Wednesday, August 14, 2019

My "Russian Meat Pie” remains a top favorite in my family

The meat pie I make, patterned after a Russian “pirog,” started authentically enough as a beef or pork-stuffed, crescent-shaped turnover with a traditional cream-cheese crust. But the filling evolved, and the shape, for convenience, morphed to an American-style two-crust pie. I used to make from-scratch pie crust, but eventually cheated and used the store-bought variety. Yet the dish remained the major request for birthday and home-from-college meals. Occasionally now I switch back to the crescent-shaped turnover, which appears much more authentic.

Photo: Maria Dondero
A Russian pirog is a large baked pastry, while the more familiar smaller baked (or sometimes deep fried) Russian pastries, sport the cool-sounding diminutive name “pirozhki.” To confuse matters for Americans, the similar-sounding “pierogi,” so adored in ethnic communities in heartland cities like Pittsburgh and Chicago, are actually Polish, not Russian, and are boiled stuffed dumplings that are sometimes subsequently fried. They’re all good!

Sour cream dolloped on as the Russian pie is served is well received. A simple green salad is a fine accompaniment.

I like to pair a medium-bodied dry red wine, like a Chianti, Spanish red or Pinot noir, with the pie, though a mildly hoppy beer like Pilsner Urquell goes well too.

The recipe makes four Russian-type crescent turnovers or two 9-inch double-crust American-style pies. This is enough for a crowd, who always seem to show up when I mention the pies.

4 pie crusts, homemade or commercial (refrigerated and boxed, not in disposable pie pans)
2 pounds lean ground meat (pork, beef, turkey, or mixture)
1 large onion, peeled and cut in chunks
4 large carrots, peeled and cut in chunks
1 stick celery, cut in chunks
1/2 pound mushrooms, rinsed
2 cloves garlic
2-1/2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
2-1/2 teaspoons paprika
1-1/2 teaspoons oregano
3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon thyme, savory or marjoram
3 tablespoons ketchup
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 medium-large potato
2 tablespoons snipped fresh dill or 2 teaspoons dry dill weed
Milk for glaze
Sour cream for serving

In large pot, fry meat in its own juices until just beginning to brown.

In food processor, finely grind (but do not purée) onion and carrots, celery, mushrooms and garlic, part at a time. (Do not wash food processor yet.) Add vegetables to the meat and continue frying, adding a little oil if too dry. When vegetables soften, add salt, spices, herbs (other than dill) and sauces. Simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, 20 to 30 minutes.

Peel and cut potato. Puree it in food processor with a little water. Add to meat-vegetable mixture. Cook 3-5 minutes, stirring often, until well thickened. Taste and add salt as needed. Remove from heat. Stir in dill. Cool.

Crescent shape: roll each commercial crust a little to smooth them out. Or roll out homemade crusts to about 10 inches diameter as usual. Place one quarter of the filling on half of a crust. Brush the edge of the crust with a little milk, and fold the open part of the crust over the filling. Crimp the crust together and transfer the half moon over to a large baking pan. Shape the half moon slightly so as make a crescent. Repeat for the other crusts.

Double-crust pie: for commercial crusts, roll gently on floured surface to smooth them. Or roll out homemade crusts to about 10 inches diameter as usual. Line two 9-inch pie pans, letting excess crust hang over. Fill pies with meat mixture. Lay a second crust on top. Press down edge with a fork dipped in flour. Trim off excess crust, or do a twist-and-pinch edge.

Brush crust with cream or milk. Make several decorative cuts in top crust as vents. Bake at 375 degrees for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 and finish baking for about 30 minutes, or until golden brown.

Serve warm with sour cream.

Roasted Cauliflower with Tahini-Lemon Sauce: a Middle Eastern Vegan Classic

Recently at our restaurant, Donderos’ Kitchen, an Indian couple bringing their kids back to Athens for the start of the UGA fall semester were looking for strictly vegan, plant-based food. I conversed with them as they settled on falafel wraps. However, though the falafel, pita bread and hummus are vegan, the typical condiments include a yogurt sauce and feta cheese. I said I’d make them some tahini-lemon sauce as a non-dairy substitute. They were delighted with the food, and their kids, who are vegetarian rather than vegan, will be coming back, they said, to eat at our place frequently.

