Among the advantages of growing up in the Twin Cities is early instruction in the abundant virtues of Vietnamese cuisine. An old joke goes that every neighborhood in Minneapolis has at least two things: a Lutheran church and a good Vietnamese restaurant. Each, of course, has its own congregation of faithful.
That bit of Keillor-esque humor relies on exaggeration and cultural cliche but it's pretty close to the truth for me. I've had countless special occasions and informal chats over plates of chewy and crunchy shrimp summer rolls (Goi Cuon), herb-tossed rice noodle salads (Bun Cha), savory grilled meat and pate sandwiches (Banh Mi), and steamy, aromatic bowls of beef and noodle soup with all the garnishings (Pho). All of it dowsed with gallons of Nuoc Cham - the ubiquitous dipping sauce made with lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, garlic, and hot peppers - and washed down with sweet, creamy iced coffee.
And through this culinary indoctrination I've come to know true bliss. Its physical location is somewhere between Jasmine Deli and Quang Restaurant on Nicollet Avenue. Mathematically transcribed, it goes something like this: Meat + Lemongrass + Fish Sauce + Garlic + Fire = Heaven.
That may sound exaggerated, but this recipe has the perfect summertime combination of fresh herbs, aromatics, heat, citrus, and charred, smokey meat. If you're not a red meat eater, it works just as well with chicken, shrimp, pork, and even tofu. (I'll have to take the Crafty Lass' word on that last one.)
For the Grilled Lemongrass Steak:
- 2 stalks fresh lemongrass, outer leaves discarded and root end trimmed
- 7 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 4 teaspoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1- to 1 1/4-pound skirt, flank, or flatiron steak
Thinly slice the lower 6 inches of the lemongrass stalks and discard the rest. Puree with the garlic in a food processor. Add the remaining ingredients and blend well. Combine the marinade and steak in a large ziploc bag and refrigerate overnight.
For the Nuoc Cham Dressing:
Start with 1-1/3 cups of hot water and add 1/2 cup sugar and stir to dissolve. Then add:
- 1/2 cup fish sauce
- 4 minced cloves of garlic
- 2 teaspoon garlic chili sauce
- 4 tablespoons fresh lime juice
Stir well and set aside.
Grill the meat over charcoal for about 5-6 minutes per side. Let it rest for about 10 minutes before slicing.
Make a salad of torn bibb lettuce, bean sprouts, thinly sliced scallions, sliced or shredded carrots, peeled, seeded, and sliced cucumber, and chopped fresh mint and basil leaves. Dress it lightly with some of the Nuoc Cham.
Serve the steak over some short grain rice or rice noodles and sprinkle it with chopped peanuts. Garnish with the salad and some ripe cantaloupe or gala melon and serve it with plenty of Nuoc Cham on the side for drizzling.