Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Japchae - delicious Korean noodles and a great Fast Diet meal!

For a couple of my fast days recently, I've been making Japchae. If you've never heard of this, it's a popular Korean noodle dish made with beef and veggies, soaked in a sauce made from soy sauce, sugar, and sesame oil. You may think, WHOA, beef and noodles and sugar and oil? I can't have that on a fast day! And you've got a good point. I'm going to tell you how to get around that so you can enjoy a big delicious plate of Japchae for a fast day dinner!

A while back I heard about some crazy Japanese 'miracle' noodles, which are made from a type of yam and a lot of water, and thus are ridiculously low in calorie and yet still fill you up. There are two kinds, Shirataki and Ito konnyaku, which, now that I've tried both, seem basically the same to me. I think it's a regional difference, or a difference in the way they were produced in the past, or something like that. 

Obviously, with being very very low in calories, these noodles are ideal for Fast Diet meals! They come packed in a bag like this, with noodles floating in a lot of liquid. I bought my ito konnyaku at a local Japanese store, for about 50,000 dong ($2.50). It was enough basically for a full-sized plate of noodles and veggies. This bag actually said on the nutritional info on the back, ZERO for everything! Even zero calories! Now, this seems impossible to me, because they're made of SOMETHING, so obviously they can't be absolutely zero calorie. I have read that they're 97% water though, so if you eat 100g, you're only eating 3g of actual substance, which isn't going to give you many calories at all!

On the second occasion I went to a different store and found these Shirataki noodles for about 38,000 dong, for the same size bag. These ones said 6 calories per 100g on the back, which I guess is a bit more realistic. Either way, does it really matter?

These are a bit gelatinous and slightly like glass noodles, so they work quite well for Japchae.

To prepare the noodles, I drained off the weird-smelling liquid (a bit fishy, really) and rinsed them in a strainer until they didn't smell anymore. I read afterward that you should boil them for just a few minutes, or else they'll still smell a bit, but mine didn't. Maybe it was all the sauce I put on them!

For my Japchae I found a recipe on the amazing Korean food blog, Beyond Kimchee. Holly started this blog as a keepsake for her children to inherit, so that they would be able to cook good Korean food when she's no longer around. If you love Korean food and you haven't seen this, check it out!

Each element has its own special sauce that you stir up and add the main ingredients to, which each either have been blanched or get cooked later. Then it's all mixed together at the end. I'll warn you; this makes quite a bit of work, but I promise it's worth it. I only used about half the sauce ingredients in Holly's recipe, as I was only making it for one person.

Beautiful, delicious shiitake mushrooms.

The first time I made Japchae I used a little bit of lean beef, and marinated it just as Holly describes, along with some shiitake mushrooms, blanched and seasoned in their own sauce, spinach (Vietnamese water spinach, otherwise known as rau muống) blanched then soaked in another sauce, and some onions, carrots, and red peppers tossed about in a fry pan. I used a bit of the excess sauce that the noodles were soaking in to avoid using any more oil. 

Rau muống, Vietnamese water spinach, blanched and soaking in its sauce.

Onions, carrots, red pepper, and bean sprouts, pan fried just until tender-crisp.

Now, as a fast day recipe this was pushing it a bit, as it ended up being pretty much my full 500 calories all in one go. However, I had quite a bit of extra sauce floating on my plate when I was done, so I'm thinking I didn't quite consume all of it. Most (er...just about all...) of the calories are in the sauce because of the sugar and sesame oil, so reducing the amount of that would help a lot in reducing the calorie count!

My first Japchae, sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds.

The second time I made it, I left out the beef, because obviously this is where quite a few calories come in. And how do you count calories in beef anyway? I bought mine at the market outside my house. It looked like a nice lean piece of meat, but I have no idea what cut it actually was or how many calories would be in it. 
I also had no spinach handy this time, so along with the beef I was able to leave out two of the sauces. I added zucchini and snow peas to the veggie mix, for more variety and vitamins and because I had them in my fridge. The only other change I made was in the sauce for the mushrooms, where I added the tiny bit of rice wine and salt that would normally have gone in the beef and the spinach.

It came out just as tasty as the first time, and at about 400 calories. I think next time I'll try reducing the amount of sesame oil and sugar a bit more. I think I could make it a little less sweet, and as much as I love the sesame flavour, that's where the majority of the calories get added. I also still had a fair bit of sauce left on my plate, so maybe I need to just make less!

This makes a pretty good fast day meal, as both times I ended up with a very full plate of food, which is a hard thing to do when you're only allowed 500 calories in a day! It's delicious, and the noodles do fill you up, at least as much as normal noodles would.

