Vietnam-easy Caramel Chicken and Cabbage Salad

Apologies to those expecting a bright, springtime, Easter-bunny recipe today instead of a “down in the teak-lined salon of a North Atlantic sailing vessel” vibe, but we’re finishing out Pirate Kristin’s Southeast Asia binge series today.  Springtime will return next week (it’s not like most of the country is feeling remotely vernal right now anyway).  A few weeks back we dashed out for a “just warm enough” late afternoon sail and tied up to the bulkhead for dinner.  Looking for something quick, that could be made without a provisioning trip, I hit an “Easy Vietnamese-style” chicken dish; for economy of words, “Vietnameasy.”  Bad pirate puns…arrrrrr!

My fellow pirates know this feeling, right?  Not a great day for sailing, but any day sailing — particularly after winter — is great.  Ticking along at about six knots, watching the sun begin to set — wearing fleece, but also a smile.

Vietnamese Caramel Chicken and Cabbage Salad

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For Chicken:
1/3 cup brown sugar
4 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, finely minced
3 cloves garlic
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1-1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast or thighs
Rice to serve

For Salad:
1/2 cup oil
1/4 cup rice vinegar
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, finely minced
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 head Napa or Savoy cabbage
1 red bell pepper
1 English/hothouse or several miniature Persian cucumbers
3-4 green onions
1/2 cup fresh cilantroOnce we were tied up, Captain Peter took Swab Eddy for a sunset swim — it is, after all, a dog’s life — and I set to slicing and dicing, catching the sunset through the porthole above my galley stove.

If you are making the chicken AND salad, both will use fresh garlic and ginger in about even proportions for the sauce/dressing, so get the ulu out and finely mince the full compliment of two tablespoons (about a 1+” long and wide knob) ginger and 5-6 cloves of garlic.  The ulu works well for the green onions as well.

Heat the sugar and 1/4 cup water over medium heat, swirling pan occasionally, until bubbling and very dark brown, about 8 minutes.  I’ve tried to show the beginning and ending shots here — taking a photo with one hand while tilting a pot over a flame isn’t easy; basically, it goes from looking like a lager to looking like fairly dark brewed coffee.  Once dark enough, whisk in an additional 1/4 cup water, the fish sauce, half the minced ginger and garlic (or all if you’re not making the salad), and the pepper flakes.

While the sauce is cooking, cut the chicken into bite-size strips.  Stir the chicken into the sauce and cook until the sauce is thickened and sticky, and chicken is tender, about 10-15 minutes.  Confession: those are the instructions from the recipe I was adapting; for reasons unknown, my chicken soaked up almost all of the sauce while it cooked.  This meant that telling whether it was “thickened” or not was impossible — it was gone, and the outside of the chicken was nice and sticky, and it was DELICIOUS.

While the chicken cooks, make your rice.  Another confession (all of a sudden it does feel like Lent): I use boil-in-bag rice in my galley more often than not.  Is it the best rice?  No — and if it mattered, if it wasn’t going to have something delicious poured all over the top of it and just be a carrier of sauce, I might make the traditional long-grain.  But this boil in bag cooks in less water, in about 10 minutes, you drain it and rinse the pan and you’re done.

Also while the chicken and rice cook (don’t worry … it’s really not too much going on at once), make the salad.  For the dressing, combine the oil, vinegar, soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic, ginger and sesame oil.  This is one of the best Asian dressings I’ve found and is a periodic craving — whip it up and throw it on any kind of salad.For this Asian take on coleslaw, I like Napa (or Savoy) cabbage — they are leafier than head cabbage and the crinkliness holds the vinaigrette-style dressing well.  I sliced just the portion of the head that had green edges to the leaves — so just about to where the break in that front leaf is.  You can save the rump for a fried rice or stir fry where the “woodiness” won’t be an issue.  And as always, a salad you can make from cabbage is a Godsend on a boat, where lettuce doesn’t fare well.Combine the sliced cabbage, cucumbers, diced red pepper, green onion and cilantro and toss with the dressing.Dish up the chicken over rice with a big side of the salad.Captain Peter seems to be enjoying it; I’ve decided Swab Eddy isn’t a terribly discriminating pallet, though I will take his vote of confidence anyway.

Somehow I decided not to bring any of this back from Hanoi, though it’s apparently a delicacy, one of the most expensive in the world, and made by collecting coffee beans excreted by the wild civet.  Not unlike the elderly Vietnamese lady sitting next to me on a Hanoi park bench who, after a bird had excreted upon my “only one clean pair left for this part of the trip” pants, proclaimed wide-eyed that this was “good luck!”  You can argue that globalization has homogenized everything, but it doesn’t take much to find a truly diverse cultural take on things.


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