Preparing for winter

I can’t believe it’s almost the end of the first month of autumn. It’s cooler in the mornings and evenings, there’s a lot more rain about and it’s much harder forcing myself to rise out of bed for work. But summer is really hanging on – we still get a considerable number of hot, golden days throughout the week where cicadas sing and the kiss of the sun’s rays warms and illuminates everything upon the earth.

Winter here in New Zealand isn’t my favourite season. The awful combination of heavy rain and strong winds often leaves trails of umbrella skeletons and angry nose-to-tail car accidents in its wake. There are always dirty wet footprints in places where there shouldn’t be and forget about dry, sun kissed washing.

There are fantastic things about winter, though, and one of those is all the hearty meals that really fill your belly and warm your heart in ways that summery salads can’t.

I decided to kick off my cold weather cooking with something basic – soup. My mum’s noodle soup is one of my favourite meals – light, simple and quick. But I wanted to try something that had a few more elements to it. Recalling shreds of a conversation I had a few years ago when I was travelling in China about the pronunciation of a certain South East Asian dish, I settled for the national dish of Vietnam, pho (pronouced “fuh”, not “fo” nor “poo”).

Having never been to Vietnam nor eaten that much Vietnamese food, I’ve only had one instance of eating pho and this was at a little Vietnamese restaurant in the ooh la la Auckland suburb of Grey Lynn called Cafe Viet. I remember it being fragrant, salty and very filling.

One of the things I definitely wanted to do with this cooking experiment was making everything from scratch. Normally I would opt for the ready-made stock from the supermarket, which has always worked well for me, but I had time this weekend and felt like putting in the extra effort in creating my own beef stock. It took quite a long time but it tasted really good and it filled the house with beautiful aromas from all the different spices.

There are a heap of complementary spices that make up the flavour of the stock. Photo: Tao Lin

There are a heap of complementary spices that make up the flavour of the stock. Photo: Tao Lin

I found a good recipe that explains everything really well, especially the stock-making part. See it here:

It all turned out pretty well. The only issue I had was the soup didn’t really cook the raw beef as well as I wanted it to but I probably didn’t slice it thin enough. It’s something to remember for next time – “pho” sure….:P

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Welcome to the 60s…with a touch of ‘Nam

Tease. Spray. Tease. Spray. Tease. Tease. Tease. That’s what I spent a good hour doing last Friday afternoon, trying to get my silky, black-that-looks-red-under-the-light hair into a bouffant. It wasn’t just for fun, although I wish I had the time to throw myself back to the 50s and 60s all the time; it was for my dance studio fundraiser, which was 60s themed.

That was after I spent three hours making, for the first time, Vietnamese rice paper rolls. I’m not really sure how many I made in the end – it was enough to fill up three medium plastic plates – but it felt like it took forever. It was fiddly, messy, wet and testing. Testing of how tightly I could roll everything up without ripping the paper; testing of how well I could judge the ratios of all the cucumber, carrots, vermicelli, mint, coriander, mung beans, hoisin + soy + sesame + garlic sauce mix so that I had enough of everything and not too much or too little of anything; and testing of my conviction to finish it all.

I often think to myself when I’m cooking, and in many other situations as well, and I asked myself constantly that day: is this really worth it? Will anyone¬†actually appreciate all the time I put into this?? I tasted the end product a number of times because quite a few of the rolls weren’t done tightly enough so the fillings were prone to falling out, or the paper ripped so the fillings actually did fall out. They needed a bit more flavour but they did taste really refreshing and light. I ended up dripping some sweet chilli sauce over the top in the hope that this would give the rolls more flavour. I assume people enjoyed them because there were none left at the end of the night. But then again, there wasn’t really much left of anything by the end of the night. Dancing makes for hungry play.

From this experience, I would not recommend making these rice paper rolls for an event unless you have a lot of time and delicate handwork. That’s not to say they’re not worth the effort – if made well, with care and good flavours, these can be spectacular – but just remember to be friendly with Time if you do make them.

I looked at two recipes for these rolls:

Also, I didn’t make a dipping sauce. The lovely mums helping out in the kitchen on the night walked around with the food on platters, offering them to the guests, so I don’t think they would have appreciated sloshy dipping sauce spilling everywhere. However, if it’s appropriate definitely make a dipping sauce – it just adds so much more flavour and you don’t want to spend all that time making something bland and uninteresting.

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin