Consistency

My dad has always been a stickler for family dinners at the table. When I was little, the routine was comforting. Dinner (always served with a big green salad and homemade vinaigrette) was part of what marked our nights at Dad’s house. By high school though, I would sit and glare at the crystal clock on the mantle, imagining all the fun my friends were having without me as they ate Intermezzo salads on Telegraph avenue or met up early to dine on poppyseed cake at Cafe Roma before heading to a party. In my heart of hearts, I still liked the comfort of routine – but on Friday nights I would bribe Dan to switch chores with me, rushing through my meal in my eagerness to be out the door.

Despite this steadfast dinner routine, my dad is a wildly inconsistent cook. This is not to say he is a bad cook – quite the opposite. He is such a good cook that he almost never makes the same exact meal twice. He starts in a very predictable way – meat and onions, sometimes garlic. But he spices things by instinct, rarely measuring and often experimenting. You never know quite what you’ll get – just that it will probably be good.

So it was really not until my stepmom came into our lives that we had the experience of a nightly dinner that actually tasted the same, week after week.

My stepmom loves a good recipe. And if she finds one that she likes, she will keep it with her. Forever. She has a kitchen binder full of recipes, most of them 3 or 4 decades old. Her cookbooks are tried and true, and date from a time when cookbooks were collections of recipes and recipes alone. She is devoted to those dog-eared and browning pages, with no glossy food photographs or travelogues to sexy them up. She brought some of her favorite foods in to our young lives to stay – AkMak crackers, pickled herring, barely-sweetened short cakes, unsweetened whipped cream. The stir-fry that she made almost weekly was perfectly consistent – from the carefully measured marinade to the selection of veggies to the well-seasoned wok that she cooked it in. At least once a week, on her cooking night, we were treated to a precise combination of ingredients that soon tasted as familiar and as comforting as our dad’s deliciously unpredictable meals.

So it was with some surprise that I heard her announcement several years ago that my dear friend Ann’s new recipe collection, The Little Saigon Cookbook, was her favorite cookbook. Favorite? Really? What about the 1970s tomes on whole grains and legumes? That high-carb 1982 thing with the terrific chili recipe, the recipe that she looked up each and every time she made it? All those ancient Sunset clippings? No. This book rose straight to the top of her list, and there it has stayed. And every time it comes up (it is one of those books that, once you have it, does come up) she repeats her declaration: that is my favorite cookbook.

So it might be Ann’s cookbook that we’re talking about, but I’m dedicating this second book giveaway to my stepmom, who first showed me that a recipe could be more than an idea or a vague guideline: it could be a steadfast and consistent truth, a taste that bore repeating.

And the recipes in this book bear repeating. Boy do they! They are open to interpretation, they can be expanded on or tweaked, but they create flavor combinations that you will definitely want to return to. This is a book about Vietnamese cooking in Southern California’s Little Saigon, home to the largest population of Vietnamese people outside Vietnam. Ann grew up in Little Saigon, and she set out to record the recipes that she had grown up with – many of which existed only through oral history. The book has all kinds of recipes – wonderful French-inspired Vietnamese creations (crepes, puff pastries), marinated meats that burst with lemongrass and garlic and the zing of Thai bird chiles, several delectable varieties of Pho. It also has a terrific primer on Vietnamese ingredients and cooking techniques, and is laced with stories from Ann’s family and the other families that make up the Little Saigon community. Like the last book, I hope it is one you will turn to time and again.

So, I want to know: what is one recipe that you always make exactly as written? Do you hard-boil your eggs the same way each time, measure precise amounts of ingredients for vinaigrette, or always use the exact same flour in your pancakes? Where do you value consistency in your kitchen?

Vietnamese-Inspired Radish Stir Fry
Adapted from the Pan-Fried Tofu and Broccoli with Lemongrass and Chile recipe in The Little Saigon Cookbook by Ann Le
This stir fry uses flavors common in Vietnamese cooking, and they work beautifully with the crisp radishes and their greens. Chicken or beef would work well here (and could certainly be marinated and then grilled before being added – just be sure any extra marinade you add to the pan you heat through well). Turnip greens are deep and slightly bitter, and they really set off the sweet creaminess of the marinated tofu and the caramelized onions. The herbs on top make everything taste bright and fresh and summery – perfect on these warmer nights. I love a dollop of yogurt and some good hot sauce to finish things off – you could also add your heat right to the marinade and skip the sriracha.

