In the past three weeks, the temperature in Denver has hovered near 100 almost every day and I’ve made this salad four times. There’s something about the cool noodles and fresh herbs that makes me crave this dish every time the mercury inches past 90. I think it’s because it tastes like summer. The recipe is a bit of a guideline. You can add the chicken, or not…add the cucumbers or sub them for carrots or a different crunchy, raw vegetable. You can even add in some lettuce but this would probably ruin the dish as a leftover so you’ll probably have to eat it all in one night. I’ve cobbled together the recipe below from several different recipes. I’ve made it with chicken, pork and tofu. The version below most closely resembles the recipe from my favorite cooking blog, Smitten Kitchen, which is a simplification of this recipe from The New York Times. But I’ve also tried a version I found in Cook’s Illustrated’s book, “The Best International Recipe” and it was also delicious and did not call for the peanut dipping sauce. Whatever you do, don’t sweat it. After all, it’s summer.
Summer Salad of Vietnamese Noodles and Fresh Herbs (Serves 4 with ample leftovers.)
6 tablespoons Asian fish sauce (They have this at my local Safeway.)
6 tablespoons brown sugar
12 tablespoons lime juice (Note: You will need A LOT of limes to make this and the peanut dressing. I would suggest buying about 10 limes just to be safe.)
2 garlic cloves
4 Thai peppers or 2 Serranos/jalapenos
3 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
12 tablespoons lime juice
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 one-and-a-half inch chunk ginger
3 tablespoons natural unsalted peanut butter. (I imagine this would also work with normal peanut butter.)
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
Pinch of cayenne
3 table spoons water
Protein and noodle salad
1 pounds of the following: chicken breasts or thighs, pork loin or tofu. I imagine this would also work with shrimp or fish. If using tofu, drain for 20 minutes on doubled paper towels and do not marinate. Just toss with the marinade after you’ve cooked the tofu.)
8 ounces dried rice vermicelli or other rice noodles
2 small cucumbers, diced
2 red, yellow or green peppers, diced
1/4 cup each of cilantro, basil (preferably Thai) and mint, finely chopped
4 or more scallions, slivered
1/4 cup crushed or chopped roasted peanuts
Dipping sauce: I tossed everything in the food processor, including the garlic cloves and the chili peppers. If you don’t have a food processor, chop the garlic and chili peppers and stir them into the remaining ingredients.
Make the peanut dressing: Again, I used the food processor. But I’m sure you could also use arm power. Whatever you do, I think it makes sense to grate the ginger into the remaining ingredients.
Marinate the chicken: Stir together about 1/2 the dipping sauce and 1/3 the peanut dressing for a marinade. Combine remaining sauce and dressing and set aside. If using pork or chicken, add it to the marinade mixture and toss to coat. Let marinate at least 15 minutes but not more than an hour. If you are using chicken and you plan to grill it, pound it to an even quarter inch or so before you marinate it to ensure it cooks evenly. If using tofu, set aside the marinade ingredients to toss with the tofu after it’s cooked.
Cook the noodles: Bring a large pot of water to the boil, then turn off the heat. Add the rice vermicelli and soak for about 10 minutes or follow package directions. Drain, cool under running water, then drain again.
Protein: Grill the chicken, pork or tofu on an outdoor grill or broil it about 3 to 4 minutes a side for chicken, a little longer for pork. Let it sit for a few minutes, then chop it into bite size pieces. If you made tofu, toss it with the marinade you set aside.
Assemble salad: Toss noodles with the mixture of peanut dressing and dipping sauce that you set aside after making the marinade. (You might want to use only some of this mixture and leave the rest for people to add on their own.) Toss dressed noodles with chopped cucumber, sweet peppers and fresh herbs. Top with chopped scallions, chopped peanuts and protein.