Tuesday, October 16, 2012
PEANUT-LIME CHICKEN RICE NOODLE SALAD
A quick search of my blog archives confirms that this is the time when, like clockwork, I habitually complain that autumn in Los Angeles doesn’t really get started until late October or even November, leaving us sweltering in 100-degree temperatures while the rest of the nation merrily goes apple picking in cozy sweaters. Apparently I am freshly surprised/enraged by this every year. You just get used to having enviable weather, you know? And fall, traditional fall, is so fleetingly lovely and nostalgia-laden that it’s frustrating to miss out on it.
This September seemed especially brutal, with several record-breaking heat waves, and I never thought I’d admit it, but I actually grew tired of tomatoes, corn, and peaches. Luckily, lime, cilantro, and cucumber were still on my cravings list, so it seemed a good time to bust out this refreshing-sounding Asian-inspired salad from Smitten Kitchen. I’d been putting it off because it sounded complicated, and I’m not gonna lie, it is. Amazingly, this is the simplified version, streamlined from the New York Times original, and it still has you making two sauces, marinating and grilling chicken, cooking noodles, and chopping lots of vegetables. It calls for a whopping 21 tablespoons of freshly squeezed lime juice, which for me worked out to nearly 10 limes and a serious case of hand cramps. It also involves more than half a cup of fish sauce, the foul-smelling concoction that I only grudgingly came to terms with the week before and had never used in such quantity, filling my kitchen with an odor that brought the cats running with eager interest while my appetite withered away. At a certain point, I ran out of counter space for the many different bowls, pots, cutting boards, grills, blenders, measuring cups and spoons, and ingredients this recipe demanded, and I began to question my sanity.
But all told, it really didn’t end up taking as long as I’d feared. All the individual tasks are simple, and many (such as the sauce-making and marinating) could be done ahead of time. Most important, the end result was seriously, seriously delicious. There’s a lot of ingredient overlap with last week’s banh mi, but whereas we were ambivalent about those, we flat-out loved this. It’s such a complex layering of flavors and textures, all incredibly fresh and vivid (and not really fishy, thank goodness). It’s substantial and satisfying while still feeling light. The leftovers were even better. Despite the hassle, it’s a keeper, and since I have a half-package of rice noodles left over in the cupboard, you can bet I’ll be making it again soon, without any modifications.
It’s a bit confusing that one of the sauces is called a "dipping sauce" when you never dip anything into it, but I couldn't think of a better name, so dipping sauce it remains. I used jalapenos instead of Serranos or Thai chiles, which was partly due to laziness and partly due to wimpiness in the face of spice, but I reasoned that jalapenos are great with similar ingredients on the banh mi, and they were just fine here. Every now and then I’d get a spicier bite, but for the most part the salad wasn’t very hot, which suited me just fine. Since the Smitten Kitchen post mentioned wanting more vegetables, I doubled the carrot and cucumber quantities. Deb suggested maybe adding sweet red pepper and thin blanched green beans, which would be nice, but then someone in the comments mentioned using edamame and that sounded perfect to me—as, indeed, it turned out to be. A claims not to like edamame, but even he enjoyed them in this context. Winner winner noodle dinner!
6 tablespoons fish sauce
6 tablespoons brown sugar
¾ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
2 garlic cloves, minced
6–8 small Thai chiles or 1–2 Serrano chiles (I used 2 jalapenos), thinly sliced
3 tablespoons fish sauce
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
½ cup + 1 tablespoon lime juice
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 1.5-inch chunk ginger, peeled and sliced
6 tablespoons natural creamy unsalted peanut butter (I used salted and it was fine)
1 tablespoon sesame oil
Pinch of cayenne
Chicken and noodle salad:
1¼ pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
8 ounces dried rice vermicelli or other rice noodles
4 small Persian cucumbers, cut in ¼-inch half-moons
4 medium carrots, thinly julienned
1 cup cooked, shelled edamame
1 handful each chopped fresh basil, mint, and cilantro
4 scallions, sliced
¼ cup crushed or chopped roasted peanuts
Lime wedges for garnish
1. To make the dipping sauce, whisk ingredients in a small bowl, making sure to dissolve the sugar. Let sit for at least 15 minutes. (Can be done ahead; refrigerate and use within a few days.)
2. To make the peanut dressing, in a blender or small food processor, puree all ingredients to a smooth sauce, about the thickness of heavy cream. (Can be done ahead; refrigerate and use within a few days.)
3. To marinate the chicken, stir together about half the dipping sauce and one-third of the peanut dressing in the bottom of a shallow bowl. Add the chicken to the mixture and toss to coat. Let marinate at least 15 minutes.
4. Cook the noodles according to the package directions. Drain when noodles are al dente, and cool under running water. Fluff and leave in strainer to drain well, stirring periodically to keep them from sticking together.
5. To cook the chicken, grill it on an outdoor grill or a stove-top grill pan (I used the George Foreman), or run under the broiler until cooked through and nicely browned, about 3 to 4 minutes a side. Let cool slightly, then chop roughly into ¾-inch pieces.
6. To serve, toss vegetables with 1 tablespoon dipping sauce in a small bowl. Divide the cooked noodles among 4 to 6 bowls. (If your noodles stick together a lot, you might find it helpful, as I did, to toss each portion of them with a tablespoon of dipping sauce now, instead of adding it after the vegetables and chicken; it really loosened them up for me.) Top each bowl equally with vegetable mixture and chopped chicken. Toss each bowl with 1 tablespoon of each the dipping sauce and dressing, or to taste (we used more). Add the herbs, peanuts, and scallions to each bowl and serve with additional dressing and dipping sauce on the side, plus lime wedges to squeeze over the top.
Time: 2 hours
Leftover potential: Great. I was worried because Deb mentioned storing all the ingredients separately, but I pre-mixed all the portions and they stayed as good as (or better than) new, at least for the couple of days before we devoured them all.