BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - This dish, though Asian influenced, does not really hail from any particular country or region.  However, the caramel sauce is distinctly a sauce from Vietnam.  The sauce both simple and complex imparts a subtle sweetness with hints of smoke and bitterness.  There’s really only one way to make a classic Vietnamese caramel sauce and directions for creating it can be found here.  It takes about a half hour to make but a little of it goes a long way and can be stored in a glass jar in your pantry indefinitely, so if you make it once, it will last a pretty long time.  In addition, there is a ton of different things you can do with the sauce beyond this recipe so, go ahead and make it and experiment with it!

The pork and vegetable base can be used in many different ways.  Here I simply used leaf lettuce as a wrap and garnished it with a few vegetables.  However, this mixture would be great with steamed buns, as a filling for dumplings, tossed on top of rice, or simply combine all the vegetables and pork and add more lettuce for a hearty Asian influenced salad. 

There are a lot of ingredients with this recipe, but don’t let that be intimidating.  Beyond making the caramel sauce all the ingredients can be found at any grocery store and the whole thing should pull together in around an hour or so.  Also I used ground pork but this basic recipe/technique would work with diced or ground chicken, turkey, or even shrimp.

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Ingredients:

For the Pork:
1.5 Pounds ground pork
½ Onion, finely chopped
1 Tablespoon minced ginger
2 Tablespoons sliced garlic
½ Carrot, grated coarsely
½ Cup coarsely chopped red bell pepper
1-2 Green Onions, sliced thinly
1 Tablespoon fish sauce
¼ Cup soy sauce (low sodium would be best)
2-3 Tablespoons caramel sauce
Dash rice wine vinegar
Red pepper flakes to taste
Grapeseed oil or any other neutral oil

For the Vinaigrette:
2 Radishes, very thinly sliced
2 Tablespoons minced ginger
1 Green onion, sliced thinly
1 Teaspoon fish sauce
½ Cup rice wine vinegar (sugar free would be best)
2 Tablespoons neutral tasting oil (I used grapeseed)
Dash of sugar, if needed
Red pepper flakes
For the Garnish/Assembly:
1 Head leafy green lettuce (I used a red topped Boston Bibb)
½ Cup carrot, coarsely grated
½ Cucumber, sliced thinly
1 Cup chopped red bell pepper
1 Green Onion, sliced thinly
2 Limes, each sliced into quarters or eights
1 Cup cilantro leaves
1 Cup basil or Thai basil leaves
1 Jalapeño, sliced very thinly (remove seeds if you prefer to reduce the heat)

Instructions:

For the Vinaigrette:

  • Slice the radishes very thinly.  Mince the ginger and slice the green onion thinly (on a bias if you can).
  • Combine the vinegar and fish sauce with the oil and whisk lightly to incorporate.  Taste and, if you prefer, add a pinch of sugar.
  • Add the remaining ingredients and place in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes to allow the flavors to combine.

For the Pork:

  • Add enough grapeseed oil to a large skillet to just coat the bottom and heat skillet over medium heat for a few minutes.  Add the ground pork and a healthy dash of red pepper flakes.  Cook the pork for a few minutes but do not move it around until it has browned on the bottom.  Then stir the pork to brown the other side for around 5 minutes total time.
  • Add the finely diced onion to the pan and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes more.
  • After that, add the minced ginger and garlic slices and cook another minute or so.
  • Add the fish sauce and the soy sauce to the pan.  Using a wooden spoon stir the sauce in to incorporate and while doing so, scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen any brown bits stuck to the pan.  Reduce heat to low and simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure the mixture does not burn.
  • Add in the grated carrot and the chopped red bell pepper and cook for a minute or two.
  • Turn the heat back to medium and once the pan has heated back up, add the caramel sauce.  Stir to quickly combine and then turn off the heat.
  • Add the thinly sliced green onion to the mixture and stir to combine.
  • Add a quick dash of rice wine vinegar.
  • Taste and adjust seasoning by adding more red pepper flakes, rice wine vinegar, etc. to suit your personal taste.  (Note:  the pork will likely seem a bit salty but it will be mitigated by the amount of vegetables that are added to the wraps, which are unseasoned.)

To assemble:

  •  Slice the jalapeno pepper and cucumber.  Wash and dry the lettuce and maintaining the leaves without breaking them.
  • Slice another green onion very thinly and grate the other half of the carrot coarsely.  Slice the limes.  Prepare the cilantro and basil.
  • Place all the vegetables on a platter or cutting board.  Place the pork in one bowl and the vinaigrette in another.  Allow each person to spoon a bit of pork on top of a lettuce leaf.  Then add a bit of the radish and ginger vinaigrette over the top.  Then garnish with the vegetables and herbs to you wish.

Craig Thiebaud is a Diplomat of Classic Culinary Arts at the International Culinary Center (formerly The French Culinary Institute) located in SOHO in New York City. After extensive training in the Art of French cooking and professional food preparation in general, he brings his knowledge of food and passion for cooking to us by sharing culinary techniques and creating recipes that mainly use local, seasonal ingredients and can be easily recreated in the home kitchen. Good, wholesome meals for the family can be created quickly with planning, using the best techniques with the best ingredients that are both affordable and available. Let's get back into the kitchen together!