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Sep 1, 2008 06:48 AM

September COTM “Vietnamese”: Seafood

September 2008 Cookbooks of the Month:

Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table by Mai Pham and Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen.

Please post your full-length reviews of "main course" seafood recipes here. Please mention the name of the recipe you are reviewing and the book or author and page number, if possible, as well as any modifications you made to the recipe. This thread includes:


Chapter 6: Drifting and Dreaming (Seafood Dishes)


Chapter 4: Bountiful Fish and Shellfish

A reminder that the verbatim copying of recipes to the boards is a violation of the copyright of the original author. Posts with copied recipes will be removed.

Thanks for participating!

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  1. Shrimp Simmered in Caramel Sauce (ItVK page 105)

    The recipes with Caramel Sauce (which I reported on separately in the Sauces thread) intrigued me from my first flip-through of the book and Nguyen says that “if you are new to seafood kho dishes, start with this one.” So I did.

    You bring shrimp to a brisk simmer in fish sauce and caramel sauce, then add a thinly sliced onion and pepper, and cook, turning the shrimp, until they’ve turned an “orange brown.” You do need to keep an eye on it toward the end because the last of the sauce boils away very quickly. I, unfortunately, got a bit distracted. I thought all was lost, but I added a bit of water to the pan and the cooking gods forgave me.

    I liked this a great deal. The Caramel Sauce, which is delightfully bittersweet, gives this a unique flavor I’d not encountered before in a savory dish since I’m not very familiar with Vietnamese food. I served the shrimps as a nibble with drinks but would definitely make it again, probably as a stand-alone dish for a quick, simple meal. And now that I have a batch of caramel sauce, I’ll be trying some of her other recipes that use it.

    21 Replies
    1. re: JoanN

      Caramelized Garlic Shrimp (PotVT) p. 174

      Probably fairly similar to the ItVK recipe. We liked this very much (although not as much as we LOVED the ginger chicken). She wants you to use shell-on shrimp, but I knew that wasn't going to go over well, so peeled them - and I don't think it made a huge difference because they cook very quickly. Cook the shrimp and sugar for a minute, then add garlic and chopped shallot and cook for a minute, then add water, fish sauce and salt and reduce until the shrimp are done, about another minute or so (see what I mean about quick?). She says the pan will be almost dry, and it may well be normally, but because I cooked more shrimp than called for (she calls for 2/3 lb for 4 people - no way is that going to work) and so added a bit more of everything else too. We really really liked this one. Served with rice and broccoli, and the rice soaked up the sauce really nicely. Husband said "this doesn't look like its going to have a lot of flavor, but boy does it." My *only* complaint (and this goes for the other recipe I've made so far) is that the portions are just too small. Luckily I'd made a lot of rice, but I don't see how 2/3 lb of shrimp is supposed to feed 4 people even with rice, veg and broth.

      1. re: LulusMom

        When I made this with peeled shrimp, I put the garlic and shallot in for a minute before I added the shrimp and continued. Very nice dish.

        1. re: mirage

          That is a smart idea ... I'll do it that way next time.

        2. re: LulusMom

          Yummy looking! thanks for the beautiful pics llm!

          1. re: LulusMom

            Caramelized Garlic Shrimp (tom rim man), Pham-PVT, p. 174

            I had friends over for cocktails before a concert, and I served this, along with spring rolls, as appetizers. These were a hit. The pan wasn't dry after a minute, so I removed the shrimp, reduced the sauce into a glaze, and then added the shrimp back in. Like LuLusMom, I peeled the shrimp. Great flavor, and so easy too . I followed Mirage's tip and cooked the onion and garlic first. When our guests arrived, I just added the shrimp and sugar and sauteed for 1 minute, and then added the water, fish sauce, and salt. I'll definitely make this again as a quick and easy appetizer.

            1. re: LulusMom

              I bought a pound of shell-on prawns from the Chinese supermarket intending to make something from Fish Without a Doubt but none of the recipes available to me appealed so I turned to Pham as fancied something Asian.

              As others have said, so simple to make and really tasty. I left the prawns whole and although Mr GG whinged a bit about having to peel them himself, I think it really adds to the flavour of the dish. The prawns were very juicy and delicious with rice and a side dish of stir-fried cabbage with egg (from Nguyen). I think I feel a Vietnamese phase coming on again....

