Thursday, May 8, 2008

Bean Thread Salad

When I was in my 20's I worked in a Spanish tapas restaurant in Philadelphia. It was this clatteringly loud, trendy restaurant with the Gypsy Kings on endless loop. Please god, may I never have to hear another minute of the Gypsy Kings as long as I live.

Despite the musical torture, I learned a lot about Spanish food in that year, and about the beauty of cheap rustic ingredients. But forget the paella and the chickpeas-chorizo stew (and the rice pudding and the avocado salad and steamed greens with garlic and the many other dishes I first encounterd there which I continue to make to this day) -- one of the best dishes I discovered at Pamplona was at the staff holiday party, and it was made by one of the line cooks, who was Cambodian.

It was this enormous bowl of clear noodles. There were grilled shrimp, and an assortment of cold, crisp vegetables like sliced celery, and slivers of red peppers and scallions. There was chopped cilantro, an herb I was still just discovering and falling in love with.

But the noodles were the most amazing part. They were delicate and slippery, and had this bizarre flavor combination -- sour and salty and sweet and ... just amazing. I had never tasted anything like it. I kept trying to get the recipe from the cook, but the language barrier got in the way.

I tried to make the noodles on my own, but it wasn't until I discovered fish sauce that I was able to come up with a reasonable fascimile. By now, recipes for this classic salad from southeast Asia are easy to come by. My twist on it is to present it as a Mothership meal. Most kids like plain noodles, and they also tend to like vegetables cut into skinny, easy-to-manage shapes. You can use vegetables you know they'll like, such as carrots or red pepper or celery. If you have a cilantro-hater in the family, as I do (my husband, who has given it his best shot, has resorted to calling cilantro "evil soap-weed"), you can keep the dish of chopped cilantro on the side.

Everyone else can mix together as desired.

Bean Thread Salad
* 1 lb medium shrimp, cleaned and shelled (or 2 chicken breasts, cut into cubes; or a cup of extra-firm tofu, cubed)
* 1 tsp fish sauce
* 1 tsp lime juice
* 1 tsp palm sugar or raw sugar

* Noodles and Dressing
* 1/3 cup lime juice (about 2 to 3 limes)
* 1/3 cup palm sugar or raw sugar
* 1/3 cup fish sauce
* Bean thread noodles, cooked according to package directions, rinsed and drained
* 1 Tbsp. oil

* Vegetables
* Tiny chili peppers, chopped
* Carrots, red peppers, celery and scallions, cut into thin 2-inch slivers


1. Marinate the shrimp (or chicken or tofu) in the marinade for about 15 minutes.
2. Mix the lime juice, sugar and fish sauce. Toss with the noodles.
3. Grill the shrimp on high heat, or heat the oil in a medium frying pan over high heat, and sauté. (Sauté the chicken or tofu, if using.)
4. Set the table: lay out, in separate bowls or plates, the noodles, the shrimp (or chicken or tofu), and the vegetables. Allow each diner to assemble his or her own dish.

Spicing It Up: To make a spicy condiment for parents, mix finely chopped chili peppers with equal parts fish sauce and lime juice. Grown-ups can spoon a small amount into their noodle wraps. Stored in a jar in the refrigerator, this spicy condiment will keep for months, and will mellow as it ages.


julie said...

Wow! I wish I had tried it at the staff holiday party but somehow missed it.

I still make the avocado salad too. At least once a week. : )

Larissa Phillips said...

SO funny that you read this post -- a fellow-Gypsy-King-survivor!
There was some really good food there.