Vietnamese-style noodle salad

A couple months ago, when I came home from the doctor with a pamphlet on FODMAPs and a brain full of questions, one of my first (slightly panicked) messages was to my friend Ida. Not only had she gone through the same process a couple years earlier, but she’s one of the most wildly creative cooks I know. So I invited her to dinner and picked the heck out of her brain.

Of all the tips and resources Ida shared–and there were a lot–one thing stuck with me. Choose one meal, she said, that fits your dietary requirements, that you love, and that you can make with your eyes closed. That’s your go-to meal. When you feel like there’s nothing you can eat, make that. For her, during the strictest elimination phase, that meal was fajitas. For me, it’s Vietnamese-style noodle bowls.

This isn’t really a recipe–it’s a method. I start by soaking some dried rice vermicelli in near-boiling water for about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, I make a punchy dressing of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and some sort of chile. Then I root through the fridge for cooked protein, raw vegetables, and fresh herbs, and cut everything up into strips or morsels. Finally, I drain and rinse the noodles and combine everything in a big bowl. (I’ve written out a more detailed description of my method and proportions below the post.)

This is the perfect thrown-together summer food. It’s light and crisp, savory and refreshing. The dressing, fresh herbs, and scallions make it intensely flavorful and exciting. It comes together in 20 minutes or less, without turning on the stove (except maybe to boil some water, and I’ve got an electric kettle for that). It fills me up without leaving a brick in my belly. It accepts whatever mishmash of veggies and meat I have in the fridge. And it’s easily tailored to even a fairly strict diet. I’ve been eating this at least twice a week for months now, making it differently every time.

vermicelli bowl 1

The day I photographed this, my crisper drawer yielded half a Japanese cucumber, a slightly withered jalapeno, a bunch of scallions, and some fresh mint. I’ve been in the habit of keeping smoked meat on hand–usually salmon or trout, but this time I’d splurged on a smoked chicken breast from the local German butcher shop. So I cut the veggies and smoked chicken into nibble-friendly pieces, soaked my noodles, whipped up the dressing, and piled everything in a bowl. Voila, lunch.

I can’t overstate what a lifeline this noodle bowl method has been. It’s a satisfying meal I can make on autopilot. It lets me be creative in the kitchen, without making up a whole recipe from scratch. It’s outrageously flavorful, so I don’t for a moment feel deprived or disheartened. It can easily be scaled down for a single portion, or up to feed a crowd. I’ve served this to gluten-free folks, pescatarians, and omnivores, and it’s a hit every time. During a time when eating feels fraught and cooking can become a slog, this is a food that makes me genuinely happy.

vermicelli bowl 2

My Method for Vietnamese-Style Noodle Salad

For four to six portions, I start with about 12 oz dried rice vermicelli (rice noodles). Place the noodles in a heatproof bowl. Heat a kettle of water until it steams–no need to wait for a full boil. Pour the hot water over the noodles and let them soak for 15 minutes, or until they’re softened to your liking. Drain, rinse with cold water, and set aside.

Meanwhile, prepare the dressing. Zest and juice 2 limes into a measuring cup. Add 1/4 cup fish sauce and 2 tsp granulated or superfine sugar. If you like spicy, add something spicy–a minced Thai bird chile, a tablespoon or two of sambal oelek, or a teaspoon or two of Korean hot pepper flakes. Whisk it all together, then taste and adjust the proportions of everything to your liking.

Next, cut up about 4 cups of vegetables. Anything you like to eat raw is fair game. Some of my favorites include:

  • English cucumber, julienned
  • Zucchini, julienned
  • Red or orange bell pepper, seeded and julienned
  • Jalapeno pepper, seeded and julienned (yes, I like big bites of chile)
  • Green cabbage, thinly sliced
  • Carrot and/or radish, julienned and tossed with a bit of rice vinegar, sugar, and salt to taste

Chop about 1 cup of fresh herbs. For me, fresh mint is a must; you could also add cilantro, Thai basil, or a mix of all three. While you’re at it, thinly slice a couple scallions (green parts only) for garnish.

Finally, cut about 1 lb of cooked protein into bite-sized pieces. Off the top of my head, chicken, pork, shrimp, squid, salmon, or tofu would all be great choices. This is a perfect use-up for leftover roasted or grilled meat; I also love using smoked fish (salmon or trout). If you’ve got raw meat or tofu, cut it into bite-sized pieces and stir-fry it in a skillet or wok over high heat with a couple tablespoons of neutral oil, and then season with salt and pepper.

Divide the noodles among serving bowls, then add the veggies, herbs, and protein on top. Drizzle over the dressing, sprinkle with sliced scallions, and serve immediately.

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