              1. re: greedygirl

                I haven't gotten over my Vietnamese phase ...

            2. re: JoanN

              My DH and I just had this for dinner -- interesting technique and tasty outcome, but I would prefer it as an appetizer. It's a bit cloying as a main. A spritz of lemon juice helped. Since I have a supply of the caramel sauce, I'll also be trying out other recipes that use this ingredient. Either that, or it's going over ice cream.

              1. re: pikawicca

                That’s a shame. I’m enjoying the Caramel Sauce tremendously and don’t find it the least cloying. Mine is significantly more bitter than sweet and I can’t for the life of me imagine it on ice cream.

                1. re: JoanN

                  Maybe your caramel got darker than mine?

                  1. re: pikawicca

                    Perhaps. Mine is certainly very dark. I'm not at home or I'd take a picture of it.

                    1. re: JoanN

                      I would say that the one I made would not be good on ice cream - it's a bit too bitter.

                2. re: pikawicca

                  Of course I used the easy way with the sugar instead of caramel sauce, but the addition of the fish sauce made it totally unsweet - just this very subtle/interesting mixture of flavors.

                  1. re: pikawicca

                    I haven't made caramel sauce, but have found that seafood in caramel sauce preparations I've had at restaurants have been too sweet for my taste as well. If I were to cook those type of recipes, I'd probably reduce the amount of caramel sauce that went into the dish.

                  2. re: JoanN

                    I made this last night, though just 1/3 of the recipe - we both thought it stood out as one of our favorites so far. I did have to keep splashing some more water in, but did try to keep a close I on them.

                    1. re: JoanN

                      I made the shrimp in caramael sauce from ItVK p. 105 last night. I agree with everyone, it's a winner! Quick and yummy.

                      I made the caramel sauce the night before. It didn't get viscous; it's runny. But I think the flavor is right _ pleasantly bitter. Maybe I added a little too much water in the end.

                      1. re: NYCkaren

                        By the way - did you make the caramel sauce using her recipe? I used the one in Pham, which was much quicker and less complicated - I think I posted on the sauce thread in case you are interested.

                        1. re: MMRuth

                          I did see the discussion about the caramel sauce, but despite that I used the Nguyen recipe. Maybe I'll try the Pham version next time.

                          1. re: NYCkaren

                            I'm about out, so I'll try Nguyen's and see how the result differs, if it does.

                      2. re: JoanN

                        Shrimp simmered in Caramel Sauce, Nguyen, p. 105

                        I've been wanting to make this for a long time and finally did. We loved it! I was dubious about cooking the shrimp at high heat for 10-14 minutes, but it actually works. The shrimp get a bit chewy on the edges in a very toothsome way. I had a guest who can't eat onions, so I added some extra caramel sauce and water partway through the process because I wasn't getting any juices from onion, obviously. I stirred in squid rings right at the end so they got a very quick cook, but exuded just a little juice which was perfect. I will happily make this again, though it definitely needs rice and other dishes (some simply braised greens would have been great) for contrast.

                        1. re: Karen_Schaffer

                          I'd forgotten all about this one - thanks for mentioning it again. It was SO good when I made it, and so easy.

                      3. Salmon Cakes with Dill and Garlic (ItVK page 126)

                        Made a half recipe using Scottish salmon filet. Not at all difficult despite the length of the recipe. Nguyen says the full recipe makes 14 to 16 cakes; I got 9, so mine were obviously too thin. I don’t think it made a significant difference, though, in either taste or texture.

                        Once steamed, the cakes can be stored in the fridge for five days, and then cooked again either in a toaster oven under the broiler, on an outdoor grill, or deep fried. So, since I was making these as an experiment, and to see whether or not it was something I wanted to do again, I tried two different cooking methods (not the outdoor grill since it’s not an option in my Manhattan apartment).

                        The first time I tried the toaster oven broiler method (first photo). The cakes browned, but only a tiny bit. I sliced the cakes as she directs and served it with the Simple Dipping Sauce on page 309. (Note to self: Go shop for a different fish sauce. I suspect the one I’ve been using just isn’t what it should be now that I’ve read her info on it.) They were good, but I thought they could be significantly better.

