This cilantro salad came to my attention in a round-about way. And I'm so thankful! 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 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. I was thinking about something I ate.
Cilantro Salad: You Need This Salad in Your Life
There was this one salad at the lunch that 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. I can't emphasize more strongly how much I want you to enjoy this salad as well.
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, All Under Heaven. She used red bell peppers, but I've been doing versions with whatever spring produce I have on hand. You can see the asparagus version as well as an all-cilantro version down below. Unless you absolutely loathe cilantro, you must, must(!) try this salad.
What is it Good With?
I love this salad as side to just about anything. It's great as a component to a grain bowl, wonderful in tacos, and I love it as a side salad to a rustic, savory tomato tart.
Cilantro Salad: Pro-tip
This is the main thing that matters. The absolute key here is to use the brightest, best cilantro you can get your hands on. The stems should be crisp but not at all tough. The leaves need to be vibrant, with no shift in color (indicating onsetting spoilage).
I understand if cilantro isn't your things. Especially if you're one of the people who experiences it as soapy. Here are a bunch of other salad recipes for you to check out.
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, as I mentioned above, 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 (optional)
- 1 bunch of cilantro with stems
- 1 teaspoon shoyu / soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/2 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, if you're adding asparagus, 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 1/4 cup of the shallot oil.
Place the cilantro, peanuts, asparagus, and sesame seeds in a large bowl. Drizzle half of the soy dressing over, and give a gentle but thorough toss. Add more dressing if you like. 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, All Under Heaven, being published by McSweeney's in 2014.