Make-ahead (mostly) Vietnamese salad highlights texture, flavor

Make-ahead (mostly) Vietnamese salad highlights texture, flavor

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I’m part of a monthly dinner-and-a-movie group of six great film and fine food fanatics. For my recent turn at providing a main dish, the abundance of fresh local vegetables inspired me to create a special salad loaded with summer veggies and dressed with refreshing Asian flavors, mostly Vietnamese. I also tossed in shrimp, one of my favorite seafoods. The dish was such a hit that I had to share it with you.

Many Vietnamese dishes are seasoned with fish sauce, made by fermenting fish and salt. Its distinctive flavor is a hallmark of the cooking of Vietnam. Lime juice, garlic, chiles, fresh Thai basil and mint, are also common in many recipes, not only from Vietnam but Southeast Asia in general. Oh, peanuts, too.

Noodles made with rice flour find their way into many Southeast Asian dishes. It’s the base, along with peanuts, in the well-known Pad Thai. Bean thread (vermicelli) and rice sticks (1/4-inch-wide) are two forms of rice noodles (see photo). For the recipe here, I opted for the rice sticks, but the bean thread will work, too.

The broader rice sticks need to be boiled for a few minutes, but bean thread just needs a brief soak in boiling water to soften them.

The staple ingredients are all available in well-stocked supermarkets. The sauces and sesame oil keep for months and months in your refrigerator. Right now, you should be able to find Thai basil and Thai chiles in farmers markets. If not, substitute regular basil and Serrano chiles. And please don’t be put off by the long ingredients list. Just follow my step-by-step game plan and you’ll have great success with this extraordinary main dish salad.

Vietnamese Shrimp Salad

Makes 4 main dish servings

I’ve suggested a game plan for you to make this truly delicious salad. I know that just looking at the list below may start you screaming. But just take it one step at a time, and all who eat this salad will heap kudos upon you.

The shrimp

1 pound large shrimp in the shell, about 20 to the pound, peeled and deveined

1 tablespoon salt

2 teaspoons fish sauce

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

The Dressing

1/3 cup creamy peanut butter

2 tablespoons hoisin sauce

1 tablespoon sesame oil (the dark, toasted kind)

1 tablespoon fish sauce

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

1 teaspoon chili paste with garlic or hot chili paste

1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic

4 tablespoons warm water

The Salad

6 ounces rice stick noodles, 1/4-inch wide

2 teaspoons sesame oil

1 large carrot, peeled, julienned or shredded

1/2 English cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise, sliced thin

4 ounces (2 cups loosely measured) fresh bean sprouts

4 scallions, trimmed and sliced, white part plus 3 inches of green

1 small sweet red pepper, seeded and sliced in strips (about 1 cup)

1 small green bell pepper, seeded and sliced in strips (about 1 cup)

1 Romaine lettuce heart, sliced 1/2-inch thick (about 4 cups)

1 Thai green or red chile, seeded and chopped or sliced (optional)

Small handful Thai basil leaves, left whole if small, or torn roughly if large

Small handful mint leaves, left whole if small, or torn roughly if large

1/2 cup dry-roasted peanuts, crushed in a zip-top bag with a rolling pin

1. Put the prepared shrimp into a medium bowl and add the salt. Toss well with your fingers. Rinse under cold running water to wash away the salt and drain well. This step refreshes the shrimp. Mix in the fish sauce. Let stand 10 minutes. Heat the 1 tablespoon oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. When hot, remove shrimp from the bowl one at a time and quickly place them in the skillet slightly apart. Cook 1 minute after the last shrimp has been added. Turn shrimp over with tongs and cook 1 minute more. Check to see that the shrimp are cooked through — they should all look uniformly opaque — and transfer them to a side dish. (May be made hours ahead and refrigerated).

2. Prepare the dressing. In a small to medium bowl, stir or whisk together the peanut butter, hoisin sauce, sesame oil, fish sauce, lime juice, rice vinegar, chili paste, garlic, and warm water. Cover and set aside. (May be made hours ahead).

3. For the salad, bring 2 quarts water to the boil in a 4-quart or larger pot. Drop in the rice sticks — be sure to use the 1/4-inch-wide kind — and cook, stirring occasionally until just tender, about 4 minutes. Drain in a colander, and run cold water over the noodles. Move them around to wash away excess starch. Drain well and put the noodles into a medium bowl. Add the sesame oil, toss to combine, and let noodles stand until needed. (May be made hours ahead and refrigerated).

4. Prep all the remaining ingredients — the carrot, cucumber, bean sprouts, scallions, red and green peppers, romaine, Thai chile if using, basil, mint leaves, and peanuts — putting them into a large bowl (about 6 quarts) so they can be well-mixed with the noodles and dressing.

5. To assemble the salad, add the noodles and dressing to the bowl with the salad ingredients and toss well. Turn the salad out onto a large serving platter and arrange the shrimp around and on top. Serve portions in bowls with forks or chopsticks.

Greg Patent is a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author for “Baking in America,” a food journalist, blogger and radio co-host for “The Food Guys” on Montana Public Radio. Please visit his blog,, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


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