                        The next day I tried pan frying in grapeseed oil, and I got myself some decent fish sauce (second photo). A WORLD of difference. Both the pan frying and the sauce. The fish sauce was lot more subtle; less overwhelmingly fishy and salty. And the salmon cakes were just a bit browner and crispier in spots giving them a much more interesting textural contrast, although the flavor didn’t really change. (Another note to self: Looks like I’ll definitely be doing these again and a whole recipe not a half since they store so well and make a very quick and satisfying meal. And go buy a real steamer insert for your wok so you can fit in more than just three patties at a time.)

                        Next, deep frying, which she says creates “the most authentic taste and the most evenly crisp exterior.”

                        10 Replies
                        1. re: JoanN

                          I've just breezed through all your reports and everything looks wonderful - now I think I'm going to have to buy the book, as I bought Mai Pham's book, but won't get to start cooking until a week from now, I think.

                          Would you mind posting on the main thread about which fish sauce you ended up using that you liked, and which one you didn't like? I know Pham recommends certain brands, btw.


                          1. re: JoanN

                            Great report.
                            So, what brand of fish sauce did you happily settle on?

                            1. re: NYchowcook

                              Nguyen says she used Viet Huong brand Three Crab Fish sauce to develop and test the recipes and I had no difficulty finding it in Chinatown. I figured if it was good enough for her, it was good enough for me.

                              I didn't realize, until nearly a week later when I read her recipe for Fragrant Steamed Egg, Pork, and Cellophane Noodles that what I had in my fridge was *fermented* fish sauce. But by then I had thrown it out. I thought it was just bad fish sauce. Oh, well. Guess that's one recipe I won't be trying.

                              1. re: JoanN

                                Did you see this:

                       - about the added fructose etc. in the Three Crab fish sauce? I can't wait to see what I bought before I went on vacation (at one of the Thai markets in Chinatown - not the Bayard Street one).

                                1. re: MMRuth

                                  Yes, I did. But as I say, if it's good enough for Nguyen, it's good enough for me.

                                  Interestingly, though, I checked the label on the Roland brand fish sauce I bought at Fairway before I had a chance to get down to Chinatown and that brand doesn't have any additives either. I did a side-by-side taste test of the Roland and the Three Crabs and could barely tell the difference. I'm not going to worry about it.

                                  1. re: JoanN

                                    I'm just using my local grocery store's house brand fish sauce (which I've noticed before sometimes varies in strength). It doesn't have any additives and is working just fine for me. I'm sure that very finely attuned palates (sp??) can tell the difference, but since this cuisine is fairly new to me, I'm just loving it all and am perfectly happy with this brand.

                                  2. re: MMRuth

                                    Some fish sauces clearly have some mellowness, roundness and complexities, but many palates probably won't detect a lot of the differences. The easiest to detect have been mentioned- the very dark Tiparos style sauces are stronger, the more golden Three Crabs, etc. tend to be mellower.

                                    1. re: P. Punko

                                      I've also found Three Crabs to be much sweeter than the other fish sauces out there.

                                      1. re: P. Punko

                                        It's funny that none of the fish sauces mentioned in the books seem to be available here in the UK. You would have thought that we would import the same brands, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

                                2. re: JoanN

                                  I finally got around to deep frying the Salmon Cakes. I had put some in the freezer a couple of weeks ago and it took less than two hours at room temp for them to thaw. I fried them in a wok in about ¾ of an inch of 350F oil. These were certainly the most attractive of the three cooking methods I tried. They did indeed, as she said they would, have a wonderfully crispy exterior and the best textural contrast of the three. Just for ease and to keep the fat content down I would probably pan-fry these if I were just making them for myself, but for company deep frying definitely does result in a more exciting dish.

                                3. Shrimp in Spicy Tamarind Sauce (ItVK page 113)

                                  Okay. That does it. Gotta buy the book. Four winners out of four attempts.

                                  This is garlicky, sweet, tangy, spicy—heavenly. And as she says, if you have the tamarind liquid on hand (easily frozen in ice cube trays), a snap to make.

                                  You make a flavoring sauce of sugar, tamarind liquid, fish sauce, and Sriracha. Quickly stir-fry a shallot and two cloves of garlic in a couple of tablespoons of neutral oil, add the shrimp and stir-fry for a minute, then add the flavoring sauce and stir-fry for another 2 to 3 minutes. Serve with jasmine rice and dig in.

