Although I’m an adventurous eater and love all kinds of Asian foods, it hasn’t been until relatively recently (the last 5 years or so) that I discovered how much I love Vietnamese food. Sad, because out of all the types of Asian cuisines I’ve tried, Vietnamese cooking calls out to me the most, with its pungent flavors of fish sauce, chilies, lime and fresh herbs. It’s ironic because although I lived in France, where there is a large Vietnamese population, my experience was limited to snacking on the occasional nem (fresh roll), which you could buy at the counter in many Vietnamese-owned groceries.
Here in Metro Detroit, there is also a significant Vietnamese population in the Madison Heights area (see this post about some of the Asian specialty stores in that area). A couple years ago Marvin turned me on to a restaurant on John R just north of 11 Mile Rd. called Thang Long *insert immature jokes here… you know you want to* and I’ve been hooked ever since. It’s not much to look at when you walk in- the decor is all rose-colored and clearly hasn’t been updated since the early ’80s; the vinyl seats are torn in places. There’s a long table in the middle of the restaurant where the family congregates to do food prep, wrap silverware, etc. But none of that matters because when you go to Thang Long, you go for the food.
I’ve tried several dishes at Thang Long, but my favorite is the Duck & Cabbage salad. Cabbage is shredded and doused with a dressing of vinegar, fish sauce, chilies and garlic; there are slices of red bell pepper, mint and basil leaves, a sprinkling of peanuts, and best of all, pieces of shredded duck breast. Last year I acquired Andrea Nguyen’s book Into the Vietnamese Kitchen (check out this post for a great stuffed tofu recipe from that book), and happily it contained a recipe for a very similar salad that used poached chicken breast in place of the duck. I made a batch and was delighted to find that, with just a little tweaking, I could now make my beloved duck salad at home. Best of all, it’s an incredibly easy recipe AND super healthy- there’s not even any oil in the salad dressing. The salad is great when it’s first made, but I also like it after it “marinates” in the dressing and the cabbage softens a bit. Either way, you’ll be glad it makes a big batch because it’s addictive and easy to eat huge portions!
Photo notes: The first photo is of the salad I made at home with chicken, following the original recipe without any modifications. The photo of the salad with the herbs and red pepper is the actual duck salad at Thang Long (hence the crappy lighting). The things on the side of the plate are delicious fried shrimp chips.
If you’re looking for a more weekday version of this dish, this salad works just as well with chicken rather than duck. I’m not usually a fan of the rather flavorless white chicken breast meat available in most stores (use Amish or organic if possible!), but the salad has so much flavor of its own that it works out. For the chilies, in a pinch you can do what I did and use dried bird’s eye chilies; just pour a small amount of very hot water over them and let them soak a bit before using. The items marked “optional” are ingredients that Thang Long uses in their salad that were not included in Ms. Nguyen’s recipe.
For the salad:
1 Tbs fish sauce
1 bone-in duck or chicken breast (both sides)
1 small red onion or two shallots, thinly sliced
½ to ¾ cup distilled white vinegar
1 small head green cabbage, about 1 lb, quartered through the stem end, cored, and cut crosswise into ¼-inch-wide ribbons
1 large carrot, peeled and shredded (I use the large holes of a box grater)
a good handful of cilantro, finely chopped (about 2-3 Tbs)
¼ of a red bell pepper, thinly sliced (optional)
2-3 sprigs mint leaves (optional)
2-3 sprigs basil (optional)
2-3 Tbs finely chopped unsalted peanuts (optional)
For the dressing:
1-2 Thai or serrano (red) chilies, chopped (see notes)
1 clove garlic, chopped
½ tsp sugar
pinch of salt
3 Tbs fish sauce
6 Tbs unseasoned Japanese rice vinegar
Choose a lidded saucepan just large enough to hold the meat. Fill half-full with water and the 1 Tbs fish sauce, and bring to a rolling boil. Drop in the duck or chicken breasts. When the water starts bubbling at the edges of the pan, remove the pan from the heat and cover tightly; let sit undisturbed for 30-40 minutes. If you’re at all nervous about undercooked meat, use a meat thermometer to ensure the meat has reached 160°. (Alternately, if time is not an issue, you can cook the meat in a slow cooker on low for a couple hours; folks on Serious Eats claim they get a moister result this way.)
