Want to impress your family, friends, strangers? I have two words for you: peanut noodles.
For about the first 23 years of my existence, I considered myself one notch above hopeless in the kitchen. My parents were both gourmet cooks, but I it didn’t seem like I inherited those particular genes. I was a) a klutz with knives, heat, liquids, solids b) irritable when faced with a set of directions and c) fond of substituting low-fat items where they clearly didn’t belong.
One ambitious night in my college dorm kitchen, I slid raw chicken breast cubes and frozen vegetables onto a nonstick pan with cooking spray. After I was completely sure the chicken was solidly cooked, I added soy sauce. Voilà! Rubbery-dry charred chicken and flaccid veggies in salt flavor! Recurring flashbacks to this dinner might explain why I still don’t miss eating chicken.
When I wasn’t on a meal plan, I generally stuck to pre-packaged low-fat meals or someone else’s cooking. I was perhaps hoping that when I really needed home-cooked meals, I’d find a man like my dad who is a culinary expert.
Instead, at 23 I found myself in charge of dinner for my boyfriend, his brother and myself in a small, cramped kitchen in upstate NY. But something bizarre happened: I discovered an appreciative audience for my “cooking.” What was I making? Probably various canned or dried items mixed together in novel ways. Strangely, whatever I set in front of my housemates, they liked. In their defense, they were both active outdoor athletes in addition to regular jobs, so they could have just been really hungry. Whatever the explanation, their enthusiasm encouraged me to keep cooking and start experimenting. I finally even began to crack open my one cookbook.
That long ago December, I paged through Joy of Cooking trying to decide what to make for the annual Holiday Luncheon at work. I was a new teacher and eager to bring in a dish that would impress my colleagues. Spicy sesame peanut noodles. I missed the peanut noodles from the Chinese-Japanese restaurant only a few blocks from my NYC apartment in grad school the year before. Maybe I could recreate them.
The Joy of Cooking recipe involved many steps and many ingredients and as a first year English teacher, I was spending about 12 hours a day on schoolwork, but still, I was determined. At least it didn’t involve any fancy cutting or cooking techniques I didn’t know. Mostly it was a lot of mixing. The only actual cooking was the pasta, and even I could cook pasta.
My first attempt didn’t seem too promising. The peanut butter didn’t want to mix with the liquids and oils, and once I tossed it with the pasta, it all clumped up into an unappetizing mess. I kept adding liquids of various kinds before I presented the concoction to my usual audience, who, as usual, raved.
That living situation was just as ill-advised as it sounds, by the way, but sometimes I miss cooking for the two of them. I love cooking for my husband, Wayne, but he’s pickier, or at least more vocal about it. Perhaps that’s because he knows that if he doesn’t speak up he could be subject to some food he doesn’t like for the rest of his life.
After the luncheon, colleagues I’d barely met before sought me out in the copy room and the hallways to ask for the recipe, which I modified, printed and distributed. For quite a few Holiday Luncheons people kept asking me weeks ahead if I was going to make the peanut noodles. Each year I continued to tinker with the recipe.
Years later I made the peanut noodles for Wayne, expecting rave reviews and a plea to make it again. But he just said noncommittally, “It’s good.” Maybe he was looking around the kitchen at the aftermath. He used to try to get me to make dishes that don’t cause every surface to become coated in peanut butter or soy sauce. Fortunately, he’s since gotten over that.
Also, I was toying with a new recipe that called for a lot of raw garlic, and that always makes him nervous. More than once he’s walked into the kitchen, and said, “You’re not putting in all that garlic, are you? Don’t you remember what happened last time?”
I didn’t remember, of course, but I do wonder what that cookbook author could have been thinking. If I really used eight cloves of raw garlic, party guests would stagger around breathing fire on each other and knocking people unconscious.
For my friend Brenny’s pot-luck gathering last summer I made two pounds of the peanut noodles using a recipe I’d finally perfected. Nearly all of it was polished off amongst about ten people. A guest from New York City couldn’t get over the fact that I made those noodles. Contemplating my own year in New York City I can imagine why she thought Asian food only came from restaurants. This new recipe is surprisingly easy, though, and doesn’t require exotic ingredients and is always a hit. It kind of makes you feel like a celebrity chef, even if you aren’t cooking for two guys who like everything.
Spicy Chinese Sesame Peanut Noodles
Yields about 8 large appetizer servings.
If you like your noodles extra saucy, you can thin the sauce out with extra water or tea, or double the peanut sauce recipe, reserving the extra to pour over the noodles at the table.
- Two 9-0unce packages of fresh pasta or one pound dried pasta; cooked as directed, rinsed with cold water and tossed with sesame oil. (Any pasta will do, but fresh Chinese style noodles are my favorite for texture. I use Nasoya brand.)
- 1 cucumber, peeled and sliced (optional, for garnish)
- a handful of crushed roasted, unsalted peanuts (optional, for garnish)
- One ½-inch thick slice of ginger, peeled, and sliced in half
- 2 large cloves garlic
- 1 teaspoon Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce
- ½ cup smooth organic peanut butter
- ¼ cup soy sauce
- 3 TBS sugar or 1 ½ TBS agave nectar (lower glycemic index)
- 3 TBS rice wine vinegar
- 3 TBS toasted sesame oil
- ½ cup or more warm water or prepared black tea (keep adding if sauce gets too thick).
- In a blender, first add the garlic and ginger, and process until finely chopped.
- Add the hot sauce, peanut butter, soy sauce, sweetener, and rice vinegar and blend until smooth.
- Finally, add the sesame oil and process again.
- Remove the mixture from blender and slowly add the water until the sauce reaches a creamy but liquid consistency.
- Let stand at least a few minutes before tossing with the pasta. If the sauce becomes too thick, add more water. If it is too thin, wait a few minutes and it should thicken on its own. Otherwise, you can add more peanut butter. Right before serving, toss the pasta with half the sauce. Drizzle on more sauce if not all the noodles are coated. Arrange the cucumber slices artfully around the bowl. Set out the remaining sauce next to the pasta for people to drizzle on their own servings.
Serve at room temperature. Leftovers should be refrigerated, but taste best if allowed to reach room temp before eating.
If you’re lucky enough to still have extra sauce, it tastes great over cold or warm tofu. You can thin the sauce a bit with brewed tea and add a splash of extra vinegar to make a salad dressing.