Thursday, December 20, 2018

Patisserie Melanie's Kouign-Amanns

You'd be forgiven if, after stepping into Melanie Dunn's Pâtisserie Mélanie in Hillcrest, you thought you had been transported to a sweet little Parisian bakery. French posters and art rest on soft blue walls. A counter is stocked with pastries, baked in small batches. There's a small seating area and vintage/retro housewares and cookbooks for sale. It's very sweet, very sophisticated, and reflects Dunn's pastry training at Le Condon Bleu in Paris over three summers. Heck, she and her husband and young daughter even live above the shop. It's where Dunn does her baking with an assistant.

The pastries are stunning. Flaky butter, chocolate, and pistachio croissants. Pain aux Raisins. Chocolate and lemon tarts. Cannelés Bordelais. And, oh, Kouign-Amanns, both classic and cinnamon. Dunn also makes caramels, macarons (of course), sable cookies, and preserves. The flavors change with the seasons. In fact, her holiday collection--Macarons "Les Fêtes"--is a box of four apple cider, fig, hazelnut, and pumpkin macarons.

Dunn opened Pâtisserie Mélanie on Valentine's Day 2018. Previously, the native Hawaiian had been an English teacher at Crawford High School for 15 years. She had thought about being a graphic designer. Then she applied to law school and got into USD. But law school wasn't for her so, with some experience teaching, she opted instead to get her teaching credential. All the while she felt she wanted something else and at the 10-year point as a teacher, burnt out and ready for a change she headed into a direction that had always intrigued her: baking.

"I was a picky eater as a child and didn't get to eat desserts, which made me obsessed with them," she says. "I have a persona that likes things just so and that fit with baking."

Dunn (who taught and is friends with San Diego chef Katherine Humphus) made use of her summer vacations from teaching to attend Le Cordon Bleu in Paris for eight-week sessions focused on pastry. After three years she earned her Diplôme de Pâtisserie. Initially, her plan was to stop teaching and work in the industry. But around 2015 she and husband Axel Schwarz, also a teacher, started house hunting. They stumbled upon a townhouse in Hillcrest on Park Blvd. that had a large room at the entrance, with the rest of the space behind the room and upstairs. That front room could be a bakery--and with new cottage food laws in place, she could do her baking in her own kitchen. It took awhile to make it all work, mostly because she decided to pause her plans with the birth of her daughter. But by the beginning of 2018 Dunn was ready to launch. Now she's contemplating ways to expand.

I spent a wonderful morning with Dunn, learning how to make her Kouign-Amann. This is a Breton cake, filled with butter and still more butter. It's the perfect introduction to lamination--the process of folding butter into dough to get the flaky layers you enjoy in puff pastry and croissants. There aren't nearly as many turns with Kouign-Amann, so if you've been wanting to try making a laminated pastry, this is perfect. And, damn, they're both delicious and beautiful!

It also takes awhile. Dunn suggests making this a weekend process with the first day making the dough, then refrigerating it overnight and returning to it the next day to roll, fold, and bake the pastries.

This recipe makes 9 good-sized pastries. You can mix the dough in a 4-quart stand mixer using a dough hook, but if you have the larger  6-quart bowl, the hook won't engage. The recipe is too small. So, you can either double the recipe--or do what Dunn did and mix it by hand.

Let's do it by hand. It's pretty easy, especially if you have a thin scraper to pull ingredients from the side of the bowl.

You'll start with flour, salt, and 10 grams of unsalted butter in a bowl. Rub the butter into the flour-salt mixture to incorporate it. Then mix together year with water and add it to the flour mixture, using the scraper to bring the ingredients together to form the dough.

Once it's all mixed, turn it out onto your counter (I have a marble slab that works well; granite countertops are equally good.). You'll knead the dough for up to 8 minutes until it has an elastic quality. Shape it and wrap it in plastic and let it chill overnight.

The next day, you'll preheat the oven, depending on whether you have a convection or conventional oven, to either 350 or 375 degrees. Then you'll get out your butter (Dunn suggests that it be at least 85 percent butter fat) and shape it into a rectangle (you could also do this the day before and wrap it up to chill).

