Monday, December 17, 2012

From the Slanted Door to Your Front Door

Cooking Fish for "Halibut Vermicelli with Dill"
It is rare I cook four recipes from a book in a year, let alone a week.  Yet since the moment I received Charles Phan’s new cookbook, Vietnamese Home Cooking, I have only been able to put it down long enough to pick up my chef’s knife and start chopping. 

It is no secret I love Vietnamese food (my blog is named after the country’s most famous dish). And The Slanted Door, Phan’s deservedly popular San Francisco restaurant, has also long been one of my favorites in that city.

However, I will admit I was skeptical the first time I pulled up a stool at the sleek and sunny restaurant bar with its sweeping bay views.  How could this chic space possibly remain true to the food I had devoured on roadside plastic stools and make shift restaurant shacks? 

Then came the crepe.  The Slanted Door may have boasted central air conditioning and walk-in refrigerators, but the golden pan-fried crepe presented to me, stuffed with bean sprouts, pork and shrimp, was a near perfect replica of one I had eaten some years before in Saigon on an oppressively humid day sitting outdoors on the dirt floor of restaurant tucked down a narrow alley. 

Ever since I have been wondering how to make that crepe at home.  Would it ever be possible to form that perfect golden batter tinted with turmeric and scented with coconut milk in my own kitchen?

Crepe with Pork and Shrimp
Thanks to Vietnamese Home Cooking I can now definitively answer “yes”.  To be sure, this book is not Vietnamese cooking lite.  Phan’s recipes sometimes require upwards of fifteen ingredients.  But they are the sort of Vietnamese pantry staples- tamarind, rice flour, fish sauce- that once stocked, will keep you in good supply long enough to work through much of this book.

As devoted as he is to creating authentic recipes, Phan remains a sympathetic teacher.  In a recipe for “Hue Rice Dumplings” he demonstrates creating the batter and forming the dumplings in six beautiful, full color photos accompanied by nine, clear-cut steps.  For “Bánh Cuón: Rice Crepes with Pork and Mushrooms”, he explains how to make the proper steaming contraption (a pot that would be sold specifically for this purpose in Vietnam) using a common pasta pot with steamer insert, fabric, and a 16-inch hose clamp easily purchased from Home Depot.

I have already worked my way through a few of the simpler, everyday recipes (Lemongrass Chicken, Halibut Vermicelli with Dill) as well as some more time consuming (Pork Clay Pot with Young Coconut Juice).  As for the crepe, or Bánh Xèo, it was as I had always hoped.  Thanks to an excellent teacher and his well written book, my crepe emerged as an authentic taste of Vietnam, cooked simply, at home. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

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