- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Bored with burgers and sighing over the same old salmon steaks? With a few Asian ingredients and a bouquet of fragrant herbs, you can have Vietnamese flavors sizzling on your summer grill.Like their Southeast Asian neighbors, Vietnamese cooks have been grilling for centuries, and they know how to do it right. Traditional country kitchens often contain a battery of small stoves fueled by locally made charcoal. First, rice, soups and stir-fries cook in pots and woks. Next, the bucket-shaped stoves provide a handy bed of glowing coals, just right for grilling seasoned meat and seafood to glistening perfection.

Handsomely browned, quickly prepared and accompanied by sprightly dipping sauces, Vietnam’s grilled specialties make irresistible starters and brightly flavored main courses, whether they’re cooked over hardwood coals or charcoal briquettes, or on a state-of-the-art gas grill.

Typical Vietnamese grilled dishes are not only delicious; they require just a brief time to marinate — 20 to 30 minutes is typical. If it suits your schedule to prepare in advance and grill later, it will work just fine to place the covered meat or seafood in the refrigerator to season for the day or overnight.

The meat itself is usually seasoned quite simply, just enough to bring the flavors front and center and keep it lusciously moist as it sizzles on the grill. Vietnamese cuisine’s signature flavors tend to come from an array of tangy or pungent dipping sauces served on the side.

These sauces are often a spirited mixture of salty fish sauce with a soothing dose of sugar accented with a tangy splash of vinegar, pineapple or lime, and finished with a feisty dose of chilies or hot sauce.

The classic dipping sauce, nuoc cham, shows up at almost every meal, along with a small platter stacked high with lettuce leaves, mint, basil, sliced green chilies and other cooling greens and herbs.

These two standards make any grilled food, from burgers and kebabs to seafood skewers, a beautifully casual dish, with chunks of meat tucked into a lettuce leaf, covered with a bouquet of herbs, rolled into a bundle and enjoyed out of hand, dipped into a vibrant sauce.

Here are three Vietnamese dishes cooked on the grill to get you started on a summer’s worth of meals. Each is made with easily found ingredients and uses the equipment you have and techniques you know.

If you don’t have lemon grass or fish sauce in a supermarket near you, check out an Asian grocery for a one-time pantry run, or go online for mail-order sources. Two excellent sources are ww.importfood.com and www.templeofthai.com.

Grilled tuna steaks with pineapple-chili sauce makes a fabulous main course for a summertime special occasion, but it’s simple enough for weeknight suppers. Try it with salmon, halibut or mahi-mahi, or use any other fish sturdy enough to cook on the grill.

Grilled pork and pork patties with lettuce, noodles, peanuts and mint, Hanoi-style, is a street-food favorite, with grilled pork two ways, thinly sliced and in juicy little burgers. I’ve given a recipe for the classic presentation with accompaniments, but if you’re hankering for a better burger with minimal fuss, shape the meat into full-size burgers and serve them with lettuce, tomatoes, mayonnaise and your favorite chutney or some spicy Korean kimchee to keep things lively.

Grilled leaf-wrapped beef kebabs are part of a signature dish called bo bay mon, or beef seven ways. Traditionally wrapped with a leaf called la lot, which is difficult to find in the United States, they work nicely with grape leaves available in Middle Eastern markets or with large leaves of flat-leaf spinach or extra big basil leaves.

If you use grape leaves, fold the sides in to make an enclosed roll. The leaf wrapping needn’t enclose the ends. It’s there to add flavor and help the kebabs hold their shape on the grill, so spinach and basil work nicely. Vietnamese chefs put these on long bamboo skewers to make it easier to turn them on the grill. If you have long-handled tongs and a delicate touch, you can turn them individually, instead of spearing them.

Here’s hoping my invitation to get Vietnamese dishes onto your grill provides you with fantastic flavors and fast feasts. You may find yourself welcoming Vietnam’s flavors and way with herbs and sauces into your everyday, year-round kitchen.

The recipes that follow are adapted from my “Quick and Easy Vietnamese: 70 Everyday Recipes” (Chronicle Books).

