Kitchen Confidence: Spicy cashew nut salad (recipe) | VailDaily.com

Kitchen Confidence: Spicy cashew nut salad (recipe)

I could never imagine it grew so tall — I'd only seen pictures of farmers bent over planting small plugs in patties of water. Much to my surprise, these beautiful emerald green stalks of rice stood more than 6 feet tall; the fields shimmering in the late-day sun. This tiny rice village named Pai, in northern Thailand is where we discovered an unusual Thai salad.

My wife, Kathy, and I were visiting Thailand in 1998 for a three-week honeymoon. The tail end of our adventure found us here near the border of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. There were many refugees from Burma crossing the border into Thailand. The local support network for these people included a restaurant here in the village of Pai. The owner was channeling profits from the restaurant to help refugees resettle in Thailand. Photos on a small section of the wall depicted the hard life in Burma.

There were the usual items on the menu: Green curry, coconut-ginger soup (known as Tom Kai Gai) and, of course, green papaya salad.

One of the items on the menu was labeled spicy cashew nut salad. We had found spicy cashew nuts earlier on our trip in the southern part of the country. There, the dish was little more than creamy cashew nuts fried in spicy oil. The dish that arrived at our table, however, was something completely different. Here was a celebration of color, shape and texture. The dish was spiced with fresh jalapeno and a salted lime dressing. Crisp, roasted cashew nuts topped the salad, giving it its name.

We became infatuated with spicy cashew nut salad. Kathy loved it so much she would eat it for breakfast each day. As we were doing with other dishes we felt we could replicate, we later began to dissect the salad each time it appeared before us. We began noticing not only the ingredients, but the size and shape of each cut and the ratio of each vegetable to the others. Thai dressings, with their subtle balance of flavors (salty, sour, sweet and spicy), can be a bit of a mystery. One thing is for sure, they always leave you craving more.

Interestingly, I have never come across this salad, even by another name, in any other restaurant or cookbook. Recreating it here at home has been a worthwhile endeavor.

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Here, then, is a recipe for spicy cashew nut salad. Be sure your knife is sharp; success lies in thinly slicing the vegetables so that no flavor overpowers the others and the pieces are easy to chew. You can find complete info for this and other Thai dishes in my book "Recipes to Thai For" on Amazon.

SPICY CASHEW NUT SALAD

(Makes 2 servings)

1 medium carrot, sliced on diagonal into 1-inch pieces

½ medium onion, cut into wedges

½ green or red bell pepper, sliced into 2-inch strips

1 small tomato; cut into thin wedges

1 to 2 jalapeno peppers, chopped fine

1/4 cup fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped

1 full green leaf lettuce per person

½ cup cashew nuts, toasted

Dressing

2 tablespoons lime juice

2 tablespoons fish sauce

1 teaspoon raw sugar (such as Sucanat or Palm sugar)

1 to 2 crushed Thai Birds Eye chilies (optional — a pinch of crushed red pepper is a good substitute)

Combine carrot, onion and bell pepper in a large mixing bowl, and toss gently. Add tomato and jalapeno, and toss with dressing. Add in fresh cilantro. Serve salad on a lettuce leaf top with roasted cashews.

Tom Castrigno lives in Frisco, where he is known as The Mobile Chef. Visitors to Summit County can experience one of Castrigno's meals prepared right in their condo. Learn more at http://www.breckenridgeprivatechef.com.