Thai Grilled-Beef Salad (Nam Tok)

Before I appreciated food, before I had the gourmet palette, I had this Thai salad. I had just started working right after graduating college and money was still tight. The company I worked for was located near a Thai restaurant that I frequented during my lunch hours. This salad was usually one of the cheaper dishes on the menu that can fill me up without feeling weighted down. It is also especially refreshing during the summer heat of Sacramento, California.

I have not ordered this dish since then as I explored many more Thai dishes that I now regularly order. It has been really hot in the San Francisco Bay Area lately (minus today) and I was thinking about making a salad as a blog entry. I came across this recipe in the latest Cook’s Illustrated magazine and I was immediately taken back to my days in Sacramento, my infancy as a foodie. If you get a chance, pick up an issue. I love the back stories on the recipes and how they end up with the final ingredients. Almost like Good Eats from the Food Network, but in words.

1 tsp sweet paprika
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 Tbsp white rice
3 Tbsp lime juice (about 2 limes)
2 Tbsp fish sauce
2 Tbsp water
½ tsp sugar
1 (1½-pound) flank steak, trimmed
salt and white pepper, coarsely ground
4 shallots, sliced thin
1 ½ cups fresh mint leaves, torn
1 ½ cups fresh cilantro leaves
1 Thai chile, stemmed and sliced thin into rounds
1 seedless English cucumber, sliced ¼ inch thick on bias

As always, read the directions carefully and understand what needs to be done. I thought I did, but I ended up doing some things wrong but I’ll explain later.

The part that will take the longest is usually where we’d want to start, and this is with the beef.

I take my raw steak and season it generously with salt and white pepper. The type of salt I used here was sea salt as it is a coarse salt. Another type of salt you might want to use is Kosher salt. White pepper is used here because we do not want to see the black speckles of pepper on the beef, but want the peppery taste.

Stick the steak on a grill and char each side to your liking. I didn’t have a grill so I used my old George Foreman grill.

Once the beef has finished cooking, remove it from the grill and place it on a plate and tent a piece of foil on top of it. The purpose of the foil is to keep the meat warm but not steaming it. The opening allows the hot air to be released. Also, it’s important to not cut into the beef right away because the juices need to redistribute and settle inside. Otherwise, the cut will make the meat bleed and dry the piece out. They call this process “resting” the meat. Since the piece of meat is fairly thin, the resting period is not long, about 5 to 10 minutes. While the beef is resting, we can work on the other ingredients.

We have to do some prep work on these items. Notice the fish sauce on the right. This is probably my favorite brand of fish sauce which is a Vietnamese one that has a picture of three crabs on it. It’s called Việt Hương.

We start off by toasting the paprika and cayenne pepper over medium heat. Toasting releases more of the flavors of these ingredients. Do this for about 1 minute or until you can really smell the fragrant. Transfer to a small bowl and empty the pan.

Next we are going to toast the rice. Turn up the heat for medium high and move the rice around until it turns a deep golden brown color. About 5 minutes. Oops, I did spill a few rice grains trying to take this shot.

Transfer the rice to a food processor or a mortar and pestle. I personally like to do my grinding with a mortar and pestle. And also because I don’t have a food processor

Grind until it becomes a meal. You can see here that I didn’t complete the toast because it should be pretty brown. And also, it’s not that fine. I still got some big chunks in there.

Now we’ll make the dressing. We have the lime juice, fish sauce, water, sugar, and ¼ tsp of the paprika mix here.

Dump it all in a bowl and whisk away.

Here is a 3 cups worth of cilantro and mint. Here, I did another mistake and why it’s important to really read the recipe. I left the stems on the cilantro. I neglected the part where it said to use only the cilantro leaves.

I decided to be a little decorative with the cucumber. You can see that I peeled the skin alternately.

So that when it’s cut, it’ll look kind of cool. Here, you can see I’m cutting the slices diagonally. This is called cutting on the bias. It creates longer slices.

Thinly slice the shallots and separate them as best you can.

By this time, the beef should be ready to be sliced. We also want the beef to be sliced on the bias and also want it against the grain. The grain are the muscle fibers that runs linear in a certain direction. In this picture, the grain is from right to left denoted by the lines. So we want to slice perpendicular to that, and at an angle, and slice ¼ of an inch thick.

Put the sliced beef, shallots, cilantro, chile, mint, and half of the grinded rice into the dressing mixture.

Toss until well combined.

Line a plate with cucumbers around and transfer the salad to the middle. Sprinkle some of the grinded rice on top with some of the toasted paprika mixture. And voila! Done!

I feel that even though the ingredient list is large, it’s really a simple dish. So if you want to try it out, good luck! I found all the ingredients at a regular supermarket.

Verdict: It’s good! Light and refreshing! I overcooked my beef slightly as I prefer medium rare. Cooking it in a George Foreman grill threw me off a little. I could also do without the cilantro stem. But that was my mistake for not reading carefully. Also, I made the salad too spicy. I put in 2 Thai chiles instead of one, including the seeds! I had the salad with a bowl of steamed jasmine rice to make it more of a meal. The green color, with various whites and reds, really made the dish visually appealing.


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