I’m never one to say that you have to be Asian to cook Asian food well. A friend of mine, Andrea Slonecker, is a food stylist, recipe developer, researcher, and writer. She tested the recipes for Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok cookbook I cooked with Andrea earlier this year at an event for the International Association Culinary Professionals, a guild that we both belong to. She’s smart and funny. She’s also a thoughtful cook.
That’s why I was intrigued by a new little book she’s authored about pears. I love pears — raw and poached. At Christmas time, I gift my parents Harry and David pears. My mom sets them aside to eat with us after my siblings and their families have departed, when she and my dad feel more relaxed and can savor the perfect fruit. Pears also come in many textures and varieties too. Asian pears figure into Korean cooking lots but for the most part, I eat them raw.
Paging through Andrea’s new publication from Short Stack Editions (a charming series of handy small cookbooks focused on one ingredient at a time), I came across her Asian pear salad. It intrigued me for several reasons. Pears are not a fruit that I’ve thought of using in Viet salads; we use other fruits like papaya, mango, and there are recipes that call for green apple. I was curious.
Secondly, Andrea’s recipe used fennel, which I’d seen in Vietnam in 2015. There was a fish sauce, lime and chile dressing. When I asked Andrea if she’d been inspired by Ricker’s recipes, she said yes, but also added that she’d been to Vietnam and visited Red Boat fish sauce operations on Phu Quoc island.
Beets are popular in Vietnam, where they’re often cooked and used in Russian beet, potato, and egg salad. Andrea’s salad recipe kept the beets raw so I expected them to wilt and pickle a bit with the fennel and pear to create a Vietnamese goi kind of salad. Such salads are full of color, textures, and flavors. There were elemental aspects of Viet cooking in her recipe, which led me to try it out. To best match her flavors, I used Red Boat fish sauce, but you can opt for your favorite brand.
At first glance, the recipe seemed cheffy but it’s really simple for home cooks to prepare. The catch is you need to use a mandoline to thinly slice the fruit and vegetables. I posted an image on Instagram and someone asked if I wore a glove. No I don’t, despite having had my fare share of mandoline-related knicks and cuts.
My mandoline safety measures include:
Always work with the mandoline set firmly on top or against something. Though Andrea calls for a very large bowl in her recipe below, I used a smaller bowl because I can set my mandoline on top and the edge of the bowl fits into the sort-of-safety groove of the mandoline. (You’re looking at a Kyocera mandoline with a ceramic blade; it has served me well for years though it does need replacing soon.) My other option is to position the mandoline with the bottom edge firmly against the side of a square or rectangular pan; that way, I’m working at an angle and the mandoline doesn’t slip. I set the pan on a towel to prevent it from moving as I work.
Slice smartly. Beets are darn hard so instead of doing round slices, I halved the beet to ensure that it would glide through the blade smoothly and without me getting into accident. I’m not cooking for the camera or paying diners. It’s just me and my husband. Andrea rightly suggests working the fennel from stem to root so the fennel catches the mandoline blade well.
The salad was light and zippy tasting, thanks to the fresh herbs and chile. It was also lovely to look at.
After snapping pictures for this blog post, I tossed the salad and realized that I’d sliced the Asian pear a little too thin. They nearly disintegrated into the dressing, but that was okay because the dressing got a great fruity sweetness. I think sitting in the dressing may have broken the pear down a bit. You won’t be taking photos while you cook so you’ll likely not experience this.
All things said, hedge your bets and slice the pear last so it’s on top of the other veggies. The beets can stand to marinate and pickle a tad with more time in the lime, honey, and nuoc mam dressing. Raw beets have a minerally, dirt-like flavor but exposure to acidic and sweet flavors mellows all that, making them splendid to eat.
Pears is available through Short Stacks well as bookshops and other stores.
Andrea captured the spirit of Southeast Asian salads nicely in this salad. Now that we’re entering pear season, set a couple aside for this salad. You can totally make a half batch for date night, too. If you love pears and interested in out-of-the-box pear recipes like this salad, pear tart tatin, and braised short ribs with pears(!!!), get a copy of her book.
Shaved Asian Pears, Fennel & Golden Beets with Fish Sauce Dressing
Yield 6 to 8 servings
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce
- Juice of 1 lime
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 2 medium shallots, thinly sliced
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1 to 3 red bird’s-eye chiles or 1 red jalapeño, trimmed and thinly sliced into rings
- 2 medium golden beets, trimmed, peeled and halved
- 1 large fennel bulb, trimmed and a few fronds reserved for garnish
- 2 Asian pears, halved and cored
- 1⁄2 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves
- 1⁄2 cup loosely packed Thai (or regular) basil leaves, torn
- 1⁄2 cup loosely packed mint leaves, torn
- 1⁄2 cup roasted peanuts
- In a very large bowl, whisk together the fish sauce, lime juice and honey. Stir in the shallots, garlic and chiles.
- Using a mandoline and working over the bowl of dressing, render the beets into paper-thin rounds. Position the fennel bulb on the mandoline so you slice it lengthwise through the root, beginning at a narrower side, to create very thin lotus flower–shaped slices. Adjust the mandoline for slightly thicker cuts, then slice the pears into half-moons. Toss the fruit and vegetables in the dressing. Add the cilantro, basil, and mint and toss again.
- Transfer the salad to a large wide serving dish and top with the peanuts. Garnish with the fennel fronds, if you wish. Serve immediately.
Adapted from Andrea Slonecker’s Pears (Short Stack)