4 articles Articles posted in ingredients

Tamarind Paste + Juice

I’ve been trying to incorporate more local Grenadian ingredients in my cooking, so I was thrilled to discover tamarind trees on one of my visits to the beach. I happened to be walking through a grove of trees when I saw piles of brown, roundish pods littering the sand below. Upon closer inspection, I realized the pods were actually tamarind pods and confirmed this by cracking open their dry, brittle pods to find the sticky, flesh-covered seeds of the tamarind inside.

The fruit of the tamarind is edible, but can be quite tart, so it’s usually cooked or added as flavoring to dishes. In Grenada, they like to mix the flesh with sugar to make tamarind candies, but you’ll also find it used to make juice and to flavor stews.

The tamarind tree can also be found in Southeast Asia, so you’ll see it in a lot of southeast Asian dishes, like pad thai or Vietnamese canh chua (sour soup). Today, I’ll be showing you how to extract the pulp from the tamarind pods to make tamarind paste and a deliciously refreshing tamarind juice!

The flesh of the tamarind tastes best (and is the sweetest) when the pod is fully ripe. You can determine if the pod is ripe if the shell is dry and brittle to the touch. It should crack easily in your fingers. Simply crack the pod in half and pull out the seeds and flesh.

I didn’t collect nearly as many tamarind pods as I needed to make a lot of paste, so I went ahead and purchased about a pound of fresh tamarind from the market in St. George’s. The tamarind here has been de-shelled, but still contains all the seeds. You can also find dried tamarind paste, as well as whole tamarind pods (sometimes in boxes, sometimes loose), at Asian grocery stores in the States.

To remove the seeds, add about 2 cups of water to your fresh tamarind paste. (If working with dried tamarind paste from the grocery store, use hot water instead.)

Mix it around to fully incorporate the water. It should start becoming a thick, gooey mixture. Let it sit in the water for about 15 minutes.

Using gloves, grab a handful of the mixture (seeds, pulp, water, and all), and in a separate bowl, slowly squeeze to separate the paste from the seeds.

The seeds will still have a bit of pulp left on them, so I throw them into another bowl filled with water to continue soaking. This water can later be added to your juice.

Continue the squeezing process until all the seeds have been extracted and you’re left with a whole bowl of pure tamarind paste.

Strain the seeds from the water and reserve the water to add to juice. Discard seeds.

At this point, the tamarind paste can be refrigerated and added to different recipes. It should last in the fridge for a few weeks, or can be frozen for several months. Freeze in an ice cube tray to help portion the paste*! You can then defrost as much as you need for recipes like pad thai and canh chua. Or you can use the tamarind paste right away to make tamarind juice.

Tamarind Juice
10 servings

1 cup tamarind paste
6 cups hot water
1/2 cup sugar (or honey)

1. Dissolve the sugar (or honey) in the hot water.

2. Stir in the tamarind paste.

3. Serve over ice. Add more sugar as needed. Enjoy!

*Update – You can also make tamarind chicken with all that leftover tamarind paste.

Food Matchmaking: Lavender Loves Lemon

Happy first day of June! For this month’s matchmaking posts, we’ll be highlighting a somewhat uncommon ingredient in many people’s kitchens: lavender. As a cooking ingredient, it is most commonly encountered in the French seasoning mix herbes de Provence. The famous lavender fields of Provence go into bloom from late June through July, and hopefully you will see some blooming in your neck of the woods this summer as well.

Lavender also happens to be Becca’s favorite color and inspiration for her website and design business, Lavender’s Blue. Three years ago, when I was planning Becca’s tea party bridal shower, I wanted to incorporate her dearly loved lavender into not just the color scheme but also the menu in some way. So I decided to make lavender lemonade (I’ve forgotten the exact recipe I used, but this one is similar). I was worried that our mostly Asian guestlist would find lavender lemonade strange, but people ended up liking it so much they kept asking what it was they were drinking. The lavender is subtle, and the lemony tang adds brightness to the flowery perfume.

I must confess, I haven’t made lavender lemonade since then, but what a perfect summer drink it’d be for brunches, barbeques, afternoon tea, or just some people watching from the front porch (if I had a front porch). Incidentally, the lavender doesn’t actually color your lemonade, but if you’d like, you can add some blue and red food coloring to get a subtle, dusty purple, as I did for Becca’s shower. For a bit more excitement, try this boozy version. And beyond drinks, I can imagine lavender and lemon being a hit in cookies, creme brulee, and macarons! Try to look for culinary lavender, as other types may be heavily sprayed with pesticides.

I brought some Provencal culinary lavender back from my recent trip to France and am looking forward to some inspiration these next few weeks on how to incorporate it into my cooking and baking. You’ll be hearing from Becca the remainder of this month on her favorite color, flower, and now ingredient!

Photos from here and here.

vietnamese herbs and herb farm in northern va

One of the most exciting things about visiting Vietnam for me is seeing the abundance of fresh herbs at wet markets and restaurants. I love sitting down (more often than not on a roadside plastic stool :) to a big plateful of herbs set in front of me. Many restaurants have whole baskets full of pre-picked, pre-washed herbs that the servers pile onto a plate, and after you finish your meal, they dump the remaining herbs back into the giant basket for the next guests. It may not exactly be up to the sanitation standards we’re used to in North America, but it definitely means you won’t be skimped on the herb plate! And during my last visit, I was excited to try such unusual greens as mango leaves for the first time.

