Spicy Cold Noodles with Sesame Tahini (Dandan mian)

This noodle dish is originally from Sichuan and appears on many a restaurant menu with varying degrees of spiciness. You can buy chili oil in most conventional grocery’s Asian section, or if you live near an Asian market, try some of the ones you see that have the chili flakes still in them (which is what many Chinese restaurants have as a condiment on the table). Better still, you can make your own by heating cooking oil, then adding dried chili flakes and letting it steep off the heat for 24 h. That way you can play with the type of chili used, the type of oil you want, etc. Tahini (ground sesame paste, found in most varieties of hummus) can usually be found in the Middle Eastern section of conventional stores or in whole food/health food stores. Don’t have hummus? Natural peanut butter (NOT a brand like Jif, Skippy, etc.) makes a great substitute! Served with a green vegetable or a vegetable soup, this makes a great quick lunch.

ingredients:

  • 12 oz noodles – you can use dried Chinese noodles in your favorite width or even spaghetti, linguine, or fettucine.
  • 2 T sesame tahini
  • 1 T fresh ginger root, minced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 T sesame oil
  • 1 T red pepper oil (or to taste)
  • 1 T rice wine or cider vinegar

garnish (optional):

  • 1 tsp sesame or chili oil
  • 2 tsp toasted sesame seeds – a mix of black and white is particularly pretty.

method:

  1. Bring a pot of water to a boil, then cook the noodles until they are done – this is not a recipe for al dente pasta. Immediately rinse with cold water and drain thoroughly.
  2. While the noodles drain, combine the sauce ingredients.
  3. Combine noodles with sauce, drizzle with some sesame or chili oil and garnish with sesame seeds if desired, and serve.

nutritional data:

I’ve used spaghetti for this calculation and left out the garnishes. The recipe serves 4, figures given are per serving.

  • Total calories 420, calories from fat 104
  • Total fat 12 g, saturated fat 2 g
  • Cholesterol 0 mg
  • Sodium 14 mg
  • Total carbs 65 g, dietary fiber 3 g, sugars 2 g
  • Protein 12 g
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Calorie Counting

Starting this past summer, New York chains with more than 15 stores were required to post calorie content of food next to the price on the menu. It seems that the wait is over for those who were wondering what sort of impact new nutrition labeling laws would have. The New York Times dining section today has an article titled “Calories Do Count”, which examines the effect (or lack of effect) that the new rules have had on not just the public but the restaurants.

There’s a clever tip of the hat to the current economic crisis:

For the last few decades, the most popular diets were complex formulas that promised abundant eating with just the right combinations of fat, protein and carbohydrates. Now those regimens are starting to look like exotic mortgages and other risky financing instruments. And just like a reliable savings account, good old calorie counting is coming back into fashion.

And the requisite “both sides of the coin” reporting about the consumers (even more of that in the comments on the article).

But I found it interesting that one connection that the article doesn’t appear to make is between the consumers and their rapidly thinning wallets. (No, I wasn’t going to say “waistlines”!) The article works on the assumption that most people will visit a chain restaurant at least once a week, if not once a day. I understand that this is pretty common in our country, particularly in our cities, where these chains thrive, but will this still be true in a time when people won’t have the money to spend on eating out? It’s pretty clear from the article that restaurant prices are not coming down, even as portions decrease to make the calorie count less eye-popping.

I’m not so much interested in what the restaurants are doing to respond to the consumer response to posting calories as I am in seeing whether the consumers go back to cooking from scratch and following other, simpler eating guidelines like Michael Pollan’s “Eat [real] food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” and “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” As someone who used to love to eat out, I find it increasingly difficult to do so – unless I’m really going to splurge on an excellent restaurant that offers food that meets my criteria beyond taste (local, sustainably raised, organic…), I’d rather keep my money going to the farmers’ market and cook it myself.

Stirfried Long Beans (or Green Beans)

This is an enormously popular restaurant dish that can be easily made at home. It is one dish, however, that often suffers from the fact that a domestic stove simply doesn’t generate enough BTUs to replicate the slightly shrunken, lightly browned appearance of the beans that you get in a restaurant. Some restaurants will deep-fry the beans before stir-frying, a practice that I don’t replicate at home because of the health implications (and also because I hate the smell of fried food that tends to linger long after the dish is gone!) Our solution has been to use the highest heat your stove can muster, DON’T use a non-stick wok, and cook the beans a little longer than you think you should – they should be cooked through and slightly limp, NOT crisp-tender, which is so often the goal. Long beans tend to be a bit smaller in diameter and also a bit drier in texture, so they work better, but don’t let that stop you if what you have is green beans – they’re a fine substitution.

