Whenever I make Asian food I end up thinking, “Why didn’t I get take-out?” I used to satisfy my Chinese food cravings with a Styrofoam box of Almond Chicken and an egg roll. (Hello, I’m from Nebraska!) Then I started dating Geoff, a Hong Kong native who lived in Japan and grew up in Toronto. He put a stop to my take-out habit, pronto! He took me to Chinatown and ordered us family-style meals at Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean and Thai restaurants, educating my taste buds and ruining Almond Chicken for me forever.
I don’t know why I was so amazed when Geoff started making me Asian food at home. But Udon noodles are to him what pancakes are to me—his comfort food of choice—and he’s amazingly familiar with the techniques, ingredients and smells of Asian cooking. (Me: “I think this fish sauce has gone bad.” Geoff: “It’s made out of fermented fish. That’s how it smells.”)
I found a perfectly fine recipe for noodle salad in Food & Wine magazine. But, Geoff flipped to a page further back in the same issue and insisted we try the more advanced version with legitimate Asian-market-required ingredients. I planned to let him do the cooking on noodle night, but one day last week he was out late, I was hungry, and the ingredients were starting to wilt in the fridge. I dived in for my first attempt at authentic Thai food.
And this is why it pays not to get take-out. It took a little time and effort, but when all the components came together (smelly fish sauce and all) the salad was unbelievably fresh, light and flavorful. Spicy sweet sauce coats a mass of noodles scattered with a seafood medley, crunchy vegetables and salty peanuts. I served it taco-style inside romaine lettuce leaves, and I seared some small steaks to make the meal a Thai surf-and-turf.
Thai Seafood Noodle Salad
Adapted from Food & Wine Magazine
6 ounces rice vermicelli
2 red Thai chiles, thinly sliced (Don’t touch them with your bare hands! Find gloves, or use tongs and knives like I did. Also, I like to take out the seeds so they aren’t quite as hot.)
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup fresh lime juice (about 4 limes)
1/3 cup Asian fish sauce
2 tablespoons boiling water
1/2 pound medium shrimp, shelled and deveined
1/2 pound bay scallops
1/2 pound small squid, bodies cut into 1/2-inch rings and tentacles halved
3 plum tomatoes, seeded and diced
1 cup bean sprouts
1 cup mint leaves
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup salted roasted peanuts
Romaine lettuce leaves for serving
Place vermicelli in a bowl and cover with cold water for 30 minutes.
In a mortar (or your food processor, if you don’t happen to have a mortar and pestle like Geoff’s), pound the red Thai chiles and garlic cloves to a paste with 1 tablespoon of the sugar. Then pour in the lime juice, fish sauce, boiling water and the rest of the 3 tablespoons of sugar. Mix until the sugar is dissolved, then let sit for at least 30 minutes while the flavors mingle.
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Fill another bowl with ice water. Throw the shrimp into the boiling water until they’re white and curled (2 to 3 minutes). Then use a slotted spoon to transfer them to the ice water. Repeat with the scallops, cooking until white and firm (also 2 to 3 minutes), transferring to ice water when cooked. Then add the squid to the boiling water and cook until just firm (only about 45 seconds). After transferring the squid to the ice water and cooling for a few seconds, drain the seafood and pat dry.
Change the water in the pot, and bring it to a boil once again. Fill another bowl with ice water. Drain the soaking vermicelli. (If 30 minutes pass before you’re ready for this step, drain the vermicelli and let it sit until you’re ready.) Add the vermicelli to the boiling water, but don’t walk away. You want them al dente, and these thin noodles will be done in 45 seconds to a minute. Drain them and transfer them to the ice water. After a few seconds, drain them again and pat dry. This is the time to cut the vermicelli, if you want shorter noodles. (I left mine long, but you may want to cut them into around 3-inch lengths.)
The four components—dressing, noodles, seafood and chopped vegetables—can be saved for later at this point, refrigerated separately for up to a day, then thrown together right before serving. (I kept mine separate for a few hours while waiting for Geoff to get home.)
Finally, you can toss everything together in a large bowl—the seafood, noodles, tomatoes, bean sprouts, mint, red onion, peanuts and chile dressing. Line plates with the lettuce leaves, top with the salad and eat taco-style.