Cold sesame noodles: the quest continues
I think that this is becoming one of my life’s passions. Perhaps my single favorite bring-along dish when we go avisitin’ in the summertime is cold Asian sesame noodles–peanut noodles, for those of you who have been following along or catching the occasional posts I jam into this space. It’s also my favorite food, one that I am in constant movement toward the perfect version of this well-known and highly popular dish.
Sesame noodles. Just the words themselves send me into paroxysms of joy. Thinking about them make me quiver and want to try yet another version.
I won a local cooking prize once with my original version, which is not really my version, but rather a gift recipe given to me by a friend more than 30 years ago. Since then I have tweaked and twirled the recipe, made it twice weekly for a late, lamented gourmet shop in Ardmore, PA (where the chef gave me wonderful input for moving the recipe closer toward perfect), produced at least two dozen different versions for my own edification–always in the service of finding one single blend that might become my “always” recipe.
The difference in the recipes is always the sauce (duh!). There are as many different versions of the sauce as there are versions of Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust. At least.
I took a stab at a recipe I found courtesy of the New York Times that was touted as “authentic,” one that stated the opinion that if it contained peanut butter it’s not sesame noodles (to that I retort: Bosh!!). That recipe was good–great, actually, but it wasn’t “The One.”
So on goes the search.
I found another recipe I decided to try that seems more authentic, and I made that, twice, the first time exactly as the recipe was written and then with a couple of tiny tweaks that I have found actually made my own version better.
So, because I understand that cold sesame noodle salad is entirely a personal preference thing, I’m going to present you with my latest attempt at perfection, one I got from a Vietnamese cook who swears that this is the true authentic cold sesame-noodle salad. Try this one on for size:
SICHUAN COLD NOODLE SALAD
8 ounces flat rice noodles
2 ribs celery, thinly sliced on the diagonal
1 large carrot, julienne cut
8 ounces fresh bean sprouts
3 tablespoons Chinese sesame paste (acceptable substitution is 2½ tablespoons tahini and 1½ teaspoon toasted sesame-seed oil)
2 tablespoons Chinese brown-rice vinegar
2½ tablespoons regular soy sauce
1½ teaspoons dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon Chinese chili paste (or more, or less, as you prefer)
1 heaping teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns, toasted and coarsely ground with a mortar and pestle
2 tablespoons toasted sesame-seed oil
12 ounces poached chicken breast, hand shredded
2 scallions, green parts only, cut into thin rounds
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
Cook the noodles according to the package instructions, always using the minimum recommended cooking time. Add the celery and carrot, cook one minute more, then plunge the noodles into cold water. Important tip: Do not overcook the noodles, they become mushy very quickly. Flush with cold water twice, until the water runs clear, and drain well. Toss with one tablespoon toasted sesame-seed oil and set aside.
Stir together all the sauce ingredients except the toasted peppers until smooth and well mixed. Taste and tweak the flavors with the sauce ingredients to find the blend of tangy, spicy, salty, and sweet that suits your taste. It should be slightly more pungent than you want, because the other ingredients will dilute the flavor a bit. When you are happy with the flavor, add the toasted peppercorns and mix well. Allow to rest about 10 minutes before mixing into the sauce (the sauce can be held in the refrigerator up to 3 days; allow it to come to room temperature and stir well before using).
To serve, toss the noodles, bean sprouts, and the chicken in a large bowl, add the remaining sesame-seed oil, pour the sauce over the top, toss once gently, and sprinkle with the sesame seeds and green onions.
You can also consider other optional ingredients to add: shredded red cabbage, julienned broccoli stems, dried tofu cubes, coarsely chopped peanuts, sliced water chestnuts, chopped fresh basil or cilantro.
Perfect? Pretty darn close. This version of the recipe allows you to adjust the flavors for yourself to find the blend that pleases you.
Isn’t that the essence of cooking?