Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sunsets and Crispy Spring Rolls, Ha Long Bay, Viet Nam...

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! 

It may not seem very seasonal to be reading about a bay in Viet Nam on this holiday, but please stick with me, because I have a couple of refreshing recipes for you that will spice up those turkey leftovers (and maybe even the brussel sprouts), along with a few other seasonal notions. 

Ha Long bay stretches over 1,500 square kilometers and it is filled with more than a thousand of these extreme limestone peaks reaching up to the sky from the emerald green waters. As dramatic as they are during the day, framed by the romantic rigging's of our traditional wooden junk, at night the bold colors of the setting sun raise the drama to a whole new level. 

As much as I adore the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, I like to mix it up a little when dealing with the leftovers. For instance, one year I made this Turkey Phad Thai and it was absolutely luscious and flavorful.  

As I write I am flying over the country to join family in Palm Beach for the holidays. Believe it or not, in the cargo hold I am carrying a big box of fresh herbs I clipped yesterday, sage, rosemary, thyme, bay as well as sprigs of Hebe and boxwood, so I can garnish the platters and decorate the table for our feast, one less thing for my charming hostess to think about.

I even threw a few kumquats and petite Asian pears from our orchard into the box (the pears that didn't make it into the vodka vat) to add color to the table. Since we're going to Florida, I am hoping they will already have plenty of citrus for me to use.

The people who screen the baggage must see some crazy things going by, especially during the holidays. In addition to my box filled with twigs, branches and fruits, I wonder what they'll think of the FILLED large oval copper grantinée pan they'll see on their screen, mixed in with my clothing. 

I'm crossing my fingers that this culinary experiment turns out well (or at least doesn't turn out to be a complete mess and disaster), because you see, Mr. Splendid came back from France the other day with a large black truffle he bought in Italy. And I haven't had a chance to do anything with it and I was afraid it would go bad if I left it behind, so last night I made a potato grantinée with fresh sage and LOTS of black truffle shavings (the whole enchilada, baby). Then I wrapped the filled pan in foil and froze it. This morning I packed the frozen pan in a plastic bag with frozen ice packs and then put all of this in a cardboard box which went (gulp!) in to my checked baggage. 

Oh, I do hope I won't find wardrobe grantinée when I unpack tonight.

Anyway, on to more pleasant thoughts, like the night we spent on the top deck of our junk watching the sun set, sipping wine and learning to make Crispy Vietnamese Spring Rolls or Cha Goi

What a great idea the Paradise Cruise team had to reward all of the senses on the top deck by demonstrating how to make these delicious and easy little rolls (they even let the guests dawn chefs hats and practice making a few of the rolls) as we enjoyed the welcomed evening breeze. Versions of their recipe have become a new family favorite.

This is a great recipe for a buffet because guests can customize their rolls to suit their tastes. You could use any sort of vegetable and herb combination for filling these rolls (including brussel sprouts), and, as an alternative to (or in combination with) turkey you could offer grilled steak, pork or chicken. Any fresh cooked seafood would also be delectable; and for a vegetarian bent, one could offer tofu.

It's traditional to use Asian vermicelli rice noodles, that have been soaked in water in Cha Goi but I personally prefer them with just the vegetables, herbs and meat.

Here's my adaptation of what we tried that night: 

Vietnamese Dipping Sauce Recipe
(Nuoc Cham)

Mix together:

1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup warm water
3 tablespoons lime juice
1/4 cup fish sauce
a small red chili, finely sliced 
1 small clove finely minced garlic 
and about 1 tablespoon of chopped cilantro

stir until sugar is completely dissolved.

Crispy Spring Rolls for leftover Turkey Recipe
(Cha Goi)

(feel free to adjust recipe to suit your tastes, see recommendations above)


9 ounces of finely chopped cooked turkey
1/2 head of Napa Cabbage, finely cut (or brussel sprouts!)
6 green onions, finely sliced
2 medium carrots, grated
2 cloves garlic, finely minced or pressed
4 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1/2 cup torn basil leaves
1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro leaves
6-8 rice spring roll wrappers
 (found in Asian markets or in the Asian food aisle of most supermarkets)
1 egg, white and yolk separated
3 tablespoons peanut oil

Lettuce leaves, washed and dried
Basil leaves, washed and dried
Mint leaves, washed and dried


Blanch the cabbage, then drain it and squeeze out any excess moisture.
Mix the cabbage together with all of the other ingredients except for the spring roll wrappers, egg yolk and peanut oil.

Whip the egg yolk slightly. Briefly dip the wrappers in warm water to soften, then shake of excess moisture.

Brush the whipped egg yolk around the perimeter of the wrapper. Place a heaping tablespoon of the mixture into the center of the wrapper. Fold up 2 of the ends, then tightly tuck one of the open edges over the filling and tightly roll the rest of the wrapper over the top. 

On the boat they had us brush the egg yolk on with pieces of lemongrass with shredded ends.

Heat the peanut oil over medium high heat. Cook the rolls in the oil in batches, making sure there is at least an inch between the rolls so they can brown nicely. Cook for about 4 minutes on each side until golden brown.

