Last night’s dinner was tasty but with room for improvement.
Ever since I was reunited last month with Andrea Nguyen’s cookbook, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors, I’ve had Vietnamese food on my mind.
This cookbook is gorgeous, comprehensive, and intense. Andrea is a very debone-your-own-chicken and grow-your-own-lemongrass kind of home cook and I suspect she lives within spitting distance of a well-stocked Asian grocery store, (the likes of which we enjoyed in D.C.) and not in the boondocks of Western China.
I’ve been shying away from trying any of her recipes for awhile because, well frankly, its much harder to find Vietnamese ingredients in Chengdu, China than it was in the United States. Harder still with my limited reading abilities in this country. Plus, then there is the whole translation issue of translating ingredient names from Vietnamese to English to Mandarin.
It’s all been enough to make me, night after night, gaze longingly inside this book’s pages and then turn away, running helplessly for a plate of dumplings at the the hole in the wall around the corner.
The beautiful book continued to beckon though, and so last night I finally waded into the shallow end to try Andrea’s recipe for that smokey sweet Vietnamese caramel sauce that Chris and I love.
And then, just to ensure that I totally bastardized and destroyed any hope of a perfect meal, I substituted doufu (otherwise known as “tofu” amongst round-eyes) for the pork that the recipe called for.
For the first attempt at the caramel sauce, I used Chinese sugar. A decision that was, in every conceivable way, disastrous. The sugar never dissolved, I clogged our kitchen drain, and I ultimately melted a plastic cup and nearly my husband’s hand trying to throw away the molten sugar mess.
But I had waited so long and come so far and I wasn’t ready to give up just yet. And so, with a bag of sugar shipped from the United States that I had been saving for a real baking emergency, I tried again.
This time there was saturation, there was caramelization, and at long last we achieved a dark, dark smoky Vietnamese caramel sauce.
We combined it with some green onions, some oil, some sugar and some doufu in a hot, hot wok. We stir-fried it until the onions were crispy and the edges of the doufu turned caramelized and crunchy. Then we pour it over some rice and served it along side some arugula-like greens that I found in the market.
It was good, but not great. If I could do it again, I would have either used meat (which would have been fabulous) or cooked the doufu a bit differently. My hunch is that, had I deep fried the doufu first and then simmered it in the caramel sauce, all would have been right with the world. (And a word on deep-fried doufu while we are here, whoever told you that tofu is a health food was lying. Granted, its low-fat and full of protein, but it’s truly at its absolute best when coated in a shaggy crust of batter and oil.)
Anyways, while the doufu preparation wasn’t ideal, the caramel sauce was excellent. This is a deceptively simple and versatile kitchen staple to add to your kitchen. It adds a smokey, savory, sweetness to everything its cooked with. And, unlike the caramel sauces familiar to most Americans, this one contains nothing but sugar and water-so it’s shelf stable for practically for ever-though I doubt it will be long before Chris and I use up our entire supply.
Vietnamese Caramel Sauce
Adapted from Andrea Nguyen’s Into the Vietnamese Kitchen Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors
1 cup sugar
3/4 water, divided
1. Combine 1/4 cup water and 1 cup sugar in long-handled sauce pan over medium high heat. (I added a bit of extra water here)
2. Stir occasionally for the first 2 minutes to make sure the sugar is evenly distributed, then stop stirring. Allow the sugar syrup to keep cooking. Around 7 minutes Andrea says the mixture should be a light tea color and that was true for me. If you are worried about sugar crystals forming around the edges of the pan, use this Alton Brown trick-simply put a lid on it for a few minutes. The steam and the condensed steam that runs down the inside of the pan should take care of any of those nasty crystalline structures.
3. While sugar dissolves either fill kitchen sink with water or pour cool water into a cookie sheet or roasting pan that is larger than the sauce pan (if your sink isn’t big enough to accomodate the sauce pan-ours isn’t–use the cookie sheet method). You will use this in about 20 minutes to arrest the cooking process of the caramel.
4. Around the 20 minute mark start swirling the pan and checking out the coloring. Things should be getting dark, the bubbles a dark orange and the caramel underneath a deep reddish-brown. Note, this is much darker than your average dessert caramel so don’t be surprised. When the pan starts smoking a little, you are done.
5. Quickly set ban into cold water. Things will bubble and hiss and the caramel will seize up and harden but that’s ok.
6. As soon as the hissing stops, add the remaining 1/2 cup of water and stir over medium-high heat until the hardened caramel melts again and the mixture is well-combined-stir constantly to prevent the hardened caramel on the bottom from burning before it melts.
7. When mixture is of a consistent color and viscosity throughout (no bits of hardened caramel left) remove from heat and let cool for 10 minutes before pouring into a heat proof glass jar for storage.
This stuff will last on your shelf forever. Use a few teaspoons or tablespoons at a time in different sauces to give smokey, caramelized depth to your dishes.