Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Vietnamese Cabbage-and-Chicken Salad

Being a Wisconsin girl with German heritage, my first instinct when preparing cabbage is to cook it down and serve it with sausage and beer. While that is undoubtedly delicious, the recent spate of meat-centric, heavy family dinners over the holidays left me craving something fresh and crunchy with a plethora of vibrant flavors (the Scandinavians and Germans are not exactly known for their liberal use of exotic spices), and this meal perfectly satisfied those needs while using up the lonely CSA cabbage (and radishes and carrots) that was lingering in my refrigerator. Fresh and crunchy cabbage, radishes, carrots, apple, and scallions blend together beautifully with a melange of classic Asian flavors, with just enough poached chicken to make it a light main course. This dressing isn't remotely exotic for those familiar with the flavors of Southeast Asia, but the tried-and-true combination of sesame oil, jalapeño, ginger, vinegar, fish sauce, lime, and cilantro was a fantastic way to bring my palate back to life. Although there was flavor and crunch to spare, I have one simple addition in mind for the next time this makes it to my dinner plate-a generous sprinkling of toasted, salted peanuts for just a bit of saltiness and richness in this otherwise light dish. It may seem a bit out of place to be eating a meal like this in what should be the depths of winter, but even once there's finally a blanket of snow on the ground I'll be happily clinging to tastes of warmer climates.
Vietnamese Cabbage-and-Chicken Salad
serves 4

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 3)
3 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons Asian sesame oil
1/2 jalapeño pepper, seeds and ribs removed, sliced
1 1-inch piece fresh ginger
2 cups water
1 head green cabbage (about 2 1/2 pounds), shredded (about 2 1/2 quarts)
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce (nam pla or nuoc mam)
1 1/2 tablespoons lime juice
3 carrots, grated
3 radishes, grated (I used beauty heart/watermelon radishes, but any will do)
4 scallions including green tops, chopped
2 cups coarse-chopped mint, basil, cilantro, or dill, or a combination
1 tart apple, such as Granny Smith, cored and grated
1. Rub the chicken breasts with 1 teaspoon of the salt and 1 tablespoon of the sesame oil. In a medium saucepan, combine the jalapeño, ginger, and water. Bring to a simmer, add the chicken, and cover the pan. Simmer for 5 minutes. Turn the heat off and let the chicken steam for 5 minutes. Remove the chicken breasts from the saucepan; when they are cool enough to handle, pull them into shreds.
2. Meanwhile, in a large glass or stainless-steel bowl, combine the cabbage with the vinegar, fish sauce, lime juice, and the remaining 2 teaspoons salt. Toss and let stand for 10 minutes.

3. Add the carrots, radishes, scallions, 1 1/2 cups of the herbs, and the apple to the cabbage mixture. Stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon sesame oil. Serve the salad topped with the chicken and the remaining 1/2 cup herbs.

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