Vietnamese Noodle Salad

A FRESH START
Vietnamese Noodle Salad

My friends and I have a long tradition of visiting Sea Ranch, up along the Sonoma Coast, for New Years. It's great to get out of the city and walk along the bluffs for a few days as we transition from one year to the next. By the end of December I am spent, and getting away feels like exactly what I need.

Since we all love to cook, meals are divided up into groups. Each group is only responsible for one shift, meaning you can get really into it, go crazy, cook up a storm and then get catered to the rest of the weekend. Each year we have elaborate feasts, doing our best in rental house kitchens. We've learned to bring our own sharp knives, kitchen towels and cast iron pans after years of experience and many moments of frustration.

After holiday parties, Christmas roasts, the best toffee ever (seriously), and bacon filled brunches, I knew when it was our turn I wanted our meal to be light. And fresh. And full of raw vegetables. Plus, with a big, causal group you have the opportunity to do something fun and dynamic and not at all dinner party stuffy. So make your own spring rolls, grilled protein and noodle salad was the plan! Watching everyone reach in to piles of crisp butter lettuce, painstakingly cut carrots and cucumbers, dipping into sauces and laughing as their too-fat spring rolls simply wouldn't close, it was the perfect meal to start the new year.

Along making spring rolls I made a fairly traditional noodle salad, but added some grilled eggplant to give it more heft. The sauce is similar to a spring roll dipping sauce - very tangy and bright, with lots of lime juice and fish sauce. The chopped, fresh herbs (and many of them) make this salad so flavorful and complex. I look forward to making this in the weeks and months to come, changing up things here and there, and making plenty of leftovers for a great lunch.

Vietnamese Noodle Salad
Adapted from David Tanis at the NY Times


Dressing
4 Tbsp. light brown sugar (or palm sugar or Demerara)
3 Tbsp. rice vinegar
4 Tbsp. lime juice (amount 2 limes)
4 Tbsp. fish sauce
2 minced garlic cloves
1 1-inch length of ginger peeled and minced
1 thinly sliced medium-hot chili (like a fresno chili)
1 thinly sliced hot thai chili

Salad
1 package of rice noodles cooked according to directions
1 eggplant
1 head of butter lettuce, ripped or chopped
4 scallions, slivered
1 carrot julienned (cut into matchsticks)
1 cucumber julienned
1 3-inch length of Daikon radish, julienned
Chopped herbs: cilantro, mint and basil
4 Tbsp. crushed peanuts
4 Tbsp. fried shallots (sold at Asian grocery stores, or you can fry them yourself)

Heat a grill or broiler until hot. Cook the eggplant whole, rotating to ensure evenness, until the outside is completely blackened and the inside is soft to the touch. Once the eggplant is cooled, peel off the skin and shred the meat, placing in a strainer in the sink. After 15 min or so, squeeze the remaining water out of the eggplant and add meat to a large bowl. 

Add the cooled noodles, carrots, cucumber, daikon, scallions and lettuce to the eggplant. Toss lightly with the dressing, then top the bowl with herbs, peanuts and shallots. Enjoy!