Famous Crunchy Asian Salad

You ever have a dish that you know exactly how it tastes and feels and looks but have no idea how to get there and make it yourself? Often times, intuition, logic and experience can help recreate a dish. But there's a definite luck element as well. This week when I tried to create Julia's Mom's famous Asian salad that I've been craving, I couldn't resist the urge to try to recreate it. And whether it was luck or not, it came out great, even with a few twists I added. So much so that I completely impressed her daughter with a live, authentic and surprise taste of Mama's kitchen from afar – with only my guesses and memories to help me.

The base of the dish is my favorite kind of cabbage to consume raw – Chinese/Napa cabbage. It's not too strongly flavored and is very crisp; shredding a small to medium sized head is enough for 3 to 4 servings of this super salad. After shredding the cabbage, I zested and juiced a lime over it and added a little pinch of salt and pepper. I then finely minced a little less than half of a small yellow onion and four garlic chives and added them into the salad base. I also threw in one small, deseeded tomato, minced.

The next and perhaps most important element of the salad is the crunch. This involves toasting/browning a bunch of different great crunchy elements. I tried to remember them all and ended up throwing in a few more new ones I thought of along the way. I heated a pan to medium with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. I then added a little more than a quarter cup of bulgur wheat. People generally make this as a grain so it puffs up soft when poached РI actually like toasting it for an awesome crunch and nutty flavor with a huge punch of protein-fiber. After a couple minutes I added about 10 to 12 wonton wrappers, cut into wonton strips. Those two were my twists to the crunchy elements. I then added the traditional crunch into the same toasting/saut̩ing pan: a nice handful each of shelled pepitas (pumpkin seeds), shelled sunflower seeds, hand-sliced almonds, and one packaged of Ramen noodles, broken into small chunks. I let them all toast together until they're all golden brown. I added a little more salt, but I DID NOT add the Ramen flavoring РI discarded that.

Finally I was ready to make the dressing. This was probably the biggest guess of all. I knew it had some soy element. So I decided to add a little Asian flavoring into basic Balsamic vinaigrette. I added a little more than one tablespoon of Balsamic and a little less than three tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Then I added about half a tablespoon of chili oil, a tablespoon of low sodium soy sauce and a tablespoon of low sodium teriyaki sauce. Lastly I added a pinch of pepper and vigorously shook up the dressing. I poured it over the cabbage-lime-tomato-chive-onion mixture and tossed it well. Then I added the slightly-cooled but still-warm pan of toasted “crunch” – the almonds, wontons, bulgur, pepitas, sunflower seeds and Ramen noodles. (I can't tell you how delicious that crunch tastes.) I tossed the crunch into the dressed salad base until it was all combined. The dressing intermingles with the crunch while the heat of the crunch helps to tone down the rawness of the cabbage and onions, without reducing their crispness.

The final salad tasted so close to the original that Julia swore I had received the recipe from her mother. It's one of our favorite dishes to eat – period – so she was pretty excited. If we still lived nearby, we'd probably still be begging the Mama to make it for us all the time. The different kinds of crunch and crisp with a perfect dressing make this truly a unique and addictingly delicious dish. I know I didn't match it perfectly, but I imagine she would appreciate the imitation as flattery and perhaps even try the twists in future versions. But of course I would take her version of the original any day. As long as we get to see her next time we eat it. She was the truly missing element from my salad, no matter how tasty it turned out.

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