On Learning and a Marinade That Came About From a Mistake

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I grew up in Vietnam where schooling mostly meant studying. We attended classes, jotted down notes, completed homework, took one test after another. We studied much but learned little, for the elusive prestige of getting into yet another good school, securing a stable job and then continuing the circle of life. There was this structured, uncomplicated path that you were advised (or expected?) to follow to become law-abiding functioning members of the society.

As I grew older (and hopefully wiser), I realized how much time was wasted on studying but not learning. As a result, a lot of things got lost along the way, and when the time called for the information, I searched hopelessly. Meanwhile, learning occurs everywhere and from everyone, sometimes unintentionally. A meticulous server clearing tables could teach me a thing or two about being thorough. Observing my former editor dealing with personnel changes following a merger, I learned the importance of choosing the right words and sleeping on issues to arrive at a proper solution.

Recently, I also learned to be calmer by working for a small café. Lunch hours sometimes can get pretty hectic, which is when I grab things first before realizing they are hot. Eventually my heat tolerance improves drastically, as I recover from the burn with pride. Afterall, who are we but the scars that leave us stronger and mightier? I learned not to panic when turning around and seeing flames popping up from the cast-iron skillet on the burner. Easy-peasy, get some water and splash it onto the flames, put on gloves and scrub away all the gunk. I’m as good as new. There are times when I feel like my body wants to give up, but like the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, I count to ten and start again.

I learned that coconut milk makes a good marinade for chicken. This came as a mistake: I saw the chef there pour coconut milk into a baking pan which I thought was meat (turned out it was banana bread pudding, which I found out much later). Having heard of some similar techniques to marinate satay, I applied this new “knowledge” to my repertoire without question.

Surprisingly/Fortunately, it worked! The coconut milk accentuated the aroma of the lemongrass and kept the meat moist. The only time I stopped wishing my apartment had better ventilation system was when the chicken was baking. It was so fragrant and warming! After that, I started using coconut milk with my favorite spice mix: five-spice powder. To my delight, it worked too!

The best part of the testing experience was taking the tray out of the oven and looking at the crispy charred skin glistening. Giving in to the temptation, I pinched a bit of the skin and popped one in my mouth. It was a tongue-blistering-worthy moment.

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You can make a batch of this and keep it in an airtight container in the fridge for a week. Just warm it up again and pair it with rice and vegetables or just some leafy green salad. Or if you’re like me and extremely lazy, toss the rice in a sheet pan together with the chicken and put it in the oven. At the same time, blanch some broccoli on the burner. Once it’s ready, discard the oil in the pan (if there’s too much), and mix the rice well with the chicken juice. Serve hot with the blanched broccoli and your favorite show playing on the TV.

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What you’ll need:

Lemongrass marinade for 4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (around 600gr)
2 tablespoons coconut milk
2 tablespoons minced lemongrass
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon fish sauce
A pinch of black pepper

Five-spice marinade for 4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (around 600gr)
2 tablespoons coconut milk
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon five-spice powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon fish sauce
A pinch of black pepper

Here’s how:

  1. Combine all the ingredients for the marinade in a bowl. Toss the chicken thighs in and let them marinate for at least an hour.
  2. Heat the oven to 350F. Place the thighs skin side up in a roasting pan and bake for 35 minutes then turn the oven to broiler mode for the next 3 Broilers vary in intensity, so remember to check on the oven in the last 2 minutes to avoid burning.
  3. Take the chicken out of the oven and let it rest for 10 minutes before serving.

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