Ann Redding and Matt Danzer are the married chef-owners of Uncle Boons, a Thai cantina off the Bowery in Manhattan. The pair met as cooks at Per Se, and eventually partnered up to run a seasonal restaurant on Shelter Island, off Long Island. During the winters they traveled to Thailand and stayed with Ann’s family in the area around Udon Thani. After five seasons of selling umbrellas and bottled water and cold-cut sandwiches to tourists, the couple sold their Shelter Island spot to set up shop cooking Thai food in the city this year. The short, focused menu is filled with good things to eat, but this salad is a standout.
The flavor of banana blossoms is mild—faintly vegetal, astringent bordering on tannic, with fleeting notes of cucumber or melon—and their function in the salad is textural. The flower’s leaves are sturdy if not downright tough, and need to be thinly sliced across the grain to be enjoyed raw.
“My aunt used to tell me to stay away from her banana tree,” Redding said. “She said that it was haunted. In Thailand you’ll see certain clumps of banana trees tied off with string, with oranges and other offerings made to the ghost of the banana trees.” She added, “She probably told me that just to keep me from climbing and breaking her tree.”
It’s not that Redding doesn’t believe in ghosts. The Thai connection to the spirit world is alive and well at Uncle Boons: the restaurant is haunted. “There’s a ghost here. We call him Mister. We first found out about him when we were doing demolition,” said Ann.
Matt picked up the story. “We were going through the space tagging things we wanted to save or get rid of and there was this big wooden table that we didn’t have exact plans for, but we agreed to save.
“After we went through the whole space, we went back into the room with the table and saw that our contractor had carved save in the top of it. So I start asking him why he would do something like that, and he swears up and down he didn’t, and I know I didn’t, and Ann says she didn’t.” And that was how Mister made himself known.
They learned of Mister’s gender through a monk. Matt: “After I told my mom, she met with a monk at the Thai Buddhist school I went to where I grew up. She went to him and he said there was a man here. So she had to come up and do what’s called ‘send loving kindess’ in Buddhism. Basically it means I’m supposed to put a snack out every so often in the basement.”
Since then it’s been more run-of-the-mill ghost stuff, like slamming doors and a general eeriness that has one of the line cooks afraid to go into the basement by himself at night. One night, however, the power at the restaurant went out three times during dinner service—an unprecedented and unrepeated occurrence—and it happened on the occasion of the New York Times restaurant critic’s second visit. Both of the chef-owners finger Mister as the reason why. (In spite of the light show, Uncle Boons earned a glowing two-star review.)
On to the recipe: the real magic here is the salad dressing, an amalgam of chili jam and coconut milk. A recipe for chili jam is provided, or you can scoop up a jar of nam prik pao at any better Thai grocery store or website named after a Brazilian rainforest.
For the fried shallot garnish, you can buy a jar, or do as they do at Boons and make your own: dust thinly sliced shallots in rice flour, fry in 325°F oil until crisp, cool on a rack, and salt well. Make lots. You will eat them all.
Also, there’s a rotisserie at Uncle Boons that cooks the chicken meat for the salad. Their birds are brined in palm sugar and fish sauce and brushed with coconut cream as they cook over charcoal. For this salad, any moist and not overly Western-flavored roast chicken (or turkey!) will do. Or you could use leftovers from Andy Ricker’s Kai Yaang recipe. —Peter Meehan
- 2 or 3 blossoms, depending on size (enough for 4 C sliced blossoms)
- + lime
- + salt
- 3 1/2 T roasted chili jam
- 7 T coconut milk
- 1 T + 2 t fish sauce
- 2 T + 2 t lime juice
- 1 T sugar
- about 1 roast chicken’s worth of meat, pulled into pieces
- 2 stalks lemongrass, peeled, sliced into thin rings
- 1/4 C picked cilantro leaves
- 1/4 C cashew nuts, toasted briefly, chopped
- 2 handfuls fried shallots
- + a scattering of dried chilies, flash fried in oil, optional
roasted chili jam
- 1/2 C dried red chilies
- 1/4 C garlic cloves, peeled
- 6 C onions, chopped
- 2 T galangal
- 1⁄3 C oil
- 2⁄3 t shrimp paste
- 1 T + 1 t palm sugar
- 3 T tamarind paste
- 3 T fish sauce
roasted chili jam
Combine the first 4 ingredients in a food processor and chop them until puréed.
Heat the oil in a wide skillet over medium heat; after a minute, add the purée. Sauté until the mixture has darkened in color and shed much of its water, 15–20 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and cook for 15 minutes to unify the sauce. Store in a sealed jar. This condiment will keep forever.
Remove the tougher outer leaves of the banana blossoms, stack them, and slice them fine, crosswise. Cut the tender inner part of the blossom in half lengthwise, discard the core, and slice fine, crosswise. Danzer periodically rubs his knife with lime to keep the banana blossoms from discoloring as he cuts them. Drop the sliced banana blossoms in a bowl of water spiked with a squeeze of lime and a pinch of salt, and let them sit in it for at least an hour.
Make the dressing: combine the chili jam, coconut milk, fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar. Do it in your blender if you’ve got one. Reserve until ready to serve.
Drain the banana flowers well, combine with chicken, lemongrass, and half the cilantro in a large bowl. Add the dressing, toss well, and portion on 4 plates. Top each with an equal helping of the toasted nuts, fried shallots, cilantro, and chilies (if using), and serve at once.