You know that woman who goes out for dinner with her date (read: husband) and, despite a full and varied menu, orders a salad? OK, that’s me.
I have nothing against a big bowl of pasta or a good steak (blue rare, please) or the seafood special of the day. I love it all. But I love a salad more. Mind you, I’m not talking about the house salad, you know the one, a mound of iceberg lettuce and a few wedges of hard, unripe tomato. A slice of cucumber on the side. That’s the most boring salad in the world.
I’m talking about a full-bodied, multiplex, over-achieving meal in a bowl. A salad with meat, literally. Examples include a chef’s salad, cobb salad, grilled chicken caesar and, in the category of signature salads, the mandarin chicken salad at Clark and Lewie’s in Great Falls, Montana. I also love salads with steak.
A few years back, I wrote restaurant reviews for the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix. Yes, they paid me to eat out, once a week, anywhere I wanted within the city limits. A dream gig, no? Normally, I don’t eat out that much, preferring to cook in my own kitchen. But this was work. Someone else was paying for dinner and paying me, too. I loved it.
Of course, there are many factors to consider when reviewing a restaurant. Does the restaurant have a theme? What is the backstory to that theme and how does it play out on the menu? What are the specialties? What are the fan favourites? Is there a local component or a world view? Is the service helpful? Is the decor clean? Does the food taste good?
I usually ordered three things off the menu, since a restaurant cannot be judged by its entrees alone. Appetizer + main + dessert.
Sometimes the appetizer was a salad; sometimes a salad came with the entree. If it was a house salad (as described above) I usually opted for the soup instead. Sometimes I skipped both soup and salad and went straight for the fried zucchini sticks or crab cakes or coconut shrimp. However, I rarely ordered a salad as a meal. One salad does not a review make. (Although, now that I think of it, a restaurant review column based solely on the salad options would be a healthy alternative.) If I learned one thing by eating out once a week it’s this: restaurants are fattening. Not just the food itself, but how much food. After a full year of restaurant reviews, when May rolled around, I discovered my summer wardrobe had shrunk since the summer before. Suddenly, I liked salads more than ever!
This Vietnamese salad is a favourite of mine, especially for dinner on the patio. It can be cooked ahead and assembled just before serving. And no restaurant bill.
You can make smaller (and more) meatballs. I make them larger so they don’t fall through the grill.
- 1 lb. (450 g) angel hair pasta or rice noodles
- 1/2 c. carrots, cut in thin matchsticks 1/2 c. cucumber, cut in thin matchsticks
- 1/2 c. cabbage, thinly sliced
- 1 lb. pork or beef, or a combination 1/4 c. green onion, thinly sliced
- 2 tbsp. cilantro, finely chopped
- 1 tsp. sugar
- 1 tsp. fish sauce
- 2 handfuls of lettuce
- Fresh cilantro and mint for garnish, chopped
For the sauce, mix together:
- 1 large garlic, minced
- 1 hot pepper, chopped (optional) 1 c. water
- 1/2 c. sugar
- 1/2 c. fish sauce
- 1/2 c. red-wine vinegar
Cook noodles in salted water. Drain, rinse and cool. Meanwhile, make the sauce. Boil two cups of water with a dash of salt. Add the carrots, cook just until they begin to soften, and remove with a slotted spoon. Rinse in cold water. Repeat this process with the cucumber and the cabbage. Drain the vegetables of cold water and mix them with the sauce. For the meatballs, mix the meat with the green onion, cilantro, sugar and fish sauce, plus a dash of salt and pepper. Mix well with your hands until the meat becomes smooth and sticky. Form into 10 meatballs and press to flatten. Cook on a grill or skillet until nicely browned. Add the meatballs to the sauce and vegetables. To serve, place the lettuce in a wide bowl. Top with noodles. Scoop vegetables and meat from the sauce and place on top. Pour sauce over all. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro and mint.