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Sam Sifton's Sesame Noodles

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I seem to be a woman of empty threats. Because even though I made it seem like one more day without a plate of Sesame Noodles would be a dire one indeed, I actually survived for four more days thereafter. (Is that the sound of a thousand people falling over in shock at the news? I know, unbelievable.) But after four days of fruitless searching, and just as many grocery stores, I decided this morning that I'd had enough. I got in the subway to go down to the source itself, Chinatown, to finally lay my hands on an apparently elusive creation, the fresh Chinese egg noodle. What I got in return was something far, far greater.

Isn't that exciting?

But first things first. At the Dynasty Supermarket on the corner of Elizabeth and Hester, I found my noodles. Well, actually, not really. But close enough. You see, the refrigerated fresh noodle section was crammed with all sorts of noodles, but infuriatingly, none of them were labeled in a manner that would appease the little Type A in me. There were noodles galore, for sure, "Shanghai" noodles and "shrimp" noodles and "vegetable" noodles and, maddeningly, "plain" noodles. Some of them had eggs in them, some didn't. But were there any labeled "egg" noodles? No.

The closest I got was with a bag of "lo mein" noodles that had eggs in them, but were far, far skinnier than the 1/8th of an inch Sam Sifton called for. Noodles in his size were only available eggless. I mulled my choices for far too long, decided the world would not end if I made Sesame Noodles with 1/16-inch wide noodles and got on with my day (and thank goodness I did, because otherwise I think I might still be there, dithering away).

(And here I have to stop and just quickly mention the whopping 98 cents I paid for that pound of egg noodles. 98 cents! When will fresh Italian egg pasta ever be that cheap?)

As I made my way up Elizabeth, I kept my eyes peeled for a vegetable stand. Something about the early morning air and the atmosphere of hungry shoppers and pushy sellers had me feeling adventurous. Actually, it's how I usually feel when I'm in Chinatown, like I'm standing on the precipice of some huge, unknowable mountain of information about really, really good food that I simply can't decipher, but very much want to. Usually I satiate my curiosity by eating at a Chinese restaurant, but that never really solves the problem. So today, instead of going home and buying wilted broccoli from D'Agostino's, I decided I'd buy some real Chinese vegetables and cook them myself.

The vegetable stand I stopped at had several rows of good-looking greens, baby bok choy and green beans being the only ones I recognized. I pointed to what I thought was Chinese broccoli and asked the grocer to confirm what I was buying. I might as well have been speaking in, well, English.

She pointed to the price and nodded nicely. I tried asking her a few more times, even prodding her with the word for Chinese broccoli (gai lan), but this received no reaction. Just a few more points to the sign, decidedly less friendly by the minute. So I acquiesced and bought a pound of the stuff. (For $1.60! And this after I spent $5.99 per pound on Mr. Spear asparagus at Balducci's on Friday.) (I know, I know, I always say I'll never go back there and then I do. What can I say, I'm a woman of low moral fiber.) The grocer pointed me towards another vendor working there as I pocketed my change, as if to say "that guy, he'll know what you're trying to say, now move along, there are people who actually make sense waiting to order".

The other grocer did seem to understand that I was asking what the vegetable I'd just purchased was called and kept repeating "toi sam" (spelling, obviously, not guaranteed by yours truly) over and over, nodding. So I assumed I'd bought a pound of toi sam. Delicious! But at home, the internet produced precious little information on toi sam and insisted on telling me that the vegetable I'd purchased was indeed none other than Chinese broccoli.

What was the point of relaying every step of my purchase to you? I was trying, I suppose, to make you realize how exhilarating the whole exchange was. It felt like I was navigating that aforementioned huge mountain of knowledge with a dinky, little, rudderless boat full of enthusiasm and good intentions but very little else. I wish I had a guide to bring with me to Chinatown every day, to slowly and carefully teach me about all the vegetables on display at those overwhelming sidewalk stands: how to cut them, how to prepare them, how to serve them. (Don't even get me started on the fruit offerings or fish.) What does serving bok choy with mushrooms signify? Will I ever have the courage to purchase loofah or bitter melon? Why do Chinese scallions come in so many different forms?

I guess that Chinese food just totally bewitches me (thank God for Fuchsia Dunlop, who has at least given me some insight into Sichuan food, though that seemed totally indequate today). But before I go all starry-eyed and make Fuchsia adopt me to teach me the rest of what I have to learn, let me quickly tell you about the food I actually cooked.

