Monday, July 1, 2013

Cold Thai Noodle Salad with Chicken

We have a repertoire of salads and sandwiches, that we gravitate toward on days when it's hazy, hot and humid. You know... those days when the thought of turning on the oven, or even firing up the grill, makes you consider skipping dinner altogether. Contrary to what folks who aren't familiar with the Northeast might think, we get our fair share of that type of weather in the Summer months. Well, the last couple of weeks have been a perfect example and even I have my limits when it comes to take-out!

This Thai noodle salad is one of our favorites, so since last Wednesday morning was more on the rainy and slightly cooler side, it was the perfect time to make it.

Cold Thai Noodle Salad with Chicken
makes 4-6 "dinner" servings
  • 1 8oz Pkg Pad Thai (Rice) Noodles, cooked, drained and rinsed
  • 1-2 Cups Cooked Chicken, cubed or shredded

The Vegetables
  • Assorted Bell Peppers, cut into thin strips (approx 1 Cup, sliced)
  • 1/2 Head Napa or Savoy Cabbage, shredded
  • 1 Lg Carrot, shredded
  • 1/2 English Cucumber, seeded and sliced into julienne strips
  • 2 Scallions, very thinly sliced (white and light green part only)
The Dressing
  • 1/2 Cup Light Soy Sauce (lower sodium)
  • 1/4 Cup Rice Vinegar
  • 2 Tbls Creamy Peanut Butter
  • 2 Tbls Sweet Red Chili Sauce
  • 2 Tsp Light Brown Sugar
  • 1 Tsp *Mirin
  • 1 Tsp **Fish Sauce (also called Nuoc Mam or Nam Pla)
  • 1 Tsp ***Toasted Sesame Oil (must be toasted)
  • 1 Lg Clove Garlic, grated
  • 1/2 inch Ginger Root, peeled and grated
You can also make this a vegetarian or vegan salad, by simply omitting the chicken and exchanging tamari for the fish sauce!

The "short version" directions:

Cook, drain and rinse your noodles with cold water. Allow them to continue to drain, while you prepare your other ingredients.

Prepare the vegetables and the dressing.

Cut or shred your chicken. (I had 2 leftover cooked chicken breasts, but you can cook some up fresh or use a rotisserie style or other store-bought pre-cooked chicken)

Combine the noodles, veggies and chicken in a large bowl and toss/mix them together well.

Add the dressing and mix it in well.

Cover and refrigerate for about an hour, or you could serve it right away at room temperature. I prefer to chill this salad for a bit, in order to allow enough time for the flavors to marry. It's definitely one of those instances where the longer a dish sits, the better it gets.

For the step by step instructions and preparation tips, scroll down through the photos and check out the text underneath them.

* Mirin is a sweetened Sake. It adds a lovely sweet, yet slightly salty flavor to sauces and other dishes.

** Fish Sauce is made by extracting liquid from fish fermented with sea salt. It sounds (and yes... smells) very fishy, but I promise you that this dressing will not be the same without it. I am NOT a "fish person" by any stretch of the imagination, but it adds something so different and special to food, that I would never dream of leaving it out of a recipe that called for it. It's kind of like the anchovies in Worcestershire sauce and Caesar salad dressing. Once it's in there, you just have to forget about its existence and enjoy the taste of the dish you're eating. If you just can't bring yourself to try it, there really isn't an appropriate substitute, so just leave it out, altogether.

*** Toasted Sesame Oil is very different from plain sesame oil. It's slightly nutty and a little bit smoky tasting, so it adds a lovely touch of both of those flavors to dishes. It's used as a flavoring in soups, sauces and dressings or drizzled on as a finishing oil, kind of like a very fancy extra virgin olive oil and never for frying or sauteing food.

Heat about 6-8 quarts of water over medium-high/high heat and when it comes to a boil, add a liberal amount of kosher or sea salt.

Add the Pad Thai noodles to the water, giving them a quick stir to prevent any sticking or clumping and cook them according to the package directions. (rice noodles cook more quickly than their wheat counterparts ~ usually about 6 or 7 minutes for 8 ounces) Be very careful not to overcook these noodles. Rice noodles are very starchy and will become mushy and extremely sticky if they're allowed to boil too long.

When the noodles are cooked, drain and gently rinse them under cold water. Allow them to sit and continue to drain while you prepare your other ingredients. If it's going to be a little while before you assemble the salad, you might want to rinse them every now and then, until you're ready for them.

Cut the bell peppers into thin strips. I like to leave ingredients like these pepper strips a bit on the long side in salads where I'm using long noodles, but you can cut the strips in half if you prefer. It's a good idea to keep all of your vegetables as close to the same size and shape as possible.

As you can see, I used 1/2 (each) of a medium red, yellow and green bell pepper, but if you like things a bit on the spicy side, feel free to add a jalapeno. If you're feeling extra zippy, add a bit of Thai "bird" chili. And for those of you who have an asbestos tongue, go for broke and kick things up a notch (or 10) with some habaneros. LOL

Even though English (or as some call them, a "burpless") cucumbers are known for having fewer, more compact seeds, I still remove them when I'm using them in a pasta or noodle salad. I don't want the juicier pulp that surround the seeds to water down the dressing or make the salad soupy.

