This refreshing salad exemplifies simple preparation and low cost. The variations abound and while this is primarily considered an Asian fused salad, it accompanies many dishes with flair and audacity. There is no secret of preparation with the salad, it starts with simple cabbage seasoned with salt and pepper then it ends with your imagination.
You can find most of these ingredients in the “ethnic” aisle at major supermarkets at a price premium. At local Asian markets the prices are typically thirty percent less than the major stores. The produce is often organic, locally grown and you can often find oddities to spice up your life. These stores may seem intimidating for some, but if you want to stretch your culinary wings it is a must to explore and experiment. There are sometimes certain odoriferous obstacles to endure but a steel resolution and gut will prevail.
- One small cabbage (softball size). Cabbage is cheap and doesn’t spoil easily. I prefer red cabbage for the recipe, but green is keen. Pick firm, well-rounded heads with crisp outer leaves. Small heads ensure fewer leftovers and less money.
- Rice vinegar. This has a mild, sweet flavor and isn’t as sharp as the typical distilled vinegar. The taste is fresh and clean. It prevents food from discoloring and assists in the marrying of the flavors while balancing the oil.
- Sesame oil. Dark brown and syrupy, this pungent oil is fairly expensive. However, the density and power of the flavor only requires a small amount to season. It isn’t used as a typical cooking oil and should be used sparingly. A good Japanese brand is Kadoya. There are American varieties that are blended and should be avoided to ensure integrity. Store in refrigerator for up to a year and bring to room temp before using.
- Onion. Red onion adds a splash of color and a sharp blast of taste, yellow and white can add a simple sweetness that melts with the vinegar. Shallots work well and scallions add subtle flavor and color. Any or all will do.
- Cucumber. English cucumbers or “seedless” cukes have less water, softer skin and the flesh retains better than “regular” but they cost more. If using regular cukes, just peel the skin before slicing. I prefer the latter as the extra water contributes to the marinade.
The Spice and the Rest:
- Pinch of salt, fresh ground pepper and sugar.
- Toasted sesame seeds. Black or white. To toast, heat a dry pan and toast the seeds over medium for approx one minute. Stir the seeds in the pan. The seeds will begin to turn color and release the flavorful aroma and oils. Take care not to burn the seeds, when you hear ‘POPing’, remove the seeds. Take care as some will stick to the hot pan.
- Dried hot chili. Chili flakes work well, but dried Thai Chilies are the best. The heat is extreme and the levels of flavor are a perfect compliment to the rest of the salad. Chili sauce provides a simple substitution.
- Coriander (cilantro). The fresh green leaves can overwhelm but provide a wake up to the whole dish. Crushed seeds may be used as a background note.
Simple ingredient additions and variations:
- Carrot peels.
- Diced celery
- Grated ginger or garlic. These items should be finely grated, chopped pieces tend to upset the balance.
- Lime juice
Remove the outer leaves of the cabbage and cut thin slices around the outer edge until you square around the core. You should have 3-4 cups of loose thin strands. Add to large bowl. Thinly slice about half a medium sized red onion. Or substitute: a few shallots, a small yellow and a few scallions. Thinly slice a large cucumber. Add all other vegetables and a pinch of salt and pepper to taste. Mix well.
Add a tsp of sugar and a pinch of salt to 1/3 cup rice vinegar. Stir well until sugar is dissolved. Pour directly over salad and add a ½ tsp of sesame oil. Toss. Marinade for ½ hour up to a day. (Add grated ginger, garlic or limejuice at this time). Consider that the vinegar and salt are pickling the mixture. The vegetables will soften, the onions diffusing their sharpness and the crunchy texture of the cucumber releasing water. Chop thicker pieces of vegetables if you want to retain the crunchiness.
When ready to serve, chop a ½ cup of cilantro and toss into salad. Toast two Tbsp of sesame seeds and add the crushed pepper to the pan when you hear the beginnings of ‘PoPs’ and remove from heat. Shake over salad and serve.
These loose guidelines will provide a robust catalyst for your own tweaks and twists and inspire other recipes to use your leftover rich and succulent sesame oil.
Makes four to six side servings and some leftovers.