Meanwhile, place the cabbage, carrot, cilantro and red bell pepper (if using) in a large bowl. Put the onion or shallots in a small bowl and add the white vinegar just to cover (the vinegar tames the onion’s bite). Let sit for 15 minutes. Drain well and add to the cabbage. When the meat is cool enough to handle, remove the skin and shred the meat by hand along the grain; when cool, add to the bowl of cabbage.
Using a mortar and pestle, mash the garlic, chilies, sugar and salt until they form a fragrant orange-red paste. Scrape the paste into a small bowl and add the rice vinegar and fish sauce, stirring to dissolve and combine.
Just before serving, pour the dressing over the salad and toss well to combine. Taste and adjust the flavors as needed, balancing the sour, salty, sweet and spicy. Transfer to a serving plate, leaving behind any unabsorbed dressing. Garnish with the herb sprigs and the peanuts, if using (or leave on the side for your guests to add as desired).
I’m not usually the type to make a recipe more than once or twice, even if it’s really great, because there are so many new things to try and I always have a backlog of recipes I want to make. It’s kind of like reading the same book twice… I’ve done it before, but I’d much rather take a chance and read something new!
This potato salad, however, is one of the few recipes which has made it into my permanent repertoire. I think every cook should have a good potato salad up their sleeve, and this is mine (well, one of the permutations of it, anyway). I originally got the recipe from Cook’s Illustrated, and have only made a couple tiny modifications. This version calls for walnut oil and Sherry vinegar, mostly because I had recently bought some walnut oil and wanted to use it. Walnut oil is a real treat if you can find it, and pairs very nicely with Sherry vinegar. Once you have the basic method down, the recipe lends itself well to any flavors and variations you’d want to foist upon it. I often play around with the oil and vinegar combos- I’ve made this many times with olive oil & red wine vinegar (which is what the original recipe stipulates), but white wine or champagne vinegar would be good too. Or you could make an autumnal version using walnut oil and apple cider vinegar and put little bits of walnut and apple in the salad (maybe leave out the herbs for that version). I embellished this version of the salad with some walnut pieces, crumbled blue cheese, and bacon on top. It’s also great served on a bed of arugula. (Note: If you do use walnuts, don’t add them until just before serving- if they sit, their skins will stain the potatoes most unattractively.)
2 lbs small thin-skinned potatoes (redskin or yellow will both work), unpeeled, scrubbed, and cut into 1/4″ thick slices
2 tbs salt
1 medium garlic clove, peeled
1 1/2 tbs sherry vinegar
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1/4 cup walnut oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 small shallot, minced
1 tbs minced fresh parsley
1 tbs minced fresh tarragon
1 tbs minced fresh chives (see notes)
1 tbs minced fresh chervil (see notes)
optional garnishes: walnut pieces, crumbled blue cheese or gorgonzola, bacon…
Notes: When I made this, I only used the tarragon and parsley. For those of you who have herb gardens or unlimited grocery budgets, by all means use the chives and chervil; however, where I live, fresh herbs run at least $2 a package and I’m certainly not suggesting they’re crucial enough to justify that expense. If you’re leaving them out, I would up the parsley and tarragon to 1 1/2 tbs each, though. Spreading the potatoes on the baking sheet may seem like an extra unneccesary step, but it really helps get the dressing much more evenly distributed than just stirring, so you don’t get bland bites of potato with no sauce. Last but not least, in the photo, those are scallions you see… I couldn’t locate the shallot I *knew* was hanging out somewhere in the kitchen, so I improvised. But shallots would definitely be my preference.
Directons: Place the potatoes in a large saucepan with 6 cups cold tap water and the 2 tbs. salt; bring to boil over high heat, then reduce to medium. Lower garlic into the simmering water via a skewer or slotted spoon, and blanch for about 45 seconds. Run the garlic under cold tap water to stop the cooking, and set aside. Continue to simmer potatoes, uncovered, until tender but still firm, about 5 minutes. Drain potatoes, reserving 1/4 cup of their cooking water. Arrange hot potatoes on one or two rimmed baking sheets close together in a single layer.
