From looking at the recent entries on my blog, you wouldn’t think that I cook a lot of Vietnamese food at home. The fact is, I probably cook Vietnamese food about 4 to 5 times a week! Of course, the frequency varies, but hardly a week goes by when I haven’t made something at least Vietnamese-inspired.
After my mother, Luke Nguyen would have to be my greatest source of inspiration when it comes to authentic Vietnamese cuisine. His recipes appear in Secrets of the Red Lantern, an autobiography of sorts written by his sister, Pauline Nguyen, detailing the plight of their family from when they emigrated from Vietnam to Australia, as well as an account of her growing pains as a Vietnamese immigrant in an Australian society. Her story is an inspiring one, though perhaps not too different from many Vietnamese immigrants who struggled to come to terms with their Vietnamese heritage whilst wanting to embrace their newfound Australian identity at the same time. And whilst her bravery in sharing her story ought to be commended, I think the book is made more heartfelt by its recipes.
I have a soft spot for any book which is smartly dotted with recipes throughout. As with many foodies out there, I have a curious obsession with reading cookbooks, and so reading an autobiography is made much easier when there are mouthwatering recipes and tantalising food photography to break the story a little.
I have been cooking quite a bit lately from Rachel Khoo’s The Little Paris Kitchen and am loving everything I have tried so far. This is a bit of a revelation for me considering that I am quite familiar with French food, having grown up eating this cuisine as a child and now married to a French husband. Sure, I have always enjoyed eating French food but, for so long, everything I had eaten had been prepared in faithful reproduction of the classic, such that a coq au vin in one bistro was very likely to taste the same at another. As much as I love French food, my feeling was that it was a bit monotonous at times.
Rachel Khoo brings a lovely, fresh twist to French cooking which has struck a note with me. Quite often, the Vietnamese like to take French classics and give them a fragrant tweak, often involving punchy spices like star anise and gutsy herbs like lemongrass and coriander, but Rachel Khoo’s influence comes from her British upbringing and her Austrian-Malay-Chinese background, a combination which is sure to turn heads in the kitchen.
Pot-au-feu literally translates into English as “pot on the fire”. It is a classic French beef stew, a peasant dish at heart. Traditionally made from beef bones and stewing beef, the broth is typically served as a clear soup, preceding the main dish of sliced beef with vegetables which have been cooked in the broth. It is honest and hearty French fare. Although the dish may take several hours to cook, you are not required to do much during this time, other than to skim the surface of the soup and to check that the meat is continually submerged. This makes it an ideal dish to make when you have time to potter about the kitchen and can look forward to a simple, yet satisfying, supper.
Recipes abound for pot-au-feu and they are all variations of the same blue-print. The beef bones are necessary to add richness and depth to the soup, and oxtails are perfect for this type of cooking, in part because you can also eat the tender and sweet meat later. But the stewing beef is what is traditionally served at the table, so you should find a cut which needs a few hours of cooking time, such as beef brisket or beef shank. In Switzerland, the beef is often labelled “Pot-au-feu”, making it clear what the cut is intended for. But “Bouilli de boeuf maigre” is also a good choice. In Australia, I recall buying cuts of meat simply labelled “soup beef” which would be perfect here. You could also use beef cheeks, which are wonderfully tender and flavoursome upon cooking, though they take longer to cook and you might need to order these from your butcher.
I always look forward to Autumn, that time of the year when the trees change their colours and their golden leaves line the streets with their warm tones in contrast to the biting chill that is beginning to pervade the air. I also love Autumn because I can start to pull out my favourite trench coats, turtleneck jumpers and knee-high boots, a welcome change in wardrobe when I can start to cosy up with layers.