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January, 2009

Chef Robert Danhi

By Dennis Linden

No matter the country or culture, most Asian cuisine relies on basic, yet distinctive sauces to bring out the fresh flavors harvested from the land and sea, using simple ingredients to create complex tastes
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Chef Robert Danhi
Guest Chef Robert Danhi provides two very seasonal Vietnamese dishes that exemplify this approach to cooking from his recently published, Southeast Asian Flavors – Adventures in Cooking the Foods of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore.

When Chef Danhi’s Pummelo and Shrimp Salad is served to guests, expect the dish to become the focus of all table conversation. The refreshing blend of grapefruit, cilantro, mint, pork and shrimp, laced with a spicy chile pepper, tossed in a lightly sweetened fish sauce dressing and garnished with roasted peanuts makes a flavor combination that commands attention. While the recipe allows for the substitution of domestic grapefruit for the Pummelo (Chinese grapefruit), accept no substitutes for this one. The fruit segments of the Pummelo hold their shape much better than regular grapefruit; plus the low-acid Pummelo, rather than the more acidic domestic grapefruit, really makes this dish delicious.

The Pummelo Salad is an extremely hard act to follow, however the chef’s Chicken Stir-Fry with Lemongrass, Tamarind and Chiles is another palate-pleasing blend of fresh flavors supported by a marinade using some ingredients that will be a new experience for many home gourmets in this country. Lemongrass and tamarind are great flavorings that are readily available in most upscale supermarkets. The simple caramel sauce that is used during the stir-fry seems like it would be too sweet for the rest of the dish’s distinct flavors, but it rounds out the more pungent tamarind and chile pepper components perfectly. Serving atop white rice makes this the main entrée of a perfect two-course meal.

While the recipes for both dishes are provided at the bottom of this article, we highly recommend using the title links of each dish to view them as they appear in Chef Danhi’s book. These versions provide a cultural context for each recipe, along with some great cooking techniques. Most importantly, the pages reveal the chef’s secret ingredient, his lifelong passion for the foods of Southeastern Asia.

The book is part cookbook and part cultural travelogue that leads readers on a culinary tour of this fascinating and ethnically diverse region of the world with over 700 artful color photographs shot by the chef himself. It is the culmination of twenty years of travelling the region’s byways, city alleys, farmlands and markets. He cooked with street vendors and negotiated his way into restaurants, hotels and private homes in order to understand the ingredients and spirit of the foods in each culture from people who lived it every day.

“I tried to demystify the food of this part of the world, so that the home cook and professional chef alike can recreate the authentic flavors of Southeast Asia in their own kitchens. This is a book that I have been living and writing in my head for years,” Robert explained.

Chef Danhi has a diverse background in restaurants, culinary education, food and beverage research and development for the retail and foodservice marketplace. This diversity of talent manifests itself in the array of culinary endeavors that keep this culinary entrepreneur going in many directions now, but were created in sequence as he needed them. He started Mortar & Press, a food media company, in part to publish his book. “I wanted to create a book on my terms, similar to the way a chef opens his own restaurant to express his culinary vision. No one wanted to take the chance, so I published it myself. The company continues to evolve as a tool for his other educational and commercial culinary projects.

His consulting firm, Chef Danhi & Company, works with food manufacturers, restaurant chains, educational organizations and professional associations. The chef also leads regular culinary tours to Southeast Asia that explore Asian cuisines through cultural immersion. “Actually, if the truth be known,” admitted the chef, “I just really love to teach, so all of my business endeavors are forms of education.”

The book’s web site, http://www.southeastasianflavors.com, is also starting to take on a life of its own as Chef Danhi builds it into a multimedia on-line adventure and culinary classroom beyond the book that it was created to promote. The site, like the book, takes the visitor on a culinary tour of each country and this will be added to in more depth as the chef continues to travel and collect more materials. The lessons in the basic ingredients and techniques of building Southeast Asian flavors are presented in a warm personal style that also has a textbook completeness to it.