Now it gets real. You're going to start laminating. Pull the dough from the fridge and use just enough flour on the counter--or "bench"--to keep it from sticking. Roll it into a long rectangle, the same width as the butter's length and place the butter in the center. Now fold the top and bottom of the dough over the butter so they meet in the middle. Turn it over so the seam is underneath.

Dunn's helpful hint is to create a grid of indentations using your rolling pin to help you roll the dough straight. Then roll it out to 24 inches in length. Now for your first fold. It's called a "double book fold"--what that means is you'll fold one end to mid point of length of dough over the butter, fold the other end to same mid point, then fold one 'side' of the book on top of the other.

Now you'll create another grid of indentations and roll it out again. Then you'll do a letter/envelope fold, meaning you fold it in thirds. One end is folded two-thirds of the way up the length of the dough. Then you'll pull the other end over to the opposite side to cover the first fold. Wrap the dough in plastic and let it rest for at least an hour.

Now it's time to get it ready for baking. Get out one of your muffin/cupcake pans. Set it aside, along with a ruler and a knife.

Sprinkle half the sugar on the bench. Unwrap the dough and place it on top, then sprinkle the rest of the sugar on the dough. Roll out the dough and do your last turn, an envelope fold, and sprinkle any remaining sugar on the bench onto the dough.

Roll the dough into a 12-inch square. Using your ruler, mark a 3 by 3 grid of 9, with each square 4 inches. Trim the edges so they're straight and cut out the squares.

With each square, you'll pull in the four corners and press into the center. Place/push each piece into a muffin pan opening and gently press the center down. Dunn suggests using the outer spaces.

Bake! It'll be about an hour for the convection oven and an hour and 15 minutes for conventional ovens. Get out a rack while they're baking and place it on a parchment paper-lined sheet pan to catch drips. The butter will leave a pool at the bottom but what you're looking for is a caramelized, golden brown bottom.

Too light on the left; just right on the right

The best tool for pulling out the pastries is a pasta tongs, Dunn says. When they're done, place each pastry upside down on the rack to cool.

Then eat! Oh, you did it!

From Melanie Dunn, Patisserie Melanie
Yield: 9 pastries
(printable recipe)

275 grams all-purpose flour
5 grams salt
10 grams unsalted butter, room temperature
2.5 grams instant yeast
165 milliliters water
225 grams unsalted butter (85% butter fat or higher preferred), chilled in the fridge
225 grams granulated sugar

Place flour, salt, and 10 grams of butter in a bowl and rub the butter into flour-salt mixture.

Mix yeast with water and add to flour mixture. Use a thin scraper to bring ingredients together and form dough.

Turn dough onto counter or other surface and knead from 6 to 8 minutes until it develops elasticity.

Shape the dough into a square, double wrap in plastic wrap, and place in a ziplock bag. Chill in refrigerator overnight.

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees for a convection oven and 375 for a conventional oven.

Place the 225 grams of butter on a piece of parchment paper. Using a rolling pin smack it around and roll it out into a 5-inch by 7-inch rectangle. It should be about the same texture as the dough. Set aside.

Remove dough from refrigerator, unwrap and, using just a little flour to prevent sticking, roll it out into a 10-inch by 7-inch rectangle. Place the slab of butter in the center. Its length should be equal to the rolled out dough's width. Fold top of the dough over the butter so it reaches the halfway point of the butter. Repeat with the bottom of the dough.

Turn over so it’s seam side down and with the rolling pin, create a grid of indentations to help you roll the dough straight. Roll the dough out to 24 inches long. Do one double book fold (fold one end to mid point of length of dough over the butter, fold the other end to same mid point, then fold one 'side' of the book on top of the other). Create another grid of indentations and roll out again. Do a letter/envelope fold (fold in thirds = fold one end two-thirds of the way up the length of dough, then take the other end and stretch it to the opposite side to 'cover' the first fold ). Wrap it in plastic and let it rest for at least one hour.

Sprinkle half the sugar on the bench—your flat surface. Unwrap and place dough on top. Add the rest of the sugar on the dough. Roll to 22 inches by 9 inches. Do one envelope fold and then sprinkle any sugar remaining on the bench on top.

Roll to a 12-inch square. Using a ruler, mark a grid of 9 (3 by 3). Each small square should be 4 inches. Trim the edge so they’re straight, then cut the grid into squares.

Take one square and fold in all four corners, pressing toward the center. Place into a muffin cup and gently press the center down. Repeat for each around the edges of the muffin pan.