Herbs and vegetables at a wet market in Hanoi.

Unfortunately, fresh Viet herbs are not so easy to come by here in DC. In recent years I’ve seen more being sold at the Korean chain HMart, as well as at Grand Mart and Lotte. But these places are all a bit of a drive for me, and the selection can vary. So I was thrilled when I got an email from a reader last year telling me about a family in northern Virginia that grows and sells Vietnamese herbs right from their home. It’s still a bit of a drive, but I had to check it out for myself, and I found the selection and quality of these herbs to be fantastic and the owners just wonderful.

It’s quite a sight coming upon this little farm out in the middle of the suburbs. The home is located in Falls Church, VA (near the Eden Center), on Annandale Road, between Rose Lane and Slade Run Drive — you can’t miss the rows of trellises lining the largest yard along that road. The husband (an American Vietnam War vet) and his wife (from Saigon) have been selling herbs and vegetables here for over 20 years. Though not officially certified organic, they do not use any pesticides on their plants. The herbs cost about 50 cents per bundle, and they are carefully picked through and trimmed, so you always end up with neat, fresh bundles. In addition to the variety of herbs, they also sell various Asian leafy greens, including rarer kinds like water spinach and winter melon greens. On my last visit a few weeks ago, they also had squash blossoms. The herbs are only in season during the summer months, and I’ve been trying to get my fill of them before fall arrives.

So what do I do when I get my hands on a nice selection of fresh Vietnamese herbs? I love making lettuce wraps, fresh rolls, and vermicelli noodle bowls (I’ll post a few of these over the next couple days). Wraps are by far the easiest way to make good use of your herbs since you can wrap virtually any kind of meat or vegetable. Sometimes my family just buys crispy roast pork and brings it home to wrap in lettuce leaves with fresh herbs and banh hoi (noodle sheets), noodles, or even rice, and then dip into nuoc cham sauce. It’s such an easy meal, especially for spring and summer months when you can grill up some meat and wrap it with whatever fresh produce you have on hand from the season.

In light of how important herbs are in Vietnamese cuisine, I thought I’d start a Vietnamese herb guide on this site to begin compiling descriptions, uses, and links to recipes for various herbs as I come across them and use them in cooking. I’ll keep adding more in the future, but for now, you can head here to check out a few of my favorites.

the story of fish sauce

Back in January, I had the opportunity to go to Phu Quoc island, off the southwest coast of Vietnam. I probably wouldn’t have ventured there had it not been for one thing: this is where they claim to make the best fish sauce in the world.

What exactly makes it the best? That’s what I wondered too, and I’m happy to say that my quest was not in vain. My story on Phu Quoc fish sauce appears in today’s food section of the Washington Post, where you can read all about my adventures drinking nuoc mam, meeting my fish sauce guru, and the biggest revelation to me of all — the Italians also once used fish sauce, and it’s coming back! That little tidbit opened me up to a whole new set of possibilities in how to use fish sauce, which I hope to share more about on this blog.

I had so much fun writing this story — from trekking all over Vietnam to sampling various types of fish sauces to getting to talk to people I’ve long admired. One of those people is the one and only Andrea Nguyen of the blog Viet World Kitchen, my indispensable resource for all things related to Vietnamese food! Not only did I learn all about fish sauce from some of Andrea’s posts, I also had the great privilege of talking with her about the brands she recommends, which you can find out more about here. Thanks so much, Andrea!

Lastly, I couldn’t write about fish sauce without giving you my mom’s basic formula for Vietnamese dipping sauce, the stuff you eat with spring rolls, vermicelli noodle bowls, salads, wraps — indeed, everything. Technically it’s referred to as nuoc cham, but in our home, we simply call it nuoc mam.  The recipe also appears in today’s paper, and Andrea has a version as well on her blog.

Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce

1 part fish sauce
1 part lime juice and/or distilled white vinegar
1 part sugar
2 parts water
garlic, minced
Thai bird chilis, thinly sliced
grated carrot for garnish

You can make this the traditional way by pounding garlic, chili, and sugar with a mortar and pestle until the mixture forms a thick paste, then mixing in the liquids. Or you can also use the following method. [Update: I have found that pounding makes such a difference in taste that it is the only way I make nuoc cham now! The method releases all the garlic and chili juices and makes for a sauce tasty enough to drink. Just kidding… kinda. :) The sugar provides some friction, to make pounding easier. ]

Combine fish sauce and lime juice in a bowl. Heat the sugar and some of the water on the stove or in the microwave and stir until the sugar dissolves. Let this cool and combine with the fish sauce, lime, and the rest of the water. Taste and adjust to your liking, adding more sugar for sweetness, lime for sourness, or fish sauce for saltiness. Add minced garlic, slices of Thai bird chilis, and, for garnish, a few shreds of grated carrot.

This tastes best made fresh with lime, garlic, and chili. But the sauce will keep much longer (a month or more in the refrigerator) if you make it with vinegar and leave out the garlic, chili, and carrot until serving. Just freshen with a bit of lime juice when you’re ready to use.