Issue #59: Grill Time, Salad Days
A Simple Technique, A Special Dressing To Make a Satisfying Thai-ish Salad
I’ve been cooking and baking like a fiend, as we’ve had more than a week of rotating guests at the lakehouse, good eaters all. When I was thinking about what to write about for this week’s newsletter, I kept coming back to a style of salad that affords a bit of a break from the kitchen and from all the eating. Details below. For another type of break, how about listening to my What’s Burning podcast, for which I interview chefs and other experts from around the world about how we should consider changing culinary education to address the vast diversity of the world’s food and all the challenges facing our food system. This week we’ve added celebrated chef Marcus Samuelsson to the mix. You can find all of the episodes here or wherever you get your podcasts. —Mitchell
No, this isn’t that other food newsletter about salads. (That’s Emily Nunn’s Department of Salad, and you should subscribe to that, too.) But now that the days are long and hot, I find myself eating even more salad than usual. Greenmarkets are lush with leafy greens and other vegetables. Main-course salads are the perfect answer to “What’s for dinner?” as the mercury climbs and the fridge fills. Stop the wilting!
One salad I return to often is something I refer to as “that Thai salad,” though it is probably more Vietnamese in spirit. In truth, it is a mish-mash of different culinary tropes that produces a delicious result. “Salads” are a key element of southeast Asian meals, even though many might not fit into our limited American definition. They come in myriad varieties, often built around a central ingredient, such as boldly seasoned ground meat, raw seafood, chilled rice noodles, crisp fried vegetables, or even fried and then shredded fish. These salads defy salad detractors to dismiss the category as boring. American salads are just the tip of the iceberg.
Often, inspiration to make this particular salad comes from having some leftover cooked meat to use up, whether beef, lamb, chicken, or duck. As you know, I’m always looking for ways to turn leftovers into something new: #wastenot. Sometimes, I come home from a meal at a steakhouse with a piece of meat that we just couldn’t finish. Or perhaps after a barbecue I have an extra grilled pork chop or a breast of duck. As you will slice whatever you have thinly to drape over the greens, a small-ish piece of meat will serve several people. This is good for you and for the planet, to boot.
If you are starting without a cooked piece of meat, simply marinate whatever you’ve got for a few minutes or a day with some minced garlic, ginger, and a splash of Thai fish sauce, nam plah. You can treat shrimp or fish similarly. Once marinated, grill it over coals or sear in a cast iron pan, just until cooked through. Set aside.
As for the greens. This is where you can get creative. An assortment of lettuces is a must. Think arugula, gem, oakleaf, cress. and mustard greens to start. Then add a lot of herbs, such as Thai, opal, and/or Italian basil, mint, cilantro, parsley, and our new favorite addition, celery leaf. Then you can add sprouts, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Shave some fennel, kohlrabi, and/or turnip. Because it is summer, I’ve been adding sliced peaches, nectarines and/or plums. Some thinly sliced onion is essential. I prefer sweet white or red onion. Scallions, too. You could also add garnishes that find their way into other southeast Asian salads, such as roasted peanuts, crisp fried onions, shallots, or other vegetables, poached shrimp, thin slices of fresh chili. Don’t hold back.
The thing that pulls the whole thing together is the dressing, a typical combination of sweet, salty, sour, spicy, and umami achieved by combining sugar, fish sauce, and fresh lime juice with chili. If you like it hot, thinly slice birdseye chilies, seeds and all. If you are more of a wimp, seed and finely chop serrano or Fresno chili. Another benefit of this salad is that there is no oil or other fat in the dressing. You could add it, but it isn’t necessary, as the richness of the meat balances the tartness of the lime.
Serve it with a bowl of steamed jasmine rice and you’ve got a fantastic meal.
Like many of my recipes, this is more of a technique than a recipe. You should use it as a guideline to create a combination of flavors and textures you and your family love the way we in ours love this.
RECIPE: That Thai-ish Salad
(Serves 2 to 4)
1 tablespoon palm, coconut, brown, or granulated sugar
1/4 cup warm water
1/3 cup fresh lime juice, from 2 or 3 limes, plus additional lime wedges for garnish
1/4 cup fish sauce, aka nam plah
1 small fresh chili, of whatever heat level you enjoy
3 to 4 cups mixed salad greens, such as arugula, gem lettuce, oakleaf lettuce, watercress, mustard greens, and/or mesclun
1 to 2 cups leaves of assorted herbs, including different basils, cilantro, mint, parsley, celery leaf, and others
1 to 2 cups assorted other vegetables, thinly sliced, such as tomato, cucumber, fennel, kohlrabi, and/or Japanese turnip
1 piece ripe fruit, such as a peach, nectarine, or plum, thinly sliced (optional)
½ medium sweet white or red onion, thinly sliced
Other garnishes, such as chopped scallion, sprouts, roasted peanuts,
4 to 8 ounces or more cooked meat, such as beef, pork, chicken, duck, or seafood, such as shrimp or flaky white fish (see notes above if cooking it for this dish)
In a small bowl, combine the sugar with 2 or 3 tablespoons of the warm water and stir to dissolve. If the sugar won’t dissolve, let sit a few minutes. Whisk in the lime juice and fish sauce to blend. Add the chili and set aside.
In a large, wide bowl, or platter with a decent rim to catch the dressing, scatter the greens. Add all but a few of the herbs, and assorted vegetables, toss to mix. Spread them attractively on the serving dish. Arrange the fruit, onion, and other garnishes in an attractive pattern on top of the greens, reserving a handful or two for garnish.
Thinly slice the cooked meat across the grain and drape the slices on top of the arranged greens and other vegetables. Mix the dressing and taste a drop or two. Adjust the seasoning, if necessary, with more of any of the ingredients. Depending on how concentrated your fish sauce is, you may want to add a little more water. But note that although the dressing will seem very pungent on its own, the flavors will dissipate once tossed with the salad. Spoon the dressing over the meat and vegetables, reserving some to serve alongside. Scatter the reserved herbs and other garnished on top and serve with bowls of steamed rice.