One day, Apollo, the sunny god, mocked Eros's power and was struck for his naughtiness with one of his love arrows, while his victim, beautiful virginal nymph Daphne received a lead one instead. Like all Greek gods, inflamed by the passion hidden in Eros's golden arrows, Apollo began to chase her relentlessly. Daphne asked her father, river god Peneus to set her free of Apollo's chase and she was turned into a laurel tree. Struck with grief and desire, Apollo vowed to love her to eternity and thus turned her into an ever green tree.
Laurus nobilis properties:
-treats rashes, colds and rheumatism
I'm presenting you two recipes with the laurel (bay) leaves I picked myself from the legendary tree in the Roman Forum.
SUMMER CHICKEN STEW
A rustic, delicious stew gathering summery flavors and colors, like a threshold between summer and autumn. You can also try the vegetarian version, by not adding the meat. I was delighted to stumble upon some organic mixed cherry tomatoes for this recipe and I encourage you to try it with whole cherry tomatoes.
Ingredients (4 servings)
6 chicken legs or wings
1 large chicken breast ( or two small)
500g cherry tomatoes
1 small eggplant ( I only used half of what you see)
2-3 large mushrooms
bell peppers mix (about 4)
250 frozen or fresh peas
1 large onion or 2 small
4 medium carrots
1/2 kilo potatoes
a few hot peppers ( to taste)
150g Kalamata or natural olives
fresh grated ginger (or frozen one, the best way to preserve fresh ginger is in the freezer. You can grate it whenever you need it and then put it back)
dry celery leaves
3-4 bay leaves
The purpose of the recipe being laurel tasting, we may add more leaves than usually, for this quantity. Cut the vegetables in chunk pieces. Leave the tomatoes and hot peppers as they are. Stir fry the chicken legs in a pan (I use a wok), with olive oil, remove and put them in a pot. Add the chicken breast, squarely cut and stir fry until golden, by adding a little bit more olive oil. When almost ready, throw in the olives and leave them for 3-4 minutes. Remove and place in the same stew pot. Add all the vegetables and the spices in the same pot, except for turmeric. Cover and let cook for about 30 min, at medium heat, by constantly stirring. 25 minutes into cooking, add and mix the turmeric. When the potatoes are ready, so is the stew. Serve with a good bread and sprinkled dill. Enjoy the summer essence and the Mediterranean flavors!
SCRAMBLED EGGS WITH VEGGIES, MELTING CHEESE AND BAY LEAVES
Ingredients (2 servings)
1 bell pepper, 1 mushroom and 1 small tomato
80g of your melting cheese of choice. I used cascaval, a delicious Romanian cheese ( I will soon write about it) resembling Mozzarella or Cheddar.
optional: 1 hot pepper, unseeded
1 crushed bay leave (use a mortar)
Mince the vegetables. Beat the eggs with the oregano and the crushed bay leave. Heat a pan with olive oil and stir fry the vegetables for about 5 minutes. Throw the egg mixture in, together with the melting cheese, broken into pieces by hand, and scramble your eggs on medium heat. Served here with lettuce, parsil and green onion salad (with lemon dressing). Pofta buna!
Today we get back to basic. Salt is the most used spice for any cuisine. It is incorporated in almost everyday meal, and it is not just for meal only. In fact, the uses for salt are limitless.
In this article I will cover the traditional Vietnamese uses for salt as in cultural tidbits so I may babble quite a bit about it. Bear with me will you? :D
Vietnam’s relationship with salt comes from its geography
The first use, of course, is the one in the kitchen, to taste. Salt is one of the most ancient spices that human uses, maybe because the vegetables seem tasteless after a meal of meat that is naturally salty. Vietnamese people use lots of salt in their dishes. And the level of saltiness in their cuisine is geographical. Vietnam is an S-shaped country with more than 3 000 km of coastline so its relationship with salt, especially sea salt, is as old as the country itself.
In the North the weather is hard and cruel, the winter is so cold and the summer so hot. Northerners have to work hard in this adverse climate which is not fit for growing lots of herbs and spices, and that means they have to eat lots of food to have energy and yet they have to save ingredients for when the weather turns bitterly hard and vegetables are scarce. So how do they balance those conflicting needs? They put in lots of salt in their dishes, mostly deep-fried food and braised/stew. It is believed that lots of salt keeps the body warm, and salty dishes mean you can’t eat a lot of food.
