When I think of the most memorable foods I have tasted around the globe, it's not the decadent, multicourse, four-hour dinner in a Michelin-starred Paris restaurant I dream about - it's the perfectly tender crepe, sparingly graced with cinnamon and sugar and just enough sweet butter to melt it into a slick of caramel, that I bought from a street vendor in the 7th Arrondissment for 1 euro.
I long for the charred, sweet and salty aroma and flavor of the just-plucked-from-the-sea lobster, grilled with chiles and lime and tucked into a fresh corn tortilla with a few slices of avocado and crema, that I ate on a beach in Mexico.
One of my most elemental food memories is the steaming, aromatic bowl of pho bought on a street corner in New York City, pungent with fish sauce and brightly laced with ginger, star anise, cloves, and fresh herbs.
I'm talking about street food - the deliciously diverse, down-home comforts sold from food carts and street stalls all over the world.
At my cooking school in Haddonfield, I teach a popular class for home cooks on preparing street foods: Vietnamese pho, Cuban sandwiches, shrimp satay. (See accompanying recipes.) The recipes we use are classics, or my interpretation of foods I have eaten on my travels that have stayed vibrant in my memory.
Often I'll have to make adjustments or substitutions for hard-to-find ingredients, but if I remember a dish as a blazing inferno in my mouth, that's what we re-create.
Some recipes have been given to me by friends. The pho recipe is based on a family recipe that my friend Hien Ngo gave me in 1976.
A former Miss Vietnam, she and her younger brother came to our country in one of the first waves of immigration from that country. I met her in Washington, when we worked together at Bistro Francais, and she taught me how to eat and cook Vietnamese food.
How well I recall the fragrant and abundant drift of fresh herbs and chilies that accompanied each dish, and the utter shock to my very French American palate from that first taste of fish sauce!
Each city has its own street-food specialties, and Philadelphia's extend well beyond pretzels and cheesesteaks: from the exquisitely authentic Chinese fare at a truck near the Penn campus to the falafel trucks in Center City, to paper-thin crepes in West Philadelphia, to the pork tacos al pastor at the Head House farmers market.
And while street food was once thought to be the lowest rung of the dining hierarchy - after all, it was the province of the home cook, not trained restaurant chefs - it has gained such popularity that chefs have adapted it for restaurant menus. (It doesn't hurt that these offerings are often cheap to produce and priced appealingly low in a tough economy.)
Locally, we have the new Northern Liberties restaurant Kong, which offers the street foods of Hong Kong, the new Sampan's Vietnamese hoagie, and old standbys such as the tasty Cuban sandwich from Mixto and the mahimahi taco from El Vez.
What people have in common the world over is that we all must eat, and it is said that a country's food is a window into its people and culture.
Preparing versions of street fare at home lets us be stove-top travelers, and makes the world a more interesting, not to mention delectable, place to be.
Slow Cooker Beef Pho
Makes 4 to 6 servings
For the broth:
4-5 pounds beef bones (do not use marrow bones)
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
2 cinnamon sticks (use Vietnamese for the best flavor)
1 cardamom pod
3 whole star anise
3 whole cloves
2 teaspoons whole coriander
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 onion, peeled
3-inch piece of peeled ginger, sliced
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce, or to taste (I like Three Crabs brand)
To finish the pho:
1 pound rice stick noodles
1/2 pound beef, sliced as thin as possible (see note)
Recommended garnishes: a good selection of fresh herbs, such as Thai basil, cilantro, mint, etc., thinly sliced lime wedges, thinly sliced chilies, mung bean sprouts, and Sriracha.
1. Fill a large pot with water and bring it to a boil over high heat. When it comes to a rolling boil, add the beef bones and boil for 10 minutes.
2. While the beef bones are boiling, heat a small skillet over medium heat and toast the spices until fragrant, about 2 to 3 minutes. Take them out of the pan immediately and add them to the empty slow cooker. In the same skillet, add the oil and deeply brown the onion and ginger. Add them to the slow cooker.
3. After the beef bones have boiled, drain and rinse them. Add the bones to the slow cooker. Fill the slow cooker with fresh, cool water to about 11/2 inches below the rim of the cooker. Add the sugar and fish sauce. Cover and set the cooker on low for 8 hours. Taste and season, if needed. Strain the stock through a cheesecloth-lined strainer, discarding the solids.
4. When you are ready to serve, bring the broth to a boil in a clean pot. Fill another pot with water and bring it to a boil. Cook the noodles according to the directions on the package, and drain.
5. Place the thinly sliced steak in the bottom of your serving bowls and fill with the hot broth, which will cook the beef. Add noodles to the bowls; each diner adds preferred garnishes.
Notes: You can use any beef you like: sirloin, flank, tenderloin, etc. Freezing the beef for about 20 minutes will make slicing easier.
