Recipe: Thai-Style Spicy Chicken, Banana Blossom, and Herb Salad (With Lots of Fried Things)29 Jul 2014
It's a rare day that goes by when I don't cook something (or more likely, a dozen of the same thing with slight variations each time). Other than the odd cooking class, I haven't cooked a single thing since leaving the U.S. nearly two months ago. I've been suffering from extreme withdrawal.
Luckily, this week, I have not one, not two, but at least THREE good reasons—let's call it four good reasons. Five good reasons to break that dry streak.*
*Nobody expects the Spanish Kitchen King.
First off, Adri and I are finally staying in a place that has a kitchen. Our friends Yvonne and Hallam live in a gorgeous apartment near Singapore's Tanjong Pagar neighborhood, complete with pool and fully-functional kitchen (It better be, as it's where Yvonne, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America's Singapore branch develops all of her awesome recipes).
Second, as Yvonne and I used to be coworkers and roommates, we've got a long history of cooking together. I'd be damned if I missed the opportunity to spend some time in the kitchen with one of my favorite people.
Third, as Hallam and I used to be neighbors, he's got a long history of coming by to eat my food and feed me his booze. (See the second sentence of point two above for the rest.)
Fourth, how could anyone not want to cook after taking a stroll through Singapore's Tekka Market in Little India, with its slew of fresh produce and exotic spices?
Finally, ever since leaving Thailand, I've been itching to get into the kitchen to play around with some of the dishes and flavors that inspired me.
We ended up with a few things on the table. A pretty-darn-good green curry with chicken and bitter eggplant, and amazing wing-bean salad that Yvonne made, and this banana blossom and chicken salad.
Banana blossom and chicken salad is a not-uncommon dish found mostly in the Central Thai cooking of Bangkok. You won't find it on every street corner or every restaurant, but it shows up regularly enough. The classic version is made with poached shredded chicken, thinly sliced banana blossom, raw shallots, coconut, and a hot-sour-sweet flavored with garlic, chilies, palm sugar, and fish sauce.
My version starts off similarly, but strays a bit. The first thing I did was to add a whole slew of fried shallots to the salad base. They lose some of their crispness once dressed, but in return they give it a unique sweet-savory flavor.
Seeing as I already had a wok with hot oil in it, why stop there? I added a bunch of garlic cloves which I'd given a quick smash in the mortar and pestle, as well as some thinly sliced lemongrass. I had fried lemongrass for the first time in an amazing beef salad I had in Nong Khai on the NortheasternThai-Lao border. It has all the flavor of lemongrass, but with a much better texture.
In Chiang Mai, in Thailand's North, I had a similar experience with fried makrut lime leaves. Into the oil they went. Finally, I fried up some peanuts to form the flavor base for my dressing. This left me with a bowl full of fried goodies (no Adri, those aren't for eating yet), and some flavorful oil to add to my dressing to boot.
For the dressing, I decided to forgo the coconut milk—there's already plenty of richness going on here with the fried things—instead making sweet-spicy paste of garlic, chilies, and palm sugar (props to Hallam for some epic mortar and pestle-pounding), then thinning it out with fresh Calamansi lime juice and sugar.
Next up: the chicken. I like the clean, tender shreds that chicken breast gives you, but it's important not to overcook it (especially with the slender chickens you find in Asia). The best way to do this is to start with a skin-on, bone-in breast half, cover it with cold water, bring it to a simmer, then cover it and let it sit until it's cooked through—about 145°F on an instant-read thermometer is what you're looking for.
The last thing you should prepare is the banana blossom (did you know banana trees have blossoms?). You can buy them in Asian or Indian supermarkets—they look like deep purple Nerf footballs. Like artichokes, they have a bitter astringency when eaten raw, and will quickly oxidize when sliced open and exposed to air. It's essential that you keep banana blossom submerged under acidulated water as soon as you slice it. I do this by filling a bowl with water and vinegar, and placing a clean kitchen towel over the top. This towel will keep everything underneath submerged.
Though it's bitter when eaten straight after slicing, a 10-minute soak in cold water will wash away all of its astringency. You're left with a very mildly flavored, but nicely crunchy vegetable that forms an excellent salad base. (You should feel free to substitute it with cabbage if you can't find banana blossom).
When making salads like this, It's important to dress things in the right order. I start with the chicken, which is the most absorptive and can benefit from a bit of extra time to soak up flavors between its fibers. Next I add the banana blossoms along with a handful of fresh herbs (mint and cilantro). Finally, I add the fried things just before serving, saving some to sprinkle over the salad, so that they retain at least a hint of their crunchiness.
This is a salad that's pretty easy to like with easy, clean flavors, lots of friedness, and that classic hot-sour-salty-sweet thing that marks many of Northeast and Central Thailand's greatest dishes. It's not quite traditional in execution, but the spirit is there, and it's even more fun to eat it with good friends.