                                  The only thing I’d do differently is to reduce the size of the shrimp. She says to use large and I did. But next time I think I’ll go with medium. You want sauce, shrimp, and rice in every bite and I think the medium-size shrimp would make that easier

                                  She doesn’t mention it, but I can’t believe this wouldn’t work with cubed chicken breasts or even squid. Might give that a try—if I can tear myself away from yet more recipes from the book.

                                  14 Replies
                                  1. re: JoanN

                                    I don't know a lot about Vietnamese cooking, but with many Asian sauces you can multi task them. Sauces for chicken or fish rarely need any kind of adjustment when swapping one for the other (exception - sauces for strong flavored fish may need to be toned down slightly, sauces for mild fish or poultry may need to be ramped up for strong flavored fish), using beef, pork, or other mammalian meats may require some adjustment though (ie more garlic, or pepper, or sriracha than called for in a fish or chicken recipe).

                                    1. re: JoanN

                                      You will not be sorry if you buy the book. I bought it when it first came out and love it. I also have two books by Mai Pham but the Andrea Nguyen is the winner in my kitchen. I have not tried the recipes you tested but am inspired by your reports!

                                      1. re: JoanN

                                        joan, your shrimp look awesome!!!

                                        1. re: JoanN

                                          JoanN, if you're around could you give me your thoughts on somehow subbing tamarind paste for the liquid? I have a barely used jar of the stuff in the fridge, and would love to be able to use that instead of having to go find the concentrated frozen stuff she calls for. Think I could maybe just use less, thin it out a bit, etc.? Greatly appreciate any thoughts you have on this (or that anyone else has).

                                          1. re: LulusMom

                                            I have the paste - well, a block of it with seeds and all - and in recipes from other books that call for it, you usually soak a chunk in warm water for 20 minutes or so, then drain it through a sieve, pressing down on the chunks with a spoon. So that may be a good way for you to get liquid for the recipe.

                                            1. re: LulusMom

                                              I made the tamarind liquid as Nguyen directed from a block of seedless pulp. It was like what MMRuth is describing except without the seeds and that is how I prepared it. But I don't think I would have called what I started with a "paste." It was more the consistency of dried dates, but even more dense. What resulted after soaking and straining was surprisingly thick, not what I would have called "liquid." Is what you have more of a block that would need to be cut with a knife or more like something you'd scoop out with a spoon? If the latter, I suspect, though don't know for sure, that the tamarind paste you have might well be the "liquid" Nguyern is calling for and you could just use it as is.

                                              1. re: JoanN

                                                Yes - I probably shouldn't have called mine a paste - it's more like a compressed block.

                                                1. re: JoanN

                                                  Thanks so much to both of you. Mine is in a jar and is sort of the consistency of very thick fig jam. It says on the jar "100% fruit without the seeds." Definitely more spoonish in consistency. I'm thinking that, of course, once out of the fridge for a little while it would not be as dense. Maybe just use it with a tiny bit of water added. Again, thanks so much to both of you. I'm thinking I'll be making this next week!

                                                  1. re: LulusMom

                                                    Yes - I'd just dilute a bit with hot water.

                                                    1. re: MMRuth

                                                      Great ... I really didn't want to have to go searching my semi-small town looking for the tamarind water (edit: or the concentrate stuff).

                                                    2. re: LulusMom

                                                      As I said, I was surprised at how thick my resulting "liquid" was. I put the remainder into an ice cube tray to freeze and had to scrape it off the spoon with a spatula. "Thick fig jam" isn't far off the mark. I'm guessing you wouldn't have to thin it very much.

                                                      1. re: JoanN

                                                        Interesting how semantics can mess one up. It does sound like what I have will be fairly close to what she's talking about. I'm excited about this one, especially given your review (and my experiences so far).

                                                2. re: JoanN

                                                  Following JoanN's lead, I made the Shrimp in Spicy Tamarind Sauce. Complete hit. I followed her advice and used medium shrimp (good call). I had tamarind paste, so I just thinned that out a bit for the tamarind water - probably about 1/2 tamarind paste to 1/2 water, but possibly more tamarind paste than that. We thought the proportions she gives for the sauce were perfect. Served over rice with a salad.

                                                  1. re: JoanN

                                                    I made this last night and we loved it too. I used a jar of tamarind paste/liquid I had in the fridge and it couldn't have been easier. In fact, the hardest thing was shelling the prawns (I used medium sized ones)!

