Monday, October 11, 2010

Noodling and Why I Save Ribbon

My cooking experience falls dramatically, woefully short when confronted by the many wonderful Asian cuisines. I have most of Europe down fairly well and can handle standard American fare, but pick a culture anywhere in Asia and odds are I have never even attempted to make even something simple from its rich culinary offerings. I don't think steaming a bag of frozen dumplings or boiling edamame counts as "cooking".

I am not normally the kind of person who tries out recipes in advance. I prefer to trust that whatever I make will be mostly edible and just go with it. Sometimes I'm wrong. But most of the time it all turns out fine. I do not believe in stressing out over cooking.

However, I had to take a different approach for the appetizer I made for the engagement party we threw for Christine and Kevin. We settled on a Chinese-Italian theme, with touches of Ohio, where they both grew up. I really wanted to make Chinese-inspired noodles and put them in Chinese takeout boxes, served with chopsticks. Having never made these before, I decided I would commit to them and then figure it out. Because cooking with these flavors is foreign to me (no pun intended), the week saw me testing several sesame noodle recipes, from here, here and here, in preparation for Saturday. In the end, I devised my own recipe, using bits of each, plus my own twist.

Kate's Sesame Noodles

Serves 6 as an appetizer or 4 as a meal

1 lb brown rice spaghetti or vermicelli (I think you can probably also use normal pasta but I didn't try that myself.)
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons tahini (sesame) paste
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons toasted (dark) sesame oil, divided
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon honey
2 teaspoons sriracha sauce (I love how widely available this has become. Look at Target or World Market if it's not at your grocery store. You can also use chili-garlic sauce or a smaller quantity of chili oil, or even Tabasco.)
3 scallions, trimmed and very finely sliced to within
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

1. Cook the noodles in a large pot of boiling, salted water. Stir them frequently for the first few minutes of cooking, otherwise they clump together. Cooking will probably take about 10 minutes. Test often after 8 minutes as you'll want to drain them while they are still toothsome but also fully cooked. (A little past al dente, whether you are using rice noodles or wheat noodles.)

2. While the noodles are boiling, whisk together all other ingredients except the scallions in a large bowl. 

3. Drain the noodles and rinse well under cold water. This is essential, so don't skip it. Otherwise the noodles are starchy and sticky and form a glutinous mass when combined with the sauce. Not good.

4. Dump the noodles into the sauce bowl. It's ok if they are a little wet. Toss the noodles with tongs so that the sauce gets fully distributed among them. All noodles should be completely coated.

5. Toss in most of the scallions (reserve a tablespoon or so) and re-toss with the tongs.

6. Serve in a bowl (or takeout container!) with chopsticks, sprinkling  the sesame seeds and some of the reserved scallions on top to garnish.

I am told that sticking the chopsticks in the food like this means "death" in Chinese culture.
Oops. So much for cultural sensitivity. I loved the presentation!

On a largely unrelated note, I thought it would be nice to have a rustic-elegant look for the food table so I got a bunch of sunflowers. I love fresh flowers. Always have. Always will. Any excuse to buy some flowers and I'm on it. Sunflowers I find somewhat challenging from a styling perspective because they are so stalky and top-heavy. I'm pretty pleased with my display solution here. The vase is actually a plastic pasta storage container, minus the lid. It's tall and sturdy enough to contain the sunflowers without tipping. 

My only challenge then was that the stalks were ugly. After brainstorming various solutions (sliced lemons, sliced limes, sliced oranges, berries, etc.) I decided I wanted something green (so as not to compete with the flower color) and something cheap that I could put in the vase to conceal them. Whole Foods presented me with some gigantic collard green leaves and a solution was born. I'm so pleased with the result, which was achieved by trimming and wrapping a single huge collard leaf around the stems, then putting the leaf-stem bundle in the vase and adding water. Keeping the ribbon super long lends a tiny bit of extravagance.

The ribbon, purchased at Perennials in Evanston, and previously worn as a dress sash at the Kellogg 2009 Charity Auction Ball ("A Black and White Gala"), is a leftover from my ribbon stash.

Never throw away good ribbon. It's a motto to live by.

I love how this looks with Blake and Britta's creamy yellowy dining room wall
and framed butterfly prints as a backdrop.

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