Mince the garlic or put through a garlic press. In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar, reserved potato cooking water, garlic, and a few generous grinds of pepper. Taste both potatoes and dressing for salt, adding a little to the dressing if it seems bland. Drizzle the dressing evenly over the warm potatoes and let stand for 10 minutes. You can use this time to mince your shallots and herbs.
Sprinkle the shallots & herbs over the potatoes. Transfer to a serving dish. Mix gently with a rubber spatula to combine. Serve immediately. (The salad is best served slightly warm or at room temperature. If your schedule prohibits serving it right away, remove the salad from the fridge long enough in advance to allow it to come to room temp, and wait to add the herbs until just before serving.) According to Cook’s Illustrated, the salad is safe to sit out unrefrigerated for 2 hours.
And thus continues my homage, my elegy, my song of praise for the humble tomato…
It all started when I was very young. My grandfather on my Dad’s side was a farmer who grew field corn, probably used for things like animal feed, corn oil, and maybe even high-fructose corn syrup, who knows. But I prefer to remember him for the huge vegetable garden that he grew every year. We’d go out to the farm for the day and return home with brown paper sacks brimming with tomatoes, corn, and maybe some zucchini or cucumbers. The tomatoes and corn were the standouts, though; we’d boil up the corn, slather it with butter, dust it with salt and eat it with a big pile of sliced tomatoes. This is still my favorite summer supper, although now I usually add a simple green salad and some good bread to soak up all those tomato juices. I also have fond memories of helping my grandpa out on summer Saturdays at the Charlotte farmers’ market when I was 8 or 9 years old. I don’t know how much he really needed my “help”, but I would bag up the corn for the customers and get paid (I think?) a dollar an hour, money that went to candy purchases or my sticker collection.
It’s been over 20 years since I had one of my grandpa’s tomatoes, so now I have to make do with what I can get from the area farmers. Plotting out the fate of my remaining Eastern Market haul of tomatoes, I came across an unusual-sounding recipe in the Zuni Café Cookbook (one of my favorite cookbooks) for a layered tomato-and-bread ”pudding” that was a riff on the summer berry puddings popular in England. The concept is that you take white bread and berries (or in this case tomatoes), put them in a bowl with a weight on top, and the bread absorbs all the fruit’s juices and becomes compact and sliceable. I’ve never had the berry version, but stale bread and tomatoes seems to be a winning combination (think gazpacho, pappa al pomodoro, panzanella…) so I was game to give it a try.
The pudding turned out to resemble a ”structured” panzanella, tasting very salad-wannabe with its piquant sherry vinaigrette and bits of shallots and herbs. Judy suggests basil, but wanting something a little different I used thyme and rosemary and was pleased with the results. If the idea of soggy bread just doesn’t do it for you, I urge you to try it; you just may become a convert. I thought Judy’s panade (another mushy stale-bread recipe) was odd the first time I tried it, but now make it regularly. For efficiency’s sake, I think in the future I’d just make the more rustic panzanella if cooking for myself, but the layered presentation is certainly prettier if you have guests to impress.
Summer Tomato Pudding à la Judy Rodgers printer-friendly version
about 2 1/2 lbs very ripe tomatoes (if you can get heirlooms, the color variations make for an even more attractive dish)
8 oz. day-old bread, sliced into 1/4 inch slices
1 cup olive oil
3 tbs sherry vinegar (or sub red wine vinegar)
1 clove garlic
1 medium shallot, minced
1/2 a small cucumber (about 3 oz), peeled, seeded and diced
about 1/4 cup minced fresh herbs of your choice
salt and pepper
Preheat the broiler. Put the bread in a single layer on a couple cookie sheets and run under the broiler until lightly browned (on one side only). Cut the garlic clove in half and rub all the toasted surfaces with it. Brush the nontoasted side lightly with water and place in a bag to steam and soften.
Whisk together the oil and vinegar; set aside. Slice the tomatoes in half lengthwise, place them cut sides down, and slice thinly. Pick out the shoulders and bottom end pieces and chop them. Place them in a mesh strainer, salt them, and squish them through the strainer over the vinaigrette to release their juice; discard. Add any juice that collects on the cutting board to the vinaigrette as well.
