This year's dry hot weather propelled an explosion of fresh herbs in our garden. From fresh mint, basil, cilantro, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme, tarragon to the exotic lemon verbena, every herb has been kissed by this summer's blaring heat. It has become a daily routine to trim back these plants, sharing with friends and neighbors the bounty that at times has come to feel like an unrelenting weedy monstrosity. Too much of a good thing? Yes, it is possible even for this garden lover. So I make teas, bring herby aroma therapy to the house, make herbal flower arrangements and I even compost it as a final resort.
But finding a recipe that will make liberal use of myriad herbs? Well, that's the jackpot for the most practical of us at heart. So I bring you a cool balmy Vietnamese dish made exotic with the addition of a wide range of herbs, a lime-driven peanut sauce dressing and crunchy meticulously cut raw vegetables. This is a dish of contrasts and sharp flavors that play against each other harmoniously. First, the textures of grilled meat, soft rice noodles and supple vegetables present a medley that seems chaotic but stack well together. Second, the flavors of refreshing bold herbs against sharp lime juice, salty fish sauce, pungent garlic, hot chiles and creamy peanut butter create layers and layers of strong flavors that somehow meld together like a team of misfits that finally find their identity when united.
Don't allow the length of the recipe to intimidate you. While this isn't exactly a quick weeknight meal, it is a very straight-forward recipe that includes whipping up two sauces, grilling some meat, julienning some vegetables and herbs and then tossing them together. This recipe can be accomplished under two hours from start to finish and will be so good that you'll want to do it all over again the next day.
Vietnamese Rice Noodles with Peanut-Lime Chicken and Herbs
From Smitten Kitchen, adapted from David Tanis
6 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
6 tablespoons brown sugar
3/4 cup lime juice
2 garlic cloves, finely grated or minced
Small Thai or Serrano chiles, thinly sliced, to taste
3 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
9 tablespoons lime juice
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 one-and-a-half inch chunk ginger, peeled and sliced
6 tablespoons natural unsalted peanut butter
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
Pinch of cayenne
Chicken and Noodle Salad
1 1/4 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs (about 6)
8 ounces dried rice vermicelli or other rice noodles
2 small cucumbers, cut in 1/4-inch half moons or julienned
2 medium carrots, cut in thin julienne
1/4 cabbage, shredded (my addition)
Small handful basil or mint or cilantro sprigs, or your favorite of the three (torn or roughly chopped)
4 or more scallions, slivered
1/4 cup crushed or chopped roasted peanuts
Lime wedges (to serve)
- Make the dipping sauce: Whisk ingredients in a small serving bowl, making sure to dissolve the sugar. Leave to ripen for 15 minutes. Refrigerate any extra and use within a few days.
- Make the peanut dressing: In a blender or small food processor, puree all ingredients to a smooth sauce, about the thickness of heavy cream. Pour into a serving bowl.
- Marinate the chicken: Stir together 1/2 the dipping sauce and 1/3 the peanut dressing (you can eyeball this) in the bottom of a low-sided bowl or dish. Add the chicken to the mixture and toss to coat. Let marinate at least 15 minutes.
- Cook the noodles: Bring a large pot of water to the boil, then turn off the heat. Add the rice vermicelli and soak for 7 to 8 minutes. (Package directions may vary; check for doneness by tasting.) Drain when noodles are al dente, and cool under running water. Fluff and leave in strainer to drain well.
- Cook the chicken: Grill the chicken on an outdoor grill, a stove-top grill pan, or run under the broiler until nicely browned, about 3 to 4 minutes a side. Let cool slightly, then chop roughly into 3/4-inch pieces.
- To serve: At this point, you can place everything on a large serving platter, with piles or small bowls for noodles, vegetables, chicken, the dressing and marinade and toppings (peanuts, herbs) and let your family and friends put it together in their own bowls as they wish. Or, you can assemble it for everyone as suggested: Toss vegetables with 1 tablespoon dipping sauce in a small bowl. Divide the cooked noodles among 4 to 6 bowls. Top each bowl equally with vegetable mixture and chopped chicken. Toss each bowl with 2 teaspoons of each the dipping sauce and dressing, or more to taste (we wanted more). Add the herbs, peanuts and scallions to each bowl and serve with additional dressing and dipping sauce on the side.
Vietnamese Spring Rolls