ETHNIC EATING

EUGENIA UHL PHOTOGRAPH

I love to travel, and learning about local food customs fascinates me. I always make it a point to eat local rather than searching out American standards on other turfs.

Like most of us, I grew up on bacon and eggs for breakfast, thanks to the immense British influence on American life. But traveling in Hispanic and Asian countries showed me how to shine new light on the morning meal.

I recently experienced the beauty of Costa Rica for the first time, and my only disappointment was that I never saw a toucan. I had to come back to New Orleans to see one, but here they were multiple toucans in the form of a new giant sculpture on Veterans Memorial Boulevard in Metairie; not exactly what I had in mind. While in the Central American country I did enjoy exquisite rain and cloud forests, other colorful birds and lovely, peaceful people. And the most interesting meal of the day was breakfast. I started each day with black beans and rice with plantains on the side. From the locals, I learned that from the day a Costa Rican is old enough to eat solid food, his first meal of the day is exactly that: black beans and rice with plantains on the side. And what a substantial meal it is! It will hold you through a day of zip-lining or jungle hiking and even riding four-wheelers over rugged roads.

I recall a few years back eating noodle soup, or pho, every morning for breakfast in Vietnam. I had learned to love the dish in the popular Vietnamese restaurants in New Orleans, but never for breakfast. Sticking to my guns on eating like the locals, I slurped down a bowl of pho every morning of that two-week trip – and it was delicious and so nourishing. I came to understand that there are many dishes that make you feel warm and comfy just when you need a big boost for the day ahead.

So I looked back in the cookbooks from the early days in New Orleans to see what the Creoles were eating for breakfast. I expected pain perdu and calas. But I also found broiled trout beefsteak, ragout of mutton and grillades.

Some were leftovers, but rice cakes and fruit added freshness to the meals. On farms, I’m told, fried chicken was a staple for late morning breakfasts after hours of work in the fields. But that was before technology landed workers in chairs and weight problems overtook us, reducing breakfast to a half-cup of oatmeal or a piece of toast. Still, diet counselors stress the importance of breakfast, urging dieters to eat well in the morning and slow down in the evening hours.

I didn’t make pho in my own kitchen for a long time, and I was genuinely surprised at how good it turned out. A trip to a Vietnamese store is a must, but you can stock up on ingredients that store well. We prefer the beef noodle soup, but chicken can be used as well. It is a filling and nourishing meal that can be made in little time. Granted, this recipe is a shortcut, but it tastes almost as good as the restaurant version and doesn’t require hours of boiling beef tendons.

The last time I made this recipe, my husband said it was the best pho he’d ever eaten. It was quite a compliment considering we’ve sampled every Vietnamese restaurant in town.

As for beans and rice, we south Louisianans are experts at that, but it’s fun to put a Latin twist to it, using black beans and mixing all together before serving. Eat it any time, but try it for breakfast when you have leftovers. And don’t forget the plantains. They are available in Hispanic markets and many grocery stores. Asian ingredients for the beef noodle soup are also available in many ethnic stores, particularly the Vietnamese groceries on the West Bank.

PHO BO (BEEF NOODLE SOUP)

1/2 pound eye of round roast,
      sliced very thin
4 quarts water
4 tablespoons beef-flavored
      pho soup base
2 teaspoons seasonings from
      the packet in the soup base box
1 inch fresh ginger root,
      peeled and cut into 2 chunks
4 star whole star anise
8 to 10 sprigs Thai basil
1/2 bunch cilantro, roughly
      chopped
1/2 red onion, sliced thin
4 cups bean sprouts
2 limes, cut into slices
1 large jalapeño pepper, sliced
1 10-ounce box beef flavored
      pho soup base
Hoisin sauce
Hot chili sauce
2/3 14-ounce package medium
      dried rice noodles (about 1/8-
      to 1/16-inch wide)


Have the butcher slice the roast very thin. If buying more than you need, have it all sliced and freeze some. If you slice it, it is easier to slice if the meat is partially frozen.

Heat water in a soup pot. Add soup base, seasonings, ginger and star anise. Bring to a boil, stirring to mix well.

Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove ginger and star anise. Keep broth warm on the stove.

Meanwhile, prepare two platters of basil, cilantro, red onion, bean sprouts, lime and jalapeño pepper for the center of the table, along with the bottles of sauces. Place raw meat on a platter on the table.

Soak rice noodles in cold water for 30 minutes.

When ready to serve, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Drain and add noodles, stirring to keep them apart. Boil for a few minutes, tasting to see when they are done. Drain and place about 1/2 cup in each serving soup bowl.

Bring broth to a boil and ladle over noodles. Serve immediately. Diners should be instructed to drop meat into soup as desired. The first will cook to doneness so if well-done is desired, several pieces should be added as soon as the broth is ladled into the bowl. If medium or rare is desired, add meat gradually with vegetables. Vegetables and sauces should be added at the table as desired.

Serves 6.

GALLO PINTO (BLACK BEANS AND RICE)

2 cups white rice
3 tablespoons canola oil, divided
1 bell pepper, any color,
      chopped, divided
1 large onion, chopped, divided
Half bunch cilantro, chopped,
      divided, plus some for garnish
3 cups water
2 16-ounce cans black beans,
      or 1 pound dried black beans,
      simmered in salted water
      until done


In a large skillet that has a top, sauté rice in 1 tablespoon oil, stirring frequently, until it begins to brown. Add 1/2 of the bell pepper, onion and cilantro and continue cooking and stirring for a couple of minutes more. Add water, reduce heat to low, cover and cook until rice is done or all water has cooked away, about 25 minutes.

Shortly before ready to serve, heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a large pot and sauté remaining bell pepper, onion and cilantro. Add rice and beans, stirring together. Add salt and pepper to taste. To serve, add more chopped cilantro on top.

This is delicious topped with your favorite hot sauce or salsa. In Costa Rica, Lizano salsa was the one we loved.

*I wanted to make the following recipe authentic, but I cooked the dried black beans I bought at an ethnic store for five hours and they still weren’t done. Since I had company and it was time for dinner, I had to open two cans of seasoned red beans that I had in my pantry and substituted them. To make it simple for you, I have substituted two cans of black beans.

FRIED PLANTAINS

4 ripe plantains
Vegetable oil
Granulated sugar


Look for plantains that are firm on the outside but soft inside. They will look like large bananas with a darker peel.

The peel is very firm and must be removed with a knife. The best way is to cut through the peel with the tip of a sharp knife from one end to the other. Then, with your fingers, pull off the peel from around the plantain.

To prepare for cooking, cut a plantain in two horizontally. Then slice each half vertically into 1/4-inch slices. If peeling and slicing early, place in cold water to keep from discoloring.

To cook, heat 1 inch of oil in a large skillet. When oil is hot, fry the plantain slices until brown on both sides. Remove on paper towels and sprinkle with sugar. Serve hot.

Serves 6 to 8.

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