Saturday, September 21, 2013

Vietnamese Tofu Cabbage Salad

When we left Gainesville for South Florida, I knew there were a few dishes from my favorite restaurants I was going to need to learn to replicate. The local Vietnamese restaurant, Saigon Legend's Tofu Vietnamese Salad was one of them.

Saigon Legend Takeout
I used to watch my sweet nephews a couple times a week, and after would often enjoy dinner with my sister and her fam. I'd say once a week we'd order in Saigon Legend. The prices were right, the food simple, fresh, and delicous. For a few bucks I'd have a salad and a couple veggie sushi rolls. The first time I had the salad, I was beside myself. How could anything this simple taste this complex and perfect and WOW?! Their menu describes this meal 'appetizer/side' as

Tofu on a bed of shredded cabbage, onions, carrots, and cilantro tossed in a light Vietnamese dressing and garnished with chopped peanuts.

It was fresh and crunchy and sweet and tangy. Veggies were crisp and bright, dressing was really tart with a slight sweetness. Hints of cilantro and peanut in each bite combined so well with the other ingredients.  Perfection. Finely shredding the cabbage, onions, and carrots wasn't going to be difficult. Garnishing with cilantro and chopped cilantro, not a problem. That 'light Vietnamese dressing' tho? I wasn't sure where to start. My first attempt (and to be honest my second, third, fourth, and fifth because it was good enough for this vinegar-lovin' vegan) I just dressed the salad with some seasoned rice wine vinegar. It was way more tart than the original, but I love vinegar-y things, so I was happy to not mess with what I felt was success.

Now that it's been a while since I've had it, and I've been more than a little homesick of late, I have decided to try my hand at doing a better job of recreating the salad that I fell in love with.

Vietnamese Tofu Cabbage Salad, Take Two

I did a quick search for ideas on what a 'Vietnamese dressing' might be and decided that what was important here was to find a way to dilute the vinegar but not lose flavor and give the dressing a more umami flavor, round it out a bit. Fish sauce is seen in most every Vietnamese recipe for a salad dressing (tho Saigon Legend told me, when I asked, that their dressing is completely vegetarian, no fish sauce. Also, their dressing was really clear). 

Not knowing what kind of Vietnamese kitchen magic they were using I searched 'vegan fish sauce' recipe's anyway (Vegan Fish Sauce recipe at the end of the post, adapted from this one). Maybe not exactly like what I tasted from SL, I think I came up with something that should make my plain seasoned rice vinegar more subtle, slightly more sweet, and mellow so that the rest of the ingredients aren't overwhelmed by the dressing but stand out, rather, for being dressed with it.

So here is my take on Saigon Legend's glorious Tofu Vietnamese Salad, as they call it. It tastes like home to me.

My Ode to Saigon Legend Salad

Vietnamese Tofu Cabbage Salad
makes one serving

1/3 block Firm or Extra Firm tofu, drained well, cut into triangles
1/2 - 3/4 c. green cabbage, sliced fine
1/2 c. carrot, slivered
1/8 c. onion, slivered
4 T Vietnamese dressing = 2 parts Seasoned Rice Wine Vinegar + 1 part Vegan Fish Sauce + 1 part pineapple juice (I think pinepple would be perfect, but I only had apple so that's what I used. It was good, but I think the specific sweetness and flavor of pineapple is what's missing from mine)
1 T crushed peanuts

Heat non-stick skillet to med-hi. Place tofu triangles in dry pan (no oil required!) and brown for 3-5 minutes per side. Remove from heat to cool completely. You can bake on parchment or a nonstick mat on 425 15-20 min as well.

Place cabbage, carrot, onion, cilantro, and cooled tofu in a bowl.  Toss to combine. Drizzle dressing over top. It will pool on the bottom. You don't want to toss to coat. It's pretty potent stuff and just tasting it will make you want to dip bites into it but you want to keep the fresh, crisp texture of the veggies. Top with peanuts and more cilantro.

Super simple, healthy, and delicious!

Vegan Fish Sauce
makes just under 2 cups . Lasts up to two months in refrigerator***.

1 cup nori sheets, shredded*
2 cups water
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 T black peppercorns
1/4 cup shoyu (or soy sauce or tamari)
1 tsp lime juice
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp seasoned rice wine vinegar**
1/2 tsp ginger, minced
1/8 ts chili sauce (I used Sriracha)

Place seaweed and water in saucepan and heat to boiling. Reduce heat to simmer, cover, and cook for 15 minutes. Add remaining ingredients, bring to a boil again, reduce to a low simmer, cover, and cook for an additional 15 minutes. Pass mixture through fine mesh sieve, collecting liquid in refrigeratable container. Taste and adjust for salt/sugar/water. While surely there was fish sauce in things in my pre-veg days, that was nearly two decades ago and I'm certain I never tasted it on its own so I cannot attest to how close to the real thing this sauce will taste. I do think that it successfully adds the umami flavor to things that fish sauce is used for though so I am happy with how this turned out.

Up-cycled Shoyu Bottle to hold the Fish Sauce.
Lucky for me, I ran out of Shoyu after that 1/4 cup used. The rinsed and de-labled bottle made an excellent new container for vegan condiments such as this one!

These sheets are great for snacking or in a pinch when a recipe calls for Nori but will add oil to your sauce.

*I did not have any regular nori sheets on-hand, but had picked up some Annie Chung's sesame snack nori 'chips' at Target. The ingredients being seaweed, sesame oil, and canola oil, my fish sauce strained well but had a layer of oil on the top. Once I shake it, it mixes back in, but if a completely oil-free dressing is what you're after, use nori that does not have any oil as an ingredient or just skim oil as best you can off the top.

**If you don't have seasoned rice vinegar, regular rice vinegar will also do, just add 1 tsp sugar to your pot before the second boil/simmer.

***Making this sauce for one tablespoon at a time, when it may not last but a few months in the refrigerator (tho it may last longer, I'm just playing it safe based on other recipes I've found) may seem excessive. Nearing the two month time frame, should you have excess fish sauce, simply pour one tablespoon servings into an ice cube
tray, freeze, and place cubes in a freezer bag for future use.

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