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Week 1 – Because-I-Hate-Plants Diary

Day minus-3 (Saturday, March 29):
A trip to my favourite organic grocer – Passionfoods – to stock up on vegan cheese, nutritional yeast (“nooch”), coconut yogurt, cashew butter, raw chocolate and other cruelty-free goodies!

Day minus-2 (Sunday, March 30):
Attended Animal Liberation Victoria‘s vegan market day in St Kilda, devoured an indulgent salted caramel coconut ice cream (by Zebra Dream), ate some delicious vegan homebaked cookies, and came home with yummy toasted coconut vegan marshmallows.

For dinner, I fed friends Palak Tofu (an Indian-style spinach based curry with medium-firm tofu I fried in aromatic spices). Confession: I ate a bit of Sichuan fish left over from dinner the night before, but hey, a 75% vegan day before my challenge even officially began was pretty good, right?

Day minus-1 (Monday, March 31):
Bought some assorted Jelly Bellies and ate all the red ones before bed, because though their “bellies” (tehehe) are vegan, I don’t know if their food colouring contains bugs. KP went to the supermarket because he had run out of milk for his coffee, and I told him without batting an eyelid to stop murdering baby cows. He looked sad and told me not to say that, because it’s horrible, and I retorted that it’s even more horrible to not acknowledge it. Heh, apparently, I’m already preachy even though I haven’t even started this challenge! The last non-vegan thing I ate before my first week was a white chocolate Magnum right before bed.

Day 1 (Tuesday, April 1):
Lunch: Palak Tofu (leftovers from Sunday)
Dinner: Soba noodles with broccoli and shiitake mushrooms, curry miso broth, toasted sesame, garlic and nori.

I went down to the cafe on the ground floor of my office building to grab my usual soy cappuccino, and for the first time, wondered if the chocolate powder they always sprinkled on top was actually vegan. I guess I should ask for it without chocolate next time. It felt very strange to be looking at all this food I knew I couldn’t eat – a new experience for someone with no food intolerances and previously no dietary restrictions of any sort. My eyes lingered on the muffins and baked goods that I rarely glance at usually. It’s not difficult yet, only strange, but it’s only day 1!

Tonight, Angela asked if I wanted to have some funny Chinese mock-meat jerky stuff while waiting for dinner to cook and we had a look through the ingredients. The following conversation happened:

Angela: Would you like some soy jerky?
Me: Are you sure I can eat that?
Angela: Hmmm, it has food colouring, but I’m not sure if it’s the one made from bugs or whatever
Me: I probably shouldn’t eat it…
Angela: You could look up the additive number? I’ll look it up for you.
*5 minutes later*
Angela: *reading from Wikipedia* Errrr, it says it used to be made from coal tar but now it is mostly made from petroleum”. There you go, you can eat it. No animals, just petrol.
Me: Great :/

Day 2 (Wednssday, April 2):
Today, I found out through some internet research that Jelly Bellies are not, in fact, vegan! I’m not only talking about those pesky reddish ones that may be made from cochineal or whatever, but in fact, each and every Jelly Belly has been “polished” with beeswax to give them their shiny coat! Ugh! Needless to say, my vegan friends were not happy about this revelation!

I’m realising that randomly craving baked goods and pastries in the afternoons or early mornings is going to become annoying. It’s not like it’s something that happens everyday, but maybe once or twice a week, I feel like I just need that donut as an afternoon post work pick-me-up. Other times, like this morning, I just feel a whim to grab some fresh macarons on the way in to work! Resisting these things isn’t difficult just yet, but it might start to be a week or two in!

Lunch: Mixed mushrooms vermicelli from Miss Chu
Dinner: Caught up with a friend over zucchini dumplings and vegan Mapo Tofu from Shandong Mama
Dessert: Dairy-free pandan-coconut gelati from Gelateria Primavera Gelateria Primavera on Urbanspoon (by Spring Street Grocer – the most delicious and authentic gelati I’ve found in this city so far. O SO STRETCHEEE!)

Day 3 (Thursday, April 3):
As I was a bit under the weather, my yearning for baked goods reached its peak – I needed to go to the post office, and went to one further away because I knew there would be a place that sold vegan cupcakes across from it.

