Thursday Night Smackdown: Maybe Fish Sauce Isn't Entirely Evil

I don’t want to harp, really, but I do feel that I must state here again that I do NOT own a mandolin.

I finally got a copy of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Asian Flavors of Jean-Georges, and immediately wanted pretty much everything in it. I was going to do the peking duck, because yum, but the directions instructed me to hang the glazed raw duck from a hook overnight in the fridge, where you’ve also placed a small battery-powered fan to keep air moving around the duck. Thanks for adapting that recipe for the home cooks with normal-sized refrigerators* at whom your book is aimed, Jean-Georges! Really helpful.

Still, I can’t be too angry at him because despite his chef stardom he still eats hot dogs. So I decided to go with his Charred Lamb Salad, a riff on traditional Thai beef and lettuce wraps that sounds MUCH more boring that it actually is.

*Maybe I didn’t read the introduction carefully, maybe it’s only for home cooks with home meat lockers.

Belligerence has never smelled so good.

Before getting into things, let me state for the record that I don’t actually think fish sauce is evil. It smells evil, but it is not intrinsically evil as a substance. So don’t leave me comments, send me email or post elsewhere about how I’m a tool who willfully misunderstands fish sauce – not that that’s ever happened before, *cough-tofu-cough.* I am not an enemy of the fish sauce.

So, cooking.

I started with the dressing components, because most of them have to be brought to a boil, left to steep and cooled back down. Rice wine vinegar, minced garlic, sugar and diced chile in one pot, lemongrass and water in another. This was my first time working with fresh lemongrass, so I turned to the interwebs for some guidance on breaking it down.

The interwebs told me to peel off a few of the outer layers and use only the bottom 5-6 inches of the stalk, either minced or smashed. So that’s what I did, because why would the internet lie? I took out my aggression on the lemongrass with the handle of my knife and the smell. Was. Gorgeous. I thought about dabbing some behind my ears, and only stopped because I don’t wear perfume.

You can tell it’s a good cookbook because now it’s already covered in shit.

I set both liquids aside to steep and cool, and then turned to the julienning of the vegetables.

The julienning.

Oh, the julienning.

Have I mentioned it? The julienning, I mean.


I minced some more fresh lemongrass, julienned carrots and cucumbers, diced jicama, minced a red chile and roughly chopped cilantro and mint. On one hand, I really enjoy knife work, breaking fruits and veggies down by hand. It’s kinda meditative, and it makes me feel accomplished – like, hey look, I did that! Take that, herbs! En garde, defenseless cucumber! So I’m not going to say that this was all bad.

I am going to say that I almost hacked off the tips of my fingers roughly 17 billion times, and that the vast majority of the time taken up my this meal was consumed by the dicing and julienning.

Okay FINE, I didn’t julienne the frigging sprouts.

So maybe you should take another look at those fucking carrots. And the cucumber! Like angel hair! Have you ever?

Still, I’m pretty sure I would trade this feeling of accomplishment for a good mandolin.

It’s really hard now not to rely on good search terms to provide the funny.

The recipe called for a lamb loin, but Whole Foods was low on loin today. They had legs, shanks, a variety of chops, and unidentified “New Zealand Lamb Steaks.” (I mean, they had a name, so they weren’t totally unidentified, but still.) Despite their mysterious provenance they looked the most loiny* – lean, meaty and boneless – so I picked a few up.

They’re seasoned simply with salt and pepper and then seared in a screaming hot pan to form a gorgeous dark crust, hence the “charred.” It would have been fantastic had we thought ahead and done it on the grill, but we’re not what you would call “smart.”



Brian is King of Meats (get your mind out of the gutter) so I left the searing up to him, and he lived up to the name I’ve just given him this very moment by cooking the lamb to a perfect, tender medium. He deglazed the pan with a little stock to make a rich lamb jus.

I’m not kidding, I can’t get over these carrots.

Just before it was time to eat, I tossed the vegetables and herbs with the vinegar-chile-garlic mix, the lemongrass “tea,” a tablespoon of oil and a few tablespoons of nam pla, or fish sauce. As the title indicates, the nam pla was shockingly inoffensive – the other flavors and scents seemed to absorb its putrescent odor, and no heavy-duty fans or enormous scented candles were necessary.

I consumed 3 weeks worth of vegetable matter in this one meal.

I made a bed of vegetables on the plate, added some lamb slices, drizzled them with some of the jus and topped the whole with a spring of cilantro, as Jean-Georges suggested.

Here’s the thing about Jean-Georges: he’s famous for a reason, unlike some other chefs I can think of *cough-Tyler Florence-cough.” This dish was the very definition of balanced flavors. It had the classic Thai flavor combo of sweet (sugar, carrots, jicama), spicy (chiles), salty (nam pla, lamb) and tangy (vinegar, lemongrass). No one flavor outshone the other, and no one ingredient outshone the other. If I concentrated, I could taste each individual component, but if I just let myself relax and enjoy the dish it was a cohesive whole. The gamy lamb and rich, flavorful jus were nice counterpoints to the bright salad, and the fresh herbs provided the 6th taste, which I have just this evening discovered, “perkiness.”

