Beef Pho

Always start with the WHY.

A delicious bowl of Vietnamese beef rice-noodle soup.

Here is my first bowl of homemade beef pho, a Vietnamese soup, and it was DELICIOUS!

Like many Asian soups it’s traditionally eaten with a spoon and chopsticks, although to be honest this is a Chinese spoon and Chinese chopsticks.

But . . . how did the journey start?

Beef is expensive in Switzerland, in my view almost prohibitively so. But . . . if you are willing to buy very large portions at stores aimed at restaurateurs, you can get some terrific deals. So I started with 2.5 kg of Rinds-Entrecôte that I bought at a Swiss wholesale supermarket called Aligro, This piece cost around CHF 50, which seems like a lot of money, but I reckon I get get at least 10-12 meals from this amount, if not more, making it far less expensive than any meat I could find at the supermarket.

I then loaded a few thick slices of this into my new Ninja Foodie Multikocher, which is a combination air fryer, slow cooker, steamer, high pressure cooker. Since I have a small kitchen, my thinking here is that I could drastically reduce my cleaning needs – and so far, this has been indeed true. It is much easier to cook a wide range of things and clean up, than by using pots and pans and an oven, which no matter how careful I am, always seems to leave drips and drops and splatters on my cooktop.

I added water, an onion, two large broccoli stalks, plus authentic Vietnamese flavoring,

This is what it looked like after slow cooking for 12 hours.

I next assembled the ingredients – to be honest, many more ingredients than I’ve ever found when I was in Vietnam, but nevertheless tasty things:

Interestingly, the Swiss don’t have much of an appetite for some of these things, so I purchased the cilantro leaves at a Turkish supermarket, along with the exotic peppers. The rice noodles are from Thailand, not Vietnam.

And after adding them all together, we arrive back at the beginning.

A delicious bowl of Vietnamese beef rice-noodle soup.

New England Clam Chowder – but far, far away from New England

It’s a big mystery that I want to clear up someday: why they sell metal cans of clams in the US, and the clams are chewy and firm; whereas in Europe you get little bottles of clams, and the clams are soft and squishy.  Different clams? Different ways to prepare them?

I guess the key point is you can’t really prepare a good bowl of clam chowder without chewy clams.  So, whenever I get back to the States, it is always a treat if I can bring back a can with me – or, in this case, my parents sent me a can in a package mailed to Switzerland.

Many people use a flour-based rue to add thickness to clam chowder, but I prefer to use the natural starch in potatos.

So, I started with some very firm mashed potatoes,

To be honest, if you want canned soup, there is probably no better spot on Earth than in the US to get it – even the smallest supermarket will have literally dozens of varieties – but . . . it is not very good.

If you want truly gourmet-level canned soup, then Germany is where you want to be.

I added this to thicken up some gourmet shrimp soup that I bought in Germany,

I then added both a tin of chewy clams from the US, plus two tins of crab meat from France. At least, at once point in its lifecycle it was crab meat – what comes out of the tin is more like a crab paste because it’s broken into so many tiny pieces:

I wanted a bit more liquid than I had, so I added some instant white asparagus soup,

Finally, I added about two pounds of frozen shrimp (not shown) and four large pieces of fresh salmon, two of which are shown here:

I cooked this at 60 C for about 20 minutes, the idea being to very gently cook the salmon, so that it stays moist and soft, not firm and chewy.

Herbwise, I added Thymian and a bit of black pepper, plus a very generous dose of Worcestershire sauce.

And this was the result, a truly delicious bowl of something very akin to New England Clam Chowder,

As usual when I cook, I made enough for around 7-8 meals.

Instant venison

Well, I don’t know if the word instant is the right word, but you can buy pre-cooked venison in a venison sauce, so you just need to heat it up.  A single package is quite expensive as CHF 20, but I was able to divide it up into three separate meals:

I really like the way this snap turned out. I know there are professional food artists that make money by photographing food – and they have all sorts of tricks such as spraying them with fine mists of different chemicals to get that ideal, mouth-watering sheen. Here I did nothing of the sort – just pointed and shooted.

Turkish tea

First things first, this is Turkish tea, as it is drunk, on the left. It is always served in a tulip-shaped tea glass, but nobody seem to know the history of this tradition.

