Master Recipe for Cool Noodle Salads 

If you like, prepare the greens and garnishes in advance and refrigerate. Cook the noodles up to two hours ahead and keep at room temperature. At serving time, you’ll just have to prepare the toppings. Serves four.

2 cups washed and shredded romaine, red, or green leaf lettuce
2 cups fresh, crisp bean sprouts
1 1/2 cups peeled, seeded, and julienned cucumber
1/3 to 1/2 cup roughly chopped or small whole mint leaves
1/3 to 1/2 cup roughly chopped or small basil or Thai basil leaves

2 Tbs. chopped roasted peanuts
Nuoc cham (Vietnamese dipping sauce) (recipe follows)
12 sprigs cilantro

8 oz. dried rice vermicelli

1 recipe Warm Lemongrass Shrimp, Vietnamese Grilled Pork, or Stir-Fried Vegetables (see below)

For the greens and herbs—Divide the lettuce, bean sprouts, cucumber, mint, and basil among four large soup or pasta bowls. If working ahead of time, cover each bowl with damp paper towels and refrigerate.

For the garnishes—Set peanuts aside. Make 1 recipe nuoc cham and refrigerate.

For the noodles—Bring a medium potful of water to a rolling boil. Add the rice vermicelli and, stirring often, cook them until the strands are soft and white, but still resilient, 3 to 5 min. Don’t be tempted to undercook them, as they must be fully cooked to absorb the flavors of the dish. Rinse them in a colander under cold water just until they are cool and the water runs clear. Let the
noodles drain in the colander for 30 min., and then set
them aside for up to 2 hours, unrefrigerated.

For the topping—Follow the directions for one of the recipes starting below. These toppings can be served hot or slightly cooled.

To assemble the salads—Remove the salad bowls from the refrigerator 20 to 30 min. before serving. The greens and bowl should be cool, not cold. Fluff the noodles with your fingers and divide them among the prepared salad bowls. Put the cooked topping on the noodles and garnish each bowl with the peanuts and cilantro. Pass the nuoc cham at the table; each diner should drizzle about 3 Tbs. over the salad and then toss the salad in the bowl a few times with two forks or chopsticks before eating.

Nuoc Cham (Vietnamese Dipping Sauce)

Keep a jar of this sauce in the refrigerator; it will last for a month. You can find ground chile paste (my favorite is Rooster brand) and fish sauce at many supermarkets but always at Asian groceries. Yields 1 1/2 cups.

1 clove garlic
2 to 3 Thai bird chiles (or 1 small jalapeño or serrano chile), cored, seeded, and minced; more or less to taste
1/2 tsp. ground chile paste; more or less to taste
2/3 cup hot water
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup fish sauce
2 Tbs. fresh lime juice
2 Tbs. shredded carrots (optional)

In a mortar and pestle, pound the garlic and fresh chiles to a paste. (Or mince them together with a knife.) In a small bowl, combine this garlic and chile mixture with the chile paste, hot water, and sugar. Stir well. Add the fish sauce and lime juice and combine. Float the carrots on top. Let sit for at least 15 min. before using.

Warm Lemongrass Shrimp

Once the ingredients are prepared, this delicious topping takes just minutes to cook. Serves four as a topping for bun.

2 Tbs. vegetable oil
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 lb. large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 Tbs. minced fresh lemongrass
2 cups sliced white mushrooms
2 tsp. fish sauce
1 tsp. sugar
Salt to taste

In a large skillet, heat the oil over high heat. Add the shallots and garlic, quickly stirring until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the shrimp and lemongrass; stir-fry for about 2 min. Add the mushrooms and sprinkle with the fish sauce, sugar, and a little salt. Stir-fry until the shrimp is cooked and the mushrooms are wilted, another 2 to 3 min. Remove from the heat and serve warm on bun.

Vietnamese Grilled Pork

A caramel sauce is the secret to this flavorful pork. Serves four as a topping for bun.

1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup water

2 large shallots, sliced, or 5 scallions (white parts only), chopped
2 tsp. fish sauce
2 tsp. soy sauce
Pinch salt
2 Tbs. vegetable oil
1 1/2 lb. pork loin or sirloin, sliced into large pieces about
1/4-inch thick

To make the caramel:
Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Stir a few times and allow to simmer until the sauce turns deep brown, about 15 min. Meanwhile, have some extra hot water ready on a back burner. Once the sauce reaches the desired color, carefully add 4 to 5 Tbs. hot water to slow the cooking and thin the sauce. (Be sure to hold the pan away from you so that none of the hot caramel splatters on you when you add the water.) If necessary, add more hot water. The sauce should only be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Set aside to cool.

To make the pork:
Pound the shallots in a mortar and pestle or mince by hand. Transfer the shallots to a mixing bowl and combine with the fish sauce, soy sauce, salt, vegetable oil, and cooled caramel sauce. Stir well to blend. Add the pork slices and let marinate for 20 min. Meanwhile, heat a broiler or light a charcoal or gas grill. When the broiler or fire is very hot, cook the pork until just done, about 2 min. on each side. Let the pork rest for 10 to 15 min., cut into thin strips, and serve on bun.

Stir-Fried Vegetables

You can try this topping with more unusual vegetables, like Chinese long beans or jícama. I like the crisp tofu in this recipe, but you could also substitute sliced, cooked chicken. Serves four as a topping for bun.

2 Tbs. vegetable oil
8 oz. firm tofu, drained and cut into rectangular strips
about 1-inch wide

2 Tbs. vegetable oil
2 shallots, thinly sliced
6 dried black mushrooms, soaked in hot water for 30 min., drained, stemmed, and thinly sliced
2 cups broccoli florets (cut through their stems into thin slices), blanched in boiling water and drained
11/2 cups shredded green or Napa cabbage
11/2 cups thinly sliced bok choy
2 Tbs. soy sauce; more or less to taste
1/2 red bell pepper, thinly sliced

To cook the tofu—Heat the oil in a nonstick pan or skillet over medium heat. Add the tofu pieces and stir-fry until nicely browned. Remove and drain on paper towels. When cool, cut them into bite-size strips. Set aside.

To cook the vegetables—Heat the oil in a large skillet
or sauté pan over high heat. If the pan is smaller than 12 inches, cook the vegetables in two batches. Wait until the oil gets very hot, almost smoking (the vegetables should sizzle during the entire cooking time), and add the shallots, constantly stirring until they become fragrant, about 20 seconds. Add the mushrooms and stir-fry for another 20 seconds. Add the broccoli, cabbage, and bok choy, stir for 30 seconds, and add the red bell pepper. (If the pan gets too dry, sprinkle in 1 to 2 Tbs. water.) Working quickly, create an open space in the middle of the pan by pushing the vegetables against the edges. Add the soy sauce to the open area. It should sizzle and caramelize slightly, creating a distinctive aroma. Stir the vegetables with the soy sauce a few times and remove from the heat. Toss the vegetables with the tofu and top the bun.

Source of recipe: Fine Cooking #27

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