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Tales of the Testers: Zentan's Singapore slaw

It takes a village -- of ingredients. (Michael Temchine for The Washington Post)

At Zentan, the waitstaff serves chef Susur Lee's signature Singapore slaw with theatrical flair, ensuring that diners will award the impressive, piled-high tower of 19-plus ingredients a rapturous reception.

The dish, rightly so, is a smash hit. But reproducing the show in my kitchen induced just as many rants as raves.

When I first sampled Lee's slaw, it made me realize how far the familiar cabbage and mayonnaise version had come, so I collected cunning recipes from restaurants all over town, such as the asparagus carrot slaw Steve Mannino serves at Rustico and the jicama inari slaw Kaz Okochi offers with specials at Kaz Sushi Bistro.

If you've ever seen the recipes restaurant chefs submit, you know that they generally require much translating for home use. (I should know; as a chef, I turned in more than my share of imprecise recipes.) Once the recipes are rewritten, various volunteer testers at The Post are pressed into service.

Guess who got to test Lee's million-ingredient slaw? Okay, that's a slight exaggeration, but the 19-ingredient thing is misleading. Not included in that estimation are the items necessary to make the salted plum dressing, onion oil and a batch of pickled red onions.

Collecting the ingredients proved a major hurdle that would have been a lot easier to overcome had I just schlepped to an Asian market in Virginia for the taro root, salted plum (ume) paste, rice vermicelli noodles, daikon radish, fried shallots, toasted sesame seeds, ginger root, pickled ginger, mirin, rice vinegar and daikon sprouts the recipe called for.

But no, I opted instead for multiple trips to Whole Foods Market, Safeway, Giant, a Yes! Organic Market and Hana, a Japanese market at 17th and U streets NW.

Slaw had now become four-day process. This is progress?

I had no problem finding cucumbers, carrots and jicama, but I wound up taro-less. Also missing: edible flower petals, micro purple basil and micro beet greens. (Mercifully, my editor had tracked down an assortment of micro greens at the Bethesda Central Farm Market.)

Questions mounted as I put together the slaw. Cucumber: peeled or unpeeled? (The latter.) Could the flavorings for the pickled onions go in a sachet so the peppercorns don't have to picked out later? (Yes.) What size carrot? Jicama? (Large; small.)

I was more that a little put out by the fact that the dressing called for only 1 1/2 teaspoons of the onion oil that took more than an hour to make, required several cups of assorted leeks, scallions and onions, and yielded 2 cups of finished product. How could anyone discern the flavor of that little of the onion oil when pitted against a cup of salted plum paste? (I adapted the accompanying recipe to include 1 1/2 tablespoons of oil in the dressing.)

My efforts finally resulted in a finished dish, with a few substitutions and no flower petals. Still, the slaw was striking and elicited an "OMG!" from the neighbor I chose as a guinea pig. She and I both thought the dressing was a bit sour and a tad too salty.

So another question went on the list: May I bump up the mirin in the dressing? (Yep; I adjusted for that as well.)

-- David Hagedorn

Singapore Slaw With Salted Plum Dressing
8 servings (2 servings per bowl)

MAKE AHEAD: The pickled onion can be made a week ahead; you'll make more than you need for this recipe. The plum dressing can be made several days in advance. The onion oil can be made a month ahead and refrigerated in an airtight container. The pickled onion can be refrigerated for several weeks.

Adapted from chef-restaurateur Susur Lee and Zentan restaurant in Thomas Circle.