Bake at 350 degrees in a convection oven for about an hour or 375 degrees in a conventional oven for about an hour and 15 minutes. Check for caramelization by lifting up one of the pastries with a pasta tongs and looking at the bottom. If it’s still a little light and a little wet, return the pastry to the muffin cup and bake another 5 minutes. Check again. The bottom should be golden brown and caramelized.

Prepare a rack by placing it a sheet pan lined with parchment paper (to catch the butter and sugar drips. Remove each pastry immediately from the muffin cups and place upside down on the rack to cool.

Pâtisserie Mélanie is located at 3788 Park Blvd., Suite 4 in Hillcrest.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Holiday Gift Ideas for Your Favorite Locavores

Trish Watlington of Two Forks Farm (and former owner of The Red Door) is the founder of Farm to Fork San Diego, a membership organization of local farmers, chefs/restaurants, fishermen, distilleries, wineries, caterers, and related professionals that focuses on supporting local food, farm families and their workers, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by lowering the number of miles food travels to the plate. Farm to Fork San Diego helps consumers and others interested in supporting this mission by verifying through local farmers that participating chefs and restaurants are actually buying from them. 

Now I can only think of two times I've let someone guest post on San Diego Foodstuff in the blog's 11 (almost 12) years. But as a member of Farm to Fork San Diego I want to help Trish highlight some of the amazing offerings other members have for holiday gifting. So, I'm turning today's post over to Trish. You'll love these unique gift ideas!

Struggling to find fabulous gifts and stay true to supporting local farms, friends, and neighbors? Or maybe you’re just looking for something unique or delicious that your family or co-workers will absolutely love. Farm to Fork San Diego has the perfect gift guide for San Diegans who want to pick up a fabulous gift and stay close to home.

Fork over a locavore feast with these unique tokens of holiday giving.

Cider from award winning Bivouac Ciderworks, brewed right in North Park is a rich, refreshing, complex and intoxicating beverage good for any occasion.

Farm to Table gift baskets from Garden Kitchen’s 100 percent scratch kitchen are full of local artisan jams, pickles, tea towels and soaps. Stop by Garden Kitchen to pick one up.

How about a little glitz and glam with gourmet local food. Grab a gift card to Kettner Exchange or gift tickets to any of the their upcoming events.

Go hog wild with some tickets to BIGA’s Third Anniversary Hog Roast.

Find holiday cheer and locavore luxuries at the Little Italy Wednesday or Saturday markets. From apples to zany custom creations, San Diego Markets have everything for everyone.

Make a memory with friends and family.

Join a cooking or gardening class at Olivewood Gardens. Meet new friends, learn new skills, and enjoy a day in a beautiful organic garden. All proceeds support the garden and nutrition education programs at Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center.

Grab some of your favorite folks and build a private food, farm, and libation tour. Whether your group is 4 or 40, Epicurean San Diego has an experience just for you.

Relax with friends, music and wine at Ramona Ranch Winery while selecting unique gifts including award-winning wines, jewelry, gift cards, and more from specialty vendors and family artisans.

Outfit the gardener in your life.

Our friend Nan Sterman, host of KPBS TV’s A Growing Passion, has the perfect book for plant lovers wanting beauty while still being mindful of water saving. Order a signed copy of Hot Color, Dry Garden or any of Nan’s books here.

Mission Hills Nursery can fill all your gardening gifts from gnomes to tools. Or stop by to pick up a Christmas tree. 

Buy them Soil Food, humus-rich compost made locally in small batches, or a compost bin to make their own. Food2Soil is a compost collective reducing the amount of food waste that lands in landfills.

Gift locally grown and climatically adapted seeds from our very own San Diego Seed Company. Choose some of your favorite varieties or buy a gift certificate so that gardeners can choose their own.

Or check out all the local member farms, restaurants, and businesses at

And join us January 12-19, 2019 for Farm 2 Fork San Diego's Local Libations Week, focusing on local beverages and their place with and without food. Caron promises more information here on the various events coming up, but we launch at BIGA with their Third Annual Hog Roast and tap takeover on the 12th (see above).

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Double Chocolate Sourdough Banana Bread

Yeah, it happened again--as it almost always does. I buy bananas, vow to eat them--and life gets in the way and those sleek yellow fruits transition into ugly brown reminders of my lack of follow through.

