I had every intention of writing about something else this week, but I admit, I have fallen under the thrall of not one, but two obsessions. One is the saga known simply as “Olivia Wilde’s salad dressing”. Oh, you don’t know what I’m talking about? Don’t worry, this link has you covered. Or maybe you’d prefer this one. What’s that, too long? Maybe you prefer this one or this one. Honestly, anything that even hints at a very special salad dressing — no matter how simple — will catch my attention, because I fancy myself a great salad maker. Really. I don’t throw that word around cavalierly when it comes to describing myself. I am very good at salad dressings. When I’m feeling lazy (which is most of the time), I just mix it up in the bowl. Occasionally, I will stretch myself and make a real dressing in a separate container. They are both good. I’ll use whatever ingredients come to hand, but I prefer tart flavors. You can put almost anything into a salad dressing and it will taste good. The secret is: salt. Also, that old rule of thumb where you add two tablespoons of oil for every one tablespoon of vinegar is garbage. It’s more like half and half. Ultimately, like all other cooking, it’s all about intuition and feel. I make a lot of salads. And a good hand with the salt fixes most mistakes.
All of the stories about this particular salad dressing pumped me up enough to go to the grocery store in order to search out a nice pungent bunch of wild arugula (endive is far too expensive in Thailand) in order to whip out a correspondingly sturdy mustard vinaigrette. But that’s when my second recent obsession took over. And that obsession is all about canned sardines.
I guess it started when I went to Paris this past summer, and our hotel ended up being next to a shop devoted entirely to sardines. Unsure of which types of sardines I would enjoy, I ended up buying a random selection of them.
I initially bought these with the intention of simply plopping them on top of a toasted slice of good sourdough, but then my culinary ambitions — stunted as they usually are — took over, courtesy of Olivia Wilde’s salad dressing. Inspired by a recent meal I had at Err, I decided to instead make a yum of canned sardines, or yum pla krapong (not to be confused with seabass, which has a similar name). For my purposes, I chose this can:
Traditionally, not so salad-y, I decided to mix it in with a lot of leafy romaine and a tomato. I made a standard lime-fish sauce yum dressing and added a whole lot of lime leaves, slivered, from the garden, a handful of Thai shallots, and a handful of sliced bird’s eye chilies. I julienned some lemongrass bulbs left over from a recent Sansa salad (very good, if you like salads). And I mixed it all together for my lunch.
It was good, satisfying most of what I had been craving. But then I wondered if the traditional version of this “salad” was what I had been wanting all along. So the very next day, I went back to the grocery store specifically to buy the canned sardine that all Thais say must be used for this dish.
This fish is meatier than the French stuff, and obviously not as tart. I also made sure to use a “good quality” fish sauce, to echo Nora Ephron’s (Olivia Wilde’s, if you don’t like to read links) suggestion of using “good quality” red wine vinegar for her dressing. Ultimately, this dish is meant to be eaten with a good hot bowl of rice, just like Thais intended it.
Yum pla krapong (serves 2, or 1 if it’s me)
- 1 can of sardines of whatever persuasion
- 10-20 lime leaves, the spines taken out and the leaves julienned (I like as many as possible, so that my yum resembles a squashed green sea urchin)
- A handful of Thai shallots (or one medium-sized banana shallot), sliced thinly
- 10-20 Thai chilies (bird’s eye or goat peppers), sliced
- 3 lemongrass bulbs, sliced
- The juice of one lime
- 2 Tbsps of good quality fish sauce like this
- 1 pinch of MSG (optional. My housekeeper insists this is the magic ingredient)
Mix well together and taste to adjust seasonings to your liking. Add in some torn sturdy lettuce leaves like romaine and a sliced tomato if you like. Serve with some good hot Thai rice on the side to soak up all that chili.