So yesterday I had it in my head — and once I have something in my head, I will move the heavens and earth to make it so — to make the always-satisfying Salad of Pain. I’ve made it a few times before, and it has established itself as a mainstay in our mid-week menus. I’ve found it to be quick, easy and tasty — all qualifiers of good weeknight fare.
Now, in the past, I’ve foregone the tamarind paste because I was too damned lazy to go out and get it. I’ve just subbed in some lime juice for tartness and astringency. This time, however, I decided to try to stick to the actual recipe, so I was hell bent for leather to find the stuff. A quick consultation with my friend Anita, who cooks a fair amount of Thai food, prompted me to make an excursion to the fabled 99 Ranch.
I’ve never been to 99 Ranch before. I expected a kaleidoscopic array of magnificently foreign and indecipherable product labels; unidentifiable smells both appetizing and otherwise; and the occasional glance askance at the lone guailo staring with unusual intensity at shelves full of obviously mundane product. I was not disappointed.
First things first — the psychedelic snack aisle. I knew I wasn’t coming out of the store without one bag of my favorite Asian snack, prepared squid. The dessicated meat is the texture of a leather bootstrap, and it is utterly flavorless on its own, which makes it the perfect canvas for the simple dressing of salt, sugar and MSG. This is awesome airplane snack food, especially cuz no one will EVER ask you for some. Plus, the packaging! I’m not so sure squid have emotions, but in case they do, I like to imagine that the squid in my little technicolor bag were so happy, so at peace right up until the point they were harvested, eviscerated and dried.
Spiced little vegetarian chicken. Hm. Do you suppose this means seasoned meat that came from diminutive chickens fed only plant matter? What if they were lacto-ovo? Is it kosher for chickens to eat eggs? I left this in the cooler.
If it’s all-purpose, why are there two flavors?
OK, enough fun with foreign food. I got my prepared squid and a bottle of Squid Brand Fish Sauce. Yep, it was a squid run. However, when it came to tamarind paste, they were out of both varieties they stock. Dammit! Undeterred, I sped into the Mission, where I hit up a few of the likelier bodegas and produce stands that tend to carry a quirky melange of Latin-Asian goods. No dice. One place had fresh tamarind, but I was just not ready to make that commitment. Of course, you can buy the stuff on EthnicGrocer.com, provided of course I’m willing to pay a few dollars on shipping an $0.89 item. All this for one tablespoon.
Of course, the substitutions don’t stop there. When DPaul and I went to the market, they had neither flank nor skirt steaks, so we picked up some top round. And the rice noodles we had delivered were vermicelli-like maifun as opposed to the wider noodles I’d used in the past. What I don’t know about Asian noodles could fill Cow Palace.
OK, a few substitutions, a few setbacks, I can still do this thing. Normally, this is a 30-minute dish. You whip up the dressing, shred up some cabbage, sear up some steak and boil some noodles. What could be simpler?
The maifun package said to soak the noodles in cold water. Fine. 30 minutes later, while not brittle, the noodles were still stiff and tough. Grumble. On goes some water to boil.
The hunk of top round was rather fat, so I butterflied it to get closer to flank steakishness. Seared on both sides about 8 minutes per, into the oven to finish, take its temperature, and all seems good. After a few minutes’ rest, I cut in and see … a small trickle of blood. I can stomach medium-rare, but DPaul not so much. So back into the oven it goes.
The new fish sauce, while relatively mild, was much earthier (read: smelled more like sweaty boots) than the kind I had used before, and required significantly more punching-up in tartness and sweetness. As I’m using lime juice instead of tamarind paste for tartness, this renders the dressing a bit waterier than I had anticipated.
About an hour after I intended to serve dinner, I finally produced my "simple," "quick" weeknight meal. It still tasted fine, mind you, but by the time we ate I was tired and exasperated, cranky and hungry. Instead of getting steadily better at this recipe, I am forever trying to recapture the seemingly effortless magic of the first time I made it. Next time around: Back to flank steak; accept no imitations. Get the wider noodles and boil the damn things. And do whatever the hell it takes to find tamarind paste.