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A few weeks ago, I joined some friends for a Chinese noodle eating tour. Instead of flying to China, we drove to the San Gabriel Valley, a region near Los Angeles with a substantial Chinese population and a wealth of Asian restaurants, supermarkets and bakeries. As we stood in a popular square and marveled at the numerous Chinese, Vietnamese and other East Asian restaurant signs beckoning us from every direction, a member of our group wondered aloud whether this might be the most restaurant-dense area in California.
The eateries we visited specialized in house-made fresh pasta. Usually, Chinese noodles are neutral in taste; but at one restaurant, the creative chef made his in several different flavors and colors - black sesame, bright green spinach and orange carrot noodles. Like French and Italian chefs, he also made rich egg noodles.
To showcase their noodles, the chefs used them in a variety of pasta dishes popular among Chinese diners. Some noodles appeared in soups - a Chinese lunchtime favorite - with meat or chicken in thin slices, Chinese cabbage strips and green onions. Other noodles came tossed with one or two vegetables or a medley of greens, or topped with elaborate mixtures of seafood.
Some noodles were cooked very briefly until just al dente, the way Italian chefs cook fresh pasta; others were pan-fried after being cooked.
Careful seasoning was the key to making these noodle dishes delicious. Most of the sauces were simple mixtures of soy sauce, rice wine, sesame or vegetable oil and seasonings, and are easy to prepare at home. Some sauces gained a touch of fire from hot pepper sauce, chili flakes, chili oil or chili-garlic paste, or ground white pepper for a milder accent. To vary the flavor, sauteed gingerroot, garlic or green onion might be added, sugar and rice vinegar for a sweet-sour hint and occasionally sesame paste, the Chinese version of tehina, for richness.
My friend Linda Burum, author of Asian Pasta, makes a Szechwan sauce for noodles by blending soy sauce, minced ginger and garlic with black vinegar, sugar, sesame oil, chili oil and crushed Szechwan peppercorns; the cooked noodles are tossed with the spicy sauce and served garnished with green onions.
Now is a good time to enjoy pasta before Pessah arrives. Even if you use regular spaghetti, adding Chinese flavors will give your pasta East Asian flair. Combine the pasta and sauce with your family's favorite vegetables, add meat if you like, and you will find this Chinese-inspired style of presenting pasta a good way to dress up your own noodle dishes.
SAUTEED CHINESE NOODLES WITH VEGETABLES
Do not hesitate to try this colorful, delicious dish, which is popular in many Chinese restaurants, even if you have not done any Chinese cooking. Use this recipe as a blueprint for making use of any thin pasta you have on hand.
You can substitute other vegetables - such as broccoli florets, zucchini sticks, spinach or sliced fresh mushrooms - according to what you have on hand, for any of the vegetables below. The broccoli would be cooked separately, like the carrots below. The other vegetables can be added directly to the wok or skillet, like the snow peas below.
For a faster dish, use fewer vegetables. If you don't have canned water chestnuts, bamboo shoots or baby corn, omit them. To turn the dish into a more substantial main course, add 1 or 2 cups of strips of cooked beef, chicken or turkey or cubes of tofu.
Remember to taste the pasta just before serving to be sure it is not bland. You can also put bottles of soy sauce and hot pepper sauce on the table in case anyone likes more seasoning.
Makes 4 main-course or 6 first-course or side-dish servings
4 30 gr. dried shiitake mushrooms
(about 10 large) or other dried mushrooms
4 Chinese Sauce for Lo Mein Noodles
(see recipe below)
4 2 medium carrots
4 200 gr. canned whole water chestnuts, rinsed and drained
4 350 gr. Chinese cabbage
4 450 gr. fresh thin pasta or 350 gr. dried
Chinese noodles, linguine or thin spaghetti
4 2 tsp. Asian (toasted) sesame oil or vegetable oil
4 4 to 5 Tbsp. peanut oil or additional vegetable oil
4 3 large garlic cloves, minced
4 1 Tbsp. minced peeled gingerroot
4 50 gr. snow peas, ends and strings removed (1â„2 cup)
4 1â„3 cup sliced green onions, green part only
4 1 small can (200 gr.) bamboo shoots, drained, rinsed
4 8 ears canned baby corn, rinsed (see Note below)
4 Salt and freshly ground pepper, if desired
4 2 Tbsp. coarsely chopped fresh coriander (optional)
Soak mushrooms in hot water to cover in a medium bowl 30 minutes. While mushrooms are soaking, prepare Chinese Sauce for Lo Mein Noodles.
Remove soaked mushrooms from water, rinse and squeeze gently to remove excess water. Cut off and discard stems; quarter caps.
Peel carrots, put in a medium saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a simmer and cook over medium heat 5 minutes. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain well. Cut in thin, crosswise rounds.
Cut each water chestnut in half to make rounds. Tear Chinese cabbage leaves in bite-size pieces.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil; add salt, then pasta. Cook uncovered over high heat, stirring often with chopsticks or a fork, allowing 2 to 5 minutes for fresh pasta and 3 to 8 minutes for dried, or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain, rinse briefly with cold water and drain well.
Transfer to a large bowl and toss with 1 teaspoon sesame oil.
Heat a wok, a large deep skillet or a saute pan. Add 3 or 4 tablespoons peanut oil and heat over medium-high heat. Add garlic and gingerroot and stir-fry about 10 seconds. Add carrots and cook 1 minute, then add snow peas and cook 1 minute. Add soaked mushrooms; add the water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, baby corn and half the green onions and cook, tossing, 1 minute. Add Chinese cabbage and cook 1â„2 minute.
Add 1â„4 cup sauce and bring to a boil, stirring. Cook until cabbage leaves wilt. Transfer mixture to a bowl. Wipe pan dry.
Add 1 tablespoon oil to pan and heat over medium-high heat. Add noodles and saute 1â„2 minute. Add remaining sauce mixture and toss over heat with 2 wooden spoons until noodles are coated and hot. Remove from heat, sprinkle with remaining sesame oil and toss. Add to bowl of vegetables, add remaining green onions and toss. Taste, and add salt and pepper if desired.
Serve pasta on hot plates, spooning vegetables on top. Sprinkle with chopped coriander.
Note: If using baby corn, use the type that is canned in water and salt, and not corn pickled with vinegar.
CHINESE SAUCE FOR LO MEIN NOODLES
You can heat this easy-to-make sauce with 3 or 4 cups of any sauteed or cooked vegetables and serve the mixture over noodles or rice.
For a variation that's especially good if you add meat to your noodles and vegetables, you can flavor the sauce with 2 tablespoons hoisin sauce (a sweet and slightly spicy soy bean sauce that comes in a jar), or to taste. First whisk the hoisin sauce with the soy sauce, then add the remaining ingredients.
Makes about 1 cup
4 3 to 4 Tbsp. soy sauce
4 3 Tbsp. rice wine or dry sherry
4 1â„2 tsp. sugar
4 1â„4 tsp. hot red pepper flakes
4 3â„4 cup chicken, meat or vegetable broth
Combine ingredients in a medium bowl and mix well. Taste, and add more sugar or hot pepper flakes if you like.
Faye Levy is the author of Sensational Pasta.