I am at a week-long photo shoot this week for the tofu book, but wanted to share this summertime dish. It's an oldie but goodie in my repertoire of cooking. This is the recipe that got me to seriously think about the potential of kaffir (makrut) lime leaf. That is, it's not just for curries!
I was introduced to this salad by virtue of having to make it on a regular basis at City Restaurant in Los Angeles, a now-defunct establishment by Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger. I’d answered a Los Angeles Times help wanted ad, and Susan hired me to work the pantry station. That was the first time I had stepped into a professional kitchen. It was 1993.
City’s Thai melon salad was full of salty, sweet, briny, citrusy, hot flavors. We made it with perfectly cubed watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew for a beautiful presentation. I was entranced by the sheer beauty and complexity that the ‘fruit salad’ offered. It was a wildly popular dish with customers, and in many ways, way ahead of its time. Few mainstream restaurants were serving fruit with fish sauce back then.
Mary Sue and Susan borrowed the idea from a preparation they’d enjoyed in Thailand. Though I’d never run into the dish at a Thai restaurant or during my travels, all the elements make perfect sense in a Southeast Asian manner. It is a refreshing burst of flavor, terrific for summer and all the melons that are coming into market right now.
Last Sunday, my husband and I brought it as an appetizer to a dinner party. Rory made the dressing and I prepped the melon. Just as I was about to cut the watermelon into perfect cubes, I decided to keep the melon on the rind as wedges. That way, people would have a handy handle to hold and a platform to support the chunky dressing. Plus, there was less waste in terms of imperfect pieces of melon flesh. It made for a novel presentation and I had turned a salad into a finger food. Except for Rory, no one else at the party cared about my cleverness. They just ate it up. Our host poured lots of riesling for a splendid way to start the evening.
Thai Melon Salad
Serves 10 to 12 as an appetizer, 4 to 6 as a side salad
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 tablespoons packed light palm sugar or brown sugar
1/4 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
2 Thai or Serrano chiles, minced
1 tablespoon finely chopped kaffir lime leaf (remove the midrib)
1/3 cup dried shrimp, briefly rinsed to soften and finely chopped
1/2 cup roasted, unsalted peanuts, chopped
A volleyball-size watermelon
1. For the dressing, combine the garlic, sugar, fish sauce, and lime juice in a bowl, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the lime leaf, dried shrimp, and peanuts. Set aside for 15 minutes, then revisit the dressing for a taste test. Add extra lime juice, sugar, or fish sauce as needed to balance the flavors. Set aside or refrigerate for up to 3 days.
2. Halve the water melon, then cut each half into 3 long wedges. Cut each wedge crosswise into 1/2 to 3/4-inch–thick triangles. Arrange on a platter. Serve with the sauce on the side and invite guests to spoon some sauce on a watermelon wedge to eat. Set out an empty bowl for holding the leftover rind.
Any ideas on other kinds of fruit that this dressing would work with? If you have leftover dressing is nice mixed into rice too.