Lunch: Chives gyoza from Gyoza Douraku Gyoza Douraku on Urbanspoon (my top 3 favourite dumplings in Melbourne!) and Chocolate-on-Chocolate vegan cupcake from Joy Cupcakes
Dinner: Vegan cannelloni with mushrooms, crumbled tofu mince, quinoa, tomato, thyme and oregano, topped with mozzarella-style Cheezly
Dessert: Citizen Cacao raw vegan chocolate truffles (bought from Spring Street Grocer last night) in flavours “strawberry and coconut” and “Proud Mary cold drip coffee”

Day 4 (Friday, April 4):
After four days of not being able to choose to eat 85% of what I came across in the city (though it’s not as if I would have normally eaten those things just because I came across them!) I was excited to go to a vego restaurant where I’d be able to choose from most things on the menu. Shakahari is one of my favourite vegetarian restaurants in Melbourne, but the service on this occasion left much to be desired :( Shakahari Vegetarian on Urbanspoon

Lunch: Left over vegan cannelloni
Dinner: A variety of vegan deliciousness from Shakahari Vegetarian restaurant in Carlton. A highlight was the tofu caramel dessert.
Drink: Passionfruit juice with jelly from ChaTime

Day 5 (Saturday, April 5):
The long-awaited day arrived! I ate with several friends at Smith & Daughters, a Latin-cuisine vegan restaurant we’ve been waiting on to open its doors for a year, and then another couple of weeks for us all to be free and able to get a group booking. It did not disappoint. The blogosphere has been strewn with rave reviews for this eatery since its opening “First Taste Feast”, to which many “real” bloggers were invited. I suppose I could add my own two cents at some point! Smith and Daughters on Urbanspoon

We also stumbled upon Merry Cupcakes nearby on Brunswick street which is a healthier kind of (vegan) cupcakery using less saturated fat and less sugar in their goodies – I grabbed some of the said goodies for tomorrow.

Dinner and Dessert: A veritable Latin feast at Smith & Daughters
Non-vegan things I ate: Some milk chocolate sent to me from a friend in Germany and half a Spanish hot chocolate from San Churro.

Day 6 (Sunday, April 6):
Late morning snack: A Merry Cupcakes “Blondie” cupcake
Lunch: Mushroom, egg and goat cheese galette from Breizoz (not vegan, obviously)
Dinner: Tom Yum rice noodle soup and fried vege dumplings from Loving Hut. It was not amazing, to be honest (and was not my first choice, as I wanted the vegan Bun Bo Hue but they had run out) Loving Hut on Urbanspoon
Dessert: Mister Nice Guy “Golden Gaytime” mini cupcake

Cooked some shell pasta and combined it with diced tomatoes and the left over “mince” filling from the cannelloni I made earlier in the week to create a healthy “bolognese”, and froze it in serving portions.

My cupcake from Merry was delicious, though it definitely “tasted healthier”, if that makes sense, even compared to regular vegan cupcakes – KP had a taste and didn’t like the icing in particular but perhaps he could taste the soy in it whereas I could not? Merry Cupcakes on Urbanspoon

I have realised how much more I’m spending on groceries as a “vegan”, despite not buying any meat. Firstly, vegan substitutes to things such as yogurt, cheese and mayo tend to be quite expensive. Quinoa isn’t exactly cheap, and tofu and tempeh don’t cost a lot less than meat if you’re buying a good amount of it. Plus, now that it’s not possible to run out during lunch and get a delicious rice paper roll for $3, I have to take packed meal every single day for work and, at least until I learn to eat “boring” cheap lunches and sandwiches, it’s ending up more costly. However, I’m having heaps of fun creating delicious vegan meals.

Being the weekend, I was going to allow myself a non-vegan snack or two from the market – but disaster struck! I asked for a spinach and cheese borek, but was given a spinach and lamb borek, and only realised the meat was there after taking a bite! Despite being an omnivore only a week ago (and almost certainly intending to return to being one in three weeks) I was so disappointed and angry! I felt weirdly tainted and… and impure… which I’m sure is a rather melodramatic thing to say, though it’s not because I’ve turned into a crazy hippie, but probably more because I felt a powerless loss of control that is hard for a control freak like myself to cope with!

What I’ve discovered is that, on top of the happy knowledge that I’m eating an almost entirely cruelty free diet right now, the self discipline has had amazing validating qualities for my obsessive compulsive tendencies! It’s one thing to do what I was doing before – to not eat meat as much as most meat-eaters, to not drink dairy milk and consume less than the average amount of dairy – and of course an entirely different thing to know that you can’t, and to actively stop yourself from doing so. I used to not infrequently go a whole day without consuming any animal products, but more often than not that was something that just happened rather than a conscious decision. Even just one day consciously deciding you cannot do something makes a world of difference.

Week one summary?
I have only eaten three things containing any animal product (milk chocolate, a hot chocolate and a galette) in my first, shortest week of the challenge, not including being unwittingly served lamb and having previously thought that Jelly Bellies were vegan.

All things considered, this challenge is proving simultaneously easier and harder than I thought it would be.

Peko Peko

The first time I walked into Peko Peko, it was about 5pm on a Saturday. In spite of the early hour, the place was packed within 30 minutes of my arrival.

