Thursday, April 19, 2012

Cold spicy sweet tart nutty noodles from Sichuan

When the weather starts to heat up, I begin looking forward to making this super easy dish from the delicious province of Sichuan in central China. 

A land of muggy summers, Sichuan is the place where chili lovers make themselves sweat even more by consuming fiery foods. 

This might seem counter-intuitive, but it's all in tune with the thinking of traditional Chinese medicine, since this releases the pent-up heat in the body through perspiration, and so you feel cooler than before.

One such dish is called simply Cold Noodles and is nothing more than cooked, chilled noodles piled on top of blanched bean sprouts, topped with lots of veggies and either pressed bean curd or poached chicken strips, and then ornamented with lots of the spicy sauce known as "strange flavor" in Chinese.
It's all about balance


I don't know the origin of this name. Perhaps it is because it is an amalgam of every almost type of flavor there is: sweet, salty, sour, spicy, and nutty. You could throw some bitter in there and make it a home run, I guess, but I like it just the way it is.

This is another recipe that is open to interpretation, messing around, experimenting with. There really is no bad way to make cold noodles if you use good ingredients and make sure everything goes well with each other.

The classic ingredients here are -- in addition to the cold noodles -- blanched bean sprouts and shredded poached chicken. But even those are really subject to what you like and what you have in the fridge. 


Fresh mung bean sprouts
Here I've substituted baiye bean curd (like a softer pressed tofu) for the chicken to make a meatless version, and it was great. As for the veggies, just about anything is fine as long as it is refreshing and preferably slightly crunchy. If you can have some contrasting colors, so much the better.

Things like tomatoes wouldn't go very well in here because of their assertive flavor and soft texture. But shredded carrots, cucumbers, green onions, celery, sweet red peppers, and so forth get along quite well with the noodles and bean sprouts without overpowering all of the other flavors going on in the bowl.

Why blanched bean sprouts under the noodles? It may be hard to imagine just from the description, but they add a wonderful lightness to the noodles. Crisp and juicy, they mingle delightfully with the starchy yellow strands and add complexity and refreshment to each bite.


Assorted veggies and tofu
I've incorporated the Citrus Chili Oil with Black Beans in the previous post here, and it is amazing how much it adds to the flavors. The tiny bits of fermented black beans provide pungent, salty notes while the orange peel and ground chili tantalize the taste buds. Then, the sugar, vinegar, and soy sauce round out the nutty flavors of sesame oil and paste, while finely ground roasted Sichuan peppercorns tingle the nose.

Dishes like this make living in a hot, sweaty climate something worth enduring!

Cold noodles Sichuan style 
Sichuan liangmian 四川涼麵
Sichuan
Serves 4 as a main dish

Noodles and toppings:
24 ounces (about 4 cups) mung bean sprouts
Filtered water as needed
1 pound fresh Chinese noodles of any kind
1 cup shredded poached chicken or julienned pressed bean curd
2 or 3 green onions, trimmed and shredded
2 Persian or other tender cucumbers and/or
1 carrot, shredded and/or
Half a sweet red pepper and/or
1 large stalk celery and/or
Handful of blanched snow pea pods and/or any other vegetable you'd like here

Sauce:
10 to 12 tablespoons goop from the Citrus Chili Oil
6 to 8 tablespoons oil from the Citrus Chili Oil
4 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
6 tablespoons roasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons good regular soy sauce
2 tablespoons roasted sesame paste or peanut butter
2 teaspoons roasted ground Sichuan peppercorns

1. Blanch the bean sprouts by putting them in a 2-quart saucepan, covering them with water, and bringing the pot to a boil. The sprouts are ready when they have lost that "beany" flavor but are still crispy; do not overcook them. Immediately dump the pot into a colander place in the sink and run cold water over the bean sprouts to stop them from cooking any further. Drain and shake the sprouts in the colander to get rid of most of the water. Divide the cook sprouts among 4 large noodle bowls.


Loosen the noodles before boiling
2. Fill the saucepan halfway with water and bring it to a boil. While it is heating up, open the noodles and run your fingers through them to break up the clump. (I dump them in a big bowl if they are particularly knotted up and work the clumps loose.) Add the noodles to the boiling water in small handfuls, and stir the noodles as you add them. Stir occasionally until the water comes to a boil again, and then lower the heat to medium. The noodles will cook quickly, and you should start tasting them as soon as they rise to the surface. When they have cooked through but are still chewy, dump the water and noodles into the colander place in the sink and run water over the noodles until they are cool. Shake them dry and divide the noodles among the 4 bowls.

3. Shred or finely julienned the rest of the toppings and arrange them on top of the noodles in a decorative manner.

4. Mix the sauce ingredients together until smooth. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Pour an equal amount over each bowl and serve. Let your diners toss the noodles themselves.

Tips
Rinse the boiled noodles

Fresh noodles taste best here, but dried can be substituted if you like. 

Buy bean sprouts no more than a day before you want to use them, as they spoil quickly. They keep best in a container covered with water and stored in the refrigerator.

Use other chili oils if you like; just make sure that they are fresh and very flavorful, as they make or break this dish.

If your sesame paste or peanut butter is hard, microwave it to make it smooth.

To make roasted ground Sichuan peppercorns, follow the directions for Roasted Sichuan Peppercorn and Salt, but don't use the salt; just toast the peppercorns, grind finely, and sift to remove any hard pieces.

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