The wall of heat has arrived. Like a thick syrup, it's encircling the city. On days like this, what always surprises me is how strongly I seem to suffer from weather amnesia. It's been 98 degrees before - many times before, even - but when I first feel that wretched miasma of heat and filth, it's a shock to my system. And after I've gotten used to the sweltering sun, I wrack my brain to try to remember what winter feels like, but I'm not able to summon it. Because it's so hot right now that walking outside is an extreme sport and the existence of another time or place is like an impossibility.
Food in its simplest forms feels unthinkably frivolous when it's like this. I wake up and can barely muster the interest in a cup of tea. Lunch rolls around and I have to force myself to eat a piece of tofu and some greens. This is strange behavior for someone who can set a watch to her stomach growls, but the heat takes it all out of me.
In a last-ditch effort to save myself from eating cereal with (cool, blessedly cool) milk for dinner, I plucked this Thai-style salad from the pile. The gravitation towards Southeast Asia couldn't have been much of a surprise - I don't know where you'd find more experts on hot-weather food. I wasn't lucky enough to get my hands on any of the Indian mangoes that finally came our way earlier this summer, but I substituted them with a few of those smooth, yellow-greenish, Haitian mangoes and promised myself that when I finally get around to going on that vacation in India I've been meaning to take for the past six years, I'll eat all the mangoes I can get.
(Was anybody else so lucky as to try an Alphonso or Banganpalli or Kesar when they were being allowed into the country? Those names alone! I'm bewitched.)
In any case, Haitian mangoes diced up and dressed with a fiery, sweet-sour dressing, then punctuated with salt-frosted peanuts, cooling leaves of mint, the appealing crunch of bean sprouts, and bright, tender shrimp is quite the hot-weather meal. You'll barely break a sweat preparing it and, more importantly, will feel entirely refreshed as you eat it. (And if you've got leftovers, roll them up in leaves of butter lettuce the next day for lunch. I won't be so lucky.)
Fridge-cold and hot-sour-salty-sweet - this salad was relief and pleasure in one.
Mango and Shrimp Salad
4 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons honey
4 tablespoons fresh lime juice (from about 2 to 3 large limes)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 to 4 seeded and minced Thai chiles (or 1 to 3 serranos), to taste
1. In a small saucepan, combine the fish sauce, sugar and honey. Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar and honey dissolve and the mixture is syrupy, about 1 minute.
2. In a blender or food processor, combine the sweetened fish sauce syrup, lime juice, garlic and chiles, and blend for about 30 seconds to a minute. Set aside. Makes two-thirds cup.
Mango salad and assembly
1 pound (medium to large) raw shrimp
5 to 6 large firm mangoes (about 8 ounces each), peeled, pitted and cut into medium dice
1 cup bean sprouts
2 tablespoons minced shallot (about 2 large)
About 1/2 cup stemmed cilantro, plus more for garnish
About 1/2 cup small mint leaves (if leaves are large, tear them in half), plus more for garnish
2/3 cup dressing, divided, or to taste
4 teaspoons chopped peanuts (unsalted) for garnish
1. Peel and devein the shrimp under cold, running water. Bring a large saucepan of lightly salted water to a boil. Reduce the heat to a slow simmer and add the shrimp. Poach the shrimp until just cooked (they will be pink and firm, and opaque throughout), about 2 to 2 1/2 minutes. Drain the shrimp; place them in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Drain the shrimp again; set aside in the refrigerator.
2. In a large bowl, combine the mangoes, sprouts, shallot, cilantro and mint and set aside.
3. Mix about one-half cup of the dressing, or to taste, with the reserved mango mixture. Mound the mango mixture on four chilled plates. Toss the shrimp with the remaining dressing to coat. Divide the shrimp evenly on top of each salad and sprinkle about 1 teaspoon peanuts on top of each plate. Garnish with sprigs of mint and cilantro. Add lime wedges to each plate.