Build the pudding in a dish or bowl with a capacity of about 1 1/2 quarts. You’re going to be weighting down the pudding, so choose a dish into which a flat object such as a plate or lid will just fit. Start with a layer of bread, cutting or tearing it so it completely covers the bottom of the dish without overlapping. Continue with a layer of tomatoes, overlapping those very closely like shingles. Sprinkle on some shallots and herbs and a touch of salt and pepper, then drizzle on a few tbs. of the vinaigrette. Add another layer of bread, pressing down to encourage the tomatoes to release their juice. Repeat layers, ending with a layer of tomato. You should have a few spoonfuls of vinaigrette left over; save this, along with any leftover herbs, shallots etc. for garnish. Poke the pudding randomly with a skewer or a meat fork.
Cover with parchment paper or plastic, then place a plate or other flat object on top, and weight it down with cans or whatever you have handy (you’ll want a weight of at least a couple pounds). Set aside at room temperature.
After about an hour, remove the weight and check the pudding by sliding a knife down the side of the dish; the pudding should ooze. Taste the juice. If it seems too dry, drizzle some more vinaigrette over the top and down the sides. Press the pudding again until ready to serve.
To serve, remove the weights, run a knife around the edges, and invert the pudding onto a serving plate, rapping the bottom of the dish if it won’t release. Present whole, and then cut into wedges (I found a serrated knife works best). Garnish with any remaning sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs (or, if you like, a few scattered cherry or grape tomatoes).
The other day I was catching up a little on my blog reading, and came across something on a very well-known food blog that kind of blew me away. It was a recipe for a pepper salad, and was basically just red & yellow peppers, red onion, feta and cucumber. The kind of thing that I throw together without thinking twice; not the kind of dish I would deem “blog-worthy”. There was no cute story with it; just the recipe and a bit about how the author had stopped eating salads with lettuce. But there, underneath the post, were close to 150 comments saying how great it was, and how people were dropping everything to rush to the store to make this salad. I have to say, I was flabbergasted. Really?!?
Reading this person’s post, it jolted me back to the reality that many people (possibly even the majority?) who regularly read food blogs and watch the Food Network rarely cook! All those commenters that said stuff like “Wow, that looks so delicious”…? I would bet money that less than 5% of them go on to actually prepare the recipe. (I guess this isn’t so strange if you think about, for example, all the people who read fashion magazines but don’t dress fashionably.)
So what does this have to do with balela? (Huh? Remember that… the title of this post? Oh yeah…) Well, I made some a few weeks ago (or rather, my interpretation of it), and even took a couple photos, but never posted it because I didn’t think it was “fancy” enough or something. Clearly, I am out of touch with what the blog-reading public wants! I guess the moral of the story is that instead of trying to second-guess what people may want to read about, I should just post whatever I feel like?
Trader Joe’s sells balela in little plastic tubs, but the portion they sell amounts to about one whole serving, and it’s easy and much cheaper to make yourself. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of making big batches of grain or legume-based salads to take in my lunch. They’re also good potluck fare- this one was for the Memorial Day BBQ I went to (the one with the grilled pizza). My version isn’t “authentic” balela in any way, as I added some extra veggies (peppers, cucumbers), but I like the extra crunch they add. The dressing is inspired by the dressing for fattoush and can be used in any salad where you want Middle Eastern flavors.
Mediterranean Chickpea Salad (aka Balela, my way) (printer-friendly version)
1 can chickpeas & 1 can black beans (or two cans chickpeas), drained & rinsed
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
1/2 an English cucumber, peeled, seeds removed and diced
1/2 a small red onion, diced, or 3-5 scallions, thinly sliced
1/2 red or green bell pepper, diced
1 good handful flat-leaf parsley leaves, minced
Notes: I use grape tomatoes because they’re more reliable year-round, but if you have good-quality regular tomatoes, go ahead and use them. This salad is excellent with a bit of feta crumbled into it- I don’t believe it’s traditional, but it makes it a little more substantial and adds a welcome texture and richness to the austerity of raw vegetables. If you can’t be bothered with the za’atar and sumac, the salad will still be good without them- I threw them in because I happened to have some handy. And if you’re inclined to use a whole lemon, just sick with a 1:2 ratio of lemon to oil and up the seasonings a bit; if you have leftover dressing it’ll keep indefinitely in the fridge, and is great on green salad too.