In the Centre, the weather is less bitter, and yet it’s where all the natural disasters happen: violent flood, raging storm, tornado, etc, every year, one after the other. The Centre is the narrowest territory with the sea at one side and mountains at the other. As a result, they can’t grow lots of vegetables and have to go to the sea to search for food: their dishes are mostly seafood. But how about when disasters happen? Living in adverse weather means you have to think for the days ahead. To solve parts of this dilemma, the people would marinate the seasonal seafood they can find with lots of salt and dry them beneath the sun. After days in the sun, the seafood become dried seafood that can be stored for months. And also, because living on ships for days is hard work, they also eat salty food to keep their body warm.
There is a difference between Northern saltiness and Centre saltiness though: unlike Northerners who eat salt in the form of flakes, Centre people eat the salt in seafood more than the spice itself: fish sauce, shrimp sauce/paste, small shrimp sauce, etc. Here is where they make the best fish sauce in Vietnam. Sadly the fish sauce I can find in France can’t even begin to cover the greatness of Vietnamese fish sauce. If you happen to visit Vietnam one day, do try and buy a bottle of fish sauce from the Centre because the taste is divine, the smell is equally so. But I digress, let’s get back to salt.
In the South, the weather is sweet, not at all adverse. There is only two seasons: the season of the sun :D and a rainy one. Here you’ll see many rivers, lakes, ponds from the great Mekong river, and so the soil is rich and generous. It’s where they grow most of the best herbs and vegetables and fruits of the country. And because of the abundance of herbs and spices (and lots of coconuts) which makes better life condition, they don’t season their dishes too salty. Instead, their dishes are quite sweet, just like the weather. In the far South, the dishes are rich and heavy from all that coconut milk and juice with its natural sweetness. Southerners also make all kind of fish sauces from the fishes that they can find in all those rivers and lakes (do you know they have a fish sauce for each kind of fish? Well I did tell you that Vietnamese people are a creative lot). Due to the sweet palate of Southerners, the fish sauces will be watered down by other herbs and spices so that in the end they can eat salty/sweet fish sauce.
Salt in Vietnamese cuisine
Not only Vietnamese people use salt for their dishes, they also use it to balance the sweetness and saltiness in food. Where there is a sweet dish, salt is there too. This principle of using a taste to elevate another roots deeply in the Asian cuisine wisdom. It is said that salty elevates sweet dishes and sweet neutralizes salty dishes. And so for every sweet ingredient, Vietnamese people always add a dash of salt to bring out its natural sweetness (like I did for the corn posts here). The next time you drink coconut juice, just add a pinch of salt to it. Your coconut juice will become richer and lovelier as the sweetness is more profound. Just don’t add too much salt though or your coconut juice will become coconut broth. In almost every Vietnamese dessert, you will find that they always use salt.
… And in homemade remedies
Salt is a great sterilizer, so it is also used a lot for natural remedies. Have a sore throat? Deep rinse your mouth and throat with salt water (a portion of salt is added to water) by gurgling it 3 to 5 times a day. Have a purple and blue spot on your body from clumsily bumping into sharp objects? Make a salt paste, lots of salt and a bit of water, and pack the spot with it, it will go away quickly. Got something toxic in your eye? Blink in salt water. When I was little, I spent lots of time at my grand parents’ home that it was practically my elementary school. I would get to see my grand-father put his feet in a big aluminum pot with warm salt water. My grand-father had chronic pain in the joints and the mixture lessened his pain. Next time that you walk too much and have painful feet when you get home, make warm salt water, find a comfortable spot on your sofa and submerge your feet in the mixture. You’ll quickly feel better. Find someone willing (or bribe them if you need to) to give you a feet massage and your feet will be back to normal by tomorrow. Of course the better quality of salt, the more effective it is going to be.
How about Feng Shui?