I returned for the second time only a couple of weeks later, which is a testament to how much I enjoyed it the first time, because I rarely revisit restaurants due to always having a huge list of new ones to try. Showing up just before 7 on a Friday night, we hoped to just squeeze in; but no, even a table for two was going to be a 40 minute wait. We ended up ordering anyway, and getting everything to-go. It was all packaged excellently and we drove home in anticipation of the deliciousness.

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The patrons are almost a 50/50 split between Asians and non-Asians. The food is very tasty but nothing that spectacular. It’s also a Taiwanese restaurant, which I thought was kind of an obscure cuisine to most Melbournians.

With cities like Melbourne becoming more and more truly multicultural, there seems to be a lot of fixation on what it means for ethnic food to be “authentic”. I want to talk about that in a future post sometime – about how that focus on “authenticity” sometimes takes away from our judgement of what might actually be very good food. But I bring it up today because I want to point out that sometimes a restaurant can genuinely capture the heart and soul of a culinary tradition without exactly being faithful in every way to every traditional dish. It’s possible to invent entirely new dishes your grandmother couldn’t have dreamed up but still stay true to what it means for that food to be Taiwanese, or Vietnamese, or Indian, or whatever cuisine you were trying to emulate with your creation.

So why is Peko Peko so popular? It’s been able to make Taiwanese food more accessible to a wide range of customers, and it’s done it not by cooking up horrible deep-fried “white” Chinese food served from bain-maries but by offering a good variety of honest and “accessible” real-food meals in terms that everyone can understand. Its location helps, too – it’s near St Kilda Road’s big office buildings as well as a bunch of inner city apartments, which explains the suits, students and generally eclectic customer demographic.

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The restaurant is decorated with a certain quirky charm, with utterly random Taiwanese collectibles and objects scattered around the place and odd art on the walls.

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The menu is honest and fairly simple – you won’t find all the traditional Taiwanese street food here, though there is some. It’s more geared towards a modern lifestyle, a well-rounded, no-fuss, filling meal, perfect for a working lunch or takeaways… or add an entree or two to make it more of a sit-down affair. Meal options are grouped into three main types: 1) “Peko box”, sort of like a Taiwanese-style Bento with a main dish and several sides, the ideal quick but substantial lunch; 2) Noodle soup, including the famous Taiwanese beef noodle soup, but with catchy names such as “Beef About” and “Formosa Island”; 3) “Peko Plate” – various Taiwanese-style dishes, traditional and otherwise – served on rice (upgradeable to fried rice). There’s also a selection of modern and traditional entrees such as “wasabi mayo prawn” and “scallop & sausage skewer”.

What this menu lacks is things like “oysters and intestines vermicelli” and “deep fried pigs blood rice cake skewer” – both real life, traditional, popular snacks on the streets of Taiwan, but would probably put off their less adventurous non-Taiwanese office-worker patrons. What the menu has is clear descriptions in proper English – unlike many an Asian restaurant I’ve come across – nice peppy dish names instead of cryptic badly translated ones, decent “v” and “gf” markings – all this it has in common with Shandong Mama. These restaurants show a trend towards a stronger emphasis in the marketing, customer care and presentation departments, as well as showing that Gen Y’s are starting to get into the Asian restaurant business in Australia.

The service is friendly by the standards of a busy Asian establishment, and efficient by any standards; the restaurant is spacious, clean and comfortable.

Everyone seens to talk about Peko Peko’s wasabi mayo prawns, but we decided not to go for that on our first visit. Instead, we started with the Crispy n Crunchy Pork roll (above) – wrapped in fried tofu skin, satisfyingly crunch and deliciously savoury enough that the dipping sauce was unnecessary.

Also as an entree, we tried the house chicken wings, which just about gave KP a foodgasm with its fiery and flavourful coat of spices and super crunchy batter encasing moist and really tender chicken cooked just right.

Being at a Taiwanese eatery, I couldn’t not order the beef noodle soup (the aforementioned “Beef About”). This was a nice dish, but didn’t wow me – it’s miles better than other renditions of the stuff I’ve had at other Melbourne establishments, but I personally like my own version a bit better. What I did notice was that the bowl contained some lovely, fresh slices of beef which looked like a prime cuts rather than one of the gristly, connective-tissuey inexpensive cuts such as brisket or gravy beef traditionally used in this dish. I love me some soft, gelatin-y brisket, but I can see how this smooth cut might appeal more to some less adventurous meat eaters.

The second main we sampled was from the “Peko Plate” section – a saucy minced pork and mushroom dish on rice. The overall feel and flavour of this dish reminded me strongly of Taiwan because it was basically a slightly pimped version of lu rou fan, but KP wasn’t as huge as fan as I was. We upgraded the plain rice in this dish to fried rice for an additional $3.50.

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On our Friday night takeaway night, we finally sampled the wasabi mayo prawns. Certainly a very tasty snack, I didn’t see what was so mind-blowing about it. The wasabi mayo was mild and creamy, and very yummy and complemented the crunchy fried prawns well.

