I went to a lunch in Oakland a few weeks back. It was one of those special lunches that passes all too quickly - a warm April afternoon, a stretch of tables pushed together under a booming canopy of white flowers, good company, Lillet blanc, and some of my favorite cooks arriving with something to share, family-style. It was a celebration of Deborah Madison's new book, and after all these years, I was finally able to thank her for inspiring body of work in person. All in all, a pretty great afternoon. I would have been more than happy to stay right where I was, long after the plates were cleared, as I imagine dinner under the blossoming trees would be magic. But, that's not actually what I was thinking about after I left. There was this one salad I just couldn't shake. It was made entirely of cilantro, tossed with a simple shallot-forward soy sauce dressing, toasted peanuts, and a vegetable. It was so simple, so bright, and it got me thinking about cilantro in an entirely new way.
The Xinjiang salad was made by Carolyn Phillips from a Chinese cookbook specializing in the Northwest (you can see the write-up on her site here). You'll also also see it featured in her upcoming book on regional Chinese cooking being published by McSweeney's in 2014. She used red bell peppers, but I've been doing versions with whatever spring produce I have on hand, and you can see the asparagus version down below. Unless you absolutely loathe cilantro, you must, must(!) try this salad.
The key here is absolutely using the brightest, best cilantro you can get your hands on. The stems should be crisp but not at all tough. The leaves vibrant, with no shift in color (indicating onsetting spoilage).
HS: You're going to make far more shallot oil (and shallots) than you need here. Keep the remaining oil refrigerated, and use it to drizzle over noodles, eggs, tofu, all manner of vegetables, etc. Or to use in a component in a vinaigrette. It's incredibly tasty and versatile. Also, please don't try this salad unless you have great cilantro - look for the brightest, best cilantro you can get your hands on. The stems should be crisp but not at all tough. The leaves vibrant, with no shift in color (indicating on-setting spoilage).
1 cup / 240 ml sunflower oil
1 cup / 3.5 oz / 100g evenly sliced shallots, ~20 small
6 ounces / 170 g asparagus spears, very thinly sliced
1 bunch of cilantro with stems
1/2 teaspoon shoyu / soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup / 2 ounces peanuts, well-toasted, then cooled
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
to serve: herb flowers (garlic chive flowers, chive flowers, etc), optional
Start by making the shallot oil, you can do this up to a few days in advance. Place the oil in a thick-bottomed saucepan or wok, over medium heat. When the oil is hot (a "test" shallot should bubble immediately), dial back the heat to medium, sprinkle in the shallots, and cook slowly until they are deeply golden, 15 - 20 minutes. Remove from heat, strain the oil off into a jar, and set aside. Place the shallots on a paper towel and allow them to cool and crisp.
In the meantime, bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil, salt generously, and cook the asparagus for just 15 seconds or so, until bright. Drain, and quickly transfer to a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Drain again, and set aside.
Trim any tough stems from the cilantro, and give it a good wash. Dry completely.
Just before you're ready to serve the salad, whisk together the soy sauce, sugar, sea salt, and two tablespoons of the shallot oil. Place the cilantro, peanuts, asparagus, and sesame seeds in a large bowl. Drizzle the soy dressing over, and give a gently but thorough toss. The peanuts and asparagus like to find their way to the bottom, so be sure to scoop them back on top before serving with some of the reserved crisped shallots, and a few herb flowers on top (if you have them).
Inspired by a salad brought to a lunch made by Carolyn Phillips who, in turn, references a Chinese cookbook specializing in the Northwest here. She'll be featuring the original in her upcoming book on regional Chinese cooking being published by McSweeney's in 2014.
Prep time: 10 minutes - Cook time: 20 minutes