Sunday, 16 June 2013

Vietnamese Cabbage, Tofu and Herb Salad (Herbivoracious inspired)

June 2013

SmartCooks here.  

Vietnamese Cabbage, Tofu and Herb Salad or Gói Bắp Cải Dậu Phụ started out as a May Day dish from one of my favourite websites Herbivoracious and ended up as a staple for the month of May.  Various combos of meat, herbs, and vegetables ... tofu, chicken, crispy fried shallots or not, roasted peanuts, roasted sunflower seeds, mint, cilantro ... whatever I had on hand.  All of them simple, one bowl meals

The reason for the variations on a food theme? 

Easy.  May went by in a blur. 

Work, flying back and forth between Ottawa and Charlottetown in very small prop-plane aircraft (inside a 'Flying Coffin', pix at left), moving to another rental apartment in Charlottetown, home stuff, community vegetable garden venture, friends celebrating milestone birthdays and retiring from the public service, not to mention kids of friends having baby showers and weddings. (Yeah to all of them!)  Pix below and on Facebook chart the May mayhem.  

All to say it's now June in Ottawa (and elsewhere) and NO spring.  Crummy weather is the norm.  One nice day like yesterday morning early in PEI from my balcony (pix right) and then back to dreary, dark, rainy days.  I've got a few more weeks of work frenzy and then hopefully holidays and a bit of a respite. 

Given all the activity in my life, I've been looking for simple, nutritious and interesting foods to prepare.  A Vietnamese dish with cabbage, tofu, herbs and shallots fits the bill.  Besides, it gave me something to research while sitting in airport lounges with all my technology plugged in around me.

Thankfully, I've earned enough brownie points from Air Canada to get some perks without having to pay more than economy (austerity and all) i.e., access to the lounges where I can huddle and write in a corner. 

Or it may be because some Air Canada security video caught me on tape a few months back where I was delayed for hours at a departure gate in Toronto.  It led to the rather sad/funny sorry sight of a middle-aged plus woman (aka me) scrabbling about on the floor to surreptitiously reach behind a security barrier and plug in a dying cell phone to deal with whatever work mini-crise was happening at work.  Soon someone will invent a way to recharge all these devices wirelessly without any cords.  

Vietnamese herbs 

Vietnamese cooking uses herbs in abundance.  

The term for herbs is 'rau thom' meaning 'fragrant leaves'.  Every Vietnamese recipe I've found so far calls for a variety of herbs such as:

-- Cilantro-like herbs (rau rum) and mint (hung coy) are spicier and stronger than those found in North America.  

-- Common Viet herbs also include Tiao to (red perilla), rau thom (sorrel), balm and thi la (dill).  

-- Some frequently used herbs are green on top with purpose underneath and offer a hint of cinnamon, mint and lemon.

If I lived in Orange Country, California, I could zip down to the Saigon market (below) where vendors sell the full range of herbs.  However, living in Canada means substituting so cilantro, mint and dill are usually my staples for these dishes.  

Vietnamese Cabbage, Tofu and Herb Salad
(Herbivoracious inspired)

5 large shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
Vegetable oil for frying
3 ounces extra-firm tofu, 1/4" dice (or chicken or pork)
Kosher salt
1/2 small head green cabbage, cored, thinly shredded and refrigerated
2 big, packed handfuls mixed Vietnamese herbs - rau ram, mint, cilantro
2 T lime juice or rice vinegar
1 tsp sugar
1 T soy sauce
1 tsp minced fresh ginger
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup peanuts, toasted and lightly crushed
Bring a small pot with oil (I use either grapeseed or peanut oil) to completely cover the shallots up to a low frying temperature, about 260 F / 126 C. Add the shallots and cook, stirring occasionally until deeply golden brown. This can take a very long time - around 45 minutes. I've been known to up the temperature and cook the shallots faster as long as you watch them carefully. 

When the shallots are done, drain them but reserve the oil. Spread the shallots out on paper towels. As they cool, they become very crispy.
Pan-fry the tofu in a small amount of oil until nicely browned. Transfer to paper towels and season. (If using meat, do the same).
In a small bowl, stir together the lime juice, sugar, 1/4 tsp salt, soy sauce, ginger, and garlic. Whisk in 1/4 cup of the reserved shallot oil. 

Put the cabbage in a mixing bowl. Add half of the shallots, the tofu (or meat), and all of the herbs, tearing them. Add the dressing a little at a time and toss with tongs, until the cabbage is well dressed but not drenched. Taste and adjust seasoning - it may need more salt. 

(If adding in extra vegetables, like asparagus or zucchini or even leeks, I cook or blanch them and add them to the salad at this point.)
To serve, transfer the salad to platter. Garnish with the remaining fried shallots and peanuts. 

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