Vietnamese Caramel Chicken
Start to finish: 40 minutes | Servings: 4 to 6
The classic Vietnamese technique of simmering meat or fish in dark, bittersweet caramel mixed with fish sauce and a few aromatics yields rich, wonderfully complex savory-sweet flavors. And the technique could hardly be simpler. Instead of a traditional clay pot, we use a 12-inch skillet to make our version of gà kho, or caramel- simmered chicken, and we cook the chicken until the sauce forms a glaze, as we were taught in Vietnam. Bruising the lemon grass releases its flavor and fragrance but since the stalk is still whole, it is easy to remove and discard before serving; the simplest way to bruise it is with the blunt side of the blade of a chef’s knife or the butt end of the handle. Serve the chicken with steamed jasmine rice.
Don’t be shy when cooking the caramel. Allow it to darken deeply—a smoky, bitter caramel is what gives this dish depth of flavor. It should reach a mahogany hue and will smoke lightly when ready.
- ¼ cup white sugar
- 4 tablespoons coconut water or water, divided
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce
- 2 Fresno or serrano chilies, stemmed and sliced into thin rings
- 1 stalk lemon grass, trimmed to the lower 5 or 6 inches and bruised (see note)
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed and cut into 1½-inch pieces
- 1 tablespoon lime juice
- 2 scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal
In a 12-inch skillet, combine the sugar and 2 tablespoons of the coconut water. Cook over medium-high, occasionally swirling the pan to help the sugar dissolve and to encourage even browning, until the caramel is mahogany in color and smokes lightly, 4 to 6 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat and add the fish sauce along with the remaining 2 tablespoons coconut water; the mixture will bubble vigorously and the caramel will harden in spots. Bring to a simmer over medium and cook, stirring, until the hardened bits have dissolved. Add the chilies, lemon grass, ginger and pepper, then cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Increase to medium-high and stir in the chicken. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce reduces and clings to the chicken, 10 to 14 minutes.
Remove from the heat, then discard the lemongrass. Stir in the lime juice. Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with the scallions.
Vietnamese Caramel Pork Tenderloin
Cut two 1¼-pound pork tenderloins (trimmed of silver skin) in half lengthwise, then crosswise into ½-inch-thick pieces. Follow the recipe to make the caramel and cook the chilies, lemon grass, ginger and pepper. Add the pork and cook, stirring often, until just cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pork to a medium bowl, then continue to cook the caramel mixture, stirring occasionally, until thickened to the consistency of honey, about 2 minutes. Off heat, return the pork to the skillet and stir to coat. Discard the lemongrass, then stir in the lime juice. Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with the scallions.
Vietnamese Caramel Salmon
Cut 2 pounds 1-inch-thick skinless salmon fillets into 1½-inch cubes. Follow the recipe to make the caramel and cook the chilies, lemon grass, ginger and pepper. Add the salmon and cook, stirring often, until the salmon is just opaque throughout, 5 to 6 minutes. Remove and discard the lemongrass, then stir in the lime juice. Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with the scallions.
Vietnamese Scallion Sauce
Start to finish: 20 minutes | Makes about ½ cup
Vietnamese scallion oil, called mỡ hành, is used as a garnish or condiment on a number of different foods, from grilled clams on the half shell to steamed rice. It adds fresh allium notes as well as bright green color to any dish it’s drizzled onto. And since fat carries flavor, it also acts as a flavor booster. At its most basic, mỡ hành is made by pouring hot oil over sliced scallions to release their flavor and tenderize them. Our version includes savory fish sauce (or soy sauce), pungent ginger and a little sugar to build complexity. It’s delicious spooned onto simply cooked asparagus, shrimp or skirt steak (recipes below). Or try it on grilled pork chops, corn on the cob or steamed dumplings. Leftover scallion oil can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to three days; return it to room temperature before serving.
Don’t just slice the scallions. For proper texture and flavor, the scallions should be chopped. Slice them first, then run the knife blade over them a few times to further break them down.
