You Say Salad, I Say Gỏi…

 

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For Thanksgiving this year, we joined our good friends at their home just a few miles from our house for dinner. My contribution was not a savory item but a dessert – an almond dacquoise layered with hazelnut chocolate ganache and whipped cream that was laced with Poire William and topped with carmelized pear slices. With these ingredients, it’s hard to go wrong. Sure, it was yummy, though it didn’t look quite as appealing or stunning as I’d hoped. A recipe for that is forthcoming.

In the meantime, I’ve shifted my focus to preparations during the month I’ve got left before Christmas and New Year’s Eve. In truth, this doesn’t involve buying and wrapping gifts and goodies. Rather, this ritual involves stair climbers, treadmills, some rusty dumbbells and slew of swear words thrown in for good measure. For what? To get my tush into that ridiculous and saucy dress I bought on sale that didn’t fit then and might not ever fit.

Silly, you think? Uh, no. It was On Sale.

My need to purchase clothes two sizes too small seems irrelevant here. What is more salient to this discussion is a description of foods I eat following an indulgent weekend of pure, buttery gluttony. These dishes make me happy for two reasons: 1) They are delicious and full of Southeast Asian spicy, crunchy goodness and; 2) They’re quite healthy and nutritious – so much that eating them provides me the prospect of being that svelte dancer, chassé-ing across the floor and exiting with a grand jeté — all while wearing THAT DRESS.

Bon, let’s get on with it.

In Vietnamese , salad or xà lách (pronounced sa-laht) means lettuce. It’s what is used to wrap bundles of meat, fresh herbs and vegetables in Gỏi Cuốn. It’s also the essential accompaniment to Bánh Xèo, Nem Nướng, Chả Giò, as well as numerous other savory Viet dishes.

At a meal in Viet Nam, you’d be hard-pressed to find just a bowl of xà lách that’s been tossed with oil and vinegar. An otherwise simple and elegant dish, it would lack the the variety and texture that Viets crave and demand of their dishes.

Gỏi is our answer to what the Western world calls Salad. Yet, calling it a Viet version of a salad would be underestimating its true powers and abilities, like calling Bono a singer, when you and I know he’s really a living, breathing, SUPERHERO.

Gỏi can be simple but never, ever boring. How can it be? A combination that features tangy, peppery herbs; crispy, crunchy fruits/vegetables; tender, luscious meat and seafood- all spiked with a spicy, sweet, sour sauce simply commands attention. And like any true superhero, gỏi is fearless. It cares not for distinctions between fruit and vegetable, cooked food or raw food, dried food or fresh food. It embraces them all and gives them their due justice.

As a special treat, we have not one, but three different versions I hope you’ll try soon.

 

POMELO SALAD – GỎI BƯỞI

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First up is Pomelo Salad – Gỏi Bưởi. When their season arrives in Viet Nam, vendors will tempt passerbys by stacking pyramids of yellow-green Bưởi, their slightly oblong tops resembling jade mountain caps. Cut through its fragrant peel and you’ll find beautiful light yellow-green or sometimes pink segments that are slightly dry to the touch but plump and juicy when eaten. It has a subtle, sweet flavor that is less acidic and less tart than regular pink or white grapefruits sold here in the U.S.

Making Gỏi with pomelos then, just makes sense. The floral and citrus flavors of the pomelo next the sharp, peppery herbs of Vietnamese coriander (rau răm) and cilantro (rau ngò) is a combination that speaks of more balance than my yoga mat. Throw in some tasty slices of pork, plump shrimp, crunchy carrots and cucumbers to complete the dish.

 

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POMELO SALAD – GỎI BƯỞI

INGREDIENTS: (4-6 servings)

  • 1/2 lb. poached pork tenderloin [chicken breast can also be substituted]
  • 1/2 lb. fresh unpeeled, de-veined shrimp
  • 1 med. carrot, peeled and finely julienned or grated using a mandoline
  • 1 small/med. cucumber, seeds (if any) removed
  • 1 large pomelo, peel and pith removed and cut into segments
  • 2 Tbl. each, Viet. coriander (rau răm) and cilantro (rau ngò)
  • 1 Tbl. lightly toasted white sesame seeds
  • 2 Tbl. Crispy Fried Shallots (hành phi) –
  • sweet-sour dressing – (nước chấm) –
  • freshly roasted peanuts, lightly crushed (optional)
  • shrimp chips (bánh phồng tôm) or Viet sesame rice crackers (bánh tráng mè)

STEPS:

  • Poach the pork until cooked through. The internal temperature should reach 160F. Allow to cool before thinly slicing into 1/4 inch strips. Set aside.
  • In a skillet, dry-fry the shrimp for several minutes until opaque in color. Allow to cool before removing shells. Set aside.
  • Grate the carrot. Peel the cucumber if its skin is tough or bitter. Scoop out any seeds. Cut in half lengthwise and slice into very thin “half-moons.”
  • In a large bowl, combine the pork, shrimp, carrots, cucumbers, pomelo segments with the herbs (I leave the herbs whole, but you can roughly chop them if you prefer).
  • Just before serving, toss the ingredients with 2-3 Tbl. of Nước Chấm (add more or less depending on your taste). Transfer to a serving plate.
  • Scatter sesame seeds, fried shallots and crushed peanuts over the top of the dish.
  • Serve with shrimp chips or sesame rice crackers.

