Summer in Santa Cruz usually means lots of foggy mornings and cool evenings. This year, we've had exceptionally warm weather. Many locals wonder if it's due to global warming but I throw caution to the wind and bask in the lovely sunny days.
When the heat is on, it's time to enjoy the best of hot-weather vegetables and there's no better place to 'forage' than a farmers' market. Several weeks ago, I visited one of my favorite ones -- the Friday market in Old Town Oakland. About a third of the vendors are Southeast Asian: Hmong, Lao, Vietnamese, and Filipino. Despite the many languages spoken at the market, shoppers frequently bridge language and cultural barriers to exchange cooking tips. For staple ingredients, Oakland Chinatown is merely a street crossing away.
If you have a farmers' market near your house, go there now for the best produce -- fresher and tastier than any supermarket's. Plus, you'll be directly supporting farmers and avoiding middlemen. Find a local farmer's market at the Local Harvest site.
The freshest ingredients will make your Vietnamese food -- any food for that matter -- taste better. You can grow it yourself, or be an avid shopper.
At a Southeast Asian farmer's stall, you'll likely find an amazing selection of eggplant, sweet cherry tomatoes, opo and luffa squash, sweet potato and bitter melon leaves, bitter melon, lemongrass, chiles, and even Vietnamese herbs. Maybe there'll be someone selling just laid chicken, duck and quail eggs as well as half-hatched chicken and duck eggs. I scored on fresh squash blossoms at the Oakland market and made Deep-Fried Squash Blossoms as soon as I got home.
Another summer favorite is the avocado. Though I'm spoiled by California's year-round supply of the buttery-fleshed berries, now is when I find myself eating them nearly everyday. Guacamole, whole-grain vegetarian sandwiches and Vietnamese avocado shakes. Never heard of the Avocado Shake, the Southeast Asian treat? It's fabulously pale green, rich, and cooling.
Now that you're pondering Asian veggies and avocado treats, check the August/September issue of Saveur. Yours truly wrote the cover story on avocados (there are more than you think!) and a piece on Hmong farmer John Xiong. The farming story is particularly dear to my heart because I've wanted to highlight the work of Southeast Asian farmers in the U.S., most of whom are Hmong farmers, for years.
Small farms advisers Richard Molinar and Michael Yang of Fresno, CA, have put together an informative guide to the Asian specialty vegetable crops grown in the Central Valley of California. Click here to access the .pdf.
Crank up the Heat
My mother swears that when it's hot, you should eat hot food to cool you down. If you subscribe to her theory, then you should make a batch of Jason's Vietnamese-Style Sate Chile Sauce. I did, and it's addictive.
For Bastille Day, I turned on the oven to prepare a childhood favorite: Braised Beef Tongue. It's a homey French preparation that my mother liked to prepare. It's been years since I had tasted it so I rummaged through my freezer for a tongue (yep, I have an interesting freezer) and stormed the kitchen to make it myself.
It's also grilling season so after some thought and practice, I discovered that yes, I CAN cook Beef in Betel Leaf on a grill without burning them. This brings the cooking closer to the traditional method in Vietnam, where the little fragrant rolls are grilled on a charcoal brazier. The instructions have been added to the original recipe.
August in Seattle and Vancouver
If you're in the Pacific Northwest, I'll be heading your way in several weeks. First up is a luncheon and book signing at Monsoon restaurant in Seattle and then a cooking demonstration and signing at Columbia City farmer's market in Seattle. All of these events celebrate Vietnamese food traditions and home cooking. Join me if you're in the area.
Trillium, ExtraMSG and Wandering Chopsticks sent recommendations for Asian markets and restaurants in Portland. If you have something to add or would like to contribute information on markets and restaurants where you live, email me your picks (or warnings) and I'll post them up!
From Seattle, I'll cross the border to Vancouver, where I'll tape a TV segment with food expert Nathan Fong for British Columbia's "Global Saturday Chefs" program. CityCooks, a program that airs nationally on CityTV, has also scheduled me to tape a show for them too. (Airing dates and times are to be announced. Canadian residents should check their program listings. ) I hope there will be enough opportunity to explore and sample Vancouver's wealth of fabulous food.
Vietnamese Food Mini-Boot Camp
I've pondered designing an intensive Vietnamese cooking class for some time, and Bay Area cooking teachers Linda Carucci and Cindy Race invited me to do just that in late August! It's a two-day program -- a Vietnamese restaurant dinner and discussion on Thursday, 8/30, and then a farmer's market excursion, hands-on cooking class, and multi-course lunch with wine pairings on Friday, 8/31. Peruse the class flyer for details.
For other opportunities to cook and learn, check the listing of Classes and Events.
Many thanks to those who've sent in suggestions for content. I'm keeping a running list (Vietnamese beer, fish cakes, MSG, etc.) and will get to answering your questions!
P.S. When cooking seems like a chore, remember the armless Chinese housewife. Thanks to Vic Fong for that one.