Food Writing/ Lunch/ Recipes

Vietnamese Inspired Seafood Pasta Salad

Growing up in a family that included four small children and parents who made their living by the grace of God, we rarely ate out in restaurants. Almost never. My parents lived meagerly as ministers in churches and Christian organizations their entire lives and, now, myself a parent of four small children, I can appreciate the lack of allure in the experience of eating out: the experience of paying large sums of money for my small children to terrorize restaurant staff and their own parents for what begins to feel like a painfully long meal.

But, there was one exception, one place where we went when it was time to eat out. Every now and again, my dad’s ministry would take him from our middle-of-nowhere prairie house to the ‘big city’ an hour away. And, after the morning church service, my parents would take us to the Lethbridge Lodge, an aging and unassuming but still trying to be modern business hotel on the edge of a small prairie city.

There, we would eat at the hotel’s restaurant, led from the lobby, through the overabundance of faux green foliage that sprawled around a poolside area, to our tables under a solarium of sorts that housed the hotel’s restaurant. I remember it feeling special and as if a whole new world was being experienced, one where steaks were seared to your preference on sizzling grills, where waiters wore snappy black and white uniforms, and they even brought you your own coloring pages and crayons. It was a place of wonder and luxury.

My parents took us there (and only there) because it was cheap; for each adult meal ordered a child could eat free.

It was there that I fell in love with seafood. Not real seafood mind you, but imitation crab meat and tiny cocktail shrimp. As far as I can remember, every single visit to the Lethbridge Lodge involved ordering their seafood pasta salad. At first, when I was younger, I was relegated to ordering from the children’s menu, a typically uninspiring assortment of cheeseburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches that included a drink and a dessert. My mom, on the other hand, would always order the seafood pasta salad.

She did so because it as one of the few items that fell under the ‘Lunch’ menu – and was priced accordingly – but had a large enough portion size to fill her. It was a cheap, yet somewhat exotic, twist on a potluck favorite: spiraled pasta slathered with a mayo based dressing, studded with vegetables such as broccoli and corn, chunks of imitation crab with the odd shrimp waiting to be found deep down in the bowl, and sprinkled with cheddar cheese.

As I got older, my parents faced a dilemma. I had too voracious of an appetite to order off of the children’s menu, which was the cheapest option, and was still too young to justify spending large sums of money on an entrée. So, I began to order the seafood pasta salad too.

I remember it being an important and exciting step – already, eating at a restaurant was a memorable event in my young life, and to be able to order off of the adult’s menu?! And, seafood? A rare and exotic treat indeed for a young boy on the prairies. And, I grew to love that seafood pasta salad. My mom, a chef in her own right, worked to recreate it at home and it was a dish that I often requested that she make for me for special occasions such as my birthday.

And, despite, the ways in which I’ve learned to enjoy and appreciate a way array of cuisines and flavors as an adult, there is something about the memory of that seafood pasta salad that persists. It used to be that when my mom would come to visit our family, she would ask if there was something special she could make for me. My answer was often seafood pasta salad. I remember, at one point in the past few years, writing ‘seafood pasta salad’ on a small card and sticking it on my bedside table so that I wouldn’t forget to ask my mom to make it the next time she visited.

It was there, at the Lethbridge Lodge, that I caught a glimpse of another sort of life, one where people ate out at restaurants. Where people went interesting places, places where the restaurants seemed bright and lush, where you could sit in sight of the pool, in the sun, and eat seafood. For this countryside prairie kid, this was only something you saw in the movies or read about in books, but something I, in retrospect, ferociously wanted. I wanted to travel the world, to see and experience so much.

And, I did. I spent two years living abroad, travelling widely and as often as I could. I ate poolside, ate raw fish killed minutes before, ate more different kinds of seafood than I even knew existed. And, despite that all, I still have the memories of that seafood pasta salad.

For this recipe, I wanted to play around with the format of the seafood pasta salad, incorporating more fresh seafood as well as other fresh ingredients, while still keeping the basic elements of what this salad was: creamy pasta with seafood and fresh vegetables. I began with thinking of where I had eaten some of the best seafood. For me, this was Vietnam. I remember sitting on a balcony in Hoi An, overlooking the river, and ordering this beautiful whole fish served on a banana leaf. That moment: the food, the place, the glasses of cold, fresh beer… It’s embedded in my mind.