Robert uses the purchase of his book as a vehicle to convey yet another lesson, this time in environmental responsibility. “If people buy the book directly from my website they get a signed copy, plus a pair of free Sustainable Chopsticks. I feel that we all need to make decisions that promote sustainability. Following the guidelines of the Forest Stewardship Council, we include a pair of chopsticks and encourage people to reuse them. In Japan alone, over 140,000 pairs of chopsticks per day go into the trash. So we have put a message on each set of chopsticks:

“Stop the Chop with Sustainable Sticks - Disposable chopsticks are a significant cause of deforestation. Reuse them in your home, at the restaurant or anywhere good food can be found.”

Now that his goal of writing the definitive book on the foods of his four most favorite places in the world has been achieved, one wonders what his next lesson plan will be. “Keep an eye out for volumes on each country in a lot more depth, my bags and knives are already packed,” Robert promised. We can hardly wait for those classes to begin!

Pummelo and Shrimp Salad
Pummelo and Shrimp Salad
Serves 4-6

Ingredients
¼ lb. Lean pork, such as loin or leg, one piece [1” thick x 3” long]
¼ lb. Small shrimp, deveined with shell still on
2 Tbsp. Granulated sugar
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1 Tbsp. Fish sauce
1 large Pummelo or 2 large grapefruits
½ cup Very fine julienne carrots [1/16-inch thick x 2” long]
½ cup Mint leaves, sliced ¼-inch thick
¼ cup Cilantro, roughly chopped (leaves and stems)
2 Long Red Fresno chile peppers cut into thin rings or fine julienne
½ cup Peanuts, roasted in dry pan, roughly chopped

Preparation
1. Cook the pork and shrimp: In small saucepan, submerge pork in simmering water and gently cook until done through, 140°F. Plunge meat into ice water for 10 minutes. Drain and julienne, about 1/8 inch thick. Cook the shrimp in simmering salted water until cooked, about 3 to 5 minutes. Cool in ice water for 5 minutes. Shell, de-vein, and halve lengthwise.

2. Make dressing: Combine sugar, salt and fish sauce in small pan. Simmer until sugar and salt dissolve; cool.

3. Prepare the Salad: Peel pummelo. Peel off the membranes that encase each segment. Separate the pulp pods into individual or small bunches of pods, about 1/4-inch (0.6 cm.) pieces. Gently combine the Pummelo with the pork, shrimp, carrots, mint, cilantro, and chilies. Drizzle with dressing and toss gently. Taste and adjust seasoning with sugar, salt and fish sauce. Transfer to serving bowl, garnish with peanuts.

Chicken Stir-Fry with Lemongrass, Tamarind and Chilies
Chicken Stir-Fry with Lemongrass, Tamarind and Chilies
Makes 4-6 servings

Ingredients
1 lb. chicken thigh meat (boneless/skinless cut in bite size strips, ½” thick
4 tsp. fish sauce (divided use)
½ tsp. coarsely ground black pepper
1 to 2 Thai chile peppers, minced
2 stalks lemon grass, trimmed and finely minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 small onion, sliced into 2-inch lengths, ¼ inch thick
1 Tbsp. Vietnamese caramel sauce [see recipe] or dark brown sugar
1 Tbsp. tamarind pulp
¼ cup chicken broth or stock
¼ cup cilantro rough, chopped (leaves and stems)

Preparation
Marinate chicken in 2 tsp. fish sauce, black pepper, chiles, lemongrass, and garlic for 15 minutes at room temperature. Heat a large sauté pan or wok over high heat; add oil and onion. Cook until translucent and beginning to brown. Add chicken; stir occasionally until almost completely cooked, about 5 minutes. Add the rest of the fish sauce, caramel sauce (see below), tamarind, and chicken broth. Simmer for 15 seconds; taste and adjust sauce with fish sauce and caramel. Stir in cilantro, and remove from heat. Serve over steamed rice.

Caramel Sauce
(Makes ½ cup)

½ cup Sugar
½ cup Water (divided use)

Combine sugar and 1/4 cup of water in small saucepan until a smooth paste is formed. Heat over medium heat until mixture begins to bubble and sugar is melted. Continue to simmer without stirring until it turns very deep brown. It will be foaming and smoke will start to rise, color should be reddish-black. Stand back as you cautiously add water: it will boil vigorously and a lot of steam will rise. Be careful. Whisk to dissolve any seized sugar. Cool, transfer to a container to use as needed.