In the winter, Bich Nga Burrill dreams of tropical fruit. The smooth, white flesh of the mangosteen, the green crunch of guava, the creamy durian and the delicate lychee, all so abundant in her home country of Vietnam, appear in her mind as a Maine winter grinds on outside her Winterport home.
“I miss it so much,” said Burrill, who immigrated to the United States in 1975, shortly after the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War; she married and moved to Maine in 1977. “You can get some of it here, but it’s not the same. I can’t stop thinking about it. I think the winter just puts it in my mind.”
But once the frost melts and Burrill gets back to work in her garden, the dreams subside and she focuses again on growing, harvesting and cooking. For more than a decade, Burrill has created dishes inspired by both Vietnam and Maine — as well as Thai, Italian and Greek cuisine — and sold them at farmers markets statewide. She has already published one cookbook, “Vietnam Memories: A Cook Book,” in 2005, and now has written a followup, “Food, Friendship and Memories at the Farmer’s Market,” a loving tribute to her devoted customers and the life of an artisan chef in rural Maine.
Frequent visitors to the markets in Orono, Bar Harbor, Belfast and Stonington, and at the Buck Street Market in Bangor, undoubtedly are familiar with Burrill. She’s the unfailingly engaging woman in the Far East Cuisine booth with the crabmeat spring rolls, jicama egg rolls, hot and sour soup, crispy kale and array of dumplings.
In the book, Burrill details the many varieties of people she encounters at the markets — from the freeloaders and the come-alongs who have no intention of buying anything, to the precious gems and five-star diamonds who return every week to stock up.
“I’ve met so many people over the years and made so many friends,” said Burrill. “It’s a great way to observe people. You see so many different kinds.”
Interspersed between recipes in the book are lots of stories about particular people. There are tales of the many romantic connections she has seen blossom over the years. Encounters with the Vietnam veterans who buy copies of her books. Memories of small children who have grown into young adults. And interaction with the many farmers and growers with whom she has developed close friendships as well as business relationships.
“In the past few years, farmers markets have really exploded,” said Burrill. “I think people are paying attention to the food they eat. They know that eating lots of red meat and bread every single day isn’t good for you. They want to know where it comes from. And there’s nothing better than fresh vegetables.”
Burrill cooks with vegetarians and vegans in mind, though she is a whiz with chicken and seafood. Tofu naysayers may change their minds, once they’ve tried her recipe for Golden Lady. Her oldest daughter, Amanda, is a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef, and tells her mother she should challenge Bobby Flay to a tofu throw-down.
“I can show him a thing or two about tofu,” said Burrill. “We eat it all the time in Vietnam. We don’t really eat a lot of meat there. When I came to America, people would eat these huge steaks and piles of meat. In Vietnam, that’s unheard of. That’s only if someone gets married.”
Now that she has published her second book, Burrill is in the midst of working on a project that’s even closer to her heart: a three-part memoir detailing her experiences while growing up in North Vietnam during the war, and then coming to the United States. She has finished the first book already and is editing it while working on the second one.
“I had to fight to come here. I have had a very interesting life, and I want people to know where I came from,” said Burrill. “After all that war, I want people to know how precious to me life really is. But it’s entertaining, and it’s funny. And there’s a lot about food in it. To me, food is love. Food is life. I can’t separate the two.”
“Food, Friendships and Memories of Farmer’s Markets” is available at BookMarc’s in Bangor and online at Amazon.com and bn.com. For more information, look up Far East Cuisine on Facebook.
Golden Lady with Ginger Miso Dipping Sauce
1 block of firm tofu, cut into 8 sticks
½ teaspoon each salt, pepper and sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 beaten eggs mixed with 1 tablespoon soy sauce
½ cup panko breadcrumbs
About a tablespoon olive oil
For sauce: ¼ cup soybean miso
¼ cup rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon garlic oil, or 2 tablespoons sesame oil
In a large plastic bag, mix tofu, salt, pepper, sugar and cornstarch until all are coated. Set aside. In a large nonstick skillet heat a small amount of oil on high heat. Dip the tofu sticks in eggs and roll into breadcrumbs. Brown on all sides. Mix all sauce ingredients in a shallow dish, and serve on the side. Remaining sauce will keep in fridge for up to two weeks.
Eggplant and Spicy Pork
Serves 4 to 6
2 pounds boneless pork ribs cut into small chunks
2 slices bacon
1 teaspoon each salt and pepper
2 teaspoons cornstarch
Cayenne pepper to taste
1 bulb garlic, minced
1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes, more if desired
1 large red bell pepper, diced
1 medium eggplants, cut into large cubes, about 1½ pounds
2 cups cherry tomatoes or 1 can diced tomatoes
1 cup broth
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon white vinegar
2-3 tablespoons fish sauce
½ cup chopped Thai basil
Mix together broth, sugar, vinegar and fish sauce, set aside. Preheat oven to 350. In a very large oven-safe skillet, cook the bacon until crispy and set aside; leave drippings in pan and cook pork until lightly brown. Push pork to side of pan. Scatter garlic and hot pepper flakes into pan and cook for 30 seconds, being careful not to burn. Then add in bell peppers and tomatoes; then sauce, already mixed, and bring all to boil. Add eggplant and toss to coat and put into oven for 30 minutes. To serve, top with Thai basil and crumbled bacon, and serve with steamed rice.
Creamy Coconut Custard and Ginger Caramel over Delicata Squash
For caramel: ½ cup brown sugar
½ cup hot water
2 tablespoons crushed ginger root
For custard: 1 can coconut milk
4 large eggs
⅓ cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon salt
4 medium delicata squashes
Heat oven to 350. Cut each squash lengthwise, scoop out seeds and membranes, and make a big enough hole to hold three cups of liquid. Run a vegetable peeler across the bottom of each half so it will lay flat in the oven. Cook squash in microwave for 8-10 minutes until it is soft. To make caramel, combine sugar and ginger in saucepan over high heat, stirring constantly and watching carefully to make sure it doesn’t burn. When mixture begins to turn amber, immediately pour in hot water; continue stirring and lower the heat until it thickens. Remove squash from microwave and divide caramel among each half, so that the bottom is coated completely. Scald coconut over high heat, until it is hot but not boiling. In another bowl, beat eggs with sugar and vanilla, and fold in the hot coconut. Pour mixture into caramel-coasted squash. Bake in oven for 40 minutes until custard is set. Serve as is, with skins and all. Alternately, you can use acorn or butternut squash, but skin will have to be peeled.