Yesterday while I was taking the dog for her afternoon walk, we walked right past the nearby middle school at precisely the moment school let out. Hoards of 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th graders came madly streaming onto the sidewalks.
Middle school. Wow. What an absurd time of life!
Squid and I meandered past acting chill, but secretly spellbound, watching the screaming and shrieking, the hysterical giggling, the awkward interactions, the gangly giraffe-like girls brushing past little boys who hadn’t started their growth spurts yet, kids hesitantly approaching each other then shying away or avoiding or barging right in, squawking like a madhouse of parrots as they walked towards home, or the bus, or their parents’ cars.
There really is no other word for it besides absurd. Absurd, and colorful.
Part of me feels like middle school was mere weeks ago, some of the memories are still that vivid. But watching all that action, I felt acutely that I was, in-fact, a pregnant lady in sensible shoes walking a dog, which is miles and miles (and miles) away from the middle school experience. They neither wanted to nor could identify with me, when it comes down to it, and I realized I didn’t really identify with them either, not beyond that fundamental connection that we have as fellow human creatures. (Though can middle schoolers even quite be considered human creatures?)
Growing older is totally weird.
Anyway, funnily enough, this salad actually reminds me a little bit of a Thai noodle salad that I got really into right around the time I was in late middle school, maybe early high school. That was the time when I was starting to be as interested in food that had real flavor as I was in food that was dyed weird shades of orange or had a “creme” filling. The salad from those days had a peanut dressing, which is a marvelous thing to have on a rice noodle salad, but since I don’t eat peanuts anymore, it’s been off the table for quite some time.
This one steps in and fills that sad, empty gap quite nicely. The wiggly, chewy, glossy noodles full-on drink up the dressing, a nice mix of sweet, sour, funky, and spicy – a flavor mix that any rice noodle salad worth its salt (or in this case, its fish sauce) should be able to boast. The noodles then tangle with an abundance of lightly sauteed veggies, more veggies than noodles, actually, by my calculations. Bell peppers, carrot, and sugar snap peas cook just long enough to coax out their sweetest selves while still leaving them with a bit of bite, a satisfying mild crunch.
The spicy pork meatballs I had originally intended to put in a sort-of Vietnamese rice and meatball soup, but they got lost on the way and wound up caught up in this salad. And here, I do believe, they belong. The meatballs hearken, ever so gently, to spaghetti and meatballs, at least in the way they roll about the top of the salad and settle into nests of noodles. The meat is flavored as brightly as the salad dressing, so each bite brims with spice and muscles its way through mad jumble of noodles and vegetables. Of course, you could also make the salad with baked chicken or tofu, and use the meatball spices to marinate either, but aren’t meatballs just a lot more fun?
We may all be getting older, but there’s still plenty fun to be had, meatballs or no.
- 2 Tbs. peanut or coconut oil
- 2 sweet bell peppers, seeded and thinly sliced
- 1 large carrot, cut into thin matchsticks
- about 3 or 4 cups (I didn't measure) sugar snap peas, washed and trimmed
- 3 green onions, the white and green parts, thinly sliced
- 1¼ - 1½ lbs. ground pork
- 1 large clove garlic, minced
- 1 Tbs. sriracha
- 1 tsp. toasted sesame oil
- 1 Tbs. fish sauce
- 8-10 oz rice noodles
- a handful each chopped fresh mint and basil
- 3 Tbs. fresh lime juice
- 1 Tbs. rice vinegar
- 1 Tbs. fish sauce
- 1 Tbs. toasted sesame oil
- 3 Tbs. olive oil
- 1 packed Tbs. brown sugar or maple syrup
- Heat your oven to 425F. Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, heat the peanut or coconut oil over medium high heat. Add the bell peppers and carrots and saute until just starting to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the snap peas and green onions and cook for a couple minutes more until the peas turn bright green. Season with salt to taste (the salad will get a dressing, but most of this goes to flavoring the noodles, so make sure the vegetables are adequately seasoned.) Set aside.
- At this point, put a large pot of salted water on the stove to come to a boil. While the water is coming to a boil, combine the ground pork with the minced garlic, sriracha, sesame oil, and fish sauce plus a pinch of salt. Mix it together with your hands until fully combined, then shape the pork mixture into walnut-sized meatballs. Put into a baking dish and bake in the 425F oven until cooked through, about 7-10 minutes. Remove from the oven, and set somewhere to stay warm.
- While the pork is cooking, hopefully your water has come to a boil so you can add the rice noodles and take it off the heat. Cook the noodles according to the package directions (this usually means leaving them in the hot water off the heat for about 8 minutes), until they're tender but still have some good chewiness to them. Drain the noodles and rinse them with some cold water.
- Combine the noodles with the vegetables in a large serving bowl. Whisk together all of the dressing ingredients and toss the noodle and vegetable mixture with as much of the dressing as you wish. Add the basil and mint and toss again to combine. Taste and add salt or fish sauce if it needs it. Scatter the meatballs all over the top of the salad. Serve while the noodles are still slightly warm.