Photo: Maria Dondero; Plate: Marmalade Pottery, Athens GA
I had forgotten how easy making that classic sauce is. It took me half a minute. The taste of the sauce, as I checked it for salt, took me back to a stunning Lebanese appetizer, or “mezze,” I had years ago where you dip deep-fried cauliflower pieces into that same sauce. I learned after that introduction that the cauliflower can be lightly oiled and roasted, rather than necessarily deep fried. Either way it’s a great dish.

Tahini (sometimes spelled “tahina”) is a puree of sesame seeds. It’s available at whole and health food stores, Middle Eastern groceries, and even at some supermarkets. “Cortas” brand, from Lebanon, is of very good quality. Mix the hummus in the jar so separated oil and solids are evened out.

Here’s how I make the sauce and roast the cauliflower for dipping in it. The recipe serves six or more as an appetizer.

Make the sauce first. The cauliflower should be cooked shortly before eating and served hot.

The sauce:
3 tablespoons tahini
5 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt

Whisk all together in a bowl until smooth and creamy. Taste, and add a little salt or lemon juice if desired.

The cauliflower:
1 medium head of cauliflower
3/4-1 teaspoon salt, depending on the size of the cauliflower
1-1/2 tablespoons olive or sunflower oil
About 1 tablespoon finely minced “Italian” flat parsley for garnish

Remove leaves and thick stem from cauliflower. Cut the rest into similarly sized (1- to 1 1/2- inch) flowerets, each with a piece of stem. Rinse and drain.

Shortly before cooking, in large bowl sprinkle cauliflower with half of the salt and toss. Repeat with the other half of the salt and toss. Drizzle with the oil. Toss well to moisten evenly.

Spread cauliflower out on baking sheet and roast in 375-degree oven 10 minutes. Stir and turn cauliflower pieces. Return to oven and roast until golden in a few places and cauliflower is becoming tender.

Arrange still-hot cauliflower on a platter or shallow serving dish. Accompany with a bowl of the dipping sauce, lightly dusted with finely minced parsley.

Alternately, in the more modern style, smear a platter with the sauce, then arrange the cauliflower pieces over the sauce. Sprinkle with minced parsley.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Cooking Great Rice: a wonderful grain that’s naturally gluten free

Rice can be wonderful. Yet many Americans have trouble cooking it. When I was a kid, my mother rarely served it, and when she did she used “Minute Rice” because it was “dependable.”

I got introduced seriously to rice when I went to Asia as a young man. There over a number of years I got extensive exposure to it, both eating it and cooking it. I’m fussy, frankly, about rice. Rice is so important for many of the dishes I cook I’m focusing this blog post just on cooking rice.

While Americans consider rice an accompaniment or side dish, for most Asians, rice is the central dish and the curries, stir-fries, etc., are the accompaniments or “with-rice” dishes. Rice is the principal food for half or more of the world’s population, so much so that in several languages, including Chinese, Thai and Malay/Indonesian, you can’t simply “eat. Rather you “eat rice,” even if it’s non-rice food. Those languages also have at least three words meaning rice, one for the plant, one for the harvested grains, and one for cooked rice.  
Photo: Maria Dondero; Bowl: Chinese, Qing Dynasty, early 20th century

Here’s the tried-and-true Asian top-of-the-stove cooking method, sometimes called “steaming.” And although nowadays most people in east Asia use electric rice cookers, which simplify the cooking process plus keep the rice hot afterwards, until recent generations, everyone cooked their rice over fire. The stove-top cooking method should work in any American kitchen. But I’ll also mention cooking with a rice cooker, since if you are serious about rice, you’ll eventually use one. For the wonderful and complex seasoned rice dishes, from pilaf to biryani to Mexican yellow rice to Louisiana jambalaya and dirty rice, the cooking methods are different and individual. I’ll describe those with the particular recipes as I add them to the blog.

