how to make eggplant parmesan, he taught me how to do a basic dredge (I have since seen it many times on foodtv shows) and introduced me to one of my favourite kitchen tools: parchment paper!

Eggplant Parmesan - serves 4
This recipe is pretty easy to make, although there are a few steps to making the eggplant parmesan. You can also easily replace the eggplant with zucchini, or for the carnivores out there, chicken or veal (I would pound and season the meat). A directed me to bake the eggplant on parchment paper, but it can also be fried for a less healthy option.

* 2 small eggplants
* ½ cup flour
* salt, to taste
* pepper, to taste
* 1 egg, beaten
* garlic powder
* breadcrumbs
* Italian seasoning
* parmesan
* tomato sauce, homemade or store bought
* mozzarella, grated

Slice eggplants lengthwise, about ½" thick.
Prepare three deep dishes for dredging.
Mix flour, a bit of salt and pepper in the first.
In the second, mix an egg with a bit of garlic powder.
Finally, mix breadcrumbs, Italian seasoning and parmesan in the last plate.
Dredge (or dip) an eggplant slice into the flour, then egg mixture and finally the breadcrumb mix.
Place on parchment paper lined baking sheet - parchment paper is awesome because there is no sticking!
Bake in the oven at 350F until the eggplant is cooked through for about 20 minutes.
Spoon some tomato sauce onto the eggplant slices and top with mozzarella.
Broil until the cheese is melted.
Serve with pasta and tomato sauce.

Sliced eggplant and breadcrumb mixture.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

My Obsession with Cookbooks

This post combines both food and décor (sort of…). I think people are born collectors or not. I was born in the former category. I have felt the pull to collect things from a young age, such as Montréal subway stubs and stamp collecting. I also used to have a small coin collection and hockey cards (for the cute players!). Now I have my Canadian House & Home magazines and a collection of recipes on my laptop.

I also have quite the collection of cookbooks. Side note: my first cookbook was Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa. I was given a gift certificate at a bookstore as a graduation present. I figured I could use a cookbook and I liked that each recipe had pictures. I find this rule holds true for most cookbooks since pictures attract my attention first. I selected the book not knowing who Ina Garten was and have been able to use many recipes since. My favourite recipe is the fresh corn salad and I always make the gazpacho soup in the summer.

Not only do I buy cookbooks that I think I will use, but I also buy cookbooks because I find the pictures are pretty, such as Williams Sonoma. I'm not sure that I use them sufficiently to justify their purchase, especially since I later found out that all the recipes are online!

Williams-Sonoma cookbooks and a couple of Weight Watchers ones.

I also like to buy inexpensive and quirky cookbooks. Quirky cookbooks are usually not very useful. Since I have not used them, I thought I would at least share them here, so I can tell myself I did not buy them for naught. Not only does the Alcatraz Women's Club Cook Book share recipes, but it briefly describes like "on the Rock" for the women and children. I picked up Any Idiot Can Cook with Simple Southern Recipes on a business trip to Kentucky (don't ask!). The recipes, including Coca Cola Salad, are accompanied by silly drawings.

Alcatraz Women's Club Cook Book.

Any Idiot Can Cook with Simple Southern Recipes.

I will also buy a cookbook if a friend writes one like The Vegetarian Manifesto by Jay Fothergill.

I stole this from my mom. Supposedly, I met Jean Chen when I was a baby and he thought I was adorable.

I had a subscription to Saveur for a year and I collect the free LCBO Food & Drink magazines.

My two most recent additions were Christmas gifts. I'm a lucky girl! My roommate G got me David Rocco's Dolce Vita. David Rocco has a Canadian TV food show. I also received Secrets of the Red Lantern: Stories and Vietnamese Recipes from the Heart, all the way from California from my friend The Gastronomer. I have flipped through both the books and will have to start cooking soon.

My Christmas gifts.

And you might wonder "How many recipes do I cook from these books?". The answer: "Not nearly enough!". But there is always tomorrow! What are your favourite or quirky cookbooks?