I have a dilemma when I cook SE Asian celebration food. By celebration food I mean rich, meat-heavy dishes, and I call them celebration food because while they might your or my idea of SE Asian food, in SE Asia itself they are probably reserved for celebration because of all of the indulgent meat involved. Anyway, back to the dilemma–what veggies to serve? I mean sure they have veggies in them, but you need a true veggies dish. And other than Som Tom, I have never found a salad or veggie dish that made me happy. Also, let’s face it, although Som Tom might be my favorite food in the world next to chocolate, it is neither convenient (finding green papaya) nor easy (shredding all that green papaya). But much like the goodness of Som Tom, I want fresh and refreshing, crisp, juicy, sour… I want something that counterbalances the unctuous yet delicious richness of SE Asian curries (with or without coconut milk).
This pickle is perfect. I found it in what is quite possibly my favorite new cookbook from the holidays–and one I had never heard of, to boot! My sister got it for me, The Spice Merchant’s Daughter: Recipes and Simple Spice Blends for the American Kitchen, by Christina Arokiasamy, an American who grew up in an Indian household in Malaysia. What a fabulous fusion of recipes–Indian and Mayasian! I LOVE this book!
So it was the first I used after the holiday festivities ended–even though the main dish was rich, I did not care I had to try it now. I made a braised pork dish (delectable–recipe to come) and served it with these Penang Pickled Vegetables. The vegetables are a perfect accompaniment to a rich braise with SE Asian or Indian flavors. They are crisp, sour, a little sweet, crunchy with peanuts and sesame seeds. If you want they can also be blazingly spicy–although I of course skipped that part in deference to Alex’s palate. They are also super flexible–I believe they could be made with any crispy vegetable (i.e., don’t use tomatoes or winter squash, for example). Of the ones we tried, my favorites were the red onions, cucumbers and carrots.
- 1 hothouse cucumber
- ½ t salt
- 8 oz carrots, cut into 2 inch long pieces and sliced vertically if super thick
- 1 cup sliced Napa cabbage
- 1 sweet bell pepper, sliced
- 1 red onion, thickly sliced
- fresh red chile peppers, to taste (she suggests 3-4, I used 1 jalapeno seeded), seeded and chopped
- 8 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
- 4 T sugar, or more to taste
- additional ½ t salt
- 1 cup roasted, salted peanuts
- 4 T sesame seeds
- 3½ T oil
- 1½ cups white distilled vinegar
- Slice the cucumber into quarters lengthwise and then slice into 2-inch pieces. Do not remove the skin. Place in a colander and sprinkle with the ½-teaspoon salt. Set aside.
- Bring the vinegar to a boil with an additional 1 cup of water. Press as much water as possible from the cucumber pieces, then add them to the pot. Blanche them for 2 minutes and then remove from the water with a slotted spoon. Place in a large colander to drain further.
- Bring the vinegar mixture back a boil and repeat the blanching process with the remainder of your veggies. Blanch the cabbage and pepper for 2 minutes each; blanch the carrots for 3 minutes. Place all veggies on top of each other to drain in the large colander.
- Combine the garlic, chile pepper(s), sugar and ½-teaspoon salt in a small food processor and blend to a paste. Scrape out into a bowl. Add the peanuts to the food processor--do not bother cleaning it--and process the peanuts to a fine mince. Do not let them turn into butter. Set aside in a separate bowl.
- Heat the oil in a small pan over medium heat (nonstick will make your life easier). Add the spice paste and cook for 10 minutes, until oil appears on the surface. Stir occasionally. Add the peanuts with ⅓-cup water. Cook until the mixture thickens and seems glazed. Taste for more sugar (she recommends if it is too spicy, which will depend on the chile peppers you've used). Remove from the heat.
- Transfer the blanched veggies to a large bowl. Add the hot peanut mixture and the sesame seeds. Toss to coat the veggies evenly. Let the mixture cool completely. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Serve at room temperature or a little cool from the fridge. The longer the pickles sit, the stronger and therefore tastier they will get.
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