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Rice Vermicelli (Bun) with Ginger-Grapefruit Sauce
When well made, bun (pronounced, roughly, boon) is just about one of the greatest foods ever invented. Thin Vietnamese rice noodles are topped with a variety of cooked and fresh ingredients, lots of herbs, and a sweet-and-savory sauce to make a light, healthy, and superbly delicious meal-in-a-bowl. It is salad and entrée in one amazing package.
You can make a terrific bun at home. You have the luxury of gathering great fresh ingredients, and you can make a sauce that is vegetarian by design (unlike those at your local Vietnamese joint), with big bright flavors, including fresh grapefruit juice. (Or for a vegetarian version of nuoc cham, see page 332).
The key to bun is all in the mise en place. You have quite a few ingredients that need preparation. Nothing complicated—it just takes a little time to get them all together, and you want to be organized for final assembly.
My choices for ingredients and sauce can be a starting point; you can add or subtract anything you like. As long as it fits within Vietnamese flavor profiles, it will still be a great dish. Other things I love to include are Thai basil, lemongrass (sautéed with the tofu), roasted peanuts, and papaya.
FOR THE SAUCE
Juice of 2 limes (grate and reserve the zest from 1 lime to finish the dish)
2 Tablespoons sugar (use palm sugar, if you have it)
2 teaspoons soy sauce (use a wheat-free version for gluten-free)
1 Tablespoon minced fresh ginger
FOR THE BUN
8 ounces Vietnamese rice vermicelli noodles
1 cup julienned carrot (cut with a mandoline, if available)
1 cup julienned daikon (cut with a mandoline, if available)
2 Tablespoons rice vinegar
1 Tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
1⁄4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup sliced shallot (cut rings about 1⁄8 inch thick)
1 pound extra-firm tofu, cut into 2 x 2 x 1⁄3-inch squares
1⁄4 cup sweet soy sauce or kecap manis (use a wheat-free version for gluten-free)
1 head romaine lettuce, cut into bite-size pieces
2 small hot chile peppers, thinly sliced
1 medium cucumber, seeded and diced
1 ripe mango, peeled and diced
3 scallions, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced
1 cup lightly packed fresh cilantro leaves
Grated zest of 1 lime
Sriracha, or similar thick Asian chile sauce
For the sauce: Cut the grapefruit into supremes, working over a bowl to catch the juice and making sure to squeeze all the juice from membranes and peel. Strain the juice and reserve the supremes separately. Add the lime juice, sugar, soy sauce, ginger, and 1 teaspoon salt. Taste and adjust sugar and salt, remembering that it needs to be strongly flavored to play off of all the other ingredients.
For the bun: Bring a pot of water to a boil, remove from the heat, and add the rice noodles; let sit for 10 minutes. Check the texture; the noodles should be tender but not mushy. Soak a minute or two longer if necessary. Drain and reserve.
Combine the carrot, daikon, rice vinegar, and sesame seeds and set aside to pickle a bit. Heat 2 Tablespoons oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and cook until dark brown. Transfer to paper towels and season liberally with salt. As they cool, the shallots will become crispy. Heat the remaining 2 Tablespoons oil in the skillet and cook the tofu, working in batches if needed, until brown on both sides. Return all the tofu to the skillet and drizzle with the sweet soy sauce; continue cooking for another 30 seconds to caramelize the sauce. Turn off the heat and leave the tofu in the skillet until you are ready to assemble the dish.
To assemble: Divide the lettuce among four large bowls. Top each with a big handful of the rice noodles. Then top with an attractive arrangement of the grapefruit supremes (you may end up with more grapefruit supremes than you need—these are a cook’s treat), carrot-daikon salad, tofu, sliced chiles, cucumber, and mango, and finally the shallot rings, scallions, cilantro, and lime zest. You can either pour on the sauce yourself or divide it into individual bowls for your guests to add as they see fit. Offer the sriracha on the side.