And become banana bread.

Now I enjoy a good banana bread as much as anyone. But I also love chocolate. And, well, I have that sourdough starter in my refrigerator which I like to give a purpose to when I can. So I started to wonder if there was a way to incorporate all of them into one sweet bread.

Turns out there is. I just had to juggle the ingredients to make it work. This is an exercise my pastry chef friends do all the time, albeit on a much more sophisticated scale. I, however, am obviously not a pastry chef nor am I a science geek. If I goofed I could have had a cake/bread that didn't rise, was tough, was goopy, or... well, who knows what.

I did know that by adding a cup of starter I was adding half a cup of flour and half a cup of water. Both would have to come out of the usual ingredient measurements. But banana bread doesn't add liquid specifically. Tricky. Plus, the starter would be live, not discard that simply adds flavor. So, I had to take into account the amount of baking soda I would add (or, rather, subtract).

I scoured my favorite banana bread recipes and figured that if I left out the sour cream of one, along with reducing the amount of flour I would get what I was after. The starter would take on both the tang and moisture/texture of the sour cream and make up for some of the flour. And I'd subtract half the amount of baking soda since a newly fed active starter would contribute to the rise.

Hey, hey, hey, it worked. Really well. I got a beautiful crumb, huge crowns--and beautiful flavor. Oh, and did I even mention the chocolate? The gorgeous, deeply, richly brown chocolate which pairs so well with the banana? With slightly sour notes?

When preparing the batter, think of the process as setting it up in thirds:
  • Sifting together then mixing the dry ingredients
  • Creaming the butter with the sugar and then adding the other "liquid" ingredients
  • Mashing the bananas before adding the starter 

It will all come together in the bowl of your stand mixer with the addition of chocolate chips. You could use semi-sweet chips, but be bold and go for dark chocolate. My brand pick is Guittard, along with their Cocoa Rouge unsweetened cocoa. They make this bread magical.

This is a bread you can gift. And I'd suggest baking not one huge loaf--although you could--but a few mini loaves. You can gift them or, if you keep them, you'll have one to indulge in now, and two to wrap and freeze.

Note: A word on starters. King Arthur has a great primer on how to make your own starter from scratch here. And they do sell starter online. However, if you are in San Diego, you can take advantage of the generosity of Cardamom Cafe & Bakery's Joanne Sherif, who loves to share her starter discards with others. I'm happy to gift discards as well. Or in San Diego or beyond, find a friend with starter to share. At that point, all you have to do is feed it (add equal amounts of flour and water--as in 2 ounces each--stir well and let sit at room temperature to rise and bubble before using or refrigerating). Each week, you'll take some out (hence, "discard") and then feed it with fresh flour and water. And, with a starter in your fridge, you can gift the discards to others or use it to make a variety of breads and desserts--even pancakes/waffles. 

Double Chocolate Sourdough Banana Bread
Yield: One loaf pan or three mini loaves
(printable recipe)

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup unsalted butter, soft and cut into chunks
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup fresh sourdough starter
2 very ripe bananas
1 cup dark chocolate chips

Pre-heat oven to 350°. Lightly grease 1 large loaf pan or three mini loaf pans with butter or spray with Pam.

Sift together flour, baking soda, salt, and cocoa powder into a bowl and stir to mix them thoroughly.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, add the butter and sugar and beat until light and creamy. Add the egg and vanilla and continue beating until fully incorporated.

In another bowl, mash the bananas, then stir in the sourdough starter.

Add the banana/starter mixture to the butter mixture and mix together at low speed. Then slowly add the dry ingredients. Don't over-mix. Finally, slowly add the chocolate chips and mix until incorporated.

Pour the batter into the loaf pans and place the mini loaf pans, if using, on a baking sheet to make getting them in and out of the oven easier.

Bake for 45 minutes (mini loaf pans) to an hour (1 large loaf pan). Use a cake tester or toothpick to insert into the center. If it comes out clean, the bake is done.

Remove from the oven and let rest in the loaf pan on a rack for 10 minutes, then carefully remove the breads from the pan and place on the rack to completely cool.

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Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Time for Latkes

Chanukah began last Sunday night. Were your frying pans, potatoes, and oil at the ready?

