I love it when the seasons change, as I'm suddenly reminded of things I haven't seen for a while. In my case, away go the slow-cook European braises and in come the large Asian salads. Nothing can wake your palate and fill you with sunshine quite like them.
The zingy kick you get from the sweet, sour, salty and spicy combination found in South-east Asian dressings is addictive, and I don't seem to be the only one to think so. Who would have said 15 years ago that Thai and Vietnamese salads would have become as common as the Caesar on restaurant menus?
But the continent has a lot more to offer, and one of the favourites in my house is the Sichuan chicken and cucumber salad – crunchy and refreshing while at the same time fiery. The ground Sichuan pepper leaves an unexpected numbing sensation in your mouth that can be quite a shock to the senses – in a good way of course…
I'm also revisiting gado-gado, with its silky peanut-and-coconut dressing. This Indonesian salad is quite common in Australia, but I've struggled to find a good one in the UK. Luckily, it's quite easy to make.
Every time I have this salad I'm reminded of how good it is. Use any leftover dressing to make satay chicken or beef skewers.
2 tbsp light-flavoured oil
200g/7oz firm tofu, cut into large cubes
350g/11½oz potatoes, peeled and cut into small chunks
150g/5oz French beans, trimmed and halved in length
150g/5oz Chinese cabbage, shredded
2 eggs, hard-boiled and quartered
2 tbsp crispy shallots
For the peanut dressing
75g/3oz unsalted toasted peanuts
1 tbsp light-flavoured oil
2 shallots, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tbsp sambal oelek
1 tbsp light soft brown sugar
1 tbsp tamarind paste
100ml/3½fl oz coconut milk
Juice ½ lime
For the dressing, grind the peanuts in a food processor and set aside. Heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Fry the shallots, garlic and sambal oelek for 5 minutes. Add the sugar, tamarind paste, ground peanuts, coconut milk and 100ml/3½fl oz water. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 5 minutes, or until thick like peanut butter. Stir in the lime juice and set aside.
Now heat a wok or deep frying pan over a medium-high heat and add the oil. Stir-fry the tofu for 3 to 4 minutes until golden-brown all over. Transfer to a plate and cut the cubes in half.
Cook the potatoes in salted boiling water for 10 minutes. Add the beans and, after 2 minutes, the cabbage and beansprouts. Cook for 30 seconds and drain thoroughly. Toss into a large platter with the tofu. Top with the eggs and crispy shallots. Drizzle with the dressing and serve.
Sichuan chicken and cucumber salad
I love the way dry spices are used in northern Chinese cooking. Here the fresh, juicy cucumber is just what you need to contrast the tingly sensation the Sichuan pepper leaves on your tongue.
5 spring onions
3 chicken breasts
3 tbsp Chinese rice wine
3cm piece ginger, sliced
2 garlic cloves, chopped
½ tsp Sichuan peppercorns
½ tsp sea salt
1 large cucumber, cut into chunks
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tsp sesame oil
½ tsp dried crushed chillies
Chilli oil, to serve
Finely shred the spring onions and put any trimmings in a small pan with the chicken. Pour in enough water to cover. Stir in the rice wine, ginger and garlic and bring to the boil. Simmer for 10 minutes then remove from the heat, cover and set aside to cool. Remove the chicken from the broth and roughly shred. Place in a large serving dish and stir through 1 tbsp of the cooking liquor. Cover and keep chilled in the fridge until needed.
Toast the Sichuan peppercorns and salt in a small frying pan over a medium heat until the peppercorns release their aroma. Grind with a pestle and mortar and set aside.
To serve, fold the cucumber and shredded spring onions into the chicken. Add the soy sauce, sesame oil and the dried chillies and top with the Sichuan pepper mix. Serve with some chilli oil on the side.
Vietnamese prawn with carrot and cucumber
Opposing textures and flavours make this salad great: crunchy raw vegetables, silky noodles, soft fragrant herbs, sweet springy prawns, all brought together with a vibrant dressing.
½ tsp salt
2 tbsp rice vinegar
1 tbsp caster sugar
2 carrots, sliced into thick matchsticks
1 small cucumber, sliced into thick matchsticks
200g/7oz cooked peeled king prawns
150g/5oz rice vermicelli noodles
Handful mint leaves
Handful coriander leaves
Handful basil leaves
2 shallots, finely sliced
For the nuoc cham dressing
3 tbsp fish sauce
4 tbsp lime juice
2 tbsp soft light brown sugar
1 red chilli, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
Combine the salt, rice vinegar and sugar in a bowl and stir in the carrots and cucumber. Set aside for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, combine all the ingredients for the dressing together in a serving dish and stir in the prawns, and also set aside for 30 minutes to marinate.
Soak the noodles according to packet instructions then drain well. Toss into the dish with the prawns and add the pickled carrots and cucumber. Toss through the herbs and shallots and serve.
Independent News Service