Saturday, June 28, 2008


Uh Oh. You forgot there's a summer picnic tomorrow at someone's house and it's potluck. What do you bring?

My favorite potluck dish is an Asian noodle salad. The basic recipe calls for vermicelli noodles tossed in a sesame and soy dressing, with garnishes of scallions and sesame seeds. The recipe I use comes originally from Seattle's wonderful prepared foods shop, Pasta & Co., but it has been altered considerably in the 20 or so years I've been making it.

It has many virtues that make it the perfect potluck dish.
  • It can sit at room temperature without spoiling.
  • It's suitable for vegetarians, it has no dairy, and no peanuts
  • Its ingredients are staples of the pantry and refrigerator
  • It's good in the basic recipe or expanded with additional ingredients
  • It's cheap
  • It's fast
  • It's tasty and it's pretty in the dish
If you don't have soy sauce or sesame oil in the pantry, you can't make this dish. But I think those are the only essential ingredients - everything else can be substituted.

To make the dressing, mix:
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup sesame oil
  • 2 tablespoons white sugar (or brown sugar, honey, cane syrup)
  • 2 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar or Balsamic vinegar (I recently found Chinese black vinegar at Ranch 99 market - I've made this dish for 20 years with Balsamic vinegar)
  • 1 - 2 tablespoons hot chile oil (or a dash of Tabasco, a sprinkling of flaked red pepper, a squirt of Sriracha sauce - to your preference for heat)
Boil a package of thin noodles. You can use Chinese noodles, or Japanese soba, or Thai rice noodles. You can even use American spaghetti. It works particularly well with the new multigrain pasta that's supposed to be good for you. I like to make it with Japanese buckwheat noodles, and once I even made it with green tea-flavored noodles - that made an interesting visual!

While you're waiting for the noodles to cook, chop up scallions (green onions). I like to slice them thinly on the diagonal.

When the noodles are cooked, rinse them and then toss them in a bowl with the chopped scallions and a generous amount of sesame seeds, and the dressing. It will seem oily, but after it chills for an hour or so to let the flavors meld, the dressing will be absorbed. The original recipe actually recommends you use your hands to mix it thoroughly - so don't be afraid to get messy!

To adapt this basic recipe to your own taste or to the occasion, you can add more ingredients. I think finely diced red bell pepper gives a pretty accent. You can add celery, thinly sliced on the diagonal. You can add more substantial vegetables, too, to expand the dish. Blanch some broccoli florets or some snap or snow peas in the boiling water. You can add shredded carrots, julienned cucumber, or you can serve the whole thing on a bed of greens.

If your guests aren't allergic, you can stir some peanut butter into the dressing, and sprinkle the dish with chopped peanuts or almonds.

To make this a main dish, add some shredded cooked chicken, or shrimp, diced tofu, or thin-sliced leftover steak.

To add flavor, and make it even prettier, you can add chopped herbs - cilantro works well. I've been experimenting with adding Thai basil - its purple leaves are pretty garnishes. Even Italian basil would work in a pinch.

For the potluck I almost forgot about today, I used Chinese chow mein noodles, and added some celery and red pepper. I had some black sesame seeds as well as white ones, so I mixed them. I had a head of Savoy cabbage in the fridge, so I shredded it up like a slaw, and plan to serve the noodles on top of it in one of those Smart & Final black plastic dishes. Perfect!

I'll add pictures of the final assembly later.

UPDATE: And there it is, at the top!


KathyR said...

Looks yummy.

I have the big round black Smart & Final bowl, but the cool rectangular one must have been left at someone's house. I haven't seen it for a couple of years. Colorful salads look great in those black bowls.

Anonymous said...

I remember having this salad at one of your fabulous parties! Thanks so much for the recipe.
Not only was the salad great, so was everything else. The food, the view and of course the friends. You are a great cook and hostess!

JCK said...

Looks beautiful and delicious!

And I want to come to one of your fabulous parties!