Sugar. Lime. Salt. Spice. First time I tasted those flavors together was at Anchorage’s first Thai restaurant (what was the name?) that opened downtown on H Street when I was a little girl. Now, you can’t go a couple miles without running into Thai or Vietnamese spot in Anchorage or Fairbanks. These flavors are part of Alaska’s cuisine.
Nuoc cham, or the Vietnamese dipping sauce that comes in the little cup when you order fresh rolls at a Vietnamese or Thai restaurant, is very versatile. In this recipe, I’ve used its flavors to make a killer marinade/salad dressing. It’s pretty dang awesome alone on a mixture of napa cabbage, red cabbage, colorful veggies, edamame and herbs. But that’s not the best part of this recipe. The best part is the chicken. It’s flavorful, juicy and it has the crispiest, most satisfying skin. Add in cellophane noodles and you are about to have a really epic dinner experience.
I must underscore: cooking chicken thighs this way will change your life. Seriously.
The main things you need to perform this chicken miracle are good quality skin-on chicken thighs (These are actually not easy to find. I make a special trip to Natural Pantry for Ranger chicken thighs and stick a stack in my freezer. They are expensive, but seriously worth it.) and some ghee or clarified butter.
Ghee is great. It’s an essential in Indian cooking and often also used by people who are lactose intolerant or on other special diets. (In Anchorage, you can find it at Natural Pantry, Sagaya and sometimes Fred’s). It cooks at a higher temperature than butter, and that’s what makes the magic happen. Here’s what it looks like:
Nuoc cham noodle salad with crispy chicken thighs
Approximate cooking time: 30 minutes
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup Vietnamese fish sauce
2/3 cup fresh lime juice (roughly three limes)
1/4 serrano pepper or one small Thai chile, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 teaspoons fresh ginger, minced
1/2 cup olive oil
4 good-quality chicken thighs, skin on
1 tablespoon ghee
8 ounces dried rice vermicelli noodles
5 thinly sliced radishes
1 English cucumber, thinly sliced
1 red pepper, thinly sliced
4 cups baby salad greens like spinach, kale or arugula
1/3 cup Thai basil leaves, roughly chopped
1/3 cup cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
Combine the dressing ingredients in a jar, shake well to combine.
De-bone the chicken thighs (put the bones in the freezer for stock), place between two pieces of parchment paper and pound until about half an inch thick. Throw them in a bowl with half the marinade. (This step can be done ahead of time, up to 24 hours.) I usually let them marinate for 15 or 20 minutes while I prep the veggies for the salad.
Place a 12-inch cast-iron skillet on medium heat. Melt half the ghee. Place two chicken thighs in the pan, skin side down, and let them cook without touching them for 6 minutes, until mostly cooked through. (One of these comes in handy.)
With a nice firm metal spatula, flip them over. The skin should be brown and crispy. (If you like that charred taste, go one more minute until very brown.) Cook and additional two to three minutes on the second side, until cooked through. Remove to a clean cutting board and cook the next two.
While the thighs cook, heat a pot of water to boiling. Turn off the heat and put the noodles in. Allow them to sit for 3 minutes, until they are no longer toothsome. Drain. Rinse with cold water.
Arrange the greens in a large salad bowl. Place the noodles on top. Then arrange the chopped vegetables on top of the noodles. Slice the chicken thighs, place on top of that. Sprinkle the chopped herbs on top and drizzle on the second half of the dressing. Enjoy! There won’t be leftovers.