 

LOTUS STEM SALAD – GỎI NGÒ SEN

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Next is a dish that I ordered almost every time we ate out during our trip to Viet Nam. The crisp, crunchy texture of lotus stems (Ngò Sen) are somehow very fun and addictive to eat. In addition, their mellow, rather bland flavor absorbs the spicy, sweet sauce, allowing the shrimp and pork flavors to really come out. This recipe generally serves four but I have eaten the whole lot in one sitting many a time.

I am reminded of a Viet film called Three Seasons (Ba Mùa), directed by Tony Bui. There’s a picturesque scene in the film, where, in the early morning, young women paddle through a misty pond full of lotus blossoms, singing folk songs as they gently pluck the stems and buds for selling later at the market. It’s where I – and you could – imagine being when eating this, and well, wearing that saucy number I keep mentioning, of course.

 

LOTUS STEM SALAD – GỎI NGÒ SEN

INGREDIENTS: (3-4 servings)

  • 1 jar of lotus stems (often labeled lotus rootlets)
  • 1 Tbl. fresh lime juice
  • 1 Tbl. sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 lb. poached pork tenderloin [chicken breast can also be substituted]
  • 1/2 lb. fresh unpeeled, de-veined shrimp
  • 1 med. carrot, peeled and finely julienned or grated using a mandoline
  • 2 Tbl. each, Viet. coriander (rau răm) and cilantro (rau ngò)
  • 1 Tbl. lightly toasted white sesame seeds
  • 2 Tbl. Crispy Fried Shallots (hành phi) –
  • sweet-sour dressing – (nước chấm) –
  • lightly crushed, freshly roasted peanuts (optional)
  • shrimp chips (bánh phồng tôm) or Viet sesame rice crackers (bánh tráng mè)

STEPS:

  • Poach the pork until cooked through. The internal temperature should reach 160F. Allow to cool before thinly slicing into 1/4 inch strips. Set aside.
  • In a skillet, dry-fry the shrimp for several minutes until opaque in color. Allow to cool before removing shells. Set aside.
  • Cut the lotus stems in half, crosswise and then cut in half lengthwise.
  • In a small bowl, dissolve the sugar, lime and salt. Once dissolved, add the cut lotus stems to the bowl and toss to combine. Set aside.
  • Grate the carrot. Set aside.
  • In a large bowl, combine the pork, shrimp, carrots and lotus stems with the herbs (I leave the herbs whole, but you can roughly chop them if you prefer).
  • Just before serving, toss the ingredients with 2-3 Tbl. of Nước Chấm (add more or less depending on your taste). Transfer to a serving plate.
  • Scatter sesame seeds, fried shallots and crushed peanuts (optional) over the top of the dish.
  • Serve with shrimp chips or sesame rice crackers.
*Pickled, Sliced Pig Ears may also be added to this dish.

 

WATER SPINACH SALAD – GỎI RAU MUỐNG

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Last up to batter is Gỏi Rau Muống. Rau Muống also goes by common names such as Water Spinach, Ong Choy, and Water Morning Glory, just to name a few. It’s often stir-fried with garlic (Rau Muống Xào) or made into a sweet-sour soup (Canh Chua Rau Muống). Here, the crisp, hollow stems of the plant are cut into extremely thin slices which are then submerged in an ice-bath, causing them to curl into little ringlets that are slightly springy, with a delicate crunch to them . In the past, this tedious and rather tricky task was left to skillful housewives and servants. But now, there’s a handy tool that will quickly and safely split the stems into thin slices – great news for a klutz like me. You can find more info on that tool, called Dao Chẻ Rau Muống. Look for them at Asian grocery stores that stock Viet products.

Once the Rau Muống stems have been split and curled in acidulated cold water, they’re combined with juicy slices of freshly grilled flank steak, sautéed shallots, fresh tomatoes (when in season), crushed peanuts and the ever-ubiquitous Nước Chấm sauce.