After they are cooked, place the rolls on paper towels to absorb some of the oil.

We tried the rolls as they were from the pan, but you could also serve them with the optional lettuce, basil and mint leaves. Guest can layer the basil and mint leaves on the lettuce leaves, drop the roll on top and then wrap the leaves around the roll. 

Either way, dip the roll in the sauce and enjoy, we certainly did.

After a nearly perfect evening up on deck we headed down to the formal teak dining room to enjoy even more Vietnamese delights, including this refreshing watermelon juice.

Wherever you are in the world, I hope you and your family and friends have a wonderful Thanksgiving. 

What's on you menu? Traditional, family favorites or something a little more spicy?

I'll be bringing you more highlights from our tour, for those who are wondering, we booked our excursions through Buffalo Tours, who plan "inspirational travel" all throughout Viet Nam. My only disappointment is that we didn't have more time to spend there. While I am, of course, thankful for this amazing experience, I hope I'll have the chance to go back to Ha Long Bay someday and take over one of these charming junks with a group of friends so we can spend more time kayaking, hiking, swimming and exploring the caves and waters together. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Dripping in pearls, Halong, Viet Nam...

Before boarding our Paradise Junk we stopped at this pearl farm ~ factory to admire these legendary beauties and learn about how they come to be.

These are all cultured pearls, 

which means that each of the mollusks were seeded with shell beads, like the ones below, to ensure the shape and size of the final pearl.

After they are seeded the oysters are put back into the bay where they covered the beads with a natural pearl substance over a period of time.

After that the oysters are harvested,

and the lustrous orbs are removed. 

Have you ever wondered how the perfect little holes in pearls are made? 

Each pearl is carefully positioned between the clamps on a machine like this and held steady so the hole can be bored with a fine drill bit. 

The pearls are hand sorted by size, color and quality.

Elegant by~products of the pearl making process are Mother~of~Pearl buttons. 

Circles are cut from these luminous shells, 

and then polished and drilled to perfection.

Other shells are even more finely polished to create these naturally stylish dishes.

After touring the factory and learning about the process there was a giant showroom filled with perfect pieces of jewelry to buy.

I'm so glad we waited so we could shop from our sweet friends who came to the side of the boat with their offerings.

It was a little more work, but it was a lot more fun to try to negotiate with the locals, and we loved the more irregular beauty of the necklaces and bracelets they passed up to us in their bamboo handled nets. 

Looking back now, I wish I had bought just a few more!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Cinnamon sails, Ha Long Bay, Viet Nam....

As we move into the seasons of pumpkin pie and hot spiced cider I am reminded of the rich cinnamon colored sails of the entrancing boat on which we cruised Ha Long Bay in Viet Nam.

A fleet of classical wooden Paradise cruise ships, in a variety of sizes, awaited us when we arrived at Taun Chau island, about a 3~hour drive from Ha Noi.

I was immediately captivated with these classical wooden vessels, rich with history, detail and tradition. 

The humidity was so thick when we boarded condensation had formed on our doors, but as soon as everyone was on board, the AC kicked on, evaporating these water shields. I loved the old~world porthole windows and room numbers on each of the stateroom doors. 

Each of our rooms had intimate little decks where one could relax privately to watch the world sailing by. 

Here's what it looks like from the exterior, so charming.

"Ha Long Bay" translates into the "Bay of Descending Dragons", so named because of the extremely steep rock formations that fill these waters. The belief is that these limestone peaks were formed by dragons diving from the sky into the sea, creating these deep crevasses in the process.

The lounge chairs on the top deck were an ideal place to relax and take in the views. 

I couldn't get enough of this combination of dark wood, white painted wood and those luffing cinnamon sails

slowly negotiating along this dramatic scene of verdant spotted rockery.

Optional excursions were available during the day. 

We took an incredible hike through the massive Dau Go Cave, fashioned with lighting and pathways so you could see all of the stunning natural beauty...  including an abundance of ancient Stalagmites and Stalactites

No single image can convey the grandness and complexity of this cave, I think it took more than an hour to get from the entrance to the exit.

Floating villages along the way offered local snacks and seafood.


This buoyant supermarket provided a little bit of everything...  roasted sweet potatoes, ciggys, vino, peanuts, plums, ritz crackers, snickers bars, oreos, pretzels and a variety of beers!

As we were approaching a beach one afternoon I spotted some bright flags on the lower section of this towering formation. 

I'm not sure, but I think this is someones dwelling {maybe it's some sort of a cave?}, and {I'm thinking} this is their little patio looking out, with railed stairs leading down into the water. 

Could that be possible?? 

Très exotique!

After our hike, we hung out on a sandy beach with a bunch of monkeys, and these two.

We also did a little shopping on the cruise. 

With the aid of her bamboo handled net, 

we were able to buy these gorgeous pearl bracelets, I love every single imperfection. 

While I admired these cinnamon sails from all different angles and viewpoints, I think I enjoyed them the most in the morning while practicing Ti Chi with the instructor on the upper deck as they languished in the soft morning breezes.