I don't think there's anything more satisfying--when eating, at least--than recognizing a craving, shopping for the ingredients needed to prepare it, cooking it, and, finally, sitting down to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Sure, it's a great feeling to go out and order a juicy, medium-rare burger when you get a sudden yen for beef, or to hunker down in a diner booth and slurp an icy chocolate milkshake when it's late at night and you're looking for some comfort food. But to really take that craving into your own hands--to see it through start to finish, making little tweaks here and there to ensure that what you'll eat is tailored precisely to your craving--for me, that's where it's at. Sometimes, when you have to work for your food, the payoff is that much greater.
That was precisely my experience earlier this evening, when, arriving home with an empty stomach, I was met by the sight of an equally empty fridge. Since I have to go shopping anyway, I thought to myself, I might as well figure out exactly what I'm in the mood for, and then shop around my craving. I wanted something light, crisp and refreshing; my usual winter go-to of a soup or a braise felt too heavy for the unseasonably warm temperatures in New York this weekend. I also wanted to make something packed with vegetables, as I planned to stop by Rossman Farms, an incredibly cheap, 24-hour fruit and vegetable wholesaler and retailer located right nearby on 25th Street. I thought noodles sounded about right, and an Asian-style rendition was particularly appealing. I had it: cold sesame noodles. A staple Chinese takeout favorite, I knew I could make my own for a lot less money, and that I could adapt the standard recipe to better suit my tastes--namely, by making it less sweet and gloopy than many of the versions I've tried in restaurants.
I already had peanut butter, sesame paste, and various Chinese seasonings in my pantry, so at Rossman's all I needed to pick up was a box of spaghetti, a red bell pepper, a bunch of green onions, a carrot, some cilantro, and, finally, as an impulse purchase, a daikon radish, a vegetable that I love but with which I'd never cooked. At home, I set a pot of water to boil, and then I set to work on my ingredients. I sliced up a chicken breast and slipped it into a quick marinade of soy sauce, sesame oil, Chinese cooking wine and red pepper flakes, and then I cut the bell pepper, carrot and daikon into long, thin strips, and sliced a few green onions into thin rounds:
After I added the pasta to the water, I mixed up my peanut sauce, which I've made a few times before and can by now more or less improvise. What I chose to use was a mix of peanut butter, Chinese sesame paste (akin to tahini, but with a sweeter, darker-roasted flavor), light soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, sugar, and fresh ginger, plus hot water to thin the sauce out. What you're looking for is a smooth, thick (but still pourable), creamy paste that's sweet but not overly so. To that end, you will need to continually taste it as you mix it, adding more soy sauce if it's not salty enough, more vinegar if it needs some bite and acidity, and more hot water if it's too thick. Here's the finished concoction (please forgive the splatter-stained bowl; it's a messy, sticky process):
When the noodles were just al dente, I drained them and rinsed them well under cold water, both to cool them down as well as to stop them from sticking. I tossed them with the sauce and added the prepared vegetables, and then I stuck the bowl into the fridge to chill it well. While waiting, I sauteed the chicken slices and laid them out on a plate to cool. Finally, I arranged my portion in one heaping bowl, showered the whole with more green onions and some torn cilantro, and dug in with my chopsticks:
As I had hoped, the toothsome noodles were cloaked in a velvety, peanutty smoothness which was punctuated by the crisp, cool sweetness of the pepper and the carrot, as well as by the peppery bite of the daikon and the green onions. The juicy chicken, although a nice touch, is not absolutely necessary here, and this dish would make a fabulously satisfying vegetarian option, either with or without some cold, pristine cubes of tofu. The one element that I forgot was a scattering of chopped, salted peanuts. Don't make my mistake: they would have contributed a rich, salty crunchiness. No matter, though: this meal was still absolutely delicious--craveable, even.
Cold Sesame Noodles with Vegetables
1. Set a large pot of water to boil.
2. If using chicken (optional), slice one chicken breast down the middle lenthwise, and then slice again, into small strips. Place chicken strips in a bowl with 1 tbsp. Chinese cooking wine, dry white wine or sherry; 1 tbsp. soy sauce; 1 tsp. toasted sesame oil; and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Set aside.
2. Slice 1 large bell pepper into thin, narrow strips. Peel 1 small carrot and 1 small daikon radish; carefully cut them lengthwise into long, flat planks and then slice them into long, narrow strips. Set vegetables aside.
3. When the water reaches a boil, salt it and add 1/2 pound of spaghetti, whole-wheat spaghetti, or Japanese soba noodles. Cook until al dente, about 8 - 10 minutes.
4. In the meantime, mix the peanut sauce: in a small bowl, combine about 2 tbsp. all-natural creamy peanut butter and 2 tsp. Chinese sesame paste or tahini. Alternatively, if you do not have sesame paste, you can use a mixture of about 3 tbsp. peanut butter and 1 tbsp. toasted sesame oil. Combine well, and then, using the hot pasta cooking water, add it about 1 tbsp. at a time, stirring all the while, until the paste is smooth and uniform. Add about 1 tbsp. light soy sauce, 1 tbsp. rice wine vinegar, and 2 tsp. granulated sugar. Mix well and add more hot water, if needed, to achieve a sauce that is thick but still pourable. Taste the sauce and adjust it by adding more soy sauce, vinegar, sugar or hot water, if needed. Add 1/2 tsp. grated fresh ginger and stir.
5. Drain the pasta and rinse it well under cold running water. Drain and then add the peanut sauce, tossing to coat. Add the prepared vegetables, stir, and place in the fridge to chill, about 20 minutes.
6. If using chicken, heat 1 tbsp. of vegetable oil in a heavy skillet set over a medium flame. Add the chicken and cook, stirring, about 6 - 8 minutes. Spread out on a plate to cool.
7. Serve noodles in bowls, adding chicken, if using, and garnishing with torn cilantro leaves, chopped scallions, and chopped salted peanuts.