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I Found Solace in a Vat of Bubbling Oil
And perfected a version of fried squid or fried chicken with lemongrass-fish-sauce caramel
During the height of the pandemic, countless home cooks turned to baking bread. I get it: It’s cozy, comforting, and a delicious way to exert some control during a time things felt totally uncontrollable. Me, though? I found solace not in a sourdough starter, but in a vat of bubbling oil.
Sometime in January, this Covid-inspired deep-frying kick produced, hands-down, the best dish I cooked since the pandemic started: fried lemongrass squid with crispy kale and basil. It was so shockingly satisfying that I even felt compelled to post it on Instagram, which says a lot because I suck at Instagram. People kept asking for the recipe, and I kept deflecting and dawdling because I hadn’t paid particularly close attention to the seat-of-the-pants cooking process — not uncommon for me — and I guess I was feeling kind of lazy — also not uncommon.
When I finally decided to recreate — and properly write down! — the recipe for this article, I totally pooched it. Not only was the dish not as good as the original, it was just plain not good. The squid wasn’t nearly crunchy enough, which, if you’ve taking the time to deep-fry something, is a downright tragedy. The sauce was a far cry from the one I remembered, probably because the original was cobbled together from a hard-to-replicate hodgepodge of leftover lemongrass marinade (which I use for grilled chicken or pork), dipping sauce dregs from Vietnamese takeout, and who knows what else.
As a home cook, you’re probably familiar with the phenomenon of hyper-self-critically nitpicking a dish that you’ve cooked even though everyone who eats it loves it, right? Let me assure you that this was not one of those dishes. Or as my ever-diplomatic wife put it, “This is the same recipe?”
Fine. Back to the drawing board, this time with a plan. To avoid the existential crisis of soggy fried squid, I gave it a soak in some buttermilk, which, as it drip-drip-drips into the dry flour dredge, creates these little craggy clumps that cling to the squid and fry up into irresistible crunchy niblets — a technical term. The buttermilk also helps tenderize the squid a bit, which gives you some leeway to push the frying time — and crunch factor— to its legal limit without overcooking the squid.
As for the sauce, instead of trying to recreate whatever mysterious fridge alchemy happened the first time around, I decided to bring in a ringer: fish sauce caramel. Made, as the name suggests, by adding fish sauce to bubbling caramel, this stuff is like a cheat code for cooking, a salty-sweet godsend to pretty much anything fried, grilled, or stewed. In Vietnam, a dark caramel sauce (Nước Màu), often made just with sugar and water, is ubiquitous in savory cooking; the fish sauce here ratchets up the flavor, as does a heaping pile of lemongrass, shallots, garlic, ginger, black pepper, and chile flakes. (Quick warning: As you’ll see in the video below, pouring liquid into hot caramel is a bit volcanic; it spits and bubbles and hisses like mad, just for a few seconds, before relaxing into itself. To avoid any catastrophic spillovers, I do this in the sink.)
Honestly, crunchy squid and this habit-forming caramel are really all you need here, but there’s some optional lily-gilding if you’re up for it. The original version of this dish included crispy kale chips tossed in with the squid at the very end, for no other reason than the fact that there was some wilting kale in the fridge that needed to go away. The kale is a nice and unexpected touch, and a good way to weave a vegetable right into the main dish, but it’s by no means a requirement.
If you make the kale chips and caramel ahead of time (recommended), then this dish is doable for a weeknight dinner, but it’s just labor-intensive enough that I’d be inclined to save it for entertaining. Besides, you’d be shocked at how bountiful one pound of squid can get when you slice it thin and give it a big, fat dredge. The recipe here serves 4 to 6, even more, if you cook a pot of rice; and, believe it or not, fried squid is less good on day two, so you’ll want enough people to minimize leftovers.
Here, having finally recreated — or happily rejiggered — the best thing I’d cooked in months, is where this story was supposed to end. But now, because I didn’t follow my own advice and kept testing this dish for only two people, there’s a giant container of extra fish sauce caramel staring back at me from my fridge. It keeps for weeks, so there’s no real rush, but this somehow feels urgent. Chicken. Fried chicken! Yes!! Of course!!! Because here’s the thing about that caramel: once you’ve had it on something, you’re going to want it on everything. And no offense to the plucky little squid, but they’re kind of lacking in the thigh and wing departments.
So, because I just couldn’t help myself, you’ll also find a recipe below for Fried Chicken with Lemongrass Fish Sauce Caramel. It’s the same exact sauce that you’ll use on the squid, and, in the spirit of not messing with a good thing, the buttermilk-crunchy-niblets-dredge protocol is even the same, too. If squid or chicken don’t particularly rev your engines, try frying some cauliflower in the style of Mark’s Manchurian Cauliflower and swap out its ketchup sauce for the caramel. (To make it vegan, substitute soy sauce for the fish sauce.)
And if deep frying isn’t your thing, no worries; you can always bake some bread.
Makes: 1 ½ cups
Time: 25 minutes
¼ cup fish sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 cup sugar
2 stalks lemongrass
1 large or 2 small shallots, peeled, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
6 garlic cloves, minced
1-inch fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1/2 teaspoon red chile flakes, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1. Combine the fish sauce, soy sauce, and ¼ cup water in a measuring cup or any container that you can easily pour from. Set aside.
2. Put the sugar in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add ¼ cup water and stir to combine. Cook over medium heat, gently shaking the pan occasionally, but not stirring with a spoon or any other utensil. Once the sugar melts and begins to bubble, continue cooking, shaking the pan occasionally, until the caramel darkens to the color of iced tea, 5 to 7 minutes.
