Find warm comfort in Orlando’s Mills 50 District

After a summer long routine of unforgiving heat and thunderous storms, the upcoming cold season can be dark and menacing to Central Floridians. As the temperature drops below our usual 80’s comfort zone, it becomes a common thing to see one or two parkas wandering about the city in search of some respite from the not-so-cold. Fortunately, I have a beloved gem of a restaurant not too far from home to appease my hunger for soupy comfort on those dark, cold nights ahead. It is Thuyen Vien, also known as “the little pho place” amongst my group of friends.

Pho chay with herbs and sprouts on the side.

Pho chay with herbs and sprouts on the side.

In the 1970’s, hundreds of Vietnamese immigrants sought refuge from the Vietnam war in Orlando, opening businesses and settling in a stretch of Colonial Dr. just north of downtown Orlando, now known as little Vietnam or Mills 50 District. Since then, they have contributed to the community by sharing their culture, food, and way of life with the rest of the Orlando community.

Along MIlls 50 one finds a vibrant array of Asian markets and restaurants that produce some of the most exciting and flavorful food in the area. As is the case with Thuyen Vien, a tiny hole in the wall restaurant that sits sandwiched in a shopping center between a boba tea business and a jeweler. You walk into this unpretentious vegetarian restaurant and you are instantly greeted as you scan the room for an empty seat. The tables are humble dinning sets that look like they’ve been snatched right out of an Ikea catalog. The walls are decorated with colorful Buddhist imagery that entertains the eye as you wait on you food. The best part about this joint is the menu, which is ubiquotously placed in the center of the table and has about 6 items to choose from, all priced $5.

My ultimate favorite is the #1 pho, which is vegan pho in this case. Traditionally, pho is a Vietnamese soup served with beef or chicken broth and rice noodles, topped with herbs and bean sprouts; its vegetarian sister is pho chay. Although pho chay lacks the beefy broth that is simmered with bone marrow over low heat for several hours, this version does not lag behind. An exotic blend of toasted spices ( star anise, cloves, peppercorns, and cinnamon) carrots, celery, onions, and dried mushrooms go into the broth that I like to make at home. The fungi bring forth a strong umami taste that creates a memorable broth capable of captivating even the most carnivorous of palates.

And so I sit on an empty seat, right on a corner overlooking the communal garden shared by the shopping center. There’s a rainbow of orchids adorning the greenery and the music emanating from the speakers above melodically spit out chants that lull me into a peaceful state of serenity. My food arrives, and as I take that first whiff of steaming veggie broth, my mouth salivates in anticipation for the delicious meal. It never fails, I have eaten this soup more than 100 times before and every single time I never cease to feel its comforting effects. Specially on a Florida winter day like today.

Fantastic Indian Flavors

For the last several weeks I have been a madwoman running all over town trying to submit applications for my culinary internship, researching recipes for my catering class at school, and trying to catch up on anything that I may have forgotten along the way in my chaotic daily routine.  Some of the highlights of these days include the success of my vegan zucchini bread among the Le Cordon Bleu students who couldn’t eat enough of it and successfully cooking cashew korma! It was a big night for me last night because I have been trying forever to achieve the perplexity of flavors that are found in Indian food. Don’t get me wrong, my attempts at curry are indeed delicious, but I don’t think they would be called Indian per se (until last night of course)!

It all started this past weekend when I went out for some lunch with a dear friend of mine.  We ate at a local restaurant that offered a delicious starter plate called the “Tour of India”. Imagine the excitement!! Both my friend and I are absolute fans of Indian cuisine, so this was definitely a “must try”.  The appetizer was delicious and exquisitely flavored with a tangy curry flavor followed by a punch of spiciness. This got me thinking it was about time that I tried another one of my curry concoctions in the kitchen.

There was cauliflower in the fridge that needed to be eaten along with a big container of cashews and I instantly remembered a korma dish that I usually eat at my favorite Indian restaurant.  Before embarking in the adventure tho, I had to research a bit about what korma really is and where it comes from.