Like most Jewish kids of Eastern European, or Ashkenazic, descent, I grew up eating potato latkes, or pancakes, every Chanukah. My extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins would gather on the first night of the holiday at one of our homes and the air would soon be heavy with the aroma of potatoes cooking in oil. Because it was technically a full meal, someone would make brisket or roast chicken. Someone else would make vegetables and salad. But the centerpiece of the meal, the only dish that counted that evening, was the latkes—crispy on the outside, tender on the inside. And we’d take sides over what accompanied them. Those who were on the savory side ate them with salt and sour cream. The rest would go for sugar and/or applesauce.

Latkes may be iconic Ashkenazic Chanukah food now, but they’re actually relatively new in Jewish history. The Maccabees—the priestly family who led the successful rebellion against the Syrians back in 168 B.C.E. which the holiday celebrates—never would have had latkes since they would never have seen a potato. It was only at the end of the 18th century that German Jews began making potato pancakes, but not for Chanukah. And these potato pancakes weren’t just from grated spuds, as we’ve come to assume are traditional, but also mashed, according to Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.

But potatoes became a staple of Eastern European Jewish food and eventually the potato latke, made from hand-grated russet potatoes, became associated with Chanukah in Eastern Europe and then the U.S. by the mid-19th century, as  immigrants arrived here.

Given how relatively recently the potato latke became part of Jewish history, why not riff on tradition and create other forms of pancakes from different root vegetables to celebrate the festival of lights? After all, the main point of the holiday is celebrating the miracle of the single jar of oil that burned for eight days.

Baby Turnip Latkes frying
No matter what root vegetable you use, here are some tips for getting them as crispy as possible:
  • Be sure to squeeze all the liquid out of the grated vegetables. Cheesecloth is good for this.
  • You don't have to deep fry the latkes. Just use enough oil to cook them.
  • Make sure that the oil has a high smoke point, like canola or avocado oil. 
  • Fry them in cast iron skillets to get them really crispy. 
  • And, if you’re entertaining the crowd, make them ahead of time and freeze them. Then reheat them in the oven. Making latkes is a hot and messy affair. It’s fun, but it may not be what you want to do when company is there.
Evie's Latkes
Adapted from Molly Goldberg
Makes 20 pancakes
(printable recipe)

Five russet potatoes
One onion, grated
2 eggs, beaten
3 tablespoons matzoh meals
½ teaspoon baking powder
2 slices eggbread, softened and squeezed of water (Nana)
Vegetable or peanut oil (or shortening)
Salt and pepper

1. Put grated potato and onion in strainer over a large bowl. Knead it to get moisture out, the let sit in bowl to draw out potato starch. Dump water but keep starch at bottom of bowl. 
2. Put potatoes/onion in tea towel and wring to get out moisture. 
3. Add to bowl with other ingredients, Mix well, including starch.
4. Fry in cast iron pans. Drain on paper towels and keep warm on cookie sheets in 200º oven.

Carrot Turnip Latkes
From Caron Golden 
Makes about two dozen, three-inch pancakes
(printable recipe)

Here’s a colorful variation from the traditional potato latkes I grew up with. In winter, you can make these pancakes with any root vegetable. Try sweet potatoes, parsnips, or beets, separately or in combination. For a more traditional latke, use an onion instead of the green onions and leave out the garlic and herbs. My grandmother used to add two slices of eggbread, crusts removed, softened with water and then squeezed of the moisture. My mom still makes traditional latkes this way.

½ pound of carrots, trimmed and peeled
½ pound of turnips, trimmed and peeled (look for sweeter baby turnips if available)
6 large green onions, trimmed
3 cloves garlic
4 tablespoons matzoh meal or flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons fresh, chopped herbs (parsley, oregano, thyme, etc.)
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
Salt and pepper to taste
Vegetable or peanut oil or duck fat

1. Grate the turnips and carrots coarsely, using the large holes of a box grater or food processor grater. Place in large bowl.
2. Chop the green onions coarsely and add to the bowl of a food processor fitted with the chopping blade. Add the garlic and pulse until the onions and garlic are minced. 
3. Put all the vegetables in a large bowl and add the matzoh meal, baking powder, herbs, garlic, salt, and pepper. Stir it all together to fully mix the ingredients.
4. Add the eggs and mix well. The batter should be moist but not runny.
5. Heat 1/4-inch of oil or duck fat in a hot pan. Place a tiny bit of the batter in the pan. If it begins to sizzle, the fat is hot enough for the batter. Use a large spoon and drop the batter into the pan, then flatten into a pancake. Don't crowd the pancakes by putting too many in at one time. Cook for several minutes on each side until the pancakes are golden brown. Put the pancakes on a plate with paper towels placed on top to drain the fat. You can also heat your oven to 200 degrees, place the pancakes on a baking sheet, and keep them warm until you serve them. 
6. Serve (with applesauce, sour cream, or creme fraiche). 

