Any of you catch Charles Phan on Iron Chef America last night? He duked it out with Cat Cora in a battle of almonds. It was a tough ingredient to employ for making Vietnamese food. Chinese-Vietnamese Phan pointed out during the judging that he wanted to highlight the cooking of Vietnam. He and able team of women chefs (Lien Ho and Justine Kelly have worked with Charles at Slanted Door in San Francisco for about 15 years) turned out:
- Snow (white) fungus with almond
- Steamed almond banh beo cakes topped with mung beans shallots and toasted almonds (note the misspelling on TV – bahn bao??!)
- Claypot grouper poached in almond milk
- Stir-fried chicken with almonds, gingko nuts, and jujubes (a Slanted Door classic)
- Almond cake with almond cream
Cat Cora presented a number of things including fish encrusted in crushed almonds, duck confit atop almond polenta. The judges – Jeffrey Steingarten (journalist, author), Sunnee Lee (food editor), and a blond actress whose name escapes me now – sparred quite a bit over when and whether or not they tasted almonds.
Almonds are a hard ingredient to highlight in a dish as they’re quite delicate in flavor, unless you punch it up by toasting them or adding a little almond extract. I thought that Phan and his two right-hand chefs – Justine and Lien (you two rocked, gals!) were quite clever in their use of almonds. They also used 'exotic' Asian ingredient such as the snow fungus and gingko nuts on television — which is such a refreshing departure from the norm. They didn’t have to foam it like Iron Chef Cora did a couple dishes. (I only need foam in one dish per meal as to me, foam turns into spittle when overused on a menu.)
The judges deemed a number of Phans preparations to be not almondy enough, too subtle in flavor. I woke up this morning and thought – what CAN be done with almonds in Vietnamese cooking? It’s hard, but maybe this:
- Replacing toasted almonds for peanuts in a Vietnamese salad – maybe one featuring pomelo, shrimp, chicken and fresh herbs
- Encrusting catfish with almonds, frying it up and serving it with a little relish of ginger and shallot
- Making almond milk ice cream and serving it with almond cookies and Vietnamese-style almond brittle (with sesame seeds and a rice paper bottom)
- Some kind of che sweet soup or pudding that features almonds
Did you watch the episode? (Check for rebroadcasts) What did you think of the dishes submitted, the judges comments? What would you have done differently?