G Daniela Galarza
THE WASHINGTON POST – When someone visits my apartment for the first time, the first thing they say is, “Wow, you have a lot of cookbooks.”
I’ve moved around a lot since I was a kid, and while furniture and knickknacks have been sold or donated along the way, I’ve never left my cookbooks behind. I’ve been collecting them since I was 10 or 12, so they feel a little like family. On a day-to-day basis, they form a foundation for my work life: They’re reference material, guidance and inspiration. When I’m lacking ideas for new recipes, want to learn about a new-to-me dish or am looking for a weekend project, I turn to my bookshelves.
While I love them all, a few of my books have made it onto what I call the ‘keeper’ shelf.
It’s where my most-loved books live, the ones I turn to again and again. The ones I can’t imagine being without.
This recipe is from one of those books – Vietnamese Food Any Day: Simple Recipes for True, Fresh Flavors by Andrea Nguyen.
I’ve learned so much from Nguyen over the years – she’s been writing cookbooks since 2006 – but for the past few years, I keep returning to Vietnamese Food Any Day because the recipes and photographs (by Aubrie Pick) draw me in, making me imagine flavour combinations I didn’t grow up with but feel an immediate kinship toward.
I think we might make a version of Nguyen’s bún, a bowl of rice noodles and salad that’s full of sweet, salty, sour and spicy flavours.
“Often categorised at restaurants as rice vermicelli bowls or bún (the name of the noodles), they’re built on this blueprint: A large bowl filled with ribbons of lettuce and a thin, crunchy vegetable for texture; fresh herbs for pungency; and slippery rice noodles to convey flavours,” Nguyen wrote.
“You get to choose the toppings, which are inevitably garnished with roasted peanuts. A fancy bowl often has pickled radish and carrot for colour and crunch, plus fried shallots for extra richness.”
And there’s no cooking required.
Here, we’re going to marinate cubes of firm tofu in a garlicky mixture scented with Chinese five-spice powder. You can buy nuoc cham, but it’s so easy to make. It’s just lime juice, sugar, water and fish sauce, plus some sliced chillis for heat. You’ll want to spend a few minutes cutting carrots, cucumbers and baby lettuce leaves into tidy bite-size pieces. These will form the bulk of the toppings, aside from the tofu.
Finally, we’re going to use the thinnest angel hair rice vermicelli, so instead of boiling it, we’ll soak it in very hot tap water while we prepare the rest of the dish. By serving time, the noodles will be tender. When it’s time to eat, pile the noodles in bowls, add all of your toppings, and then dress the bowl with a splash of sweet-and-funky nuoc cham, toss it with chopsticks (or a fork) and spoon, and dinner is served.
BÚN WITH TOFU
45 minutes | Four servings
Storage: Refrigerate leftovers for up to two days.
Make Ahead: The noodles and tofu may be soaked and marinated up to one day in advance.
– One eight-ounce package of vermicelli rice noodles
FOR THE TOFU
– One-and-a-half tablespoons fish sauce
– One teaspoon granulated sugar or maple syrup
– One teaspoon peanut oil or vegetable oil
– One teaspoon soy sauce, preferably low-sodium
– Quarter teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
– Quarter teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
– Half small yellow onion or shallot, sliced
– Three cloves garlic, smashed
– One 14-ounce package firm tofu, pressed and cut into cubes
FOR THE NUOC CHAM
– Two tablespoons granulated sugar or three tablespoons maple syrup, plus more as needed
– Three tablespoons fresh lime juice, plus more as needed
– Half cup warm water, plus more as needed
– Three tablespoons fish sauce, plus more as needed
– One Thai or serrano chilli pepper, thinly sliced or two teaspoons of sambal oelek (optional)
FOR THE TOPPINGS
– Three cups baby lettuce leaves (such as butter or Boston), cut into ribbons
– Two-third cup unsalted roasted peanuts or cashews, coarsely chopped
– Quarter cup fried onions or shallots
– Half cup hand-torn fresh cilantro leaves and tender sprigs
– Half cup hand-torn mint leaves
– One Persian cucumber, sliced thinly on a bias
– One small carrot, scrubbed and cut into thin matchsticks
In a large bowl, break the noodles just enough so that they don’t extend over the edge of the bowl. Add warm-to-hot water to cover the noodles by one inch and soak for at least 15 and up to 45 minutes, or until softened.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the fish sauce, sugar, oil, soy sauce, five-spice powder and black pepper until the sugar dissolves, about one minute.
Stir in the onion and garlic. Add the tofu and gently toss to coat with the marinade. Marinate the tofu for at least 15 minutes and up to overnight.
In a small bowl, whisk together the sugar or maple syrup and lime juice until a slurry forms. Add the water, and whisk until the sugar dissolves completely.
Stir in the fish sauce, then taste, adjusting the sweetness, acidity and salinity by adding more sugar, lime juice and/or fish sauce, as desired. Stir in the sliced chillis or sambal oelek, if using.
To serve, drain the noodles and divide them among four bowls. Divide the tofu, lettuce, peanuts or cashews, fried onions or shallots, if using, cilantro, mint, cucumber and carrot among the bowls. Serve with nuoc cham for drizzling and dipping.