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The art of tapas - and my number one salad of all time





This week, celebrity chef Steven Saunders makes tapas and recreates an amazing Thai beef salad, directly from Thailand.

Steven Saunders Thai Beef Salad (62904698)
Steven Saunders Thai Beef Salad (62904698)

When I got married the first time (there’s been a few!) it was 1987. Sally and I (who now owns the well known Esse ladies retail and spa in Melbourn, Cambridgeshire) celebrated our honeymoon in Thailand.

It was a real experience for both of us - we were only 25 years old. We went to a very expensive Thai restaurant on a river and I munched into what looked like a mange tout. Problem was it was a green chilli, it was seriously hot. I spent the rest of that evening with my tongue in a glass of ice cold water. Little wonder the marriage didn’t work out! Although hot, it was the best beef salad I have ever eaten.

The experience of tapas enables you to try many different flavours and share different dishes with friends and family.

They were originally intended as little bites of food on a plate to cover a glass of wine. Tapas is ‘to cover’ in Spanish. But it evolved and has become the food for which Spain is celebrated.

In Spain, tapas is excellent and tiny little bars, restaurants and chringinguitos all over the country do it brilliantly. For a British chef to follow that would be difficult as the Spanish culture is what makes it so special.

So when I created our new tapas menu at Olivia’s Restaurant La Cala de Mijas in Spain, I structured it differently. A little bit Asian, a little bit Spanish, a little bit Peruvian, some Thai and even a little bit Italian. In fact, anything works if it is well executed and definitely not fused together. Remember fusion is confusion!

In my previous restaurant in La Cala de Mijas Spain (The Little Geranium) we cooked international tapas at lunch time and won many awards, one of which was Best Tapas in Malaga region.

Malaga is a huge area filled with fantastic restaurants offering great tapas. I was delighted and astounded. We were frequently visited by regulars, friends and many celebrities. Lorraine Kelly loved it so much she booked her 60th birthday party with us.

So we had something different and it worked well. I sat and thought a lot about it before jumping in to offering it at Olivia’s because it has to be perfect, and it has to be and look creative.

It’s not as simple as it may seem - it’s not just small portions of food, it’s morsels of sensational flavour.

Eventually, I decided that the best way is to pick some of the highlights like my Thai beef salad, ceviche of prawns with strawberries and the famous crispy duck salad of course. I pulled it all together and launched it last week.

Launch day was blowing a storm - it wasn’t the best weather, but people sat inside and loved sharing some of my all-time greats.

That is what tapas brings, apart from a great culinary experience. It brings joy and laughter, a whole holistic dining and sharing experience.

My new head chef, John, and I dress up the plates to make them look like art. We all eat with our eyes but then there are the flavours, which are literally amazing.

I prepared the Thai beef salad for Elliot Wright, founder and owner of Olivia’s in La Cala and asked: “How is it?”

“Amazing mate….absolutely amazing,” he replied. That’s good enough for me!

At home I often cook small plates of food - crispy fried chinese chicken, prawn pil pil and the Thai beef salad often feature, then I serve it up in the centre of the table, with potatas bravas with a spicy paprika sauce made authentically with olive oil, but my favourite is the Thai beef salad by far.

The secret of this beautiful dish is the dressing and the tender medium rare beef with the crunch of the toasted peanuts. For me it is the number one salad of all time.

It is a simple salad to prepare and here is the recipe.

The recipe dates all the way back to a lady called Siri Sirisang, the chef in Thailand who taught me Thai food, except of course I have changed and evolved it, but only very slightly. She worked for me for many years in Cambridgeshire after leaving Thailand.

I have no idea where she went after I left my Cambridgeshire hotel in 2007 as we lost touch, but if you’re reading this Siri, please get in touch!

Steven Saunders is executive chef director of Olivia’s.

Get in touch

Steven’s Thai Beef Salad (serves 2)

Ingredients

The dressing

  • 1 small bunch of finely chopped coriander roots and stems
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce (nam pla)
  • 1 teaspoon of sesame oil (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon soft brown sugar
  • Juice of 1 freshly squeezed lime
  • 1 mild red chilli ( jalapeno) de seeded and finely sliced
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine white pepper
  • Pinch of maldon salt
  • 2 tablespoons of sweet chilli sauce

The beef

  • 250g beef rump or sirloin seasoned well
  • A little olive oil

The salad

  • 1 small bunch of fresh mint leaves
  • ½ small red onion, cut into thin slices pickled (optional)
  • 6 cherry tomatoes, quartered
  • 1 heaped tablespoon coriander leaves
  • 8 leaves of Thai basil
  • 1 tablespoon of toasted peanuts or cashew nuts
  • 2/3 radishes sliced thinly (optional)
  • A few pea shoots (optional)

Method

  • Firstly make the dressing by mixing all the ingredients together except the lime, in a saucepan and on low heat gently to dissolve the sugar. Pass through a sieve and allow to cool completely. Add the lime juice.
  • Season and seal the beef and cook quickly in a very hot frying pan for two minutes each side to crust the outside but leave the inside rare. Allow to rest for four minutes .
  • Mix all the leaves and herbs together with the tomatoes, onion and radish.
  • Slice the beef thinly on a board and season.
  • Toss the beef with the salad ingredients in a bowl and then add the dressing and stir in.
  • Build a neat high pile of the salad ensuring that the portion of beef and herbs etc are equal.
  • Garnish with pea shoots and sprinkle with the toasted nuts and serve with chopsticks.


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