Note: These lettuce-herb wraps with well-seasoned grilled beef are a quintessential Viet way to eat. This was inspired by beef wrapped in wild betel leaf in Vietnam. Betel leaves release a peppery, incense-like aroma during cooking, which is simulated here by seasoning the meat with curry powder, fish sauce, oyster sauce and lots of black pepper. To speed up prep, chop the peanuts and green onions in a small food processor. Find oyster sauce, fish sauce and maifun rice noodles in the Asian section of the supermarket. Madras-style curry powder is a hotter variety; you can substitute regular curry powder in an equal amount and add a little cayenne pepper to taste. Author Andrea Nguyen prefers the Sun brand of Madras-style curry powder. To prepare noodles in advance, boil them as indicated, then refresh them before serving by sprinkling with water and microwaving on high for 60 to 90 seconds. From “Vietnamese Food Any Day.”
• Brimming 1/3 c. unsalted roasted peanuts or cashews, finely chopped
• 3 medium green onions, white and green parts, finely chopped
• 1 tbsp. Madras-style curry powder (see Note)
• 3/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
• Brimming 1 tbsp. oyster sauce (see Note)
• 1 tbsp. fish sauce (see Note)
• 1 1/2 lb. ground beef (85 percent lean)
• 6 oz. small dried round rice noodles (maifun), or 8 oz. dried rice capellini or thin spaghetti (see Note)
• 1 c. Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce (see recipe)
• Leaves from 1 large head of soft-leaf lettuce (such as butter, Boston, or red or green leaf)
• 6 to 8 bushy sprigs fresh mint or basil
• 10 to 12 sprigs fresh cilantro
• Vegetable oil
In medium bowl, combine peanuts, green onions, curry powder, pepper, 3 tablespoons water, oyster sauce and fish sauce. Add beef and mix with your fingers. (If not cooking right away, cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours.) Form into 24 patties, each a good 2 inches wide and 1/2 inch thick. Set aside.
The length of time the noodles need to cook will vary by type. Keep in mind that many packages are not accurate in stating the length of cooking time. Judge the noodles’ doneness by tasting. In large pot of unsalted water, boil the noodles until tender, then drain and rinse again with water. Drain and let cool for 5 minutes. Since the noodles are unwieldy, arrange as 2-inch nests on a plate or in a shallow bowl. Set at the table with the dipping sauce, lettuce and fresh herbs.
Lightly oil a cast-iron stovetop grill (or lightly film a heavy skillet with oil) and set over medium-high heat. In batches, cook beef for 4 to 5 minutes, turning midway, until medium to medium-well done. (These are usually not eaten medium-rare, but you can cook for less time, if you like.) Transfer to a platter and let cool for a few minutes.
Have diners build wraps with lettuce, herbs (mint or basil, cilantro), noodles and beef (for easier eating, you can break or cut each patty into 2 or 3 bite-size pieces). Drizzle with, or dunk in, Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce.
Variation: For rice bowls, cut the lettuce into ribbons, coarsely chop the herbs, and put them all in soup bowls. Add room temperature or slightly warm cooked rice (about 3/4 cup per bowl) and the cooked beef, then drizzle with the Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce.
Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce
Makes about 1 cup.
Note: Lime juice can turn the sauce slightly bitter when left overnight. If making the sauce ahead and refrigerating it for up to 2 weeks, add the lime juice, vinegar, if using, and add-ins before serving. Start with this recipe, then create your own formula. With the optional additions, choose chile for heat, garlic for pungency, and/or carrot for texture. Fish sauce, chile garlic sauce and sambal oelek are available in the Asian section of the supermarket. From “Vietnamese Food Any Day,” by Andrea Nguyen.
• 2 to 2 1/2 tbsp. sugar or 3 to 4 tbsp. maple syrup
• 3 to 4 tbsp. fresh lime juice (see Note)
• 2 tsp. unseasoned Japanese rice vinegar, optional
• 3 to 4 tbsp. fish sauce (see Note)
• Optional add-ins: 1 or 2 Thai or serrano chiles, thinly sliced (keep seeds intact); or 2 to 3 teaspoons chile garlic sauce or sambal oelek; 1 minced large garlic clove; 1/2 small carrot, cut into thin matchsticks or coarsely grated (see Note)
In small bowl, combine 2 tablespoons sugar (or 3 tablespoons maple sugar), 3 tablespoons lime juice and 1/2 cup warm water. Taste the mixture and, if needed, add remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar (or 1 tablespoon maple syrup) and/or 1 tablespoon lime juice. Dilute with more water if you go too far. If there’s an unpleasant tart-bitter edge, add the vinegar to fix the flavor.
Add the fish sauce to the bowl; how much you use depends on the brand and your own taste. Aim for a bold, forward finish that’s a little gutsy. (Keep in mind that this sauce typically dresses dishes that include unsalted ingredients such as lettuce and herbs, which will need an extra flavor lift.) If desired, add the chiles, garlic and/or carrot. (Or offer the chiles on the side if diners are sensitive to the heat.) The sauce can sit at room temperature for up to 8 hours until serving.
Set the sauce at the table so diners may help themselves, or portion it out in small bowls in advance of serving.