I discovered korma is an Indian dish that is prepared with coconut milk and a nut based sauce like cashews. Mixed together the nuts and coconut milk help balance out the heat of the curry  and make a milder dish. Other versions use yogurt (at very low heat) or cream and bechamel based sauces

Ingredients

1 c raw cashews

2 tbs canola oil

1 m onion

1 inch size piece ginger

4 garlic cloves

1 tsp red pepper flakes

1 tbs coriander ground

1 ts ground red pepper

1 tbs curry powder

1 tsp garam masala

1 tbs tomato paste

1 can coconut milk

1 cauliflower

3 chopped carrots

1/2 c peas

1 caramelized red onion

Method

1. Soak the cashews in enough warm water to cover them up completely. Set aside.

2. Cut the cauliflowers into 2 inch florets and chop carrots into 1 inch rounds.  You may choose to steam the vegetables or even roast them in the oven to give more flavor. I roasted mine at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes. Make sure that you check them constantly to avoid burning or overcooking.  To check for doneness, stick a pairing knife into the vegetable, if the knife comes right out without resistance, then its done. Set them aside

3. In another pan, pour 1 tbs oil and slice red onions. Using low heat, slowly saute onions until they turn a light brown color. This will take about 25-30 minutes. Caramelization must be done at low controlled heat and  additional oil must be added from time to time throughout the cooking process to keep the onions from drying. With the heat, the starches of the onion turn to sugar and caramelize to give off a rich sweet flavor.

4. Make a puree out of the ginger, onion, garlic, and red pepper flakes.

5. In a large pot heat oil and add puree.  Saute puree until it turns a slightly golden color.

6. Meanwhile, drain the cashews and puree them until smooth.

7.  Once the puree of onions, garlic, and ginger reaches a golden color, add the curry, coriander, garam masala mix, and ground red pepper. Stir until it incorporates into the puree mix then add the tomato paste.

8. Saute for another 5 minutes, then pour in the coconut milk , cashew puree, and an additional can of water. Blend well.

9. Simmer sauce for about 5 minutes on low heat and you will notice the sauce begin to thicken. The curry will not be smooth like a bechamel sauce because of the cashews and the onion/garlic puree.

10. Season  with salt and pepper. Finally add the vegetables, peas, onions and mix well, making sure that the vegetables are smothered in korma.

Serve with white basmati rice.

A vegan zucchini bread loaf

In the spirit of stepping away from the commercial “veggie” patties and the “meatless” breakfast products that so many vegans have come to accept as part of their daily meals, I have baked a vegan bread loaf. I do not call myself a vegan, blame my obsession of cheese for that, however, I’ll be the first to admit that I will take any vegan dessert over its non-vegan counterpart anyday if it was made with natural and fresh ingredients. It cuts down on some of the saturated fat by eliminating eggs and butter. Of course, when baking a healthy vegan treat, you really need to be careful what the substitute for egg and butter will be. For example, don’t eliminate butter and then add shortening because chances are that it is a vegetable shortening that has been partially hydrogenated and thus contains trans-fats. This means that in your body these fats will lower your HDL (good) cholesterol levels and increase your LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.

I wanted to use whole wheat bread and because I have worked with regular whole wheat flour in the past, I know that many times it can be too heavy for bread. So heavy that I end up with bread that can probably double up as a rock/weapon. Because of this I decided to use whole wheat pastry flour because it has less protein and will not create as much gluten that can make my bread turn into a heavy glob.

I also added raisins and pieces of walnuts that add a delicious bite to the finished loaf!

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 c whole wheat pastry flour
  • 2 ts baking powder
  • 1/2 ts salt
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground clove
  • 1 Tbs flax seed (ground) mixed with 3 Tbs water ( this is the egg replacer)
  • 1/2 c raw sugar
  • 1/3 c canola oil
  • 1 ts lemon juice
  • 1 ts vanilla
  • 1 1/2 c zucchini (shredded)
  • 1/4 c walnuts
  • 1/4 c raisins
  • 1/4 c water
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  2. Sift flour, baking powder, salt, clove, cinnamon and set aside in a large mixing bowl
  3. In a separate bowl, mix sugar, flax seed mixture, oil, lemon juice, vanilla,
  4. Add the zucchini, raisins, walnuts and water to the wet mixture.
  5. Incorporate the wet mixture into the dry mixture and mix. Make sure you do not overmix. Stop mixing as soon as all of the dry ingredients become moistened.
  6. Pour mix into a 8.4″ x 4.4″ x 2.7″ baking loaf pan
  7. Bake about 30 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean after being inserted into the center of baking loaf.

You will notice that it is not as sweet as other breads (like banana bread), but this allows the zucchini to have a more assertive presence. The sweet punch will come when you bite into a raisin. Oh, and the walnuts will just make everything crunchy and nutty! Enjoy!