Marinade
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 stalks fresh lemongrass, very finely chopped
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons shoyu sauce
Zest and juice from 1 lemon (reserve 1 teaspoon juice for use in part two)
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons canola oil
Ground black pepper to taste
Optional: 1-2 red or green Thai bird chiles, finely chopped, with or without seeds
12 ounces extra-firm tofu, cut into squares
For stir fry:
1 teaspoon canola oil
1 yellow onion, sliced
1 head broccoli, florets separated and chopped, stems peeled and chopped as well
Teaspoon lemon juice
1 bunch radishes, greens separated and washed, radishes sliced 1/4 inch thick
6 cups additional greens (I used turnip, but mustard or bok choy would be great)
For the top:
Sliced scallions, mint, cilantro, and roasted peanuts, greek yogurt, and chili sauce
Combine all the marinade ingredients in a shallow dish, and mix well. Add the tofu squares, and turn to coat. Let marinate for at least ten minutes.
Meanwhile, slice the onion. Cook for a few minutes in the teaspoon of canola oil, in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Lower heat to medium-low and continue to cook, stirring from time to time, for about five minutes more. Add the tofu and any extra marinade to the pan. Let the tofu cook for a couple minutes, then turn each piece (the cooked side should be nice and brown). After the turn, add the broccoli pieces (florets and stems) and the reserved lemon juice to the pan. Cook for a few minutes, depending on thickness, until the color is bright green. Add the radish greens and turn off the heat. Toss the radish and turnip greens with all the marinade and cooked ingredients, so that they wilt down. Add the sliced radishes and toss all together in the pan.
Serve over rice or noodles, with scallions, mint, cilantro, and peanuts, and a big dollop of greek yogurt. Chili sauce such as sriracha is nice on top if you don’t use the chiles (we usually don’t since we are cooking for kids).

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22 thoughts on “Consistency

  1. I have been loving your blog Hannah! The other day I was reading your bread recipes and Chris said “ohhh someone is trying to get all domestic on me”. So I am crossing my fingers that one of the cookbooks you give away are recipes for a girl that moves in with her boyfriend who has 1 pot, 1 pan, and 1 knife…. I’m trying over here but my resources are VERY limited =) xoxo

    • Marcelle – soda bread! All you need is a baking sheet and an oven, and something that will work for mixing – a bowl is nice, but really any sauce pan will do as long as it’s big enough :) We actually will be giving away a cookbook based on simplicity … in another week or two. Might be the perfect thing!

  2. I always, always, always measure exactly the ingredients in my grandmother’s bolognese sauce, although to be fair, her recipe came from “a little of this, a bit of that” and I hovered over her, nailing down measurements so that I could make my sauce exactly like hers.

    • Maura, this idea of nailing down precise ingredients from people who don’t use recipes is a good one – “the hover technique” seems much more effective than the “pester and hound technique” – which has been my go to! Like with Adrianne, I think it is interesting how often we search for those precise flavors in the things that are “everywhere” – bolognese sauce can be found in any Italian restaurant, but none of them will taste like your grandmother’s. It sounds like the hovering was successful – and now you have a written recipe to pass along!

  3. Recently found your blog and am loving it. Regarding consistency in the kitchen, there are a few that pop into my mind (in addition to the aforementioned hardboiled eggs). My granny’s chili…must be followed exactly or you will not get it right. Homemade enchilada sauce from the Pilsbury cookbook…none better. And, last but not least, a recipe I have for chicken manicotti. Other than that, I think everything I cook is fair game to being altered.

    • Adrianne this is interesting because it supports a theory of mine: things like sauces and chilis, which have general formulas that seem so generic, actually become things where exact recipes are important to us. Because there are so many chili recipes out there, the exact ingredients are necessary to make it taste just right/just like the one you are recreating. Also, I love that your granny makes chili!

      • Only because you were nice enough to reply, I’m going to give you more information that you wanted/needed. My mother’s chili is absolutely NEVER the same. She “cleans out the fridge” when she makes it. It’s always good, mind you. Just never the same. So as a child, the dependability of my Granny’s added to the comfort level (and it just so happens that it was DIVINE). I would even take the leftovers home (because I was her favorite/first-born AND the one that begged for the chili) and have them for breakfast (yes, breakfast!). She just passed away (at 85) six weeks ago. Numer one, I’m infinitely grateful I got the recipe and Number two, I’d give anything for a bowl of hers.

  4. Alas! I’m afraid I never make anything exactly by the recipe—which is probably why my wife heads for the hills whenever I decide to bake. I suppose the closest thing would be recipes from the Dona Tomas cookbook, which are complicated enough that I try to follow very closely. That would be this one: http://www.amazon.com/Dona-Tomas-Discovering-Authentic-Mexican/dp/1580086047 —I’ve made the tomatillo enchiladas in there (don’t have the recipe at hand), which were not easy but well worth the effort!

