A few months back I saw Jamie Oliver post a recipe for Sweet and Spicy Beer Can Chicken. Not to toot my own horn, but I was quite successful the first time I made it. The flavors were bold, the chicken was juicy, the skin nice and crispy. It’s essentially like a five-spiced chicken and I thought it would go well with a Thai or Vietnamese dish. That’s when I came up with the idea of using it in vermicelli bowls. I’ve never made vermicelli bowls before, but figured it couldn’t be that difficult. Noodles, some vegetables, and a fish sauce to pour on top. Easy peasy.
So when Andrew and I invited our friends Nick, Joe, and Zack over for dinner last week, I decided Vietnamese was the theme for the evening’s menu. We know these sweet fellas through my sister, Kristin. I would tag along with her to her friends’ parties when I was younger and didn’t have very many friends in the city. In those early days I was affectionately referred to by Nick as “the sister.” After years of tagging along to social gatherings, Andrew and I eventually established our own friendship with these guys, and Nick now addresses me by name when we hang out. Friendship.
The full menu of our dinner was Thai shrimp lettuce wraps (courtesy of Andrew), chicken vermicelli bowls, and creme brûlée. I justified that this dessert tied into the dinner’s Asian theme because of Vietnam’s French connection. Also, we added creme brûlée dishes and a blow torch to our registry and I wanted to use them. I’ve never made creme brûlée before and preparing it for the first time for a dinner party was definitely a bit of a gamble, but I have little problem making my friends my culinary guinea pigs even at the risk of public failure. More on the result of this in a little bit.
Back to appetizers. Andrew made Thai shrimp lettuce wraps. Not surprisingly, the recipe he used was based off of Gordon Ramsay’s Chili Beef Lettuce Wraps. Andrew swapped out the beef for shrimp, and used this recipe mainly for the sauce, which is really good. Unfortunately, I don’t have any good pictures of this dish. We were a bit strapped for time and had to scramble a bit to get everything ready in time, which meant I wasn’t able to take as many photos as I would have liked. I’ll do better next time.
The vermicelli bowls were easy to prepare, but a little time consuming. They’re essentially the Vietnamese bi bim bop: a lot of simple, but separate ingredients thrown into a bowl. While the beer can chicken was roasting, I boiled the rice noodles, julienned cucumbers and carrots (which I quick-pickled with some rice vinegar and a little sugar), washed the sprouts, and cut lettuce and mint into thin strips. I put the noodles in a bowl and arranged the remaining ingredients on top, leaving space to place the chicken.
For the sauce, I wanted an authentic recipe, so Andrew (half-joking) told me to find one from someone whose name was Nguyen. Coincidentally, as he was talking, I just happened to be looking at this recipe for Nuoc Cham from Andrea Nguyen. Recipe found. I was unfamiliar with her before I did my search, but she has her own Vietnamese cooking blog with a decent following. Next time I want to cook Vietnamese I will definitely go to her for recipes. You do need to taste the sauce as you make it and adjust the acid and sugar to your liking. Fish sauce can be a bit pungent if not toned down. I also recommend adding chili garlic sauce (tuong ot toi). It really helped balance the flavors.
Again, due to timing constraints, I don’t have a lot of pictures of the chicken or the finished bowls, but I do have a couple good shots of our overall spread. You can see the chicken towards the back, ready to be carved:
And now for the creme brûlée. I chose Alton Brown’s recipe for no real particular reason other than he makes a mean cheesecake (so his creme brûlée must be pretty good, right?), and because the video in the recipe was helpful. Making the actual custard was simple enough. Infuse heavy cream with vanilla, whisk it with some egg yolks and sugar, and bake. The trouble came with the baking. You’re supposed to put the ramekins filled with the custard in a cake or roasting pan and fill it with water so that it goes halfway up the sides of the ramekins. I used two different sized ramekins so the water level wasn’t even for all of them, and I also had trouble fitting them all into one pan, but I managed.
Then, because I used two different sized ramekins, I had to take the shallower dishes out of the oven earlier so they wouldn’t overcook. When they’re tightly packed into a pan surrounded by boiling water, this is not easy to do. Andrew suffered a burn on his forearm rescuing them, but luckily no other injuries occurred. When they were all done baking, we put them in the fridge to chill for a few hours before serving. You may be asking at this point why I didn’t use two different pans for the two different sized ramekins. Well, I didn’t have a smaller pan that could fit all of the wide, shallow ramekins and I couldn’t be bothered to use three pans. So I decided to make do with one. I may choose a different approach next time, but this ended up working out okay, if not being the most elegant solution.
After dinner was eaten and we were on our fourth or fifth bottle of wine, we took out the creme brûlée and went to caramelize the sugar on top for that quintessential crust. Alton Brown makes this look really easy, and in theory it is, but in reality it takes some practice. Some of the issues we ran into were:
- Getting used to the blowtorch and finding the right flame setting
- Not using enough sugar
- Using too much sugar, making the crust too thick
- Not rotating the ramekin enough to get an even crust
- Heating it for too long, melting the custard back into a cream
- Having too much wine before caramelizing
We had eight ramekins of baked custard for five people, and ended up eating seven of those eight because we kept trying to get the crust right. We still never quite managed to make a perfect one, but each attempt was still delicious. We just have to make more and keep practicing. Oh darn.
To show you how we struggled, here is a video of one of our later attempts at caramelization. It comes complete with running commentary from our friends on how to do it correctly. Because that’s what friends are for.
And this was the result of that attempt.
The custard was still a little melted, and I suppose if we were patient enough to let it sit or perhaps put it back in the fridge to firm up again that may not have been a problem. But after five or six bottles of wine and halfway through a random bottle of prickly pear liquor (because apparently that is what we drink when we run out of wine rather than walk to the liquor store like normal people), patience was not a virtue we held onto at the time.
In the end the evening was full of good food, good company, and many lessons learned. Keep it in the center!