Spicy Thai-Style Chicken, Banana Blossom, and Herb Salad (With Lots of Fried Things)
Note: If possible, use smaller, sweeter Thai shallots and garlic for the recipe. If using Thai garlic, the skins can be left on the individual cloves when frying. Makrut lime leaves (also sold as kaffir lime leaves) can be found in Thai supermarkets. Fresh lemongrass can be found in most Asian markets, or some high end Western supermarkets.
Thai chilies can vary in heat. Taste a tiny bit of your chilies before smashing and adjust the quantity accordingly. The dressing should be quite hot to balance out its sweetness. Palm sugar can be found in Thai markets. If unavailable, substitute with brown sugar.
Banana blossom can be found in East Asian or Indian grocery store. If unavailable, you can also make this salad with thinly shaved cabbage.
To prepare the banana blossom: To prepare banana blossoms, fill a large bowl with 3 quarts of water and add 1/4 cup of vinegar. Lay a clean kitchen towel or a layer of sturdy paper towels over the top. Peel off the tough outer later of leaves and discard. Split banana blossom in half lengthwise, then using a sharp chef's knife or a mandoline, slice crosswise as thin as possible. Immediately transfer sliced banana blossom to the bowl and lay the towel over it to keep it submerged. When ready to add to the salad, remove towel and carefully skim off and discard the tiny sliced buds (it's ok if a few of them remain). Dry sliced banana blossom on a clean kitchen towel or in a salad spinner and proceed.
For the Chicken
- 1 bone-in, skin-on chicken breast half
- Kosher salt
For the Fried Stuff
- 1/2 cup vegetable, canola, or peanut oil
- 3 medium European shallots or 6 to 8 Thai shallots, thinly sliced (about 1/2 cup, see note above)
- 4 large cloves standard garlic or 8 to 12 cloves Thai garlic, roughly smashed in a mortar and pestle (about 3 tablespoons, see note above)
- 2 stalks fresh lemongrass, outer leaves removed, pale lower 4-inches only, thinly sliced crosswise (about 1/4 cup, see note above)
- 4 makrut lime leaves, stems discarded, sliced as thinly as possible
- 1/2 cup raw peanuts
For the Dressing
- 4 to 10 Thai chilies, roughly chopped (see note above)
- 2 large cloves standard garlic, or 4 to 6 cloves Thai garlic, peeled, roughly chopped
- 3 tablespoons palm sugar (see note above)
- 2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce, plus more to taste
- 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice, plus more to taste
- 1 tablespoon dried crushed Thai chili powder (or red chili flakes), plus more to taste
For the Salad
- 1/3 cup roughly chopped fresh cliantro leaves
- 1/3 cup roughly chopped fresh mint leaves
- 1 banana blossom, thinly sliced (about 4 cups, see instructions above)
- For the Chickne:Place chicken in a small saucepan and cover with cold water. Season well with salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, cover, and remove from heat. Let sit until an instant read thermometer inserted into the deepest part of the chicken registers 145°F, about 15 minutes. Transfer chicken to a bowl and allow to cool until cool enough to handle. Discard bones and skin. Shred meat into 1- to 2-inch pieces and set aside.
- For the Fried Stuff:Meanwhile, heat oil in a large wok over high heat until shimmering. Add shallots and cook, stirring constantly, until golden brown, about 2 minute. Quickly remove with a strainer or slotted spoon and transfer to a paper towel-lined bowl.
- Return oil to heat and repeat with garlic, followed by lemongrass, and lime leaves, adding each fried aromatic to the same bowl with the shallots. Season fried aromatics with salt and toss to combine.
- Add peanuts to oil, reduce heave to medium-low, and cook, stirring frequently, until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove peanuts with a strainer or slotted spoon and transfer to a small bowl to cool. Set aside 2 tablespoons oil and allow to cool. Discard remaining oil.
- For the Dressing: Add thai chilies and garlic to the bottom of a mortar and pestle. Add 1/3 of palm sugar. Pound until a nearly smooth paste is formed (this will take a while, be patient). Add remaining palm sugar and pound until incorporated. Add peanuts and pound until roughly crushed. Add fish sauce, lime juice, and dried chilies and stir to incorporate.
- For the Salad: Add shredded chicken to the bottom of a large bowl. Add the dressing and reserved flavored oil from frying and toss to incorporate. Massage the chicken, gently loosening its fibers with your fingers. Add the chopped cilantro, mint, and banana blossom and toss to combine. Reserve two tablespoons mixed fried aromatics and add the rest to the bowl with the salad. Toss to combine, then taste and adjust flavor with more fish sauce, lime juice, or dried chilies as necessary. Transfer to a serving bowl, top with remaining fried aromatics, and serve immediately.