Friday, June 27, 2008

Pig Pork Pig

Soooooooo: as dedicated readers may remember, I have long lamented the lack of a Vietnamese restaurant here in Asheville. Set loose in a city with proper culinary credentials it’s what I’ll ask for first, just in front of a real bagel and some dim sum and a trip to a bakery with a reputation for classic ham and gruyere croissants. As such, in an effort to stem the tide of my grief regarding this gastric tragedy know as the greater Asheville area, last May I bought B. a really snazzy Vietnamese cookbook: Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen. It’s full of gorgeous colorful pictures and above all the writing is lovely and descriptive and tremendously inviting (and she’s always telling you not to worry if _____ happens, which is sort of nice when the pan in your hand is spitting and hissing like it’s about to scratch you and leave you for dead). The end result is that there’s a lot to read for some recipes but you’re left well prepared. Anyway, here's one of my favorites: Caramelized Minced Pork. This dish required Caramel Sauce, or Nuoc Mau, which is an ingredient in easily a third of the recipes in this cookbook so making it is the first step for this dish. But don’t worry! It’s really quite fun to make; lots of popping and bubbling and color changing and slight burning and you make enough to last you for quite some time so you won’t have to do this often.

Caramelized Minced Pork (Thit Heo Bam)

1/4 cup canola oil or other neutral oil
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1 1/4 pounds ground pork, roughly chopped to loosen
2 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons Carmel Sauce (see below)
1 teaspoon sugar
2 scallions, chopped

In a 12-inch skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook gently for about 5 minutes or until fragrant and soft. Add the pork and poke and stir to break it into small pieces. Cook for about 5 minutes or until the meat has lost most of its pink color.

Add the fish sauce, caramel sauce, and sugar. Increase heat to medium-high and cook for 10 to 12 minutes stirring frequently and breaking up any remaining large pieces. As the meat darkens, monitor it carefully and stir constantly to prevent burning (slight popping and sizzling is normal). As the cooking intensifies the bottom of the skillet will darken with tiny dark brown bits; at this point lower the heat to medium to steady the browning. Keep stirring to coax the meat into browning a bit more – when it is a beautiful reddish brown it is done.

Remove from heat and stir in the scallions. Transfer to serving dish or shallow bowl, leaving behind any excess fat. Let meat sit for 5 minutes to darken and crisp up before serving over white rice.

Caramel Sauce (Nuoc Mau)

3/4 cup water
1 cup sugar

Select a small heavy saucepan with a long handle. Choosing one with a light interior (such as stainless steel) will make monitoring the changing color of the caramel easier. Fill the sink with enough water to come halfway up the sides of the saucepan.

Put 1/4 cup of the water and all the sugar in the saucepan and place over medium-low heat. To ensure that the sugar melts evenly, stir with a metal spoon. After about 2 minutes when the sugar is relatively smooth and opaque, stop stirring and let the mixture cook undisturbed. Small bubbles will form at the edge of the pan and gradually grow larger and move toward the center. A good 7 minutes into cooking, bubbles will cover the entire surface and the mixture will be at a vigorous simmer. As it cooks, the mixture will go from opaque to clear.

If the sugar crystallizes on the sides of the pan, don’t worry. After about another 15 minutes the sugar will began to caramelize and deepen in color. You will see a progression from champagne yellow to light tea to dark tea. When smoke starts rising, around the 20-minute mark, remove pan from heat and slowly swirl it. Watch the sugar closely as it will turn darker by the second; a reddish cast will set in (think the color of a big, bold red wine) as the bubbles become a lovely burnt orange. Pay attention to the color of the caramel under the bubbles. When it is the color of black coffee or molasses, place the pan in the sink to stop the cooking. The hot pan will sizzle on contact. Add the remaining 1/2 cup of water to the pan; don’t worry, the sugar will seize up but later dissolve. After the dramatic bubble reaction ceases, return the pan to the stove over medium heat.

Heat the mixture until caramel dissolves into water. Remove from heat and let cool for 10 minutes before pouring into a small heatproof glass jar. Set aside to cool completely. The result will seem slightly viscous while the flavor will be bittersweet. Cover and store the sauce indefinitely in your kitchen cupboard. Makes about 1 cup.

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