After my cooking lesson with Penn and her friends (see previous post), I was hooked on Thai cooking. I wanted to chop and pound and sizzle my taste buds. I turned to a book about the art, history, and technique of Thai home cooking by Su-Mei Yu. Chef, teacher, and writer, Su-mei lives in the United States but has made many journeys back to Thailand to research the history and evolution of traditional recipes, as well as the people and customs that shaped them. She writes, “To me, teaching someone how to cook Thai food is like teaching someone to dance.” Her book is called “Cracking the Coconut, Classic Thai Home Cooking.”
Yumm is the word for Thai salads. Su-Mei explains that yumm describes the process of using your hands to mix various ingredients–vegetables, fruits, blossoms, and roots–together with a dressing. The ingredients are the best and brightest of fresh, seasonal produce, and the salads are full of contrasting flavors and textures. Each salad has a star ingredient and a cast of supporting characters to surprise and delight. These salads are the perfect place to practice the Thai sense of sanuk, or fun, and one of the easiest ways to experiment with Thai cooking.
Layers of flavor create the intriguing nature of Thai cooking. Thai salads are often named for their main ingredients, so Su-Mei includes recipes like Yumm-Grilled Chile, Yumm-Pomegranate, Yumm-Wild Rose (adapted from the Persians), and even Yumm-Baloney (adapted from American soldiers!). The main ingredients for the salad should include soft, chewy, and crisp textures for contrast. Fresh herbs and fruit add bursts of flavor, while garnishes add color, aroma, and more texture. A Thai salad dressing combines sweet, salty, sour, and hot flavors to bind it all together.
Thai salads are versatile and invite creativity. You can make one with just one vegetable or many. You can include cooked or smoked meat, fish, chicken, or tofu. You can serve the salad with rice or noodles on the side, or toss it all together. Su-Mei recommends arranging the salad ingredients on a large platter for a beautiful presentation, pouring on the dressing and tossing gently just before serving. Garnishes are added as a finishing touch.
To create my first Thai salad of spring, I went to the garden to look for the most enticing vegetables to make a juicy, crisp, herby combination that would sparkle with flavor and color. Su-Mei says to include crispy, soft or slippery, and chewy textures, so I harvested asparagus, young carrots and turnip for crisp crunch, a golden beet for its brilliant color, and snap peas. Then I gathered arugula, mint, cilantro, celery leaves, garlic chives, and all the flower petals I could find.
Spring Vegetable Salad
Thai salads are intensely flavorful, so they are meant to be eaten with rice. Short grain brown or white rice (sushi rice), jasmine rice, Bhutanese red rice, or Chinese black rice are all good choices. The rice can be served in small bowls or combined with the other ingredients before serving.
Ingredients: 10 or 12 medium size asparagus stalks (grilled* and chopped in bite-size pieces), 2 or 3 young carrots (1 cup diced or cut in matchsticks), 2 small turnips (1 cup diced or cut in matchsticks), 1 beet (steamed or boiled, peeled and diced), 1 1/2 cups thinly sliced snap peas, 1/2 cup slivered sweet onion, 1/2 cup finely sliced garlic chives or scallions, 1/4 cup each chopped mint, cilantro, and celery, 1 or 2 finely chopped fresh chiles, 1/2 cup halved green grapes
Additions: 2 or 3 cups cooked rice, 1 1/2 cups thinly sliced grilled chicken or crisp-seared tofu, whole lettuce leaves
Garnish: 1/4 cup chopped roasted peanuts or pumpkin seeds, handful nasturtium, borage, mustard, and/or calendula flowers, 2 tsp lime or orange zest
Dressing: 1/2 tsp sea salt, 2 tsp minced garlic, 1 1/2 Tbs minced cilantro stems and root, 2 to 4 tsp minced fresh hot chiles, 1/4 cup fish sauce, 2 Tbs palm or Mexican cane sugar, 2 Tbs granulated white sugar, 2 Tbs rice or cider vinegar, 6 Tbs fresh lime juice, 2 Tbs tomatillo salsa, 1 Tbs tamarind juice (substitute pomegranate juice or cherry juice). The last two ingredients are optional, but I like adding the fruity element.
Pound the garlic and salt to make a paste. Add the chiles and pound to incorporate. Add the cilantro stems and root and pound lightly. Whisk in the remaining ingredients until the sugar is dissolved. Adjust the flavors to balance hot, sour, sweet, and sour to your taste.
Make the salad: Prepare all the ingredients and arrange them on a large platter in separate piles. Mound the rice in small piles on the same platter, or serve it in small bowls. After everyone has admired the salad, pour on the dressing and toss all the ingredients gently together. Scatter the garnishes over the top. Serve with large whole lettuce leaves for scooping up the salad.
*Note: My favorite way to cook asparagus is stovetop grilling. Heat a large iron griddle over medium-high heat. Roll the asparagus spears in olive oil to coat lightly. Sprinkle them with kosher or sea salt. Place the asparagus in a single layer on the griddle and cook 8 to 10 minutes, until the spears are tender inside and browned all over. Delicious.