I have a recipe that includes preserved mustard greens, but since I’ve started using fewer processed foods in my cooking, I’ve decided that the dish is actually just as good without that ingredient. If you have access to an Asian market and would like to add it, it’s usually found canned and sometimes somewhat humorously labeled “preserved Chinese roots.” (We used to wonder if feeding them to our kids would make them more aware of the Chinese side of their heritage.) Simply mince 2 oz and add to the dish with the mushrooms. Another ingredient you can add is the tiny dried shrimp found in Asian markets. In Mandarin they’re called “shrimp rice” due to their tiny size, sort of equivalent to a grain of rice. 2 T of these can be added with the garlic.

ingredients:

  • 10 oz long beans or green beans, rinsed, ends removed and cut into 2″ lengths
  • 3 fresh shiitake mushrooms (or dried, rehydradted, water reserved for other uses), stems reserved for making broth, caps minced
  • 1 T oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 T light soy sauce
  • 1 tsp raw cane or light brown sugar
  • salt to taste (you may not need any)

garnish:

  • 1 scallion, minced
  • 1 red chili pepper, seeded (or not) and minced

method:

  1. Heat the oil in the wok over high heat until it shimmers.
  2. Explode the garlic just until fragrant, then add the mushrooms and stirfry quickly for 15 seconds.
  3. Add the beans and cook until they are a bit shrunken and have light brown spots on them. You needn’t stir constantly, and you can speed up the cooking process by lightly covering the wok if you’d like.
  4. Add the soy sauce and sugar, stir to combine, adjust seasoning, then remove to a plate.
  5. Garnish with scallion and chili pepper, and serve.

nutritional data:

The recipe serves 4 as part of a larger meal, and figures are given per serving.

  • Total calories 75, calories from fat 32
  • Total fat 4 g, saturated fat 1 g
  • Cholesterol 0 mg
  • Sodium 258 mg
  • Total carbs 10 g, dietary fiber 3 g , sugars 3 g
  • Protein 2 g

Dong’an Chicken

This dish is from the town of Dong’an in Hunan province, and it is unusual in that it uses chicken that has been precooked. Be sure not to overcook the chicken during the precooking stage, or it will be tough. As always, I recommend you find pastured chicken – your taste buds will thank you, and you’ll do both your health and the environment a favor when you choose sustainably raised poultry.

ingredients:

  • 6 chicken thighs
  • 3 scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal
  • 1 T fresh ginger root, cut into thin shreds
  • 1 tsp Sichuan peppercorn or other peppercorn
  • 2 red chilies, seeded (or not!) and cut into thin shreds
  • 2 stalks Chinese celery or regular celery, sliced thinly on the diagonal
  • 2 T oil

marinade:

  • 1 T light soy sauce
  • 1 tsp cornstarch
  • 1/4 tsp salt

sauce:

method:

  1. Rinse the chicken thighs and remove the skin if you prefer, then place into 4 c of water in a saucepan (they should be just covered with water – add more as needed). Cover, bring to a boil, immediately remove to a bare simmer, and cook for 5 m. If you boil too vigorously, the meat will be tough.
  2. Combine the marinade ingredients in one bowl, the sauce ingredients in another, and set aside.
  3. Remove chicken to a plate until cool enough to handle, reserving the broth for another purpose.
  4. Cut down the middle of each thigh, remove the bone, then cut against the grain into 1/2″ thick slices.
  5. Combine the chicken with the marinade and allow to rest for 15 m or more.
  6. Heat 1 T oil in the wok over high heat until it shimmers, explode the chili pepper shreds just until fragrant, then add the celery and stirfry 15 seconds. Remove to a plate.
  7. Add 1 T oil, heat until it shimmers, then add the peppercorns, removing as soon as they brown. Explode the ginger until fragrant, add the chicken, and stirfry 1 m.
  8. Return the celery and chili peppers, add the scallions, and stirfry just to heat through and combine.
  9. Add the sauce and stir constantly until thick and clear and the starchy taste is cooked out, approximately 1 m more.
  10. Adjust seasoning and serve.

nutritional data:

This recipe serves four, and figures are given per serving. I have chosen to leave the skin on the chicken, but if you are trying to lower your fat intake, it can be removed before simmering the chicken. Trying to reduce sodium intake – you can decrease the amount of salt and/or soy sauce used.

  • Total calories 290, calories from fat 182
  • Total fat 20 g, saturated fat 5 g
  • Cholesterol 72 mg
  • Sodium 505 mg
  • Total carbs 10 g, dietary fiber 2 g, sugars 3 g
  • Protein 17 g

Stirfried Noodles (Chow mein/Chao mian)

This is the ultimate “what’s in the fridge” dish: to the basic recipe, you can add whatever ingredients you happen to have on hand or whatever catches your eye at the market! I’m giving a simple, vegan version here, but you can also add some marinated, stirfried beef, pork, chicken, or seafood. Fresh Asian noodles are available in the refrigerated section of many conventional groceries now – you can play around with the thickness that you prefer, although the thinner strands tend to work better for this recipe.

ingredients:

  • 3/4 lb fresh noodles or 1/2 lb dried Chinese noodles (or even spaghetti)
  • 6 fresh shiitake mushrooms, caps sliced 1/4″ thick, stems reserved for making broth
  • 1/4 lb napa or regular cabbage, cut into 1/4″ shreds
  • 2-3 T oil
  • 2 T light or dark soy sauce
  • salt, to taste

method:

