Saturday, October 5, 2013

Grilled Pineapple and Shrimp Salad with Fennel Flower Crystals and Vanilla Coconut Dressing

Yes, that title is a mouthful.  Fortunately, it's a pretty tasty mouthful.  Although I've been slack in posting lately, I was intrigued by a challenge from  They are having a contest for bloggers to produce a savory dish from items they market that would more commonly be found in desserts.  Actually, I don't know that the fennel flower crystals even find their way into many desserts.
Besides the flower crystals and vanilla beans, the other two ingredients that were included were coconut sugar (drier and more granular than traditional gula jawa) and granulated honey, which is about ten percent honey together with sugar.  The granulated honey is said to provide the convenience of sugar, but with the richer taste of honey.  That is the one ingredient that I did not use in this challenge.

This salad has Asian flavors with a fennel kick.  I had thought the fennel flower crystals were just going to be fennel pollen, something I've tried before.  When I got the packet of flower crystals, I was stumped.  These are extremely fragrant and sweet, tasting like licorice-infused sugar.  How the hell was I going to use these in a savory dish?  Somehow I thought of salt and pepper shrimp, the Szechuan dish, which I have made with kumquats in the past.  Kumquats have a slight fennel taste, so I thought if I balanced the flower crystals with some salt, the fennel crystals might work with shrimp.

The rules for the challenge say only two ingredients need to be used in the recipe, and I knew I'd have no trouble using the coconut sugar, an ingredient common to many Indonesian and southeast Asian dishes, sweet and savory.  I've had some Thai dressings that used coconut milk along with lime and fish sauce, so I thought I'd see what adding a vanilla bean to some coconut milk together with lemongrass would do.  In as much vanilla complements pineapple, it seemed a good idea to add some grilled pineapple to the mix.  The sweetness of the grilled pineapple and shrimp called for some bitterness to keep things in balance.  Arugula seemed a good choice.

Finally, I thought some fried rice vermicelli (bihun) would provide a crispy accent to the salad and absorb some of the dressing.  When I was at the market, I noticed some banh uot kho, dried rice flakes, which I've never known to be fried.  I didn't know if they would fry up well, but thought that if they did, they might be a more interesting and attractive addition than the vermicelli.  They worked wonderfully, frying up like thin shrimp chips in a flash in hot oil.  I dusted them with a sprinkling of the fennel flower crystals ground together with some sea salt as soon as they came out of the fryer.

It should be noted that Marx Foods provided me with the samples used in creating this recipe.  Although they did not give me any money, the winner of the challenge will get a $100 gift certificate from Marx Foods.

Grilled Pineapple and Shrimp Salad with Fennel Flower Crystals and Vanilla Coconut Dressing

1 can coconut milk
1/2 cup water
3 stalks of lemongrass, sliced and pounded
1 Tahitian vanilla bean, split, the seeds scraped into the coconut milk along with the pod
1 TBS fish sauce
3 TBS coconut sugar

1/2 cup of the infused coconut milk
2 tsp lime juice
2 tsp coconut sugar
1 tsp fish sauce

To make the dressing, simmer the coconut milk and water with the lemongrass, vanilla, fish sauce and coconut sugar for about 30 minutes.  Remove from heat and let steep another 30 minutes or more.

Strain through a coarse sieve, allowing the vanilla seeds through but keeping out the lemongrass.  Mix 1/2 cup of the strained mixture with the lime juice, coconut sugar, and fish sauce.  Keep until ready to dress the salad.  (The remaining coconut milk infusion can be refrigerated--or frozen--for another time.)

1 pineapple, peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch thick slices
20 shrimp, peeled and deveined
3 cups arugula, washed and dried
2 shallots, thinly sliced
2 to 3 TBS mint, julienned
1 red jalapeno or other pepper with some heat
1 cup of dried rice flakes or rice vermicelli, fried in 350º F oil until crisp and puffed
1 tsp fennel flower crystals ground with 1 tsp kosher salt, for dusting the fried rice flakes
1 tsp fennel flower crystals for sprinkling on the shrimp just before serving the salad

Grill the pineapple slices on a hot grill for about 3 minutes a side until cooked.  Remove and cut each slice into eight pieces, removing the fibrous central core.  Thread the shrimp onto skewers, season lightly with salt and quickly grill them.  Be careful that you don't overcook them.

To assemble the salad, place the arugula on a deep platter.  Top with the grilled pineapple pieces, followed by the fried rice flakes.  Top with the grilled shrimp sprinkled with the fennel flower crystals.  Scatter the sliced shallots, mint, and red chili pepper.  Pour the dressing over and serve.

Don't add the rice flakes until you are ready to serve the salad.  If you add them beforehand, they will become soft and unappetizing.

I was afraid the fennel flower crystals might be overpowering, as they are quite strong when tasted by themselves.  However, I found that in the salad they were quite subtle.  It's possible that you might want more than one teaspoon's worth sprinkled on the shrimp when serving the salad.

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