  5. You are so right that I don’t pay attention to recipes except as inspirational reading, that I cannot think of a single dish or recipe to submit to your question… This is a revelation of sorts to me. It’s not that I have no respect for recipes, or for the wonderful cooks who create and share them in books and magazines. Somehow for me though cooking is more about scrounging around the kitchen for what is available or needs to get used up before going bad, and looking around the market for what seems freshest, and throwing all that together in some way. So recipes can only be guideposts on the vast landscape of the palate… The most important thing though is to cook for the family; and for me it is an unmeasurable pleasure to sit and eat with those you love and to see them happy and enjoying the food and one another’s company.

    • Since I already force my children to sit and eat with me, and am definitely a kitchen scrounger/user-upper, you can see that the apple does not fall far from the tree :) This also answers the question of why I can’t think of any “Dad Recipes”!

  6. Tough one since, like the others, I rarely use the same recipe or repeat recipies without ‘trying something new’. This generally fails miserably, like my recent attempt at homemade chocolate pudding for the boys, so perhaps I should value consistency more. The only thing I’m really particular about is generating that perfect caramel color in my morning coffee. The closest one is my mom’s zucchini bread recipe, which I have been eatings since I was little, and is the only one I’ve used (measured precisely), each and every time I make zucchini bread.

    • The homemade pudding/rubber ball was indeed … interesting :) You powered through though. Mmmm, zucchini bread … soon we will be in the season of too-much-zucchini … this might be sacrilege, but I’m contemplating a whole-grain, low-sugar version of the bread … we’ll see!

  7. Hi Hannah!
    Great, great post! I need to bring the stir fry back into my dinner routine and this one sounds delicious.
    My Mom used to make me egg-on-toast for breakfast and I still love it when she makes it for me! When I make it at home I hear her voice in my head and that is what I go by:
    put eggs in a pan of luke warm water for a few minutes – too take the chill off
    put pan on high heat and boil
    once water boils, boil for 3 minuites – no more, no less
    drain, peel eggs, spoon over buttered toast.
    Makes me want eggs-on-toast right now!
    ~Eleanor

    • Yum! My Grandma Roe used to make me eggs and toast, and I have never quite managed to make them as she did – where the yolk was soft and spreadable but not at all runny. This sounds like it might be the ticket – I will have to give it a try! I love the idea of ‘taking the chill off’ the eggs – genius.

  8. There are several recipes out of the “Little Saigon Cookbook” to which I am especially partial. And yes, my family does enjoy the consistency of the flavors. The chicken pho is incredibly delicious and I follow the recipe with precision. Like traditional Jewish chicken soup, Vietnamese chicken pho is complete comfort food. I do take some small liberties with the pan-fried chicken with lemongrass, garlic and chili paste but only because we buy organic chicken breasts in bulk from Costco. Thank you, my dear sweet Hannah, for giving me this delectable cookbook.

  9. My grandmother’s chocolate cake recipe (http://gotitma.blogspot.com/2010/09/grammys-chocolate-cake.html) is a family heirloom. It actually has some flexibility built into it (butter or oil, milk or water) but I always make it the same way… at least I did, until my daughter declared it “too chocolatey.” But then I fell back on family tradition again and resurrected a chocolate chip version my dad once made (http://gotitma.blogspot.com/2011/02/grammys-cake-revisited-somewhat.html). It’s only one change: chocolate chips instead of cocoa powder. Everything else is the same. Either way, I always get out the recipe to follow, now stored in a binder inside a plastic sheet protector, the same piece of lined yellow notebook paper I scribbled it down on as my mother read it to me over the phone from her own handwritten copy. Grammy had a cookbook which I have now, but this recipe isn’t in it. I think she must have gotten it from her mother, or sister or sister-in-law. But the wonderful thing about the cookbook is that it contains all the four-leaf clovers my grandmother used to find, pressed between its pages. She found them everywhere, without even looking. My son seems to have inherited this skill and now fills my own cookbooks with them, as well.

    • Love it Tara! Sounds like a terrific chocolate cake. I have not heard of the four-leaf-clover cookbook tradition, but what a sweet way for your son to carry on a bit of your grandma! Thanks for sharing.

    • My first MIL could find four leaf clovers without even trying, too! I have looked for HOURS of my life and never have found one. She kept all hers in her bible :-) Nice memory (she just passed in January unexpectedly), thank you!!

  10. Hooray! Thanks so much for having the giveaways :). I’m very excited to get the book. I’m sure I’ll love it!

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