Grilled tuna steaks with pineapple-chili sauce

Enjoy this recipe with salmon, mackerel or bluefish steaks. It’s delicious with any meaty fish you enjoy cooking on the grill. Serve with salsa or chutney.

2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 teaspoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

11/4 pounds tuna steaks

Pineapple-chili sauce (recipe follows)

To marinate, combine fish sauce, soy sauce, oil, sugar and black pepper in a medium bowl and stir well to dissolve the sugar. Place fish steaks in the bowl, turning to coat them well.

Let marinate for 20 to 30 minutes, turning once. Cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day, if you won’t be cooking the fish right away. While the fish marinates, prepare the pineapple-chili sauce.

To cook the fish, build a hot charcoal fire or heat a gas grill or the oven to 375 degrees. Place fish steaks carefully on grill and cook for about 5 minutes on each side, or until cooked through. Or bake in oven for about 15 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter, add bowl of pineapple-chili sauce and serve hot or warm. Makes 4 servings.

PINEAPPLE-CHILI SAUCE

1/3 cup fresh or canned pineapple chunks or drained, crushed pineapple

3 tablespoons lime juice or lemon juice

2 tablespoons chopped scallion

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce, anchovy paste or chopped anchovies

2 teaspoons minced garlic

½ teaspoon chili-garlic sauce, chopped fresh hot green chilies or hot sauce

Combine pineapple; lime or lemon juice; scallion; cilantro; sugar; fish sauce, anchovy paste or chopped anchovies; garlic; and chili-garlic sauce, fresh hot green chilies or hot sauce in a mini food processor or blender and blend until fairly smooth. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside until serving time. Makes about 1/3 cup.

Grilled pork and pork patties with lettuce, noodles, peanuts and mint, Hanoi-style

Thinly sliced pork chops are ideal for this dish, which in Vietnam is often made with fresh bacon. Pork tenderloin works nicely if you keep grilling time short so that the meat stays moist.

For a speedier version, omit the sliced pork and double the amount of ground pork to make one pound, shaping the seasoned meat into small patties or larger pork burgers. You could also omit the pickled carrots and the accompaniments and serve the grilled pork slices and patties seasoned with everyday dipping sauce I or your favorite salsa and tucked into lettuce leaves or warm tortillas.

GRILLED PORK:

2 tablespoons fish sauce

2 tablespoons light or dark brown sugar

2 teaspoons vegetable oil

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

½ pound pork, sliced ½-inch thick and cut into 3-inch slices

½ pound ground pork

1/4 cup finely chopped scallion

ACCOMPANIMENTS: 3 cups shredded lettuce leaves

½ cup fresh mint leaves

½ cup fresh cilantro leaves

½ cup chopped roasted and salted peanuts

2 to 3 cups cooked angel hair pasta or slender rice noodles

Everyday dipping sauce I (recipe follows)

Pickled carrots (recipe follows)

To prepare meat, combine fish sauce, brown sugar, oil, salt and pepper in a small bowl or cup, and stir to mix everything well. Put sliced pork in one medium bowl and ground pork in another and divide marinade between the two.

Turn sliced pork to coat evenly and set aside. Add scallion to ground pork and marinade and mix well. Set both bowls aside for 20 to 30 minutes while you assemble the accompaniments, or cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day.

Prepare everyday dipping sauce I and pickled carrots and set aside or refrigerate, if making them more than an hour or two in advance.

Shortly before serving, prepare accompaniments, if using, arranging them on serving platters along with pickled carrots and dipping sauce in small serving bowls.

To cook pork, build a hot charcoal fire or heat a gas grill. Shape ground pork into small patties, using about 2 tablespoons for each one, and set aside on a platter. Drain marinated sliced pork and place it on platter alongside pork patties.

Cook pork slices and patties on the hot grill, turning once or twice, until nicely browned and cooked through.

Transfer meat to serving platter and serve hot or warm. For a traditional presentation of this dish, give each guest a small bowl of everyday dipping sauce I and a cereal-size bowl in which to mix up the pork and accompaniments.

Place some pork, pickled carrots, lettuce, herbs and noodles in the bowl, drizzle with sauce and enjoy with chopsticks or a fork.

