Once a month Williams-Sonoma has a Saturday cooking demonstration, free of charge. I go as often as I can, because the recipes are always really tasty.
A few weeks ago I went and the recipe was from Sous Chef Justine Kelly, of the restaurant Slanted Door in San Francisco. She called it "Caramelized Shrimp with Lemongrass, Thai Chiles and Ginger."
I had friends coming for dinner that evening and I really wanted to make it, but it called for several ingredients usually only available in Oriental markets: fresh lemongrass, palm sugar and Thai chiles. There is no oriental market near us, so I figured I’d adapt it to supermarket shelves. It came out so well that I thought you’d want to try it too.
For the palm sugar, I substituted dark brown sugar, and frankly I’m not sure the end result wasn’t better for it. I made the caramel syrup with the fish sauce, as indicated, but the recipe called for making a lot more than needed with the note that it keeps well for other uses. I just made enough for the one recipe. But I'm going to try this same recipe soon with chicken breasts, cut into chunks and cooked exactly the same way, so leftover syrup wouldn't have been a bad thing.
Lemongrass paste is widely available in tubes, in the produce section of your market, usually near the fresh herbs. It works extremely well in recipes such as this, and keeps well in the fridge. It has the added advantage of not having to deal with the tough parts of the lemongrass that won't get tender no matter how long you cook the dish.
And since there were no Thai chiles, I used a Serrano chile instead. Our friends are much more heat tolerant than I am, so I sliced up another for them to add to the finished dish as taste dictated. A jalapeño pepper would also work.
And finally, although the recipe didn’t call for it, I topped it with chopped cilantro, which all agreed was a felicitous addition.
I served it with steamed white rice, roasted asparagus and Mark Bittman’s salad of heirloom tomatoes, soy sauce and a drizzle of oriental sesame oil, atop a bed of arugula.
This makes a good dinner for a busy day, because you could probably get the rest of the meal done in about the time it takes the rice to cook. Alternately, you could (as I did) prepare the recipe up to the point where you add the hot caramel sauce. It takes only about 5 minutes then, to finish up.
Vietnamese Caramelized Shrimp
1 ½ lbs large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper
2/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup oriental fish sauce
3 tbsp. vegetable oil
1/2 cup shallot, peeled and very thinly sliced
1 or 2 hot green chiles, cut lengthwise in half, seeds removed
3 tbsp. lemongrass paste (or ¼ cup fresh, minced)
2 plump cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 2-inch cube fresh ginger, peeled and cut into thin matchstick pieces
¼ cup chicken or seafood stock
½ cup cilantro, chopped
Rinse the shrimp, pat dry and sprinkle with the pepper.
Make the caramel sauce: in a heavy saucepan, simmer the brown sugar with the fish sauce just until the sugar is melted. Keep warm.
In a large heavy skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the shallots and chiles and stir a few times. Add the lemongrass paste, garlic and ginger. Cook, stirring for another couple of minutes. Stir in the chicken stock and hot caramel sauce.
Add the shrimp, turn the heat up a little and cook, stirring occasionally, until the shrimp are just done, five to seven minutes. Transfer to a serving bowl, sprinkle with the cilantro and serve immediately. Serves 6.