When Charlie and I got back from Vietnam last winter, I went into a serious summer roll and salad withdrawal. Every meal over there was full of leafy greens, fresh herbs, and salty, pungent fish sauce. It was a full-fledged healthy hedonist delight. And when we returned to the dark grey winter waiting for us in New York City, it was hard to fully dive into recipe recreation mode without the proper weather or produce to support my endeavors.
I immediately went to work making homemade pho, since I basically ate bowls of steaming hot rice noodles for breakfast every morning in Ho Chi Mihn City. But it’s taken me a second winter and many seasons in between to finally get around to sharing one of my favorite fusion-y Vietnamese shrimp and collard green salad recipes.
One of the reasons Vietnamese cooking is hard to recreate stateside is that so many of the plants don’t exist here. One of the greens that’s ubiquitous in Vietnam (and the rest of Southeast Asia) is morning glory. It looks more like a weed than a garden variety plant, and indeed, is considered an invasive species in the Western world for its ability to sprout up in any water-rich landscape without much help. The shoots are long, lean and tender, and the leafy greens lack any bitterness. It’s also known as water spinach, and usually stir-fried with garlic and ginger, with a much better stem-to-leaf ratio if you don’t like soggy greens. We ordered a side of it with basically every meal, and since it’s a great idea for a cold-weather side, I was very sad not to be able to whip some up upon my return.
During all those other lost months when I wasn’t churning out my own Vietnamese summer rolls and salads, I got my flavor fix from Nightingale Nine in Carroll Gardens. I know the co-owner Kerry Diamond from all of her other day jobs bossing fabulous food content. And her instagram feed during past trips to Vietnam with her partner, chef Rob Newton, was one of many reasons I was so excited to taste my way around the country.
When the restaurant first opened, Kerry and Rob solved the morning glory problem by harvesting their own in the back garden (bless their hearts!) until the department of sanitation discovered the operation and shut them down. But they’ve gotten around the authenticity issue by blending Vietnamese flavors with some down home produce inspired by Rob’s southern roots. And one of the most magical nexuses of these cultures is the Shaved Collard Greens with Coconut and Shallot-Lime Vinaigrette.
I’ve recreated his version with the addition of crunchy almonds, grilled shrimp, and a good hit of that salty, pungent fish sauce. Instead of flaked coconut, I fry the shallots until crispy in coconut oil (which is all-around healthier for high-heat cooking, and also lends a faint coconut flavor to the dressing). I envisioned wrapping the whole salad into summer rolls, but my fat fingers got the best of me, and that small experiment was a fail. So instead, you just get this completely refreshing balanced main course salad, just in time for a season when you could actually enjoy it!
Collards are a very underrated salad green. They’re tough and sturdy, so can be treated a lot like kale (i.e. dressed in advanced, and manhandled if necessary). Since my favorite marinated kale has gotten a little basic at this point, I’ve been subbing collards into my weekly batch cooking rotation.
A few notes on the recipe: if you’re grilling your shrimp outside, I recommend using skewers to thread several together at once (just make sure to soak them first). This not only cuts down on your grill-side labor, and prevents some of those especially shrimpy shrimpies from falling through the grates, but it also allows you to make the end product straight instead of curly. This is a trick I love for summer rolls, but since it’s just a salad, no pressure.
Feel free to toss in any other herbs you have on hand—especially basil—and top with chopped peanuts instead of almonds. Either way, you’ll have the perfect balance of clean greens, bright acid, sweet shallots, and nutty crunch.
From one healthy hedonist, to another,
Vietnamese Shrimp and Collard Green Salad with Crispy Coconut Shallots
Heat a charcoal grill or grill pan over high heat. Season the shrimp with salt. Once the grill is very hot, cook the shrimp until pink and charred on both sides, about 1 minutes per side. Remove to a plate. (See note: if using skewers, remove them once the shrimp is cool enough to touch.)
In a medium skillet, heat the coconut oil until lightly smoking. Carefully add the shallots. Fry, stirring occasionally, until browned and crispy. Season with salt.
Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl, toss the collard greens with the lime juice, fish sauce, and mint leaves until very well coated. Add the crispy coconut shallots and their oil and gently toss once more.
Divide the greens between four plates, top with the shrimp and garnish with the almonds. Serve immediately.
If you want your shrimp to be straight instead of curled, stick a bamboo skewer (soaked for 10 minutes in water) through the body lengthwise and grill.