I cooked something delicious the other night and thought to myself, “Oooh, I can’t wait to tell Mom about this one!” And then I felt the wind get knocked out of me. You see, my mom lost her valiant eight-year battle with ovarian cancer in late June, and I still forget that she’s no longer here. I find myself winded by loss so often these days.
And so I ate my Vietnamese salad with grilled chicken, it tasting a little less vibrant than it otherwise might have. It was the first meal I’d cooked using all of my gadgets and gismos and other kitchen accoutrement that had been packed away in boxes for 103 days while Middle Eastern bureaucracy toyed with my sanity. 103 days to travel just135 miles as the bird flies. So life was finally, finally back to normal, except that it wasn’t, because my mom wasn’t around to share it with.
Still, there was something about that meal that gave me a kick in the pants, told me it was time to get on with my work because that is what my mom would have wanted more than anything. She was always my utmost supporter, whether it was writing to tell me how much she’d enjoyed my latest blog post or raving over some meal I had prepared with her in mind. My head cheerleader was gone so it was time I learned to pull myself up without her – life had been on pause long enough and with the steamy summer in Beirut coming to an end soon, it was up to me to get on with things, get back in the kitchen, pursue new clients, continue with my writing, and get involved in Beirut’s vibrant foodie community. In one of our last conversations I was telling my mom something or another about my new life here and she said, “It sounds so cool, Sal!” I have to remind myself just how cool it really is.
Right before she died, one of my sisters told me that I was more like my mom than I knew. This conversation still sticks in my head because while I think she meant it as an accusation, I took it as a compliment. After her death, my lovely mother was remembered by so many as gracious and kind and beautiful and smart, but I’ll always remember her as an adventurer. I think of the woman who followed my father with three small daughters in tow to the Soviet Union in 1979 and then a politically restless Turkey. Her greatest gift to me was that same spirit of adventure….and a love of cooking.
So as I walked to Souk el Tayeb yesterday morning, past the buildings still riddled with bullet holes and the barbed wire military check points, I paid special attention to the bright blue Mediterranean skies she loved so much and the fuschia bougainvillea vines she would have stopped to admire. There was dried lavender at the market she would have definitely picked up, along with some heirloom tomatoes for a tart, and maybe some perfect apricots for dessert.
While I’m trying to be my usual optimistic self and convince myself that this particularly trying summer is just a transition. But a transition to what? Being motherless? I know it’s a transition we all make, but in spite of eight years to prepare, I wasn’t ready. But I am now ready to take all the things she loved and gave me the love for, and see the beauty in the world once again, as she always did.
Kick in the Pants Vietnamese Salad with Grilled Chicken
Inspired by It’s All Easy by Gwyneth Paltrow with Thea Baumann
A couple of notes: While this looks like a lot of ingredients, most are pantry staples and everything comes together really quickly. And, I do love my spiralizer and it made a very pretty salad, but I do realize most of you won’t have one, so just grate your zucchini and carrot on large holes of a box grater. It will taste just the same!
For the Chicken
Zest and juice of 1 lime
¼ cup fish sauce
2 teaspoons coconut sugar
4 slices red chili with seeds
handful of chopped cilantro
thumb-sized piece of ginger, sliced
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
For crispy shallots
1 cup peanut oil
3 shallots, thinly sliced
For the dressing
½ cup fresh lime juice
¼ cup fish sauce
2 tablespoons maple syrup
½ teaspoon finely grated garlic (I use microplane for this)
½ teaspoon finely grated ginger
Large pinch of chili flakes
For the salad
3 ounces wide rice noodles, softened according to package directions
1 large zucchini, spiralized or grated
1 large carrot, spiralized or grated
½ cup chopped basil
½ cup chopped mint
½ cup chopped cilantro
2 cups finely shredded little gem lettuce
1 large or 2 small cucumbers, cut into half-moons
Marinate the chicken in all of the ingredients for at least an hour – I did for about 6 and it was deliciously flavorful. While that’s sitting, fry the shallots in a saucepan of the hot peanut oil for about 2 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove from the oil and drain on a paper towel. Season with salt immediately. Combine all of the ingredients for the dressing in a clean jam jar and give a good shake.
To assemble everything….heat your grill to high and grill the chicken for about 5 minutes per side. Remove from the grill and let rest while you assemble everything else. Place the rice noodles, prepared veggies, and herbs in a large bowl. Pour over some of the dressing and give it a good toss. Slice the grilled chicken and place it on top of the salad. Top with the crispy shallots.