This is the time of year when food writers start lamenting about how much we’ve all indulged. We offer up lighter recipes as a way to make amends for our fourth-quarter behaviour. Mea culpa, and pass the bran flakes.
I’d rather think about all those ingredients that don’t make it into traditional American holiday fare, which is so often dominated by meat, potatoes, cream and pie (somehow a food group of its own). In a non-ascetic way, let’s turn the spotlight on ingredients that sparkle in flavour and happen to be healthful at the same time.
Asian food has always excelled in this area, and lately I’ve been drawn to Vietnamese cooking, with its bright clean essence. Ingredients like fresh mint and cilantro, lemongrass, lime, ginger, and the pungent but cleansing fish sauce, made from fermented anchovies (stay with me!) that gives a bracing lift to any dish.
You can buy lemongrass and fish sauce at well-stocked supermarkets, Asian stores and specialty markets, and you can order it online. There are also jarred versions of lemongrass just add a tablespoon of lemongrass paste to the dressing below and skip the step where the fresh minced lemongrass would have been added to the cooking water.
If the word julienne causes you to shrug, know that it just means cut into matchsticks. Feel free to shred the vegetables if that’s more happy-making.
There’s no reason to gnaw on a celery stick all January. Just grab some shrimp, herbs and some vibrant Asian ingredients, and march into the New Year with a spring in your step.
VIETNAMESE SHRIMP SALAD
Serves 6 to 8
Start to finish: 2 hours 30 minutes
2 tablespoons finely minced lemongrass
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 pounds peeled and deveined extra large shrimp
2 tablespoons minced shallots
2 teaspoons minced garlic
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh mint leaves
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
10 ounces Boston, Bibb or butter lettuce leaves, torn into big pieces
1/2 seedless cucumber, thinly sliced or julienned
2 large carrots, peeled and shredded or julienned
1 cup slivered scallions, white and green parts
1/4 cup crushed salted peanuts (optional)
Fill a large pot about 3/4 full with water, and add the lemongrass and salt. Bring the water to a boil over high heat, add the shrimp, and simmer for about 4 minutes, until the shrimp are just cooked. Drain the shrimp and lemongrass into a fine mesh strainer and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking. The shrimp will not completely cool, which is fine.
While you are waiting for the water to boil, combine the shallots, garlic, lime juice, fish sauce, mint and cilantro in a large bowl or container. After you have rinsed the shrimp and lemongrass in the strainer, shake to remove any excess water and add them to the dressing. Toss so the shrimp are fully coated with the dressing. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, and up to 24.
When you are ready to serve, arrange the lettuce in a shallow serving dish. Then scatter over it most of the cucumber, carrots, and half the scallions. Distribute the shrimp with its dressing over the top of all, and then scatter over it the other half of the slivered scallions, and the handful of carrots and cucumbers remaining. Top with the peanuts if desired. Serve cool.