Vietnamese Home Cooking: Lemongrass Chicken

Books for Better Living

By: Matt Albrecht via Books for Better Living

My fiance and I are no strangers to Eastern cuisine. We are devotees to adventurous eating, loyal only to our insatiable taste buds. On some nights, we're practitioners of the Italian way of life; on others we pay homage to our Chinese food deities. Nomads are we.

Cooking at home, however, is not a religious experience for us despite our obsessive devotion. In truth, we consider every recipe by way of its nutrition facts (does it fit our macronutrients?), cost (are these ingredients less than 10 dollars per plate?), and prep time (can we do this in under an hour?). As working adults on a budget with little time to spare in the evenings, we don't often venture far from meals consisting of an inexpensive protein accented with fruit or veggies seasoned with a copious mixture of spices accumulated over the years.

So when we were given a copy of Charles Phan's new cookbook Vietnamese Home Cooking, we poured over the photos of recipes like Shaking Beef and Pork and Shrimp Spring Rolls and wondered if there was anything that would fit our criteria. We soon realized that this book is more than a collection of recipes from The Slanted Door, Phan's acclaimed modern Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco. It's a manifesto that purports-not unlike Mastering the Art of French Cooking-that Vietnamese cooking can be as accessible to home cooks as any other ethnic style.

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In our humble home kitchen, we settled on Phan's Lemongrass Chicken, which only required a few new-to-us ingredients-lemongrass and fish sauce-and looked delicious. As the sous-chef in the relationship, I chopped up onions, scallions, lemongrass and peanuts. Cutting lemongrass is not unlike cutting asparagus, and is very similarly textured; I suggest using a rocking motion with a chef's knife, rolling from tip to base on the cutting board while holding the lemongrass steady. This makes tiny ringlets that you then bunch together and slice over and over again until they're practically granulated. (For more lemongrass tips, see this post from the Recipe Club.)

When all was said and done (just under an hour!), we'd produced more dirty dishes than usual, but it was a small price to pay for a three-dollar-sign-on-Yelp-quality (i.e. "spendy") meal. Although the fish sauce and lemongrass components were outside of our usual comfort zones, this recipe did not disappoint. As their names suggest, fish sauce does indeed smell fishy, and lemongrass does have the consistency of grass, but, flavor-wise, they fit well with the rest of the dish. The mix of savory wok-fried chicken, salty fish sauce, sweet, crunchy peanuts and fragrant lemongrass is definitely worth experiencing.

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Vietnamese Home Cooking is filled with far more than lemongrass and fish sauce recipes, however. Phan's information and richly detailed photos of the recipes, equipment and individual ingredient guides go to great lengths to fulfill his mission of popularizing Vietnamese cooking in the home. Phan also writes a touching personal history that details his journey from Vietnam refugee to award-winning chef. Here's the recipe that brought a taste of Vietnam to our kitchen.

Lemongrass Chicken
Lemongrass is used in a lot of Vietnamese cooking, but this recipe is one of the most popular dishes that calls for it. In Vietnam, lemongrass is used in two different ways. It is used as an aromatic, cut into large pieces and smashed for simmering in soups, curries, and stews, like bay leaves. It is also chopped so finely that it looks like granulated sugar and then added to dishes where it contributes an incredible fragrance and a pleasant texture that cannot be achieved by throwing the stalks into a food processor. Chopping lemongrass by hand to the proper consistency takes time, but if you're patient, you'll end up with a beautiful finished product. Serves 3 or 4 as a part of a multicourse meal.

2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons chicken stock or water
Pinch of sugar
1/4 cup canola oil
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken, a mix of breast and thigh meat, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 cup thinly sliced red onion
2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
1/4 cup finely minced lemongrass
1 jalapeño chile, stemmed and thinly sliced on the diagonal into rings
2 tablespoons rice wine
1 tablespoon roasted chile paste
2 scallions, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 tablespoon finely chopped roasted peanuts, for garnish

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1. In a small bowl, whisk together fish sauce, stock, and sugar until the sugar has dissolved. Set aside.

2. Heat a wok over high heat until hot; the metal will have a matte appearance and a drop or two of water flicked onto its surface should evaporate on contact. Add the oil and heat until shimmering but not smoking. Add the chicken and cook, turning occasionally, for 3 to 4 minutes, until lightly browned on both sides.

3. Pour off all but 3 tablespoons of the oil from the wok (leave the chicken in the wok) and return the pan to medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 2 minutes, just until softened. Add the garlic, lemongrass, and jalapeño chile and cook for 30 seconds longer. Add the wine and deglaze the pan, stirring to dislodge any browned bits.

4. Add the fish sauce mixture, chile paste, and scallions to the pan and continue cooking for 1 minute more, until the scallions have softened slightly and the chicken is cooked through.

5. Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with the peanuts. Serve immediately.

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