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I’ve seen Anthony Bourdain ask this on his various television shows while he’s sitting in mixed company. It may be a little morbid but I love asking this question and inciting a good conversation about food. If you were on death row and knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would your last meal consist of?

I’ve heard all sorts of responses. My mom said she would have a bowl of rice and her favorite steamed fish. My sister gave a long, rambling list of items that seemed to have the common theme of “covered in cheese”. My husband said a whole 3 tiered wedding cake. I’m totally lost on the reasoning for that one….

My list is also a bit long and rambling, mainly because that’s so hard to have to pick and choose between may favorite foods and dishes. Most of the dishes I’d want are Asian and many of them are noodle based. But there is one dish that always seems to make it on to my rambling list, so if I really had to choose only one thing. This would be it: Vietnamese vermicelli noodle salad.

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Known as bun cha in Vietnamese, there are several variations but the version I’ve seen the most is grilled pork bun cha. The pork is often marinated in a sweet and salty mixture and char-grilled, allowing the marinade to thicken into a sticky glaze and darken into crispy bits. The vermicelli rice noodles are usually served warm, lettuce and fresh herbs such as cilantro and mint share the bowl as well as pickled vegetables.

I’ve eaten this dish since I was almost too short for the booth at our local Vietnamese restaurant and I love it! But I’ve only recently begun to prepare it myself. I’ve still got a few other recipes to try and I’ll report back on those as well. The recipe I used for this post I found on a blog called pink-parsley.com. It’s a pretty simple recipe and the dressing recipe is a really tasty version of nouc nam, which is a Vietnamese condiment. Well, more like THE Vietnamese condiment.

There were a few things I did differently. I used pork loin chops instead of tenderloin because they’re cheaper. The first time I sliced up the chops first and then marinated them and pan fried them (unfortunately, I don’t have a grill). This left the meat a little tough so the next time I left the chops whole and sliced them after they were pan fried and rested.

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I would also like to make a batch of pickled carrot and daikon radish. It’s a bit more traditional that then marinated carrots and cucumbers in this recipe. But since I did have a cucumber and not a daikon radish in the fridge, it worked out great! I found several recipes for the pickled carrot and daikon by just googling and searching on foodgawker. The other thing I think I might change is using Sambal Oelek in the nouc nam instead of jalapenos. It adds heat but not flavor. For some reason, the jalapeno doesn’t quite taste right to me. I’ll probably make this recipe for pickled carrot and daikon.

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One thing I would absolutely recommend is not to skimp on the herbs! That is half the reason I love this dish! The basil, mint, and cilantro are a knock out flavor combo and they make this dish! These herbs make the salad so refreshing and complex. Don’t skimp on the herbs!

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And just because I know you are out there, a few things to keep in mind to peeps who are new to Vietnamese food. There are a few items that are new to you, maybe they sound a little scary like, fish sauce for example. Don’t be afraid! It’s so delicious! It’s the epitome of umami, that mysterious fifth flavor that’s salty, sweet and sour. It’s in a lot of your favorite Asian dishes like pad thai and bahn mi. I put it in my ground beef when I make hamburgers and it’s transforming! So have no fear! That’s my pep talk for the day – trying for positivity, right? But here’s my confession – when people won’t try something because they think it’s weird, all I can picture is a 3 year old throwing a tantrum over a new vegetable. There I said it. You now know what’s behind that grimace on my face when people turn their nose up at an amazingly delicious adventure. I’m realizing that I’m having dinner at the kids table and I want to leave. All of the foods in this dish have been around for a long time, a culture of proud people have created this dish and hundreds of thousands, possibly more, derive pleasure from eating it. So, it’s hard for me to hide my hurt feelings when others don’t want to enjoy my obsession with me. Obviously, I’ve been burned before…

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I hope you make this recipe or go to your nearest Vietnamese restaurant and order up some bun cha. It’s so perfect for summer and you may just start to develop an obsession of your own. Again, the recipe I made for this post can be found at www.pink-parsley.com.

 

 

I initially wanted title this post ” I did a stint as a vegetarian once…” but that made being a vegetarian some sort of punishment, like community service or latrine duty. But I was a sort of part-time vegetarian for several years and it turned out to be some of the best eating of my life. It was pretty easy to cut out a lot of meat from my meals, especially if you ate a lot of Asian food at home.

