I love the refreshing smack of a good green papaya salad. Sour, sweet, crisp, spicy and a little savory, it’s a world of flavor in packed, shredded piles. But let’s face it: green papayas are never in season in my part of the world. So what, then? Line up outside of Pok Pok, or some other Southeast Asian restaurant; hunt through the bins at Asian markets for the perfectly underripe papaya? Sure, you could do that. But you can also make a pretty darn tasty salad using something found very commonly, and wasted very commonly, in my exact part of the world (my kitchen): broccoli stems.
I can’t find evidence for this, but something tells me that green papaya salad — which is native to Cambodia and found commonly throughout neighboring Southeast Asian cuisines like Thailand’s — was invented from scraps to begin with. That it must have been made with green, underripe, too firm and less sweet papayas for some reason of thrift or need, such as the fruit falling from the tree before it could ripen, or not having the time to allow it to ripen before needing something to eat. Because an underripe, crunchy papaya is not optimal. At least, it wasn’t before this delicious salad was invented.
It’s kind of like underripe green tomatoes, too sour and firm for conventional tomato uses but awesome when battered and fried. In other words, it was a bad thing gone right. So let’s do right by broccoli stems, too.
Perhaps many of you have eaten broccoli stems prepared on their own before, in a slaw, perhaps (I like quick-pickling them, too). I really feel that broccoli stems share a similar taste and texture to kohlrabi, a fellow brassica. There’s just less meat in the thinner broccoli stalks than bulbous heads of kohlrabi, and you’ll need to strip the tough outer skin to get to it. You’ll also want to remove any tough areas towards the base of the stem. My mom always did this to broccoli stems whenever she was cooking broccoli for a stir-fry. She would slice the peeled stems into slabs and toss them into the pan along with the pieces of florets. Yes, it’s a waste not, want not type of move, but broccoli stems are actually delicious cooked this way. They absorb the sauce, don’t get too soft, and are pleasantly mild. These were actually my favorite parts of the vegetable when I was a kid.
Raw and thinly sliced broccoli stem is just as ready to soak up flavors as big slabs in a stir-fry, however. While you can use a mandolin to create uniform shreds, I was afraid that the pieces I was working with were so skinny that I would cut my fingers before making a decent amount of slivers per piece. So I just sliced them as finely as I could, then stacked up the slices to cut again into matchstick-sized slivers.
In true Southeast Asian fashion, the dressing would be made from pounding dried shrimp, garlic and fresh chilies in a mortar and pestle. This marries the flavors and creates a sort of paste, to add to the lime juice with sugar and a bit of fish sauce. Omitting a couple of these ingredients (dried shrimp and fresh chilies), I made a simplified dressing using fresh lime juice, sugar, garlic, chili flakes, and a touch of fish sauce. After soaking in the dressing for a couple hours, chilled, the broccoli stems were incredibly crunchy still, and tangy as can be. Add some roasted peanuts, sliced cucumber, or grape tomato halves to your salad for classic garnish. As for mine, I just sprinkled in some slivered green beans, since that was how I last saw green papaya salad served in a Southeast Asian restaurant.
Green Papaya-Style Broccoli Stem Salad
(makes 2-3 small servings)
2 cups packed broccoli stems, thick skins peeled and shredded as finely as you can (remove tougher base of the stalk first)
1 cup green beans, sliced to roughly 1-inch pieces on a bias
1/2 cup packed, shredded carrots and/or cucumber (optional)
handful of roasted peanuts or fresh cilantro sprigs for garnish (optional)
for the dressing:
1 small clove garlic, grated
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon fish sauce (found in Asian groceries)
1/2 teaspoon crushed red chili flakes
salt to taste
Combine the ingredients for the dressing in a small bowl. Whisk thoroughly to dissolve the sugar in the liquids. Taste and add salt if desired. Toss the shredded vegetables with the dressing and stir to coat thoroughly. Cover and chill for at least 1 hour, or preferably 2. Serve with optional peanuts and/or cilantro for garnish.
(for 2-3 servings)
2 cups shredded broccoli stem (from a large bunch of broccoli): $1.00
1 cup chopped green beans: $0.50
4 limes: $2.00
1 clove garlic: $0.05
1 teaspoon fish sauce: $0.05
1 teaspoon sugar, 1/2 teaspoon chili flakes, salt: $0.10
Three brownie points: There’s a great misconception about broccoli stems or stalks — that they’re nutritionally devoid, while the deep green florets hold all the vitamins. Wrong. They might not have as much beta-carotene or any Vitamin K, but they’re chock full of Vitamin C and still have plenty of value nutritionally. This salad is so refreshing because it has no oils whatsoever. The shredded stems stay crisp and juicy without wilting one bit, so it’s great for making ahead.
Seven maple leaves: This dish is simplified Southeast Asian — not authentic, or else I would have been pounding dried baby shrimp or hunting down green papayas in Asian produce shops. But taking the philosophy of the salad and translating it with broccoli stems, much more locally available, it becomes an easy-to-access exotic dish. Also, it saves the broccoli stems from possibly going to the landfill.