SAIGON COMFORT FOOD

Eric and Sophie Banh make it easy to cook great Vietnamese at home.






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Publication: Sunset
Author: Dickerman, Sara
Date published: March 1, 2013

THIRTEEN YEARS AGO, when Sophie Banh couldn't find the Vietnamese dishes she was craving in Seattle, she persuaded her brother Eric to open a restaurant with her. Called Monsoon, it was the first of several restaurants from the Banhs that have introduced Seattle to a modern Vietnamese cuisine grounded in traditions from their childhood in Saigon.

"It makes Sophie and me happy to cook what we remember," says Eric. Even though they depart from their grandmother's dishes by using Northwest ingredients, "it's not really fusion," he says. "The smell of her cooking is still there."

On a recent drizzly day, Eric and Sophie welcomed Sunset into the kitchen of their more casual restaurant, Ba Bar, to show us how to cook some of their favorite at-home dishes. Although the more exotic ingredients they use (broken rice! shiso! pickled leeks!) can be substituted with easy-to-find choices, a trip to the Asian grocery store is a worthwhile part of the cooking adventure too.

In the Banhs' pantry

* BROKEN RICE Byproduct of processing rice; stickier and softer than whole-grain

* LITCHI PURÉE Prom juicy litchis, a fruit native to China

* MINT A staple; always used fresh

* OOLONG TEA Falls between black and green tea, flavor-wise

* SHISO (perilla) Aromatic, notch-edged herb; is red or green

* thai basil Narrowleafed, with purplish stem and anisey scent

* VEGETARIAN "OYSTER" SAUCE Eric prefers this variety, made from mushrooms, to regular oyster sauce for its more consistent quality.

* VIETNAMESE FISH SAUCE Pressed from salted, fermented anchovies. Mild Three Crabs brand is fine for cooking, says Eric; for bolder flavor, he likes single-press Red Boat.

* VIETNAMESE PICKLED LEEKS Crunchy and mildly spicy-sweet

SOPHIE & ERIC BANH at their Seattle restaurant Ba Bar

2 STIR-FRIES

Bean Sprouts & Chives

Asparagus & Shrimp

STIR-FRIED BEAN SPROUTS and CHINESE CHIVES

SERVES 4 TO 6 20 MINUTES

Sautéed bean sprouts and Chinese chives are a true comfort dish that every family in Saigon makes. It's ultrasimple, deliciously crunchy, and ready in a flash. If you can't locate Chinese chives (see photo at right), use green onions instead.

1 tbsp. fish sauce, preferably Red Boat

2 tsp. soy sauce

1/2 tsp. sugar

1 tsp. Shaoxing rice wine

2 tbsp. vegetable oil

1 rounded tbsp. minced garlic

6 cups bean sprouts, rinsed and dried

5 oz. Chinese chives, ends trimmed, cut into 2-in. lengths, or green onions, dark green part only (cut lengthwise in half first)

Salt and pepper

1. Blend your cooking sauce: In a small bowl, mix together fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar, and rice wine.

2. Have your other ingredients lined up next to the stove: oil, garlic, bean sprouts, and Chinese chives. "For extra flavor, use the oil left from frying the shallots for the salad," says Sophie (salad recipe is on page 94). You'll also want salt and pepper handy.

3. Heat a large - 12 in. or wider - heavy skillet or wok over high heat. Swirl in oil. Toss in garlic and fry, stirring constantly, until it just begins to brown, about 15 seconds. Add bean sprouts and cooking sauce and fry, stirring and tossing, about 90 seconds. Sprinkle in chives and cook, tossing well, 30 to 60 seconds. "The chives should be barely cooked - darker but not wilted," Sophie says.

4. Remove pan from heat and stir in a couple of pinches of pepper, plus salt to taste. Lift the sprouts out of the hot pan and onto a platter quickly, so they don't continue cooking. "That keeps them crunchy. And putting them on a platter instead of in a bowl keeps them from steaming."

PER SERVING 143 CAL., 33* (47 CAL.) FROM FAT; 7.7 G PROTEIN; 5.4 G FAT (0.5 G SAT.); 20 G CARBO (3.4 G FIBER); 340 MG SODIUM; 0 MG CHOL

TIP

Make sure the sprouts are creamy white. Brawn sprouts are old.