3. While the caramel cooks, prepare the lemongrass. Cut off the woody tops as well as the hard base at the root end. Peel off any tough outer layers and discard. (A good rule of thumb is that if you have a hard time getting your knife through it, you’ll have a hard time chewing it.) Depending on the size of the original stalks, you’ll be left with about 4 to 6 inches of usable lemongrass from each one. Slice the stalks in half lengthwise, then crosswise as thinly as you can; you should wind up with about ½ cup, but a little less or more is perfectly fine.
4. When the caramel has darkened to the color of iced tea, remove it from the heat (I like to set the saucepan in the sink to be super careful). Carefully pour in the fish sauce mixture; it will bubble up vigorously, so stand away from the pan. Return the pan to medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, until the caramel melts into the liquid, a minute or 2.
5. Add the remaining ingredients, cook for another minute, and turn off the heat. Let the caramel cool completely, and store it in a sealed container in the fridge for up to two weeks.
Fried Squid with Lemongrass-Fish-Sauce Caramel and Crispy Kale
Makes: 4 to 6 servings
Time: 1 hour
1 small bunch curly kale (about 4 ounces)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound squid, tubes cut into thin rings, tentacles cut in half if they’re big
3/4 cup buttermilk
Vegetable or peanut oil for frying
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 batch Lemongrass-Fish-Sauce Caramel (recipe above)
1 packed cup torn basil leaves
Lime wedges for serving
1. Heat the oven to 300°F. Strip the kale leaves from the stems and tear each one into a few pieces. Toss with the olive oil and some salt, and spread them out on a large rimmed baking sheet so that they overlap as little as possible; use two baking sheets if you have them. Bake, tossing once or twice, until the kale is very crisp, 12 to 15 minutes. (If you’re using two baking sheets, swap them halfway through cooking so they have equal time on the upper and lower racks.) Set the kale aside. This step can be done up to a day ahead of time; just let the kale chips cool completely, then store in an airtight container until you’re ready to use them.
2. Lower the oven to 200°F. Put the squid in a bowl and add the buttermilk and 1/2 teaspoon of salt and stir to combine. The squid should be fully submerged. Set aside.
3. Put 2 inches of vegetable oil in a large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or skillet over medium-high heat. You’ll start frying at 375°F, so keep an eye on the temperature; I like to use a candy thermometer clipped to the side of the pot.
4. While the oil heats, line a rimmed baking sheet with paper towels and put the flour in a large, shallow bowl, or whatever you want to use for dredging. Transfer the Lemongrass-Fish-Sauce Caramel to a small saucepan and set it over low heat to warm up. Transfer half of the squid to the bowl of flour and toss to coat; some buttermilk will drip into the flour and form little clumps, which is exactly what you want. Press some of those clumps onto the squid; just make sure to separate any pieces that are stuck together, and shake off any excess flour (a mesh colander can be useful for this).
5. When the oil reaches 375°F, carefully add the dredged squid to the oil. Fry, gently stirring once or twice to make sure the pieces are separated and submerged, until golden and very crisp, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer the squid to the paper-towel-lined baking sheet and put it in the oven to stay warm. Repeat the dredging and frying process with the second half of the squid.
6. When all the squid is fried, transfer it to a large mixing bowl of servings platter. Pour the Lemongrass-Fish-Sauce Caramel over the squid and toss to coat. Add the crunchy kale and basil leaves, and gently toss one more time. Serve immediately with lime wedges.
Fried Chicken with Lemongrass-Fish-Sauce Caramel
Makes: 4 servings
Time: 1 hour, plus time for brining
3 cups buttermilk
1 whole cut-up chicken, or about 3 pounds chicken parts
Peanut or vegetable oil for deep-frying
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 recipe Lemongrass Fish Sauce Caramel
Sliced scallions for garnish (optional)
1. Put the buttermilk in a large mixing bowl (or covered container) with a small handful of salt. Add the chicken pieces and make sure that they’re fully submerged. Cover with plastic (or the lid) and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, but no more than 10.
2. Sometime while the chicken is brining, make the Lemongrass-Fish-Sauce Caramel. Cool and refrigerate until you’re ready to use it.
3. Remove the chicken from the fridge. Put 2 to 3 inches of oil in a large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or skillet over medium-high heat. You’ll start frying at 325 °F, so keep an eye on the temperature; I like to use a candy thermometer clipped to the side of the pot. Heat the oven to 200°F and fit a rimmed baking sheet with a wire rack.
4. While the oil heats, put the flour in a large mixing bowl; add a big pinch of salt and stir to combine. Add about ¼ cup of the buttermilk brine to the flour, and stir it around so that little, pea-sized clumps of flour form. These clumps, when packed onto the chicken, are what will make the crust crunchy and craggy. One piece at a time, transfer the chicken to the flour mixture; press and pack the flour all over so that the chicken is thoroughly coated. Shake off any excess flour and transfer the chicken to a sheet pan.
5. When the oil reaches 325°F, it’s time to fry. Cook the chicken in two batches; thighs and legs in one batch, and breasts and wings in the other. As soon as you add the chicken, the oil temperature will drop, and that’s fine; it will climb back to 325°F as the chicken cooks. For both batches, cook, checking and turning the pieces occasionally, until they’re crisp and golden all over and no longer pink at the bone. Thighs and legs will take around 15 minutes; breasts and wings will take around 12 minutes. Transfer the cooked chicken to the prepared pan and keep it warm in the oven while you cook the remaining pieces.
6. Put the Lemongrass-Fish-Sauce Caramel in a small saucepan over medium heat and cook just until it begins to bubble (you just want to warm it up so it isn’t cold). To coat the chicken in the caramel, either dip it directly in the saucepan using tongs, or your fingers if you can stand the heat, or “paint” the caramel onto each piece of chicken with a brush. Transfer each piece of caramel-coated chicken to a platter, sprinkle with scallions if you’re using them, and serve immediately.