Saturday, September 24, 2005

Asian-Style Chicken Salad with Ginger-Miso Dressing

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
Serves 4
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 one)
1 cucumber (I used half of a ginormous shrink-wrapped English one)
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.

Ginger-Miso Dressing
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 ginger
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.


  1. Anonymous4:25 AM

    "It's an Iron Chef competition - the "Difficult Vegetables" episode, and all the judgea are children." Oh, how this resonates - and I've never watched an Iron Chef episode in my life.
    Question: "it should puff up and turn while immediately"? Turn white, maybe? (Do rice noodles do that? I'm new to this.)
    Anyway, thanks for all those links, all new to me. There is much to explore.

  2. Emily9:38 PM

    Love "explaining it yellingly" cuz that's what's happening right now in my backyard. I'm in unchartered territory here messing with his grill but determined to get these chicken breasts cooked!