While we were eating guacamole and pozole at the end of the first class, I asked what dishes the boys would like to learn to cook. I was totally unprepared for the sophisticated requests. No one mentioned spaghetti, stir-fried chicken, or burgers, dishes I was expecting homeless young people would want to add to their limited repertoire, if they even had a repertoire. Instead, they wanted to learn to make Vietnamese Pho, French Omelettes (not omelets, but French omelettes, with gruyere cheese no less), braised oxtails, steaks that are seared on the outside and rare inside, shrimp—any preparation, Crème Brûlée, how to melt chocolate. We settled on Pho and Crème Brûlée for the next class. However, a few commented that Vietnamese fish sauce, a key ingredient in Pho, is “nasty.”
At the beginning of this class when I announced the menu, Kareem (I’ve changed all the students’ names to protect their privacy) exclaimed, “wow, Crème Brûlée, I’ve never had that but I’ve been wanting to taste it.” And the boy who requested the Pho admitted he’d never eaten that either. While I made the soup, they played on their phones. But, when I pulled out a blow torch to caramelize the sugar on top of the dessert, everyone wanted a chance at playing with the hot flame, and each knew just how “burnt” he wanted his portion of the sweet.
All agreed, the Vietnamese fish sauce added umami (yes, umami!) to the Pho, and Crème Brûlée is awesome. And, they loved hearing that Crème Brûlée was the birthday dessert my mom always made for me when I was their age.
While they learned to make 2 recipes, I came to realize that these kids are curious about the world of food and tastes they haven’t experienced. And later, I understood that it was more—they craved the caring demonstrated by someone cooking homemade food for them.
Chicken and Vegetable Pho
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- ½ large onion, coarsely chopped
- 2 - 3 tablespoons minced peeled fresh ginger
- 2- quarts chicken broth or stock, preferably reduced sodium
- 2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce, such as nampla or soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 6 star anise pods
- 6 whole cloves
- 1 to 1 ¼ pounds skinless boneless chicken thighs or breasts
- 6 to 7 ounces Rice stick noodles, maifun
- 3 to 4 small bok choy, sliced crosswise (about 4 cups)
- Fresh spinach leaves, optional
- Fresh snow peas, stringed, optional
- Salt and black pepper
- Hoisin Sauce
- Hot chili sauce such as Sriracha or Sambal Oelek
- 6 green onions, thinly sliced
- 6 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
- 1 serrano chile, thinly sliced with seeds
- Bean sprouts
- Fresh basil, especially Thai basil
- Lime wedges
- Heat the oil in a large pot over medium-low heat. Add the onion and ginger and sauté until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the broth, fish sauce and sugar. Place the star anise and cloves in a tea ball or wrap in cheesecloth and add to the pot. Add the chicken. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the chicken is cooked through, about 15-20 minutes. Using tongues, transfer the chicken to a plate. Simmer the broth about 10 minutes longer to develop the flavors.
- Meanwhile, place the noodles in a bowl or glass baking dish. Cover with very hot water and let soak at least 3 minutes to soften. Prepare the garnishes.
- Add bok choy to the soup and simmer just until the bok choy begins to wilt, about 3 minutes. Add the spinach and snow peas, if using, and simmer just until the spinach wilts, about 1 minute. Season the soup to taste with salt and generously with black pepper. Ladle into bowls.
- Serve, allowing diners to add hoisin, chili sauce, green onions, cilantro, chilies, bean sprouts, basil and lime to taste.
- 3 cups heavy cream or half and half
- 6 tablespoons sugar, plus more for the topping
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 7 large egg yolks
- Preheat the oven to 325°F. Bring a pot of water to a boil, then turn off the heat.
- In a heavy saucepan, combine the cream, 6 tablespoons sugar and salt. Cook over low heat just until hot and bubbles from around the edges, stirring frequently and watching carefully. Remove from the heat and let cool 3-4 minutes. Mix in the vanilla.
- In a medium bowl, beat egg yolks with a whisk until the mixture lightens. Very gradually whisk in the hot cream. Divide the mixture among 8 small (about ½ cup) oven-proof ramekins or one 7x11” glass baking dish. Set the ramekins or baking dish in a larger baking dish. Pour the boiling water into the baking dish to come ½ way up the sides of the ramekins or smaller dish.
- Set the pan in the oven. Bake until the custard is barely set but the centers giggles, 25 to 35 minutes. Transfer the ramekins to a rack or counter and cool completely. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours and up to 3 days.
- Just before serving, top each ramekin with about 2 teaspoons of sugar or the large pan with about ½ cup sugar. Using a kitchen torch, melt the sugar and let it brown.Or, place the ramekins or baking dish 2 to 3 inches from the heat in a broiler. Turn on the broiler and cook until the sugar melts and browns, watching carefully. Let stand a few minutes until the sugar hardens. Serve within 2 hours.