I'll be experimenting more with these noodles in the future, so stay tuned to see what I come up with!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Fruity Fridays - Red Dragon Fruit

This week's fruit: Red Dragon Fruit

Also known as: Pitaya, Pitahaya

Vietnamese name: Thanh Long

Cost in the market outside my house: 40,000 dong ($2)/kilo (I think the white ones are cheaper, as they're more common)

Season in Northern Vietnam: They seem to be around a bit now, July-August, but they certainly aren't as common as the white variety. I don't eat this stuff much so I don't really know. I think they might be brought up from the South.

Interesting facts: This is actually the fruit of a climbing cactus, and grows at the end of a long leaf, as you can see here. The Vietnamese name literally translates to "Green Dragon" and is meant to reflect the way the cactus looks like a dragon as it climbs up the tree. The fruit is high in vitamin C, antioxidants and fibre and thus exceptionally good for you. High consumption of this fruit will turn your urine and feces slightly red. And finally, legend has it that a tribe in Southern Arizona treasured this fruit so much that after eating it, they would dry their poo, separate the seeds, grind them into flour, and eat them again, thus having a 'second harvest' of Dragon Fruit.*

 This is one of the funkiest-looking fruits out there, so I had to share it with you. If you don't know what it is, you'll think its bright pink skin and spiky green leaves are just about the strangest thing you've ever seen! They come in two varieties here, the quite common white-fleshed version and the much more rare red-fleshed version. They look identical on the outside, so the only way to know what you're buying is to ask the seller and trust that they're telling you the truth. (they are; why wouldn't they?)

It's pretty amazing to slice it open and see this beautiful red flesh inside, dotted with tiny edible black seeds.

To eat it, just wait until it gives just a little bit when squeezed (not too hard!), slice it down the middle, and scoop it out with a spoon. People say it's better chilled, but I don't think it really matters. I think just scooping it with a spoon is the way most people eat it, aside from maybe in the occasional shake or smoothie.

I scooped it out, then cut it into cube-ish shapes and put it back in the skin to serve. This would be extra pretty with the white one against the pink skin!

I've never been a fan of Dragon Fruit. It's not bad, there's nothing wrong with it, but I've always just found it kind of bland and boring. But then, until now I've only ever had the white-fleshed one. I'd been told the red one is better, and it's true! It has a slightly soft texture and is sweeter and a bit more flavourful than the white one. Most people compare it to a kiwi, which I think is a pretty fair comparison, both in texture and taste.

I haven't eaten this any other way besides in fruit salad or with my muesli and yogurt in the morning, and I can't imagine you'd want to cook it, but I've seen recipes for dragon fruit salsa to go with fish or seafood, which sounds pretty good. Also, this website has a couple of recipes I'd be pretty tempted to try!

Have you ever tried dragon fruit? Have you eaten it any way besides just straight out of the skin? Let me know!

*All information from wikipedia and this website.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Chocolate Mint Bailey's Cake

Last weekend my good friend Jacqui was up for a visit from Saigon, and as Thursday was her birthday, she decided it would be a weekend of splurging on herself. The perfect way to spend a birthday, if you ask me!

She started off the weekend by booking a room at the Intercontinental Hotel, with a balcony right out over the water on West Lake. We picked up a few beers (from a shop outside; we're way too cheap to pay for Intercontinental beers!) and the other Jacqui and I went to hang with her and Kim on the balcony for a sunset.

Proof that Kim can not take a serious picture!

Me, enjoying a beer and the view.

Around sunset, they brought Jacqui a cake for her birthday! No, this is not the Chocolate Mint Bailey's one that I'm have to wait for that. This one was passion fruit mousse, and also quite delicious!

After such a beautiful evening, what did it do? Yep. It rained. Not just any rain, but nonstop, loud torrential rain that kept everyone inside all day, thwarting all of our plans for a nice brunch, shooting golf balls into West Lake, and trying many different beers at the "Beer Temple". 

On a rainy Saturday when I'm stuck inside, what am I going to do? Bake, obviously. Especially when I had such high hopes for the rain to stop so I could go out that night. I was sitting here thinking through all of the ingredients I already had in my cupboards because going out just wasn't an option, when I realized I had an entire bottle of Chocolate Mint Bailey's sitting right here, as yet unopened. 

I quickly went searching online for a cake recipe and found this one at Baking Bites. The recipe is for cupcakes, but I used my 9-inch round cake pan instead. The only other change I made was where it asked for 1/2 cup of Bailey's and 1/4 cup of milk, I thought, WHY? and just used 3/4 cup of Bailey's. 

I coated it in a mint icing and then melted some semi-sweet chocolate with some butter and drizzled that over the top.

When the rain finally stopped and we went for a birthday brunch Dim Sum at the Sofitel on Sunday, I took this along and it was a big hit!

The chocolate chips inside make it just chocolatey enough and the Bailey's flavour came through wonderfully. I thought it was perhaps a little on the dry side, but that's probably due to me not getting the baking temperature and time quite right in the conversion from cupcakes to cake. No one else seemed to notice and it was still extremely yummy!
Look, even the stripy tiger wants some of the stripy cake!


