One of the joys of just about every city I visited in Australia was the easy availability of a tremendous range of ethnic food, especially Asian. It was not just in restaurants, but in shopping mall food courts and even street corner food carts. I’d grown up in a family that had broad experience with ethnic foods, and I had seriously pursued various cuisines myself since childhood. However, thanks to its proximity to Asia, Australia offered an abundance of foods I had either not encountered previously or didn’t find so readily available back home. In Canberra, the populations represented by the many embassies made the variety of ethnic offerings even more abundant than I had seen it elsewhere in Australia.
Vietnamese food was among those cuisines not experienced prior to that first trip to Australia. Since that trip, a growing Vietnamese community in Chicago has made both restaurants and ingredients available, and I have even had the delightful opportunity to experience Vietnamese food in Vietnam. However, my very first Vietnamese meal was on that first trip to Australia, and it was in Canberra. It was a cuisine that I liked immediately, and I have pursued it since then, both prepared by others and in my own kitchen. While the recipe below does not reflect that first experience in Canberra, it is a dish I now prepare regularly at home. Vietnamese food is bright and flavorful.
Warm Beef and Watercress Salad
3/4 lb. beef tenderloin, sirloin steak, or filet mignon
1 Tbs. green peppercorns, roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic, crushed
3 stems lemon grass (white part only), very finely sliced
3 Tbs. vegetable oil
1/4 tsp. salt
1/3 tsp. ground black pepper
8 oz. watercress (about 1-1/2 average bunches)
4 oz. cherry tomatoes
4 scallions, sliced
2 Tbs. lime juice
Cut the steak into thin slices. Combine the green peppercorns, garlic, lemon grass (or rind), 2 tablespoons oil, salt, and pepper in a bowl. Add the beef and mix well. Cover and allow to marinate, refrigerated, for 30 minutes.
Wash and drain the watercress. Remove sprigs from the tough stems, breaking up any sprigs that are large. Arrange the watercress on a serving platter. Slice the cherry tomatoes in half and place the halves around the edge of the watercress.
Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil in a wok or frying pan until very hot. Add the beef and marinade mixture, and stir-fry quickly, until beef is just cooked. Add the scallions to the pan, mixing them in with the beef. Pile the cooked beef in the center of the watercress and sprinkle the lime juice over the top. Serve immediately. Serves 2–3.
Note: Green peppercorns, which are simply unripe peppercorns, come one of two ways: in brine or freeze dried. Either is acceptable for this recipe. If you use freeze dried green peppercorns, simply add 1 tablespoon of dried peppercorns to a couple tablespoons of hot water, and let them sit for 5–10 minutes. Then drain, chop, and add to recipe as needed. The ones in brine need no preparation—just drain and chop.
If lemon grass is not readily available, you can substitute 1 slightly rounded teaspoon of finely grated lemon rind.