Roadtest and Review: Secrets of the Red Lantern by Pauline Nguyen with Recipes by Luke Nguyen and Mark Jensen
Followers of the acclaimed Red Lantern Vietnamese restaurant in Sydney’s Surry Hills will know and love Pauline Nguyen’s first book Secrets Of The Red Lantern: Stories and Vietnamese Recipes from the Heart - With Recipes By Luke Nguyen and Mark Jensen (Murdoch Books).
Together with The Songs of Sapa by her brother, Luke Nguyen, this tome has become a treasured and much used addition to my cookbook library.
In Chapter one, Skin, Bones and the Basics, we learn how the Nguyen family escaped Vietnam before arriving in Australia in the late 1970s and the children were “ruled over by strict, food obsessed parents” who ran Pho Cay Du, a Vietnamese restaurant in Cabramatta’s main street. There is more about this venture in Chapter six.
Pauline explains that the emphasis on freshness is what most distinguishes Vietnamese food from other cuisines, and she explains the importance of crunch and contrast, and must-have ingredients.
Precious family photos, a wealth of recipes generously shared and heart-warmingly candid stories about the family’s lives and their shared passion for food are covered eloquently in Secrets Of The Red Lantern’s ten chapters.
Gà Xào Xá ớt, Lemon Grass and Chilli Chicken, is perhaps one of my favourite dishes from the book and I road test the recipe here. Luke writes “This is a classic, and very popular, southern Vietnamese chicken dish … a quick and easy dish to prepare, with loads of flavour and fragrance. Be sure to drizzle the sauce over your steamed jasmine rice”.
You need 500g of boneless, skinless chicken thighs, which you trim and cut into bite-sized pieces. Then finely chop the white part of one lemon grass stem, a small chilli and two cloves of garlic. (Note: Luke’s recipe calls for pickled chilli, but you can use fresh or dried chilli to your taste as well… I sometimes use two teaspoons of dried chilli).
For the marinade, mix together two tablespoons of fish sauce, one tablespoon of caster sugar and half of the chopped lemon grass, garlic and chilli. Pour this over the chicken pieces and refrigerate. The recipe recommends four hours or overnight, but I’ve successfully done this in less time.
When you’re ready to cook, heat a wok or large pan over medium heat and add some peanut or vegetable oil. Toss in the lemon grass, garlic and chilli and cook very briefly, then add the chicken, a bit at a time so as not to take the temperature of the wok or pan down. Stir and sear, then add one or two sliced eschalots (the recipe calls for white onion, but I prefer the eschalots) and continue to fry.
Finally, add one cup of good chicken stock. Pop on a lid and simmer over a reduced heat for around five minutes, then remove the lid, crank up the heat and reduce the sauce quickly. (I like to allow the chicken to caramelise well in the wok, adds a lovely depth of flavour!). Garnish with a sprinkle of coriander and serve with steamed jasmine rice. This recipe will serve four.
The verdict: Luke’s recipe for Gà Xào Xá ớt, Lemon Grass and Chilli Chicken is easy to follow and produces a sumptuous and fragrant Vietnamese dish that you’ll want to cook again and again.
Secrets Of The Red Lantern: Stories and Vietnamese Recipes from the Heart By Pauline Nguyen With Recipes By Luke Nguyen and Mark Jensen (Murdoch Books) is available from book stores and online, such as the UK Book Depository. Or you can order signed copies of the book from the Red Lantern restaurant. Watch Luke Nguyen prepare Gà Xào Xá ớt here.
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