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by michelle

Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

cooking class in Provence

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While in Provence, I took the opportunity to participate in a hands-on cooking class with chef Jean-Marc Villard at his French Cooking School. After shopping for local and organic ingredients, we returned to the specially designed teaching kitchen, where Jean-Marc guided us in preparing and cooking a traditional French meal which we later enjoyed on the terrace with the chef and his wife Alice.


We started with 2 amusebouches, a small appetiser of one or two bites which is normally selected by the chef and served before the first course, both to whet the appetite and to give a glimpse of the chef’s approach to cuisine. Our first was deep-fried zucchini flowers. These were dredged in a simple tempura batter, deep-fried in grapeseed oil and served with a fresh pesto.




The second was a fresh sardine escabeche.







Sardine fillets were laid in a flat dish (skin side down) and seasoned. Onions, garlic, carrots and peppers were sautéed in olive oil, seasoned and spread over the sardines. Finally a slightly reduced mixture of white wine, vinegar and water was poured over everything to cook the sardines. It was served garnished with fresh dill.

zucchini-saladFor the first course we started by preparing a zucchini (courgette) salad. We cut the zucchinis in half and used a mandolin to cut thin strips lengthwise. To this we added pink peppercorns (which are particularly sweet here in France), grated lemon rind, dill, sea salt and freshly ground pepper. After mixing thoroughly we set this aside in a colander. Meanwhile, the sauce was on the stove. Vanilla pods were added to some chicken stock which was then reduced by half. Be careful not to use salty chicken stock as it will become too salty when reduced. To the reduced stock we added as much butter as there was stock and a little finely chopped candied lemon rind. The sauce was then aerated using a wand mixer. Next we prepared fresh prawns (shrimp) which we seasoned and quickly pan-fried. To assemble the dish we placed some of the zucchini salad in a form ring, followed by some mixed salad leaves. The ring was removed, the prawns arranged around the salads and the sauce carefully poured around the edges without wilting the salad leaves.


For the main course, saddle of lamb. This was boned and rolled, seared on the stovetop and finished in the oven along with some fresh garlic cloves (skin on). Of course, the sauce was also reducing on the stove, this time a veal stock with fresh sage leaves.

eggplant-fillingTo accompany the lamb we stuffed large cherry tomatoes. After cutting the tops off the tomatoes and carefully scooping out the flesh and seeds, we seasoned them with salt and placed them upside down on the board, allowing any liquid to drain. The eggplants (aubergines) were cut in half lengthwise and baked (skin side up) until soft. stuffed-cherry-tomatoesIn a saucepan we sautéed very finely chopped shallots and garlic then added the chopped eggplant pulp, some finely chopped rosemary, chopped parsley, a little chickpea flour to bind and salt and pepper. We then filled the tomatoes and put the lids back on for roasting.

potato-galette-with-goat's-cheeseWe also made a typically French accompaniment, a potato galette – this one with a goat’s cheese centre. The peeled potatoes were cut into thin slices with a mandolin and placed in a bowl with melted butter, salt and freshly ground black pepper. After mixing well, making sure that every piece of potato was buttered and seasoned, we arranged 2 layers of slices around central discs, then a generous amount of goat’s cheese, followed by one more layer of potato. We then cut the edges off with a cookie cutter and transferred them to a baking sheet and into a hot oven until golden brown. Finally, the plating and voilà!


Stay tuned for dessert….

desserts in Vietnam

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Before leaving Vietnam it would be remiss of me not to mention the sweet courses which are not necessarily eaten after dinner but often as an afternoon snack.


cheSome of the most popular desserts are chè, a term which describes sweet drinks, soups and puddings. The various ones I tried were multi-textured, delicious and not too sweet. They are often made with azuki beans, black-eyed peas, mung beans, red beans, glutinous rice, tapioca, taro, or cassava. Other ingredients include lotus seeds, corn, sesame seeds, peanuts, tofu and water chestnuts. Coconut milk is often used as flavouring, many tropical fruits and sometimes ginger or honey. Jelly and tapioca pearls provide texture as well. Here is a typical chè with jelly, tapioca pearls, water chestnut and coconut milk.


Thạch or jellies, like in most Asian countries, are made with agar-agar which has a firmer texture than gelatine and less springiness in the mouth.

chiffon-cake-with-pandan-cream-and-coconutThe Vietnamese are also excellent bakers of biscuits and cakes, influenced by the French. This chiffon cake with pandan cream and coconut was the lightest I’ve ever eaten.

Written by michelle picker

April 16, 2013 at 8:40 am

cooking class in Hoi An part 3

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In my last post ‘cooking class in Hoi An part 2’ I included the first two recipes we cooked in our day class. But what would Vietnamese food be without it’s salads? The next dish we learnt how to make was a grilled chicken and banana flower salad. Sliced chicken breasts were first marinated in a little soy sauce, sugar, pepper and a pinch of Vietnamese five spice. These were grilled until cooked through and allowed to cool. The other salad ingredients were 1 cup of finely sliced banana flower (washed in a bowl of vinegar and salt to remove any bitterness), 1 cup of grated green papaya, ½ a cup of grated green mango, ¼ of a cup of grated carrot, 1 finely sliced red chilli, 2 finely sliced spring onions and some finely sliced water spinach stems. If any of these ingredients prove too difficult to find they can be replaced with others of your choosing.