The two principal types of high-quality white rice available in the US are 1) Thai Jasmine rice, which I use for Southeast and Chinese cooking, and 2) Basmati, a wonderful, fluffy, very long-grained rice from India and Pakistan, which I use with curries and Middle Eastern dishes. American long-grained rice is more like the Indian rice, and is cooked like it. Both at home and at our restaurant, I use principally Thai Jasmine rice and Indian Basmati rice. (Brown rice is almost a different grain, and not traditionally used with Thai, Chinese or Indian dishes. I’ll deal with brown rice at another time, since it has its place.)

There are important differences in cooking the two types of white rice, the most important being the amount of water used with the rice. There are several “tricks” that apply to both types of rice: The first is buying good rice; next is rinsing and draining the rice; third is using no salt (however, salt is used in some complex, seasoned rice dishes); fourth is using the correct proportion of water to rice; and finally is not stirring or even uncovering the rice while it’s cooking.

“Steamed” White Jasmine Rice (Thai and Chinese style)

Serves six to eight. Leftover rice can be successfully reheated in a microwave.

2 cups long grain white rice (Thai Jasmine; not Uncle Ben’s or Basmati)
2-1/8 cups water
NO salt

Place rice in heavy pot and rinse twice with cool water, draining while holding the rice in with your hand cupped along the edge of the pot.

Add 2-1/8 cups cool water and bring to a boil, uncovered. Do not stir, but boil 30 seconds, cover pot tightly, and reduce heat to lowest setting. Simmer 20 minutes without opening. Turn off heat and let sit 10 minutes, still covered. Uncover and fluff rice gently with fork. Cover until needed.

Cooking Basmati Rice, for Indian or Middle Eastern food

Serves six to eight. Leftover rice can be successfully reheated in a microwave.

2 cups long grain white rice (preferably Indian Basmati, or Mahatma, long grain rice; not Uncle Ben’s “converted” rice)
2-1/2 cups water
NO salt

Place rice in heavy pot and rinse twice with cool water, draining while holding the rice in with your hand cupped along the edge of the pot.

Add 2-1/2 cups cool water and bring to a boil, uncovered. Do not stir, but boil 30 seconds, cover pot tightly, and reduce heat to lowest setting. Simmer 20 minutes without opening. Turn off heat and let sit 10 minutes, still covered. Uncover and fluff rice gently with fork. Cover until needed.

Rice Cooker Method

Follow either of the recipes above, except rinse and drain the rice in the rice cooker container rather than a pot. Add the same amount of water as in the recipes above. Cover rice cooker and turn on, not opening the lid until cooking is complete. When the rice cooker turns off (switching to “warm”), keep the cover on and let sit ten minutes before fluffing the rice. Cover the fluffed rice and it will stay hot for hours.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Crowd-pleasing Thai Red Curry with Chicken (Gaeng Ped Gai) is surprisingly easy to make

This was the dish I taught at my first international cooking class in Atlanta many years ago, for “Evening at Emory.” The curry paste can be homemade (but it’s tedious and requires hard-to-find ingredients), or it can be purchased in cans at Asian food shops. Cooks in Thailand nowadays typically buy their curry pastes fresh from favorite market vendors rather than make them from scratch.

Photo: Maria Dondero; Bowl: Marmalade Pottery, Athens GA
If you can get the ingredients (at Asian grocery stores, such as Fooks Foods in Athens, GA), making this curry is actually very easy, especially compared to Indian curries. Thai curries generally please American diners, as long as the pepper heat is considerably reduced from what is usual in Thailand.

The recipe will serve eight or more, but leftovers are treasured. Serve with unsalted rice, preferably jasmine rice.