Curried Sweet Potato Latkes
From the New York Times via David Wasserman/Joes on the Nose
Yield- 16, 3-inch pancakes
1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled
1/2 cup flour
2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper or to taste
2 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon cumin
Salt and pepper to taste
2 large eggs, slightly beaten
1/2 cup milk approximately
Peanut oil for frying

1.Grate the sweet potatoes coarsely. In a separate bowl mix together the flour, sugar, brown sugar, baking powder, cayenne pepper, curry powder, cumin, salt and pepper.
2. Add the eggs and just enough milk to the dry ingredients to make a stiff batter. Add the potatoes and mix.  The batter should be moist but not runny. If too stiff, add more milk.
3.  Heat 1/4 inch of peanut oil in a sauté pan until it is barely smoking. Drop in the batter by tablespoons and flatten. Cook several minutes on each side until golden. Drain, serve.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Bánh Mì Hôi An's Spring Rolls, Peanut Sauce, and Nuoc Cham

Are you still lolling on your couch in a Thanksgiving food coma? Brace yourself! Chanukah and potato latkes hit this weekend and then comes Christmas, followed by New Years.

You need a culinary break. A meal that will feel refreshing with bright flavors. A meal that will give your overworked tummy a bit of a reprieve from richness but still leave you satisfied--even happy.

That's where spring rolls come in. They're fresh and light. They're pretty easy for home cooks to make. And they really pack a lot of flavor in a convenient package.

Spring rolls can be found across Asia. But I'm going to share with you the Vietnamese version made by Duy Nguyen, the owner of the relatively new and delightful Bánh Mì Hôi An on Rosecrans in Point Loma. I was introduced to it by my friend, chef Jack Monaco, and immediately set about organizing a cook date with Nguyen, which Jack also participated in.

Nguyen, who opened the restaurant in July, is a long-time enthusiastic home cook. It started back in the '90s when he was a student at UCSD. His dish was pasta and his roommates were grateful. Then he started gathering Vietnamese recipes from his mother, who was from the French resort town of Dalat in a mountain region near Saigon.

Nguyen himself left Vietnam with his parents when he was 11. He had grown up under the communist regime and, not surprisingly, was taught Russian in school as a child. His father, an officer in the South Vietnamese army, was sent to a re-education camp for six years. The family spent the  five years trying to escape Vietnam and when they were caught, the child Duy was jailed for what was perhaps a few weeks. He can't really remember. The family finally was able to get to Thailand in 1986, escaping through Cambodia via a fishing boat, and they stayed in a Thai refugee camp for about a year before moving on to the Philippines.

"We were placed in a refugee camp near the U.S. base," Nguyen explained. "The orientation was on American life so we would be acclimated when we finally arrived."

By then he was 15 years old. The family settled in San Diego where extended family had already moved, and Nguyen eventually enrolled in UCSD as an engineering student before switching to economics. He pursued a career in management consulting, working in the oil and gas business. After earning his MBA at Cal State San Marcos, Nguyen worked for a debt management company, all the while cooking at home, for church fundraisers, and family parties. It took a leap of faith, but he chucked his management job and opened his fast casual restaurant last summer.

Bánh Mì Hôi An, of course, features banh mi sandwiches on the menu. But there are also a variety of vermicelli salads, grilled meats served with jasmine rice, spring and summer rolls, pork skewers, marinated tofu, crispy fried chicken wings, and a fabulous cold cut sampler plate--with the cold cuts all house made.