Directions: Combine all of the vegetables in a large bowl. Smash the garlic clove with the flat side of a chef’s knife. Place in a small screw-top jar with the other dressing ingredients and shake well. Let the garlic clove marinate in the dressing for 5-10 minutes and then fish it out and discard. Pour the dressing over the salad and stir well to combine. Taste and adjust for salt and pepper, or for more oil or lemon juice according to your taste. (It will almost definitely need more salt, but I’d rather err on the side of you having to add some.) Let the salad sit for at least 15-20 minutes to let the vegetables marinate and release some of their juices. Taste again and add more salt or dressing if needed. If not serving immediately, wait until serving to add the parsley. For best flavor, serve at room temp or only slightly chilled.
When I lived in France, I learned how to make salad dressing (aka la vinaigrette) from scratch, and it was a revelation. Almost any vegetable, raw or cooked, can be dressed with vinaigrette and be so much the better for it (at least in my book). A popular salad on French lunch tables is carottes rapées (that’s grated carrots, not raped carrots, although I once had a French tutor who confused these faux amis during a lesson at her house, asking her husband if he could please rape the cheese for their dinner quiche…) I’ve never been a huge fan of carrot sticks, or of carrot coins in a salad, but grated carrots may as well be a different vegetable entirely. I can eat great big mounds of them, and they are one of the few vegetables I prefer raw.
Here’s an informative blog post by French food maven David Lebovitz on the cultural/ culinary significance of carottes rapées. He also links to his method of preparing them, which is simplicity itself: lemon, parsley, maybe a little olive oil. My crème fraîche version is admittedly a little less “pure”, but I did serve it to a Frenchman once who exclaimed excitedly ”Ah j’adore les carottes rapées!” and promptly ate most of the bowl, so I feel somewhat confident in saying that, although different, my method is still acceptable.
While you can certainly serve this salad on its own, I love to make a first course out of it by mounding it into the center of an avocado. It’s a little more luxurious, and somehow it has a sort of retro appeal. You can either peel the avocados (if they’re the correct ripeness, the skin should easily peel right off) or leave them in their shells and let people scoop out the flesh with a spoon.
salade de carottes rapées en nid d’avocat/ grated carrot salad in an avocado nest
Serves 8 as a first course; adjust measurements for smaller or larger crowds
4 ripe avocados
2 tbs crème fraîche (or substitute 1 tbs sour cream + 1 tbs plain yogurt)
1 tsp dijon mustard
1 tbs olive oil
2 tbs freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 large clove garlic, optional
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
some finely chopped parsley to garnish (I didn’t have any the day the photos were taken, and your salad certainly won’t be ruined without it, although it is a nice touch. If you really like parsley, use more and mix it right in with the carrots.)
Notes: As with almost all salads and salad dressings, I implore you to taste as you go and adjust as necessary- the measurements are intended as guidelines only. If you don’t do dairy, this dressing can easily be made without it; just increase the olive oil and lemon proportionately. Most vinagrettes use a much higher oil to acid ratio, but I find that because carrots are so sweet, they can stand up to a dressing that is quite tart. When everything comes together, it should be well-balanced. Also, if serving with avocados, their fatty blandness balances the extra tartness from the lemons. Don’t fear the sour!
Directions: Make the dressing: in a medium bowl, combine the crème fraîche, mustard, and olive oil; whisk together until well combined. Whisk in the lemon juice until fully incorporated, and season to taste with salt and pepper. If using the garlic, smash the clove and put it in the dressing to infuse.
Peel 4 carrots and grate on a box grater or in the food processor. When ready to serve, fish out the garlic and discard, and toss the carrots in the dressing until fully coated. If serving with the avocados, it’s ok if the salad is a little “over-dressed”, because you need a little extra so the avocado isn’t bland. If you’re just serving the carrots on their own, however, you may want to add a couple more carrots or reduce the quantity of dressing. If you over-dress the salad, or let it sit too long before serving, the carrots will get soggy. (Heaven forbid this should happen, but if it does, take comfort in knowing that pieces of baguette are the perfect vehicle for sopping up the extra juice.)
Halve the avocados, remove the pits, and if they don’t sit still, remove a small sliver on the bottoms so they don’t roll around. Mound the carrots in the hollow, sprinkle with parsley and serve.