There are noodles that tell you what to do with them, and there are noodles that leave much to the imagination.
Pad Thai noodles -- banh pho -- tell you exactly what they want to become.
Banh pho translates to rice noodle or rice stick or chantaboon, and describes anything from large sheets to flat noodles, ranging from one millimeter to nearly one-third of an inch wide. On most packages in the grocery store or Asian market, they're also conveniently marked "pad Thai noodles".
The dry noodles, made of rice flour and water, are translucent, brittle and fragile. Soak in warm (not boiling) water for 15-20 minutes, until they are pliable and al dente. Cook for 3-5 minutes, and the noodles become milky white and slithery. They're basically flavorless, and happily absorb the seasonings of any sauce or soup that surrounds them.
Pad Thai noodles are a key ingredient in two familiar dishes -- pho, the famous Vietnamese soup, and pad Thai, the most popular Thai noodle dish served in Western restaurants -- but also work well in yellow chicken curry, Singapore street noodles, pad se-ew, green beans and tofu sticks, bun rieu cua, and sesame noodles. Rice noodles can substitute for wheat or egg noodles in many Asian dishes, making them perfect for gluten-free eating.
In Noodle, one of my favorite reference books and an all-around visual treat, author Terry Durack describes pad Thai noodles as "rice vermicelli that have left home, seen the world, and grown up a bit."
I'm so glad they did.
Rice noodle salad with shrimp and scallions
An easily improvised salad for any time of year. In summer, I add fresh mint and Thai basil from my garden. Keep some nuoc cham (Vietnamese dipping sauce) in your fridge, and this salad will come together in minutes. Serves 2; can be doubled.
1/2 lb banh pho noodles
1 tsp vegetable or peanut oil
8 large (31-40 size) shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/4 head thinly shredded iceberg lettuce
1/4 cup shredded cucumber (I like the European seedless cucumbers, shredded on the largest holes of a box grater)
Handful of mint leaves and/or Thai basil, if you have it
A few strips of shredded carrot, if you have it
1/4 cup thinly sliced scallions
Nuoc cham, 3 Tbsp or more, to taste
2 tsp chopped dry roasted, unsalted peanuts
Fill a bowl with hot tap water. Soak the noodles for 15 minutes, until flexible. Drain. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Drop in the noodles, and cook for 3 minutes. Drain, rinse under cold water, and drain again. Set aside.
In a small frying pan (not nonstick), heat 1 tsp oil over high heat until almost smoking. Sauté the shrimp for 1 minute on each side, until shrimp are curled, no longer translucent, and have a bit of brown color. Remove from the pan and set aside.
Assemble the salad: To a serving bowl or platter, add -- in this order -- lettuce, cucumber, mint leaves (if using), carrot (if using), scallions, and the cooked noodles. Top with shrimp. Pour on the nuoc cham and toss, then sprinkle chopped peanuts on top.
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