Sublime Viet-Grilled Chicken

Saturday night, I'm on the phone with my kid brother and he's at a loss on how to marinate a bunch of chicken thighs for a party of three that evening. His go-to combos have lost their luster and he's counting on big sis to pull him through. I give him some ideas, but in the course of doing so, I'm thinking: Maybe I need to overhaul my marinade repertoire as well. One can never have enough marinade tricks up the sleeve.

A few blinks of the eye later, and it's Sunday afternoon, supper time time already within reach. The idea is to highlight much of the seasonal produce in the fridge, with grilled chicken as supporting cast.

Grilled chicken finally gets its due with a simple Vietnamese marinade. (Kim O'Donnel)

For a marinade, I want something simple, using relatively few pantry basics with enough kapow to justify a short flavor infusion.

The key to a kick-in-the-pants marinade is in adhering to a few basic albeit important tenets, which are similar to those for a seamless vinaigrette: Acid, fat and flavor. Acid can mean many things - any kind of citrus fruit or juice, vinegar, wine, yogurt, buttermilk, tomatoes. Fat is oil. And flavor - that's where most people screw up. In the course of concocting your flavor profile, remember the following three elements: heat, sweet and salt. It doesn't matter what kind of marinade you're doing - in the absence of the flavor troika, the final result will not pop on the tongue - and after all, isn't that what we all want?

So I'm leafing through a copy of "Into the Vietnamese Kitchen," a debut effort by California-based writer and cooking teacher Andrea Nguyen. I stop when I see the words "Grilled Chicken" and decide to give her very simple combination of marinade ingredients a whirl.

In fact, it's so simple - salt, lots of black pepper, lime and oil - that I'm almost skeptical of its flavor prowess. The clincher is Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam), a pungent sauce made from fermented salted fish that is "a keystone of Vietnamese cooking," writes Nguyen. Found in every Vietnamese kitchen, fish sauce packs a pungent punch up the nose, but when used as a condiment, it mellows considerably and in concert with other seasonings, is the magic thread, offering depth of flavor.

Fish sauce virgins, don't worry; fish sauce is readily available in Asian grocery stores and in many mainstream supermarkets. It's inexpensive, lasts a good long time in the fridge and is worth trying at least once.

I notice that even though the chicken is cooking outside that the entire house is perfumed with the marinade, and I'm taking this as a good sign.

I made a second batch of marinade and pour it over halved zucchini, at Nguyen's suggestion. A pot of rice is ready, lettuce leaves too, plus a salad of corn kernels, sungold tomatoes and cilantro.

We sit down to eat, and I'm intrigued by the aromatherapeutic qualities of the marinade. I take a bite, and I'm swept away. It's a perfect balance of sweet, salty, spicy and pungent. I turn to the zucchini and it too has been transformed. I can't get over how subtle yet how well seasoned everything tastes.

It's like figuring out the combination code on a door that has been locked for too long. This one's a keeper, folks.

Recipe below the jump.

Grilled Chicken (Ga Nuong)
From "Into the Vietnamese Kitchen" by Andrea Nguyen

1/4 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons Canola or other neutral oil
2 3/4 pounds chicken thighs (KOD note: I kept bones in, but removed skin and trimmed fat)

(I doubled amounts for approximately 5 pounds of chicken, plus made extra to marinate about four zucchinis.)

In a bowl large enough to accommodate the chicken, combine all ingredients except the chicken and mix well. Add chicken and use your fingers to massage marinade into the meat, distributing the seasonings as evenly as possible. Marinate at room temperature for at least 30 minutes, or cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours.

Prepare a medium-hot charcoal fire or preheat a gas grill to medium.

Place chicken on grill rack and cook, turning every five minutes, until browned on both sides, with clear juices. If necessary, transfer meat to a 400-degree oven to finish cooking. You are looking for an internal temperature of approximately 165 degrees.

Summer squash option: Use approximately 2 pounds of zucchini or summer squash and slice into half lengthwise. Place in a dish and pour marinade on top, letting it infuse for up to 30 minutes. Grill until desired doneness.

By Kim ODonnel |  July 16, 2007; 8:18 AM ET Chicken/Poultry , Dinner Tonight , Flames
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Are all fish sauces created equal? This recipe sounds like it would be perfect for dinner tonight, but I only have Thai fish sauce on hand.

Posted by: Arlington | July 16, 2007 11:22 AM

Arlington, in a perfect world, we Westerners would have discriminating palates in the world of fish sauce. The one thing I'd check is if the contents of your bottle are crystallizing; if so, chuck it. If not, move on and enjoy dinner!

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | July 16, 2007 11:32 AM

Ooh- what does it mean if the fish sauce is crystallizing? What is the shelf life of refrigerated fish sauce, anyway? It comes in such big bottles that I never finish it...I realize every once in a while that my fish sauce is really old and I chuck it, but I'm probably waiting too long, because there've definitely been crystals. Is it a health/safety issue, or just taste? Because it seems to taste fine even w/ the crystals (a discriminating fish sauce palate, I have not!).

Posted by: Vienna | July 17, 2007 3:06 PM

A warning...I don't know if it depends on the type of fish sauce used, but the one I once purchased had the most horrible horrible stench ever to infect my nasal passages. Even after leaving the windows open and the fans running my apartment reeked for days.

I can't enjoy certain foods now more than two years later (like Pad Thai) because all I can smell is the fish sauce.

Posted by: Alexandria, VA | July 17, 2007 6:37 PM

We like the "Three Crabs" brand of fish sauce. It's labelled that way and has a picture of three crabs on the label. We can't find it at our regular grocery stores but it seems to be at the Asian stores here. We made this chicken tonight with the marinade and it was sublime! We used a high quality natural chicken (bone-in with the skin on). The grilled skin did get very dark but it tasted great. The chicken was moist and perfectly flavored. I'm not sure if our great results were because of the great marinade, the excellent chicken we used, or pulling it off the grill at exactly the right moment -- or all three --- but we will definitely be making this again.

Posted by: Karen | July 17, 2007 11:27 PM

Finally got a chance to make this last night. It most certainly is a keeper!! Amazing how something so simple can be so fabulous. Thanks, Kim!

Posted by: Christine | July 25, 2007 9:19 AM

Fish sauce is daily ingredient for SE Asian people. We used on almost every dish.
When you buy fish sauce, try to find bottle with low level of sodium. I know low level is relative term in fish sauce but higher sodium fish sauce tend to form salt crystal (and salty). We keep fish sauce bottle on pantry, not in fridge. It should last for several years but we consume them within a month or so. We bought by the dozen when they are on sale.

Posted by: zzz | July 26, 2007 1:46 PM

Can this chicken be broiled in the oven (I'm out of propane)?

Posted by: wendy bauman | July 26, 2007 2:08 PM

Why no answers to the questions?

Posted by: usmhotel312 | July 26, 2007 7:01 PM

If I had to hazard a guess about crystals in fish sauce, I would say that it is the salt left behind when some of the sauce evaporated. I've kept fish sauce for a LONG time with no ill results. Keep it in the 'fridge. The salt preserves it. Just like ketchup, mustard, vinegar, etc. It will last forever.

Posted by: Belle Rita Novak | July 27, 2007 2:21 PM

Just to clarify: are you grilling these, sans skin? If so, don't they dry out? Would appreciate comments on this issue. The recipe looks wonderful!

Posted by: Buffalogal | July 27, 2007 5:21 PM

Buffalogal: I AM grilling them, sans skin -- and no, they don't dry out. I probably wouldn't do breasts, though; not enough surrounding fat to keep things moist.

Wendy: I think as alternative to grilling, I'd roast first at 400 degrees, then final 6-8 minutes, put under broiler.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | July 27, 2007 5:59 PM

Tried this tonight and it was excellent. Grilled breasts with skin and bone in place and drumsticks. Both were moist and delicious. I think next time I might rub the pepper on the chicken first and then marinate in the remaining ingredients. Might also slash the skin to let the marinade penetrate better. Squash, eggplant, and red and green peppers (all marinated) worked very well with the chicken. Great recipe has turned me onto fish sauce.

Posted by: Displaced Yankee | July 28, 2007 10:12 PM

This has become my favorite marinade! I did boneless skinless thighs as well as breast tenderloins, which I just threaded whole onto bamboo skewers. I found the white meat very moist and tasty -- and I am usually NOT a white meat kinda girl. Kim, you're awesome!

Posted by: Aimily | July 30, 2007 9:39 AM

A bit late - but just so to say I tried this last night - I roasted the chicken instead of grilling (it's the middle of a very wet winter in Cape Town) and did some baked potatoes and carrots in beef stock and honey (all in the oven). A great meal and the recipe will be called on again and again. Roll on summer when I can stick some of these marinated babies on the braai (what we call a barbecue).

Posted by: Renee | August 3, 2007 2:11 AM

Renee: How I love that you're writing from Cape Town! I lived in South Africa many years ago and consider it very dear to my heart. Hang in there; braai season will be here soon enough, and please send of that rain our way, as we're having a very dry summer. All best, and please keep us posted from your kitchen in CT.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | August 3, 2007 8:10 AM

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