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Vietnam’s flavors abound in chicken salad

the Culinary Institute of America

Call it a resolution or just a last-minute attempt to button your pants, but come January, many of us strive to put the cookies behind us and make thoughtful food choices. But one surefire way to find yourself off track on a healthier eating plan is to fill your refrigerator with bland and boring foods after a month of decadent party snacks.

Fresh fruits and vegetables and lean meats and proteins are important foundations for a well-balanced diet, but, on their own, they’re not always a thrilling culinary experience. If you need some inspiration to take your healthy post-holiday dinners from fine to fabulous, look no further than our neighbors on the other side of the globe.

Vietnamese cuisine is regarded as one of the healthiest in the world, for its lean meats and proteins, fresh vegetables and limited use of dairy. Vinegars, spicy chilies, and fragrant and flavorful herbs are characteristic of familiar Vietnamese dishes, like the banh mi sandwich and cold rice noodle bowls. Layered together, they elevate minimal ingredients like boiled chicken and raw carrots to create exciting recipes that can help you out of that boring salad slump.

This recipe for Hue chicken salad is the perfect dish to ease you into your meal-plan reboot. Though it starts with a base of plain boiled or steamed chicken (don’t stop reading), it’s packed with bright and fresh flavors, and every bite is a new experience.

There may be some ingredients in this recipe you haven’t used before, so take this opportunity to get to know them. Or, you can always replace them with more familiar ingredients. Rau ram is a Vietnamese herb that can easily be substituted with cilantro, and sambal is a spicy chili sauce that can be replaced by Sriracha or omitted entirely if spicy isn’t your thing (in that case, don’t add those Thai bird chilies either).

If you aren’t familiar with fish sauce, allow us to make this exciting introduction. Fish sauce is a very common ingredient in southeast Asian cuisines made by extracting the liquid from salted fermented fish. Despite its strong aroma, the flavor of fish sauce almost disappears in a dish, becoming more of a seasoning than a distinct flavor. CIA chef Michael Pardus calls it “the duct tape of the kitchen” for its ability to repair any bland recipe.

This recipe recommends serving the chicken salad with rice for dinner, but it’s also great used as a topper for salad greens, served with riced cauliflower, or scooped over toasted whole-grain bread. It is also the perfect make-ahead recipe, since its flavors will deepen in the refrigerator, and leftovers will make for a lunch you can really look forward to. Just be prepared for the longing looks from your co-workers with their boring salads.

Hue Chicken Salad

You can use either poached or roasted chicken to make this salad. If you can’t find rau ram, substitute an equal quantity of additional cilantro and mint. Vietnamese sambal is a fiery hot chili paste. You can substitute a good hot sauce if it cannot be found.

1/2 medium onion, sliced thin

1 1/2 pounds shredded cooked chicken meat

1/4 cup rau ram leaves, torn

1/4 cup mint leaves, torn

1/4 cup minced cilantro leaves and stems

1 Thai bird chili, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons lime juice

1 tablespoon peanut oil

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1 tablespoon Vietnamese sambal

2 teaspoons sugar, or as needed

Salt, as needed

Freshly ground black pepper, as needed

4 Boston lettuce leaves

2 cups steamed jasmine rice

1 red Fresno chili, sliced paper thin

1/2 cup Crispy Shallots (optional)

Combine the onion slices with enough cold water to cover, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours.

Combine the chicken, rau ram, mint, cilantro, and Thai bird chili slices in a large bowl. Drain the onion slices and add them to the chicken. Add the lime juice, peanut oil, fish sauce and sambal to the salad and toss gently until combined. Season to taste with sugar, salt and pepper.

Arrange the Boston lettuce on chilled plates. Top with the salad and serve with steamed rice and the Fresno chili. Garnish with crispy shallots if desired.

Crispy Shallots

Select a large, firm shallot with smooth skin. Use a sharp paring knife to trim away the ends and pull off the skin. Cut the shallot into thin slices and separate them into rings. Plan on about 1/2 cup of sliced shallots to make enough garnish for 4 servings. That works out to about 1 large shallot.

Pour an inch of oil (canola, peanut, or olive oils are all suitable) into a small, heavy-gauge saucepan. When it reaches 350 degrees, add the shallots and fry, stirring them occasionally, until they have a rich, sweet aroma and a good brown color, usually about 5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to lift the fried shallots from the oil. Transfer them to a plate or bowl lined with paper towels. You can hold them at room temperature for up to one hour.

Yield: 4 servings

Nutrition information per serving: 321 calories; 52 calories from fat; 6 g fat (1 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 55 mg cholesterol; 528 mg sodium; 41 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 4 g sugar; 24 g protein.