I wasn’t sure what “Silky egg tofu” was but it turned out to be fried tofu with a filling of steamed egg of a very beautifully smooth consistency like in a Japanese egg custard (chawanmushi) topped with crispy tempura sprinkles and served with a umami light soy sauce.

Because they make such easy takeout meals, we ordered “Pop Chicken” from the “Peko Box” section, and we were extremely happy with that decision. The star of this meal box was, of course, the Taiwanese-style popcorn chicken, called yan su ji – directly translated, salt-crispy-chicken. This dish, with its particular salt-and-pepper-and-spice seasoning, is a famous Taiwanese street snack food, and Peko Peko has done an excellent job of reproducing the mouthwatering combination of sizzling hot crispy seasoned coating and juicy chicken goodness inside. The seasonal sides and fried rice were nice enough, and rounded off the meal very squarely, but again, nothing amazing to be said there.

Under “Light Meals”, we tried the Taiwan Vermicelli – tasty and simple, and like the mince pork rice from our dine-in experience, was “very Taiwanese” tasting and placed my mind right back at “home”, even though I don’t think it was a particularly famous or traditional dish (that I know of!)

One of my very favourite desserts of any cuisine is black rice pudding. If it’s on the menu, I’m almost guaranteed to order it, and if it’s on the menu with something else I love or that piqued my interest, I’m probably going to order both. So when I saw the slightly intriguing Earl Grey pannacotta alongside the black rice pudding with green tea ice cream, I had to do just that. A bit disappointingly, the “pudding” was more of a black rice cake, and a small piece of it at that. It was, however, delicious and I unsurprisingly craved more after the tiny serving.

I wasn’t as convinced by the pannacotta. In theory, it could have been fantastic, but there was just something lacking in the flavour here, though the pannacotta was of a decent consistency.

Tucked away in the quieter part of South Melbourne, yet still quite close to the bustle, Peko Peko is a fairly short drive from my apartment. With such affordable, delicious, honest food, I’m bound to return on a semi-regular basis, especially for those dishes involving crunchy chicken… or crunchy anything!

There are plenty of options for vegetarians here, but vegans should be more careful. The menu tells me that many of the meat dishes can be made vegetarian, and some of those appear to become possibly vegan with the removal of meat, but you’d have to double check with the kitchen.

Address: 190 Wells St, South Melbourne, VIC 3205
Website: http://www.urbanspoon.com/r/71/1462432/restaurant/Melbourne/Peko-Peko-South-Melbourne

Peko Peko on Urbanspoon

Potluck Staples 3: Vegan Pho (Faux Pho)

Pho is a big part of my life. Really. I cannot live without it. If you set me the difficult task of naming my top 5 favourite foods, it probably wouldn’t quite make the cut – I love it, but mostly pho just one of those comfort things. A failsafe fix for a crappy work day.

Once a week, I sacrifice half my lunch break just to get the tram into the city to have pho for lunch. My pho-buddies and I constantly talk about our noodley love in front of other friends (I use “talk about” loosely here – mainly it’s just exclaiming “PHO PHO PHO!” at inappropriate moments) some of whom are vegetarian or vegan; and ok, let’s face it, I’m not sorry. But one of my main instincts is always to spread my love of food and it makes me sad that they have no way of finding out what we’re on about.

In fact, in spite of the large Vietnamese population in Melbourne, a fair few people even among ominvores, are still unaware of what pho is or have just never tried it. I figured that the best way to share my love of the magical bowl of awesome was to bring it to a potluck, and to spread the love even further by attempting a vegan version.

When I’m not eating out, I rarely eat any meat or dairy on weekdays and as such, I’m not unfamiliar with making delicious vegan meals. But what I had never done at home before is make a vegan version of a dish which is traditionally supposed to be totally based around meat!

Pho was worth making an exception for, though. I went on a search for vegetarian/vegan pho recipes online and the results were all miserable. There were definitely some out there, but most were disappointingly inadequate or unauthentic.

But how, you ask, can you possibly make a vegan version of a meat-based dish “authentic”? Well, I too, was skeptical at first, but then I realised that there’s so much more to pho than just its beefiness! Most important of all are the fragrant spices in the stock – their quantity in ratio to each other and to the amount of stock and the stewing time are all factors that can make and break pho. The depth of flavour of the broth is obviously important, but the stock base doesn’t absolutely have to be beef! Then, after serving, all those extras such as that squeeze of lemon, slices of fresh chili, that squirt of sriracha sauce, dollop of chili oil, drip of fish sauce, handful of mung bean shoots and sprigs of Vietnamese mint become the indispensable, customisable “personal touch” component of the dish.

