Sunday, March 20, 2011

Noodles


The one thing I didn’t fully consider when I made the move west from New York City 14 years ago was the food situation. When I told my landlord in New York that we were moving to Los Angeles, he said, “Oy! No place to eat!”

I understood his viewpoint. Within a 10-block walk north or south in our Upper West Side neighborhood there was great Chinese, Southern, Kosher, Cajun, Mexican (several different kinds!), South American, pizza, bagels, and pretty much any other thing you felt like eating.

The first few years in Los Angeles were challenging, but I eventually found good bagels and decent pizza―the two things ex-pat New Yorkers most complain about. Szechuan Chinese is also elusive in Los Angeles, and notably absent is one of my favorite dishes, cold sesame noodles. I love cold sesame noodles so much, I should probably write an entire book dedicated to them, or at least a song.

When I got pregnant with Max, I had just started a staff job at an art-history magazine in Soho. Chinatown, Little Italy and the West Village were all within lunchtime walking distance, but for the first four and a half months of my pregnancy all I could stomach was blueberry Pop-Tarts. Then I flew to Los Angeles for work and something shifted. Maybe it was the warm ocean breeze in Santa Monica; flying over Sedona, Arizona; or a glitch in the matrix, but my appetite returned in full force.

Back in New York, lunchtime became an adventure. For the next 10 weeks, until the massive heartburn kicked in, I could eat anything. I would often walk up to a hole-in-the-wall Szechuan place near NYU and order my beloved cold noodles: no meat, no bean sprouts and extra carrots. Some days they’d be more peppery than others, but the noodles were always perfectly cooked and cold―nothing is worse than warm cold noodles―and the cucumbers and carrots were always crispy and refreshing.

When I finally found good cold noodles in Los Angeles (Pasadena, actually, at Yang Chow), after many heartbreaking tries, I knew I’d be hunkering down here for a while. I guess it’s no wonder that Max also loves cold noodles, with no bean sprouts or meat. Or vegetables.

I’d been trying for several years to make these at home. Each attempt was hotly anticipated, but always ended in misery, with Max pushing away his bowl, telling me, “These don’t taste anything like Yang Chow,” and me discarding the remains. Then I found a recipe for them in Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. I tweaked it a bit and finally came up with something both Max and I liked. When I make these at home, I make sure to eat some before Max is around because once he sits down to consume, it isn’t long before the bowl is empty and he’s asking when I’m going to make some more.

Cold Peanut-Sesame Noodles
Vegan
Serves 4, or 1 if you are a teenage boy

I like crunchy peanut butter for this but smooth is just as good. If you want to add bean sprouts or chicken, feel free. You can also add some minced scallions as a garnish. The heat is a bit on the tame side, so if you like hotter sauce, add more cayenne or some chili oil. Whatever you do, don’t eat these warm. Really cool them off before combining with the sauce. Warm cold noodles put me in a foul mood, and I wouldn’t want you to think they aren’t worthy simply because you didn’t cool them off enough.

Salt
1 cup peanut butter
3 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon agave nectar
3 tablespoons soy sauce, or to taste
1 teaspoons ground ginger
1 tablespoon mirin
½ tablespoon rice vinegar
Dash cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound spaghetti or other long noodle
1 large cucumber
2 large carrots
Roasted sesame seeds for garnish
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt it liberally.
2. While water is coming to a boil, whisk together peanut butter, sesame oil, agave, soy sauce, ground ginger, mirin, rice vinegar, cayenne and black peppers. When water boils, before adding the noodles, take out ¾ cup water and whisk in to the sauce. Sauce should be the consistency of heavy cream. Taste it and add more of whatever you think it needs―ginger, soy sauce, agave, pepper. Put it in the fridge until you’re ready to use it.
3. Cook noodles per package instructions. Drain and run under cold water until the heat is gone. Drain again. Run under cool water again. Drain. Can you see how serious I am about getting the heat off the noodles?
4. Whisk sauce and toss noodles with it. Peel carrots and cucumber and shave off strips. Top noodles with them. Sprinkle a bit of salt onto the veggies. Garnish with roasted sesame seeds. Leftovers will keep in the fridge for a few days. Unless you have a teenager.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Nutella


A while ago, Max and I were watching TV and a Nutella commercial came on. The commercial, which I had never seen before, touted the nutritional benefits of the chocolate-hazelnut spread and said it was part of a healthy breakfast. When the commercial was over, Max said, “Is that a commercial from Saturday Night Live? That can’t be a real commercial.” When I told him I thought it was a real commercial he couldn’t stop laughing. Max wasn’t around when Cap’n Crunch was advertised the same way so he has no point of reference.

We pulled out the almost-empty jar of Nutella we had in the cupboard to see its nutritional benefits for ourselves. Per tablespoon there is 1 gram of protein, 6 grams of fat and 11 grams of sugar. Still waiting for the nutritional benefits? Me too. Okay, so it’s not healthy. It’s creamy, sweet perfection in a recyclable plastic jar.

I came to Nutella late in life. I had often heard people talk about it and I had seen it in the grocery store, but I abstained until a few years ago. I saw a recipe for crêpes in an old issue of Vegetarian Times. I’d wanted to make crêpes for a while, so I was happy to find such an easy recipe. The only filling mentioned that really spoke to me was Nutella. I love chocolate and I love hazelnuts, so, I figured, it was time to dive right into the crêpes and the Nutella.

I don’t think I could eat crêpes filled with anything else now. I’ve tried. Max prefers butter and raspberry jam, so I gave that a go. Not even close. I keep saying I’m going to sauté apple slices in butter and brown sugar for the filling, but I’ve yet to do that. Nutella has a hold on me that I think only a baseball bat to the skull can break. Nah, probably not even that.

Parisian-style Sweet Crêpes
Makes 8 crêpes
From Vegetarian Times, September 2009

Don’t feel boxed in by my Nutella habit, you can fill these with just about anything you want. The recipe calls for ⅓ cup of sugar, but I use about 2 tablespoons.  The batter keeps in the fridge for a few days, so if you want to make just a few crêpes at a time you can. After refrigerating, you have to mix it up a bit before you start crêpeing. I’ve used almond milk when I didn’t have regular milk, and it was quite tasty.

You’re supposed to dip a paper towel into some canola oil and run it over a nonstick pan for greasing. (Yup, you need a nonstick pan.) Sometimes I forget to do this and pour a little oil directly into the pan. I’ve lived to tell about it, so I think you can go either way.

1¼ cups all-purpose flour
⅓ cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 cup low-fat milk (or whatever milk you have in the fridge)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Canola oil

1. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar and salt. Whisk in egg; mixture will be shaggy. (This is Vegetarian Times speak. I looked for a definition for this, and I couldn’t find one. It means, I think, that it will look like you need to add more egg. You don’t.) Whisk in milk ¼ cup at a time. Whisk in vanilla.  Cover and chill 30 minutes or as long as overnight. (I do overnight all the time.)
2. Whisk ¼ to ½ cup water into batter to thin. (I use ¼ cup.) Lightly grease nonstick skillet pan with canola oil. Heat pan over medium-high heat.
3. Pour ¼ cup batter into hot pan, tilting pan to swirl batter so it coats bottom of pan. Cook 1 to 2 minutes or until edges begin to brown and center is dry. Flip (with or without the aid of a spatula). Cook about 1 minute more.
4. Transfer crêpe to plate, and repeat with remaining batter. Before serving: Reheat 1 minute in lightly greased skillet. Spread with whatever fillings you like, fold in quarters and feed people.