In keeping with the way I cut the peppers, I cut my cukes into julienne strips. Since this was a wrapped, English cucumber, I didn't peel it. If yours is homegrown or from a trusted farmer's market, there's no need to peel it either, but I wouldn't recommend this if you're using a typical "grocery store" cucumber. (unless you can find {or afford} certified organic cucumbers)

Most of the big suppliers to the grocery store chains, coat the cucumbers (and other veggies) with a food grade wax, in order to protect and preserve them during processing and shipping. Even with those fruit and vegetable "wash" sprays that are available these days, this wax can be a real pain in the patootie difficult to remove. (plus, I always feel like the wax might seal in any bacteria that they might come in contact with once they've been picked)

I like to use Savoy or Napa cabbage in most recipes that call for it, with the exception of a St Pat's Day or New England style boiled dinner or a traditional coleslaw. These varieties of cabbage are softer in both texture and flavor than a head of the more traditional green cabbage and they tend to cook up a bit more quickly too.

In my experience, the best way to shred cabbage is to slice the head in half, remove the core by cutting a "v" or "u" shape around it with a sharp paring knife and then make thin slices along the cut edge to create shreds. It's much easier than trying to shred a whole head of cabbage on one of those old fashioned knuckle busters that our mothers or grandmothers used.

If the pieces are a bit long, I cut the shreds in half.

For this and most other salads I make, I start "building" it in a large stainless steel mixing bowl, as I cut up or prepare each of the ingredients. The dressing is usually the last thing that I add.

Grate the carrot. Or, if you don't have a handheld or box grater, you can cut the carrot into julienne or matchstick strips. There's a short video that shows how to do this here on the blog. Just click on the "Videos" tab at the top of this page and scroll down through until you find it. It was added recently, so it's probably the last video on the page.

This is my trick for getting relatively uniform, thin strips of scallions.

Using a sharp paring knife, make several lengthwise cuts, starting just about where the white and light green parts of the scallion meet. Turn the scallion ever so slightly as you make each cut. They don't have to be perfectly spaced apart.

You'll have what looks like the bristles of a paintbrush, for lack of a better way to describe it. Then, just cut the ends off and voila! You have fine strips of scallion to toss into this or any other salad that you might want to add them to!

One more neat little trick... If you put these strips immediately into a bowl of ice water and let them sit in it for about 10 minutes, they'll curl up at the ends and make a really pretty (and zesty) garnish for lots of dishes!

I love sweet red chili sauce, (I usually drizzle extra on at the table) but if you prefer your salads and/or dressings to have a little bit of a kick to them, there are tons of other chili sauces available on the market, that pack some serious heat along with the chili flavor. The Hubby's favorite (he's slightly obsessed) is Sriracha.

Ooops! I forgot to put this "finger" of ginger in the ingredients photo, but in case you've never used fresh ginger, I have a super short little video on my "how to" video page (tab at the top of this page) that shows you a neat little trick for peeling it with a spoon.

Once you've peeled your ginger, grate about one inch of it directly into the dressing.

Then peel and grate your clove of garlic.

Yup. This is it. Fish sauce.

Now, I'm sure that ---sounds like a strange idea to a lot of people, but would you believe me, if I told you that there's a very good chance that you've already had it? Possibly even several times? that awesome dipping sauce that's served with your favorite pot stickers? Or, in that Miso soup that's so outrageously addictive, you order it every time the gang at the office gets take-out Thai for lunch? Have you noticed that no matter how many times you've tried to replicate these things at home, they never turn out exactly like the one love so much? Like there's something missing, but you just can't seem to put your finger on?

That heaping tablespoon of peanut butter helps to emulsify the dressing, Of course, it adds lots of flavor too. Some recipes I've seen, rely solely on the sesame oil to provide that slightly "nutty" flavor that's often present in both Thai and Indian dishes. Some omit the sesame oil for the same reason, but sesame oil not only adds a nuttiness, but it also has mild smoky undertones as well. You don't need massive quantities of either one of these ingredients in this dressing, but I don't think it would be nearly as good without the combination of both.

Once you have your noodles and veggies together in the bowl, give it a good toss with a pair of tongs or your impeccably clean hands, before adding the dressing.

I like to mix the "dry" ingredients together before I add in any dressing or sauce, in the salads that I make. You might not think it matters, but it does make it a lot easier to get everything blended well.

Doesn't that look like just the right mix of ingredients for a hot summer evening? It also makes a great side salad with grilled meats. I would just omit the chicken.

Give the dressing a final stir to make sure the peanut butter is fully incorporated.

Add the dressing and toss it all together. It can be served at room temperature, but I like to put it into the fridge for about an hour before serving to allow the flavors to marry.  Enjoy!

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