ASPARAGUS SHRIMP STIR-FRY

SERVES 4 TO 6 40 MINUTES

"You wouldn't find fresh asparagus in Saigon when I was a kid," says Eric, "but it's the kind of thing that a fancy restaurant would serve [from cans]." Now he and Sophie use sweet, juicy, local asparagus throughout spring.

1 1/2 lbs. asparagus

1/2 tsp. sugar

2 tbsp. fish sauce, preferably Three Crabs

1 tbsp. soy sauce

1 tsp. vegetarian "oyster" sauce

5 tbsp. plus 1/2 tsp. vegetable oil, divided

1 tbsp. minced garlic

1/2 lb. peeled, deveined large shrimp, tails left on

2 tbsp. thinly sliced shallots (about 2 large)

1 tsp. Shaoxing rice wine

1/4 tsp. coarsely ground pepper

Hot steamed jasmine rice

TIP

Slice asparagus on the bias so the pointed pieces echo the tips.

1. Snap off the root end of each asparagus stalk. "Don't cut them!" Sophie urges; snapping works better, because the stalks will naturally bend above the tough part. Slice the asparagus into 2-in. pieces on the bias so the resulting points echo the tapered tips of the asparagus. Set aside.

2. Make the cooking sauce: Mix together sugar, fish sauce, soy sauce, "oyster" sauce, and 1/2 tsp. oil in a small bowl.

3. Heat a large heavy skillet or wok over high heat and pour in 3 tbsp. oil. Add garlic and fry, stirring vigorously, until garlic is just beginning to brown, 10 to 15 seconds. Toss in shrimp and cook about 30 seconds. Add 1 tbsp. cooking sauce, toss to coat, and cook, stirring frequently, until shrimp are almost opaque all the way through, about 2 minutes. "You can always pull the pan off the heat and cut into a shrimp if you're not sure it's done," Sophie says. Scrape shrimp and seasonings into a bowl and set aside.

4. Wipe pan clean and place back over high heat. Pour in remaining 2 tbsp. oil and add shallots. Cook, stirring vigorously, until shallots are slightly browned, 30 to 60 seconds. Add asparagus, toss, and pour in remaining sauce mixture. Cook asparagus pieces until almost tender but still a little crunchy, 3 to 5 minutes depending on their thickness. Add shrimp mixture and toss to warm through.

5. Pull off the heat. Stir in the rice wine and pepper and serve the stir-fry immediately, with rice.

PER SERVING WITHOUT RICE 154 CAL., 645S (98 CAL.) FROM FAT; 8.8 6 PROTEIN; 11 G FAT (1.3 G SAT.); 4.7 G CARSO (1.3 G FIBER); 693 MG SODIUM; 52 MG CHOL.

6 keys to successful stir-frying

The Banhs excel at stir-fries, a tradition they picked up from their Chinese father's family and from growing up in Vietnam.

1

Prep ahead. Have everything ready next to your pan before you start, since the cooking goes fast.

2

Avoid nonstick. Nonstick pans don't encourage browning and are easily damaged by scraping and high heat. You don't need a pricey wok or skillet, either; even a cheap steel pan will develop its own nonstick coating with age.

3

Get it dry. Make sure your ingredients are very dry, so they brown rather than steam.

4

Preheat. To avoid soggy food, heat your empty pan over high heat before adding ingredients.

5

Keep it moving. At this heat, food will burn if it sits still too long. Shake the pan, or use two large spoons, forks, or tongs to toss the ingredients - like a salad.

6

Serve quickly. Stir-fries should be served right away, before they lose their fresh flavor and crisp snap.

THE SPIRIT of SAINT TRAN

MAKES 2 | 20 MINUTES

Thanks to bar manager Jon Christiansen, the Banns' cocktails have an evocative bent. This drink is named for 13th-century Vietnamese military commander Tran Hung Dao and uses lime, fresh herbs, pineapple, and fragrant tea - all as popular in Vietnam as the hero himself.

1 tsp. loose-leaf oolong tea

1/4 cup sugar

10 to 12 fresh mint leaves

4 or 5 fresh red shiso leaves (optional)

2 tbsp. litchi purée, such as Funkin, or 4 canned litchis, whirled well in a blender to yield 2 tbsp.