- ½ cup chopped scallions (5 or 6 scallions; see note)
- Kosher salt and ground black pepper
- ¼ cup peanut or other neutral oil
- 1½ tablespoons fish sauce or soy sauce
- 1½ tablespoons finely grated fresh ginger
- 1 teaspoon white sugar
In a medium heatproof bowl, combine the scallions, ¼ teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Using your fingers, gently rub the salt and pepper into the scallions until the scallions begin to wilt.
In a small saucepan over medium-high, heat the oil until shimmering, then pour the hot oil over the scallions; the scallions will sizzle. Stir, then stir in the fish sauce, ginger and sugar. Cool to room temperature.
Seared and Steamed Asparagus
In a 12-inch skillet over medium-high, heat 1 tablespoon neutral oil until barely smoking. Add 1½ pounds asparagus (trimmed and halved on the diagonal) and cook, stirring only a few times, until charred. Add 3 tablespoons water, then immediately cover. Reduce to low and cook, stirring just once or twice, until the asparagus is crisp- tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Serve with scallion oil spooned over.
In a 12-inch skillet over medium-high, heat 1 tablespoon neutral oil until barely smoking. Add 1½ pounds extra-large (21/25 per pound) shrimp (peeled and deveined) in an even layer and cook without stirring until well brown, about 3 minutes. Stir the shrimp, then remove the pan from the heat and stir constantly, allowing the skillet’s residual heat to finish the cooking, until the shrimp are opaque throughout, another 20 to 30 seconds. Serve over steamed white rice and topped with scallion oil.
Pan-Seared Skirt Steak
In a 12-inch skillet over medium-high, heat 1 tablespoon neutral oil until barely smoking. Add 1 pound beef skirt steak (trimmed and cut into 3- to 4-inch sections) and cook, until well browned on both sides, 5 to 7 minutes total, flipping once about halfway through. Transfer to a plate and let rest for 10 minutes. Cut the steak against the grain into thin slices. Drizzle with scallion oil.
Vietnamese Chicken Curry
Start to finish: 35 minutes, plus marinating | Servings: 4
Curry was brought to Vietnam by Indian immigrants who arrived in the country in the 19th century, while both Indochina and the port of Pondicherry, India were under French rule. Lemon grass, fish sauce and star anise were introduced to the dish to adapt the flavors to local palates. As a result, Vietnamese curry has a uniquely bright, yet deeply savory taste and aroma. Though many versions of cà ri gà, or chicken curry, call for store-bought curry powder, we prefer to mix our own spices so we can control the seasoning. Serve with steamed jasmine rice.
Don’t underblend the spice mixture. Make sure it’s perfectly smooth, without any fibrousness or tough bits from the lemon grass and ginger. Also, don’t use chicken breasts in place of the chicken thighs. Breast meat is delicate and mild; it will wind up overcooked and the curry will lack flavor.
- ¼ cup grapeseed or other neutral oil
- 4 medium garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
- 3-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 medium onion, roughly chopped
- 3 stalks lemon grass, trimmed to the lower 5 or 6 inches, dry outer layers discarded, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons coriander seeds
- 2 teaspoons ground turmeric
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Kosher salt and ground black pepper
- 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed and cut crosswise into 1- to 1½-inch pieces
- 5 star anise pods
- 2 medium carrots, peeled, halved and sliced ¼ inch thick
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- ¼ cup lime juice
- Chopped fresh cilantro, to serve
In a blender, combine the oil, garlic, ginger, onion, lemon grass, coriander, turmeric, cinnamon, ½ cup water and 1 teaspoon each salt and pepper. Blend until smooth, 1 to 2 minutes, scraping the blender jar as needed. Transfer the puree to a medium bowl, add the chicken and stir until evenly coated. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to 1 hour.
In a 12-inch skillet, combine the chicken and all of the marinade, the star anise and carrots. Bring to simmer over medium-high and cook, stirring occasionally, until the marinade begins to brown, 6 to 7 minutes. Stir in ⅓ cup water and the fish sauce. Return to a simmer, then cover, reduce to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally and adjusting the heat as needed to maintain a simmer, until the carrots are crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Uncover and continue to cook, stirring, until the sauce thickens enough to cling to the chicken, about another 5 minutes.
Remove from the heat and stir in the lime juice. Remove and discard the star anise, then taste and season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with cilantro.
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