Vietnamese Building Blocks

Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors
By Andrea Quynhgiao Nguyen
Ten Speed Press, 2006; $35

Everybody loves a make–your–own–banh mi station. At least, that’s what I took away from a recent party I threw, where I followed Andrea Nguyen’s recipe for grilled lemongrass beef skewers and laid out the elements for my guests to assemble Vietnamese sandwiches. It was like a sundae bar, but with lots of lemongrass and fish sauce.

Vietnam-born Nguyen has written about Vietnamese food for the San Jose Mercury News, Saveur, and the Los Angeles Times, and runs the nifty website Viet World Kitchen. (In her list of tips on where to find Vietnamese ingredients, she suggests: “Your Vietnamese manicurist. Where does she or he eat and shop?”)

Her cookbook, one of the best of 2006, is written with an eye to how traditional Vietnamese recipes are adapted by Vietnamese cooks (particularly her mother) in America. She notes how equipment and ingredients in American kitchens differ from those in Vietnamese kitchens. We learn that chicken was reserved for special occasions in Vietnam, but “America must have seemed like chicken heaven to my parents when our family arrived here.” She continues that her mother would look for specials on chickens, then buy them in large quantities (“typically six”). These were awkward moments for Nguyen as a girl: “Our bulk chicken purchases seemed to underscore our outsider lifestyle.”

Nguyen allows for efficiencies amid the quest for authentic flavors, as long as they seem in keeping with how Vietnamese cooks actually work: A chapter on Vietnamese charcuterie mercifully allows readers to use a food processor, not a mortar and pestle, to grind meat; and Nguyen writes of her parents’ excited discovery of nonstick pans, which made banh cuon (steamed, filled rice-paper rolls) much easier to cook.

Still, Nguyen is exhaustive in her directions, which can make them look challenging on the page. Take this single step from her green papaya salad: “Working in batches, wring out excess moisture from the papaya in a nonterry dish towel: position a mound of the papaya in the center, roll it up in the towel, and then twist the ends in opposite directions to force out the water. Do this 3 or 4 times. You want to extract enough water from the papaya yet not completely crush it. Transfer the papaya to a large bowl and fluff it up to release it from its cramped state.” Procedurals like this verge on exhausting, but I appreciate this sort of precision. Nguyen knows that most of us are new to this cuisine, and she doesn’t want to leave any detail hanging. She’s got a nicely literary style, too, telling us to cut pork shank into “domino-sized pieces,” calling for “chubby” pieces of ginger, and telling readers to make sure their star anise has “robust” points.

I’d wanted to make pho for the party I mentioned above, but once I realized that the 18-step recipe called for blanching the beef bones and thinly slicing acres of beef and vegetables, I tabled the project. The fascinating recipes for charcuterie and the cellophane noodles with hand-picked crab also fell by the wayside. Many of these recipes demand one of those long, leisurely Sunday-cooking-project days, which I didn’t have. So I settled for banh mi with lemongrass beef. It still had a lot of elements—the slivered, skewered beef and its marinade; the carrot and daikon pickle; the doctored hoisin sauce; the shaved cucumber; the herbs; and the Maggi Seasoning Sauce drizzled on top—but I could spread out the tasks over a couple of days. The grilled lemongrass beef skewer recipe reprinted below, which served as the base for my sandwiches, is one of the simpler preparations—but the real beauty of this book is in the painstaking recipes that challenge you to learn the mindset of Vietnamese cooking.

Grilled Lemongrass Beef Skewers (Thit Bo Nuong Xa)

Makes 24 to 30 skewers, to serve 6 to 8

Marinade:
1 shallot, chopped (about 1/4 cup)
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 1/4 teaspoons fine shrimp sauce {Nguyen explains some of the less common ingredients in a glossary, but this was the hardest ingredient to find—I ended up using Indonesian shrimp paste, but I don’t think that was right.}
2 teaspoons fish sauce {Nguyen has helpful suggestions on which fish sauces to look for—of course, in typically Saveur fashion, the really good stuff is nearly impossible to find in the States.}
2 tablespoons canola or other neutral oil
1 stalk lemongrass, trimmed and minced (about 3 tablespoons)
1 1/2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted (page 332)

