I don't know what it was like where you were on Saturday, but here - just a week after a snowstorm closed schools and streets, and dumped close to a foot of snow on some parts of the (sub)urban area - the sun came out, the snow melted, and my heart bloomed in the warmth of the air.
How is it that every spring, like clockwork, seems to surprise us all, captivate us with its newness and glory? How do we manage not to lose that reliable sense of wonder at the first shoots we spy pushing through the crumbly earth? The first real rays that warm our bones as we stroll down streets, pushing scarves once-essential off our suddenly sticky-hot necks? The relief we feel each year that the cold and the snow is just a passing thing, something to endure; that we'll be rewarded in the end for our patience with a rebirth of ourselves, our parks, our neighbors, our world?
Spring, oh, spring.
In honor of its valiant efforts to blow the cobwebs out of my head, I made a springy, herbal Vietnamese rice noodle salad for dinner, first spied here, and originally from here. I have a severe weakness for Vietnamese rice noodles and fish sauce. When I first moved to New York, I lived near a wonderful little Vietnamese restaurant on the Upper West Side and although I'd had my fair share of pho in college and of nem in Paris, I dare say that I didn't really fall in love until I was able to eat a plate of bun every week, the cold, silky noodles slipping gently down my throat, the heady mixture of fish sauce and lime and palm sugar making the juices run together in my mouth.
This salad is a spring-addled cook's dream. All you have to do is spend some time at your cutting board, deftly slicing cabbage and peeled carrots and washed scallions into neat little strips. In the meantime, you can poach a chicken breast or two. (So much easier than roasting or grilling - just bring a pot of water to boil, add some salt, a garlic clove, and a slice or two of fresh ginger, then slip in the chicken breasts and let cook, at a bare simmer, for about 15 minutes. Drain, cool, shred, eat.) In a moment or two, you can whizz together the dressing (so good that I briefly contemplated bottling the leftovers to swig surreptitiously, like a good bourbon from a flask) and "cook" the noodles. The rest is just a matter of assembly. Do you make neat little piles of the vegetables and herbs and toppings? Do you bang everything all together, willy nilly? It's up to you.
You know it doesn't really matter, of course. What matters is what happens when you put that first forkful in your mouth: sweet, spicy, sour, slithery, crunchy, this salad is a joy to eat. It's fresh and cooling and the herbs play off each other just so, the fish sauce giving the salad this lovely, moody depth. I added mint to the original recipe, because mint simply seemed to belong there and wouldn't you know, we polished off the whole thing - leftovers meant for lunch this week! - in one go. Sigh. I don't blame us. It was just so good.
Molly renamed this Almost-Summer Rice Noodle Salad and so it's only natural that in my mind, now, it will always be called Almost-Spring Rice Noodle Salad. Because, of course, this weekend ended and a rather nasty cold rain moved in and I spent the day drinking hot tea and shivering in my inexplicably cold office, my toes cramped in their wet shoes. What I'm trying to say is, we're not quite there yet. But the other night, with the windows open and the loamy scent of new earth in the air and a salad fit for warm evenings and balcony dinners, I let myself believe that spring was right around the corner.
Rice Noodle Salad
1 pound thin rice noodles
3 large cloves garlic, peeled
½ cup Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce
2/3 cup water
½ cup fresh lime juice
½ cup rice vinegar
¼ to ½ cup brown sugar, to taste
1 to 2 hot chilies (red bird, jalapeño, or serrano), seeded and minced, or to taste
6 to 8 leaves Napa cabbage, thinly sliced
8 scallions, thinly sliced
1 large carrot, peeled and shredded or julienned
1/4 cup mint leaves, sliced
1/4 cup tightly packed cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
2 grilled or roasted chicken breasts, shredded
1 cup roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the rice noodles, stir gently, then turn off the heat, cover and let sit for 3 to 4 minutes. Drain the noodles in a colander, rinse with cold water, and place them in a large bowl.
2. Place the garlic cloves in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse to mince. Add the fish sauce, water, lime juice, rice wine vinegar, brown sugar, and chilies, and purée them together. (The mixture will get quite frothy.) Taste, and if necessary, add more chile and adjust the sweet/tart balance.
3. Toss the vegetables, herbs, chicken and peanuts with the noodles, and pour dressing to taste over the salad. Toss well and serve. (Save any remaining dressing in the fridge - I used the leftovers plus a bit of olive oil to dress a big bowl of baby arugula mixed with a diced avocado and some cold poached chicken breast for dinner the next night.)