Tuong ot toi (Vietnamese chile-garlic sauce)

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Combine in a food processor :

24 oz cherry bomb or fresno chile peppers, or other medium-hot to hot red chiles, destemmed but not deseeded and cut into quarters, halves or chunks as appropriate

1 head garlic, crushed and peeled

a pinch or two of salt

Pulse until chopped into smaller fragments, stopping to scrape and redistribute if necessary.

Add :

2, 4 or 6 tbs sugar (see note)

1/4 or 1/2 cup seasoned rice wine vinegar (see note)

Process until chile and garlic and finely enough diced. Place in medium to large saucepan over medium heat.

Bring to a simmer and cook at a low simmer until the liquid has mostly evaporated.

Allow to cool, then refrigerate and serve with EVERYTHING.

Note on proportions :

It’s best to play with the proportions of this recipe to suit you or your fellow diners taste. In particular sugar and vinegar should be tweaked : 6 tbs sugar makes something close to what is purchased in asian markets as shelf-stable tuong ot toi, 2 tbs is more like what would be served on the table at a restaurant. The larger amount of vinegar will make it take longer to cook and reduce but easier to process everything initially. And naturally it will make it more sour. I usually use 2 or 4 tbs of sugar and 1/2 cup of vinegar.

Ideally, you should play with all the other proportions as well, and even what kind and color of chiles to use, to suit yourself and your diners, and the dictates of the moment. I often replace 4 oz or so of the red chiles with green chiles, it ruins the impressive red majesty of the original, but it reminds me of when I used to buy it in the Asian market, where there is usually a bit of green since the peppers are pulled in big farms and often still have a hint of green. I used to think it was scallions šŸ˜

This is undoubtedly the world’s finest table sauce. There is simply nothing finer in any cuisine that goes so well with so many cuisines and especially with so many simple foods. Raw and cooked vegetables, eggs, noodles, soups, sandwiches (unbelievable on banh mi), salads, tofu, pork, fish, and really pretty much anything is enlivened with a little dab of this. Butter, noodles and a spoonful of this with maybe a little cilantro would probably be my final meal if I had to have one. But I won’t! I will live forever, making millions and millions of batches of tuong ot toi! At least, that’s the plan.

Fermented Sriracha (Tuong Ot Sriracha)

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Making a homemade version of the popular sriracha hot sauce couldn’t be any easier : a simple fermented version can be made that is far more flavorful than any commercially available one. YouĀ couldĀ also make this sauce fresh, simply omitting the fermentation stage, but I think you will find that the extra time really adds a strong depth of flavor not present in the fresh version. For such a simple preparation, this sauce has a zesty, complex taste that far outstrips the somewhat one-note heat of Huy Fong and other store-bought brands.

I like to make two versions of this sauce : one red, one green. They have quite different characteristics from each other, the red one possessing a much deeper, more complex heat and the green one a sharp, fresh heat. Neither is really superior to the other, and both are worth trying. I use the green one more often with salads and raw preparations, the red in soups and hot noodle dishes. Both are outstanding in cold noodle bowls, with the green getting the nod if I am using a lot of raw vegetables and herbs and the red if the majority of accompaniments are pickled or preserved. Fish? Green. Pork? Red. Tofu dishes? Both harmonize quite capably.

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First, you will need to choose appropriate chiles. I would avoid extremely fire-y chiles like Thai bird or habanero chiles, as they tend to be somewhat overpowering in a sriracha. Remember, this sauce is almost entirely chiles with only a smattering of other seasonings. What is wanted here is a deep, resonant, complex heat, not a pain-inducing power sauce. For a green sauce, jalapenos are completely appropriate. With red, look for either fresno chiles (sometimes erroneously called red jalapenos) or hot red cherry peppers. Cherries are my favorite, they have a perfect balance of hot and sweet that shines in both this sauce and the related chile-garlic sauce known as tuong ot toi. In fact, I have grown these chiles in the past couple of years explicitly for the purpose of making these particular sauces. You will want to experiment with this recipe, using the chiles you can grow or buy locally and that suit your particular taste. My only word of advice would be to avoid being overly macho the first time you make this. Use jalapenos or medium-heat red chiles and see how you like it before stepping up the heat.