Vegan Pizza

Before I go on, let me let you in a little secret, most pizza crust is vegan. Another little secret, vegan is delicious, simple as that, although I don’t think that’s much of a secret.  Let’s face it though, we live in a society that is extremely resistant to vegan food and I begin to wonder, what exactly is it about the word “vegan” that turns off so many Americans? Is it that many cannot imagine food without cheese and meat? Or have we given veggies the bad reputation of being dull and lacking excitement? Whatever it may be, I  really feel that we need to start to embrace a vegan diet in this country. I am not saying we must all adopt one permanently (do so, by all means if you wish to) but if meat  is something you cannot drop from your diet,just opt for eating it less frequently.

As a culinary student, I feel that chefs need to become the driving force behind the  upcoming food trends that will shape the nation’s eating habits. We will have such a big impact on the foods that the country chooses to eat because becoming a chef brings along credibility in the delicious and the appetizing. So, because times are tough and we must find more and more ways to become sustainable eaters, why not lead the way in the efforts to be a more vegetable oriented country? Not only will we become  a healthier nation by eliminating a big percentage of saturated fats from our diets, but we have the opportunity to create new flavors with veggies that can potentially revolutionize the way we eat. Just make it taste delicious.

So, your average Joe hears the word, “vegan” or “vegetarian” and immediately thinks “no meat”!  Using education and some taste testing, a chef, and just about anyone else who is passionate about good food, can change this so that people start to think of vegan and vegetarian as an opportunity to eat an exciting and creative veggie dish! Despite the fact that a vast majority of people become vegan or vegetarian for ethical, environmental, or religious reasons, it’s not a bad idea for the average American to simply embrace  a diet with more veggies and less meat for the sake of health or sustainability.

This is where pizza comes in. Vegan pizza!

I have so much fun making pizza all the time. It is one of those foods that will let your imagination run wild with all the possible ingredient combinations. The best thing about this is that a cheese and pepperoni pizza is merely the top of the iceberg when it comes to toppings.  The crust is a blank canvas and whatever you chose to put on it is your artistic expression!  Among my favorite pizzas is my caramelized onion and pear with rosemary pizza or a sweet potato with cranberry and walnut pizza with some sprinkled blue cheese  crumbles on the top just to add a kick. This morning though, I woke up and decided  it was a good day to make a tomato pizza with arugula pesto. Lately we’ve had some cool weather down her in Orlando and my arugula plant has been loving it, so I will be using that arugula with some extra- virgin olive oil and garlic and almonds to make the pesto.  By the way, now that we are on the topic of veganism, some vegan pizzas claim to have the cheese substitutes, which are no comparison to the real thing when it comes to flavor.  Not only do these cheeses not live up to flavor expectation, some varieties have even more grams of fat per ounce than the real thing.  I will not promote which cheeses or cheese substitutes to eat or not, but the point that I want to make is that sometimes its good to step out of the cheesy pizza image and try other flavors and textures!!

When I decided to get into the realm of homemade pizzas, it took me a while to find the perfect thin crust recipe. I finally found one in “The Essential Vegetarian Cookbook”.

Ingredients:

1/2 Tablespoon dry yeast

1/2 tablespoom confectioners sugar (domino)

2/3 c warm water

2 cups plain flour ( if using a scale use only 8 oz flour)

pinch of salt

2 TBS olive oil

1. Mix yeast, sugar, and warm water in a large mixing bowl and let it rest for 5 minutes. It will being to bubble after several minutes.

2. add the flour and then a pinch of salt and olive oil and mix

3. Turn the ingredients into a slightly floured surface and begin to knead until the flour and liquid mix and it becomes a soft dough. The more you knead, the more manageable the dough will become. PLace on a clean mixing bowl and cover. let it rise until it doubles in size.

4. When the dough doubles, place it on a flour surface and with a rolling pin roll out into a circle or rectangle or whatever shape pan you have. I usually use a pizza stone.

5. Place toppings on pizza dough. For this pizza I used tomato thinly sliced and arugula pesto made out of arugula, blanched almonds, garlic cloves, and  olive oil with salt. However, let your imagination run wild on this step because it is your creation!!

5. place pizza in a preheated oven (375 degrees) and cook until the crust becomes slightly golden.

When it’s ready you will enjoy a crispy and delicious pizza and you’ll forget all about delivery pizza because its just way more fun when you make it at home!