Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes, plus cooling time
Servings: 6 as part of a multi-course meal
Note: Adapted from "Vietnamese Home Cooking" by Charles Phan. Palm sugar, fish sauce, Sichuan peppercorns and annatto seeds can be found at select cooking supply stores and Asian markets; annatto seeds can also be found at most Latin markets.
2 pounds light brown palm sugar, chopped into pieces
2 1/2 cups fish sauce
1. In a heavy-bottomed 4-quart pot, gently melt the sugar over medium-low heat, stirring frequently. This will take 10 to 12 minutes. Do not be tempted to rush the process or you may scorch the sugar.
2. When the sugar is lump free, completely melted and just beginning to boil, remove the pan from the heat and very slowly pour in the fish sauce while stirring constantly. Be careful, as it will bubble furiously. This makes about 4 cups sauce, more than is needed for the rest of the recipe; the sauce will keep, in an airtight container, stored in a cool cupboard for up to 3 months.
Roasted chile paste
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
1 tablespoon annatto seeds
1/2 cup finely chopped shallots
1/2 cup canola oil
1/4 cup finely minced garlic (about 8 cloves)
1/4 cup red pepper flakes
1/3 cup ground bean paste
2 tablespoons rice wine
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1. Combine the peppercorns and annatto seeds in a spice grinder (or use a mortar and pestle) and grind coarsely. Set aside.
2. In a small saucepan, combine the shallots and oil over medium heat and cook, stirring frequently, for about 6 minutes, until the shallots are light gold. Add the garlic and cook, stirring frequently, for about 4 minutes longer, until the garlic and shallot are lightly browned.
3. Stir in the red pepper flakes and the peppercorn-annatto mixture, mixing well. Add the ground bean paste, wine, sugar and soy sauce, and continue cooking, stirring, for 1 minute longer. Remove from the heat and let cool completely. This makes about 1½ cups paste, more than is needed for the remainder of the recipe; the sauce will keep, refrigerated in an airtight container, up to 3 months.
Caramelized lemon grass shrimp
2 pounds medium head-on shrimp in their shells, preferably from off Louisiana
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 shallots, thinly sliced into rings
2 Thai chiles, stemmed and halved on the diagonal
1/4 cup finely minced lemon grass
1 teaspoon minced garlic
2-by-1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely julienned
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons roasted chile paste
1/2 cup caramel sauce
1/4 cup chicken broth or water
1. To prepare the shrimp, using scissors, remove the sharp spike at the tail of each shrimp and the spike in the center of the head. Cut off the eyes and discard, then separate the head from the body and reserve the head. Peel each shrimp body, removing the tail segments, then devein. Sprinkle bodies with the pepper and set aside.
2. In a 2-quart clay pot or high-sided sauté pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the shallots, chiles and reserved shrimp heads and cook, stirring, for about 30 seconds, until fragrant. Add the lemon grass, garlic, ginger and chile paste, and cook, stirring, for 1 minute more. Pour in the caramel sauce and broth, and stir to combine.
3. Add the shrimp bodies to the pot and toss to coat with the aromatic ingredients. Increase the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 6 minutes total, until shrimp are bright pink.
4. Serve directly from the clay pot, accompanied by steamed white rice.
Each serving: 282 calories; 28 grams protein; 26 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 8 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 242 mg cholesterol; 21 grams sugar; 2,273 mg sodium.