Perhaps I’m the only one who stresses about these things, but I’ve been away from the blog for some time. Actually, I’ve been away from the kitchen for some time. October has been a busy month for me at work, and getting a big project out the door meant fewer of those fall nights where my slippered feet pad into the kitchen searching for something to cook. Now that the project is finished, I’ll be on the road a fair amount across the next couple months, presenting the research to hungry executive teams. If only they were hungry for pie.
In months like these, I browse recipes and write shopping lists on the tail ends of plane flights, wrack my brain to remember what’s in all those jars in my fridge, and just try my best to squeeze a few home-cooked meals in between trips.
Still, weekends exist for a reason. Once I have a to-do list in order, I’m up and at ‘em, cooking as many dishes as I can without exhausting myself and spoiling the fun. This past weekend, after a quick trip to the gym, I got Vietnamese chicken stock blurp-blurping away on the stove, mixed up the dough for Luisa’s yeasted plum cake and left it to rise, and then got going on today’s recipe, a spicy-sour-salty-sweet eggplant and leek salad that will leave you wishing you were coming with me to Vietnam in December. (!)
That’s right: we’re heading to Southeast Asia this winter. I’m doing my best not to jump out the screen and shake you, but people, I am excited. And while one member of this household would like to preserve her appetite for Vietnamese and Thai food until we actually arrive, that’s not how I roll. Gearing up means cooking the food we’ll be eating – or some riff on it – so that by the time we arrive, I’m all primed and ready for the real deal. D told me that we’ll be watching The Bridge on the River Kwai to prep, which – hmm, not on my list of movies I must see? I fear I’ve just lost important points with my father-in-law – but I will do it. I will watch that movie. And D can count on eating lots of fish sauce this month.
Hate fish sauce? Don’t worry; today’s recipe doesn’t call for it.
I first saw the recipe for this salad in the Times, and — I kid you not — was so charmed by it that I clicked right over to Amazon and bought the book from which it came. That book is Vietnamese Home Cooking, and it’s easily the best impulse-buy of the month (though, had this been an impulse-buy and not an eagerly anticipated purchase, we’d have a tighter race on our hands. More about that another time.)
The man behind Vietnamese Home Cooking is Charles Phan, chef at The Slanted Door in San Francisco (which quite possibly is the first place I ever experienced authentic Vietnamese food. Went once, never turned back.) Phan waited more than a decade to write this book, and I’m glad to finally have his recipes and stories in print. The book is organized by cooking method, and it has helpful chapter markers running along the side of each page. Scattered throughout the book in little blue boxes are recipes for key components of many Vietnamese dishes, like pickled carrots, crispy shallots, and nuoc mam. If you closed your eyes and chose three pages from the book at random, then made whatever was on those pages, you’d wind up with a pretty awesome dinner. Like I said, a great purchase.
So, the salad. The version that appears in Phan’s book looks slippery and soft and perhaps even a bit mushy, in that good way that eggplant gets if you leave it in the oven forever. The Times’ edited version makes for faster prep, and I’ve made my own changes on top of those, to add in more textural contrast and to utilize regular globe eggplants instead of the baby eggplants that are all but gone from the market these days. I also couldn’t find baby leeks, so I used regular leeks and cooked them longer. The result is truly memorable. It’s spicy and crunchy and sour and a bit sweet, but not cloying. And even though the only greens are a sprinkle of cilantro, the salad tastes really fresh. Go ahead: make a double batch. Serve half today, store the rest in individual containers and mix it right before tomorrow’s lunch.
Vietnamese Roasted Eggplant and Leek Salad
This recipe initially called for baby leeks, but I couldn’t find them, so I bought the thinnest leeks I could find and cooked them for a bit longer. I also used regular ordinary eggplant, because the small ones were gone. Use whichever suits your fancy.
Last thing: fried shallots. Not essential, but delicious. You can either buy them at an Asian grocery store, or you can — you know — fry 2 sliced shallots in a whole lot (1 cup) of peanut oil just until browned, then strain and set aside on a paper towel until ready to use.
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 tablespoon Vietnamese chili-garlic sauce or sriracha
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1/4 cup olive or peanut oil
1 to 1 1/5 lbs. leeks (about 4), the thinner the better
1 2-lb. globe eggplant
salt and pepper
1 1/2 cups loosely packed cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
1/4 cup chopped roasted peanuts
2 tablespoons fried shallots, optional
First, make the dressing: Combine soy sauce, sugar, water, vinegar, chili sauce, and lime juice in a jar. Seal and shake vigorously for about 60 seconds to help the sugar dissolve. Set aside, and shake from time to time as you proceed with the rest of the dish.
Heat the oven to 450 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or silpat.
Next, roast the leeks:Trim the root ends of the leeks as minimally as possible, and cut off the dark green tops. Slice the leeks lengthwise in half, and rinse each half under running water to loosen and remove any grit between the layers. As you rinse them, take care to keep the leeks intact. Place them cut-side down on the lined baking sheet in a single layer. Drizzle 2 tablespoons olive oil over the leeks, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 12 minutes, then carefully turn the leeks over using tongs or a spatula and roast for 12 minutes cut-side up. The leeks should be charred in spots and very soft. Transfer the leeks to a plate, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside to soften further.
Prep and roast the eggplant: Rinse the cutting board to rid any grit from the leeks. Trim stems off eggplant, and cut into half-inch slices. Cut each slice into half-inch strips, and cut these strips into 1/2-inch cubes. Distribute eggplant on lined pan in a single layer, drizzle with remaining 2 tablespoons oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and roast for about 20-25 minutes, turning pieces once, until soft and charred in spots.
Assemble salad: Transfer warm, softened leeks to the cutting board and chop into 1-inch pieces. Put eggplant and leeks into a shallow serving dish or bowl and use your fingers to incorporate gently. Sprinkle cilantro, peanuts, and shallots (if using) over vegetables, and drizzle half of dressing overtop. Taste and add more dressing as necessary. Serve immediately.