Monday, October 13, 2008

Our New Staple: Thai Beef Salad

A few weeks ago we went to the Brooklyn Flea. It was one of those weirdly tropical days, far too hot to dig through vintage maps and racks of clothing in a brutally sunny asphalt lot. So we wandered through Fort Greene looking for a lunch place and stumbled upon Rice, one of my favorite cheap NYC eats.

It was brunchtime, but we all went for Rice-y things: I got congee with grilled shrimp; my daughter got dumplings, Chris got some kind of chili-laden eggs, and my son got the winner, the Thai Beef Salad, which we have been eating in one form or another regularly ever since.

My version is brown rice tossed with a mix of fish sauce and lime juice and a pinch of sugar. Then I grill or broil steak and serve it with a bunch of vegetables.

But this is the thing. Even before the economic events of recent weeks, I am a cheapskate. I am a bargain hunter, a frugal gourmet, a total tightwad. Of course this thriftiness is in opposition to my appreciation for good real food and my desire that animals raised for food be treated humanely. There's plenty of cheap food that I have no interest in, like, for example 99-cent hamburgers and hot pockets, in which the consumer is actually getting ripped off.

So there I am in the meat section at the Coop -- where it's mostly farm-raised meat -- ignoring the $30 rib-eye steaks and going for the cheapest cuts. If it's chewy and gristly and tough and $6/pound, I'll buy it. It's the only way I can afford to buy farm-raised meat, and plus I like the challenge.

There are different things you can do with tough cuts of meat. You can slowly stew the shit out of them, as in brisket. You can semi-freeze them and then slice them against the grain in micro-thin slices and stir-fry them. You can marinate them for hours in salty acidic things that supposedly will break down the fibers (although I've been hearing disagreement about this. It was either Mark Bittman or Chris Kimball or some other giant in the field who wrote that the marinade or brine never penetrates more than 1/2 an inch or so. That may be true but then I don't know how they can explain the miracle of bacon).

Or you can pound them.

This is my latest favorite method. I buy chuck steak or london broil, and I put it between wax paper and pound the shit out of it.

Then I grill or broil it, and slice it really thin against the grain. Sometimes it doesn't work. I can tell when I see my children chewing on their food like they're chewing their cud, and also I can tell when my daughter starts wailing that the meat's too tough to eat. This is a sure fire method right here for knowing.

But most of the time it's great -- a little chewy but huge on flavor, especially when you add the Thai Salty-Sour-Sweet Sauce.
To quote my daughter: "Are we having my favorite sauce? I love this sauce!"

Thai Beef Salad
Meat, pounded
Rice, tossed with salty-sour-sweet thai sauce (see below)
Lettuce leaves
Carrots and cucumbers, pickled if desired (see below)
radishes, mint, basil, cilantro, as desired

Salty-Sour-Sweet Thai sauce
1/2 cup fish sauce
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1 teaspoon raw sugar
Mix all ingredients. Use half to flavor rice; put other half on table for diners to add extra flavor.

Quick Pickle
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon salt
(You can play with this arrangement as per your preferences. My kids get used to the extremely sweet versions they find in Vietnamese restaurants, and turn up their noses at my less sweet versions. This version is pretty sweet.)
Heat ingredients until sugar is fully dissolved. Cool and then mix with carrots or radishes, julienned or shredded. You can pickle them in the fridge for an hour or overnight, or just use as a dressing on unpickled carrots.

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