Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Past 24 Hours in my Kitchen

The past 24 hours in my kitchen have been a mix of success and failure. I've had some free time on my hands since getting back from my trip, and because I'm jetlagging something fierce and not really bothering to recover from it, I've decided to spend more time than usual cooking up old favorites and trying out what are looking to become new favorites.

On Thursday night I tried to make Vietnamese clam soup (canh nghieu), which uses leeks, garlic, fish sauce, chicken stock, fresh star fruit, and about two dozen Manila clams, among a few other ingredients. The recipe appeared to be very simple, requiring that I first boil the clams, then remove them from their shells and set them aside from the soup stock, which I save for later. Then I fry the leeks and garlic, add the clams, and splash in a couple tablespoons of fish sauce.

So far so good, right?

I toss this mixture, which is colorful and looks great, into the stock, which I've brought to a boil again, and quickly add sliced star fruit. Once it gets hot, all that's left to do is ladle the soup into dishes and garnish with cilantro, red chilies, and rau ram.

It was so salty! I was probably guilty of ladling too much soup into our bowls, too, which only intensified the salty flavor. The next time I make this I intend to halve the amount of fish sauce I'm supposed to use, and cut down on the six cups of chicken stock the recipe calls for, and I might also try to add a twist to the dish's saltiness by adding a little shrimp paste, which was optional.

The star fruit saved the day. In the end, my wife and I discarded the broth and ate what we could fish out of it.

Later that night, feeling guilty for ruining dinner, I got a sudden craving for jackfruit muffins, the recipe for which I'd recently copied from a wonderful blog called Tangled Noodle ( The muffins turned out great -- they were sweet but not sugary, and the taste of jackfruit, which can be strong, was in fact quite mild. My wife and I had two each right away (hey, they were small!), and two days later they were gone. I'll have to make more soon...

Langka muffin

On Friday night I went all out for dinner. I made Vietnamese jackfruit salad (goi mit tron), which I've already posted the recipe for, and followed this with a shatteringly delicious wonton soup that I got from another great food blog called (

This ended up taking around two hours, but the next time I make it I should be able to get it done a little quicker.

I started by mixing the ground pork, shrimp (shelled, de-veined, and quartered), and chopped green onions, jicama (this was brilliant), then tossing in some fish sauce, salt, pepper, and a few other things. What's great about this is that you just mix it all together. I just jammed my hands into the mixture and squished everything around for a few minutes. It was kind of gross but I knew right away that the wonton filling was going to be a winner.

You wouldn't want to enter this into a beauty contest. A wonton contest, however, is a different story.

This is when I recruited my wife to help me. See, she's from Utsunomiya, Japan, which is famous basically for one thing: gyoza. While gyoza are Japanese-style wontons, and typically use different ingredients than what I was working with (such as cabbage), she knew exactly how to stuff and seal the wonton skins. I didn't even realize that the wonton edges needed to be rubbed with a bit of water to make them stick together, though it made perfect sense to me when I saw her do it. She filled a small bowl of water, instructed me on wetting the skins, then showed me, like a practiced gyoza chef, how to seal them. When I saw her skill, I made her do the rest.

Hey, why leave this important job to someone like me, who'll screw it up for sure? And besides, for the last couple of days she's been enjoying the fruits of my labor; all I had to do was point at the disaster I'd made of our kitchen, and at all the random ingredients clinging to my clothes and hair, to guilt her into helping me. What would have taken me an hour to do took her twenty minutes. She was so good, in fact, that not a single wonton skin went unused, and not a speck of stuffing was left in the bowl.

In the meantime, I washed and chopped up some bok choy and yu choy, and prepared a soup stock using nothing but dried anchovies stuffed in tea filters (thanks for the great tip, Annie) and placed in a pot of boiling water for thirty minutes.

Pretty soon my wife became excited by the wontons, and she volunteered -- volunteered! -- to boil them. As soon as the first batch finished we gave them a try. They were insanely good. I mean, I'm not a huge wonton fan, but these were outrageous. My wife commented on how light the pork flavor was, then said it was because boiling it removed much of the meat's oil. Sounds good to me.

The photo below doesn't do this wonton soup justice. Yes, it looks good, but the taste...words can never capture how surprised we were by the wonderful flavor.

The broth: so clear, with a light but distinctive taste of anchovies and two types of boiled choy, would have been excellent on its own. And the veggies: the bok choy and yu choy, boiled in the broth for only five or six minutes (getting this exactly right was admittedly lucky), had the perfect crispness to them, and their deep leafy flavor (which isn't to say they were overly bitter) combined brilliantly with the broth and wontons. And finally, the wontons: they were, quite simply, the piece de resistance.

I highly recommend this recipe. And thanks again, Annie and Nate, for sharing this on your blog.

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  1. We all sometimes have disasters in the kitchen as well as very good results! It's funny how you ate all the ingredients except the broth since the soup turned out salty. I like that. When I ruin something, we still eat it anyway since we're not fan of wasting food.

    The wontons look great. You're giving me some ideas since I have a wonton wrap package sitting in my freezer for a while. Good job on getting your wife's assistance. I do that with my husband sometimes. It's great to get someone you love involved in your cooking adventures.

  2. Thanks for the comment, MTC! I normally don't waste food, either, but this was like drinking spoonful after spoonful of fish sauce...Definitely try this dish out if you already have wonton wraps at home. And yes, make sure your husband is nearby and hungry enough to lend a helping hand. Food always tastes better when you involve more people!

  3. Your langka muffins look like they're bursting w/fruit! I need to tweak my own recipe and put a bit more of the jackfruit so it looks as good as yours. And your wife's skill at making the dumplings are enviable - perhaps she should consider doing a video tutorial on making filling and sealing wontons.

  4. Thanks -- I'm sure I picked the best-looking muffin for the photo (which admittedly isn't the best). I think I added a little more jackfruit than your recipe called for. I'm a sucker for jackfruit; it's one of my favorite fruits. And I'll ask my wife if she's willing to make a video showing how to fill and seal wontons. I'm just afraid she'll tell some embarrassing story about me while she's making them. I wonder if there's a bleep button on my camera...