The tea shown on the left is obtained by partially filling the glass with a small portion of a very, very strong amount of the tea that has been steeping for at least 30 minutes:

But how do you steep tea for so long and still keep it warm?  Here is the secret, my new Bosch Turkish tea cooker:

 

And here you can see it in action. The top glass kettle is made to hold a large portion of tea and let it steep for a long time at temperature, because it sits directly over a heated amount of hot, pure water below, that is then used for diluting the tea to the desired strength in the tulip-shaped tea glass:

Roulade au Poulet

Idea from a friend of mine in the UK: chicken breast (Poulet) that I butterflied and pounded even thinner, wrapped around a tiny piece of sausage (Nürnberger Bratwurst) and including thin slices of cheese (Emmenthaler Käse) in the roll (Roulade), finally wrapped with slices of ham (Vorderschinken). I then wrapped it very tightly in aluminum foil, and baked at 220 C for 30 minutes:

The amazing thing is that, after baking, it retains it shape very firmly, almost like the more well-known Fleischkäse.

Thermonuclear chicken broth

Just like a thermonuclear weapon concentrates a lot of power in a small package – so does this little bottle of what I call thermonuclear chicken broth:

I had occasion to create this several months ago, having much earlier watched a YouTube video about 18th century cooking, in which cooks would often reduce soups until they were near solids, in order to allow them to be more easily stored and transported.

I was confronted with the situation that I had around 6 liters of chicken broth, plenty of near obsolete onions, garlic, and ginger – so I created a delicious chicken stock, then reduced it at very low heat over a six hour period, finally obtaining two jars of this – I call it my thermonuclear chicken soup.

It’s easy to use. This little jar, when thawed, is easily enough for 6-8 bowls of chicken soup. Just add any frozen vegetables I have at hand. No reason to add chicken – if I had chicken, I’d made fresh chicken soup!

The mind blowing restaurant trams of Switzerland

As any visitor to a large Swiss city like Zürich knows, the Swiss are proud of their public transportation – and rightly so. Next to Japan, it’s the most punctual and reliable transportation in the world.

But did you know something else?

The big cities in Switzerland have large collection of antique electric trams – and some of these trams have been turned into travelling restaurants, such as this snap of a restaurant tram in Bern shows:

I’ll post more pics of restaurant trams in different cities as time permits.

This is not Gołąbki

Gołąbki is a Polish word that is pronounced galumpki, and it means stuffed cabbage. My grandmother used to make galumpki – it’s been a long time since she passed away, but I can still remember how it tasted.

Since then I have been on a personal quest to re-create that taste sensation I remember so well. I try, and I try, and I try – and I always fail.

This is the storyboard of my latest failure.

Ground beef, contained sauteed onions and garlic, various spices, and uncooked long-grain rice. The idea is that the rice is a filler, and as the meat slowly cooks so does the rice, by soaking up all the meat juices:

Then you roll each one into a blanched cabbage leaf, like a little burrito:

The rolled, stuffed cabbage leaves are then layered into an oven-compatible pot, sitting on top of a layer of cabbage leaves:

Forgot to take a snap, but I then covered the cabbage rolls with a jar of speghetti sauce, and I topped it with enough chicken broth so that each cabbage roll was under about 1 centimeter of liquid. Then I covered it, and cooked it at 175 C for around 90 minutes:

Here’s what it looked like after the cooking. Note that I had a little extra meat that I felt was insufficient for an entire role, so I added it to the mix in hamburger form. Turned out to be a great idea, since it fell apart and helped flavor the sauce:

And here’s the finished product. well minus the sauce which I left in the pot. In fact I did not eat any of them, but rather placed them in bags, covered them with their own portion of the sauce, and froze them:

Lessons learned:

1) Another failure. Tastes great, but not like my grandmother used to make

2) Even after blanching the cabbage leaves were very thick. Next time I intend to blanch, separate the leaves, then cook them until they are softer

3) Adding some meat to the sauce was very effective

I failed, again, but I will keep on trying!  I think my grandmother would expect no less of me.

Scraping the bottom of the barrel

As you can see, not an artistic snap, not an interesting subject, and no crazy stories to tell.

Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose.

I thought this might turn out interesting and artistic, but it most certainly did not.

I chopped it up into small pieces, added it to some carbonara sauce, and let it cook at very low temperature for about 30 minutes. The broccoli imparted a really nice flavor to the sauce.

