I am huge steak salad fan. They combine two seemingly opposite foodstuffs in a juxtaposition that is truly harmonious. You get that satisfaction and the fill of red meat, which in my opinion should almost always be very rare, with the light and not-too-filling quality of salad leafs. So, essentially, you get to have your cake and eat it too (which is a brilliantly stupid idiom, I think).
They really portray the balance of food and eating at its best. Those big steakhouse steak salads kind of defy that notion, though. You know the ones; loaded with steak, cheese, fried onions, candied nuts and creamy dressings, with an afterthought-bed of spinach leaves that are more of a 50-thread-count sheet than an actual made bed. I’m not saying I’d turn one of those down but for me the real pleasure of a steak salad is the balance of it all—the guiltless guilt.
I love an Italian-style steak salad—a tagliata of sorts—where the beef is thick, rare, sliced thin and dressed with an herby oil and some lemon and accompanied only with baby arugula and good Parmigiano-Reggiano. My all time favorite “side” salad is the Caesar. It’s nothing more than crunchy Romaine hearts, croutons and homemade dressing (and it must be the real deal with egg yolks, oil and not-optional anchovy). If I wanted to make a meal out of it—and I do—I prefer steak to the apropos chicken. The dressing is so close to a béarnaise that I can’t even consider the thought of using chicken over steak on it, not to mention the oily-richness of the anchovy compliments beef so much better than chicken that they sing more harmoniously—like a good Kate-and-Cindy B-52 song—rather than competitively.
But my favorite steak salad is this Asian influenced one. I know it’s a broad, maybe non-PC, way of lumping all of “Asian” food together so maybe I should say pan-Asian, but I think no other type of cuisine has mastered balance quite like these regions. They’re all about hot with sweet, sweet with sour, bright with earthy, fresh with fermented, and I love it. It’s like feng shui for your mouth and this salad is no exception. This is not a heavy salad; in fact, the only quantity of oil worth mentioning is the amount you need to coat the steak with before grilling.
First you mix together some lime juice, rice vinegar, fish sauce, sugar, a few minimal drops of sesame seed oil and some minced red chili. It will look like a scant amount of dressing for a salad that serves four but trust me. And I know it may sound odd to put fish sauce in a dressing for beef but fish sauce loves beef (and pork, too) the same way anchovy does. Fish sauce does smell, well, fishy, but it works.
When I’ve made this before I had these long, smooth red chilies the grocery store marked as “finger chilies”. They came both green and red. The green ones were very grassy, like a very ripe green bell pepper, while the ripened red ones were fruitier and they were both very, very mild. They were the perfect example of chili peppers having flavor, not just heat. Unfortunately, I cannot find anything like it here and have been having a hell of a time pinpointing the exact botanical name for this pepper (“finger chilies” come up as an alternate name to cayenne peppers and these were definitely NOT cayennes). Anyway, if you know what I’m talking about, deseed and slice one up and throw it in the dressing, too.
Split half an English cucumber in half lengthwise and scoop out the watery center (where the seeds would be). Either slice them into very thin half moons or, if you have either a julienne slicer or mandolin (or you’re particularly dexterous), julienne them. Set these aside for now.
For the steak I usually buy a flank steak (sometimes marked as London Broil) or a top round steak. Either cut is pretty economical and, though typically a little tougher, can be made quite tender by simply grilling it very quickly to medium-rare and slicing very thinly against the grain of the meat. So you’ll want to do just that—grill it to rare or medium rare (or further if you prefer–just don’t tell me) and wrap it tightly in foil to rest a few minutes. (See recipe note below regarding cooking temps)
While the steak is grilling toss some salad greens with whole mint and cilantro leaves and sliced green onions on a huge serving platter. You can use something like spring mix salad greens or baby lettuce mixes. Earthbound Farm Organic actually makes a mix called “Zen” which features a mix of baby Asian greens, like mizuna—if you can find it it’s very good here.
While the steak is resting in its foil package, plunge the cucumber strands into the dressing. Ultimately, you just want them to be in there for a few minutes—enough for them to take on some of the dressings flavor and get a slightly pickled taste but not long enough to exude any liquid into the dressing and dilute it.
Slice the steak as thin as you can against the grain. If there are any juices left in the foil parcel then drop the sliced steak back into it so the meat can soak it back up before you lay it across the herby foliage. Remove the cucumber strands from the dressing and evenly distribute across the salad before pouring the dressing evenly over the entire salad.
Sometimes I like to sprinkle a bit of coarse sea salt flakes over the finished salad. I know some Asian cooking considers sea salt a crude ingredient but I love it here for the slight saline crunch.
One bite of this fresh, crunchy, herby salad with that rare, meaty beef and I think you’ll agree—it’s almost zen like… almost.