The dressing could easily be made in advance and the vegetables need not be so painstakingly chopped, giving this the potential to be a great weeknight meal. Stuffed into lettuce leaves, it would be like the world’s second-best taco (nothing is better than a pork taco).

Final Score: Us, 1; Food 0

You know, the whole scoring thing is utterly meaningless, isn’t it? But I’m not going to stop.

0 thoughts on “Thursday Night Smackdown: Maybe Fish Sauce Isn't Entirely Evil

  1. Dude I have like 7 meat lockers here in my house. How can you survive without one? The salad looks great. I’m glad you still have all your fingers, because that was alot of cutting.

  2. Well, you rocked on this recipe. Looks and sounds absolutely perfect. Must have that book immediately.
    You’re right about nam pla. Old overused tennis shoes smell better than that stuff!

  3. Damn, the bitch is good with a knife. Remind me NEVER to piss you off.
    Really, those fucking carrots looked beautiful. Can we please have more pictures?

  4. Hmmm, sounds good. It also sounds quite Vietnamese-ish with the nuoc-cham-like sauce (which is basically fish-sauce, sugar,garlic, chiles and lime juice) and the chopped mint/cilantro combo. Now I want to go home and eat a salad like that for lunch instead of the squishy store-bought tuna sandwich I was forced to eat.

  5. Gorgeous! You are the Goddess of All Things Julienned, and the Goddess of Poached Eggs. (yes, I used your method a few days ago to make The Fuck All of Poached Eggs.)

    Enjoy your weekend!

  6. susan and canary, i highly recommend it. peking duck excepted, most of the recipes seem accessible and not overly complicated. you may have to search a little or find substitutions for the harder to find asian ingredients, but that’s my only critique. that, and it’s on the pricey side ($40) but amazon has it for $26.

    the pork vinadaloo looks bananas, i think i’m gonna try that next.

    adam, if that’s the case, you should be inviting us all over for peking duck. also, i have a bridge i would like to sell you.

    mary, it’s all thanks to jean-georges. such a perfect recipe exactly as written.

    teetle, no you can’t. deal with it.

    maartje, it takes a lot more than that to be considered rude around here. thanks and welcome!

    elle, when you put it that way, it’s starting to seem like a lot of responsibility.

  7. Boy that looks awesome. Might have to do that this weekend… just need to butcher the lamb hanging in my walk-in, basking in the cool breeze of all the fans i have duct-taped to the ceiling. nice knife work, btw. especially on a mandoline. oh wait…
    seriously, though– that looks like a pain that was almost worth it. well done…

  8. Holy fuck, those are some hardcore knife skills. I’m partial to the “rustic chop” style myself. And by “rustic chop,” I mean, “My knife skills suck, so instead I act as if the resulting raggedy-ass chunks of vegetable matter are intentional.”

  9. Okay, that is seriously and gorgeously impressive. For reals. No way would I have the patience to julienne all those vegetables. Um, but maybe you should think about a good mandoline?

  10. No, see, I think you understand fish sauce perfectly. It is a tricky, stinky sauce that should only be used for the powers of good.

    Side note: I don’t know why, but you were in a dream of mine the other day (you were selling stuff at a farmers market and we got to chatting.) Anyway, I woke up and thought to myself, “Weird, she didn’t cuss once…”

  11. mike, i know you’re lying, because if you went to the trouble of building a walk-in meat locker, you’d have built-in fans.

    claudia, i may have finally discovered the dish to which i actually do NOT want to add bacon. i’m flummoxed.

    carolyn, it’s 1% me, 99% good knife, seriously.

    ann,i think about it all the time. and then i spend my money on other crap, and i never have it to buy the mandoline when i really need it. you’d think i would plan ahead, but like i said, i’m not smart.

    katie, i hope i was thin and hot in the dream. actually, screw that, i hope i was exactly how i am. but how did you know it was me if there was no cursing?

  12. Nice, nice work.

    When you said you didn’t have a mandolin on your homepage, I thought you meant the string instrument. Which you probably don’t have either, but that’s not the point. The point is that I’m a dumbass.

  13. What is with these chefs??? Makes me want to not eat at their restaurants, and certainly not buy their books. Or to go to the back door of their restaurant and pull a sous chef out of the kitchen and bring her/him to my house to do all of the work.

  14. That is some serious julienne-ing, and that last picture was making me drool.

    I’m with carolyn on my knife skills. I love my moderately-cheap Swissmar V slicer and can NOT recommend that thing highly enough.

