Sunday, April 22, 2012

Vietnamese Chicken Salad

The Setting: A somewhat rainy, somewhat chilly spring day in good ole' South Bend.

The Soundtrack: Cars and buses breezing by; Oia's dreamy breathing.

Steaming up the Oven: Leftover Ham and Kale pizza.

The Scenario: Did the Crispy Rice Chips, Grilled Tomato Salsa, and Spicy Cucumber Salad whet your appetite for more of Alford and Duguid's Southeast-Asian finds?

If so, you're in luck, because today we're headed to Vietnam for ga xe phai, or Vietnamese Chicken Salad, a hot, sour, salty, and sweet entree that'll have you packing your bags and stamping your passport by the time you can ask for seconds.

Vietnamese Chicken Salad may be something you can find at your local Asian-bistro chain in the States, but that doesn't make it any less authentic. Alford and Duguid found this version many years ago at a mom-and-pop establishment in Vietnam, and to this day it's one of their favorite dishes.

One of the things that makes this dish so special to the authors is the inclusion of rau ram, or Vietnamese coriander, a "strong, distinctive-tasting herb" (Hot Sour Salty Sweet, p197) that is not at all reminiscent of the coriander we in the States know as cilantro.

Unfortunately, I have been, as of yet, unable to track down any rau ram in my general vicinity.

Fortunately, the authors suggest a few alternatives. I used a mixture of mint and sweet basil in my salad, and the combo was incredible.

Hoosband and I served the salad atop freshly steamed brown rice, which helped diffuse a bit of the heat from the Serrano peppers and created nice contrasts of hot and cold and soft and crunchy...though honestly, I could easily eat the whole bowl of this stuff by itself if left to my own devices.

With saltiness from the fish sauce and vinegar, sweetness from the sugar, sourness from the lime juice, and heat from the chiles, this dish is a prime example of Southeast-Asian cuisine's mastery of combining opposing-yet-complementary tastes in a single dish.

Easy...tasty...healthy...what more can you ask for?

This recipe is reprinted with permission from Artisan Books; my notes are in red.

Vietnamese Chicken Salad with Rau Ram (ga xe phai --Vietnam)

2 pounds chicken legs and/or breasts, rinsed (see Note below) I used 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts; also I never rinse my chicken--it gets the juces everywhere and creates more opportunities for contamination.
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
3 tablespoons Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce
2 T rice or cider vinegar
1 tsp sugar, or to taste
2 to 3 bird or Serrano chiles, minced I used 2 Serrano with the seeds and membranes
3 shallots, thinly sliced
1 cup bean sprouts, rinsed I omitted these because my market did not have any at the time
2 cups shredded napa cabbage, or substitute finely shredded Savoy cabbage I used 3 cups of packaged cole slaw shreds with carrot and red cabbage
2/3 cup Vietnamese coriander leaves (rau ram), coarsely torn, or substitute Asian basil or sweet basil leaves, torn, or 1/2 cup finely chopped mint leaves plus extra whole leaves for garnish I used half mint and half sweet basil
freshly ground black or white pepper

Place a heavy pot with about 4 cups water in it on the stove to boil. When simmering, add the chicken and poach until the juices run clear when the flesh id pierced with a skewer, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove the chicken from the cooking liquid and let cool; reserve the broth for another purpose. (The chicken can be cooked ahead, and stored, once cooled to room temperature, in a well-sealed container in the refrigerator, for up to 48 hours. Before proceeding, bring back to room temperature.) My boneless, skinless breasts took about 25 minutes at a very gentle simmer.

Remove and discard the chicken skin, lift the meat off the bones, and pull into shreds. There should be about two cups of meat.

In a small bowl, stir together the lime juice, fish sauce, vinegar, sugar, chiles, and garlic. Separate the shallot slices into rings, then add to the dressing. Let stand for 30 minutes, if you have time. I did this step before I put the chicken on to simmer so the shallots could hang out in the dressing as the chicken poached.

Blanch the bean sprouts in boiling water (or the reserved chicken broth) for about 30 seconds, then refresh with cold water and drain thoroughly. In a large bowl, combine the chicken, bean sprouts, cabbage, and herbs. Pour the dressing over and toss gently to blend well. I mixed up the dressing in a large bowl so I could add everything else straight to the dressing without dirtying extra dishes.

Mound the salad decoratively on a plate. Grind pepper over if you wish, and garnish with herb leaves.

Serves 4 with rice or noodles.

Note: If you already have 2 cups or more of cooked chicken, you can use it. Just shred it into bite-size pieces, then mix up the dressing and assemble the salad as directed. This salad is traditionally served with deep-fried shrimp chips. We like it simply with rice or noodles.

Excerpted from Hot Sour Salty Sweet by Jeffrey Alford & Naomi Duguid (Artisan Books). Copyright 2000.

I hope you are enjoying our trip down the Mekong. Stay tuned for more tasty travels and our final entree from Hot Sour Salty Sweet, coming soon!

Thanks for reading! Here's to Being the Secret Ingredient in your life.

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