Roughly chopĀ :

1 lb medium-hot chiles, green or red (but NOT a mix of the two), de-stemmed and NOT de-seeded

.5 oz crushed, peeled garlic (a few cloves)

Combine in a food processor with :

1 1/2 tsp kosher salt

1.5 oz palm sugar (regular white sugar can be substituted but the taste is inferior as well as less authentic)

Pulse until well-chopped but not liquified.

Place into a glass or plastic container, cover with a towel and allow to sit at room temperature for several days.

When the sauce begins to take on a fermented smell and begins to bubble ever so slightly (you may find this is easier to SMELL and HEAR than SEE), usually about 3 or 4 days (less in hot weather, perhaps more in cold), place in a saucepan with :

1/3 cup vinegar (I use Korean brewing vinegar for this, but white vinegar is also good. Seasoned rice vinegar and apple cider vinegar CAN be used but they impart more sweetness to the finished product.)

Bring to a low simmer and cook for five minutes or so.

Puree in a blender or food processor. If the mixture seems to thick add a spoonful or two of water, but be conservative.

Strain through a wire mesh sieve into a squeeze bottle or jar.

Use with, on and in everything.

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N.B. : You may find that you have quite a lot of seeds and pulp that will not fit through the strainer. I strongly encourage you to make a fermented salsa or sambal from this remainder, you will not find that it lacks heat or flavor.

Winter Lentil Salad with Warm Spices

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Boil as you would pasta (in a large, boiling salted kettle) :

1 cup green or brown lentils

The lentils are done when they areĀ al denteĀ like pasta, still firm to the tooth but not troublesome to bite through.

Drain lentils thoroughly and quickly toss with :

2 tbs extra virgin olive oil

1 tbs vinegar of fairly light character (i.e. sherry, cider, malt, white wine, rice rather than red wine, balsamic or black)

Salt to taste

Add to lentils :

3 oz. celery and celery leaf, chopped fine

4 oz mild or sweet onion, sliced thin or same amount sharp onion soaked and squeezed in several changes of water

2 oz freshly chopped medium-heat green chile such as jalapeno, or mix of hotter and milder peppers

2 tsp ground cumin

1-2 tsp hot paprika or hot chile powder such as chile de arbol

1 tsp dry mustard

Stir thoroughly, allow a few minutes to settle, then taste and adjust seasonings. At this point add more olive oil and vinegar if necessary, it likely will be. This is very much an “add to taste” recipe, especially in terms of the dressing. I always add a bit at a time, let it settle, taste again. If it seems underwhelming when I am serving it, more can always be added. In particular, lentils will take a lot of both ingredients, much like the similarly mealy potato.

This can be served still warm as a side dish or a room temperature as part of a meal of mixed plates. It can be used as part of a meal of small plates or tapas, or as a side dish served with a more substantial meal. It is best as an accompaniment, rather than its’ own course. It fits well into meals of North African, Mediterranean, Indian, or non-denominational Vegetarian slant. It is also excellent served with a hearty winter roast and root vegetables.

I call it ‘warm’ rather than spicy in terms of the balance represented in this recipe. It can be freely made “spicy,” by simply adding more chiles and dry spices. This is a very adjustable recipe, and will often be altered or added to based on what I am serving it with. Garnish it with something complementary to the meal that it accompanies : fresh cilantro for Indian or Southeast Asian fare, an extra splash of olive oil and sprigs of parsley for Greek or Italian, etc.

Just as any experimentation in garnishing will likely work with such a simple, adaptable recipe, one could go further and incorporate all kinds of ingredients at hand to the salad itself : Some wild mushrooms, quickly sautĆ©ed with oil and thyme. A couple of small cucumbers, deseeded and neatly chopped. Some tahini or miso paste. A squeeze of lemon and a pair of minced anchovies. Crispy fried slices of garlic. Black walnuts and a splash of walnut oil. And so onā€¦

In a similar vein, this is a recipe meant for constant tasting and adjusting by the cook. I never measure any of these ingredients when I make this kind of salad except when testing a recipe. I am always tasting, adjusting, tasting. So should you, when making a dish like this. Taste each time you add a new ingredient or three, taste and adjust accordingly. Trust your judgement. Trust your taste. You’re the one who decides what’s best.