Wednesday, May 9, 2012
A Refreshing Dinner For Two
This dinner is refreshing to the tastebuds and delightful to the eyes. Who says caramel just belongs in the desserts?
If you are like me, you have probably been seduced by popular Vietnamese foods, such as pho and banh mi. The flavors, delicate in the case of the traditional noodle soup (pho) and robust in the instance of the roasted or grilled pork sandwich (banh mi), are always pleasing but rather elusive. I learned that Vietnamese food is carefully balanced using five elements: salty (water), spicy (metal), bitter (fire), sour (wood), and sweet (Earth). Each element, in turn, corresponds to one of the body's organs. I happily spent the afternoon playing around with different combination of these five elements, aptly changing the flavor of each dish by manipulating the balance of the elements. A little bit of fish sauce here, a splash of coconut soda there...I will never look at flavor profiles in the same way.
This dish, with its rich caramel and ginger sauce, epitomizes the principles of Vietnamese cooking. A simple caramel sauce (don't be nervous - it's just melted and cooked sugar) blends with pungent fish sauce to produce a sticky, sweet and salty coating for the chicken. As soon as you taste it, you will wonder why the only thing you topped with caramel sauce in the past was ice cream.
For many years, I avoided using fish sauce because of the odor that could only be described as rancid. If you can get past the smell, you will find that the skunk of the cooking world mellows as it is simmered and combined with other flavors. I promise.
Vietnamese Caramel Ginger Chicken
1/3 cup granulated sugar
½ c. water
3 tbsp. canola oil
½ medium onion, finely chopped
½ c. fresh ginger, peeled, and cut into matchsticks
2 garlic cloves, sliced
3 lb. bone-in, skinless chicken thighs, fat trimmed, generously seasoned with kosher salt
2 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. fish sauce
¼ tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
½ tsp. dried red chile flakes
3 green onions, thinly sliced
Heat a large straight-sided skillet over medium heat and add sugar. Cook until the sugar starts to melt and turn brown, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, swirling the pan frequently, until the caramel is bubbling and turns reddish brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and, very carefully, pour in water. Please be sure to turn your face aside while you do this so you do not get splattered. If the caramel hardens set the pan over medium-high heat. Stir until the caramel dissolves, and then pour it into a heatproof measuring cup or bowl.
With hot water (so the leftover caramel bits don't seize up on the bottom of the pan), clean and dry the pan. Place the skillet over medium-high heat and heat canola oil in the skillet. Add onion and ginger. Cook for 1 minute. Add sliced garlic and cook for an additional minute. With a slotted spoon, remove the onion, ginger, and garlic from the oil and reserve in a bowl.
To the skillet, add chicken thighs. Cook until the chicken no longer looks raw on the outside, about 2 minutes per side. Yes, the pan will be crowded! Add the reserved caramel sauce, fish sauce, ¼ teaspoon kosher salt, black pepper, and chili flakes. Mix to coat the chicken. Reduce the heat to medium and cook (the mixture will be simmering briskly) until the chicken is cooked through, turning the chicken every 2 to 3 minutes, for about 20 minutes. Stir in the reserved onions, ginger, and garlic and cook for 2 to 3 additional minutes.
Transfer the chicken and cooked aromatics (ginger, etc.) to a serving platter. Thinly slice 3 green onions and use to garnish the chicken. Serve with rice.