Many food enthusiasts know the magical benefits of your local Asian market, and to vegetarians and vegans, this is even more fantasmic. The Asian market holds so many treasures for meat alternatives as well as spices and accoutrements to turn that somewhat bland meat substitute into the stuff of unicorns. Also, many products tend to be so much cheaper at the Asian market because they can’t mark the cost up based on exoticness (is that a word?). One of my favorite non-meat proteins is tofu. I was actually raised eating tofu with my meat. My family didn’t view tofu as a meat alternative, it was just another protein to throw into our best sauces and consumed at the same time. Being raised with tofu also makes me very comfortable with the texture. Texture seems to be the numero uno reason sited by most for why they don’t like tofu. To that I say, get over it. Texture is part of the experience, some tastes have to be a certain texture. Take gummi candy for example, there’s nothing like really good gummi candy.

Now, I know what the numero dos reason sited by most for why they don’t like tofu is the blandness. Tofu doesn’t taste like anything. To that I say, I have a solution for both. My baked tofu “recipe”. I use quotes here because I feel a bit sheepish about calling it a recipe. It’s really just a hodge podge of other people’s tofu recipes, flavors I tend to like, and loose interpretations of things I’ve seen my mom do. There aren’t really measurements and I couldn’t give you an exact baking time. And the ingredients and composition of said ingredients tends to change, depending on my my mood and what I’m out of. Yeah… I’m in a pretty off-the-cuff mood this evening.

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This recipe solves the problem of texture and taste because the baking of tofu dries out some of the moisture and firms up the tofu. So, instead of mushy, crumbliness, the tofu becomes denser and more substantial – al dente but not chewy. The marinade is so flavorful the tofu soaks it all up and becomes so tasty I often end up eating a lot of it without anything else and straight from the cookie sheet. I also curse myself a little for doing that because it’s still too hot and I end up burning my tongue or involuntarily ejecting it from my mouth onto the kitchen floor…

The main trick to getting that bland cube to become a flavor bomb is to press the tofu…

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This can be done between 2 plates lined with several layers of paper towels. I just put a can of beans on top and let it press for 30 mins or so. Just be very careful with the tofu brick, they crumble and fall apart easily. Once you press the excess moisture from the tofu, there’s room for it to soak up some of your magical marinade.

After a good pressing, I cut the big cube into smaller cubes and add it to the marinade. Some recipes will just slice the cube into rectangular planks for a “meatier” look but it’s still tofu. I like the cubes because I like incorporating them into recipes like stir-fries and bowls of noodle soup. These little tofu cubes are amaze-balls in a bowl of cheap ramen.

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My marinade is usually a combo of soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, garlic powder, ginger powder, and sesame oil. I have also used teriyaki sauces, orange juice and orange zest in my marinade. You can get pretty creative with your recipe. I will generally make 2 packages of tofu at a time, it goes surprisingly fast at my house. The recipe that follows will be for 2 packages of tofu.

I let the tofu marinate for at least an hour. This amount of time has generally yielded the best result. There have been a few times I’ve been rushed and didn’t let it marinate as long and tried to baste it while it baked. It just didn’t taste as good. After marinating, I line up the cubes on cookie sheets and bake them in the oven at 350 degrees F for 40 mins., turning half way through. But you can bake it longer or for less time depending on how you like the texture. If you like a little jiggle, cook it for less, more bite, bake longer.

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What you get at the end is a beautiful, little, golden cube of goodness. You can do so much with these lovelies. I throw them into stir-fries, on top of rice, over noodles, into bowls of soup, and just by themselves like chips – meaty, proteiny, umami basted, delicious chips… Below is a bowl of baked tofu tossed in a veggie stir-fry over quinoa pilaf.

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Baked Tofu

2 packages of Firm tofu

4 Tbsp soy sauce

4 Tbsp balsamic vinegar

2 Tbsp sesame oil

1 Tbsp garlic powder

1 Tbsp ginger powder

Get 2 plates dinner plates (not too big, the smaller the plate, the easier to balance the can on top), line one plate with layers of paper towels. I usually fold 2 paper towels into quarters and they are just slightly bigger than the tofu cube. Drain the tofu over the sink and place the cube on top of the paper towel lined plate. Add another layer of paper towels on top of the tofu cube. Place the other plate on top of the tofu and paper towels, balance a can of soup or beans or whatever, on top of the plate. Don’t put too much weight on top of the tofu, it can cause it to break. Press tofu for 20-30 mins.

While the tofu is pressing, mix up your marinade. Put soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, sesame oil, garlic powder, and ginger powder into a bowl and whisk to combine.

When the tofu is done pressing, place tofu cubes onto a cutting board and discard the wet paper towels. Cut the tofu into cubes or planks, keep in mind that they will shrink a bit during baking. Place the tofu in a flat bottomed dish and pour the marinade over it. You can also baste the tofu with the marinade to make sure you get all the sides. Let marinade 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place tofu cubes on cookie sheets (you can grease them if you like but I generally don’t). Bake in the oven for 40 mins. Turn over with tongs about halfway through. Remove from oven and let cool (crucial, often neglected step) 5 mins. before serving.