Or combine ingredients in lettuce leaves and roll into packets for dipping into the sauce as they please. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

EVERYDAY DIPPING SAUCE I

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped garlic

1/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon chili-garlic sauce

2 teaspoons hot red pepper flakes or fresh hot red chilies

1/3 cup fish sauce

Water

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice or lemon juice

For the busy weeknight version, combine garlic, sugar, chili-garlic sauce, hot red pepper flakes or fresh hot red chilies (whichever you are using), fish sauce, 1/3 cup water, and lime or lemon juice in a mini food processor or a blender and grind to a fairly smooth paste.

Use this more traditional version if time permits: Combine garlic and sugar in bowl of a mortar and grind to a coarse paste, mashing and scraping with a spoon to grind it fairly evenly. (Or pour sugar over garlic on a cutting board and mash and scrape it to a coarse paste using the back of a large spoon.)

Scrape garlic paste into a medium bowl and add chili-garlic sauce, fish sauce, 1/3 cup water and lime juice. Stir well to dissolve sugar. Transfer to a small serving bowl or jar, cover and refrigerate for up to 1 week. Makes about 1 cup.

PICKLED CARROTS

Water

1/3 cup white vinegar

1/3 cup sugar

½ teaspoon salt

1½ cups shredded carrots

Combine 3/4 cup water, vinegar, sugar and salt in a small saucepan and place over medium heat. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes, swirling once or twice, until sugar and salt dissolve and sauce is clear and smooth. Transfer to a bowl, add shredded carrot and stir well. Let cool and serve at room temperature. Transfer to a jar, cover and store in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Makes about 1½ cups.

Grilled leaf-wrapped beef kebabs

10 long bamboo skewers

Water

½ pound ground beef

2 tablespoons minced fresh lemon grass or 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger root

1 tablespoon finely chopped onion or shallots

1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic

1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon black pepper

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground turmeric, optional

30 to 40 prepared grape leaves, or large leaves of spinach or fresh basil

Everyday dipping sauce II (recipe follows)

Have ready about 10 long bamboo skewers, soaked in water for at least 30 minutes.

In a medium bowl, combine ground beef with lemon grass or ginger root, onion or shallots, garlic, fish sauce, oil, sugar, pepper, salt and turmeric, if using. Mix well. Divide mixture in generous tablespoons of meat and shape each portion into a plump little cylinder about 7 inches long.

If you are using Mediterranean-style grape leaves, rinse well and trim away any stems.

Place one leaf, shiny side down, on a cutting board with stem end toward you. Place a meat portion at the base, the end nearest you. Roll it away from you one turn; tuck in the sides and continue rolling until you have enclosed the meat. Place it, seamed side down, on a plate. If using leaves of spinach or basil, leave ends open, exposing the meat. Continue until all meat is wrapped in leaves.

Build a hot charcoal fire or heat a gas grill until very hot. To grill kebabs, thread 3 or 4 rolls onto each skewer, bunching them up near the pointed end and taking care to pierce each roll through its seam. Place skewers on oiled rack of hot grill and cook until done, 2 to 3 minutes per side, turning once or twice. Transfer to a serving platter and serve hot, warm or at room temperature with everyday dipping sauce II. Makes about 30 small kebabs.

EVERYDAY DIPPING SAUCE II

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

2 tablespoons sugar

½ teaspoon chili garlic sauce, hot sauce or 1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

3 tablespoons Asian fish sauce

Water

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice

For busy weeknight version, combine garlic; sugar; chili garlic sauce, hot sauce or hot red pepper flakes; fish sauce; 3 tablespoons water; and lime juice in a mini food processor or blender, and grind to a fairly smooth paste.

Use this more traditional version if time permits: Combine garlic and sugar in bowl of a mortar and grind to a coarse paste, mashing and scraping with a spoon to grind it fairly evenly. (Or pour sugar over garlic on a cutting board and mash and scrape it to a coarse paste using the back of a large spoon.)

Scrape garlic paste into a medium bowl and add chili-garlic sauce, fish sauce, 3 tablespoons water and lime juice. Stir well to dissolve sugar. Transfer to a small serving bowl or jar, cover and refrigerate for up to 1 week. Makes about ½ cup.

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