The first time I had Vietnamese food was in 1986. OK, give or take a few years on either side. It was in the fall and it was chilly outside. We had to debate whether to wait, (as the line was out the door) or to find somewhere else to spend our dimes. Wait we did and as we edged slowly inside, we found ourselves in the pass where the food comes out. Torture is what it was, as we watched giant platters of fried soft shell crabs passing by right under our noses. Enormous baskets of salad composed of the freshest mint and cilantro and green leaf lettuce surrounded by bean sprouts and slices of seeds in, dark green jalapenos were nestled along side pickled orange carrots and white daikon. Our noses inhaled the garlic, the fish sauce, the caramelized sugar and lime juice, as we tried to not reach our hands out to grab each passing dish.
And if you must know this teeny tiny place was a real dump. You couldn't help but wonder what was lurking behind closed doors, but the food looked impeccable; and it was recommended by the local trendy newspaper. Since we were trendy back then, we had to go. My life has not been the same since. I used to have a love affair with Chinese food, but after my first experience with Vietnamese-well, there's no going back. Truth be told, they aren't too similar. In fact they aren't similar at all, except that they are both made in a wok and both employ chopsticks to eat.
Vietnamese incorporates freshness with salads, grills, limes and fish sauce. No soy here. Lots of seafood. The sour/sweet/salty thing really must have begun with Vietnamese food, but don't quote me on that. And remember the French had a lot to do with Vietnamese food. Think banh mi's made with baguettes. And butter and mayo. Many Vietnamese sauces, especially for seafood dishes, incorporate butter. I could go on but my mouth is watering just thinking about these grilled meatballs, I made to top my noodle bowl with. And that's the other thing. Vegetables are given center stage to shine in this bowl. The meatball though is the exclamation point!
This meatball which can be made with chicken or beef or turkey is traditionally made with pork. It is flavored with basil and garlic and onion. And a good amount of black pepper. Lots of Vietnamese dishes incorporate black pepper, but if you need it more mild, the other flavors still sing. Grilling these slowly, gives them extra flavor and I prefer them like this, rather than pan fried.
I found this recipe in Bon Appetit's January 2010 issue. It took me awhile to actually make them. Don't make my mistake. These should be in your repertoire today. I used them to top a noodle bowl. They would also make great appetizers and just like meatballs are inhaled at any party, these will be inhaled faster. Serve them with a little sriracha mayo to dunk in. These are also great for banh mi's, which this recipe was intended for, and they would make an awesome filling for a lettuce wrap. My mind is racing with ideas on how to use these babies. Yes, they are that good!
Noodle bowls are perfect for summer eating. They are light and nutritious. The ingredients can be kept on hand and customized to your heart's content. The chicken I made here can also be used for noodle bowls. That same paste can be used with shrimp and those, too can be used for a topping. A fun dinner idea would be to make a food bar with these ingredients and let everyone design their own bowl.
As a postscript-that awesome Vitenamese restaurant enjoyed lots of success. But since, it has sold several times over, the atmosphere and food has changed. Thank goodness there are even better Vietnamese restaurants out there. New Saigon is my all time favorite. It is consistent with its food and the waiters have been there for years. They are as much a fixture as the restaurant. One can't go wrong here.
And the final postscript: 4 new baby bunnies spotted today. 1 baby bunny relocated yesterday. Bunnies still at 6. Rabbit catcher-1. And June 21st is rapidly approaching!
Vietnamese Meatballs Makes enough for 4 bowls (Bon Appetit January 2010)
1 lb ground meat of choice
1/4 chopped fresh basil
4 minced garlic cloves
3 green onions finely chopped
1 T fish sauce
1 T sriracha
1 T sugar
2 t cornstarch
1 t freshly ground black pepper
1 t kosher or coarse salt
Mix all ingredients together in bowl. Form each into about 2 inch meatballs. Chill. I then put these on a grill tray and slowly grilled these on the grill at medium high heat while turning them as they browned. Make sure you oil the grill tray. Or you could skewer them like shish kebab and grill them slowly.
Noodle Bowl (for 4)
Carrot Daikon Salad from here
1 c thinly sliced cucumber
6 cups sliced green leaf or romaine lettuce
1/2 c mint sprigs
1/2 c Thai basil sprigs
1/2 c cilantro
1 large jalapeno sliced
1 1/2 c fresh bean sprouts
Nuoc Cham (Dressing for the salad)
Rice Stick Noodles (Maifun) (1 package)
1/2 c chopped peanuts
Meatballs from above
Soak rice noodles in hot or boiling water. Let soften for about 10 minutes. You may have to keep changing your water to get these soft enough. Consistency is important here. Not to soft, not to hard. And it is not an exact science! Drain well when they are ready.
Slice or chop all ingredients.
To prepare individual salad: Put a handful of noodles in a bowl. Top with lettuce. Top with mint, basil, cilantro, jalapenos and bean sprouts. Add some carrot daikon salad. Place meatballs on last. Garnish with peanuts. Serve with Nuoc Cham on the side so diners can add as needed.
Note: After reading about fish sauce I realized that the reason it was so hard to get my nuoc cham tasting like the restaurants', was clearly related to the quality of fish sauce used. A preferred brand is Three Crabs fish sauce, also labeled Viet Huong. There are other more expensive brands that I would like to try, but this one worked out well. And this sauce is crucial to the taste of the noodle bowl.
1/4 c freshly squeezed lime juice
1 finely chopped garlic clove
3 T fish sauce
4 T sugar
4 T water
1/4 t red chili flakes
1 T sweet chili sauce (Mae Ploy)
Mix together until the sugar dissolves. After many tries over the years to get this to taste just right, the rabbit catcher declared, "I think you've got it."
Others you may want to try: