Vietnamese Noodle Salad with Caramelized Pork

For the noodles:
8 oz. dried rice vermicelli

For the pork:
1/4 cup sugar
2 large shallots, sliced, or 5 scallions (white parts only), chopped
2 tsp. fish sauce
2 tsp. soy sauce
Pinch salt
2 Tbs. vegetable oil
1-1/2 lb. pork loin or sirloin, sliced into large pieces about 1/4-inch
thick

For the garnishes:
2 cups washed and shredded romaine, red, or green leaf lettuce
2 cups fresh, crisp bean sprouts
1-1/2 cups peeled, seeded, and julienned cucumber
1/3 to 1/2 cup roughly chopped or small whole mint leaves
1/3 to 1/2 cup roughly chopped or small basil or Thai basil leaves
2 Tbs. chopped roasted peanuts
12 sprigs fresh cilantro

Cook the noodles:
Bring a medium potful of water to a rolling boil. Add the
rice vermicelli and, stirring often, cook them until the
strands are soft and white, but still resilient, 3 to 5 minutes.
Don’t be tempted to undercook them, as they must be fully
cooked to absorb the flavors of the dish. Rinse them in a
colander under cold water just until they’re cool and the
water runs clear. Let the noodles drain in the colander for
30 minutes, and then set them aside for up to 2 hours,
unrefrigerated.

Marinate and cook the pork:
Combine the sugar with 1/2 cup water in a small saucepan.
Bring to a boil over medium heat. Stir a few times and allow to
simmer until the sauce turns deep brown, about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, have some extra hot water ready on a back burner. Once
the sauce reaches the desired color, carefully add 4 to 5 Tbs. hot
water to slow the cooking and thin the sauce. (Be sure to hold the pan
away from you so that none of the hot caramel splatters on you when
you add the water.) If necessary, add more hot water. The sauce
should only be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Set aside to
cool.

Pound the shallots in a mortar and pestle or mince by hand. Transfer
the shallots to a mixing bowl and combine with the fish sauce, soy
sauce, salt, vegetable oil, and cooled caramel marinade. Stir well to
blend. Add the pork slices and let marinate for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat a broiler or light a charcoal or gas grill. When the
broiler or fire is very hot, cook the pork until just done, about 2
minutes on each side. Let the pork rest for 10 to 15 minutes, and cut
into thin strips.

Assemble the salads:
Divide the lettuce, bean sprouts, cucumber, mint, and basil among
four large soup or pasta bowls. Fluff the noodles with your fingers and
divide them among the prepared salad bowls. Put the grilled pork on
the noodles and garnish each bowl with the peanuts and cilantro.
Pass the nuoc cham at the table; each diner should drizzle about 3
Tbs. over the salad and then toss the salad in the bowl a few times
with two forks or chopsticks before eating.

Nuoc Cham (Vietnamese Dipping Sauce)
1 clove garlic
2 to 3 Thai bird chiles (or 1 small jalapeƱo or serrano chile),
cored, seeded, and minced; more or less to taste
1/2 tsp. ground chile paste; more or less to taste
2/3 cup hot water
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup fish sauce
2 Tbs. fresh lime juice
2 Tbs. shredded carrots (optional)

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