1 1/4 pounds tri-tip or flap steak, well trimmed (about 1 pound after trimming)
1 1/2 cups Spicy Hoisin-Garlic Sauce (page 310) {This is basically a doctored hoisin sauce, augmented by chicken livers, or, in my case—since there were to be vegetarians at the party who would want a beefless sandwich—peanut butter; it’s not complicated, but keep in mind that each of these little sauces or marinades takes up time, and dishes.}

1. To make the marinade, combine the shallot, brown sugar, salt, and pepper in a mortar and pound into a rough paste. (Or, use an electric mini-chopper.) {I don’t know about you, but ever since my pestle broke, I haven’t found any urgent need to replace it. I used my ancient full-sized food processor: The resulting mix might have been a little rougher than Nguyen intended, but I thought it was just fine.} Transfer to a bowl, add the shrimp sauce, fish sauce, oil, lemongrass, and sesame seeds, and stir to mix. Set aside.

2. If you have time, place the beef in the freezer for about 15 minutes. It will firm up, making it easier to cut. {This is true, although next time I’d take advantage of all the precut beef strips that are sold at my local Asian grocery—they’re intended for sukiyaki.} Slice the beef across the grain into thin strips a scant 1/4 inch thick, about 1 inch wide, and 2 to 3 inches long. (You may need to angle the knife to yield strips that are wide enough.)

3. Add the beef to the marinade and use your fingers to combine, making sure that each strip is coated on both sides. {Most recipe writers would probably write, “Mix the beef strips with the marinade.” It’s these little details that make Nguyen’s recipes a little bit tedious, but also kind of sweetly thorough.} Cover with plastic wrap and marinate at room temperature for 1 hour. (For more tender meat, marinate in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours. Remove from the refrigerator 30 minutes prior to skewering.) Meanwhile, soak 24 to 30 bamboo skewers, each 8 to 10 inches long, in water to cover for at least 45 minutes.

4. To grill the beef, prepare a medium-low charcoal fire (you can hold your hand over the rack for no more than 5 or 6 seconds) or preheat a gas grill to medium-low. {I fired up the big green egg for this, but if I had my druthers, next time I’d cook the beef in a grill where the grate is closer to the fire, for a bit more flame-kissed character.} To broil the beef, position a rack about 4 inches from the heat source and preheat the oven for 20 minutes so it is nice and hot.

5. While the grill or broiler heats, drain the skewers and thread the beef onto them, putting 1 or 2 strips on each skewer. If you are broiling, put the skewers on an aluminum foil–lined baking sheet. Place the skewers on the grill rack or slip the baking sheet under the broiler. Grill or broil, turning the skewers once, for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, or until the beef is browned and a little charred at the edge.

6. Arrange the skewers on a platter and serve at once with the sauce on the side. Diners can dip the skewers in the sauce or spoon the sauce onto the skewers.

Note: These grilled beef strips are wonderful stuffed into a sandwich {That’s what I did, and it made for fantastic banh mi; remember that I also had to sliver jalapeños and cucumbers, as well as prepare a simple relish of matchstick carrots and daikon radishes, and if I hadn’t made my guests assemble the whole number, I would have had to spread bread with mayo and Maggi Seasoning Sauce and layer in all the other elements. Again, easy work, but lots of little steps—the kind of thing where several extra hands in the kitchen might make the work more fun.} (page 34) or featured in a salad roll (page 32). They may also be used in place of the stir-fried beef in a rice-noodle bowl (page 224). Or, roll them up with lettuce, mint, and cilantro in fresh rice-noodle sheets; cut each roll into 2- to 3-inch lengths and serve with the hoisin-garlic sauce. {OK, so you get the picture that once you get the basic lemongrass beef thing down, you can use it in a million different ways. I think that’s what the takeaway of this book is—the basic building blocks that you can layer into any number of dishes.} You don’t need to skewer the beef if using it in these ways, though it makes grilling the strips easier.