First, Sam Sifton's sesame noodles. Which are fine, I guess, though I think the dish's appeal lies more in the sensuous mouthfeel of dressed noodles than in the taste. You mix together a pungent sauce of various oils and vinegars and sauces and nut butters, throw in some grated ginger, minced garlic and whisk it all into a dark sludge. The egg noodles are boiled briefly, then rinsed in cold water, dressed with the sauce and topped with chopped peanuts. They're spicy, to be sure, and relatively nuanced - zesty might be the word I'm looking for. But what I really liked was the texture - chewy and silky and slithery and cool, with little bits of peanut adding a pleasing crunch here and there.

The real revelation of the day, though? Was the Chinese broccoli. Oh yes. I made this recipe and have decided that it might be my new favorite thing in the world to eat. It is so good and so totally, entirely easy. Which made my day even more. Not only did I buy my first Chinese vegetable (well, I have bought baby bok choy before, but that was at Whole Foods and so doesn't count) today, but I made a dish so delicious it tasted like the vegetables do at my favorite Chinese restaurants. Yes, that good! I'm speechless with joy.

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Ben and I ate our noodles dutifully, but then set upon the savory-sweet Chinese broccoli like a pair of starving urchins. I am alternately proud and embarrassed to admit that we finished the entire pound in one sitting. How could I have been so short-sighted? Next time, two pounds, at least.

I think this means that I have to get myself to Chinatown more often. I need to explore and discover and learn. If Americanized sesame noodles brought me to Hong Kong-style gai lan, then who knows what the future will bring? I can't wait to find out.

Takeout-Style Sesame Noodles
Serves 4

1 pound Chinese egg noodles (1/8-inch-thick), frozen or (preferably) fresh, available in Asian markets
2 tablespoons sesame oil, plus a splash
3½ tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons Chinese rice vinegar
2 tablespoons Chinese sesame paste
1 tablespoon smooth peanut butter
1 teaspoon sugar (the original recipe calls for 1 tablespoon)
1 tablespoon finely grated ginger
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons chili-garlic paste, or to taste
¼ cup chopped roasted peanuts.

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add noodles and cook until barely tender, about 5 minutes; they should retain a hint of chewiness. Drain, rinse with cold water, drain again and toss with a splash of sesame oil.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the remaining 2 tablespoons sesame oil, the soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame paste, peanut butter, sugar, ginger, garlic and chili-garlic paste.

3. Pour the sauce over the noodles and toss. Transfer to a serving bowl, and garnish with cucumber and peanuts.  


Dinner Frustrations

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It was all meant to end a little differently. Without that floppy, pallid slice of pizza, if you're wondering. After all, I had plans. Plans to cook, of course. Things like Chinese peanut noodles or a spring vegetable soup. I'd be looking forward to making them for days. But there was that pesky rain at lunch that prevented me from going grocery shopping, and then the after-work event that wasn't pesky in the least, on the contrary, it was totally great, but it meant my visit to Whole Foods wouldn't happen until after 9 pm. And then it'd have to be with aching feet, hands jittery with hunger and a small dose of impatience that only got worse after I realized that the four simple things on my list were simply not to be found.

No way, no how.

Feeling intrepid (bedraggled, but intrepid), I made a valiant attempt at another grocery store. Wouldn't it just serve the Whole Foods colossus right, I fumed as I clickety-clacked my way across 7th Avenue, if the little, local chain had all the things I needed for dinner? And a speedy dinner it would be, because the jitters were only getting worse and I was starting to talk to myself, which is never a good sign.

But the joke was on me. Even though I stood stubbornly in the aisle at Garden of Eden and willed the bottle of hot sauce I was searching for and the fresh egg noodles that were nowhere to be found to simply appear, it seemed they had other plans.

What could I do?

Not much, besides collect my indignant, trembly self (it goes downhill by the second when it's that far gone, my hypoglycemia. I'm just happy Ben wasn't around when it was happening - it's always worse when there are loved ones present to snap at in your hunger-addled state of mind), walk down the misty avenue, and ponder my options.

I could fix myself a bowl of cereal, but cereal for dinner is really only appealing when I'm in the midst of heartbreak and food is but a distraction. (That's when my jeans fit infuriatingly well. Later, when I'm happy again and my jeans are always just a little too tight, I find myself wondering about the strange ways of a universe that have me wishing, just for a split nanosecond, for a teeny tiny dose of that heartbreak again so that I can have nothing but cereal for dinner and always, always look good in jeans. And then I realize what a fool I am for not finishing the plate of pasta in front of me. With bread. To mop up the sauce. And a piece of cheese after that. And isn't there something sweet in the house that needs to be finished? Yes, I thought so. Hand it over.)

Instead, I bought myself a slice of pizza and brought it home, where, along with two cleaned radishes and a glass of milk, it would have to do as dinner. And it was okay, actually. That slice of pizza wasn't bad, especially with the late-night mist falling and the sounds of the city outside my window. There are worse things, I told myself, as I chewed my slice quietly at the table and felt my jitters subside.

