It’s Labour Day and my container garden has kind of had it – usual for this time of the year. The leaf lettuces have bolted, the tomatoes are on their final sprint towards the frost, and the herbs have all flowered. Yet the miserable, swampy heat is still here like a screaming 2-year old. I don’t think we’ve turned the air conditioner off in a month.
If you’re one of the few people reading this thing, you may have noticed I haven’t given you much in the way of summery condiments to top your burgers or hot dogs. I want to apologize, but I won’t. I have a plan you see.
I think you’re probably here for something other than a ketchup recipe. The Internet is full of them, and many very good ones too. Mustard recipes abound as well with almost every type covered. I think you’re here because you already know this, and are likely a more curious sort.
In the run-up to beginning Hungry Right Now, I had plenty of time to think about how I want you to use this thing. I remembered, while considering this, a favourite cookbook: Sally Schneider’s A New Way to Cook. While the book is full of useful and seriously delicious recipes (Carrots in Chermoula!), what I love so much about A New Way to Cook is it’s structure and that Sally assumes her audience has a measure of intelligence. From the prologue:
“Each chapter is organized in a logical progression of simple approaches or techniques, followed by recipes that illustrate them. Some techniques, labeled Guides to Improvising, are templates written in recipe form. They are intended to encourage you to cook creatively with whatever is on hand or in season.
Many of the recipes in each chapter can also be made as component parts to use to build dishes that are more complex.
Enhancing dishes by use of different components is a recurring theme in A New Way to Cook. Easy-to-make-ahead fresh and cooked sauces, broths, flavored oils, and other flavor essences are often used to transform simple foods into something more.”
Suffice it to say, Sally’s pretty damn clever herself. As a reader, these ideas were revolutionary to me, freeing me from the tyranny of a more rigid set of instructions and, as promised, did encourage me to follow a more creative course in the kitchen.
I hope, in a similar fashion, to be able to empower my own readers to cook more inventively. Once you know how to cook a great steak, or roast a simply seasoned chicken, what’s left to decide but what to put on it? As we get deeper into this, we’ll explore how to better cook that steak, chicken, fish, and even toast, but for now I want you to have a few other options for things you already know how to make. So far, we’re 5 condiments in, each with 5 suggested uses and you have 25 new things to eat. At least.
Which brings us round to this week’s essential sauces. In keeping with last week’s South East Asian-themed dressing and dip, all three of these very-easy-to-make table sauces feature fish sauce and offer up endless uses. And sometimes that’s exactly the point. None of these are new, but taking them out of their usual context and cross-polinating them with some of the dishes you already make can have thrilling effects.
I keep at least one of these in my fridge at all times and would be lost without their exhilarating flavours. I rarely measure the ingredients any more, instead tasting as I go to adjust the balance of flavours.
First up, phrik nam pla, Thailand’s ubiquitous table sauce. It’s the simplest and most elemental of the three. It offers up salt alongside sour, considerable heat and a pleasing hit of garlic. Wherever you use it, think of it as a substitute for table salt.
- ½ cup (125 mL) fish sauce
- ¼ cup (60 mL) lime juice
- 1 small shallot, thinly sliced
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
- 8 bird's eye chillies, thinly sliced
- Stir all ingredients together in a small non-reactive dish or glass jar. Mixture will keep in the refrigerator for 2 weeks.
- drizzle a little over scrambled eggs, or fried ones with runny yolks
- any rice, but especially leftover take-out fried rice
- add it to homemade chicken stock in place of salt for a complex flavour and some heat
- marinate a steak in it
Next up, nuoc mam cham. Found in virtually every Vietnamese restaurant, this seasoning sauce and dip contains a few more ingredients, but functions in much the same way as the phrik nam pla, that is to say as an add on table-side. At it’s heart however, is sugar rather than the salt. My version is more assertive than the ones you might be accustomed to and I encourage you to make it your own by playing with the ingredients, perhaps most importantly the amount of water, to balance the flavours as you see fit.
- ¼ cup (60 mL) fish sauce
- ¼ cup (60 mL) unseasoned rice vinegar
- ¼ cup (60 mL) water
- 3 tbsp (45 mL) sugar
- 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 2 bird's eye chillies, finely chopped
- Juice of 2 limes
- 2 tbsp (30 mL) pickled vegetables (optional - see headnote)
- Bring fish sauce, rice vinegar, water and sugar to a boil in a small pot; immediately remove from heat and stir in garlic and chillies. Cool to room temperature, stir in lime juice and pickled vegetables if using. Sauce will keep for 1 week in the refrigerator.
- use it to dress a simple cucumber salad like this instead of using the dressing indicated
- grilled pork or shrimp skewers
- delicious with virtually any deep-fried vegetable or seafood fritter or snack
- it’s a no-brainer over cool Asian noodle salads
Finally, we have tirk trey chu p’em, Cambodia’s answer to the above. Again the differences are minor, but the inclusion of chopped peanuts offers up welcome texture.
- ¼ cup (60 mL) water
- ⅓ cup (80 mL) fish sauce
- ¼ cup (60 mL) finely chopped light palm sugar
- ⅓ cup (80 mL) lime juice
- 2 bird's eye chillies, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
- ¼ cup (60 mL) finely chopped dry roasted, unsalted peanuts
- Heat water and fish sauce to a boil in a small pot; immediately remove from heat, add sugar and stir to dissolve. Let cool and stir in remaining ingredients. Refrigerate and use within 3 days.
- grilled fish, steamed fish, any fish
- top rice porridge like this one
- grilled crispy-skinned chicken
- use it to dress a salad of under-ripe mango, chopped mint & slivered red onion