Sunday, June 17, 2007

Dipping Sauce for Grilled Shrimp or Chicken

For Fathers' Day today, Rachel took Christina and me to lunch "up on Buford". We concurred, easily, on the "Co'm Grill", an accolade-rich creative Vietnamese restaurant. The weather was hot, being early summer, and something light but tangy suited us all. There was grilled marinated pork in their lucious julienned green mango and apple salad, and grilled shrimp, Rachel's favorite, on cold rice vermicelli and shredded lettuce and herbs. And several of the dishes came with the elegant Vietnamese dipping sauce, "nuoc cham", including the shrimp spring rolls as well as the grilled shrimp on noodles. The salad dressing for our pork-mango-apple salad probably was that sauce, or at least contained it. Co'm Grill makes their nuoc cham somewhat tangier than that at some Vietnamese places, or than I learned to make it years ago from a Vietnamese-French woman.

By the way, as wonderful as I think the Co'm Grill's cooking is, their food is a little different from what I have eaten on my work trips in Vietnam. They create, like a French chef would, from the basis of classical Vietnamese cuisine, and sometimes work in non-traditional produce (like apples and lamb and grape leaves), rather than try simply to reproduce standard dishes. Co'm Grill, however does creative adventurous food, not Americanized versions of Vietnamese food. A Vietnamese-American friend, who in most things is a delightful and agreeable guy, turns up his nose at the Co'm Grill because it isn't "authentic", that is, not like Grandma's. (Chris, I'm exaggerating to make a point.) But in Hanoi, at the family restaurant of a health official I worked with, they are creatively elegant too, and they are not only fully Vietnamese but Party members too. And at Co'm Grill today there were plenty of Vietnamese dining, always a good sign.

Rachel said she would love to make that sauce so she could dip her grilled chicken or shrimp at home and not always have to trot off to Buford Highway for it. So I worked out a variation on my old standby sauce, and after testing and tweeking it I gave her a bottle for her next adventure on the grill. This is a dipping sauce -- or for spooning over a salad or noodles -- and not a marinade. (For marinating shrimp for grilling, thaw from frozen in cool running water, shell [keeping the tail shell on], devein, and marinate briefly in a mixture of lime juice, salt, a little black pepper, and canola oil.)

Asian fish sauce, an essential ingredient in Vietnamese as well as Thai cuisines, and which gives an elegant and non-fishy intensity to the sauces, can be purchased at Asian groceries and in the Asian sections of some supermarkets, as can chili-garlic sauce. For fish sauce, get "Squid" brand or "Tiparos" for Thai style, and "Three Crabs" brand for Vietnamese style. The chili-garlic sauce has a rooster on the label, and is not the "Sambal Oelek", which is a hotter Indonesian-style pepper condiment. Fish sauce keeps without refrigeration, chili-garlic sauce should be refrigerated after opening.

So here is the dipping sauce for Rachel. As a bonus, I added a recipe for a delightful Vietnamese-style salad using the sauce as the dressing.

Vietnamese Dipping Sauce in the manner of Co'm Grill Tim

3/4 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup white vinegar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 large clove garlic, peeled and bruised
2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
1 teaspoon, more or less, chili-garlic sauce

In a stainless steel or enamel pot heat the water, sugar, vinegar, salt, and garlic until it reaches a boil. Remove from the heat and stir in the fish sauce and chili-garlic sauce. After 5 minutes, remove the garlic clove.

Let the sauce cool. Store in the refrigerator if not using soon. Serve in a small rice bowl or soup bowl for diners to dip into or to spoon out some onto their noodles.

Bonus recipe: Mixed Vietnamese-style salad
The salad can be served as one of the dishes in the meal, not necessarily as an "appetizer" course. The sauce above, with no oil added, can be used as a salad dressing, using finely julienned (matchstick shape sliced with a knife, not grated) romaine lettuce, onion, green mango (peeled first) or Granny Smith apple (not peeled), and carrot, plus crushed roasted peanuts, and cilantro and mint leaves or small Asian (or standard) basil leaves. Toss the salad together with some of the sauce, above, in a mixing bowl, and check the salt, adding a little if needed. Spoon out onto a serving platter. Garnish with a few more herb leaves.

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