Beef Tenderloin in Caramelized Sugar

4 pieces filet mignon, each 1 inch thick
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup nam pla, or to taste
1 large onion, cut in half-moon slices
1 teaspoon black pepper, or more

Put a 10-inch skillet over high heat. Wait a minute. Add meat, and brown on both sides. Turn off heat, and place steaks on plate.

A minute later, add sugar to pan, and turn heat to medium. Cook, gently shaking pan, until sugar liquefies and begins to bubble. Cook another minute until it darkens, then turn off heat.

Mix nam pla with 1/2 cup water. Carefully add liquid, and turn heat to medium-high. Cook, stirring constantly, until caramel melts into liquid. Add onions, and cook, stirring, about 5 minutes. Stir in any liquid that has accumulated around meat.

Stir in black pepper, and return meat to pan. Cook over medium heat, turning meat once in a while, until it is done to your liking (about 5 to 8 minutes for medium-rare). Taste, and adjust seasoning, then serve, spooning onions and sauce over each steak.

Notes from Bitten: You see this cooking technique a lot in Vietnam, where caramelized sugar is the basis for a savory sauce used in dishes made with pork, beef, shrimp, finfish, chicken and even frog.

Though some cooks recommend adding a little water to the sugar before heating it to avoid burning the sugar, I find that careful attention and moderate heat work equally well. (It’s easiest to melt sugar in a saucepan, but here the sugar is added to the same skillet in which you have browned the beef, so you must be especially attentive.) For savory dishes, it’s important to cook the sugar a little longer than you would for sweet dishes, so that the caramel takes on a distinctive bitterness.