                                                  2. Full report coming, but quick note: Cilantro Shrimp with Cellophane Noodles in Claypot (PotVT) was not a big hit (pics and full report tomorrow I hope).

                                                    3 Replies
                                                    1. re: P. Punko

                                                      Too bad! I had that one on my try list. I eagerly await your report.

                                                      1. re: LulusMom

                                                        And I'm waiting to see how your poached chicken turned out! You're not dead, I take it...

                                                        1. re: greedygirl

                                                          Thanks greedygirl. Tonight is the big night. I can tell you that I made one of the dipping sauces and it seemed (from fingertip tastes) to be very very good.

                                                    2. Here is our take on "Cilantro Shrimp in Claypot- tom kho to" from Mai Pham's Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table, p. 173.

                                                      This is not too hard of a dish to prepare and the author says she was served it as a child by her family's Thai nanny in Thailand.

                                                      The basis of the dish is shrimp, first sauteed with cilantro, garlic, ginger, peppercorns and some onion in a 2 qt claypot. These are then set aside and pre-soaked cellophane noodles are added to the pot with chicken stock, some fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil and some more onion, and after brief simmering, some celery and scallions are tossed in with the sauteed shrimp/cilantro/onions for s stir with a little more broth and then you garnish with cilantro.

                                                      Our variations:

                                                      1) Sadly, we don't have a big enough claypot, so I used a 2 qt pot.

                                                      2) We used Korean style cellophane noodles made from sweet potato starch.

                                                      3) We forgot to buy celery.

                                                      4) Everything else was as specified in the recipe.

                                                      5) We shelled the shrimp. I think because of this perhaps I should have upped to fish sauce as some flavor likely was lost.

                                                      6) We used Tiparos fish sauce here, however, given the amount of chicken stock, the fish sauce was not an obivous component (only 2 tsp). Our Tiparos is less salty than yours, because our bottle has some salt crystals in the bottom where the salt has come out of solution.


                                                      1) A deep, kind of muddy cilantro flavor. I love cilantro, but when I was a kid it tasted quite soapy to me. I learned to love it, but in this dish, I felt some soapy aspects of the cilantro weren't balanced by the other ingredients of the spice paste (ginger and black peppercorns)- the garlic was pleasantly present. Pham says in her description that the dish is flavored with generous ginger and peppercorn, and I would definitely consider upping these two components to match that description. The recipe called for 2 tsp. chopped fresh ginger and 1 tsp black peppercorns (crushed with a mortar and pestle with the cilantro and garlic). Consider doubling.

                                                      I would consider this a pretty good start if it were just shrimp sauteed as above with onions and the spice paste and served with rice or in a bun (vermicelli) bowl.

                                                      2) We used Swanson's Low Salt Natural Goodness Chicken Broth instead of homemade stock. The final dish had a brothy taste that wasn't bad, but tasted somewhat bland. It felt like the flavors weren't too bright. It could very much be a hearty bowl of comforting noodles, if the spice paste above were punched up a little.

                                                      3) The cellophane noodles seemed like way too much. The recipe calls for a 2 oz package and we used a 1.7 oz package, and there were so many that I decided to remove some before adding the shrimp back.

                                                      4) We overcooked the noodles somehow. We soaked them in hot water as specified for 30 minutes before hand, and followed the directions thereafter pretty precisely. I think there may have been an issue with the type of cellophane noodles we used. They came out too soft and started to break up. I tried it with the noodles that I had removed prior to adding the shrimp, and these noodles were fine, but the flavors still weren't there.

                                                      Overall summary:

                                                      Punch up ginger and peppercorns. Consider using half the amount of noodles and half the amount of chicken stock (while leaving other seasonings the same).

                                                      Consider using the shrimp portion of the recipe as a base for other dishes (rice plate, vermicelli bowl, or ever a very cilantro-y fried rice).

                                                      2 Replies
                                                      1. re: P. Punko

                                                        We liked this dish last night, but it wasn't one of our favorites so far. I did use the mung bean noodles, but wasn't sure I really liked the texture. I did leave the shrimp peels on. I had thought it would be more soupier than it was, and I think I'd like it better with more broth.

                                                        1. re: MMRuth

                                                          Yeah, brothy would have been better!