Saturday, December 8, 2012

Saigon Chicken Salad

 Two weeks ago I was struck with a vicious Vietnamese chicken salad craving.  I wanted cabbage, peanuts, poached chicken, dressed with lime juice and fish sauce.  Unfortunately, I couldn't figure out a single place near my office that serves Vietnamese chicken salad so I had to go without.  And last weekend I decided that if I couldn't find a restaurant that would serve me Vietnamese chicken salad I would just make some for myself.  First I had to go down to Chinatown to buy all of the various ingredients - it goes without saying that the grocery stores on the UWS aren't exactly chock full of things like long beans, green papaya and Thai shrimp paste.  And then after we bought all of the ingredients we spent what seemed like several hours, chopping, cleaning and prepping the various salad ingredients.  Peeling, de-seeding and chopping up the green papaya felt like it took 30 minutes alone.  Once you add in all of the other ingredients that needed to be julienned/chopped/shredded - tomatoes, cucumbers, carrot, napa cabbage, long beans, etc., it's no wonder that this salad took forever to prepare.  Even the nuoc cham dressing was more labor-intensive than usual.  I have never toasted shrimp paste for a nuoc cham before.  But I will be the first to admit that the dressing was pretty kickass.  We were worried that it would be overly salty/fishy but it worked beautifully.  I would use this dressing on any future Vietnamese chicken salad attempts.  Actually, I would use it on any variation on a Vietnamese salad - shrimp, beef or chicken, noodle-based or not.  It was that good.  The only problem is that the dressing does not improve with age.  By the next day the dressing had lost its piquancy and the salad just seemed a little limp and sad.  But the day that we made the salad it really hit the spot.  It was bright and flavorful, as well as full of crunch and texture.  I really enjoyed the combination of the various ingredients (although it was pretty painful to chop and prep all of the vegetables) and I thought that the chicken itself was very tender and flavorful.  In the end, I think the two things that I would definitely use again from this recipe are the marinade/cooking method for the chicken and the recipe for the nuoc cham.  While I enjoyed them, I'm not sure that the green papaya and long beans added enough to the salad for me to trek down to Chinatown every time I want a Vietnamese chicken salad.  And I probably won't go out and buy a whole bunch of celery just for the celery leaves again.  I can (and probably will) make a passable version of the salad with just chicken, cucumbers, carrots, cabbage, cilantro and peanuts.

Recipe after the jump!


Saigon Chicken Salad 
STREET FOOD: Irresistibly Crispy, Creamy, Crunchy, Spicy, Sticky, Sweet Recipes
By Susan Feniger 
For chicken:
1 stalk lemongrass, trimmed, bruised and finely chopped
juice of 3 lemons
1/4 cup evoo
kosher salt
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
For salad:
4 small tomatoes, cored and seeded
2 Persian cucumbers, ends trimmed
1 green papaya, peeled and cored
1 medium carrot, peeled
1/2 lb Asian long beans or green beans, blanched in salted water and cut in 2-inch lengths
2 cups napa cabbage, shredded
1 cup unsalted peanuts, toasted
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1/2 cup celery leaves (yellow inner leaves only), chopped
Nuoc Cham Dressing (see below)
butter lettuce leaves, for serving (optional)

Combine lemon juice, lemongrass, evoo and 1 tsp salt in a medium mixing bowl.  Add chicken and stir to coat with the marinade.  Cover and marinate for 20 minutes at room temperature to 1 hour in the refrigerator.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F

Remove the chicken breasts from the marinade and put them on a rimmed baking sheet.  Season with salt and bake for 15-20 minutes, until cooked through.  Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly.  Shred the chicken by hand into small pieces.

Cut the tomatoes, cucumbers, papaya and carrot into thin strips, about 1/4-inch thick and 2-inches long.  Put in large mixing bowl.  Add long beans, cabbage, peanuts, cilantro and celery leaves.  Add shredded chicken and dressing and toss to combine.  Serve immediately.

Nuoc Cham Dressing
STREET FOOD: Irresistibly Crispy, Creamy, Crunchy, Spicy, Sticky, Sweet Recipes
By Susan Feniger 

1/2 tsp Thai shrimp paste
7 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 Thai chili, stemmed and finely chopped
1/4 cup lime juice
1/3 cup grated coconut palm sugar or packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup fish sauce

Wrap the shrimp paste in a small piece of aluminum foil.  Using a pair of tons, hold the foil package directly over the flame of a gas burner (or place it under the broiler in your oven) for 1 minute to "toast" the shrimp paste.  You will smell a strong fish odor, but don't worry; it will not translate to your dressing.  Remove the toasted shrimp paste from the foil and place in a small mixing bowl.  Add garlic, Thai chili, lime juice, coconut palm sugar and fish sauce.  Break up the shrimp paste with the back of a spoon and stir to combine with the other ingredients.  Serve immediately or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for no longer than overnight.

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