Tuesday, August 16, 2016

"Thai" Chicken Salad (But Please Don't Blame Thailand)

I don't know where the idea came from the saddle poor Thailand with the ubiquitous "Thai chicken salad" that you see on millions of café menus, especially when the best one I've had was at a café in Vermont that had not an Asian employee (or customer) in sight.

However, of all the things to be saddled with, this particular dish is not such a burden. It's not like baloney (poor Bologna) or Mongolian beef (a pure mall food court creation) or Neapolitan ice cream (Italians would never be so cruel as to interrupt the chocolatey goodness) or Long Island ice tea (although, on second thought, maybe LI deserves that one).

The genius of Thai chicken salad is the dressing, which is spicy and nutty and zingy and gingery, and tastes good on a whole lot of things. It's brilliant with chicken, salad or no, and makes a great dressing for a crunch slaw as well as a leafy salad. Ideas below.

Thai-style Nutty Dressing
Makes about 1 cup

You can use any nut butter you'd like in here—I used peanut butter, but cashew or almond butter would work just as well. 

1/4 c smooth peanut butter
3 TB unseasoned rice wine vinegar
juice of one lime
3 TB neutral oil (canola or grapeseed)
1 TB sesame oil
1 TB soy sauce
1 tsp (or more, or less) chile sauce of your choice, such as sambal oelek, Sriracha, etc.
2 TB honey
1 plump garlic clove (or two svelte ones), peeled and smashed
1 inch ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
2 TB cilantro leaves (optional)
salt to taste

1. Throw all ingredients except salt into a food processor or blender, and puree until very smooth. Taste: add more rice wine vinegar if it needs a bit more acidic bite, and add salt to taste. Whirr again, and it's ready.

"Thai" Chicken Salad
Serves 2

This is dinner at our house. Hearty and full of health. You can cook a chicken breast, or substitute any other protein you'd like—baked or grilled marinated tofu, shrimp, whatever you desire. You can also use rotisserie chicken or other pre-cooked meat or seafood. Use whatever vegetables are fresh—this is definitely something I improvise depending on what's up at the CSA.

1 chicken breast
1 tsp canola oil
2 heaping TB sliced almonds
3 cups romaine lettuce, torn into bite-sized pieces, washed and spun dry
1/2 c shredded napa cabbage
1 carrot, peeled and sliced thinly on the bias (I use a Kyocera slicer/mandoline)
1/2 cucumber, sliced into thin rounds
2 radishes, sliced thin
2 scallions, sliced
a handful of cherry tomatoes, halved
Thai-style nutty dressing

1. Heat a grill pan over medium heat. Season the chicken breast with salt and pepper. Brush grill pan with canola oil; grill chicken breast until cooked (about 10 minutes; nick it with a knife to make sure it's cooked all the way through). Allow to rest on a cutting board. In a small skillet, toast the almonds over medium-high heat, shaking the pan regularly so they don't burn. As soon as they turn golden and toasty, remove from heat.

2. Prepare all the vegetables. In individual salad bowls, arrange lettuce and top with other vegetables. Make it pretty.

3. Cut chicken breast into bite-sized chunks. Arrange artfully over the vegetables. Sprinkle almonds on top, and drizzle generously with dressing to taste. Voilà.

"Thai" Peanut Slaw
Serves 4

This is another "put a bunch of crunchy things in a bowl and mix with dressing" recipes. Good in a lunch box.

4 c shredded napa cabbage
1 c shredded red cabbage (optional)
3 scallions, sliced
2 large carrots, peeled and julienned or shredded, depending on the tools at your disposal
5 radishes, thinly sliced
1 pint sugar snap peas, blanched and cut into 1/2" pieces
1 cucumber, seeded and julienned (but only if you're serving the slaw right away and don't plan on leftovers)
1/3 c sliced almonds, toasted, or the same amount of crushed, dry-roasted peanuts
1/3 c cilantro leaves, washed and dried
Thai-style nutty dressing

1. Put everything into a bowl. Add dressing—start with 1/3 c, and add more until it's got enough for your taste. (I like it fairly lightly dressed.)


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

East Meets West Meets Vegetables

Apparently jalfrezi curry—a quick sauté of vegetables in a thick, spicy tomato sauce—has surpassed chicken tikka masala as the most popular Indian dish in England, which makes the fact that it's almost unknown here in the U.S. even more surprising. Americans should get to know it better—it's easy and super adaptable to whatever vegetables and proteins you have on hand. The ideal weeknight meal, it seems to me.

