Unlimited juice? This party’s gonna be OFF THE HOOK.

Tonight’s smackdown come from Molly Stevens’ wonderful bible of braising, All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking: Vietnamese Caramel-Braised Scallops. We also followed Molly’s suggestion and served the scallops with some plain jasmine rice and a simple, clean cucumber salad.

There’s something about this dish that makes you feel like you’re eating out at home (unless you live in a Vietnamese restaurant, or with your Vietnamese mother), and it has an intriguing, umami-y flavor that makes each bite taste better than the last. It’s simple to prepare, and is a technique that can be used with other foods as well – caramel glazed ribs, I have you in my sights.

I do feel, however, that I have a responsibility to disclose that pouring fish sauce into a bubbling pan of hot, nearly-burnt caramel will make your whole house smell like it’s located within the week-old sock of a long-distance runner. And I mean that in the nicest possible way.

You never expect the Spanish Inquisition.

Fish braised in caramel, or ca kho, is a classic Vietnamese preparation but a new style / cuisine for me. Loving scallops, however, is not new at all. One of the very first things I learned to cook (after scrambled eggs, pasta, and mozzarella, olive oil and dried herb sandwiches in the SnackMaster – everybody say “hey” for the SnackMaster!) was bay scallops. I’d saute them with olive oil, butter, dried herbs and an assload of black pepper, cook them to within an inch of their lives and then pour the buttery, pencil-eraser-esque, overcooked nubbins over plain white rice.

I believe that my mind-bogglingly-amazing cook of an Italian mother was shell-shocked watching me do this – she was definitely disdainful of the SnackMaster – and that she probably held her horror inside so she could spin in her grave at some later date. But frankly, what are escargot other than pencil-eraser-esque overcooked nubbins soaked in butter and garlic? And otherwise right-thinking people – people like YOU – pay good money for those in nice restaurants.

I *do* believe that children are our future.

In case you couldn’t tell, you start this dish by melting down some regular granulated sugar with a small amount of water. The pot in back, usually used to make my morning oatmeal because you can accidentally burn some oats to the bottom and still clean it easily, was pressed into service to cook the rice.

Some people are scared of caramel, perhaps because it can burn pretty quickly if you’re not on top of it, perhaps because it can crystallize, perhaps because it is like liquid hot magma. Its magma qualities can come in handy if you ever want to start a small island chain in a nearby body of water, so that’s not all bad. Crystallization can be staved off with a soupcon of corn syrup, which will keep the sugar from aligning itself into a crystal structure. The burny-ness is not so great, but at least you’re only out a cup of sugar and the pot is easy to wash.

That’s why I treat them well, and let them lead the way.

For this particular caramel, Molly instructs you to take it a bit further than you would a caramel to be used in a sweet preparation; right to the point of burnt, and even a little beyond. Which is good if you maybe had the heat turned up a little too high under your caramel, and were maybe a little distracted trying to take a picture of your pan before the whole thing burnt to a crisp.

You won’t do this, or course.

Unfortunately, you can’t play it safe with a candy thermometer here because the amount of caramel in the pan is too shallow to use one. So when the caramel turned a deep mahogany and started to smoke up we decided it was time to make with the fish sauce, the other key ingredient in the braising liquid.

Actually *I* believe that children are tiny people with multiple personality disorder, dementia, manic-depression and possibly shingles.

I am not lying when I tell you that pouring fish sauce into the caramel smells like hot buttered ass. I was still intrigued to see how the dish would turn out and have been happy with the other dishes I’ve made from All About Braising, but this was an ungodly stench. We threw in some minced garlic, which did not help anything from a smell standpoint, and let the sauce come together for a few minutes.

The smell does improve pretty quickly, but I still recommend keeping a window open if possible; we did, and it’s the middle of winter here. You may also want to alert the neighbors that you’re making this dish so they don’t report you to the authorities for killing neighborhood cats and keeping them in an igloo cooler in the garage.

Also, most of them are dirty.

After letting it cook for 3 or 4 minutes, we added some scallions, fresh lemongrass (not in the recipe, but I saw it at Whole Foods and thought it would be good) and chili flakes, and nestled in the scallops.

By this time, the sauce had started to smell affirmatively good, and the scallops took on a gorgeous burnt-umber gloss as soon as they hit the pan. We left them to braise while I threw together the side salad.

We’re eating this salad because we left our cake in the rain.

Molly suggested some cucumbers tossed with rice wine vinegar. I thought I would add a little radish for more crunch and punch, as well as a splash of mirin and some salt.


We flipped the scallops for a few more minutes of braising; they smelled and looked gorgeous. The rice was fluffed and ready. The dogs were salivating at our feet, always a good sign. (Sometimes, they work together to try to trip us to try to get food, but we were focused tonight.)

Voila les petoncles, maintenant sans pieds!

The finished dish was really interesting. Not interesting in the “he has a really good personality” way, but sincerely interesting. The flavor of the caramel sauce was something totally new for me: slightly sweet, slightly salty, with a faint background note of lemon that popped in and out. Although the finished sauce was fairly thin it coated the tongue in quite a rich way – the umami. The experience was intriguing; like the Phantom Tollbooth’s subtraction stew, the more we ate the more we wanted. The fresh-tasting salad was the perfect partner for the caramel sauce and kept it from being too much. Plus, radishes are awesome.

(Aside: The Phantom Tollbooth is the best book ever with the word “tollbooth” in the title. Do you dare disagree?”

I can’t see this being a dish I crave on a weekly basis, but it is definitely something we’ll do again. One thing we’ll be more careful with next time is the scallops: usually, we get dayboat scallops from Long Island that are amazingly fresh and sweet, but this week I didn’t have time to track them down and had to settle for some “previously frozen” scallops from Whole Foods, with a noticeable decrease in quality.

Final Score: Us 1, Food 0

Bonus! We deviated from the printed recipe this week, so here you go:

Vietnamese Caramel-Braised Scallops (Ca Kho)
serves 2
3/4 pound of the best sea scallops you can lay your mitts on
1/3 c. granulated sugar
1/2 c. water
1 tsp. light corn syrup
1/4 c. fish sauce (nam pla)
1 clove garlic, minced
4 scallions
1 stalk lemongrass
3 big pinches red pepper flakes (more, if you like heat)

Put a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat; add the sugar, corn syrup and 1/4 c. of the water. Let the sugar melt and begin to caramelize. Meanwhile, prep your other ingredients – mince the garlic, slice the lemongrass (strip off the outer leaves if they look dry or brown) and chop the scallions, separating the white from the green.

When the sugar reaches a dark mahogany – it will be a deep, dark red-brown and will start to smoke a little – stand back and pour in the fish sauce and remaining water. Hopefully you’ve used a large pan, because this is going to bubble up like a mofo. You may end up with some candy bits, but they’ll melt back out as the sauce simmers.

Add the garlic and let the sauce simmer for 2-3 minutes. Turn the heat down to medium-low, add the whites of the scallions and the lemongrass, swirl to mix in, and put in the scallops. Semi-cover the pan and braise for 3-4 minutes; flip the scallops and braise another 2-3 minutes. Serve immediately.

Fresh Cucumber-Radish Salad
serves 2
1/2 cucumber
3-4 radishes
1 tsp. mirin
1 tsp. rice wine vinegar
pinch of salt

Peel the cucumber, slice lengthwise and chop into thin (1/8″) half-moons. Trim the tops and bottoms from the radishes and do the same. Combine in a bowl with the mirin, vinegar and salt. Toss to coat. Let sit together for 5 minutes. Eat.