Monday, August 15, 2016

Week 28 - Local Ingredients

I wasn't really sure what to do for the local ingredients challenge, other than just go to the farmer's market and pick up something that looked good. Other than locally grown produce, what would really be considered a "local ingredient" for NYC? Since I was kind of stumped on that one, and since getting something local from the farmer's market was perfectly acceptable for the challenge, I just took the simpler route.

We were out shopping near my parents and stopped by the farmer's market to see what they had. I thought maybe there would be some good squash since it was the middle of summer, and that maybe I could make a good squash salad, something like one we saw during one of those Williams-Sonoma demo classes. The squash didn't look great, so that wasn't a good option, but what did look pretty good was the cilantro. I wondered if I could just make a cilantro salad, and then the tiger vegetable salad from Xi'an Famous Foods popped into my head. That definitely had cilantro in it. I quickly found a recipe for that type of salad on my phone, and we picked up the cucumber for the salad at the farmer's market too.

The recipe that I used as the base for this challenge was from the NY Times cooking section (original here), but I made some adjustments as usual. The ingredients for the challenge were:

- 1 large bunch of cilantro ($2)
- 1 cucumber ($0.75)
- 3 large scallions ($0.60)
- 1 serrano pepper ($0.06)
- canola oil ($0.10)
- sesame oil ($0.25)
- white vinegar ($0.10)
- salt ($0.05)

All the amounts for the sauce are approximations since we adjusted the flavor to taste and I'm not sure how much we used in the end. The estimated total for the salad was about $3.91, which isn't bad at all. We paired this with some ma po tofu (prepared like the heritage week challenge except that I now cook the onions first and used scallions instead of leeks since TJ's is out of frozen leeks at the moment), and although I didn't calculate the exact cost of that portion of the meal, I'm pretty confident that the grand total likely came under $10.

The work involved in the tiger vegetable salad was almost entirely prep. Although I love cilantro, I find washing and preparing cilantro to be a really tedious task. That's how I feel about the cilantro we get from the store, which is probably on average about 5 times less dirty than the straight out of the ground cilantro we picked up from the farmer's market. And we picked up a lot of cilantro at the farmer's market. It was a great deal getting that giant armful of cilantro for $2, but it took forever to get it clean. Removing the thick stems took some more time after that. Thank goodness I didn't have to chop it too.

Once the cilantro was finally prepped, I sliced the cucumber as thinly as I could, slivered the scallions (with A's help as my eyes were painfully burning partway through), and finely chopped the serrano pepper. After that, we mixed in the canola oil, sesame oil, and vinegar to taste and added some salt. It was a little difficult getting it all to mix together at first as there was just so much cilantro, but once it started to soak up some of the liquids, that giant bushel of cilantro dramatically shrunk in size.

While the salad was good - light and refreshing - it wasn't nearly as good as the one at Xi'an Famous Foods that was my initial inspiration. Looking at their menu now, it seems like their salad includes cilantro, scallions, celery, and long horn peppers in a sesame vinaigrette. The ingredients are definitely a little different from what we made, which probably accounts for the difference in flavor, besides the fact that they are pros at making it and this was our first time. On its own merits, the salad was fresh and clean, a good side dish, but the flavor of the cilantro wasn't as powerful as we had anticipated it would be, coming straight from the farmer's market. I'm glad we tried to make this ourselves, but not sure we'll make it again. That cilantro was a lot of work.

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