While in Tampa, my cousins- Chas, Meg and Theresa lent a hand with an apple pie, similar to the one I made last Christmas. They knew their measuring cups and stirred the spices with uncommon zeal. When we were done, we topped off the pie with some aged white cheddar cheese. Those three are funny about what they eat, and even apple pie was too new of a notion for Chas and Meg. Theresa seemed to like it quite a bit. For Chas and Meg, I gave thanks for knowing how to cook fries with ketchup, otherwise the two of them could have starved.
I had plans to cook a soup while visiting, with help from my three assistants. My Uncle David even provided a recipe for “Zuppa Florentine,” though time ran out for me to cook it. I brought the recipe home, so expect to see this in a week or so. I only wish David could be here to enjoy it. With no new soup, and only a familiar pie cooked last week, I set the Wayback Machine for a short ride to last Sunday when I made some Vietnamese food for Hawkins and me.
The dish is known as “bun thit nuong,” but I am not too sure of the pronunciation or the meaning of the name. If I had to guess, I would say, “noodles with pork,” because that is exactly what it is.
The pork is fairly easy to prepare. I went to Nashville the Friday before I cooked to get some of the ingredients from one of those gigantic health food stores. I used about 1.5 pounds of boneless pork chops, sliced thin and with the fat trimmed for the recipe. Make a marinade for the chops with ¼ of a cup of Vietnamese fish sauce, three minced shallots, two cloves of garlic, one tablespoon of white sugar, 1 tablespoon of rice wine, a quarter-teaspoon of black pepper, and the same amount of crushed red pepper flaked. For some variety in the marinade, I bought an Asian herb known as lemongrass. True to the name, lemongrass provides a lemony taste. Strip the strands of grass of the dry outer leaves and chop the succulent stalks into small bits, about the size of freeze-dried chives and add them to the marinade. Mix the marinade well and cover the pork with it inside a sealable bag or plastic bowl with a lid.
Marinate the pork for 24 hours before cooking it. Hawkins’ father recently gave him a charcoal chimney for his grill, and I have to say that the chimney may be the greatest invention ever. I ended up with a hot fire in our grill with evenly burning coals, and no fuel taste. I should have started using one long, long ago. With the fire glowing a uniform red color, skewer the thin bits of pork and grill them until done.
The main condiment for bun thit nuong is a seasoned and diluted form of fish sauce called “nuoc cham.” Mix a teaspoon of red pepper flakes with two cloves of garlic, a teaspoon of sugar, the juice of two limes, a minced scallion, a tablespoon each of hot water and white vinegar, and five teaspoons of fish sauce. Stir the mixture well and allow it to sit for a half hour for flavors to combine.
The noodles are more than just a bowl of noodles with some grilled pork on top. Make a package of rice noodles according to directions. Mine called for bringing four quarts of water to a boil, then removing from the heat to soak the noodles for 10 minutes, then draining them. I blanched two cups of bean sprouts in boiling water for 30 seconds before draining them.
Line large soup bowls with shredded lettuce and Julianne-sliced cucumbers, and then fill them with the noodles. Top the bowls with the bean sprouts, more cucumbers, and leaves from fresh cilantro and mint. I soaked a quarter cup of Julianne-cut carrots and two chopped daikon radishes in vinegar for a half hour before draining them and adding some to the bowls. Carrot fans are welcome to use more carrots if the need arises. A little more lettuce will give the dish some crunch. Lastly, add the pork and top the bowls off with crushed peanuts.
For condiments, use the nuoc cham sauce- at least two tablespoons, some Sriracha chili sauce and a bit of hoisin sauce, especially if diners like sweetness. One popular variant combines this meal with Vietnamese egg rolls called “cha gio.” For an alternative, replace the pork with beef or chicken. I insisted on using chopsticks to eat my meal with, just for the sake of authenticity.
While in Nashville, I stopped at a Vietnamese café to develop a baseline for the dish. As this was my first attempt, I think my cooking measured up well against the authentic product. Hawkins enjoyed a bowl, and despite the vegetables and noodles, declared my bun thit nuong to be tasty and satisfying. We had enough for four bowls that night as we watched the remainder of the season finale of Curb Your Enthusiasm. The savory pork, fragrant herbs and noodles combined with the situational comedy provided by Larry David to ensure a good time was had by all. Good eating.