But let's stick with the spring rolls.
It can be overwhelming for the unfamiliar to figure out which brands and products to buy. These are what Nguyen recommends. You can find them at Vietnamese markets or 99 Ranch Market.
Among the ingredients you'll need are rice paper, 41-50 size shrimp, pork loin, vermicelli (rice noodles), green leaf lettuce, mint leaves, and, if you like, bean sprouts, whole chives, cucumber, carrots, peanuts, and daikon. Want to add some crunch? Pick up some egg roll wrappers, roll them individually and fry them.

Oh, and to make it easy to get the size uniform, pick up an 8 X 10-inch cutting board with a ridge around the edge. Nguyen uses one, placing the ingredients between the ridges to keep them the same size.

You have to work fairly quickly on spring rolls, so you'll want to have everything prepped and ready to go. The vermicelli needs to be cooked like pasta in salted boiling water for about 20 minutes. You'll want to bring another pot of water to the boil to cook first the shrimp and then, with the addition of salt and fish sauce, the pork loin, which will boil for about 15 minutes. You could also substitute the pork with chicken and instead add a couple of slices of ginger.

And, don't toss the liquid after you've cooked the meat. It's the makings of a great soup, Nguyen said.

Once everything is prepped and laid out--you'll have sliced the shrimp in half lengthwise. sliced the cooled pork, keep the rice noodles in a bowl covered with plastic wrap, fill a large bowl with hot water for dipping the rice paper, and have your herbs and vegetables prepped--you can get to the filling and rolling.

Step one is a quick dip of the rice paper into that bowl of very hot water. Dip it and do one turn. Your goal is to keep it stretchy, not soggy.

Then place the rice paper on the cutting board. Layer three shrimp slices, the outside on the bottom, then three pork slices below. Top with a leaf of green leaf lettuce, then four mint leaves and whatever other herbs or vegetables you like and/or the fried egg wrapper--just don't overfill. You'll end with about 1.5 ounces of the cooked vermicelli spread across the other ingredients.

And here's Nguyen demonstrating the actual rolling process:

And, here's how it should look:

I still need practice. I made the long one in the middle. 
Pretty cool, huh?

Here's Jack Monaco turning his hand at the process:

Now you need a couple of dipping sauces. Nguyen shared both his peanut sauce and nuoc cham, which are very simple to make.

One last word about the spring rolls. If you're not going to serve them immediately, roll each in plastic wrap so they won't dry out or stick to one another. Here's a tip: fold the edge of the plastic wrap back and over so you'll have an easier time finding it and unrolling it.

Spring Rolls
from Duy Nguyen of Bánh Mì Hôi An
Yield: 6 rolls
(printable recipe)

18 shrimp, cooked or raw, 41-50 (or small--but not bay--shrimp)
1 pound pork loin, with fat left on
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon salt
1 package 903 vermicelli
6 sheets rice paper
6 leaves green leaf lettuce
24 mint leaves
6 egg roll wrappers, rolled and fried (optional)
Carrots, daikon, cucumber, sliced into thin sticks (optional)
Bean sprouts (optional)
Crushed peanuts (optional)


Bring a large pot of water to the boil. If the shrimp is raw, add them briefly until they turn pink. Remove and let cool. Add the fish sauce and salt to the water and add the pork loin. Boil for 15 minutes, then remove and let cool.

Bring another pot of water to the boil. While the water is heating, rinse the rice noodles in cold water until the water runs clear to remove starch. Boil the vermicelli per the package directions. Remove the noodles from the water, drain, and place in a bowl. Cover with plastic wrap.

Slice the shrimp in half lengthwise and thinly slice the pork loin. Set aside. Set out the rest of the ingredients you're going to add to the roll.

In a bowl of very hot water, dip then turn one sheet of rice paper. Place on a cutting board. Start layering, first with three pieces of shrimp across the center of the wrapper, outer side on the bottom.  Then place three slices of pork across the rice paper just below the shrimp. Top with the leaf of lettuce, mint leaves, bean sprouts, egg roll wrappers, or whatever else you want, and finally the vermicelli.

Gently pull the bottom of the rice paper up and over the ingredients and firmly tuck in. Then start rolling. Pull in each side to the middle and finish rolling, tucking in as you continue. Think of it like rolling a burrito.

Set aside until you've made all six. Then serve with sauces or wrap in plastic and refrigerate.