After all, there's always tomorrow. When I'd better find those damn egg noodles, Or Else.


Florence Fabricant's Asian Seafood Risotto

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What a night it's been! First, I feared I'd totally offended the gods - or at least the one God that counts on this particular night. Then I tasted sweet relief when Wikipedia came to my rescue. Then the rest of the internet dashed my hopes for an entirely damnation-free evening. And I had such good intentions! Such is the path of the unrighteous. Let me explain.

You see, this evening I was host to an old friend who didn't want her usual Passover feast. Life had semi-recently gotten complicated, in the way it sometimes does, and she realized a few days ago that all she wanted tonight was a good meal and, perhaps more importantly, easy company. No family, no rituals, just her own quiet way of being grateful.

Having been brought up a bit of a heathen, and being in no mood on a plain old Monday night to cook everything from matzo ball soup to haroset, I thought up a simple meal for the two of us - an Asian-tinged risotto chock-full of pink shrimp, and a delicate little salad of shaved fennel and radishes dressed with sharp cider vinegar and crunchy little flakes of salt. With a crisp glass of white wine and plenty of fodder for a catch-up chat, I thought we were golden.

Until, of course, I started to wonder about the kosher-ness of the rice in my risotto. Wasn't there some kind of distant memory left over from the seders I was invited to as a child in Brookline, something about grains being forbidden and the Jews crossing through the dessert with nothing but matzo crackers and definitely, absolutely no grains of any kind? Unfortunately, it was a bit late for this kind of thinking. After all, the rice was stewing away on the stove and Becca was sitting happily and expectantly at the kitchen table.

Then Wikipedia swiftly came to the rescue, telling me that as long as wheat, oats, rye, spelt and barley weren't involved in my dinner, I wasn't leading my friend down a dark path. What sweet relief! I had myself a glass of wine.

But, of course, as perhaps many of my readers are chortling to themselves this very instant (it's not nice to make fun, you know), rice is a ridiculous thing to worry about when you've got shrimp, those dirty little bottom-feeders, resting plumply and placidly in their white and creamy starch-bound risotto beds, practically smug with pinkness and really, truly, totally un-kosher to the core.

Yes, that's right. I made my dear friend eat shrimp on Passover. I might just be on the express train to hell.

In my defense! I had no idea! I was all fixated on not feeding her any bread! Or forbidden grains! I'm not a very good half-Jew. In fact, technically, I'm not really one at all. I couldn't possibly have known!

Sob.

(Luckily - though I don't really want to get into it here, you know, wrath of the gods and all - the risotto was quite good, even though there's something about Asian flavors that really require sort of crisp, sharp textures and risotto, of course, is anything but crisp and sharp - it's like the world's most famous comfort food and is, therefore, by nature pillowy and soft, so I'm not entirely convinced that the flavor profile and the textural character of the dish is something to write home about, but I can't complain, really, because at the end of the day, I served shrimp on Passover and the fact that I wasn't smitten down at the table must have had something to do with the food. Or?)

(By the way, the salad was fantastic, but I don't think it's getting me a Get Out Of Jail For Free card anytime soon.)

I suppose I should note that Becca ate her dinner happily and with gusto. She had no problem with the bottom feeders and questionably immoral grains on her plate. In fact, she seemed grateful for the evening and the meal. She's such a good friend. Which leads me to my next question: if she vouches for me when we get to The Big Dinner Table In The Sky, do you think I'll be okay?

Asian Seafood Risotto
Serves 4

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 bulbs fresh lemon grass, chopped
1 tablespoon minced ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup finely chopped shallots
2 cups unsweetened coconut milk
2 cups fish stock
1 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon nuoc mam (Vietnamese fish sauce)
Juice of 2 limes
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1 pound medium shrimp, shelled and deveined
3 tablespoons minced mint
Salt and ground white pepper

1. Heat oil in a heavy saucepan. Add lemon grass, ginger, garlic and shallots, and saute over low heat until soft. Meanwhile, place coconut milk, stock, 1/2 cup wine, fish sauce and lime juice in another saucepan. Bring to a gentle simmer.

2. Add rice to saucepan with lemon grass and cook, stirring, a minute or two. Add remaining wine and cook, stirring, until it is absorbed. Add 1/2 cup coconut milk mixture and stir until it is absorbed, then continue adding the mixture, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring constantly. Rice should be al dente after 20 minutes.

3. Stir in shrimp; cook until they turn pink, 3 to 5 minutes. Fold in mint. Season with salt and pepper and divide among plates. Serve hot.