November 17, 2011

on school lunches, and Vietnamese caramel chicken

As the kid of a recent immigrant, I remember a few awkward moments in the elementary school cafeteria. To be clear, my mom was/is awesome and she took the time to pack tasty lunches for us. They were just a little unusual, if I compared them to the sea of pbj and Lunchables surrounding me at Weatherly Elementary.

My sandwiches were often full of vegetables -- say, slices of cucumber, slivers of carrot, banana peppers --along with meats that no one else seemed to have, like roasted pork tenderloin or pâté. She gave me cut up vegetables and fruit, and I didn't get Cool Ranch Doritos or pudding or marshmallow fluff. Really, the cauliflower florets and sandwiches were totally fine -- despite the unusual ingredients, they flew under the radar --but I'll never forget the time she packed me cha gio, her homemade Vietnamese egg rolls. I loved those things so hard. So hard that, even though I felt self-conscious about them, I still started eating. Until a girl in my class saw my egg roll and remarked that my lunch was weird. And that it smelled.


I can't remember exactly what happened after that, except that I stuffed the egg roll back in my lunch bag ... and, later, furtively ducked in a bathroom stall to eat. (I was not the kind of kid who would skip lunch.) A bathroom stall! 4th grade Kim. I wish I could go back and tell you to be proud and grateful for your egg roll. And I wish I could tell you to give that mean kid a withering look and continue eating. And I wish I could tell you that, two months from the egg roll incident, you would accidentally slosh the contents of your slushy, semi-frozen juice box all over her face, so just you wait. Finally, I wish I could tell you not to succumb to Lunchable-lust, because Mom was right; that crap is gross.

But I believed that girl because I knew my mom added fish sauce to just about everything, including her egg rolls. What I didn't appreciate back then, however, is that fish sauce only smells intense right out of the bottle. Once you've added it to a dish and balanced it with other flavors, its characteristic briny funk mellows considerably. And if you know what you're doing, fish sauce can impart an addictive umami flavor to your food that no other ingredient can. Well, I may not always know what I'm doing, but I can say that the tastiest, most addictive dish I know how to make is this one. And it's all thanks to fish sauce.


The recipe for Vietnamese chicken with caramel sauce comes not from my mom, but from Mark Bittmann, who calls it two-way chicken. And it is crazy that I've never blogged about it because this is one of Mark's favorite dishes. As in, a strong contender for his last meal on earth. The chicken is juicy and succulent, the sauce is savory and sweet, and whenever I make it people can't stop talking about how much they like it.

One last comment about fish sauce: I have been using Red Boat first press fish sauce for awhile now, and it is dynamite both in quality and in taste. It is great for cooking, making a dipping sauce, and also perfect for eating plain with rice, if you grew up doing that (like me!). I highly recommend it. So does my mom, who said it tastes like the fish sauce she grew up eating in Vietnam.


Two-way chicken, also known as Vietnamese caramel chicken
 adapted from Mark Bittman

The first rule of two way chicken is to start a big pot of rice before doing anything. You'll want a lot to soak up the sauce. The second rule is to use chicken thighs. I've made it plenty of times with a combination of white and dark meat, but using thighs are ideal because a) they cook at the same rate and b) they stay wonderfully juicy. And the last thing is that this dish isn't ideal for a crowd, unless you enjoy turning a billion pieces of chicken at a hot stove. But if I were feeding more than 3-4 people, I would start the chicken on the stovetop and then put it in a 400 degree oven to finish cooking the interior.

4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
2-3 teaspoons soy sauce
2-4 cloves of garlic, chopped
1-2 inch hunk of ginger, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon oil
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
lime wedges and chopped cilantro, for garnish

Place the chicken in a bowl and drizzle enough soy sauce over the chicken to give it a light coating. This adds flavor and helps with the browning.

Add the oil to a wide, fairly deep skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the chicken to the skillet skin side down. Brown it well. After 5-7 minutes, flip the chicken. The skin may stick a bit, but do your best to keep it intact. (Another strategy is to cook these in an anodized nonstick pan, though nothing with Teflon because the cooking temperature is too high for that.) Cover partially with a lid and continue cooking, checking the chicken and rotating the pan to make sure they cook evenly. This should take 15 to 20 minutes longer. Remove the thighs to a plate once they finish cooking. They'll look something like this (I should have rotated my pan, guys! Not a big deal though).


You should be left with a pan full of chicken dark drippings and clear fat. How much will depend on how fatty your chicken was; if your chicken exuded a lot of fat, spoon out fat -- but not the drippings, you want those!-- until you are left with approximately 2 1/2 tablespoons of fat. If your chicken was lean, add a bit more fat (like olive oil) to the pan to make up for it. Next, turn the heat to low and add the garlic, ginger, hot pepper flakes. Cook until the garlic becomes translucent, taking care not to let it burn. Next, add 1/4 cup sugar and 2 tablespoons water. Raise the pan to high heat and cook, stirring, until the sugar melts and the sauce thickens and becomes foamy. This takes about 2 minutes for me. At this point, add the fish sauce an any juices that accumulated around the chicken and cook for 30 more seconds. Finally, return the chicken to the pan and turn the pieces until nicely glazed and hot.

Serve over rice, and garnish with cilantro and a squeeze of lime juice. I almost always serve this with a Vietnamese cabbage salad, but any simple vegetable will accompany this perfectly.

Serves 2.


Lan said...

Hi honey,
It's a very descriptive article about this dish.Well written! I enjoyed reading it and felt nostalgic for a while b/c I still have vivid memory of you guys .How pleasant, fulfilling and proud it was to be your guys' mother.Oh! How I yearn for those happy days.
Anyhow ,I am very glad that you had such memorable incident over your Lunches.

JDog said...

I am going to try to make this after Thankgiving. I'll let you know how it goes. I don't know if I can live up to your quality, but I guess John won't have anything to compare too, huh?

Kim said...

Thanks mom! I wish I could still have egg rolls packed in my lunch by you :)

Julia, you can totally do it. The only thing that's slightly tricky is knowing when the chicken is done cooking, but just cut into it to double check.

Amy said...

My best friend whose parents immigrated from Greece has VERY similar story, about the embarrassment of eggplant in her lunch. It's funny, it doesn't seem embarrassing now but I know it was a big deal then. I'll have to forward your story to her. All I can contribute is that Lunchables are revolting. The pizza ones? Jeez, so horrible.

Anyway, this chicken looks fab. I love Vietnamese food and I'm definitely going to try it.

Jess said...

This is such a sweet, sad, sweet story. Aww. Kids can be mean, right? Luckily you don't seem to have been scarred too badly :) In any case I'm TOTALLY MAKING this chicken. Yum, fish sauce. My fave Vietnamese place makes this salad with fish sauce dressing and I pretty much die of happiness every time I go there.

Lauren said...

I love that story about your school lunches. I wish I could tell my younger self all kinds of things!

Adam said...

Bookmarked. Good feeling about this one.