This bright, balanced Thai grilled-beef salad will be your new favorite summer salad.
By America’s Test Kitchen, Tribune Content Agency
America’s Test Kitchen
Thailand’s famous grilled-beef salad known as nam tok is far more than just a steak salad. Served warm or at room temperature, it features slices of deeply charred steak tossed with thinly tossed shallots and handfuls of torn mint and cilantro in a bright, bracing dressing. The cuisine’s five signature flavor elements — hot, sour, salty, sweet, and bitter — work in balance, making for a light but satisfying dish that’s traditionally served with steamed jasmine rice.
After testing a handful of cuts, we decided flank steak was the best choice for our version of this dish. After a few minutes over a modified two-level fire, this uniformly shaped, moderately priced cut was beefy and juicy, and it sliced neatly.
The name nam tok (literally “water falling”) refers to the beads of moisture that form on the surface of the steak as it cooks — an age-old Thai cookery clue that the meat is ready to be flipped. While this method sounded imprecise, we found it to be a surprisingly accurate gauge of when the flank steak is halfway done. Here’s why: As this steak’s interior gets hotter, its tightly packed fibers contract and release some of their interior moisture, which the fire’s heat then pushes to the meat’s surface. When turned at this point and cooked for an equal amount of time on the second side, the steak emerged deeply charred on the outside and medium-rare within.
For the dressing, we used a base of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and water, and then added a Thai chile and a mix of toasted cayenne and paprika, which added earthy, fruity red pepper flavor. We also made our own toasted rice powder, a traditional ingredient in Thai grilled-beef salad recipes.
As for the vegetable components, we chose ones that complemented — but didn’t compete with — the grilled beef: The requisite mint and cilantro, plus a thin-sliced cucumber, which contributed a cool crispness to this nicely balanced, complexly flavored Thai classic.
Thai Grilled-Beef Salad
Serves 4 to 6
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon white rice
3 tablespoons lime juice (2 limes)
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 (1 1/2 pound) flank steak, trimmed
Salt and white pepper, coarsely ground
4 shallots, sliced thin
1 1/2 cups fresh mint leaves, torn
1 1/2 cups fresh cilantro leaves
1 Thai chile, stemmed and sliced thin into rounds
1 seedless English cucumber, sliced 1/4-inch thick on bias
1. Heat paprika and cayenne in an 8-inch skillet over medium heat; cook, shaking the pan, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Transfer to a small bowl. Return the now-empty skillet to medium-high heat, add rice, and toast, stirring frequently, until deep golden brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a second small bowl and cool for 5 minutes. Grind rice with a spice grinder, mini food processor or mortar and pestle until it resembles fine meal, 10 to 30 seconds (you should have about 1 tablespoon rice powder).
2. Whisk lime juice, fish sauce, water, sugar and 1/4 teaspoon toasted paprika mixture in a large bowl and set aside.
3A. For a charcoal grill: Open the bottom vent completely. Light a large chimney starter filled with charcoal briquettes (6 quarts). When top coals are partially covered with ash, pour evenly over half of the grill. Set cooking grate in place, cover the grill and open the lid vent completely. Heat grill until hot, about 5 minutes.
3B. For a gas grill: Turn all burners to high, cover, and heat the grill until hot, about 15 minutes. Leave the primary burner on high and turn off other burner(s).
4. Clean and oil the cooking grate. Season steak with salt and white pepper. Place steak over the hot part of the grill and cook until it begins to char and beads of moisture appear on outer edges of the meat, 5 to 6 minutes. Flip steak and continue to cook on the second side until charred and the center registers 125 F, about 5 minutes longer. Transfer to a plate, tent loosely with aluminum foil, and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes (or allow to cool to room temperature, about 1 hour).
5. Slice meat, against the grain, on bias into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Transfer sliced steak to a bowl with fish sauce mixture. Add shallots, mint, cilantro, chile and half of the rice powder; toss to combine. Transfer to a platter lined with cucumber slices.
Recipe notes: Don’t skip the toasted rice. It’s integral to the texture and flavor of the dish. If a fresh Thai chile is unavailable, substitute half of a serrano chile.
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