Gluten-Free Ingredient Crush: Rice Noodles

Every Friday, my colleague and I go out to lunch. Most days, we eat at our desks, followed by a walk (for me). But on Fridays, we make it a point to get out of the office. This helps contribute to what is known as work-life balance (also, less boring lunches!).

Inevitably, despite our best intentions, we head toward the local Vietnamese restaurant for a big bowl of pho. Fridays are my carbo-load days, which is how I justify scarfing down the enormous bowl of salty, savory, amazing soup. Yes, I’m overdoing one nutrient, but I will run it off the next day.

The truth is that I adore pho. There was a time when I was, sigh, eating it two or three (or more) times a week. It’s so good and so addictive. And, in most instances, 100% gluten free from the start. Particularly because of the base of the dish is chewy rice noodles.

While I am not a huge fan of rice Italian-style pastas — they tend to fall apart too easily, stopping briefly in the mush phase before disintegrating — I do love Asian rice noodles (and rice cakes). They have a chewy consistency that makes them feel substantial. They absorb flavors like the rock stars of the noodle world they are. And they are infinitely flexible, food-wise.

Prepping dried rice noodles is a simple matter: place noodles in bowl or dish, pour boiling water over noodles, set aside for about 10 to 20 minutes (depends on the noodle), prep other ingredients, make your meal. Now, I’m not talking about rice-based Italian-style pastas — I am not madly in love with those because I find they often lose their shape, falling apart if you let them cook a minute too long.

Asian-style rice noodles don’t have the same problem. I love using them in all kinds of dishes. You can get the very skinny vermicelli noodles. You can get thicker noodles, which are common in dishes like Chow Fun. Or you can split the difference and buy medium noodles (I strongly suggest heading to your local Asian supermarket to check out the great variety of rice noodles). And with that, here are some favorites:

  • Rice Noodle Bowls. Ah, the simplest, the easiest, the most versatile of quick meals. Rice noodles form the basis of a bowl topped with protein, fresh, steamed, or stir-fried vegetables, some pickled veggies (trust me), and a great sauce. The sauce in this recipe from David Lebovitz is pretty much the basic template I follow, modifying the ingredients as the mood strikes.
  • Chow Fun and Other Stir Fries. I love stir fries. They are a great way to put a meal on the table quickly, and they can be customized in many ways. For example, easy Beef Chow Fun! The hardest part of the dish is marinating the beef…and that can happen in as little as a half hour (marinate the meat while you prep your veggies and noodles). Stir fries use very little oil and lots of heat, and can be made vegetarian, meaty, tofu-y, seafood-y, or a mix of styles.
  • Pad Thai. Yes, this one gets its own shout out. A staple of Thai restaurants. I admit I’ve cheated on this recipe, big time. The key to really good Pad Thai is tamarind. Preparing tamarind is hard, so I suggest buying tamarind concentrate, which makes the process easier. Is this recipe worth the work? Absolutely.
  • Pasta Salad. I realize most of my favorite rice noodle recipes are a bit heavy on the Asian scale, but rest assured you can use these noodles in various “traditional” pasta dishes. I’m not a huge fan of tomatoes or tomato sauces (though I am trying very hard to expand my palate in this regard), so I tend toward pasta salads, incorporating rice noodles into a salad featuring an herby, garlicky dressing and lots of vegetables. Or, maybe go for a traditional seafood pasta salad like this one from Serious Eats.
  • Singapore Noodles. While I was eating my pho the other day, the table across from us was digging into a huge plate of Singapore Noodles. The bright yellow dish — thank you turmeric! — are a household favorite. If you prefer a vegetarian version, substitute tofu and eliminate the fish sauce (you can up the soy sauce a bit, but taste before doing so).

Pho. I’m just going to put it out there: you can totally make your own pho, complete with amazing broth at home, but I think this is a dish best left to professionals. The reason is that the soup stock takes a good long time to develop layers of flavor. Yes, there are some great quick pho recipes out there (like this one), and I find you can amp up flavors by making your stock in a pressure cooker and adding spices like cinnamon sticks and star anise along with a good dose of garlic and ginger.

Tip of the Week

While I am certain they exist somewhere in the greater Los Angeles area, I have yet to find fresh rice noodles that are not lightly dusted with wheat flour. While I’d love to use fresh noodles in the recipes I’ve highlighted above, I always use dried noodles. Or, as always, check ingredients carefully, even those of foods that are naturally gluten free.

Gluten-Free Meal of the Week

It’s gotta be Singapore Noodles. I’m making them for my weekly Meatless Monday meal (which due to weird timing this week will happen on Wednesday; it’s the action that counts, not the actual day). For some reason, I haven’t been making dishes that feature turmeric, and want to rectify that oversight. Turmeric has great health benefits, and what better way to enjoy them than by indulging in great noodle dish?

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