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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Vietnamese-Style Chopped Salad


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.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Making Fresh Green Curry Paste in Bangkok


On my recent trip to Southeast Asia I took a cooking class in Bangkok. Among other delicious dishes, I made curry paste from scratch for the first time ever.

I love a good Thai curry and I've tasted a fair share, so I was pleasantly surprised when the one I made in Bangkok was the best I've ever had. I know it sounds biased, but it's really true.

When you start with fresh, local ingredients, it's hard to go wrong, But it was more than that. It was the recipe itself. It called for all of the usual suspects, like green chilis, kaffir lime, lemongrass, garlic, shallot, galangal, and shrimp paste. But it also called for cilantro and fresh turmeric root, which was a refreshing surprise.

In the United States, some of the ingredients in this recipe will be easier to locate than others. You may be able to find green Thai chili peppers (also called bird chilis), lemongrass, and fresh turmeric root at markets that carry specialty ingredients like Whole Foods. You may need to head to Chinatown or shop online for other ingredients like galangal, shrimp paste, and kaffir lime.

It's likely that substitutions will need to be made. While galangal and ginger resemble each other in appearance, they don't taste anything alike. Ginger is spicy and relatively tender, but galangal is tough and tastes like pine. If you don't have galangal and you don't want to substitute ginger, then simply omit it. Once I bought dried, ground galangal and it didn't have much flavor, so I wouldn't recommend it.

If you can't find kaffir lime in the form of a fruit (of which only the peel is used), you can substitute kaffir lime leaves, which are easier to find. (Freezing leftover leaves will preserve their flavor better than drying them.)

This recipe calls for 2 types of chili peppers - Thai chilis and serrano chilis - but you can substitute other green chili peppers. For a milder flavor, discard the seeds and membranes before you chop the chilis.

If you can't find fresh turmeric root, you can substitute dried ground turmeric, although I urge you to look for it fresh because the flavor is unique.

This recipe makes enough for one serving, so increase the amounts of ingredients as needed.

1 Thai green chili pepper
1 serrano chili pepper
3 to 4 inches of tender lemongrass  
   stalk (tough outer leaves removed)
1 shallot bulb
2 garlic cloves
1-cm slice fresh galangal root
1-cm piece fresh turmeric root
1 handful fresh cilantro leaves and stems
1-1/2-inch by 3/4-inch piece of kaffir lime peel
1/2 teaspoon shrimp paste

Equipment: Mortar and pestle

Use a sharp knife to finely mince the chili peppers, lemongrass, shallot, garlic, galangal, and kaffir lime peel. Add them to a mortar with the shrimp paste. Roughly chop the cilantro and add that as well. 

Use a pestle to grind all of the ingredients into a paste, which will take at least 20 minutes. (This is a labor of love.)

To turn your curry paste into a finished dish:

Warm a tablespoon of coconut oil in a stainless steel wok or deep skillet. Add the curry paste and sauté until fragrant, stirring constantly.

Add any protein you like (I used about a half cup of thinly sliced pork) and cook for two minutes.

Add 1 cup of coconut milk and bring it to a boil. Add 2 kaffir lime leaves and a cup of vegetables (I used chopped Thai eggplants and pea eggplants). Cook until the vegetables are tender and the pork is fully cooked.

Stir in 2 tablespoons of fish sauce, 1 teaspoon of palm sugar (or raw sugar), several basil leaves, and a thinly sliced red chili pepper.

Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Serve immediately with (brown) rice.

Pea Eggplants in Thailand

Cooking Class in Bangkok
The best Thai Green Curry ever, alongside a very good Spicy and Sour Prawn Soup

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Eating Insects in Asia

Market in Cambodia

I've been away from my blog for a few weeks while I've been traveling in Southeast Asia. One of my favorite things about traveling to different countries is trying new foods and discovering different food traditions.

In Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand I ate animals that are uncommon in the US, like snake, frog, eel, and crocodile, under-appreciated parts like tongue and intestine, and insects including ants, tarantulas, honeybee larvae, and crickets so large they looked like grasshoppers.

It turns out that insects can taste quite good. Fried, they're like any other crunchy snack. A bag of crickets can be as addicting as a bag of potato chips. Seriously.
Fried Crickets

Grilled larve are warm and soft, and they lend themselves well to dipping sauces like the traditional Cambodian mixture of fish sauce, fresh lime juice, minced lemongrass and chili pepper. Delicious.

Grilled Honeybee Larvae

Some say that tarantulas taste like crab or shrimp, but I didn't think so. The legs were crunchy, like shoestring potatoes, while the abdomens were soft and squishy with more of an earthy flavor.

Fried Tarantulas

Insects aren't only tasty, they're also nutritious and full of vitamins, minerals, healthy fat, and protein. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, most dried insects have twice the amount of protein found in raw meat and fish, and an equivalent amount of protein found in cooked meat and fish.

Bugs are also a plentiful, affordable, and sustainable food source with a small environmental footprint. According to a recent report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, crickets require 12 times less feed than cattle to produce the same amount of protein. And unlike livestock, they don't produce massive amounts of greenhouse gases that pollute the air or waste products that contaminate soil and waterways. Eating insects may be the answer to future food security all over the world.

Insects aren't yet common cuisine in the United States, but they are everyday food and even delicacies in cultures all over the world, from Asia and Africa to Latin and South America. The United Nations estimates that more than 2 billion people, or a third of the world's population, already eat insects and more than 1,900 species are edible.

You may not be able to find insects at your local market just yet, but they are popping up on restaurant menus around the country, from caterpillars and cicadas to beetles, locusts, and mealworms. Find grasshopper tacos at Tolache in New York City, scorpion starters at Typhoon in Santa Monica, chocolate-covered crickets at Don Bugito in San Francisco, and an entire bug buffet at the Audubon Insectarium's Bug Appétit restaurant in New Orleans.