The amazing automatic popcorn machines of Switzerland and Germany

We’re under attack!  It seems these machines are now literally all over Southern Germany and Northern Switzerland!  By which I mean, to date, I’ve seen two of them: one in Friedrichshafen (Germany) and one in Winterthur (Switzerland) – the latter at my local grocery store, no less.

They work like this. You deposit either a 2 EUR coin (if you are in Germany) or a two 2 CHF coins (if you are in Switzerland),

and in just 2 minutes you’ll have a little paper container of freshly popped popcorn (sweet or salty, your choice).

How does it taste?  I found the kernels to be better that what you’d get at home with microwave popcorn, but not quite as good as the popcorn they serve at movies. And there was a faint taste of oil – but a type of oil I’m not used to tasting. It wasn’t bad, just different.

Just how complicated is the food in Southern India?

Answer, at least if you have never lived in India, VERY.

I lived in Bangalore for several years, and during that time my favorite place to eat lunch was a diner called Eden Park.  Interestingly, Eden Park sits just across from a Zoroastrian temple – you don’t see many of them!

Anyway, here is a snap of me eating lunch with a friend:

If you’ve never been to India, there is a lot going on in this snap that you probably don’t know about.

First, you’ll notice how my friend it sitting. I don’t know if I’d go so far to say it is rude to eat with your left hand, but a right hand approach is definitely the favored one, so the left hand is normally kept in the lap or off the table, unless it is absolutely positively needed for something. But it can be used and most people do use it from time to time.

Now onto the other features.

You’ll notice the food is on a wet banana leaf. The banana leaves are placed on the table dry, but then you use a bit of water to wash off the leave and brush the water onto the floor. I’ve been to banana plant plantations all over Southern India, where the banana leaves are harvested and sent to the restaurants.

It is an all-you-can eat deal – circulating waiters carry pots of steaming rice and toppings, and if you need either rice or more toppings, they will give them to you freely. The little orange tin on the left is sambar – a tamarind based sauce that it ubiquitous to South India, and the orange tin on the right is rasam, a (mostly but not exclusively) tamarind based soup. Interestingly, there is not much question about how to consume sambar: you mix it into your rice; if you tried to drink it like soup, I think that would be a bit like drinking a cup of ketchup. But rasam on the other hand, being much thinner, is a whole different cricket game: you can pour it over rice, dip something into eat, or (what I usually did) just drink it like soup.

It is a bit of a myth that you eat this exclusively with your fingers.  I did – and many Southern Indians do – but there are both Northern and Southern Indians who prefer to eat with a utensil, such as a spoon. My Indian friends have told me that studies involving brain scans have shown that when you eat with your hands you get a greater food pleasure, due to the tactile sensations.

One of the white tins contains curded milk, similar to yoghurt. It can be mixed into the rice with sambar, but it can also be eaten at the end of the meal, with a bit of sugar poured on it, like a dessert.

And as for the toppings: one of them is universally a dhal (lentils), which is frequently the case in Indian cuisine, since dhals have a very high protein content, and this is important to a mostly vegetarian culture.

Sadly, what this snap does not show are my papadams, also known as papads. ,At this hotel at least they need to be ordered separately, and it is usual for people to eat one or two. (I have a friend in England who eats them, however, by the dozen.) They are essentially fried tortillas. They are not used to spoon up food – rather (and this is purely my own opinion) their crispy-crunchiness makes a great change to the sticky stewlike nature of the food, so by crunching on one every now and again during your meal, it somehow helps to clean your pallet. Interestingly, most papads in India are made by rural housewives as part of a cottage industry: they create them at home and then they are shipped to centers for redistribution.

This meal is known to the Bangalore locals as “veg meals” – not, interesting enough, a “veg meal” but rather the plural form is used. For example, to order this you would say to the waiter at the diner “I would like a veg meals please.” Except – you really wouldn’t: diners here are called hotels not diners, and this one serves veg meals exclusively during lunch, so you don’t need to order anything.

What this snap does not show – but what is also quite common – is that many religious people move a slight portion of their food to the top of the leaf and leave it there, uneaten, as an offering to their gods.

What this snap also does not show are a few other things on the table: a metal container of drinking water, and containers of Indian pickles that I have documented elsewhere.

So for people with no experience in India there are really a lot of things happening that Indians take for granted – and I am quite sure this is the case with American and Western foods that some Asians, on a first trip outside of Asia, may be unaware about: the many different pieces of silverware used in a multi-course meal are a good example.