2 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast
1/2 (4-ounce) can (or more) Thai red curry paste (freeze the rest for later use, wrapped in plastic)
1 tablespoon oil or chicken fat
1 can (14-ounce) unsweetened coconut milk (Thai) -- shake well before opening
1 can of water or unseasoned chicken broth
1 (20-ounce, 10-11 ounces drained weight) can shredded bamboo shoots, drained
1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce, (available at Asian groceries), or 1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 hot red chili pepper for garnish
8-10 sprigs fresh cilantro leaves for garnish

Asian ingredients for curry; Photo: Maria Dondero
Trim chicken of tough or excess fatty portions. Place breasts flat on cutting board and slice cross-wise 1/8-inch thick, using a sharp knife.  

Add a little oil (1-2 teaspoons) or chicken fat to a pot, and over low heat fry the curry paste, stirring very frequently, until fragrant and the oil separates out a little (1-1/2 to 2 minutes). Add half of the coconut milk and stir it in well. When combined and bubbling add remaining coconut milk and let the sauce return to a bubble. Increase heat and add the water or chicken broth. Add the drained bamboo shoots. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add about a tablespoon of fish sauce (or 1 teaspoon salt) plus a third of the chicken. Stir and as soon as color of the meat changes, add another third of the meat and stir. Similarly add the last third of the meat and stir until the color changes. Simmer about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste, and then add fish sauce or salt until just salty enough. Add sugar. Simmer 2 more minutes (do not overcook or the chicken will become dry). Remove from heat.

Taste the sauce and add a little fish sauce, salt or sugar as needed, making the sauce slightly salty (the chicken will continue to absorb some salt). The sauce should also have a slight sweetness. Let the curry sit at least 20 minutes (better overnight, in refrigerator).

Before serving, reheat gently (microwave or top of stove) with occasional stirring, just until it reaches a boil. Remove from heat.

Serve the curry in an attractive shallow bowl garnished with thinly sliced red chili pepper plus picked-off cilantro leaves.

Accompany with unsalted Jasmine rice (see my blog post on rice) and a stir-fried vegetable dish.

An Ancient Food: Making and Serving Good Hummus  

Hummus bi tahini (or bi tahina) simply means “chickpeas with sesame seed paste” in Arabic. Long a favorite appetizer throughout the Middle East, in recent decades it has become a standard in the West as well. Numerous garnishes are traditional, from drizzled olive oil and chopped parsley, to sumac, to a few whole cooked chickpeas, to pomegranate seeds, to black olives, to pickles, to spiced meat, so as to vary the presentation.

Nutritious, protein and fiber rich, and completely free of meat or dairy, hummus fits within the dietary requirements of all the major religions in the Middle East. Moreover, it’s free of gluten and added sugars. Children, surprising to me, usually like hummus. That’s great, because it’s extraordinarily healthy.

In the Middle East, hummus serves traditionally as a meze (or mezza), a small dish offered as a starter before the main meal, often accompanied by a number of other small dishes. The word “meze” and its spellings (other than Turkish, the languages from Greece around to Egypt, where hummus and other meze are traditionally consumed, do not use the Roman alphabet) derive from the Italian “mezzo,” meaning “half.” Italians, especially Venetians, were active in trade and politics in the eastern Mediterranean for many centuries.

Photo: Maria Dondero; Dish: Marmalade Pottery, Athens GA
Hummus itself goes back many centuries. Early on it would have been pounded with a mortar and pestle; now it’s generally made in a food processor.

Chickpeas, the principal ingredient, are native to Anatolia, in what is now Turkey, and – along with lentils -- are among the most ancient food seeds grown and consumed. They were cultivated in the eastern Mediterranean and Fertile Crescent for over 7 thousand years. Sesame seeds, native to India rather than the Fertile Crescent, are the earliest oil seeds cultivated by humans. Based on historical references and archeological artifacts these seeds reached the Middle East and Egypt at least 4000 years ago, where they were used for oil. References to sesame paste, now called tahini or tahina, go back at least 600 years, when it was mentioned as a component of what we would now call hummus.

