Last summer when we were at the Cherry Creek Arts Festival, I fell in love with this salad. Instantly it was the only thing I wanted to eat on a hot day – it’s cool, it’s nutritious, the lovely clean flavors of the sauce and herbs on top make it so refreshing. I’m pretty sure I got it (from a local restaurant’s stand at the festival) all three days we were there, and I’ve been seeking it in other cities ever since. This week, I was sitting on the couch, thinking about all the other things I have to do and wondering what on earth to make for dinner, flipping through my recipe book, when I remembered this salad – being home in warm weather was the perfect time to try making it myself!
Vietnamese Noodle Salad
Noodles: I used very thin rice stick noodles. I’ve also seen this served with slightly thicker clear or white noodles. Whatever kind you can find, check the package directions, boil just until tender (usually only a few minutes), then rinse under cold water.
Veggies; any or all of the following: shredded carrots, thin sliced bell pepper, cucumber, zucchini . . . almost all of the versions I’ve had include bean sprouts and shredded lettuce. Tip: rinse bean sprouts in a generous spray of very cold water to get them at their tastiest and crispiest. For my version, I sauteed the bell pepper and zucchini strips briefly over high heat, just to get little caramelized edges, then let them cool. If it’s really hot out, you could just leave all the veggies raw and avoid turning on the stove!
Pan-marinated tofu: this seems like a good time to include this technique, which I use pretty much every time I make tofu. Start with extra-firm tofu. Cut it into slices, rectangles, triangles, whatever you like. In a large skillet, heat a generous splash of peanut oil (sorry about the no-measuring for this part, I just don’t!) over medium heat. When it’s getting hot, add in a splash of soy sauce, a splash of rice vinegar or lime juice, and a small spoon of brown sugar. Stir around until the sugar dissolves, then add the tofu. Stir the tofu around, then shake the pan occasionally while the liquid evaporates. Keeping the heat on med-low, and stirring when you first put the tofu in will help keep it from sticking to the pan. Once the liquid is gone, a nice caramelized crust will form on the tofu – yummy! I haven’t found a better way than to flip each piece over once the bottom is brown and crispy. If there are patches of sauce left, steer the flipped pieces onto those. You can also add a little more of the marinating ingredients if necessary. When both sides have a lovely golden crust, you’re done! Flip the tofu out onto a plate to cool. I did this one day as an experiment, and I have done it every time since, when I make tofu for Pad Thai, curry, etc. Side story: once I was hanging out with my brother while he was grilling brats. He said it’s the juice dripping down from the meat and being shot back up by the fire that makes it taste good. Sometimes I think of this technique as giving the tofu some tasty juice of its own. Ok, back to the noodle salad.
Herbs and peanuts: whatever veggies and other ingredients you choose, this and the sauce are key to the flavor of this dish! Coarsely chop a generous handful of fresh mint, basil, and cilantro. Finely chop some raw or roasted unsalted peanuts.
Sauce: start with equal parts maple syrup, soy sauce, lime (or lemon) juice, and water. For one person’s lunch-size bowl, use about a tablespoon of each. Taste and adjust. You can also add a clove of minced garlic and/or a little hot sauce if you wish. What I love about this is the clean clear flavors, but some friends liked it better with a LOT of hot sauce. Hat tip to theKitchn for what to put in this sauce!
Assembly: put the bean spouts and cooled noodles in the bottom of a bowl. A wide shallow bowl would be ideal, since the sauce tends to sink to the bottom (otherwise, stir it up). Top with veggies, herbs, tofu and peanuts, and pour sauce over the whole thing. Enjoy!
Variations: I made it the next day with an fried egg on top, also super tasty but not quite as cooling. Of course you could add stir-fried meat as well, or practically anything else you like. Pickled vegetables? It can easily be vegan, gluten free, or not, really the sky’s the limit here!
Enjoy! I can’t go without mentioning the dessert I made for this meal, roasted strawberry coconut milk popsicles from The Year in Food. Dude. These were incredible! I’ve been dying to make them and I was so happy I finally could. My only note would be to lightly crush or grind the cardamom. I love it when a recipe opens up whole new ideas, I never would have thought to roast a strawberry. My whole house was filled with an explosion of strawberry jam smell so wonderful that I couldn’t stand to spoil it by cooking anything else at the same time. They look cool too, I couldn’t resist taking my own picture! Anyways. Get out there and eat some summer!