The problem with the recipes I found on the internet was that they were for the most part created by vegetarians who had never tried traditional beef pho, or people generally unexposed to Vietnamese food who just heard about this “trendy” dish and tried to create a “healthy” version. I was determined to piece together my own recipe which kept as many elements exactly the same as the authentic version as possible, substituting only the “beef factor”.

I decided to use mushrooms as the base for the broth, as they’re powerful enough to form the depth of flavour needed, as well as being physically “meaty” enough to substitute actual beef slices in the dish. Making a mushroom consomme would provide the necessary clarity of stock! In addition, mushrooms also contain high levels of glutamate, the magic behind the “umami” taste and can be described as “naturally occurring MSG”. This is pretty important as in a vegan version I wouldn’t be able to include the traditional ingredient of fish sauce, which is extremely rich in glutamate/umami. In addition, I decided, based on the concept of umami, to make “vegan fish sauce” which could be used in the dish and also added as a condiment by the diner in whatever quantities they liked. This all eliminated the need to add any actual MSG (which I would never do anyway, but many Vietnamese restaurants do do).

Experimentation time. I had one test day, which was only a reasonable success after a couple of “saves”, and a second, almost perfect run on potluck day. The main issues in the test run had to do with the consomme – one recipe recommended that I pre-soak the vegetables and mushrooms in olive oil to soften them, which rendered the resulting stock too oily even after several filtrations and skimmings. Then, the cooking time of the final broth with dry spices had to be adjusted – on first try, the spices overpowered the consomme and I realised vegetable stock was more delicate than meat stock and needed less time to infuse with spices, so I set about diluting the over-spiced parts of the stock by pouring half it out, making more consomme and adding that to the original. Of course, the next time I simply reduced the cooking time – we can’t treat it like regular pho as the spices overpower the mushroom broth, which is a little more delicate than beef stock!

DON'T soak your stock vegetables in olive oil, just soak in water!

DON’T soak your stock vegetables in olive oil, just soak in water!

Who thinks I should just shut up and get on with sharing the recipe before I tell my life story?
Ok. Don’t be put off by the length – there are a lot of ingredients, but the techniques are simple.

Vegan Pho with Mushrooms (Indie’s Faux Pho)

Things to note

Serves: 10-12 snack or potluck serves
Prep time: Approx 40 minutes Cooking time: Approx 2.5 hours, on and off (you can wander off and do stuff?)

The Shopping List

Vegetables etcdon’t be shocked at how much mushroom you’ll need!
4 cups (about 400g) button mushrooms
5 cups shitaake mushrooms
2 cups mixed other mushrooms (recommended types include oyster mushrooms, shimeiji and enoki)
2 white or brown onions
2 shallots
1 large (or 2 quite small) carrots)
1-2 stalks celery
1 bulb garlic
2 cm thumb of ginger
6-10 fresh red chilies
3 lemons
Several handfuls of mung bean sprouts

Herbs
Half bunch fresh coriander
1 bunch Vietnamese mint
1 bunch Thai basil
A few bay leaves

From the Asian Grocers
Premium soy sauce
Sriracha sauce
Hoisin sauce (optional)
1.5 cups wakame (a type of fresh seaweed – other types may also work)
Nori flakes (a type of dried seaweed) or Japanese seasoning packets containing nori
Miso paste
Sesame oil
2 trays silken tofu (very soft)
2 large packets (or 600-800g) thin to medium Vietnamese rice noodles, sometimes called “rice stick” – try to buy the best brand, as they’ll have a much better texture

Dry spices
Peppercorns
Star anise
Cloves
Cassia bark
Cinnamon stick
Cardomom pods
Fennel seeds
Coriander seeds
Palm Sugar
Saffron (optional if you’re on a budget)
Salt

From the health food store
Dark agave syrup
Try here

The mushroom consomme base

Please note these ingredients are already mentioned in the shopping list above, this just separates them out so you know what to do with them, when and where.

Part 1
3 cups button mushrooms, roughly quartered
1 cup shiitake mushrooms, roughly quartered
2 cups approx additional mixed mushrooms (I used oyster and enoki)
1 onion, sliced in half rings
2 shallots, diced
1 large carrot, thinly sliced
2 long stalk of celery, thinly sliced
3 litres cold water

Part 2
2 cups shiitake mushrooms, roughly quartered
1 cup button mushrooms, roughly quartered
3/4 cup premium soy sauce
2 bay leaves
2 tbsp salt

Part 3
1/2 cup chopped coriander
1 tbsp saffron

  1. Soak Part 1 ingredients with a pinch of salt in water for approx 2 hours at room temperature.
  2. Transfer to a soup pot. Add the cold water and bring to a light boil on medium heat, uncovered.
  3. Turn the heat down to very low, cover with a lid and simmer for 45 minutes
  4. Add half of the coriander from Part 3 and continue to simmer for 15 minutes.
  5. Turn heat off and allow to cool for 10 minutes.
  6. Strain the broth through a sieve/colander lined with 2 layers of muslin cloth.
  7. Transfer broth back to the pot.
  8. Add in the remaining Part 2 ingredients.
  9. Continue to simmer, covered, for 20 minutes.
  10. Add the rest of the ingredients (coriander and saffron) from Part 3 and simmer for a further 10 minutes.
  11. Remove bay leaves. Strain the broth through a sieve/colander lined with 2 layers of muslin cloth. Put aside.

