Sunday, July 10, 2005

Lettuce Salad? No thank you. Thai Beef Salad? Yes please.

I didn't think I liked salads. To me they were uninspiring, unfilling wastes of time. Shredded, limp lettuce smothered in throat-catching vinegary dressings; grossly underripe tomatoes hanging around at the edge of your plate. Now that's my idea of meal-time misery. If I was going to eat dinner, I'd rather have a decent, hearty dish. Or at least that was what I thought.

Oh how misguided I was. My embittered perspective was merely, but entirely based on what I'd experienced as a child. Thankfully, the salads of yesteryear have now been triumphantly trumped by verdant, vibrant plates of leaves, dressed subtly and innovatively. In the last decade, the emergence of watercress, rocket and spinach as suitable leafy bulk has reinvigorated my notion of what a salad can be - lettuce just doesn't cut it any more.

Salads come into their own in the hotter months, when the thought of having the hob on for more than a few minutes in an already inferno-like kitchen seems ludicrous. Depending on what you put in them, they don't have to be consigned to starter-dom either. One of the simplest, most delicious summer suppers I make is Thai Beef Salad - succulent, exciting and sating. Thai flavours lend themselves magnificently to leafy dishes and most meats, but beef benefits from the sweetly sour partnership particularly. The dish's faultless quality is its amazingly healthiness - a minimal drizzle of oil is used to fry the steak and the dressing doesn't use any; a welcome, yet no-less-substantial change from steak and chips.

The recipe is an adaptation from Ysanne Spevack's Farmers Market, which is a down-to-earth book with chapters guided by seasonally available produce. The original formula calls for romaine lettuce, cucumber and cherry tomatoes which I have, respectively, substituted and omitted out of pure preference. There is some tinkering with the amounts of ingredients, for example I have upped the amount of fish sauce because I like the dressing to be strong. In fact, I love it so much that if I didn't know better, I would happily drink the stuff straight from the bottle. The important thing to remember with any dressing is that you should always taste it to check if it's to your liking - the amounts are not a fixed chemistry so don't feel bound to the measurements.

Personally, I prefer my steak rare. I get mine from the butcher so I feel confident about my meat's freshness but would advise you to cook the steak all the way through if you are using supermarket bought rump. The end result will be a little less tender but safer on the whole.

Thai Beef Salad (serves 2)

  • 2 medium sized, thick-cut rump steaks (organic/free range British beef from a butcher if possible)
  • 1 small red chilli, de-seeded and cut into strips
  • 1 small green chilli, de-seeded and cut into strips
  • 125g mushrooms (shiitake/oyster if you can get them but closed cup/chestnut mushrooms are fine if that's all that's available)
  • olive oil

For the dressing

  • 2 spring onions
  • 1 large or 2 small cloves of garlic, finely minced
  • juice of ½ a lime
  • 2 tbsp fish sauce
  • ½ tsp soft light brown sugar
  • a generous handful of fresh coriander, chopped


  • 1 bag of watercress, spinach and rocket salad (obviously get this in an unbagged state if possible)
  • ½ medium courgette

Make sure your steaks are at room temperature. Heat a little oil in a pan until you can see it rippling and then place them in the pan. Fry them for just over 2 minutes on each side if you like them rare, or cook them for longer if you like them more well-done. Once cooked, remove from the pan and leave to rest and cool for 15 minutes on a chopping board (do not slice them yet). Whilst the meat is cooling you should have just the right amount of time to prepare every thing else.

Finely slice the spring onions and place in a bowl with the minced garlic and chopped coriander. Sprinkle over the sugar, fish sauce and lime juice, mix together and set aside. Slice the mushrooms (if you are using oyster mushrooms leave them whole) and using the steak pan, fry them gently with the chilli (be careful not to do this on too high a heat since burnt chillies release an unpleasant, cough-inducing vapour). Either cut the courgette into batons, or using a peeler, shave ribbon-like strips from it. Pile your salad and courgette on two large plates.

By now, the meat should have had enough resting time, so slice it into thin strips on the diagonal, which will make them satisfyingly lengthy. Making sure you have turned the heat off, add these to the mushrooms and chillies in the frying pan to combine and warm through a little. Pour over the dressing and toss through gently. Making sure you don't leave any of the dressing in the pan, arrange the juicy beef mixture on top of the waiting salad and serve, perhaps with a light sprinkling of sesame seeds if the mood takes you.