All of these ingredients were combined with ½ a cup each of mint and Vietnamese mint, ¼ of a cup of asian basil, 2 tablespoons of sesame seeds, 1 tablespoon of fried shallots and some of the oil (see secret recipes) and 1 tablespoon of sugar. The dressing was made with the juice of 1 lime, 1 teaspoon each of fish sauce and crushed garlic and 1 tablespoon of sugar. Some outside leaves of the banana flower were reserved for serving the salad which was accompanied by some crispy rice paper grilled over hot coals.


Last but not least was Cha Ca. In Hanoi there is a restaurant that has a long history of making only this dish of claypot fish with fresh dill.

fish1fish-2Chunks of firm white fish were combined with ½ a teaspoon of finely chopped fresh turmeric, a little vegetable oil and some salt and pepper and allowed to marinate for one hour. The fish was then cooked over hot coals to firm the flesh. Next we pounded 2 cloves of garlic, 3 shallots and half a red chilli in a mortar. This mixture was cooked in some vegetable oil in a clay pot until it was beginning to brown before adding 1 tablespoon of sugar. When the mixture was a deep golden colour we added 2 tablespoons of fish sauce and ½ a cup of water, bringing it to boil before adding the fish and simmering for 10 minutes. Lastly, a large handful of fresh dill and a handful of peanuts were added. The fish was served with steamed rice.


cooking class in Hoi An part 2

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imageOur second cooking class in Hoi An started with a visit to an organic vegetable village where all the gardening and watering is done by hand, the vegetables are fertilised with local river seaweed and the only pesticide used is ground clam shells. From there we went shopping for our ingredients at the local market. The first 2 recipes we were cooking were Phở or Hanoi beef noodle soup (including making the noodles) and lemongrass prawns wrapped in banana leaf and barbequed.

imageTo make the beef stock we used 2 pots of boiling water. The ingredients were all grilled over charcoal (either to reduce fat or to bring out flavour) then cleaned in the first pot of water before cooking in the second. This keeps the soup clear. We used 1 kg (2 lbs) of beef bones, 1 piece of ginger, 2 sticks of cinnamon, 2 star anise, 1 cardamom pod, 3 bruised lemongrass stalks, 3 peeled shallots and one peeled onion. Salt and sugar (2 teaspoons each) were added before simmering for at least an hour. Meanwhile we made the noodles using the same method as for rice paper (see cooking class in Hoi An) but this time oiled, folded and cut into 1 cm wide strips.


The noodles are placed in the bowl along with  very finely sliced raw beef, fried shallots (see secret recipes) and spring onions and the boiling stock is poured over them. Served with the soup are fresh herbs including sawtooth coriander, mint, Vietnamese mint, bean sprouts and lime. We also made pickles to have with the soup. These were made by cutting 3 shallots, 3 cloves of garlic and 1 green and 1 red chilli into similar sizes before mixing with 1 cup of white vinegar, 1 teaspoon of sugar and ½ a teaspoon of salt. These need to stand for at least 30 minutes.

The lemongrass prawns (shrimp) were made by pounding 2 stalks of finely sliced lemongrass, 2 shallots, ½ a fresh chilli and ½ a teaspoon each of salt, sugar and black pepper to a fine paste. We added 2 teaspoons of oil and combined this mixture with 200 gm (¼ lb) of deveined and shelled prawns.This mixture was wrapped in banana leaves and barbequed for 10 minutes.

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The prawns were served with a dipping sauce of salt, pepper and sugar in equal amounts mixed with fresh lime juice.

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To be continued……………………………

Written by michelle picker

April 4, 2013 at 7:52 am

secret recipes

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On every menu in Hoi An you will find the local speciality of bánh bao vac or white rose dumplings.


The recipe remains a secret which is held by one family. The current keeper of the secret is Tran Tuan Ngai whose grandfather first started making these dumplings for his family. He now supplies every restaurant in Hoi An. The dumplings are apparently made with rice from the Mekong Delta and water from the thousand-year-old Ba Le well (filtered and purified 15 to 20 times). Rolled into circles and filled with a spiced shrimp paste, the dumplings are steamed and this causes them to pucker and resemble a rose. They are then served with crisply fried shallots and fresh chilli. Although I can’t impart the dumpling recipe I have learnt how the shallots are fried and the result is much better than those available at Asian grocery stores. Place 1 cup of sliced brown shallots into one cup of cold peanut oil in a small saucepan. Bring to boil and simmer, stirring with chopsticks, for about 15 minutes until golden brown. Drain well on paper towel. The flavoured oil can be used in other cooking.

Another Hoi An speciality is cao lau. These are noodles made with rice soaked in water from the well and a lye solution (made from the ash of a particular tree ). These ingredients give the noodles their distinctive chewiness and brown colour. The same noodle batter is also made into thin squares and both are sold at the markets in Hoi An.


