This is summer picnic food at its finest. You can prepare and assemble all the components ahead of time, and the finished noodle salad is actually best at room temperature.
Vietnamese Noodle Salad with Shrimp (Bun Tom Xao)
8 ounces dried rice vermicelli
2½ teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1½ teaspoons sugar
1 large garlic clove, peeled
1 Thai chile, stemmed and minced
1 pound large raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
1½ teaspoons cornstarch
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large shallot, peeled and thinly sliced
4 - 6 leaves curly lettuce, torn
2 large carrots, peeled and thinly sliced*
½ cup loosely packed mint leaves
½ cup loosely packed cilantro leaves
8 basil leaves
¼ cup roasted peanuts, roughly chopped
For the noodles: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Drop in the rice noodles and cook for 3 minutes. Drain in a colander. To prevent the noodles from sticking, rinse them under cold water, then hot water, and then cold water once again.
For the dipping sauce: In a small bowl, combine the lime juice, fish sauce, vinegar, and sugar. Smash the garlic and a pinch of salt into a paste and add it and the chile to the bowl. Stir to dissolve the sugar. (Dipping sauce can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator for 1 week.)
For the shrimp: Place the shrimp in a bowl, sprinkle in the cornstarch, ½ teaspoon salt, and several grinds of black pepper. Toss well to coat the shrimp. Heat a large pan over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Swirl in the oil, then add the shallot and shrimp. Cook, stirring a few times, until the shallot is nicely browned and the shrimp are just barely opaque, about 2 minutes.
To serve: Arrange a bed of lettuce in the bottom of each bowl. Pile a big handful of noodles on top of the lettuce. Add the carrot, mint, cilantro, and basil, followed by the cooked shrimp and shallot mixture. Sprinkle the peanuts over everything, and serve with dipping sauce on the side.
*Note: Once I've peeled the carrots, I like to continue using the peeler to cut long, thin strips of carrot. For me, it's faster than using a knife and I love the way the peeler creates pleasantly asymmetrical ribbons.