Serving hummus traditionally follows several patterns. Shallow crockery bowls of hummus are served on meze tables when assorted other types of meze are served, with a shallow well pressed into the paste like a bird’s nest. For larger group serving, hummus is spread flat on a wide platter, again with a built-up edge. The interior concavity is where the garnishes are distributed, with a minimum of olive oil, but typically with additional items, particularly powdered sumac – that beautiful dark red lemon-scented spice – and chopped parsley for color. Black olives, pomegranate seeds, or a few whole cooked chickpeas add artistic interest, while a thin layer of spiced chopped lamb or beef transform the dish and make it more substantial.  

Hummus is typically accompanied by warmed flat bread, such as pita, for scooping it up. In the US, crudités – cut pieces of raw vegetable – are often also offered for dipping. (For catering, our restaurant is often asked to provide raw vegetable strips in addition to bread pieces to accommodate those avoiding wheat or its calories.)

Here is the way I learned to make hummus from several Turkish chefs I hung out with in Decatur as they were starting their restaurant. It’s close, but not identical, to that served at our restaurant, Donderos’ Kitchen. The best hummus is made with chickpeas cooked from scratch. However canned chickpeas, well drained and rinsed, work reasonably well, and were the way my Turkish friends made theirs.

The recipe serves six; good to make a double batch.

Hummus bi Tahini
1 (14-ounce) can chickpeas, or 1 3/4 cups home-cooked unseasoned chickpeas
1 medium-sized clove of garlic
1/4 cup tahini (sesame seed paste)
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1/4 teaspoon oregano, crumbled between the fingers
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons lemon juice plus more as needed
2 tablespoons olive oil
Olive oil plus chopped parsley and/or sumac, for garnish
Pomegranate seeds or Kalamata olives (optional)

Drain the chickpeas if canned, rinse twice with fresh water and drain. For freshly cooked chickpeas, do not rinse, but just drain with slotted spoon, saving liquid for use as needed. In a food processor, chop the garlic first, then add the chickpeas, tahini (stirred to blend, using some oil and some solids), seasonings, lemon juice and olive oil. Process, pulsing frequently and scraping down the sides of the container with a spatula, until the hummus has a creamy, slightly pasty consistency. To thin it down, add a little cooking liquid (if freshly cooked chickpeas) or water, as needed. Check taste and add lemon juice and/or salt if needed.

If making a larger quantity than one recipe, depending on the size of your food processor the preparation can be done in several batches and the batches mixed together in a bowl. Store in zip-lock plastic bags or plastic-wrapped bowl in fridge. Hummus will keep 4-5 days in the refrigerator*. Before serving, taste and add salt and/or lemon juice if needed.

Accompany with flat bread, such as pita, preferably warmed.

*Note: Hummus freezes well. Thaw overnight in refrigerator.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Spaghetti Sauce with Meatballs

This represents the beloved "Italian" dish from my childhood. It turns out, of course, that it was not really Italian and not served in Italy. Rather, it was developed in the early 20th century within the Italian-American community, probably in New York or New Jersey. Regardless, it is beloved family food, even for totally non-Italians.

I have taken many turns from the way my mother made the dish, which was very good and which she did about once a week. I make the sauce  much fresher, using canned crushed tomatoes (definitely not “puree”) rather than whole canned tomatoes broken up by crushing them through your clenched fingers then adding tomato paste, as she did. And the sauce is not simmered for hours until the surface oil caramelizes. And of more simplicity, I cook the meatballs directly in the sauce rather than fry or roast them separately and add them later. I also leave out the Sicilian fennel sausage that my mother (of totally Irish ancestry, so how would she know?) insisted was essential for a great sauce. I sometimes add a small amount of whole fennel seeds to the sauce for the same effect, and offer that as an option in the recipe.

In my childhood we used to have “spaghetti” (“little cords”) as the pasta, “spaghettini” (thin spaghetti), or “vermicelli” (“little worms,” a very fine spaghetti slightly wider than the finest, which is “angel hair”). Nowadays we use various short pastas as well, but my grandkids seem to like spaghetti or thin spaghetti best.