Salt in Vietnamese culture is also believed to ward off bad energy/spirits. As a country being coveted by the Chinese dynasties and their many conquests for a thousand years, it’s no wonder that the Vietnamese culture is greatly influenced by Chinese practices, one of them is Feng Shui. It is believed that sea salt is so pure that it can absorb bad energy around the house. Until around 30 years ago, people used to put a bowl of salt water in the corners of the house to ward off bad energy. Although this practice is seldom seen these days, salt is still used occasionally in ceremonies and celebrations to ward off bad spirits. Salt is also believed to bring luck to the family. At the New Year’s occasion, people usually buy salt hoping to bring good fortune to their home. This custom also has another meaning, the people buying salt at the New Year hope for a positive, meaningful year. In Vietnamese we have a word ‘đậm đà’ which in cuisine means flavorful, in relations it means deep and meaningful. And so just like adding salt can make a dish more flavorful, buying salt is to hope for great relationships, be it for family, friendship or romance.
Salt in Vietnamese culture has lots of meanings and uses. I wanted to but can’t cover them all here in this short article. To me salt is tied to many childhood memories. One day I may cover all its meanings and uses in the posts about Vietnamese traditions. Yes maybe.
Today it's the right time for two more summery recipes to accompany our star, tarragon.
Grilled Trout with Tarragon
The delicate taste of fish, especially trout, mixes quite well with the inviting green flavor of tarragon. I will teach you two tricks for using herbs with meat or fish, when you decide to grill them. After cleaning the fish (or meat, if that be the case) with cold water and removing the excessive moist with paper towels (which, in case of grilled products, allows for a nice crust to be formed instead of the surface boiling on the grill), you rub the interior with your herb of choice. Personally, I often prefer to grill the fish in a simple way, without many condiments, since it has a delicate flavor and taste we want to feel when eating it. I don't even use salt, often times, and add the condiments, under the form of a sauce or dip, including the salt, after the fish is already grilled.
Back to our troutie! For the first method, just rub the tarragon inside the fish and carefully place it on the grill. The fish meat will be gently infused with the distinctive herb or herb mix.
The second method, that I used this time, is to just grill the fish, remove from the grill and place in your barbecue pot or tray, and quickly, when it's still hot, sprinkle the herb all over the fish and cover with aluminium foil or a metal lid. This way, the steam coming from the fish, while covered, will infuse the herbs and then condensate onto the meat, flavoring it.
Before serving this delicious, simple, healthy trout, add salt, pepper and lots of lemon juice, or, for a different taste, use a light version of mujdei for a specific mixture with the tarragon flavor. (for pickling tarragon, check the recipe here).
Kapia and Courgette Warm Salad
Kapia Peppers are used in many recipes in Romania, for their sweet flavor, when cooked (for example zacusca - stand by for it!). This is another simple, yet delicious recipe that can also be enjoyed as a separate vegetarian meal. Grill the peppers as they are (without removing the seeds beforehand) - this prevents them to dry excessively during grilling. Only after they cool a little, remove the skin and the seeds and place them in a salad bowl. The trick with peppers, just like with eggplants - by Romanian traditional recipes, at least - is cooking them directly on the flame. If you use your in-houses stove, it might be a little messy, but put them directly on the flame, and rotate frequently. It's much more pleasant and tastier if you can cook them outside, on the grill, in which case allow for direct flames to touch them now and then. With this method, you get a distinctive smokey, charred flavor that cannot be achieved otherwise.
I used the same method with the courgette - let them be "burnt" now and then - which led to a charred, chipsy result. When vegetables are being marinaded in wet marinade before the barbecue, they come out juicy and don't dry. But if you want to get them crunchy, as I did here, in order for their specific, natural flavor to come out through grilling, just put them on the fire as they are. Seasoning them when hot with wet condiments like oil and vinegar or lemon will restore part of the moisture anyway. Which is exactly what I did with this warm salad, by quickly adding the olive oil and balsamic vinegar (I specifically recommend the combo olive oil + balsamic for warm pepper salads), and salt, for them to absorb them and become a sweet/sour/perfumed and perrrrfect! mix.
One good way to keep this earthly fragrant baby when out of season, to use in salads, potted recipes or for marinating meat and vegetables: separate the leaves and fill a glass jar with them, sprinkle sea salt and cover with 1 part olive oil/2 parts balsamic vinegar. Keep refrigerated. Summer fragrance to carry throughout the year.
Cover photo: Thao Uyen
A melting pot experience, in more than one way. Welcome to our Epicurean adventure!