  1. Bring a pot of water to a boil, cut or break the noodles into 5-6″ sections and cook until just done – if you overcook at this point, you’ll have trouble stirfrying. Immediately drain and rinse with cold water – this stops the cooking process and washes away starch that would glue the noodles together, making it difficult to stirfry.
  2. Heat 2 T oil in the wok over high heat until it shimmers. Stirfry the cabbage for 1 m, then add the mushrooms and stirfry 1 m more. Remove to a plate, leaving the oil behind.
  3. If necessary, add 1 T oil, then add the noodles, stirfrying quickly to separate and heat through. Add the vegetables back, stir to combine and heat through.
  4. Adjust seasoning and serve.

variations:

  • Marinate 1/2 c shredded beef/pork/chicken or diced shrimp/sliced squid/bay or sea scallops in 1 tsp Shaoxing cooking wine, 1 tsp soy sauce, 1 tsp cornstarch for 15 m. Stirfry separately after vegetables, then add vegetables and noodles to combine thoroughly and heat through.
  • You can add just about any vegetable you like – be sure to cut it small or precook using the blanch and shock method. Broccoli and/or cauliflower florets, shredded or thinly sliced carrots, snow peas or celery sliced on the diagonal,… the possibilities are limited only by your imagination and your budget.

nutrition data:

For my calculations I’ve used light soy sauce, spaghetti noodles, regular cabbage, and no added salt. If you want to reduce the sodium content, you can try reducing the amount of soy sauce even further. This recipe serves 4 as part of a larger meal or 2 as a complete meal. Figures are give for 1/4 of the recipe.

  • Total calories 298, calories from fat 70
  • Total fat 8 g, saturated fat 1 g
  • Cholesterol 0 mg
  • Sodium 512 mg
  • Total carbs 48 g, dietary fiber 3 g, sugars 3 g
  • Protein 9 g

Michael Pollan for Foodie in Chief

It’s been a busy month for Michael Pollan:

An open letter in the New York Times to the president-elect.

An interview on Fresh Air titled “Food as a National Security Issue.”

A talk on Zeitgest ’08: The Google Partner Forum on “Serious Sustainability” – here from YouTube:

I was just thinking that there needs to be someone in the new administration to deal with our growing national food crisis, when the same answer seems to be springing up everywhere: Michael Pollan for Foodie in Chief! After all, someone is going to need to be overseeing the new White House chef and the new farmer in chief as they go about tearing up the South Lawn for their kitchen garden….

Seriously, though, this man is amazing. He is extremely intelligent, thoughtful, and passionate – I know that in our over-scheduled world, it’s hard to carve out time to read the paper or watch a 24-minute video, much less listen to a 40-minute interview, but they’re all supremely worth the time invested if you care about where our food supply is headed.

Stirfried Squid with Chinese Celery

If you are interested in eating sustainable seafood, squid seems to be a fairly good alternative – Montere Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch lists several good alternatives as well as a best choice (US Atlantic longfin, trawl-caught) and no flashing-light “avoid this!” The trick with squid is to avoid overcooking at all costs, or you will end up with a plateful of rubber bands. Squid is usually available frozen and/or fresh at most seafood counters and more and more often appears at farmers’ markets that boast a fish vendor.

 If you live near an Asian market or know of an Asian produce vendor, look for Chinese celery (qincai)  – it’s a bit darker and thinner than our American celery and has a stronger taste.

ingredients:

  • 10 oz squid, cleaned
  • 2 stalks Chinese celery or 1 large stalk celery
  • 2 scallions
  • 1 fresh red chili, seeded or not, according to your heat tolerance
  • 3 slices fresh ginger root, peeled
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 T oil
  • 1 tsp light soy sauce

method:

  1. Rinse the squid and pat dry. Cut off the tentacles and remove the hard “beak” in their center. Cut the body open so you can lay it flat, then score the flesh at 1/2 ” intervals with a sharp knife, first one way, then the other way just short of perpendicular – you should have a checkerboard pattern.
  2. Cut the celery into 1.5″ sections, then into 1/2″ wide sticks.
  3. Cut the scallions into 1.5″ lengths.
  4. Cut the ginger and chili pepper into thin strips.
  5. Heat the oil in the wok over high heat until it shimmers.
  6. Explode the scallions, chili pepper, ginger and garlic until fragrant.
  7. Add the squid and celery, reduce the heat to medium-high and stirfry 1-2 m, just until the squid is cooked through and the celery is crisp-tender.
  8. Add the soy sauce, adjust the seasoning to taste, and serve.

nutrition data:

As with most mollusks, squid is relatively high in cholesterol – if you try to watch your cholesterol intake, be sure to serve this with plenty of brown rice and some vegetable-centric side dishes. The recipe serves 4, and figures given are per serving.

  • Total calories 111, calories from fat 41
  • Total fat 5 g, saturated fat 1 g
  • Cholesterol 165 mg
  • Sodium 130 mg
  • Total carbs 5 g, dietary fiber 1 g, sugars 1 g
  • Protein 12 g