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I fell in love with fresh mint all over again in Vietnam. It gives dishes an unmistakably refreshing quality, which is especially welcome in hot weather, over there and also over here.
As soon as I got home, I bought a mint plant for my windowsill so I could have access to fresh mint all summer long and re-create some of the salads I ate while I was there.
(I chose peppermint over spearmint because I favor the cleaner, sharper flavor but also because the small leaves are bite-size, so I only have to tear them off the stalks. There's no chopping involved, which saves me a step and prevents the leaves from getting bruised.)
I ate a lot of salads in Vietnam: green mango salad, banana flower salad, pomello salad, green papaya salad, lotus root salad. More often than not they were tossed with fresh mint, grated carrot, chopped peanuts, and a dressing made with fresh lime juice, lemongrass, chili peppers, and fish sauce. These salads were so delicious because they were flavorful in all the right ways: sour, sweet, salty and citrusy.
My version of a Vietnamese-style salad may not be an exact match, but it's a very good substitute half a world away. I used a variety of crisp local vegetables like pea pods, red bell pepper, daikon radish, and savoy cabbage. I substituted grapefruit for pomelo, which adds a slight sour note that complements the lime juice in the dressing. If you can't find grapefruit or if it isn't in season, you can omit it.
When I don't have fresh lemongrass, I substitute the powdered lemongrass I bought back from Vietnam. It isn't as flavorful as fresh lemongrass, but it adds a subtle citrus flavor and helps to thicken the sauce, just slightly. If you don't have lemongrass, you can omit that too. There are so many good flavors in this salad that even if you're missing one or two, it will still be a winner.
I tossed chicken into this salad because I happened to have some on hand. On other occasions I've added grilled calamari or sautéd tempeh strips. In the future I'll try grilled beef or steamed shrimp. Picked crab or lobster would also good.
This recipe yields about 12 cups of salad before you add protein. It could be served as 3 or 4 main course portions or 6 or 8 smaller portions served as starters, dish sides, or a separate salad course. If you're making it ahead, or making more than you can eat, keep the dressing separate and toss it with the salad just before you serve it.
To make the dressing:
2 limes, juiced
1 large clove garlic, grated
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons fish sauce
½ teaspoon grated ginger
4 inches of tender lemongrass stalk (tough outer leaves removed)
1 fresh chili pepper, any color, thinly sliced
Combine the lime juice, garlic, and honey and set aside for a few minutes to allow the honey to dissolve and the garlic to soften.
Whisk in the remaining ingredients. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Set aside.
To make the salad:
I use a mandolin to very thinly slice the pepper and scallion, but you can use a sharp knife instead. I use a food processor to grate the diakon and carrot, but a hand held grater would also work.
1 cup blistered (soaked prior to roasting) or dry roasted peanuts
20 pea pods (snow peas)
1 grapefruit (optional)
1 medium red bell pepper, thinly sliced on a mandolin
1 large scallion, white and green parts thinly sliced
1 large carrot, grated
Piece of daikon radish about 2 inches in diameter and 4 inches long
2 cups thinly sliced savoy cabbage
1½ cups chopped cilantro leaves and stems chopped
1 cup fresh mint leaves (loosely packed)
2 cups shredded or cubed cooked chicken, tossed with enough dressing to coat
In a dry skillet over low heat, toast the peanuts until they start to brown and become fragrant. Set them aside to cool.
Prepare a bowl of ice water. Lightly steam or sauté the pea pods just until crisp-tender, then cool them in the ice water. Thinly slice them.
Slice a whole grapefruit in half and reserve one half for future use. Cut around and extract each segment. (Or, supreme the entire grapefruit and save half the segments for future use). Use your fingers to pull apart the segments into small pieces of pulp. Set them aside.
Roughly chop the cooled peanuts. Add half of them to a large bowl along with the red pepper, scallion, carrot, radish, cabbage, cliantro, and mint. Add the chicken and half the remaining dressing and toss again, making sure that all of the ingredients are lightly coated with the dressing. Add more dressing if you need to. Gently fold in the grapefruit pulp.
Transfer the salad mixture to a serving plate. Sprinkle the rest of the chopped peanuts over the top and serve immediately.