Earlier this summer I went to a rather fabulous farm dinner event at Rustic Road Farm in Elburn, IL. Yes, Elburn. Head east of downtown Chicago during rush hour and it’ll take you two hours. The farther you go, the more the landscape changes from highways and subdivisions to fields and fields of corn and soybeans, dotted with the occasional red barn. Eventually, you hang a right and end up at Chef Marc Bernard’s farm, Rustic Road. I was in heaven and it took all I had to get back in my car and drive back into chaos.
Chef Marc, the Executive Chef/Partner of the locally based Big Bowl Restaurants, purchased the property last year and supplies all the restaurants with produce grown to his specifications. It’s a pretty great system that seems to work very well and frankly, my dream set up. To top it off, earlier this year he brought on Chef Patricia Yeo as Big Bowl Creative Director and she’s been tweaking the menu and experimenting at the farm ever since.
This particular evening, the Pew Charitable Trust hosted a farm-to-table salon dinner to celebrate sustainable agriculture in the Midwest and discuss the public health impact of the overuse of antibiotics in industrial animal agriculture. It was a very interesting discussion followed by a wonderful dinner heavily featuring the farm’s produce.
The meal was exceptionally good but there was one dish in particular that gave me pause – “Yunnan Style Pineapple, Green Tomato & Mint Salad” per the printed menu. The dish was incredibly nuanced – sweet, salty, sour, savory. And juicy. Can a salad be juicy? This one was. I had a few helpings in the name of “research” and tried isolating the ingredients in between bites. Pineapple, green tomatoes – Green Zebra from what I could tell – and mint, were pretty obvious and were right in the menu title. Bits of red chile added a touch of heat and color. And then there was the dressing. What was in that dressing? It reminded me quite a bit of nuoc cham so I’m not too sure what was “Yunnan” about it as it seemed a little more Vietnamese to me.
So I did a little research. Turns out Yunnan cooking is all about light, bright flavors and leans heavily on fresh herbs. As the Yunnan province is in the very southwest of China, adjacent to Vietnam and Laos, it would make sense that those flavors heavily influence the cuisine and why I was reminded of classic Vietnamese sauces. This knowledge helped me set a game plan based on a nuoc cham dipping sauce.
Turns out, I was on the right track. My first batch was close but not quite there. I’ve tweaked this a few times, while Green Zebra tomatoes are plentiful in the markets, and each time it got better and better. The final version was the best – and simplest – by far. I couldn’t be more pleased.
A few notes … I’ve made this with both a fresh whole pineapple that I peeled, cored and diced and a container of ready-to-go fresh pineapple that I picked up in the produce case and then diced. Guess which one was a lot easier? Your call. For the tomatoes, firm Green Zebras have just the right acidity to balance the pineapple’s sweetness – you do not want a sweet tomato here – but they’ll take some searching. I’ve also tried a nice yellow heirloom that was tart and acidic though the salad wasn’t as lovely since the tomato and pineapple were the same color. I haven’t tried standard green tomatoes (aka unripe tomatoes) but I think they would work as well. Tomatillos are also a thought. As for the heat, a red chile is the most attractive but a green one will taste just as nice if that’s all you can find. Fresh mint – absolutely. Don’t skip the fresh mint.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: THIS WILL BLOW YOUR MIND. No kidding. The flavors will explode – first sweet, then a wave of saltiness, then a big burst of something you can’t quite identify … that elusive umami which the Japanese define as “pleasant savory taste.” Yep, that’s it. Very pleasant, very savory, very tasty and very fantastic. It’s the fish sauce. Don’t skimp on the fish sauce. Double extra bonus? Once you gather all the stuff, and this part may take some doing, this is crazy easy to pull together.
On this blog four years ago: Confessions of a Cookbook Addict
On this blog three years ago: Peach Pandowdy
On this blog two years ago: Tomato Confit
On this blog last year: Bastille Day Sunday Lunch – Figgy BBQ Ribs
YUNNAN PINEAPPLE, GREEN TOMATO & MINT SALAD – inspired by Chef Patricia Yeo
¼ cup fresh lime juice
3 Tablespoons Asian fish sauce
1 Tablespoon sugar
2 medium red chilies, seeded and finely diced (about 2 teaspoons)
1 pound peeled and cored fresh pineapple
3-4 firm Green Zebra tomatoes, about ¾ pound (or other firm, tart, acidic tomato)
3 Tablespoons fresh mint leaves, finely minced
- In a medium bowl, combine the lime juice, fish sauce, sugar and chilies. Set aside to allow the sugar to dissolve.
- Core and dice the tomatoes and pineapple into ½” dice.
- Add tomatoes and pineapple to dressing and lightly but thoroughly toss to combine.
- Gently fold in the mint, taste and adjust seasoning if needed.
- Serve immediately. If making ahead, store the dressing and pineapples/tomatoes separately and combine just before serving.