For the Grill: Vietnamese Pork and Lettuce Wraps
If you’ve followed Special Fork over the years, you know I’m not keen on Memorial Day being on the last Monday in May. Historically, it was observed on May 30, to honor our military war dead.
By giving us a convenient three-day weekend, Memorial Day has evolved into the kick-off to summer and a time for department store sales, instead of as a day to pay our respects to those who have given their lives in service to our country. As kids, our family always attended the solemn service at the Veteran’s Cemetery in Hilo, where each grave was honored with a small American flag and a fresh flower lei.
So today, we’ll visit the Golden Gate National Cemetery in the San Francisco Bay Area. Then we’ll fire up the grill.
On one Memorial Day outing when the kids were little, a family of Vietnamese heritage picnicking at the next table, was grilling something that smelled so deliciously mouthwatering, I couldn’t help but peek over to see what they were eating. They were grilling marinated meat, wrapping it in lettuce leaves and tucking in sprigs of fresh herbs. This was before Vietnamese restaurants had really taken off in the San Francisco Bay Area, so that combination of ingredients was novel and exciting. It’s become a classic in my grilling repertoire today. I love the bright, fresh flavors.
Here’s my adaptation.
This recipe looks complicated but it’s quite simple: you marinate and grill pork chops, make a dipping sauce, and serve with lettuce and lots of fresh herbs. Long ago, renowned chef, restaurateur and cookbook author Mai Pham told me that, while herbs are used sparingly in Western cuisine, in Vietnamese cooking, they are used like a salad—the herbaceous quality is part of the flavor identity of this distinctive, Southeast Asian cuisine.
The recipe below provides lots of options:
- You can just marinate and grill the pork chops and skip the rest of the recipe.
- You can marinate other meats in this marinade (it would be great for ribs).
- You can turn the recipe into a salad by cooking and chilling some Vietnamese noodles, topping with the meat and herbs, and pouring the dipping sauce over all.
- You can use the pork chops and herbs to make your own Vietnamese bánh mì sandwiches.
Vietnamese-Style Grilled Pork and Lettuce Wraps
This recipe is divided into sections so you can make the entire recipe or just the parts.
For the pork chops:
2 tablespoons light brown sugar, packed
2 tablespoons fish sauce (nuoc mam)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons minced shallot
1 tablespoon thinly sliced lemongrass
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 porterhouse pork chops (about 1 ½ pounds total) (also called bone-in loin pork chops)
For the dipping sauce:
2 tablespoons lime juice (about 1 lime)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
½ teaspoon finely minced garlic
1/2 Thai chile, seeded and minced (optional)
2 tablespoons shredded carrot
For the wraps:
Butter lettuce leaves
Thai basil sprigs
To make the pork chops: In a small bowl, make the marinade by combining brown sugar, fish sauce, vegetable oil and soy sauce. Stir in shallot, lemongrass and garlic. Put pork chops in a quart-size, heavy-duty zip-top plastic bag. Pour marinade into the bag, seal and turn bag several times to disperse marinade. Refrigerate overnight, turning bag once or twice.
To grill, remove chops from marinade, scrape off chopped bits and grill about 3 to 5 minutes per side (it will depend on the thickness of your pork chops). Pork is done when an instant-read thermometer reads 140°F. Do not overcook or pork will be dry.
When chops are done, let rest for 10 to 15 minutes, then slice on the diagonal.
To make the sauce: In a small bowl, combine lime juice, sugar, fish sauce, vinegar, garlic, chile if using, and carrot. Add 2 tablespoons warm water and stir until sugar has dissolved.
To assemble: Arrange lettuce and herbs on a platter with the sliced pork. Divide sauce in small bowls for each person. To eat, lay some pork on lettuce, top with herbs and roll, taco-style. Dip in sauce.
Makes 2 to 3 servings.
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