Per serving (based on 6): 377 calories, 9 grams protein, 67 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 8 grams fat, 22 milligrams cholesterol, 666 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
El Vez Mahimahi Tacos
Makes 8 tacos
For the remoulade:
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoons minced chipotles in adobo sauce (canned, see note)
2 teaspoons capers, drained
Squeeze of fresh lime juice, to taste
Kosher salt, to taste
For the pickled cabbage:
1 head red cabbage, core removed
1 cup cider vinegar
3 tablespoons salt
3 tablespoons sugar
For the tacos:
5 ounces tortilla chips
5 ounces plaintain chips, unsweetened (such as Goya)
12 ounces mahimahi, cut into 1-ounce strips
1/2 cup heavy cream, or water
1 cup canola oil
Eight 6-8-inch flour tortillas
1 firm ripe avocado, peeled and sliced
Salt, to taste
1. To prepare the remoulade, stir all ingredients together.
2. To prepare the pickled cabbage, shred cabbage by hand or with a slicer, being careful to remove the heart of the cabbage heads. In a separate container mix vinegar, salt, and sugar until granules dissolve. Pour over cabbage and refrigerate overnight.
3. To prepare the tacos: In a food processor, pulse the tortilla and plaintain until grainy-looking crumbs form. Taste and add salt if necessary.
4. Dip mahimahi pieces in cream or water and dredge in crumbs.
5. In heavy skillet, heat 1/4 cup oil until smoking. Fry fish in batches, adding oil as necessary, cooking until golden brown. Remove to paper toweling to drain.
5. In a saute pan, warm the tortilla shells and set aside. Add a line of the remoulade, a slice of avocado and the cooked fish on each tortilla. Season and add a dash of lime juice over each piece of fish. Roll and sear again in a flat pan, being careful to only lightly brown the top and bottom sides. Put on a plate when finished and serve with fresh lime wedges and pickled cabbage.
Note: Remaining peppers can be pureed and frozen in a zipper bag. Break a small piece off and add to any sauce for a little zing.
Per taco: 533 calories, 15 grams protein, 43 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 33 grams fat, 57 milligrams cholesterol, 2,129 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.
Cuban Pressed Sandwich
Makes 6 generous sandwiches
Two loaves of Cuban bread or two baguettes with the hard crust cut off (see note)
Yellow mustard (like French's)
1 pound ham, sliced thin (Virginia ham is fine, but nothing too smoky)
1 pound roasted pork, sliced thin
1/2 pound Swiss cheese, sliced thin
1 dill pickle, sliced thin (do not use a half dill - go for the real thing)
Something heavy to press sandwiches (I use a cast iron skillet. You could wrap a brick in foil, or use a bacon press if you have one.)
1. Heat a skillet over medium heat. Cut the bread about 7 inches long, and slice through the center the long way if using a baguette.
2. Butter the insides of each slice, then spread mustard on each slice. Layer ham, pork, cheese, and pickle.
3. Close sandwich and butter the outside of the bread.
4. Place sandwich in the hot skillet and place your wrapped brick or heavy skillet on top. Cook about two minutes, or until nicely browned.
5. Turn sandwich over and cook, with heavy weight on top. You want the cheese to melt, but take care not to burn the sandwich.
6. When flattened and toasty brown, remove from pan and cut on a sharp diagonal. Serve immediately.
Note: It's hard to find good Cuban bread in our area, but believe me, this sandwich will rock with practically any bread!
Per serving: 549 calories, 45 grams protein, 16 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 33 grams fat, 150 milligrams cholesterol, 1,434 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 8 to 10 appetizer servings
2 pounds shrimp (16-20 per pound size or larger)
4 serrano peppers, seeded and minced
4 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon sesame oil (Asian)
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
Bamboo or metal skewers
Peanut dipping sauce (see recipe)
1. Clean shrimp, leaving tail segment on.
2. In a large bowl, combine peppers, cilantro, garlic, sesame oil, sugar, fish sauce, lime juice, and soy sauce and stir to form a paste.
3. Add cleaned shrimp and toss, making sure all shrimp are coated with mixture. Set aside for about 15 minutes.
4. Heat grill or grill pan to medium heat. Thread shrimp onto skewers, about 5 to a skewer.
5. Place on hot grill and cook for about 2 to 3 minutes per side, or until opaque in the middle. Serve with peanut dipping sauce.
Per serving (based on 10, without dipping sauce): 123 calories, 19 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fat, 138 milligrams cholesterol, 515 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber
Makes enough for 12 servings
1 small shallot, minced
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 cup coconut milk
1 cup chunky peanut butter
2 tablespoons canola or peanut oil
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon red curry paste (or Sambal Olek) or more to taste
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 teaspoon crushed red chile pepper, or more to taste
Chopped peanuts for garnish (optional)
Chopped cilantro for garnish (optional)
1. In a medium skillet, saute shallot in oil over medium low heat to soften. Add garlic and cook about 30 seconds.
2. Add all other ingredients and heat until peanut butter is melted and smooth.
3. Add all ingredients to a blender and blend until smooth. Season with salt if necessary.
Per serving (based on 10): 248 calories, 7 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, 21 grams fat, no cholesterol, 169 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.