Big, Cool Noodle Bowl with Roast Chicken, Cucumbers, and Fresh Mint
Excerpted from Quick & East Vietnamese. © 2006 by Nancie McDermott. Used by permission of Chronicle Books, San Francisco. All Rights Reserved.
This is the pattern for endless delicious meals based upon the winning formula of bun: a pile of soft rice noodles, a serving of flavorful roast or grilled meat, a refreshing array of greens and herbs, and a generous splash of Vietnam's incomparably delicious theme sauce, nuoc cham (Everyday Dipping Sauce).
My favorite version is anything I can compose using ready-to-savor ingredients, such as chunks of roast chicken from the deli, slices of barbecued pork (char sui) or roast duck from Chinatown, or slices of grilled flank steak from yesterday's barbecue.
1/2 pound thin dried rice noodles or angel hair pasta
2 cups shredded lettuce or spring salad mix
3 cups shredded roast chicken, or 1/2 pound grilled shrimp
2 cups peeled and sliced cucumber
1 cup small sprigs of fresh mint and fresh cilantro combined
2 cups mung bean sprouts (optional)
1 cup Everyday Pickled Carrots (recipe follows) or shredded carrots (optional)
1/3 cup thinly sliced green onion
3/4 cup chopped roasted and salted peanuts
Double recipe Everyday Dipping Sauce (recipe follows)
1. To cook the rice noodles, bring a large saucepan, Dutch oven, or pasta pot of water to a rolling bowl over high heat. Drop in the noodles, remove from the heat, and let stand for 10 minutes, using tongs or a slotted spoon and a fork to separate the noodles and let them cook evenly. When the noodles are tender, drain, rinse in cold water, and drain again. You'll have about 6 cups of cooked noodles. Let stand while you prepare the remaining ingredients.
2. Set out 4 big Asian-style noodle bowls or pasta plates or soup bowls. Divide the ingredients evenly among the bowls: lettuce first, topped with 1 1/2 cups of noodles in each bowl. Put the roast chicken on one side, and the cucumber, fresh herbs, and any optional ingredients you're using on the other. Sprinkle green onions and peanuts over the chicken, pour 1/4 cup of Everyday Dipping Sauce over each portion of the noodles, and serve at once, inviting your guests to toss everything together as they begin to eat.
Everyday Pickled Carrots
I shred carrots on a box grated or in the food processor if I have time, and I use already shredded carrots from the produce section if I'm in a rush.
Makes about 3 cups of pickled carrots
1 1/2 cups water
3/4 cup white vinegar
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups shredded carrots (about 3/4 pound), or 1 1/2 cups shredded carrots and 1 1/2 cups shredded daikon
Combine the water, vinegar, sugar, and salt in a small saucepan and place over medium heat. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes, swirling once or twice, until the sugar and salt dissolve and the sauce is clear and smooth. Transfer to a bowl and cool to room temperature. (Pour the brine into a cake pan, pie pan, or a metal bowl and place it in the freezer briefly if you're in a hurry.)
Add the shredded carrots to the cooled brine, toss well, and set aside for 20 to 30 minutes. Serve at room temperature, or transfer to a jar, cover and refrigerate until serving time. Scoop out carrots from the brine as you need them and store the remainder in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
Everyday Dipping Sauce
Makes about 1/2 cup
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon chili-garlic sauce or finely chopped fresh hot red chilies, or 1 teaspoon dried red chili flakes
3 tablespoons fish sauce
3 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
Combine the garlic, sugar, and chili-garlic sauce in the bowl of a mortar and mash to a paste. (Or combine them on your cutting board and mash to a coarse paste with a fork and the back of a spoon.) Scrape the paste into a small bowl and stir in the fish sauce, water, and lime juice. Stir well to dissolve the sugar. Transfer to small serving bowls for dipping. Or transfer to a jar, cover, and refrigerate for up to 1 week.
Mung bean sprouts can be found in the produce section of most large supermarkets. They are used most often in Chinese dishes, but fresh raw ones add a nice crunch to salads. Look for ones that are crisp with buds still attached. Freshness is key. Store them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator and use within a day or two. Tinned mung bean sprouts are not a substitute.
Daikon is a variety of radish used in Asian and Japanese dishes. Its crisp white flesh is juicy, sweet, and earthy, without the peppery bite of the familiar round red-skinned ones. Look for daikon that is firm and smooth. Store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for about a week. Use fresh in salads and stir-fries or pickle in brine as Nancie suggests and use as a condiment.
Try chopped salted almonds instead of peanuts if allergies are a consideration.
One favored brand of fish sauce to look for has three crabs on the label. Store it in the refrigerator.
This is the dish you'll want to eat every other night—light yet satiating, healthy and fast. Do the dipping sauce and keep it in the refrigerator for marinating and dressing salads.
Food writer Nancie McDermott's pragmatic approach to the cuisines of Southeast Asia evolved from living there, then moving to a part of America where there was not an Asian grocery on every corner. In short, Nancie's recipes capture authentic flavors, but do it with what most of us can easily get in our local markets.
If you decide to do the Pickled Carrots, know they are excellent stand-ins for relish on burgers, hot dogs, in cole slaw, in green salads and over grilled fish and meat. I've gotten to the point where I throw together a batch once a week so they are always ready in the refrigerator.