This is the time of year when people who don't do Community
Supported Agriculture--aka a "farm share"--are laughing all the way
to the Farmer's Market or grocery store. It's late June, you think to yourself.
What does our family like to eat? You might choose a lovely quart of
strawberries, a dinner's worth of sugar snap peas, and a sweet little head of
butter lettuce, and tote it all happily back to your dinner table, confident in
the meal you are about to set out for your family. Meanwhile, we of the CSA farm
share are lugging home sacks of turnips (The summer's first! Phew, because we
are practically running out of our winter-share turnips.) and radishes and
patty-pan squash and--the reason for this column--a head of napa cabbage that
would make too much coleslaw for a family reunion of giants.
Now, don't get me wrong--our CSA, where we go weekly all
summer to pick and pick up our allotted share of produce--is one of my very
favorite things ever. So much so, in fact, that two weeks ago, when the
children were pissing and moaning vaguely in the car on the way there--probably
remembering last summer, when I kept them out in the blasting August heat
picking basil for a winter's worth of pesto like highbrow Italian
sharecroppers--I spoke sharply to them. "Fresh, local food is a
privilege," I snapped, because at 9 and 6 they should really understand by
now the politics of agribusiness, industrial farming, and fossil fuel
resources. "You should feel honored to pick the food we put on our table.
And when we get to the farm, I just want you to say, 'What can I do to
help?'" Now every week when we arrive at the farm, instead of the gulag
attitudes, the Polyanna parrots children offer a chipper, "What can I do
to help?" and I feel like the petty strawberry-picking despot that I am.
But you know what? They do help, the kids, and once they're
out there, filling cartons with peas and berries and herbs and flowers, they
are chatty and good-natured and way more inclined to eat whatever we bring
home. But whatever is really the operative word here. So, for instance, the
cabbage: farmy smugness alone is not going to transform that thing into a meal
your kids will eat now, is it. No. It is not. What it's like is a game show,
where you have to put up a certain amount of your own personal cash, and then
you have to run around the store picking out things that you don't know how to
cook and that your family probably won't like. Okay, go! Or maybe it's an Iron
Chef competition--the "Difficult Vegetables" episode, and all the
judges are children. Either way, there was a five-pound head of napa in the
fridge, ticking like a bomb exploding its way towards the compost.
Hence, this salad. Now, should you be so lucky as to not
happen to have a mutant cabbage Goliath languishing in your fridge, make this
salad anyway, because it's a beautiful, exciting, cool and easy meal, and you
and your kids will love it. You can use romaine lettuce instead, or even
iceberg lettuce. Or if you have some other crazy CSA-type greens you're needing
to be rid of, use those. It doesn't matter. What matters is the miso
dressing--which is excellent--and the roasted peanuts and mandarin oranges and
crispy noodles, which are the salad equivalent of ice-cream-cone jimmies. Also,
not to get all Heloise's Hints on you, but a salad like this is a great way to
stretch a couple of chicken breasts into dinner for four. Plus, you'll have
plenty of cabbage leftover to make kimchi! Which is what I'm making next. I'll
keep you posted.
Asian-style Chicken Salad
Active time: 35 minutes
Don't feel hemmed in by the ingredients list here: If you'd
prefer to cut up a rotisserie chicken or a package of 5-spice tofu instead of
marinating and grilling the chicken breasts, please do. Likewise, use whatever
greens you like (lettuce, say, or spinach) and any other veggies that appeal to
you (I would have added sugar snap peas, carrots, jicima, and cilantro, if we'd
had them, and I would have added scallions, if my kids wouldn't have spent all
of dinner picking them out). And, finally, if you can't bring yourself to deal
with the noodles--which I totally understand, since it is the only part of this
recipe that is actually kind of a pain--skip them and add more peanuts. It will
still be delicious.
For the Salad:
2-3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (I used 3 here, but 2
would have been fine)
Miso Dressing (see below)
1 small head of Chinese (napa) cabbage (or 1/4 of a K2-sized
1 cucumber (I used half of a ginormous shrink-wrapped
1/4 cup roasted, salted peanuts, coarsely chopped
1 11-ounce can mandarin oranges, drained
1 cup thinly sliced celery (two stalks)
1 skein bean thread or cellophane noodles or superthin rice
stick noodles (Don't read the directions on the package--i.e. don't soak the
noodles in water before using. You want them dry for frying.)
Vegetable oil for frying
Place the chicken in a dish, pour 1/4 cup of the dressing
over it, cover it, and let it marinate in the fridge for a few hours, or even
just while the grill preheats, if that's all the time you've got.
Meanwhile, quarter the cabbage lengthwise, cut out the hard
core, and slice it thinly. Spread it out over a large plate or a very wide
salad bowl. Peel the cucumber, cut it in half lengthwise, then scoop out the
seeds using a teaspoon or a melon baller. If everyone in your family unconditionally
loves cucumbers, don't bother--but this is a worthwhile step for cuke-eaters
who are on the fence, since it's the seeds that likely gross them out. Slice
the cucumber and arrange it, along with the celery, over the plate of cabbage.
Cook your chicken: if you're doing this on a gas grill,
you'll want to heat your grill on high, then turn down two of the burners to
medium before you add your chicken. Flip it after a couple of minutes and then,
after a couple of minutes more turn those two burners down even more so you can
cook it through without burning it, another 5 or 6 minutes--cut it open to be
sure. What? I don’t know. I'm
writing this down as Michael is explaining it yellingly from the next room.
Cook the chicken somehow until it's cooked is what I'm saying: you could also
do this under the broiler if you prefer, or even in a pan. However you've
cooked it, let the chicken cool on a cutting board while you fry the noodles.
Heat about 1/2 inch of vegetable oil in a very small pan
over fairly high heat. When it is just smoking, drop in a test noodle: it
should puff up and turn white immediately. Now add the whole little skein
of noodles, let it puff up, then
flip it over and cook the other side, moving it around in the oil to puff as
much of it as you can. Drain it on paper towels or a paper grocery bag. Because
you are cheating the oil here (I can't bear to heat 2 inches of oil to deep fry
an ounce of noodles), you're going to end up with some noodles in the middle
that don't puff up. You can either break off the puffed noodles and refry this
core, or else just use what you can.
Now dress the greens lightly before arranging the orange
slices around them, then the peanuts, then the chicken, which you've sliced.
Drizzle the chicken with a little more dressing and, finally, top with the
puffed noodles and serve.
Miso is a Japanese fermented-grain seasoning that's like a
cross between soy sauce and library paste and a chorus of angels singing about
salt. If what you already have in your life is red miso, try using that, but
use less at first since it's even saltier. In a pinch, bottled Annie's Shiitake
and Sesame Dressing is a fine way to go, for both the marinade and salad.
1/4 cup white miso (shiromiso)
1/4 cup rice vinegar (unseasoned)
2 teaspoons smashed and then very finely chopped fresh
3 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon soy sauce or tamari
1/3 cup healthy vegetable oil, such as canola
1 tablespoon water
Whisk together the miso, vinegar, ginger, sugar, and soy
sauce until well blended, then whisk in the oil and, finally, whisk in the
water. Taste the dressing on a piece of cabbage or cucumber. Does it seem
balanced and good? At a little of this or that if it needs it.