August 9, 2012

...Take Me Away

I've never had much of the traveling itch.  I rarely feel the need to get away, somewhere far away, and  discover something new.  Experience life differently.  In the past I've been quite content with mini domestic explorations and weekend road trips.  I felt grounded and rooted and wholly connected to my time and place.  But then something changed.  Maybe it's all the fog and cool summer days or the realization that after a year of living in this city, it'll never be my city.  Maybe my jam packed busy schedule for the upcoming fall semester is factoring in too.  Either way, a little late to the game, I'm ready to pack a bag or two and fly off to far away lands.

But summer comes to a close in 2 weeks and my student loans for the year have yet to come through so here in the city I'll remain, traveling by way of cooking and daydreaming; planning for a next big adventure.  And all that is okay really, because that just means something exciting will be waiting just over the horizon.

There are bowls like this Vietnamese rice noodle and stir fried beef salad to transport me and tide me over.  A salad so perfectly summer, so perfectly balanced that I can hardly find fault with it.  A tangled   base of translucent noodles mounded so high with tender beef and colorful crisp vegetables that I didn't leave us enough room to mix in the nuoc cham dressing.  Bowls filled all the way to the tippy top with eyes much larger than our stomachs.

I love all the elements and flavors that Vietnamese cuisine is based on.  Fresh vegetables garnishing so many dishes, a medley of herbs that not only work in taste but make for wonderful aromatics as well.  Salty fish sauce and acidic lime juice, balanced with a little raw sugar and a spicy heat, perfection.  A little marinated and (in this case) tender beef boost the savory quotient and I'm one happy eater.

And someday, instead of just eating, I'll be the one sitting on the beaches of Southeast Asia, satisfying that itch.

Bun Bo Xao
adapted from Use Real Butter

This recipe is mostly prep work, but once that's all done, the actual noodle salads are a cinch to assemble.  Just pile the ingredients on top of the noodles, splash a little of the nuoc cham dressing and give it all a good toss.  Every ingredient plays a key roll in the overall flavor, so really, the prep work all becomes worth it.  You'll totally understand once you take your first bite.

4-6 servings

1 stem lemongrass (the tender white part), minced
1 lb. steak (I used ribeye), sliced thin against the grain and at an angle
2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
2 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon fish sauce
1 small white onion, sliced
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 package vermicelli noodles/rice sticks, cooked
2 cups bean sprouts
2 Persian cucumbers, halved and sliced
a handful of mint leaves
a handful of cilantro leaves
pickled daikon and carrots
chopped salted & roasted peanuts

nuoc cham (dressing):
juice from 2 limes
2 tablespoons brown sugar
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1/4 cup water
4 cloves garlic, minced
sambal olek paste to taste

Whisk together all the nuoc cham ingredients until sugar is dissolved. Set aside.

Follow the instructions on the rice noodle package. If there aren’t any, place the noodles in a large pot of boiling water and let boil for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and cover the pot for 3 minutes. Drain the noodles and rinse in cold water.

To make the bun bo xao: Mix 2 teaspoons of the lemongrass (reserve the rest for later) with the beef, the garlic, and 2 tablespoons of fish sauce. Set it aside and let it marinade for 20 minutes. 

Gather your serving bowls and place a large handful of rice noodles in each bowl. Sprinkle a handful of bean sprouts and some cucumber slices over the noodles. Roll the herbs together and give them a good chopping. Sprinkle some over each bowl. Set aside. 

Heat a wok or frying pan on your highest heat setting. Add the vegetable oil, the rest of the lemongrass and the sliced onion. Stir the contents around the pan and toss the beef in, from here it should only take 2 or 3 minutes for the meat to cook through.  Add the remaining teaspoon of fish sauce and give everything in the pan a good stir. Place a scoop of the beef on each noodle salad. Dress with more herbs, Vietnamese pickled carrots and daikon, chopped peanuts and nuoc cham.

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