Monday, March 22, 2010

Pho Bang Restaurant

Vietnamese cuisine lives in a niche unoccupied by either Chinese or Thai cooking. Arguably the least divers of the three in terms of the ingredients and methods of preparation, it nevertheless can hold its own quite successfully. The flavors tend to be fresher, lighter and less complicated. Great emphasis is given to fresh vegetables and herbs. And there is of course fish sauce, a fragrant and tangy staple of Vietnamese cooking.

It is said that Vietnamese cooking is greatly influenced by Buddhist philosophy in general, and by the principles of five elements in particular. Vietnamese dishes tend to appeal to all five senses. The food presentation is colorful and attractive to the eye. The sound of crispness of fresh vegetables appeal to the ear. The combination of five spices, commonly used in Vietnamese cooking are detected by the tongue, and their aroma occupy senses of smell. The tactile experience is conveyed through the inner and outer texture of the ingredients.

Pho bang Restaurant - has got to be one of my favorite Vietnamese restaurants in New York. Located at 157 Mott St (between Grand & Broome St), along what used to be the border between swanky Soho and trashy Chinatown. Surprisingly, the place still has that old-school cafeteria vibe, complete with the elderly matriarch behind the counter, often shared communal tables, and still decent prices. The waiters, depending on a set of mysterious factors known only to them, might treat you either good or bad, but the food is consistently excellent.

My favorite is Banh Hoi Thit Bo Lui, poetically translated as grilled beef with sesame seasoning and rice thread. On the table the dish looks as good if not better than it sounds. It's a virtuosic exercise in color and flavor combination. First arrives a plate of lettuce and mint leaves, followed by a smaller plate of rice thread sprinkled with crushed peanuts. Rice thread is a thin square pancake made up of narrow rice noodles lightly packed together. Then comes a dish of dipping sauce, fresh cucumber and do chua - pickled carrots and daikon. Finally service culminates with a plate of fragrant grilled beef. Thin strips of beef, about an inch and a half wide, are rolled up into barrels about the thickness of a hot dog, marinated and grilled to perfection.

You are supposed to combine all ingredients and roll them up into a lettuce leaf. It usually takes me thirty seconds or so to ascertain the situation and to devise the best way to tackle the problem of wrapping. And I have to warn you - it's not an easy task. Things tend to unravel. The meat always slips out and cucumber and carrot sticks out in every direction after the first bite. First I thought the trick lies in the order of ingredients, but experiments have proved me wrong. Now it seems like it's the combination of packing and wrapping that holds the key. But I will soldier on until I get it . I have seen the Vietnamese do it. I know it's possible!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Draniki - Potato pancakes

Draniki are considered something of a national dish in Belarus. The word "draniki" literally means shredded. And refers to the fact that potato before being fried is grated to a pulp or shredded. Latkes is an Yiddish moniker for the same dish. But in either case we're talking about a potato pancake.

There is something homey about potatoes. There are people that genuinely love potatoes, which enjoy a status of a staple food in many European countries. While I am not in love with this tuber, its presence on a plate, besides being a good and versatile accompaniment for many dishes, creates a certain warmth and comfort. I am however nearly infatuated with one dish, and that dish is potato pancakes. It started, like so many other things in life, with a breakfast.

Alright, let's backtrack a little and start from the very beginning. In this particular case, the beginning arrived around year 1985 in a form of a plate full of potato latkes, or as they are called in Belarus - draniki. Once a month or so my mom or dad would make them as a weekend breakfast and serve with fried onions or fried pieces of spec. It was otherworldly. Fried either in rendered bacon fat or, more often, in sunflower oil, these draniki had golden brown crunch on the outside and a smooth silky interior. Onions, cut into thin rings and fried with cubed spec added an entirely new dimension to an already perfect thing. Only later did I discovered that it is acceptable to add a side of apple sauce, but back then we tried to keep our sweet separate from our savory.

In my family recipe, thinly grated raw potato is mixed with salt, black pepper, eggs, and flour, which creates a slightly puffier and doughy pancake. However I found that grating potatoes on extra coarse grater allows you to forgo the bulk of the flour and creates a thinner and crunchier pancake. In addition to onions and bacon you can pair draniki with sour cream, smoked salmon or apple sauce. You can also add a pinch of rosemary to the batter before frying to compliment the potato.

Coarsely grated potato creates a thinner crunchier pancake.

3-4 Potatoes (medium size)
1 Egg
1 Tbs unbleached flour
Salt, fresh ground black pepper, rosemary to taste
Sunflower or peanut oil for frying

Peel potatoes. Grate using a small-hole grater. The rougher the tool, the crunchier and thinner the pancakes will be. If the puree turns out too thin, you may need to pour out a bit of extra juice. Before the potato starts to oxidize and turn pink, mix in salt, pepper, rosemary, egg, and a spoonful of flour.

Heat a cast iron or none stick pan on a medium heat until hot. Add about half a cup of sunflower or peanut oil and let it come to a temperature. Using a table spoon, scoop up potatoes and place in a pan. Be careful placing the mixture in the pan, as the liquid will splatter on contact with hot oil.

Fry the pancakes on each side until golden brown, about 3 minutes per side. You may need to add extra oil, as potatoes love oil and absorb it fairly quickly. Do not crowd the pancakes. When done, remove the pancakes and place them on a paper towel lined plate. Let the excess oil drip off and transfer to a clean plate.

Serve draniki with sour-cream, smoked salmon, herrings of all kinds, fried onions, fried spec or bacon, or apple sauce.