Note that if you’re vegetarian but not vegan, and you want an even clearer stock, you can use the “egg white method” of clarification (Google will help!)

Vegan fish sauce (phish sauce)

While the mushroom consomme is simmering away, you can quickly whip up the vegan fish sauce on a separate element on the stove.

Why does a drop or two of fish sauce make such a difference to already great Asian dishes? The key is that word again – umami. I order to reproduce the impact of fish sauce, I needed to find ingredients that were high in glutamate in order to make my vegan “phish” sauce.

What’s needed for this (again, these ingredients are already in the shopping list above)
1 1/2 cups wakame seaweed
3 cups cold water
5 cloves garlic, crushed/minced
1 tbsp peppercorns
1 cup premium soy sauce
Nori flakes or nori-based seasoning
1.5 tbsp miso
1 tsp sesame oil
2 tsp salt

  1. Pull apart the wakame so the strands are separated
  2. Combine seaweed, garlic, peppercorns and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil.
  3. Lower heat and simmer about 15 minutes. Strain out the solid parts through double muslin, and return the liquid back to the pot.
  4. Add the soy sauce and nori flakes, bring back to a boil and cook until mixture is reduced by almost 1/3, or for 15 minutes.
  5. Stir in miso and mix very well until fully dissolved. Simmer for a further 5 minutes.
  6. Strain again through a double layer of muslin.
  7. Allow to cool for 10 minutes then pour into a bottle and shake well.
  8. Place aside as we’ll use it in the next part of the recipe!
Spices for pho (quantities here are from my first semi-failed attempt - refer to recipe for the quantities you should use)

Spices for pho (quantities here are from my first semi-failed attempt – refer to recipe for the quantities you should use)

THE BROTH

What you’ll need here (all ingredients are already listed in the shopping list)
2/3 (approx) onion – sliced in rings
Ginger – finely sliced
Garlic, 5 cloves, minced

4 whole star anise
3 whole cloves
1 cassia bark (approx 5cm)
1 cinnamon stick, bruised
1 cardomom pod
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds

1 tablespoon palm sugar
1.5 tablespoons dark agave syrup (or to taste – if you can’t find agave, can replace with coconut sugar or more palm sugar)
3 tablespoons vegan fish sauce (from recipe above)
2+ tablespoons salt (or to taste)

2 cups fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced attractively
2 tubs of silken tofu, sliced into approx 2cm squared cubes

  1. Prepare a slow cooker, or large stockpot or soup pot.
  2. Heat up a frying pan on medium for 2 minutes.
  3. Throw in the dry spices (star anise, cloves, cassia bark, cinnamon, cardomom pod, fennel seeds, coriander seeds) and toast for 3-4 minutes or until fragant. Then throw the spices into the slow cooker/stockpot
  4. Turn up the heat on the frying pan a little to medium-high, then throw in the onions, ginger and garlic to sear until sweetly fragrant. Also place these with the spices in the slow cooker or stockpot.
  5. Get the mushroom consomme we set aside and bring it back to a gentle simmer in a separate pot, adding 1 cup of water to it at the same time.
  6. Pour the mushroom broth onto the spices, onions, garlic and ginger.
  7. Add the salt and palm sugar.
  8. Turn the slow cooker to “low” or “auto” setting, or if using a pot, low heat. Cook for 15 minutes.
  9. Remove just the cinnamon stick and cardomom pod from the broth, leaving the rest of the spices.
  10. Add the agave syrup and vegan fish sauce.
  11. Add the sliced shiitake mushrooms and tofu.
  12. Continue to cook on low for a further 15-20 minutes until mushrooms are quite soft.

Almost there! Putting it all together

What have we got left?
Good quality thin Vietnamese rice noodles for 6 half-serves
Thai basil, many sprigs
Vietnamese mint, many sprigs
Chillies – as many as you want chopped, deseed optional
Several handfuls of Mung bean sprouts
Sriracha sauce
Hoisin sauce (optional – I don’t usually use it personally)
Vegan fish sauce, the bottle we made earlier
3 lemons, quartered (total 12 wedges)

  • While the pho broth is simmering, you can start to cook the rice noodles. Cook in two batches unless you have a very, very large pot, as, like with pasta, you need enough room to bring it to a rolling boil. Make sure it still has a little bite to it and don’t let it get too soft and soggy.
  • When the broth is done, serve by placing noodles into a bowl then ladling pho on top of it.
  • Serve with the mint, Thai basil, chopped chillies, bean sprouts, lemon wedges, on a plate in the middle of the table for free use, along with fish sauce and sriracha sauce.
  • Inhale this amazing dish like there’s no tomorrow!

