Andrea Nguyen came to the United States from Vietnam with her family at age 6. Based now in San Francisco, she describes herself as a “bank examiner gone astray,” and is a food writer, teacher and consultant. She has written six cookbooks about Asian cuisine, one of which — “The Pho Cookbook” — won the 2018 James Beard Award for best single-subject book.
Her new cookbook is “Vietnamese Food Any Day,” which uses ingredients that can be found in regular supermarkets to create Vietnamese dishes at home. She says the book’s approach is based on the Vietnamese term kheo, which means “smart” or “adroit” but in the cooking sense means the recipes are “skillfully prepared with intention and a grounding in the fundamentals.”
“In the spirit of kheo, the recipes are streamlined but not dumbed down,” she writes in the book’s introduction. “They capture the essence of Vietnamese foodways while demystifying and decoding the cuisine for home cooks.”
She says this curry dish, which can be made in about 45 minutes, is one she grew up eating. It’s served with a baguette for dipping or with rice.
CHICKEN, LEMONGRASS AND SWEET POTATO CURRY
Though Thailand, with its variety of curry pastes, is next door, Vietnamese cooks prefer curry featuring Indian spice blends. Bone-in chicken is typically used, but the curry cooks faster with boneless, skinless thighs.
Serves 4 to 6
1/2 cup coarsely chopped lemongrass (from 2 medium stalks)
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped peeled ginger
1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons Madras-style curry powder (preferably Sun brand)
1/2 teaspoon recently ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
One 13 1/2 ounce can full-fat, unsweetened coconut milk, unshaken
2 tablespoons virgin coconut oil or neutral oil, such as canola
4 large boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 1 3/4 pounds total), each cut into 3 pieces (see notes)
Fine sea salt
1 1/4 pounds sweet potatoes (white or orange flesh), peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks (see notes)
3 to 5 fresh cilantro sprigs, coarsely chopped
In a food processor, whirl the lemongrass into a fine texture, about 3 minutes, pausing occasionally to scrape down the bowl. Add the ginger and pulse to finely chop. Add the onion and pulse again to chop. Add the curry powder, black pepper, and cayenne (if using) and whirl until you have a fragrant yellow paste.
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Remove 1/3 cup of the thick cream at the top of the coconut milk, stir the remaining lighter milk, and set both aside.
In a 3- to 4-quart pot over medium-high heat, melt the coconut oil. Add the lemongrass paste and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until fragrant and no longer raw and harsh smelling. Lower the heat, as needed, to avoid scorching. Add the chicken and 1/2 teaspoon salt, stir to combine, and cook for 1 minute to meld the flavors. Add the coconut milk and a little water to cover the chicken. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, cover, and adjust the heat to gently simmer for 15 minutes; stirring occasionally.
Uncover the pot, add the sweet potatoes, and return the curry to a simmer. Continue cooking, uncovered, for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are tender. Turn off the heat, add the coconut cream, stirring it into the sauce, and let rest on the burner’s receding heat for 10 minutes, uncovered, to blend and mature flavors. Taste and season with salt (unsalted curry powder may require an additional teaspoon) and splash in water if the flavors are too strong.
Serve immediately, garnished with the cilantro.
Pair the bold curry with a mild vegetable side, such as sauteed chard. If the curry is too hot, squirt on some lime juice to cut the heat.
Notes: To divide each chicken thigh into three equal pieces, cut the flat side as one piece, then halve the thicker portion. If large thighs are unavailable, use smaller ones and cut each into two pieces.
Orange sweet potatoes used in this recipe can easily become mushy, so monitor the pot if you use them. For a more savory result, choose a potato suitable for boiling or roasting, such as red, white or Yukon gold.
Source: Reprinted with permission from “Vietnamese Food Any Day: Simple Recipes for True, Fresh Flavors” by Andrea Nguyen. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.