Thursday, August 8, 2013

Tomato and Feta Cheese Dip

I have a lovely friend Jacqui who lives in Saigon. Not the Jacqui you've seen here on my blog before, but a similar and yet entirely different Jacqui, who is one of my most favourite people I've ever known. I met her here in Hanoi, but she got a promotion and had to move down South, so every now and then I go down there and stay with her for a weekend visit and we spend the whole time catching up, swimming in her pool, and doing a LOT of eating. It's wonderful.

I might be misguided here, but I feel like Saigon has a lot more food options than Hanoi. Jacqui's always taking me to some great little cafe with gourmet food and set menus like I've never seen here. Of course, it's also much more expensive!

Jacqui enjoying a Bloody Mary at Au Parc.
On one occasion she took me to Au Parc. This place has a Middle Eastern/Mediterranean feel, with delicious food to match. On this particular occasion we both ordered salads, mine with lamb and hers with goat cheese and orange. Mine was good, but the thing that got me was the dips. For 70,000 dong (about $3.50) we got three dips of our choice, with flatbread and crudités. We chose the Baba Ghannouj, which was tasty but nothing special; Creamy artichoke, spinach, and gorgonzola dip, which was quite delicious; and the Tomato and Feta cheese dip. This last one blew me away. With the first bite it was the only one I wanted to eat more of, to the point that I was almost licking the bowl when it was gone.

Ever since then I've wanted to reproduce this. However, feta cheese isn't always the cheapest ingredient here. I don't actually know how much it costs at home, but here at 200g packet can easily be 160,000 dong ($8). I recently got lucky on a trip to Metro, and they had packs of feta on sale for only 50,000 dong. Never mind that they were about to expire in a few days. It's cheese, right? An expiry date is only a guideline. I bought four.

That meant that I have a stockpile of feta right now, which is great because I eat greek salad all the time! It also meant that I could finally make my dip.

I crumbled up the feta and combined it in a blender with 2 chopped cloves of garlic, about 3-4 tablespoons of tomato paste, 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil, and the juice of 1/2 a lime. Pureeing it required the addition of a bit of water, but eventually it blended and became quite smooth.

It was yummy on the evening I made it, but somewhat sharp tasting. I was thinking maybe I shouldn't have added quite so much garlic, lemon juice, and tomato paste.

I was eating it with these garlic & herb crackers I'd found in a nearby shop, and they went perfectly. 

The next day I got even smarter and cooked up a piece of my mysterious "Mediteurasian Style All-Purpose Dough" to scoop up the dip. This also worked very nicely. The flavours had mellowed out a bit by this time, but it was still a bit sharp tasting. It didn't have that "I could eat this FOREVER" taste like it did in the restaurant!

On another occasion I tried it with carrot sticks and this also worked well!

 I think I'll do this again sometime, but I'll be extra cautious with all those acidic ingredients. Or maybe they just need something to counter them? Or maybe it should actually be cooked a bit to reduce the acidity. I'm not sure, but I'm definitely going to try making it again!


Saturday, August 3, 2013


How it is possible, that with all the cooking and baking I've done, I've never, ever made a pizza from scratch? I love pizza. I order it regularly. It's not that it never occurred to me to make my own, but for some reason I just never did. That's all about to change.

I think I must've thought it would take a long time. It doesn't. Once I finally got all of the ingredients and toppings I wanted together it was really very little time at all. I used Bobby Flay's pizza dough recipe from the Food Network, but halved it for just me and added some garlic powder and italian herbs. Mixing the dough took maybe 5 minutes, plus 10 more to knead it.
I had the air conditioning on in my living room so I covered it and put it in my non-airconditioned bedroom to rise for an hour, which it did quite happily!
I don't have a pizza stone, or even a proper pizza pan, so the biggest question was what to bake it on. Despite only making half the recipe, I still had a lot of dough, so I finally settled on the mostly flat oven tray that came with my oven, because it was the biggest thing I had. It made for a rectangular pizza, but who cares what shape it is?
I topped it with a basic sauce I'd made of tomato sauce and italian herbs, then fresh basil, onions, a thin layer of cheese, green peppers, salami, and mushrooms, and another layer of cheese.
It came out pretty good, for a first attempt! The crust was pretty thick, so I think next time I'd make even less dough, or split it up and roll it thinner. For the same reason, the edges were huge, and not very crispy, but the bottom was a bit crunchy and not at all soggy from all my toppings. Still, I might have to see if I can get a pizza stone somewhere. 

I think the leftovers were better the next day, because when I warmed it up in the oven the crust got crispier, and I got smart and warmed up the extra sauce to dip the excess crust in. Yum!

I may never order pizza again!
*I'm updating this before I even post it to say that I made it again, but only made half as much dough and rolled it out much thinner. It was significantly better and crispier, and not so overwhelmingly doughy. Perfect!