Sunset Digital Editions Managing Editor Erika Ehmsen loves al fresco dining so much that she's stashed a stack of plastic plates, utensils, and—most importantly—unbreakable wine glasses within easy reach of her kitchen deck, and she keeps a water-resistant picnic blanket folded in the trunk of her car. Here, she takes a stab at cooking two ingredients she's always wanted to cook more of—raw shrimp and whole stalks of lemongrass—in Vietnamese Noodle Bowls.
Why this recipe? Cold pasta salads are a picnic staple—they’re easy to prep and assemble, they transport well, they’re crowd-pleasers … and they can be deadly boring. So I went looking for a pasta salad upgrade, something impressive in both flavor and presentation, and this zesty lemongrass and garlic noodle bowl with grilled shrimp and fresh herbs and veggies caught my eye. And as a native Westerner and adoptive San Franciscan, I'm embarrassed to say that I had never grilled shrimp or prepped stalks of lemongrass, two ingredients that I love to eat—so this gave me that chance. Also, I knew that I could save money by buying them whole and breaking them down myself.
What was it like to make it? With the exception of Thai chiles, everything was in stock at my local Safeway. The dish was fairly time-consuming to prep—lots of veggie chopping and shrimp shucking—but the recipe was easy to follow. Because I couldn’t fathom waking up extra early to cook for a lunchtime picnic, I flouted the recipe’s instructions to cook the dish “up to 4 hours” in advance and instead prepared all ingredients the night before, including peeling, butterflying, and grilling the shrimp. It was my first time, so I was a bit tentative. (I was definitely faster and more confident last week when I prepped shrimp for grilling on a friend’s Maui lanai).
It also took me a bit of cross-checking the Web to make sure that I was using the correct "tender, innermost" parts of the lemongrass. I had to peel away a lot of dry, reedy "grass" to get to the herb's tender center—that slender white noodle-like reed, shown below. And in chopping the Thai chiles, I was reminded that wearing gloves while prepping chiles is always a wise move. (I wasn't wearing gloves ... zing! cried my right eye.)
How did it turn out? When guests ladled on a healthy amount of nuoc cham sauce, the noodles sang. But with only a tentative saucing, the noodles were throat-stickingly dry. And while the Chinese-takeout containers that the cookbook authors suggested were really cute, they didn’t allow me, as the cook, to control the amount of nuoc cham that people put on. And I think that some guests were intimidated by its potential hotness, so they under-sauced.) I also wish that I hadn’t skimped on the shrimp—the recipe calls for two or three shrimp per noodle salad, and I doled out just two per serving. They then looked rather sad, especially when bobbing in a sea of carbs.
Will I make it again? Yes. But I’d up the amount of shrimp (to four or five shrimp per serving—and accordingly increase the sauce measures, but not the noodle, veggie, or herb amounts).
Would I bring it to a picnic? Absolutely. But I'd serve the dish in a giant bowl, so I could properly sauce the noodles, plus have the potential to serve more than six people at a picnic.
VIETNAMESE NOODLE BOWLS with SHRIMP and VEGETABLES from The PicnicServes 4 to 6
"Serve these fresh, healthful noodles in takeout boxes with chopsticks. (Just pop into your local Chinese restaurant and ask to buy a few extras.) Bring Vietnam’s staple fish sauce, nuoc cham, to serve on the side. You can dress the salad in advance, but taste as you go to make sure it’s not too spicy; nuoc cham means business," write The Picnic authors.
12 to 18 large shrimp, peeled, tail intact2 lemongrass stalks2 tablespoons Vietnamese fish sauce2 tablespoons sugar1 tablespoons minced garlic3 tablespoons vegetable oil or other neutral grilling oil, plus more for brushing the grill12 ounces dried rice vermicelli noodles2 cups thinly sliced green cabbage2 large carrots, peeled and cut into matchsticks1 small cucumber, quartered lengthwise and thinly crossed crosswise1/3 cup coarsely chopped cashews1/3 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro1/3 cup coarsely chopped fresh mint
Nuoc Cham Sauce1/3 cup Vietnamese fish sauce1/4 cup sugar2 tablespoons minced garlic1/4 cup fresh lime juice2 or more red or green Thai chiles, stemmed and thinly sliced2 tablespoons water
- Butterfly the shrimp by cutting a deep slit down the back of each one, all the way from the base of the tail to the head, taking care not to cut all the way through. Remove the vein and spread the shrimp open so they lie flat.
- Trim the green tops and hard root ends from the lemongrass and peel away the tough outer layers. Finely mince the tender, innermost parts of the stalks. Mix the lemongrass with the fish sauce, sugar, garlic, and 1 tablespoon of the oil in a medium bowl, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the shrimp and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, submerge the noodles in a bowl of lukewarm water and let stand until pliable, about 30 minutes.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Drain the softened noodles and add them to the pot. Cook until al dente, which may take from 30 seconds to 3 minutes, depending on the brand of noodles. Drain the noodles in a colander under cold running water. Drain well and transfer to a large bowl. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil and toss to coat. Add the cabbage, carrots, and cucumber and mix it all together. Divide the noodles among individual containers.
- Prepare a hot fire in a charcoal or gas grill, or heat a grill pan over high heat and brush it lightly with oil.
- Remove the shrimp from the marinade and shake off any excess. Grill the shrimp until pink and lightly charred, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Cool for about 10 minutes, then divide the shrimp among the containers. Top with the cashews, cilantro, and mint, cover the containers, and pack them into the picnic basket at once or refrigerate for up to 4 hours.
- To make the nuoc cham: Combine the fish sauce, sugar, garlic, lime juice, chiles, and water in a small jar with a tight-fitting lid or a squeeze bottle. Shake or stir the mixture until the sugar is dissolved. Refrigerate for up to 5 days. Serve at the picnic site for drizzling over the noodles.
Excerpted from The Picnic by Marnie Hanel, Andrea Slonecker, and Jen Stevenson (Artisan Books). Copyright (c) 2015.