What I’m cooking: Chinese Noodles for All Occasions, including Falling in Love

Summer has finally arrived!  This means that most days I do not feel like turning on the oven or generating much heat.

Do you remember back in the day when we used to buy cookbooks, with money, in bookstores?  Today you can find any recipe you can conceive of in a Google heartbeat, but there was a time when recipes had to be tracked down, collected, catalogued ….  I have a paperback cookbook called Fresh Ways with Pasta that I picked up for $5 from a Barnes and Noble bargain book table a couple of decades ago, and it has stuck with me ever since.  I was younger then and still learning how to cook.  Not a great improviser, all I knew about cooking was this: Find a great recipe, follow the recipe to the letter, and do not lose that recipe.  What I was learning was that some recipes just work, and they are crowd-pleasers, and you hold on to them.

This particular recipe is named Szechuan Noodles with Beef, but the title is dubious. They are more like generic Chinese noodles.  What is fabulous about this recipe is that the longish ingredient list gives it a lovely, balanced, light flavor with some umami from the beef and mushrooms.  They can be made ahead and served warm, cold, or in between.  You can swap out the beef for edamame or tofu to make them vegan.  If you double the recipe you can easily feed a crowd, so I take this to potlucks, where people slurp up the noodles and ask for the recipe.

This recipe also has a special place in my heart because it’s the first dinner I ever made for my husband.  I don’t know why I chose it except that it was probably the best thing that I knew how to make at the time.  I still remember sharing these noodles with him by candlelight in my small Cambridge apartment, where the table was in a little nook surrounded by windows that gave it the effect of being inside a lighthouse, especially on a dark January night.  Afterwards we went to see Princess Mononoke at the Kendall Square Theatre.

But it’s not just for sentimental reasons that I am still making these noodles.  I keep making them because they are perfect, and when you find something perfect, you hold onto it.  This week we celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary.  A lot of people say that marriage is hard work, but my secret, which makes for the worst relationship advice ever, is this:

If you are lucky enough to find the right person, then it doesn’t feel like work at all.

Life is work.  Life is hard.  But for reasons that I do not understand at all, being married to Rob is easy.  For years I thought that we were just lucky because we hadn’t been tested by real misfortune or challenges.  But then this past year happened.  And even as the whole world became warped and unfathomable and menacing, our marriage was as solid and warm and comforting as ever.

You know how in every romantic comedy the two leads bicker adorably to create dramatic tension?  Well, we don’t do that.  We’re more like the sidekicks to the two leads, like Carrie Fisher and That Other Guy in When Harry Met Sally, like Sarah Paulson and David Hyde Pierce in Down with Love.  So, if you’re looking for your Mr. Darcy, my advice is STOP. Start looking for your Mr. Bingley.  As Mr. Bennet says to Jane, “I have great pleasure in thinking you will be so happily settled. I have not a doubt of your doing very well together. Your tempers are by no means unlike. You are each of you so complying, that nothing will ever be resolved on….”  That’s me and my sweetie.

In our wedding ceremony 15 years ago today, Rob’s sister read part of Haruki Murakami’s short story, “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One April Morning.”  So Gen X we were, tempering our romantic idealism with a self-conscious wink to the absurdity of finding “the 100% perfect girl/boy.” Even today, I delight in the unnecessary, goofy assertion of 100% perfection.

When you find something perfect, you hold onto it.  Ooo, that’s what they should be called.

100% Percent Perfect Chinese Noodles

Ingredients

1 lb Chinese egg noodles or rice noodles (I use white rice spaghetti from Pasta Joy)
12 oz lean beef sirloin
8 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in very hot water for 20 minutes and drained

Sesame-soy marinade

4 T soy sauce or tamari
2 T Chinese black vinegar or balsamic vinegar
2T rice vinegar
1-2 tsp chili paste with garlic
1-2 tsp grated fresh ginger root
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp dark sesame oil
2 T canola or other neutral oil
2 T toasted sesame seeds, crushed with a mortar and pestle
5 spring onions, very finely chopped
handful fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped

Garnish

1 small cucumber, thinly sliced
toasted sesame seeds
fresh cilantro

  1. Combine the marinade ingredients in a bowl and set aside.
  2. Cut the beef across the grain into julienne about 1.5 inches long and 1/8 inch thick.  Cut off and discard mushroom stems and slice the caps into thin strips.  Combine the beef, mushrooms, and spring onions with one third of the marinade.  Let this mixture sit for 30 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, put water on to boil cook noodles.  When they are finished, drain them and rinse with cold water so that they do not stick together or overcook.
  4. Heat 2 T of oil in a heavy frying pan or wok until very hot.  Add the beef/mushroom/onion mixture to the pan, allowing excess marinade to drain off into the bowl.  Saute just until beef loses its pink color, about 2 minutes.
  5. Place the noodles in a large serving bowl.  Add the ramaining marinade and toss with noodles.  Make a shallow well in the center of the noodles and spoon the beef mixture into the well.  Garnish with cilantro, sesame seeds, sliced cucumber.