For the onion oil
1 1/2 to 2 cups vegetable oil
2 cups loosely packed chopped leeks, white parts only (cleaned)
2 scallions, white and light-green parts, chopped
1 medium yellow onion, chopped

For the pickled onion
1 small red onion, peeled and cut into thin strips (julienne)
1 cup rice wine vinegar
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme

For the dressing
1 cup salted plum (ume) paste (available at Asian markets)
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
1/2 cup mirin
1 teaspoon dashi (available at Japanese markets)
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon peeled and chopped fresh ginger root

For the slaw
2 scallions, white and light-green parts, cut into 3-inch pieces then cut into thin strips (julienne; 1 cup)
Vegetable oil, for frying (about 6 cups)
1 (4 ounces) taro root, peeled and cut into very thin julienne (may substitute a russet potato)
2 ounces rice vermicelli noodles, pulled apart into 2 sections
1 large (1 pound) unpeeled English (seedless) cucumber, cut into julienne (2 cups)
1 large (6 ounces) carrot, peeled and cut into julienne (1 1/4 cups)
1 small (1 pound) jicama, peeled and cut into julienne (3 1/2 cups)
1 (7 ounces) daikon radish, peeled, trimmed and cut into julienne (3 cups)
2 large (8 ounces) Roma tomatoes, peeled, seeded and cut into thin slices
4 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds
6 teaspoons crushed toasted hazelnuts
4 teaspoons fried shallots (available in Asian markets; may substitute 1 large shallot, cut into thin slices and fried)
4 teaspoons edible flower petals
4 teaspoons micro purple basil
4 teaspoons micro beet greens
4 teaspoons daikon sprouts (available at Asian markets)
2 tablespoons pickled ginger
Salt, as needed

For the onion oil: Combine the oil, leeks, scallions and onion in a medium saucepan over high heat. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to medium-high and cook for 5 minutes, then reduce the heat to medium. Cook for 50 to 55 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions and leeks are crisped and browned. Remove from the heat; strain the oil into a bowl, discarding the solids or reserving for another use (such as adding to the slaw). The yield is 1 1/2 cups.

Let the oil cool before transferring it to a jar. It can be refrigerated for up to 1 month.

For the pickled onion: Place the onion in a medium bowl.

Combine the vinegar, water and salt in a small saucepan over high heat; bring to a boil. Wrap up the peppercorns, fennel seed, bay leaf and thyme in a small piece of cheesecloth tied with kitchen twine to create a sachet; submerge it in the mixture and continue to boil for 5 minutes. Pour the hot mixture over the onion in the bowl, discarding the sachet; let the onion sit for 1 hour. The yield is 1 3/4 to 2 cups.

For the dressing: Combine the salted plum (ume) paste, rice wine vinegar, mirin, dashi, 1 1/2 tablespoons of the onion oil, sugar and ginger in a blender; puree until smooth. The yield is 2 cups.

For the slaw: Soak the scallions in a bowl of very cold water to keep them crisp.

Line 2 large plates with several layers of paper towels.

Heat a large pot of oil over high heat, to a temperature of 350 degrees. Add half of the taro root and fry half for 2 minutes, or until crisp and light gold in color. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate and lightly season with salt. Once the oil has returned to 350 degrees, repeat with the remaining taro root.

Once the oil returns to 350 degrees, add half of the vermicelli and fry for a second or two, or just until the noodles curl. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate; once the oil has returned to 350 degrees, repeat with the remaining vermicelli.

To assemble: Remove the scallions from the bowl and blot them on paper towels.
Divide the vermicelli equally among 4 wide shallow pasta bowls, forming tall, tapering mounds.

Combine the cucumber, carrot, jicama, daikon radish, tomatoes, 1 cup of the pickled onion and scallions in a large bowl; mix well, then distribute even portions of the mixture among the 4 plates of vermicelli. Top with equal amounts of the fried taro root.

Sprinkle each portion of slaw with equal amounts of the sesame seeds, hazelnuts, fried shallots, flowers, micro basil and micro greens, daikon sprouts and pickled ginger. Serve the slaw with salted plum dressing on the side (4 tablespoons of dressing per bowl should be ample); furnish the guests with the appropriate utensils so that they may toss the slaw themselves.

Per serving: 200 calories, 2 g protein, 33 g carbohydrates, 7 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1260 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 11 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  July 7, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Recipes , Tales of the Testers  | Tags: Tales of the Testers, recipes  
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what a fun behind-the-scenes look at testing a crazy complex recipe. it looks VERY good. i'm still debating whether i'd like to tackle it.

Posted by: livya | July 7, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse

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