This got me thinking of a dish I made recently from Andrea Nguyen’s fantastic book, Vietnamese Food Any Day, where she makes a turmeric fish dish served with fresh herbs on top of noodles. It was vibrant, fresh, and loaded with flavor – the things I wanted this pasta salad to be. The fish was earthy, fragrant and each bite was packed with flavor.

So, with some playing around and incorporating flavors from Andrea’s dish as well as other flavors from Vietnam, I’ve come up with a Vietnamese-inspired Seafood Pasta Salad. It has a creamy sour cream dressing loaded up with lime juice, fish sauce and funky shrimp paste. For crunchy, fresh veggies I’ve gone with carrots and cucumbers, often found stacked high in bahn mi. It’s loaded with fresh herbs such as culantro, Thai basil, and dill. And it’s got great toppings to compliment it all and add some more texture: peanuts, fried garlic, and pea sprouts.

It’s both a memory of that seafood pasta salad at the Lethbridge Lodge, and of that boy who devoured that imitation crab, and also a memory of the boy who got to sit on a balcony in Hoi An, enjoying the Vietnamese night and the fresh beer and seafood.

Vietnamese Inspired Seafood Pasta Salad

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By Eric Ritskes Serves: 6

This pasta salad is loaded with Vietnamese flavors. Funky shrimp paste and fish sauce meet the vibrant, fresh veggies and herbs alongside loads of fresh seafood. It's great for a lunch (and easy enough to have leftovers for future lunches!), for a gathering, or just for a simple, fresh dinner. Pieces of it can be prepped and made ahead of time to cut down on the time it takes beforehand as well.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound giant prawns, cooked (either buying pre-cooked or buying raw and then boiling or steaming until just pink)
  • 500 g dry pasta, cooked
  • 2 lb firm white fish fillets (such as tilapia or basa)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground turmeric
  • 2 teaspoons fresh ginger, minced
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons shrimp paste (anchovy paste can be used as a substitute)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 & 1/3 cup sour cream
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons shrimp paste
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 3 small cucumbers, sliced finely lengthwise
  • 2 cucumbers, cut into matchsticks
  • 1 large handful of culantro or cilantro, chopped roughly
  • 1 large handful of dill, chopped roughly
  • 1 large handful of Thai or Cinnamon Basil, chopped roughly
  • roasted peanuts (optional)
  • fried garlic (optional)
  • pea sprouts (optional)

Instructions

1

Cook your pasta according to the package instructions, then rinse in cold water. Set aside until needed.

2

Begin with marinating the fish. Dry the fillets well with a paper towel (if you're using frozen fish, ensure they are fully defrosted before beginning this). Take your fillets and cut them in half, lengthwise. Then, at an angle, cut approximately one inch sections to create long, trapezoid-shaped pieces.

3

In a bowl, mix the ground turmeric, fresh ginger, shrimp paste, fish sauce, vegetable oil and 1/3 cup of sour cream into a bright, thick paste. Add the fish and stir to coat well. Set aside to marinate.

4

Preheat your oven for at least 20 minutes using the broil setting, placing the inside oven rack in a position approximately four inches below the broiler. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper.

5

While the oven is heating, you can prep the salad dressing. Mix 1 cup of sour cream with the lime juice, 2 tablespoons of shrimp paste, and 2 tablespoons of fish sauce.

6

You can also prep your vegetables and herbs so they are ready to roll.

7

Arrange the marinated fish pieces on the prepared baking sheet, laying them flat. Broil for about 5-8 minutes, until the fish is beginning to brown; check after 5 minutes and rotate the pan, if needed. Gently flip the fish pieces, then broil for 5 to 8 minutes more, until tinged brown on the second side. Remove and let cool for a few minutes.

8

Now we can assemble the salad. Place the pasta, shrimp, cucumbers and carrots in a large bowl. Add the dressing and mix until coated. Add the fresh herbs and gently stir. Finally, gently add the fish, trying to keep it in sections.

9

In Vietnamese cuisine, toppings are often an important aspect to many noodle dishes, adding extra flavor and texture. To serve, add toppings such as roasted peanuts, fried garlic, pea shoots, or even sesame seeds.

Notes

This can easily be stored in the fridge for 2-3 days as leftovers. Rice noodles can be substituted for wheat-based pasta to make this gluten free. This makes a large serving of salad, appropriate for about 6+ servings for lunch or perfect for a potluck with friends.

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