Deliciously served in little plastic bowls at potluck! And look, someone's wearing Black Milk Campbell's soup leggings!

Deliciously served in little plastic bowls at potluck! And look, someone’s wearing Black Milk soup leggings!

So, that’s it! I hope I haven’t completely scared you off. This really is a fairly easy recipe once you get the hang of it. A big pot of my faux pho lasted like ten minutes at a potluck where there ended up being tons of left over food, even though three quarters of the attendees were omnivores.

Try and rope your significant other into chopping vegetables for you, and you’ll have a much easier time of it, I promise!

Potluck Staples 2: Taiwanese beef noodle soup

There are several famous traditions of beef noodle soup in East Asia but whether it’s patriotism or familiarity or something else, I’ll always prefer the Taiwanese version. Sitting at a wobbly little wooden table, dented metal stool under me, on a street corner somewhere in Taichung, scooters whizzing past… and in front of me a steaming, aromatic bowl of beefy, spicy soup with tangy mustard greens and elastic noodles. For me, this is the ultimate comfort food, far beating a big cheesy burger or creamy pasta which is heavy on fat and light on flavour.

A small, potluck sized serving of Taiwanese stewed beef noodles

A small, potluck sized serving of Taiwanese stewed beef noodles

Welcome to part 2 of my Potluck Staples series. This is the second dish I made for my colleagues for a shared lunch I unwisely arranged in the middle of a busy period at work. Because it consists of hot soup and freshly cooked noodles, it’s not something that’s suitable for every kind of potluck unless you have access to a kitchen – however, I have the luxury of living about 10 minutes from my office! I also made crispy roast pork belly – check out that recipe and post here.

Much richer and more of a guilty pleasure than Vietnamese pho, the Taiwanese take on beef noodles is a dish of national pride. Though my take on their take might differ from the old recipe of many a Taiwanese ama, to me it at least tastes like the most faithful adaptation of the street food I love that I can remember ever eating outside of Taiwan. Once upon a time, I scoured the internet for decent recipes and over the years I have pieced them together, with touches of my own, to create this. I’ve never written it down before, so every time I make it, it’s a tiny bit different. Now I’d love for others to give it a go!

I make my beef broth in a slow cooker, as it allows me to leave it going for much longer and allow the flavours to really develop – the recipe will be based on this technique but can easily be adapted to cooking on the stove on very low heat.

Taiwanese stewed beef brisket noodles (Niu Rou Mian)

Things to note

Serves: 6 (or 10 snack serves)

Prep time: About 30 minutes, unconsecutive. Cooking time: 8+ hours, but mostly unattended

What you’ll need

From the Asian grocers
At least 3 tbsp chilli bean sauce (adjust according to how spicy you prefer it to be – I personally use almost a third of a jar as I love chilli)
1 cup premium soy sauce, or ¾ cup dark soy sauce
½ cup rice wine (cooking wine)
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 -1.2 kg wheat noodles, preferably medium or thin. If using dried noodles, buy the kind that are white and straight, in long packs, rather than “curly” in squares like instant noodles.
Optional: Taiwanese mustard greens to serve on the side (you can also pre-prepare this yourself if you aren’t short on time – here is a good recipe). Unfortunately, this time I had time to neither buy nor prepare any :(

From the market
800 – 900g boneless beef brisket, cut into approx 4cm cube pieces, trimmed of any large bits of fat
Beef bones, rougly 1 kg (your local butcher will be happy to give you some from the back if not on display) in fist-sized pieces
2 cups beef stock or chicken stock – homemade or store bought fresh from the butcher, not tinned, cubed or powdered (this is optional, but will boost flavour depth)
1-2 cups chopped chillies (to taste) – any red chilli, chopped finely. NB: most of this will not go into the soup, but will be served on the side for the diner to add to their taste
8 garlic cloves – minced
1 medium brown/yellow/white onion – sliced into half-ring slithers
1 large or 2 small tomatoes, any kind
Ginger – amount to taste, but no more than 2 cm – very thinly sliced or chopped finely
1½ cups chopped spring onions, the green parts only
1 bunch coriander – chopped finely

Rice wine for cooking, chopped chillies, spring onions, coriander, tomato, ginger, garlic and various dried spices including tangerine peel (the funny looking stuff)

Chopped chillies, spring onions, coriander, tomato, ginger, garlic and various dried spices including tangerine peel (the funny looking stuff)