 

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WATER SPINACH SALAD – GỎI RAU MUỐNG

INGREDIENTS: (4 servings)

  • 2.5 lbs. fresh water spinach (rau muống), rinsed and drained
  • 1 small lime or lemon
  • 1 lb. beef flank steak
  • 1 large or (2 medium) shallot
  • 2 Tbl. cilantro (rau ngò) optional
  • 2-3 Tbl. freshly roasted peanuts, crushed
  • sweet-sour dressing – (nước chấm) –
  • shrimp chips (bánh phồng tôm) or Viet sesame rice crackers (bánh tráng mè)

STEPS:

  • Separate the leaves of the water spinach from the stems. Reserve the leaves for stir-frying or making soup.
  • Cut the stems into approx. 3-inch segments. Next, soak them in a bowl of cold water for at least 30 min. This will allow the stems to stiffen, thus making it easier to slice.
  • Meanwhile, grill or pan-fry the flank steak to medium rare (or medium). Allow to cool before cutting into thin strips (cut on the bias). Set aside.
  • Next, slice the shallots and quickly sauté them in a pan with oil. Set aside.
  • Once the water spinach stems have stiffened, carefully use the specific tool (Dao Chẻ Rau Muống) to make the super-thin slices.
  • Soak the sliced stems in a bowl of cold water that has been acidulated with fresh lime or lemon juice for about 10-15 min. They should curl into ringlets.
  • Drain the ringlets and dry with a clean towel or in a salad spinner.
  • To assemble the salad: In a large bowl, toss the water spinach ringlets, beef slices, shallots and cilantro.
  • Just before serving, toss the ingredients with 2-3 Tbl. of Nước Chấm (add more or less depending on your taste). Transfer to a serving plate.
  • Scatter crushed peanuts over the top of the dish.
  • Serve with shrimp chips or sesame rice crackers.

 

CRISPY FRIED SHALLOTS (HÀNH PHI)

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INGREDIENTS: (makes approx. 1 1/2 cups)

  • approx. 10 small/medium shallots
  • 2 cups canola or vegetable oil

STEPS:

  • Thinly slice the shallots and blot them with a paper towel to remove excess moisture.
  • In a small saucepan on med-high heat, warm the oil. Add a small slice of shallot into the oil. If it sizzles immediately, the oil is hot enough. (Make sure to not over-heat the oil to the point where it smokes).
  • Carefully add the shallots to the pan (little by little, rather than all at once).
  • Fry the shallots for about 1-2 minutes. As soon as they get light golden, transfer the fried shallots using a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel. Allow to cool before serving. Seal any leftovers in an airtight container. The fried shallots will stay crisp for about a week.

 

THE USUAL SUSPECTS:

NƯỚC CHẤM + SHRIMP CHIPS + SESAME RICE CRACKERS

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SWEET-SOUR DRESSING – NƯỚC CHẤM

INGREDIENTS: (makes approx. 1.5-2 cups)

  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup fish sauce (nước mắm)
  • 1/2 cup raw sugar
  • 1/3 cup fresh lime juice or 1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
  • 1-2 thai bird chilis, thinly sliced or 1 tsp. chili garlic sauce

STEPS:

  • Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and stir to completely dissolve the sugar.
  • Taste and adjust according to your taste, adding more fish sauce/sugar/lime if necessary.
  • Store in a glass jar or plastic container and refrigerate. The dressing will last at least two weeks.

SESAME RICE CRACKERS – BÁNH TRÁNG MÈ

At Asian grocery stores here in the U.S., Viet Sesame Rice Crackers (Bánh Tráng Mè) are often found alongside similarly-packaged Viet Rice Paper Rolls (Bánh Tráng). In Viet Nam, these round disks are traditionally toasted over a charcoal brazier. Here, you can try toasting them over a gas burner but I’ve found that the microwave also produces good results. To do so, place one disk on the rotating plate of your microwave and cook on high for about 2-3 minutes. Keep an eye on it, making sure it doesn’t burn. Initially translucent, it should turn opaque and puff up considerably. Break into large pieces and serve alongside your Gỏi.

SHRIMP CRACKERS – BÁNH PHỒNG TÔM

These small, flat round disks are traditionally deep-fried. Again, following a tip from my mother, I microwave these. Place several disks on the rotating plate of your microwave and cook on high for about 20 seconds (this may vary a bit). Like the Sesame Rice Crackers, they will puff and curl up considerably. Again, keep an eye on them, as they can burn easily. Serve alongside your Gỏi.

Some final notes:

  • The herbs are more than mere garnishes – they’re an integral part of these dishes. Use them with reckless abandon!
  • Freshly toasted peanuts and sesame seeds make a big difference.
  • Store-bought fried shallots aren’t worth your dollar. They really aren’t.
  • A box-grater, while perfectly acceptable, will produce shreds that lack the sharp, crisp edge that a mandoline will produce.

Bon appétit!