Brow Beat

A Super-Simple Pantry Dinner for Chicken, Tofu, or Whatever You’ve Got

Two plates with white rice and red curried chicken sprinkled with green garnish.
Julia Gartland

If you’re lost at the fridge, staring at raw material that you’re hoping to conjure into a comforting dinner—the chicken thighs you grabbed without a plan, the frozen fish fillets from the back of the freezer, the tofu that’s about to expire—this recipe is here to take charge.

It’s a streamlined version of the foundational Vietnamese technique called kho (or dry-braise), which simply means quickly braising in a small amount of liquid, often sweet-salty fish sauce caramel.

Traditionally, this dish would involve melting palm sugar into a bubbling caramel before sizzling in fish sauce—but Charles Phan, the chef-owner behind the legendary Slanted Door restaurant family, created a riff for anyone who doesn’t have ready access to palm sugar (or the mental space to make caramel tonight).

On a cutting board, sprigs of green parsley, shallots, partially chopped garlic, onions, a sliced ginger root, and a small bowl of soy sauce.
Julia Gartland

The best news, especially in this moment as we’re hunkering down and cooking from the pantry stores we have, is that kho is a very flexible technique, cooked for generations in Vietnam in times of scarcity and plenty. Charles’s streamlined version is no different. Simply follow this blueprint:

1.     Warm up your sauce in one little pot—in this recipe, Charles calls for brown sugar, fish sauce, water, and rice vinegar, but you can swap in other acids or sweeteners as your pantry allows. You could even work around the fish sauce if you need to. While not a perfect substitute, soy sauce or liquid aminos should still bring enough funky salt and umami to morph into a powerfully delicious sauce. Just remember if you’re going off-recipe to be sure to taste and fiddle with the sauce till it’s a balance of sweet and salty that you want to keep eating, with a bit of brightening acid.

2.     Soften some aromatics (like ginger, garlic, shallots, fresh or dried chiles, lots of chunky black pepper) in another, bigger pot. Charles likes a lot of ginger, so if you’re missing that, throw in a big pinch of powdered ginger instead, if you have it lying around.

3.     To the softened aromatic pot, toss in your star ingredient—blander proteins like chicken, fish, or tofu really benefit from this feisty sauce, but it’s hard to imagine many ingredients that wouldn’t. I’d love it with vegetables like cauliflower, brussels sprouts, or hard squashes, too.

4.     Pour in a small amount of the sauce, then stir here and there while it bubbles to cook everything through. Give it a taste, and decide if you want more sauce.

5.    Serve with rice (or any other carb that will catch sticky sauce).

You can save any lingering fish sauce caramel to makeover more puzzle pieces from the fridge another day—in fact, Charles recommends making an extra big batch of the sauce to keep in a jar in the fridge, so that a good dinner is that much closer.

If you have more questions about substitutions, I’m here, and I hope these 11 more pantry dinner ideas will come in handy. Please take care of yourselves and each other, and let us know how we can help.

Chicken in a brown sauce with red peppers being mixed by a wooden spoon.
Julia Gartland

Caramelized Black Pepper Chicken from Charles Phan

• 1 pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces
• 1 tablespoon canola oil, divided
• Kosher salt
• 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
• 1/4 cup fish sauce (nam pla)
• 1/4 cup water
• 3 tablespoons rice vinegar
• 1 shallot, thinly sliced
• 1 teaspoon one-inch piece of fresh ginger, julienned (or more)
• 1 teaspoon minced garlic
• 2 fresh Thai chiles, halved, or dried red chiles
• 1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
• 4 cilantro sprigs (optional)
• Steamed jasmine rice for serving

See the full recipe on Food 52.

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