2 to 3 tbsp. lime juice

1/4 cup each aged rum and pineapple juice (preferably fresh)

1. Make the oolong tea syrup: Bring 1/4 cup water to a boil in a small saucepan and add tea. Cover and steep 5 minutes. Strain into a cup, then pour in sugar. Stir until it dissolves. Let cool.

2. Fill two cocktail glasses with ice. Fora pretty effect, tuck a couple of mint and/or shiso leaves along the inside of the glass. Fill a cocktail shaker one-third full of ice, then add 6 to 8 mint leaves and, if available, 3 or 4 shiso leaves. Pour in 2 tbsp. cooled oolong syrup, the litchi purée, lime juice, rum, and pineapple juice. Shake vigorously.

3. Strain into the glasses and serve, topped with another mint leaf or two.

PER COCKTAIL 201 CAL., 0.3X (0.7 CAL.) FROM FAT; 0.2 G PROTEIN; 0.1 G FAT (0 G SAT.); 33 G CARBO (0.4 G FIBER); 2.2 MG SODIUM; 0 MG CHOL.

TIP

To keep the herbs in place, you can put them in the glass before the ice.

CUCUMBER SALAD with CARAMELIZED SHALLOTS and HERBS

SERVES 4 TO 6 | 45 MINUTES

This salad gets its unmistakable sweet-salty crunch from caramelized shallots, an addictive staple in Vietnamese salads. It's key to slice them uniformly, or they won't cook evenly.

3 large shallots, sliced crosswise into 1/4-in.-thick rings to yield 1 cup, plus 1 tbsp. minced shallot

2 cups vegetable oil, for frying

1 tbsp. each Champagne vinegar and rice vinegar

2 tsp. sugar

About 2 tbsp. lemon juice

About 1/4 tsp. kosher salt

About 1/2 tsp. coarsely ground pepper

1 1/2 English cucumbers

1 cup halved cherry tomatoes

2 tbsp. roughly chopped fresh mint

2 tbsp. roughly chopped Thai basil (optional)

1 tbsp. roughly chopped red or green shiso (optional)

1 tbsp. finely diced cu kieu (Vietnamese pickled leeks) or mild cucumber pickles, such as cornichons or Claussen dill

1. Toss shallot slices to separate them into rings. Have ready a slotted spoon and a double layer of paper towels. Heat oil to 275° in a small, deep heavy saucepan and drop in shallot rings. Using a deep pan makes deepfrying virtually spatter-free. "When we fry large quantities of shallots in the restaurant, we use deep rondeau pans and fill them only 20 to 25 percent full, so we don't have to clean up a big mess," Eric says.

2. Cook shallots, stirring often, until they turn a uniform light brown - this will take about 8 to 12 minutes. They'll brown faster toward the end, so be careful; Sophie suggests turning off the heat when they look almost done. Lift shallots from oil with slotted spoon and drain on paper towels (see photo at right). Reserve 2 tsp. shallot oil for vinaigrette; let cool. Save the rest for stir-fries and salad dressings.

3. Make vinaigrette: Whisk vinegars, sugar, lemon juice, 1/4 tsp. salt, and 1/2 tsp. pepper together in a bowl until salt and sugar dissolve. Add reserved shallot oil and the minced shallots and whisk well to blend. Season to taste with more salt, pepper, and lemon juice.

4. Slice cucumbers into 1/4-in. slices with a knife or on a mandoline. Toss cucumbers and tomatoes with vinaigrette. Add mint, Thai basil, and shiso if using. "You don't want to chop the leaves too fine, or they'll wilt in the vinaigrette," says Sophie. Eric notes that Vietnamese love crunchy textures. "Theyll say, 'Wow! That was so crunchy!' and mean it was tasty."

5. Arrange salad on a platter and top with pickled leeks and fried shallots.

Make ahead: Fried shallots, up to 2 days, stored airtight at room temperature.

PER SERVING 95 CAL., %7% (S4 CAL.) FROM FAT; 1.8 G PROTEIN; 6.3 G FAT (0.7 G SAT.); 9.7 G CARBO [1.2 G FIBER); 70 MG SODIUM; 0 MG CHOL.

TIP

Don't chop the leaves too fine, or they'll wilt in the vinaigrette.

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