Food & Wine Magazine’s September 2018 issue attempts a task that must have almost impossible. It’s the magazine’s 40th Anniversary issue and its editors had to decide which recipe best represented every single year’s output—literally hundreds of recipes. In Food & Wine, you can trace the path of America’s recent food history. The very first issue of the magazine took 7 years to bring to fruition. Its 5 founders finally convinced Hugh Hefner to publish “The International Review of Food & Wine” as an insert in Hefner’s Playboy Magazine in 1978. The name was shortened three years later and the magazine thrived. It celebrated American chefs at a time when no one else had. One of these chefs was Charles Phan, a Vietnamese refugee who came to this country at age 15 having fled Vietnam for Guam before landing in San Francisco.
Charles Phan’s family was of Chinese descent and they chose San Francisco’s Chinatown for their first home in this country. Charles was sent to U.C. Berkeley to study architecture. His first passion was, of course, food. And because his parents both worked two jobs, it fell on Charles’ shoulders to cook the meals for the Phan family, numbering 10. His mother was his great teacher. An accomplished cook, she spoke fluent French and practiced a style of French Vietnamese cooking still found in Vietnam today. (You can read about my Culinary Travels to Vietnam by following the links after today’s recipe). French influences elevated the simple peasant cooking of Vietnam to something more sophisticated, more flavorful. And Charles built his cooking from there.
All the while Charles was going to school, he worked in San Francisco restaurants bussing tables at such notable restaurants as The Coachman, Mumm’s and Café Royale. To this day, Charles credits visits to Chez Panisse and Zuni Café for his food philosophy.
Phan’s first foray into a restaurant of his own was the idea of installing a Creperie in a hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. The owner balked when he heard the crepes would be Vietnamese. This was a happy accident as Phan recognized an opportunity to open a restaurant devoted to serving traditional Vietnamese food in a stylish setting. Thus The Slanted Door was born. Now operating in San Francisco’s Temple of Food, The Ferry Building, (1 Ferry Building #3, San Francisco, CA Tel: (415) 861-8032) for 15 years Phan has excelled at serving farm-fresh ingredients using a sensibility that is pure Vietnamese.
I chose this recipe out of all 40 in Food & Wine purely because I wanted some Asian flavors after a summer of almost everything else. I am sure you have not heard the last of Food & Wine’s Forty Best. The ease with which you can put together any stir-fry also figured in my planning. Here’s a very simple and inexpensive dish full of flavor. The sauce combines brown sugar, pungent Vietnamese Fish Sauce, rice vinegar, garlic and ginger. I used it as a marinade adding the chicken to it a good thirty minutes before cooking. Then I first cooked thinly sliced shallots in oil then added the entire chicken mixture and cooked it all the way down till it became a flavorful coating on the chicken. Jasmine rice is a great accompaniment. Here is the recipe.
Charles Phan's Caramelized Black Pepper Chicken
Terrific Asian flavors in a flash. Vietnamese Cooking at its best.
- 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
- About 1/4 cup fish sauce (nam pla)
- 1/4 cup water
- 3 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
- 1 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper
- 2 fresh Thai chiles, halved, or dried red chiles
- 1 tablespoon canola oil
- 1 shallot, thinly sliced
- 1 pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 4 cilantro sprigs
- Step 1 In a small bowl, combine the sugar, fish sauce, water, rice vinegar, garlic, ginger, pepper and chiles. Add the chicken and let sit while you slice the shallots.
- Step 2 Heat the oil in a large deep skillet. Add the shallot and cook over moderate heat until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the fish sauce mixture and the chicken and simmer over high heat until the chicken is cooked through, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a serving bowl, garnish with the cilantro and serve.
- Step 3 Note: Because fish sauces vary in their saltiness, Phan advises adding the fish sauce to taste.