Photo: Maria Dondero; Dish: Marmalade Pottery, Athens GA
Here’s a very functional and relatively easy spaghetti sauce with meatballs for the family. In future blog postings I’ll share my approaches to fancier and more sophisticated dressings for pasta. Some fancier recipes can be found in my still-accessible earlier blog (

Traditionally – at least for the adults – red wine would accompany spaghetti and meatballs, a not too fancy, hearty red wine. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Nero d’Avola, or an unoaked Zinfandel would be my choices.

Spaghetti Sauce with Meatballs

The recipe serves six with leftovers, enough for a pound of pasta.

Make meatball mixture first:
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk or water
1/2 cup quick oatmeal (or old fashioned oatmeal chopped on a board or in food processor)
1/2 cup dry unseasoned breadcrumbs
1 medium-large clove garlic, finely minced or put through press
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoon dry oregano
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 pounds of a mixture of ground beef (80% lean), turkey or pork

In large bowl, beat eggs with all ingredients except meat. Then mix in meat and knead well with your hands until thoroughly blended. Hold in refrigerator until sauce is ready.

Prepare the sauce:
4 large cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon whole fennel seeds (optional)
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 large (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes (I prefer Hunts or Kroger, among American brands)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
Large pinch thyme or oregano
6 fresh basil leaves (optional)

In large wide pot (not cast iron), gently fry garlic and fennel seed, if used, in oil until garlic is softened but not golden. Stir in tomatoes and all other ingredients except basil. Bring to a simmer and let cook for 5 minutes. Stir occasionally, scraping bottom of the pan well.

With hands, roll meat mixture into similarly sized balls of preferred size, anywhere from 1 to 2 inches in diameter. As meatballs are formed, drop them into simmering sauce. When all meatballs are in, gently shake and swirl pot to mix (do not stir or meatballs can be broken). Some meatballs will be only partially submerged.

Simmer, covered, 15 minutes. Shake and swirl pot occasionally. Meatballs should be firm by then. Gently stir, scraping bottom of pot. Simmer, uncovered, 15 additional minutes (20 minutes if using primarily beef), stirring occasionally and scraping bottom of the pot.

Taste sauce. Add salt if needed. Stir in basil leaves, if used. Remove from heat.

Serve over freshly boiled, drained pasta. Sprinkle with grated Romano or Parmesan cheese. A simple green salad and Italian or French bread chunks make it a meal.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Grilling Chicken in the Vietnamese Manner, Great for the Summer Barbecue

I had the good fortune of visiting Vietnam a number of times in the
1990s, on public health work. Those field visits took place primarily in the north.

My prior experience in Vietnam had been brief and happened two decades earlier. It also involved work, though I was then a young Army Medical Corps malaria researcher based elsewhere in Southeast Asia. It was in late 1974, after the US and the various Vietnamese combatants had signed the Treaty of Paris ending the war that dominated my generation. (Both of my brothers served in combat in the war.) When I was there I experienced a tattered and depressed Saigon, capital of crumbling South Vietnam, which was overrun by the North not too long afterwards.

Aside from my coming to terms twenty years later with the defining events for most of us young Americans of the mid-sixties, I found to my amazement the many Vietnamese I met, formerly our enemies, were both charming and welcoming. I also learned how wonderful Vietnamese food was, especially in the North.

During my 1974 visit to the former Saigon, if I ate real Vietnamese food, I can’t recall it. War-weary Vietnam back then, with the distant thundering and faint glow of artillery on the horizons at night and floods of displaced people, was not a place to find, much less relish, fine cuisine. I recall some vaguely Chinese dishes and, surprisingly, some good French food at the “Guillaume Tell,” a restaurant near the waterfront run by two stalwart French-speaking Swiss women.