Peanut Sauce
from Duy Nguyen of Bánh Mì Hôi An
Yield: 1 1/4 cup
(printable recipe)

1/4 cup hoisin sauce
1/4 cup coconut water or Sprite
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup peanut butter--creamy or crunchy


Whisk ingredients together or blend in a blender or small food processor. When ready to serve top with Sriracha sauce and crushed peanuts.

Peanut Sauce will be good refrigerated for a week.

Nuoc Cham
from Duy Nguyen of Bánh Mì Hôi An
Yield: 4 cups
(printable recipe)

This is a very versatile sauce. Not only is it a great dipping sauce but if you add some oil and more vinegar you have a salad dressing. Or, as is, use it to pickle vegetables.

1/2 cup fish sauce
1 cup sugar
2 cups warm water
1/2 cup distilled vinegar or fresh lime juice (to taste)
Juice of 1 or 2 kumquats if available
1 clove garlic, crushed (optional)

Mix together ingredients. Add chili paste to taste when serving at the table. Can last for months refrigerated.

Bánh Mì Hôi An is located at 3145 Rosecrans St., Suite A in Point Loma (next to the Bookstar  bookstore).

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Monday, November 19, 2018

Mom's Mashed Potatoes

I live in a community in which neighbors know each other by the alleys they live on. It's rare to go to someone's front door here. All the action is in the alley. The kids play there. Puppies learn to walk on leashes there. You go to borrow a cup of sugar or drop off a mis-delivered package through the alley.

So, it's natural that it's where we celebrate major holidays. Last Sunday night we held our annual Alley Thanksgiving and about 20 people, including all the little kids--and some of the grown kids--showed up for the ultimate potluck. A juicy smoked turkey. Honey-baked ham. Stuffing, of course. Lots of rolls and lots of salad. String beans. And, I brought the mashed potatoes.

Normally, mashed potatoes isn't something I make, particularly for a crowd. It's a whole lot of carbs. But I'm not hosting Thanksgiving this year and my mom, who loves to make mashed potatoes, won't be making them. So I decided to step up with them for our Alley Thanksgiving. Who better to turn to than Evie for a primer on making them for a crowd?

My mom believes in using russets, not Yukon Golds. They mash more smoothly, she says. She uses butter, cream cheese, and evaporated milk to get just the right consistency and boosts the flavor with roasted garlic and the oil they roast in, as well as a big helping of grated Parmesan cheese and some salt.

As a dish to make in a hurry, it's close to being that. The prep is easy; it's just waiting for a large pot of water filled with peeled and quartered potatoes can be a finger-tapping experience. So, go do something else in the meantime.

Now, the good thing about this recipe--other than how deeply luscious and delicious it is--is that you can improvise a bit based on your own tastebuds. Add more garlic or leave it out entirely. Add herbs (I garnished the top with chives from my garden). Add a different grated hard cheese. Or no cheese. Add pepper, of course. Add boiled, peeled celery root. So, riff on this as you will, but with this recipe you have a foundation for your own version of perfection.

I returned home with just enough to share with Mom.

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

Mom’s Mashed Potatoes
Serves 10 to 12
(printable recipe)

2 heads garlic
1 teaspoon olive oil
5 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and quartered
1/2 stick butter or more, melted
1, 8-ounce package cream cheese, cut into one-inch pieces
1, 12-ounce can evaporated milk (or cream or whole milk, depending on your preference)
1/2 cup or more (depending on your preference) Parmesan cheese, grated
Salt to taste


Pre-heat oven to 400°. Slice off top of the garlic heads enough to just expose the cloves inside. Place the garlic heads on a piece of foil, drizzle them with olive oil and wrap in the foil. Place in the oven and roast about 30 minutes, until cloves are just browning and tender. Remove from oven and let cool. Squeeze each clove into a small bowl, add the olive oil from the foil and a little more if necessary and mash. Set aside.

Put potatoes in big pot of cold salted water to cover. Cover loosely and bring to the  boil. Turn down heat and simmer until soft. Remove from heat and drain the water.

Put potatoes in a large bowl with butter and mashed garlic. Start mashing and stir in cream cheese while potatoes are still hot. Then gradually add evaporated milk and continue mashing until the potatoes reach the consistency you want. Mix in Parmesan cheese and salt to taste.

Can be refrigerated and reheated in microwave. Keep additional evaporated milk in case you need to thin it out after reheating.

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