anatomy of an ugly salad


Once in a while you find there’s little you could do to save a plate of food from being ugly.  You composed it with pretty things: bright green butter lettuce, blushing watermelon radish, slivers of red chili, a beautiful piece of skirt steak–sometimes I can hardly think of anything prettier than a perfectly grilled steak.  You dressed it up in a gorgeous Celadon plate made by hand by a talented friend.  You tried pretty much anything but the upskirt shot and the pictures still came out looking positively ugly.  The homeliness of this plate of salad was rather confounding, especially considering how delightfully delicious it was, as evident by the five minutes flat it took for you know who to polished off his first serving.

Despite it all, this ugly salad is something I do quite often when I want something quick and light for supper.  It’s a vaguely Thai salad, with a dressing made with lime juice, fish sauce, chili powder, sliced shallots, mint, and cilantro, with an added (and indispensable) nuttiness from roasted rice ground into powder.  In Thailand, the grilled beef "salad" is a mostly protein affair, with grilled beef slices tossed with the super spicy dressing and served with fresh vegetables and steamed sticky rice on the side as respite from bites of the spicy salad.

The way I do it these days, I make a little extra dressing and toss
everything together.  I also tone down the heat a bit.  Using so much chili powder was something of a necessity in the poor region of Isan (where this dish came from) in the days of not-so-fresh meat, no refrigeration, and tropical heat–that chili peppers are beneficial to our health was folk knowledge well before science confirmed it.  With the luxury of better quality meat and ready storage, I don’t feel such a need for rampant heat which can interfere with the flavors of the other components in the dish.  Should you feel the need to preserve the so-called "authenticity", and have the stomach of steel to handle it, please feel free to use as much chili as you want.

Pim’s vaguely Thai beef salad (Yum Neua)
serves 2 as main course, or 4 as a part of a bigger meal

For the dressing
Juice from 3 limes, plus an extra one in case you need it
enough fish sauce
a bit of salt
roughly a teaspoon of sugar
3-4 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced (about a half cup or a bit more)
chili powder to taste
2 tablespoons of ground rice powder*

For the salad
1 pound piece of skirt steak
salt and pepper to taste

1 small head of butter lettuce
1 medium watermelon radish
1/2 cup of cucumber sticks or slices (peeled and seeded-or not)
1/4 cup of mint
1/2 cup of cilantro

To make the dressing, start with the lime juice and sugar.  Add the fish sauce, start with a tablespoon and then a bit more at a time, until you get the balance of sour and salty you want.  Fish sauce can be really strong, especially if the bottle has been hanging out in your cupboard for a long time.  I suggest you stop when the pungency from the fish sauce is as strong as you can bear.  If you still need to add a bit more saltiness, just add regular salt until you get the balance you want.  Add as much chili powder as you want, then toss the dressing with the sliced shallots and the roast rice powder.  Set aside while you make the rest of the salad.

Cut the long piece of skirt steak into 4 pieces.  Set a grill pan on the stove over high heat.  While the pan is heating up, salt and pepper the steaks.  Grill the steak over high heat until medium rare, just a few minutes on each side.  When the meat is done set aside to rest for a few minutes while you make the salad.

Disgard the outer leafs of the butter lettuce, then wash, dry, and tear the lettuce into small pieces.  Peel and slice the
watermelon radish into thin rounds.  Peel, seed, and cut the cucumber
into sticks.  Chop the mint and cilantro.  Toss these ingredients together in a large salad bowl.  Pour the dressing over the vegetables and toss well–your hands are best here, trust me.

Slice the steaks into small bite-size pieces.  Toss them–nonchalantly–on top of the salad.  Be sure to pour the juice that comes out while cutting the meat back into the salad.  Why waste all that flavor!

I serve this with a bit of sticky rice on the side.  If you want to keep the meal relatively carb-free you don’t need to.

*You can make your own ground rice powder.  It’s super easy, just dry toast a handful of uncooked rice grains in a dry pan until they turn brown and toasty.  Let cool for a bit then ground in a food processor or a mortar and pestle.  The leftover rice powder will keep for just about forever. 

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14 Responses to “anatomy of an ugly salad

  • Vincent said:
    April 30th, 2008 at 4:32pm

    You totally forgot the arrow pointing to the PLATE. JK…it looks yummy.

  • velops said:
    April 30th, 2008 at 11:35pm

    I don’t think most food looks pretty after you start digging into it. This salad could look pretty for a photo if it were arranged in the style of a cob salad.

  • Aaron Kagan said:
    May 1st, 2008 at 4:58am

    I find that ugly food can still make gorgeous compost.

  • Erinn said:
    May 1st, 2008 at 1:54pm

    My mama always said pretty is as pretty does…
    I bet this tasted fabulous and hence is pretty!
    Not everything has to be cover ready to be good, no?
    Love the diagram.

  • casey said:
    May 1st, 2008 at 2:58pm

    I’m fascinated by the toasted rice powder. I make a lot of main dish salads and this sounds like a great addition.
    And: I don’t think the pictured salad is ugly at all. The broken fried eggs I served J this morning –with the yolk oozing into little brown sausages: now, that’s ugly.

  • maximus said:
    May 2nd, 2008 at 5:48am

    Sounds not very much deliciously. Ugly salad, indeed

  • EB said:
    May 2nd, 2008 at 9:57am

    Hey Pim– Where to you get your watermelon radishes? I love them and have been munching on them at restaurants around SF but I can’t seem to find them.

  • PopArtDiva said:
    May 2nd, 2008 at 3:29pm

    I have been dying for salad this week (having tummy issues so can’t have roughage) so that salad looked pretty darn good to me!
    The salad dressing sounds wonderful! I’m trying it as soon as I can eat decent food again!
    BTW, I suspect we all can concoct some pretty ugly dishes when we’re working in anonymity!
    Happy Cooking!

  • Alejandra said:
    May 4th, 2008 at 8:52pm

    Who cares if it’s ugly? It looks delicious!

  • Pim said:
    May 6th, 2008 at 1:52am

    Thanks everyone.
    EB, you can get them at the Ferry Plaza farmers market. I’ve also seen them at Whole Foods. In Santa Cruz, Shoppers’ Corner almost always have them, also at Staff.

  • prayer said:
    May 6th, 2008 at 11:19pm

    haha…your additional text & arrow beats perezhilton

  • lululu said:
    May 7th, 2008 at 12:05pm

    hahaha…funny post.
    It sounds really yummy, and I really don’t think it looks ugly.

  • bionicgrrrl said:
    August 7th, 2008 at 9:45pm

    I made this salad a few times, and each time it was ugly but also very delicious. The rice powder really gives the salad a warm, nutty flavor. Thanks for the recipe!

  • GreenGeckoVilla said:
    August 14th, 2008 at 12:43am

    Ah the generic ugliness of the Yam Neua!
    This is a great tasting dish and is often presented in the centre of a plate in Thailand, with all kinds of decoration around the plate’s edges in an attempt to beautify it…
    At Green Gecko (a Thai holiday villa in the middle of the rice paddies of Isaan) we have found the way to make it look attractive is….to hide it! The idea came from the raw cabbage that often accompanies another isaan specilaity, Laap. If you use the raw, inner cup-shaped leaves of a cabbage or any firmer lettuce, you can effectively tun these leaves into spoons, in which you place the dressed beef. And there you have Yam Neua “surprise”!
    others will get carried away tying up bundles with spring onion or thin chilli shreds, but we feel that is going too far…
    And for those of you who can access more exotic Thai food products, try substituting the sugar with palm sugar…it adds a unique perfumed sweetness….

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