While I believe that grilling should be a year-round pursuit, July is the perfect time to fire up your grill. When it’s too hot to warm up the house with the stove or oven, I like to turn to grill-based salads. And with limes on sale for 20/$1 (yes), I knew that I had to whip up a batch of nuoc cham, the awesome Vietnamese fish sauce / lime sauce (for more info on nuoc cham, check out Andrea Nguyen’s excellent post).
This marinade is loosely based on recipes that I’ve found from Thailand and Vietnam. The idea is to make a paste of lemongrass, garlic, cilantro (the roots are really what you want, but root-on cilantro is nearly impossible to find in North America, so I made do with finely minced stems), sugar, oyster sauce, and fish sauce. The paste becomes both a marinade and a finishing sauce, a sticky, caramelized, tangy, aromatic mixture that coats the chicken really nicely. I recommend boneless, skinless chicken thighs for easy weekday grilling. They cook pretty quickly on the grill, and the dark meat is extremely forgiving – there is enough fat and flavor there to protect you if you overcook it a little bit. Here is the basic method for grilling boneless skinless thighs:
- Heat half of your grill to high, either by dumping all of your hot coals on one side or by turning one of the burners to high.
- Set the chicken thighs on the cool side of the grill and cover. Cook for about 10 minutes on each side.
- (If you’re applying a barbecue sauce or any other finishing sauce that should be cooked into the chicken, brush it on now)
- Move the chicken to the hot side of the grill and cook 3-4 minutes per side, until each piece is well crusted and cooked through.
- Rest the chicken for at least 10 minutes before slicing.
I was hoping to use my lemongrass chicken in a Vietnamese rice noodle bowl, but I bought the wrong kind of noodles, so we made rice bowls instead. To serve, give everyone a wide, shallow bowl or plate with some rice and chicken. Then, top it with lots of fresh vegetables and herbs like cilantro, mint, and/or Thai basil, thinly sliced napa cabbage or lettuce, scallions, bean sprouts, cucumber, carrot, jalapenos, etc. If you’re a Vietnamese sandwich enthusiast, think of it as a banh mi in a bowl. The end result is something with a lot of vegetables, not a lot of cooking, and lots of bright, clear, zingy flavors to kick off your summer evening. Didn’t we just do this? Yeah, we did.
Suggested drink pairing? A Chateau Ste. Michelle Dry Riesling would be great, as would a really good rocks margarita with lots of salt. Me, I’m washing mine down with plenty of cheap beer.
Vietnamese Rice Bowl with Lemongrass Chicken
Lemongrass Chicken recipe vaguely adapted from She Simmers
Nuoc Cham recipe from Viet World Kitchen
serves at least 4
FOR THE CHICKEN AND RICE
- 3 stalks lemongrass (look for this in the produce section of any Asian grocery and many better Western-style supermarkets)
- 8 cloves garlic
- stems from 1 bunch of cilantro (save the leaves for the salad)
- 1/4 cup oyster sauce
- 1/4 cup fish sauce
- 3 tablespoons brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
- 1.5 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of any big chunks of fat (smaller bits of fat are fine)
- 1 1/2 cups white or brown rice
FOR THE SALAD
(note: feel free to substitute at will for any of the salad garnishes. I would say that the peanuts and some sort of scallions or herb are essential; everything else is optional. Quantities are approximate)
- 1 cup peanuts, roughly chopped
- 1 small bunch scallions, thinly sliced (whites and greens)
- 1 medium cucumber, peeled if desired and cut into half moons
- 1 large carrot, julienned with a mandoline or grated on the large holes of a box grater (you can also buy pre-shredded carrots at most supermarkets. It’s sort of a rip-off, but it can be a huge time saver, especially if you don’t have a mandolin)
- about 1 cup thinly sliced romaine lettuce or napa cabbage
- 1-2 cups bean sprouts, washed and dried well
- leaves from 1 bunch of cilantro, roughly chopped
- small handful of mint and/or Thai basil, roughly chopped
- thinly sliced jalapenos (you can use fresh or you can buy the canned pickled “nacho slices” in the Hispanic aisle of every grocery store), and/or hot sauce
- quartered limes, for serving
FOR THE SAUCE
- 3 thin-skinned, juicy limes
- 1 1/2 cups warm water
- 1/3 cup brown sugar or raw cane sugar
- about 1/4-1/3 cup fish sauce, more or less to taste
- about 1 tablespoon Huy Fong chili garlic sauce (you’ll find it near the Sriracha), optional
FOR THE CHICKEN AND RICE
This is easiest if you have a food processor. If you do, peel the lemongrass by cutting off about 1″ from the bottom and all the leafy parts at the top. Peel off the layers until you get to the pale, fragrant center. Cut it roughly into a few chunks. Pulse in the food processor with the garlic until well chopped. Add the cilantro stems, oyster sauce, fish sauce, sugar, and pepper, along with a few tablespoons of warm water to get it going. Whiz in the food processor until smooth.
If you don’t have a food processor, use an immersion blender and take your time, making sure to really get that lemongrass chopped up. If you don’t have either of these magical devices, don’t worry! Just take your time mincing that lemongrass until it is very, very fine, then finely mince or press the garlic as well. Mix in a small bowl with the other ingredients.
However you made your paste, set aside about 1/4 cup and smear the rest over the chicken. Set aside for at least 20 minutes and as long as 4 hours (if you’re marinating for longer than half an hour, cover and refrigerate). If you are going to grill the chicken, this would be a good time to go start your charcoal or heat your gas grill.
Cook the rice however you usually like to cook rice. Just have it hot and ready for when it’s time to eat!
FOR THE SALAD
Set out the salad fixings on a little tray and either put it in the center of your table (for family-style dining, if you enjoy the warmth and community of creating and eating food together) or on your counter (for restaurant-style plated dining, if you are a bit of a kitchen control freak like me). Either way, make sure the herbs are all washed, dried, and ready to go.
FOR THE SAUCE
Mix the lime juice, water, and sugar in a small bowl or jar until completely dissolved. Taste it — it should taste like nice warm limeade. Add about 1/4 cup fish sauce and taste again. Add a bit more fish sauce if you think it needs more salt and/or funkiness. Add the chili-garlic sauce if you want.
If you are using a gas or charcoal grill, get half of your grill really hot and the other half off (or coal-free). This is called indirect grilling, and it is the best way to cook most things on any kind of grill. Remove your chicken from the marinade and place on the cook half of the grill. Cover and cook for about 10 minutes, then flip and cook another 8-10 minutes more. The chicken should be cooked through and beginning to brown. Finish on the hot side of the grill for about 3-4 minutes per side.
If you don’t have a grill, you can easily do this in the broiler: turn your broiler on high and adjust the oven racks so the chicken is 6-8 inches away from the element. Broil for about 10 minutes per side. If the chicken is not nicely browned yet, raise the rack to the highest setting and cook on each side until lightly browned.
To serve, place a mound of rice on a plate or shallow bowl and add a portion of chicken. Add (or let your guests add) the leafy and crunchy garnishes as they like. Finish by drizzling about 3-4 tablespoons of sauce over each bowl, passing more at the table.