The stories about its origin are legion—it's an eastern Indian dish, probably from Calcutta, which of course was the seat of English colonial trade for a long time and has a strong Chinese influence. One story is that it was concocted as a way to deal with the leftovers from British Sunday suppers—all that leftover meat and cooked vegetables were turned into a quick, spicy sauté. Another is that it was an Indianized version of a Chinese stir-fry. Both are plausible, and of course one doesn't necessarily contradict the other. (Of course, it could have just been invented in some London curry house, too, I suppose. Go diasporic restaurant owners.)

It only occured to me to make this because I had made a batch of paneer to use up a glut of milk, and someone gave me a green pepper—a capsicum, in British and Indian locution. So: paneer jalfrezi it was. Colorful, healthful, and versatile. I ate it with rice, but you could also do as Indians do and wrap it up in a flatbread for a satisfying lunch (naan or pita would work if you don't feel like making rotis).

Paneer Jalfrezi
Serves 3

You can substitute any protein for the paneer—if you use something raw (say chicken breast), cut it into strips 1x2" and sauté it till golden, remove it from the pan, and proceed with the recipe. If you use something cooked (leftover roasted or grilled meat), skip the sautéing and just add it in later. Of course you should feel free to skip the protein altogether and add some other vegetables: blanched green beans, cauliflower, broccoli—whatever your heart (or CSA share) desires.

To make paneer (which is seriously the easiest thing in the world): Place 2 quarts whole milk in a saucepan and bring just to a boil. As soon as it comes to a boil, add 3 TB lemon juice or white vinegar and turn the heat down to low. You'll see the milk curdle, with greenish whey separating from white curds. Empty the pot into a cheesecloth-lined colander (or use a clean tea towel) and when cool enough to handle bring the corners of the cloth together and twist tightly so that the most of the whey drains from the paneer. Lay the bundle, with the top still tightly twisted, on a cutting board you've placed in the sink, top with a plate and a weight for about 5 minutes. Now unwrap the paneer and use it.

You can also buy paneer at an Indian store, or substitute firm tofu (skip the initial browning).

1 batch of paneer, cut into 1" cubes
1 TB canola oil
1/2 tsp nigella seeds (kalonji)
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 c onion, sliced
2 tsp finely minced garlic
1-2 tsp finely minced ginger
1 green or red chili, sliced (to taste—you can even leave this out)
2 tsp coriander powder
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/4-1 tsp red chili powder (to taste)
1 green pepper, sliced into strips
3 medium carrots, sliced on an angle
3 medium very ripe tomatoes, or 1 c canned diced tomatoes
1 perfectly ripe tomato of whatever color you'd like (mine was yellow), cut into thinnish wedges
1 tsp garam masala
2 tsp kasuri methi (fried fenugreek leaves), if you have it (I didn't)

1. Cut the very ripe tomatoes in half and take out the core. On the big holes of a box grater set over a bowl, grate the tomato. This is an easy way to separate the pulp from the skin (discard the skin) and make a purée. It's a very Spanish trick that I use all the time now when I have VERY ripe tomatoes.

2. In a medium nonstick frying pan, heat 1/2 TB canola oil over medium high heat. When hot, add cubes of paneer. Allow the cubes to brown on one side, then flip them over. Keep doing this until each piece has 2 or 3 golden brown crusty sides. Remove to a plate.

3. Add remaining canola oil to the pan, along with cumin and nigella (kalonji) seeds. When these become fragrant, add the onion and sauté until transluscent. Add the ginger, garlic, and fresh chili (if using) and stir fry for 1 minute. Now add coriander powder, turmeric, red chili powder, and salt to taste and sauté until the spices have toasted and covered the vegetables, about 30 seconds.

4. Add the tomato puree, and allow the mixture to cook until thickened, about 5 minutes over lively heat (longer if your tomatoes were very watery). Now add the green pepper and carrots. Allow to cook for another 5 minutes until the vegetables are just cooked—not soggy.

5. Add the paneer, garam masala, kasuri methi (if using) and fresh tomato, and stir gently to combine. Allow to simmer for a couple of minutes. Serve hot with rice, Indian breads, or stuff in a paratha or pita.