If you're into Middle Eastern food, especially Assyrian and Iraqi food, then you probably know that we love vermicelli noodles. In Arabic (and also in Assyrian, borrowed from Arabic), they're called sh'ariyeh. My grandmother's riza sh'ariyeh is absolutely out of this world, and it's one of the things that will always remind me of the old days, when my grandfather was alive, and we would all gather around their big dining room table. Rice with vermicelli was always on that table, whether we were having riza shirwah, kebab, or dolma.
In the late 70s, they moved into a ranch house, which had a little stand-alone dining room, and a lot more space than they had in their apartment in the city, and they lived there for a long time, until a little while after my grandfather passed away. Even though they didn't have the world's biggest dining room, I'm certain that a small table was never an option, because there was always so much family around from the very beginning, and until the very end—maybe even especially at the very end, when family and friends showed up from everywhere with dozens of cloth-wrapped pots of dolma, ras il-'asfour, and lamb shanks to say their goodbyes and offer their condolences.
Since selling the house and just about everything in it (including the big dining room table) in 2013, and starting this next chapter in all our lives, things have been different in some ways, but we still gather around new tables, and my grandmother still makes her riza sh'ariyeh, and it's just as perfect as ever. While everyone quietly fights over the butter-basted golden raisins and perfectly light brown pine nuts and almonds, the real key to the dish is the toasted vermicelli noodles.
Most of the vermicelli noodles I cook and eat are in riza sh'ariyeh, but even when I cook them for something else, I tend to toast them instinctively. After all, cooking them in a little butter adds so much depth of flavor, and it's an opportunity that shouldn't be missed, especially when they're going into something that has a bad reputation for blandness, like pasta salad.
The pasta salad in this post is everyone's favorite classic Italian-American one that's served at picnics and cookouts all summer long. But instead of bowties or penne, I've included broken, toasted vermicelli. You can go a few shades darker than the noodles above (I usually do), but even just a little bit of toasting brings out so much flavor.
Before I get to the recipe, a few words on the main ingredient: There's a huge variety of vermicelli noodles the world over, and while they are all thin, long noodles, some of them share very little else in common. But just because your noodles are from China or Italy doesn't mean they won't work in recipes that call for sh'ariyeh. Essentially, when looking for vermicelli noodles for Middle Eastern and North African cooking, you want to find ones made with wheat flour and eggs. The thinness or thickness of the noodles will affect the cooking time, so extremely thin noodles might soften a lot more in certain recipes (unless you're cooking them separately), but because they contain egg, they usually hold up pretty well no matter what. So proceed with caution if you aren't going to cook the noodles on their own, and if you're worried that yours are on the thin side. But with this particular recipe, you can't go wrong if you simply test them as they simmer.
toasted vermicelli salad
3 tablespoons butter
9 ounces vermicelli noodles, broken into pieces
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 large cloves garlic, crushed with a garlic press
1 tablespoon dijon mustard
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons za’atar (or dried thyme)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
9 ounces broccoli, cut into small bite-sized florets
10-ounce can of black olives, drained and sliced in half
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons chopped parsley (from 1 small bunch)
1 pint cherry tomatoes, cut in half (or quartered if they're large)
1/4 cup small-diced red onion
Heat a small stockpot or large skillet over medium heat for about 2 minutes. While you’re waiting on the pot to heat, bring about 2 quarts of water to boil in a kettle to save time later. Once the stockpot is hot, add the butter, swirl it around to melt, and add the vermicelli noodles. Use tongs to toss them around to coat in the butter, and continue stirring and cooking for about 7 minutes, until they’re deeply golden brown.
Pour the boiling water over the noodles in the stockpot and bring to a boil over high heat. Once it’s boiling, cook it until the noodles are al dente (this will most likely take less time than the package instructions. Mine took 4 minutes).
While you’re waiting on the noodles, whisk together the oil, vinegar, garlic, mustard, salt, oregano, za’atar/thyme, black pepper, and crushed red pepper.
As soon as the noodles are done, strain them, place them in a large mixing bowl, and immediately add about half of the dressing and toss to coat (give the dressing a quick whisk before pouring). Add the broccoli, black olives, parsley (reserve some for garnish), tomatoes, and onion, the rest of the dressing, and toss everything together. Taste and add more salt and/or herbs if it needs it. Garnish with parsley and serve.