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Green papaya salad with rau ram, peanuts and crispy shallots

Green papaya salad with rau ram, peanuts and crispy shallots
Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times

Subtle fresh spring rolls, a rollicking green papaya salad, comforting pig's knuckle soup, fragrant lemon grass pork, "shaking" beef and caramelized shrimp -- they're all delicious, but hardly the easiest dishes to pair with wines.

Unless, of course, you're at Slanted Door, Charles Phan's terrific restaurant in San Francisco. Slanted Door has always been different -- modern, hip, uncompromising. It was one of the first Asian restaurants to buy the same quality ingredients that Chez Panisse or Zuni Cafe might use. And it was also one of the first, if not the first, to have a serious wine list.

After spending a couple of weeks exultantly cooking through Phan's new and long-awaited "Vietnamese Home Cooking," I called him to get his input on which wines would pair best with his terrific recipes.

The Slanted Door's wine list started almost accidentally. Just before Phan opened the restaurant in 1985, he was having lunch at Zuni Cafe and noticed a big table of guys with about 20 bottles of wine. On a whim, he leaned over and asked if they knew of anyone who would be interested in helping him make a wine list. The name Mark Ellenbogen came up. He was just back in town after living in Italy and took the job as wine director, which he held for more than 25 years.

The first list was all Italian, but after six months, it wasn't working. That's when things got radical. Next up: a Riesling-driven list with a few other whites and some reds. No Chardonnay. And not a single wine from California.

"Back then," Phan says, "people thought we were being snobby, leaving Napa out." But he didn't have much storage, and, on a shoestring budget, he couldn't have a big list. And Napa wasn't exactly making the kinds of wines that went well with Vietnamese food.

Phan and Ellenbogen eventually decided to organize the wines by characteristics -- dry, floral, delicate, spicy, etc., instead of by grape or country -- with dry at the very bottom.

"If you look at the list today," Phan says, "it still has some of the same characteristics."

Until last year that list was a legal-size sheet of 120 wines. Wine director Chaylee Priete has since doubled the labels, and it's still heavily Riesling-based. "However," explains Phan, "there's now a small but firm emphasis to find some local winemakers who farm ecologically and meet our criteria for low-alcohol, high-acid, low-tannin wines that pair with our food."

From experience, I'm well aware that it's not easy pairing wines with Vietnamese food, which is often sweet, tart and fiery, all at the same time. That's why I was so curious about Phan's favorite wine matches for specific recipes.

"Wines with high alcohol [anything over 14%] or low acidity are not going to work with this spicy and sweet food," he cautions.

When guests balk at ordering unfamiliar wines, Phan offers to let them try something dry and something fruity side by side and then choose which they think works better with the food.

"If you don't do an experiment like that," he says, "you won't see how wonderful the changes are, how the wine makes the food more interesting."

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Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes, plus marinating time | Serves 6
Note: Adapted from "Vietnamese Home Cooking" by Charles Phan. Rau ram, also known as Vietnamese coriander and hot mint, is available at Vietnamese and many Asian markets. Fish sauce is available at Asian markets and many well-stocked supermarkets.

Pickled carrots

  • 1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup peeled and finely julienned carrots

Step 1In a small bowl, combine the vinegar, sugar and salt, and stir until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Add the carrots and let stand for at least 20 minutes before serving. This makes about one-half cup pickled carrots. If not using right away, cover and refrigerate for up to a week. Drain the carrots well before using.

Flavored fish sauce

  • 1/2 cup fish sauce
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup distilled white vinegar or freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 to 2 Thai chiles, stemmed and minced

Step 1In a small bowl, combine the fish sauce, sugar, vinegar or lemon juice, and one-half cup water, and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Add the garlic and chiles, and stir to combine. This makes about 1 1/2 cups flavored fish sauce, more than is needed for the remainder of the recipe. The sauce will keep, refrigerated, up to 1 week if made with vinegar or up to 2 days if made with lemon juice.

Crispy fried shallots

  • 2 cups thinly sliced shallots (about 4 large shallots)
  • 2 cups canola oil

Step 1In a small saucepan, heat the oil over medium-high until it registers 275 degrees on a deep-fry thermometer. Add the shallots and cook, stirring, until light golden brown, about 8 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the shallots to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.

Step 2Increase the heat to high and place a fine-mesh sieve over a heat-proof bowl. When the oil registers 350 degrees, add the fried shallots and cook just until they are crispy and well-browned, 1 to 2 seconds, watching carefully so the shallots don't burn.

Step 3Immediately pour the oil and shallots through the sieve to stop the cooking, then transfer the shallots to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. This makes about 1 cup fried shallots. Reserve the oil for another use. The shallots will keep, stored in an airtight container, for 1 day, but they're best the day they are made.

Assembly

  • 2 cups canola oil
  • 6 ounces medium-firm tofu, patted dry and cut into 3-inch squares, 1/4-inch thick
  • 1 large green papaya (about 2 pounds), peeled, halved, seeded and finely julienned with a mandoline or sharp knife (about 5 cups shredded)
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh rau ram or a mixture of spearmint and cilantro
  • 1/2 English cucumber, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise into half moons (about 1 cup)
  • 2 celery stalks, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup pickled carrots
  • 3/4 cup flavored fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons shallot oil or canola oil
  • 1/4 cup roasted peanuts, finely chopped, for garnish
  • 1/3 cup crispy fried shallots, for garnish

Step 1In an 8-inch frying pan, heat the canola oil over high heat until it registers 350 degrees on a deep-frying thermometer. Carefully add the tofu slices and fry, turning once, until golden brown on both sides, 10 to 15 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the tofu to paper towels to drain. When cool, cut into strips one-fourth-inch wide.

Step 2In a large bowl, combine the papaya, rau ram, cucumber, celery, carrot and tofu strips. Pour the flavored fish sauce and shallot oil over the top and toss to coat evenly. Transfer to a serving platter and garnish with the peanuts and shallots. Serve immediately.

Each serving:
336 calories; 6 grams protein; 34 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 21 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 26 grams sugar; 1,026 mg sodium.
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