By contrast, in Hanoi in the 1990s I was delighted by the food in general, but particularly by the grilled marinated pork and chicken that you were served at extremely low tables and stools at tiny outdoor street restaurants straight from a glowing charcoal brazier around the corner or up above you on the first floor landing of the nearby fire escape. The flavors were exquisite, and you wrapped the grilled meat in lettuce and fresh herbs, optionally added a few roasted peanuts, and dipped the parcel into the elegant -- and ubiquitous -- Nuoc Cham dipping sauce.
Photography: Maria Dondero; Platters by Marmalade Pottery,
Athens GA, Sauce Bowls traditional Vietnamese

Here’s my effort at reproducing that savory Hanoi street-restaurant barbecued chicken and its accompaniments. I’ve made the dish frequently over the years. It was always a family favorite, and was even the featured dish at the outdoor summer-time wedding reception of my daughter Anna and son-in-law Andrew, who along with my participation now own and operate Donderos’ Kitchen.

Several culinary notes: the key seasoning in both the chicken and the dipping sauce is Asian fish sauce, as it is throughout Vietnamese, Thai and Lao cooking. Used in the quantities indicated, the finished products are not fishy, but rather rich and “umami” laden. (In Athens, fish sauce [get “Squid” brand or the more expensive “Three Crabs” brand] is available at Fooks Foods, as is Chinese Five-Spice powder.) I substitute readily available sherry for the Chinese rice wine that would be closer to the original, but it works well I think. And in Vietnam there would have been more fresh herbs than just cilantro and mint to wrap into the chicken parcels, such as culantro, Asian basil, and other leaves I didn’t recognize.

Beer was the drink back then, especially Bia Hoi (freshly made local draft beer) or bottled “333,” the post-war replacement for the French colonial “33” that was drunk in South Vietnam in the old days. But elsewhere, I had learned from a fabulous Vietnamese cook who lived in France and was married to one of my French colleagues that dry French rosés, especially from Provence, go extremely well with Vietnamese flavors. Dry rosés, well chilled, are still what I would serve with this Vietnamese barbecue.

The recipe serves six, but it will go fast.

Vietnamese Grilled Chicken for Lettuce and Herb Wrap

2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce (from Asian grocery store)
2 tablespoons sherry
2 teaspoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 very small clove garlic put through press or very finely minced
Very small pinch Chinese 5-Spice powder (from Asian grocery store)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sunflower or canola oil
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thigh

Mix all ingredients except the chicken in a large bowl.

Trim off excess fatty or tough parts of chicken, leaving some fat. As chicken is trimmed, drop it into the marinade. Stir well to coat chicken with marinade. After a few minutes, mix well again. Either cover bowl with plastic wrap or transfer chicken and marinade into a large zip-lock plastic bag. Marinate at least an hour, or as long as 24 hours refrigerated, stirring occasionally or squeezing the bag to mix.

Grill over charcoal or a gas grill on medium heat, or under the oven broiler using a “cake cooling” rack on top of a baking sheet to keep chicken off the pan. Turn pieces over occasionally, until cooked and crisply browned in spots on the surface. Remove to a cutting board. Slice crosswise 1/4-inch wide and stack attractively onto a platter.

Lettuce (loose leaf or romaine) pieces, cut into roughly 3-inch squares
Cilantro sprigs
Fresh mint leaves (optional)
Finely chopped dry-roasted peanuts (optional)
Dipping sauce (recipe below)

Diners put chicken strips on a lettuce piece, place leaves of various herbs on top, and sprinkle with some chopped peanuts, if used. Spoon on a little of the dipping sauce. Wrap the lettuce and enjoy.

Vietnamese Dipping sauce (Nuoc Cham)
1 medium clove garlic
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup white vinegar or fresh lime juice
3/4 cup water
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons Asian fish sauce
1/8 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
A large squirt of hot pepper sauce

Crush garlic finely in a bowl with the sugar. Mix in remaining ingredients. After 5 minutes, remove the garlic bits. Taste and add a little salt or sugar or vinegar, if needed to your taste. The sauce should be faintly salty and delicately sweet and sour. Serve in one or more small bowl reachable by the diners.