The beans of Umberto Eco

This is Umberto Eco,

But these were not his beans:

Umberto Eco, who recently died in 2016, was well-known to many people as the author of some truly mind blowing books, such as Foucault’s Pendulum and the Name of the Rose (which became a movie starring Sean Connery).

Not being his beans, this was also not his bean and sausage soup,

That was my bean and sausage soup, and it turned out rather delicious.

But Umberto said a lot of very interesting things in an essay he wrote about beans, in which he argued that these little easy-to-store, easy-to-grow, easy-to-transport bundles of life saving energy had a revolutionary effect on Europe in the Middle Ages:

So when, in the 10th century, the cultivation of legumes began to spread, it had a profound effect on Europe. Working people were able to eat more protein; as a result, they became more robust, lived longer, created more children and repopulated a continent.

We believe that the inventions and the discoveries that have changed our lives depend on complex machines. But the fact is, we are still here — I mean we Europeans, but also those descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers and the Spanish conquistadors — because of beans. Without beans, the European population would not have doubled within a few centuries, today we would not number in the hundreds of millions and some of us, including even readers of this article, would not exist. Some philosophers say that this would be better, but I am not sure everyone agrees.

Channa Bhatura

I lived for years in India and I usually ate with my fingers, rather than with a fork and knife. And the Indians were quick to me that scientists have proven (somehow?) that by eating with your fingers you increase your food happiness, because the tactile sensations start before the food reaches your mouth.

Well, I never really believed that . . . until I tried a Punjabi dish, a huge empty doughball much bigger than a bowling ball or your head, channa bhatura:

And it is true!  There is something about tearing into the big, fluffy, glutinous ballon to tear off a piece to dip into the chickpeas that is really amazing!

The amazing Italian beef sandwiches of Chicago Heights

This looks like my Italian Beef sandwich, but it was not my Italian Beef sandwich:

On a recent trip to Chicago, I was pleased and privileged to order an Italian Beef sandwich at my favorite restaurant for this specialty, the Perros Brothers in Chicago Heights. I haven’t been here in nearly 20 years, and I was pleased it was still standing:

I always thought this was a great place for Italian Beef sandwiches, but by surfing to their website I only just now learned they are a top rated diner in Chicago!

Sadly, not a lot of people know about Italian Beef sandwiches, even people who travel to Chicago. It’s a sandwich of extremely thin slices of beef that are cooked in a spicy broth. Generally, it helps to eat it with a fork: usually either the broth is poured over the sandwich, or else (and this seems to be the most common approach, to order “an Italian beef sandwich with a dip“) the entire sandwich is dipped into the broth, totally soaking the bread.

Punjabi Pizza

I get a lot of questions from Westerners about the influence of Western food brands, like Pizza Hut, in India.

As you can imagine, in any cultural battle, India usually wins – and the western fast food chains all have food tailored to Indian tastes and cultural norms.

For a while, Pizza Hut had a delicious, spicy, chicked-topped pizza called their “Punjabi Pizza,” and you could see advertisements like this one:

It turns out, if you don’t know much about India, you can learn a lot from a pizza!

Here is a typical pizza menu – nothing unusual if you are familiar with India, but containing a few secrets if you’ve never been there:

First, you’ll see the different colors used to label the dishes.  GREEN is the universal color in India for a vegetarian dish, and RED is the universal color for a non-veg dish.

Second, you’lll often see a little green or red box containing a green or red dot – same meaning as above.

Finally, you’ll often be surprised because many food terms have different equivalents in Indian English.  Above you’ll see the word “capsicum” – which is nothing other than a Bell pepper.  Considering that India has around a BILLION people, and the U.S. has much less . . . I wonder how long it will be before they turn the tables and stop calling it Indian English, but rather just English?

Finally, I took this snap back in 2008 in Krakow, Poland, and it still confuses me today.

Back in 2008 there was hardly a sizeable Indian community in Europe much less Poland – was this really an advertisement for an Indian pizza? Maybe someone who can read Polish can let me know!

Slow cooker

The process of slow cooking is so effective because some chemical reactions that occur during cooking, such as the elimination of the chemicals that cause meat to be tough, require time.

Ingredients:

In the slow cooker:

Final result over pasta: