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.
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
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