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Rack of Lamb With
a Taste of Vietnam
By Mark Bittman

Grilling is an important part of Charles Phan's repertory, but it took time for him to get it right. He experimented with equipment and fuels before settling on a simple but heavy (and expensive) wood-burning grill that is little more than a tray for coals and a sliding rack above it. His fuel of choice, one he shares with many Western chefs, is mesquite charcoal, which burns very hot and very fast.

This combination of grill and fuel is perfect for Mr. Phan's rack of lamb, a meaty sweet-and-sour dish that blends French and Vietnamese ingredients, techniques and traditions in a way that might be called fusion were it not so straightforward and unpretentious.

At his restaurant in San Francisco, the Slanted Door, Mr. Phan uses small racks weighing just over a pound each a luxury even for a chef. "You see a fair amount of lamb in Vietnam," he said, "but you don't see racks like these too often."

But the dish also has homey aspects, and it is easy enough to duplicate on a backyard grill. Mr. Phan first soaks the meat in a mixture his mother made when he was young, a marinade of sugar, chilies, shallots, lemon grass and fish sauce that gives a distinctively flavored Southeast Asian crust to the lamb once it has been seared over blistering heat.

He serves the dish with a simply made tamarind sauce, another regional touch. Though you might think this is painting the lily, the flavors marry perfectly.

There are a couple of ingredients here that take a little getting used to. Lemon grass's piney, lemony flavor is closely associated with Southeast Asian food. The key in using lemon grass is to peel away any dry outer leaves (there may be quite a few layers), then chop the more tender interior as finely as possible. For this dish, it helps to put it in a food processor with the other ingredients to pulverize it even further, to remove all traces of woodiness.

Tamarind so tropical, so sour is almost always made into a paste before using, and its use in this dish is no exception. You can buy premade tamarind paste, but it's never as good as what you can make yourself. Start with sticky tamarind pulp, usually sold in a packaged, one-pound lump in Asian markets, or with dried tamarind pods, which are sold in bags or boxes, or in bulk. In large Mexican or Asian markets you may see semifresh tamarind, a mass of sticky pods, equally easy to work with.

You just have to add enough water to soften the paste or release the gooey interior from the pods, and then strain out the solids to obtain the paste. Mr. Phan's tamarind sauce is nothing more than this paste fortified with sugar and fish sauce, a fantastic accompaniment to the lamb or any other grilled meat.

One final point: though Mr. Phan prefers to grill the lamb, he mentioned that a broiler does a pretty good job, too, which is not surprising. The sugary marinade will help brown the meat even under less-than-ideal circumstances.

Recipe: Lemon-Grass-Grilled Rack of Lamb With Tamarind Sauce
Recipe: Tamarind Sauce


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