Spices
4-5 star anise pods
2 tsps sichuan peppercorns (normal black peppercorns can be used if you can’t find these)
2 cinnamon sticks
6-7 cloves
3-4 bay leaves (fresh preferred but dried is ok)
4 black cardamom pods
1 tsp Chinese five spice powder
Dried tangerine peel, 3-4 pieces (from your Asian grocer)

⅓ cup brown sugar, or to taste
Salt (to taste)
Cooking oil for sauteing

Making the base broth

  1. Bring a large pot of water to the boil and quickly boil the beef bones for about 4 minutes to remove any surface impurities – this is an optional step but makes for a clearer, “prettier”, stock. Pour out the water.
  2. Boil 2 – 2.5 litres of water in a kettle. Set the slow cooker to “high”. Place the bones inside the cooker and pour the boiled water over it, making sure the bones are fully submerged. (If using the stove, bring a large pot of water to the boil, then turn the heat down to medium-low and place the bones inside)
  3. Add salt to taste
  4. After leaving on high for 20 minutes, turn slow cooker setting down to “low”, or “auto” if it has this setting. Leave for at least 5 hours, or overnight. (If using a stove, simmer on the lowest possible heat for 2-3 hours).
  5. Remove the bones and discard them. Skim some of the fat off the top, but not all – leaving some in will help lock in flavour later on in the cooking process. Strain the stock through a very fine sieve, or loosely woven muslin cloth.
  6. Clean/wash the slow cooker or pot you have used.
Beef bones and chopped chillies

Beef bones for making stock

Now the soup, with everything!

  1. Take the strained stock from the previous step and transfer it back into the slow cooker (or a large stockpot on the stove) while it’s still hot. If you’ve allowed the stock to cool down or you’re doing this step on a separate day, you will need to bring it back to the boil in a pot before adding it back to the slow cooker. If the liquid is hot but not boiling when starting out, begin the slow cooker on high setting and turn down to low after 20 minutes (and proceed with other steps while waiting).
  2. Add all the dry spices to the broth except for the bay leaves – the star anise, peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, cloves, cardamom, tangerine peel and five spice powder
  3. Add the soy sauce, the rice wine and the (other pre-prepared) stock
  4. Bring a small pot of water to the boil and parboil the tomato(es) until soft – 5 minutes should do it. Remove from the water and in a bow, crush it roughly with a spoon.
  5. In a pan with a small amount of cooking oil, add the sliced onions and minced garlic and saute for 1 minute…
  6. Add 1 tbsp of the chilli bean sauce (leave the rest), ½ cup (or more) of the chopped chillies, ½ of the chopped spring onions and a few slices of ginger to the pan. Saute for a further 2-3 minutes or until everything smells amazing!
  7. Transfer all the sauteed contents of the pan to the broth simmering in the slow cooker. Add the remaining chilli bean sauce, or however much you prefer.
  8. Heat up a different pan (or clean the original) on high heat with a very small amount of cooking oil. Once the oil is hot, bring the heat down to medium, and transfer the beef brisket pieces to brown the cubes on all sides. If the pan isn’t large enough, you may need to do this in batches as the beef pieces should only fill one layer of the pan! Only sear the meat, do not cook – 4-5 minutes total per batch should be ok for these small pieces. This browning process brings out extra flavour that will be reflected in the resulting soup.
  9. Add the browned beef to the soup in the slow cooker, along with any juices from the pan. Make sure the meat is fully submerged in the broth.
  10. Add the brown sugar.
  11. Add salt to taste.
  12. Add ⅓ cup of the chopped coriander, and then finally, add the bay leaves, leaving them to float on top of the soup.
  13. Slow cook the beef soup for 2 hours on “low”, then check the meat’s “doneness”. Cook for a further 20-30 minutes if necessary. (If using the stove instead, simmer on the lowest heat setting for 1 hour before checking.)

  14. Once the soup is done, remove and discard all the “solid” bits other than the beef – this means the star anise, peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, cloves, cardamom pods, tangerine peel, bay leaves, tomatoes, onion slices and ginger pieces. Then remove the beef brisket and set aside for a moment.
  15. Strain the broth through a fine sieve or muslin. Add the brisket back in!

Taiwanese stewed beef noodles

The last stretch: noodles, serve and eat!

  • Cook the noodles according to the packet instructions and drain – fairly firm and al dente is best, as they will continue to soften in the broth after being served
  • Prepare 6 (or however many) bowls. Place a portion of noodles into each bowl, and then spoon a portion of the soup and beef onto the noodles, minimising “splashage” in this order.
  • Garnish with a little pinch each of the remaining chopped coriander, spring onions, chillies and optional mustard greens. Serve extra of each on the side so the person eating can adjust to their own taste.
  • Omnom…

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