The serving of these noodles can vary a little from cook to cook. They are normally served with salad greens, bean sprouts, sliced roast pork, crisp fried cao lau squares and a little pork stock. Chilli is optional.

Written by michelle picker

March 29, 2013 at 5:59 am

cooking class in Hoi An

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Hoi An is a fishing town which lies at the centre of Vietnam. The ancient town remains untouched by war and despite it being a popular tourist destination it is a gem. The Red Bridge Cooking School has a well-deserved reputation for it’s cooking classes. Ours began with a walk around Hoi An’s central market and a description of many ingredients and their uses. From there we travelled by boat to the cooking school. The location is wonderful. After a tour of the herb garden the class began. The first dish demonstrated by the chef was a salad.

Vietnamese salad

Thinly sliced shallot then shrimp and squid were quickly fried on high heat with some sliced ginger and a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper. This was placed in a bowl together with shredded green papaya, green mango, lotus root, cucumber, carrot, sliced red chillies, salt, sugar (twice as much as the salt) and lime juice. Finally mint, Vietnamese mint, peanuts and sesame seeds (added just before serving or the mint darkens and the nuts and seeds become soggy). The salad was transferred to a pineapple boat and served with crispy rice paper.

imageOur first hands-on recipe was for fresh rice paper rolls, including the fresh rice paper! The filling was made in a similar manner to the salad. Shrimp was first flash-fried with a little salt and sugar and a pinch of turmeric. Placed in a bowl this was combined with grated green papaya, cucumber and carrot, some finely chopped ginger, another pinch of salt and sugar and a little lime juice. The rice paper was made from a thin rice batter. This is made by soaking plain white rice in fresh water for at least 7 hours. The rice is then rinsed 3 times and placed in a blender with double the amount of water and a pinch of salt. It takes 7 minutes of blending to make the smooth batter only slightly thicker than milk which must be left for one hour again. To make the rice paper a sheet of thin cotton is secured over a pot of boiling water, leaving an opening on one side. A small ladle-full of batter is quickly spread into a thin circle on the cotton then covered with a lid and steamed for one minute. To remove from the cotton wet a bamboo or metal skewer in the pot and run it under the rice paper before carefully lifting and placing onto a plate with the top side down. To stack more than one rice paper brush with oil or place a lettuce leaf between each one to prevent sticking. To make the rice paper roll place some lettuce, fresh herbs and salad mix into the rice paper. Roll the edge over tightly then the two sides in before rolling into a cigar shape. Serve with Nuóc Chám for which I now have a recipe! Mix 2 tablespoons of Vietnamese fish sauce (milder than Thai), 1 teaspoon each of finely chopped chilli, crushed garlic and sugar and the juice of one lime.

imageOur second hands-on recipe was Hoi An pancakes or Bánh Xèo. These are made by lightly frying some shrimp and pork in vegetable oil then adding them to ½ a cup of the same rice batter as the fresh spring rolls with the addition of a pinch of turmeric. Heat some more oil in a small pan and pour the batter in. Top with some bean sprouts and sliced onion and cook over medium to high heat until the bottom is crisp. Flip and cook the other side. To serve place the pancake on a round of dry rice paper with some fresh herbs and lettuce. Roll and dip into a peanut sauce made with 2 tablespoons each of crunchy peanut butter and soy sauce, 1 teaspoon of crushed garlic, 1 teaspoon of brown sugar or honey, a pinch of chilli powder and ¼ of a cup of coconut milk.

Lastly, a wonderfully fragrant eggplant (aubergine) hotpot made by first frying some garlic until a little translucent then adding sliced tomatoes, finely sliced lemongrass, sliced spring onions and fresh chilli to taste. Next the diced eggplant with some fish sauce, sugar, turmeric, freshly ground black pepper and ½ a cup of water. This is simmered for 7 minutes, garnished with fresh herbs and served with steamed rice. I’m sorry to report that I have no photo of my eggplant hotpot.


While this was cooking we received instructions on some food decorations. Our chef, who had a great sense of humour, showed us how to make cucumber Vietnamese hand fans and a tomato rose. It was refreshing to do a cooking class where it was assumed that we had the basics of cooking under our belts. We learnt a lot. When the lesson was over we enjoyed the fruits of our labour as well as steamed mackerel on a bed of mixed vegetables. Finally, a boat ride back to town.

in Viet Nam

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My favourite restaurant so far in Ha Noi is Quán Ān Ngon where hawker-style stands line the walls…..


imageand my favourite dish seems to be one of the most popular, deservedly so! This Vietnamese pancake (more like an omelette) is incredibly thin and crisp. The filling of bean sprouts, pork and shrimps is only in the very centre and it’s served with fresh lettuce, herbs and rice paper. Unlike those I’ve used in the past this rice paper is so fresh it can be crumpled without breaking. To eat the pancake you place some lettuce, herbs and a piece of the pancake in a piece of rice paper and roll it into a cigar shape. At this point it’s still dry but dipping it into the Nuóc Chám (a dipping sauce made with fish sauce, sugar, garlic, chilli and lemon juice) and putting it in your mouth is enough to make it edible. The combination of flavours and textures are delightful.


Written by michelle picker

March 17, 2013 at 6:30 am