Why have I chosen a bowl of shallots to star on this blog? The simple shallot was my gateway drug into the addictive practice of home-cooking, and there’s always a bowl of these beauties, sometimes not so little, on the kitchen counter – right next to the garlic. This member of the onion family never made an appearance in the home I grew up in, and, similarly, I can’t recall any fresh heads of garlic either. There was surely a basket of onions kept in the cool spot of the pantry, because I remember our miniature schnauzer Rudy getting a hold of one and leaving just a small nub of it with its skin on the kitchen floor. Shallots are a magical flavor booster, whether you’re just adding a tsp or so of minced shallot to your basic vinaigrette, or substituting some plump diced shallots for a portion of the onions in a stew or soup. Add some lightly sauteed bits of shallot and butter to steamed green beans, or crank it up to caramelize them with home fries. Peel and roast them whole alongside the other aromatics with your roasting chicken. I simply cannot sing their praises loudly enough. Buy them in bulk, never in those little boxes with just two. Pick out a variety of sizes – some can be as voluminous as an onion if that’s what you need; others, barely the size of a large garlic clove – just right for salad dressing. They’ll bring tears to your eyes in more ways than one – not just because they’re sooo good, but I find them more tear-inducing than onions. Even with a kitchen matchstick held between my teeth (that trick often works), my husband always knows I’m chopping mounds of shallots when he sees me running for the tissue box. I was surprised to learn how much shallots factor into some Asian cuisine – you can find 1 lb bags of them (usually small ones) at the Asian market, and containers of crispy-fried shallots for sprinkling over salads. And it’s the star of my totally fat-free dressing for Vietnamese Cabbage Salad, a favorite alternative to have with just about anything off the grill – this is adapted from Mai Pham’s book “The Best of Vietnamese & Thai Cooking”:
DRESSING FOR VIETNAMESE CABBAGE SALAD
1 large shallot peeled, halved, and thinly sliced; 1 tsp Asian chili sauce; 2 tsp Asian fish sauce (smells awful, but adds great umami); 2 tbsp fresh lime juice; 1 tsp salt; 2 tbsp sugar; 2 tbsp water; 2 tsp rice wine vinegar. Combine all in 1-cup pyrex measuring cup, whisk just to dissolve the sugar, and keep refrigerated until ready to use.
VIETNAMESE CABBAGE SALAD
1/2 head thinly sliced green cabbage (or packaged shredded cabbage); 1 cup shredded carrots; 1/2 large English cucumber halved vertically and then thinly sliced into half-moons; 2-3 large radishes julienned (optional); 1/4 cup each fresh mint leaves, Thai basil, and cilantro torn into smaller pieces; some crushed peanuts for garnish.
Combined all salad ingredients and pour dressing over; add in some crushed peanuts, toss and serve. Alternatively, the slaw and dressing can be kept separately, refrigerated until serving, and use just enough for the occasion, saving the rest. It will keep well. However, unlike lettuce-based dressing, this will keep another day or so after dressing if you have leftovers.