Vietnamese Chocolate and Lao Lemongrass: Southeast Asian Spring Holidays
This year, in a convenient alignment of Judeo-Christian religious history and contemporary holidays, Good Friday and Passover fall on the same day: tomorrow. April 6 is also the Chakri Dynasty Day in Thailand and just two days after the Chinese tomb-sweeping day. Over my past couple of years in Asia, I've developed some fitting flourless recipes for Passover, and I pass them along to you. Though, in the interest of modesty and time, I present them to you not as original inventions but as modifications of recipes that you can find elsewhere (in both cases, I think I played around with a few different recipes from epicurious and the New York Times):
Lemongrass-Ginger Matzo Ball Soup: Follow a standard recipe but add a plethora of Southeast Asian spices to the broth. If you're working from scratch (as I did last year), chop one or two stalks of lemongrass into one inch pieces and bruise them by pressing down on them with the flat edge of a chef's knife, treat a two-inch knob of (peeled) ginger the same way, and do the same with a similarly-sized (and peeled) piece of galangal. Toss those aromatics along with half a dozen dried red chiles and three crushed kaffir lime leaves (fresh or dried) into the stock pot with your standard vegetables and salt and pepper. Prepare the matzo balls from scratch as directed (reserving some of the chicken fat from your stock), and then add enoki mushrooms and thinly sliced leeks in the last fifteen minutes of cooking. If working quickly (as I did this year), use prepared stock and simply add the chiles along with about half a teaspoon (or more or less, to taste) of dried lemongrass, ginger, galangal, and kaffir lime leaf (preferably from Les Artisans Lao, based in Vientiane); then prepare the matzo balls from a packet as directed and add thinly sliced Chinese cabbage in the last ten minutes of cooking.
Southeast Asian Chocolate Pot de Creme: Several years ago, a top executive from an American chocolate company told me, to my great excitement, that he had recently tasted a rare sample of Vietnamese cacao; the next thing he said was that it tasted like smoked catfish and we would all benefit if the pairing of that particular genetic strain and fermentation technique remained rare indeed. But when I was in Vietnam several months ago, I learned from my culinary tour guide about the novel Vietnamese bean-to-bar producer Grand-Place. I can attest that their couverture (which seems to be targeted primarily to chocolatiers and chefs instead of snacking individual consumers) tastes nothing at all like smoked catfish. If anything, it's too mild in character, sort of a Vietnamese Callebaut, "chocolatey" and not much else--though my gentleman friend in Berlin, where I first made my six-ingredient (chocolate, cream, milk, sugar, eggs, spice) pot de creme liked the chocolate enough that he reported after my departure to having consumed the entire pound of the stuff that I left on the counter. My pot de creme is well suited to last-minute Passover Seders, beachside dinner parties, or other occasions where you have an oven but not a lot of baking supplies. Here's what you do: follow a standard simple chocolate pot de creme (cream-heavy pudding) recipe. Add a teaspoon of dried lemongrass, lemongrass-citrus tisane (herbal tea), or sliced fresh ginger to the cream (mixed with other ingredients, as directed) as you heat it, and then strain the cream mixture before continuing with the recipe. You can use a big casserole dish instead of individual ramekins if that's what's on hand, or if you plan on sharing anyway (the larger dish requires at least a few minutes more cooking time). The trick is to bake your pot(s) de creme in a water bath long enough to get a fine sugary crust on top but not so long that the custard loses its creamy texture. Top the dessert with whatever stunning red fruits are in season (or available in the international supermarket) where you are, a touch of whipped cream, and crystallized ginger.
In the words of winter-time card that my friend Janice had printed in China and which came off the presses with a conveniently ambiguous greeting, Happy Holiday!