Dinner Tonight: Nigel Slater's Grilled Beef Vietnamese Salad


[Photograph: Blake Royer]

The idea of a salad with grilled meat, cilantro, and mint, dressed with a pungent mixture of fish sauce, chiles, sugar, and lime juice, is something I first discovered at a Thai restaurant where I live in Chicago. Known as larb in Thai and Laotian cuisine with variations throughout Asia, it's unlike any style of salad you'd encounter in Western cooking: for one, the dressing has no oil or fat in it whatsoever. Flipping through one of my favorite cookbooks of all time recently, Nigel Slater's The Kitchen Diaries, led me to this rendition.

Why I Picked This Recipe: Though I've ordered this type of salad at restaurants before, I've never tried it at home, and I was eager to play with Slater's proportions in the dressing: fish sauce for savory pungency, lime juice to brighten things up, sweet chile sauce for spiciness, and sugar to soften the edges. It's never made much sense to me at all how the flavor of that mixture can taste so round and balanced (though it's definitely pretty funky, so be warned). The list of ingredients, besides kaffir lime leaves, which can be omitted, was also not too difficult to procure.

What Worked: The dressing worked, big time. I also liked Slater's use of peppery watercress to significantly bulk out the vegetable component, while still keeping the fragrant mint and cilantro for authenticity.

What Didn't: The recipe called for sirloin steaks, and I was glad I went against that advice in favor of much fattier hanger steak; the dressing is strong and tart on its own, and I realized that the salad succeeds when the fat from the steak balances that out. So I would definitely suggest skirt, hanger, or a portion of chuck that's well-marbled. It doesn't need to be expensive, since it'll be sliced thinly against the grain after cooking.

Suggested Tweaks: The recipe calls for cucumber and tomato, but I didn't feel it added much, so leaving them out would be fine. And keep in mind that the dressing can be tinkered with quite a bit, so tweaking the proportions of ingredients to your taste is worth doing.

Adapted from The Kitchen Diaries.