Thursday, January 15, 2009

Something's Fishy

It has been so darn warm here that I am in the mood for summer food, and to me that means grilling. But that poses a bit of a problem, because even though it is still 70 degrees outside at dinner time, it is really very dark. Since my husband, let's call him the grill master, is not a fan of grilling in the dark (I'm not sure I know of anyone who is), my plan is to bake a chicken dish that usually I grill in the summer. Cooking the chicken in a really hot oven should crisp the skin nicely, without the grill, saving the grill master from holding tongs in one hand and a flashlight in the other. And my yen for grilled chicken should be satisfied as well. The marinade is adapted from that Quick and Easy Thai cookbook I told you about not too long ago. It loaded with cilantro, which is so fresh and grassy tasting, garlic, soy sauce, and fish sauce.

I had never cooked anything with fish sauce until a few years ago and I must say that it is quite an interesting ingredient, though a very common one in Asian cuisine. I can't imagine the thought process of the person who initially made fish into a sauce, because to me the concepts of "fish" and "sauce" just do not go together (unless it is a sauce to put on a fish). However it lends a saltiness and depth of flavor that soy sauce alone cannot. The smell kind of reminds me of that awful fish emulsion that my parents were forever spreading around the yard when I was a child. It is pretty horrid, even for a fish lover. But when blended into a marinade it loses it's fishiness and becomes this hint of a flavor in the background that is hard to put a finger on. It doesn't take much fish sauce at all to enhance a dish, so I always try to buy a small bottle. If you do not have any fish sauce, or do not wish to buy any, don't substitute it with extra soy, instead just toss in a pinch more salt, and it should be fine. But do I encourage you to at least try it once.

My favorite part of this dish is the flavorful sweet, pungent and spicy dipping sauce that I make to go along with it. It is so easy to make and so delicious that I could eat it with a spoon right out of the bowl. It uses pureed chili garlic sauce, which can usually be found in the Asian section of the supermarket, and it turns the sauce the most lovely shade of glistening coral pink. The sauce perfectly compliments this chicken, but it would also be wonderful with grilled vegetables, over shrimp or other seafood, with spring rolls or as a salad dressing.

Grilled Thai Garlic Chicken

1 whole chicken, cut into 8 pieces
large handful of cilantro leaves and stems, coarsely chopped (or cilantro roots)
3 T garlic, coarsely chopped
2 T soy sauce
1 T fish sauce
1 t salt
1 t ground pepper
3 T water

Blend the cilantro through the water in a small mini-prep food processor or in the blender until smooth. Place the chicken in a large zip top bag and pour the marinade over. Seal and marinate in the refrigerator for an hour or overnight. Remove chicken from marinade and place in a large roasting pan. Heat the oven to 450 degrees and bake the chicken until it is cooked through, about 30-45 minutes. Serve with chili dipping sauce.

Sweet Chili Dipping Sauce

1 C sugar
1/2 C white vinegar
1/2 C water
3 cloves of finely chopped garlic
1 t salt
1 T chili garlic sauce (sambal oelek or siracha sauce...or minced fresh chilis or dried chili flakes)

In a medium saucepan bring the first 5 ingredients to a gentle boil over medium heat. Boil for 10 minutes or until the mixture is a thin syrup. Remove from heat and stir in the chili garlic sauce. It keeps for about a week in the fridge when sealed in a glass jar. If you are using dried red chili flakes or fresh chilis instead, use sparingly as they can be quite spicy.

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