    Heh, maybe you should put up an Amazon wish list thing, and magically a mandoline will appear in your mailbox. That’s another potential non-caption-related way to enjoy the new google traffic.

  15. I cannot argue – those carrots are fucking beautiful. I’m giving you the hand-horn salute right now about the carrots.

    As for the meat locker. Dude, wasn’t it on your registry? Totally the new thing. Screw china – it’s all about the locker.

  16. Loiny. Hehehe. I am so remembering that.

    *Round of applause for your julienning* Seriously.

    Related – I spend about an hour cutting peppers and onion and cheese when I make my pasta salad. I know what you mean about it being kind of meditative.

    “You can tell it’s a good cookbook because now it’s already covered in shit.”

    I’m happy you said that because now I don’t feel badly about getting god knows what all over my Lidia book. :)

  17. anne, it’s true, i don’t have either.

    lydia, i wouldn’t mind have jean-georges’ sous chef around.

    helen, i’ll check out the swissmar. i’ve also been considering a benriner (sp?) which i here are decently priced and work well.

    clumbsy, aw, shucks.

    ann, that’s what i get for eloping and not having a proper wedding.

    melissa, it’s so easy to tell which cookbooks and which recipes get the most usage in my house. i swear the most-used book is a full inch fatter than it was when it was new from all the food smashed between its pages.

  18. Whoa! Those carrots! I am officially impressed. I have the world’s worst knife skills. I can’t chop anything small and evenly. I’m too unfocused. I get bored easily. I have a mandoline (Mom went to a Pampered Chef party a few years ago. I got a birthday present.) Put a knife and some vegetables in front of me and suddenly Rachael Ray looks like Jean-Geroges himself.

    Fish sauce does smell weird, but you do kind of need it for Thai recipes. I just hold my nose until it’s well mixed in.

    What is it about Whole Foods these days never having the meat you need? You couldn’t get a lamb loin, I had to go elsewhere for game hens.

  19. I have no idea how I knew it was you – I don’t even know what you look like. Must be the same mechanism that allows me to speak french and survive bullets to the head. (Ya, ya, I have an active dream-life.) Regardless, you were perfectly lovely! :)

  20. I sleep with that cookbook! I love it. I was at the book release party about 6 months ago and JGVO was signing it. There was food from the book for people to sample. Great stuff. I’m a big fan of the guy. I want to try that recipe now. It looks freakin’ great!

  21. rachel, i don’t know, but lately they NEVER have anything i need. fish, cuts of meat, non-standard items – never there. it’s really starting to get irritating.

    katie, i’m only a little bit frightened.

    laura, the first time i used it was in a vietnamese caramelized scallop dish, and it stunk the whole house up to high heaven. but man, was it tasty.

    christie, truly.

    zen, nice! i’m really exited to try more of the recipes.

  22. Damn Skippy (I mean Michelle) that’s some mighty fine knife work!! I’m scared sh*tless of mandolines, but I’m also scared of the subway door opening while I’m leaning on it, so, you know, draw your own conclusions. Thanks for the rec on this book, I’ve been eying it for awhile too.

  23. Yeah for fish sauce!! Growing up with fish sauce, I can certain understand how the smell of fermented fish can be a little revolting. But I call it a magic sauce because once it gets cooked into ingredients such as meat, the flavors change completely.

    Your dish looks fabulous and if you’re ever interested in learning more about different types of fish sauce, let me know. I’ve got about 10 different bottles that I’m experimenting with now. Seriously, I wanna share the fish sauce love!

  24. Pingback: thursday night smackdown » Blog Archive » Cheap Ass Mondays: A Little Fancy, A Little Schmancy

  25. Hi Michelle! Love this…and love that it was submitted to TasteSpotting, but it wasn’t cropped perfectly. would you mind resubmitting with an image that you crop into a 250 square exactly how you would want it presented on the site?


  26. Pingback: thursday night smackdown » TNS: Shabu! Shabu!

  27. Pingback: thursday night smackdown » Thomas-Fucking-Keller Smackdown

  28. Carrots are evil.

    I never julienne carrots unless my already-razor-stropped Japanese chef’s knife is literally twinkling under the kitchen lights and the police tape surrounds the kitchen counter. I wish I could say a member of my family is a paramedic and he has his or her team on alert, but I can’t.

    But julienning carrots needs to be bumped up into the “hazardous pay” category, especially if you intend to do it right.

    And you did it almost perfectly. However, in picture “b” I see that the thickness of the 18th sliver from the left tapers approximately .5 mm towards the lateral incise point, which, as you know, is an automatic failure (as opposed to an “atomic failure” — that’s discussed elsewhere).

    But since I’m not your actual instructor, I’d like to say that it’s my initial impression that you’re making tangible progress!

  29. This looks super delish. I love lamb, and I love lemongrass. I may have to try this and combine them into some amazing super food. But not like spinach is a super food. This one will totally chill with Batman.

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