Is there anything more inspiring than a farmer’s market at the height of the summer, piled high with funky heirloom tomatoes, eggplants from fairytale to freakishly large, crinkly peppers, bi-color corn as far as the eye can see and stone fruits in every color of the rainbow? Wouldn’t this be a great time to cook with all of them? Isn’t it almost a moral imperative to fill our systems with as much of summer as we can before it passes and we spend the rest of the seasons pining for its return? Probably, I mean, yes, of course. But cravings are cravings, and what I’ve really been dreaming about is so-called Chinese food, like, the terrible stuff that comes unceremoniously in white boxes with an embarrassment of chopsticks (because they thought you were ordering for a dozen people, and not just the three of you). I’ve long accepted that if I don’t at least occasionally indulge cravings, they’re never going to pass.
The irony of craving unfancy takeout in a sleep-deprived, no-energy-for-cooking period of time that would normally be full of it is not lost on me. If a combination of a few freezer meals plus grandma deliveries of everything from soup to lasagna to pelmeni and vareniki weren’t ensuring that we’d never have to order in, I’d probably never want to see a Seamless.com order screen by now. But cold sesame noodles have long been one of my desert island dishes, and at least once or twice a year, nothing else is going to cut it.
My complaint with them is that they can feel quite heavy, especially if you’re using a thick sauce on Chinese egg noodles as the base that most restaurants do. As it’s still 90-plus muggy degrees almost everyday, I’ve been obsessed with finding a way to lighten them up for summer. I started by using rice noodles instead, and updated my usual peanut butter-heavy sauce with something thinner in coating and punchier in flavor, with everything from rice vinegar, ginger and chile-garlic paste giving it a lift, using a recipe from Ed Schoenfeld of the awesome Red Farm restaurants and late Chinatown Brasserie as guidance. And then, I just used less of it. Rather than trying to weave threads of julienned vegetables through the noodles, as I have in the past, I nested a medium-sized knot of dressed noodles into the bottom of the bowl, piled half of it with wafer-thin slices of cold (seasonal! local! See? I tried.) cucumber, then showered the whole thing with chopped roasted salted peanuts and a fistful of chopped cilantro, parsley and mint from my garden.
Do I need to tell you what an easy and delicious summer lunch or dinner this can be? How friendly it might be to my too tired or unmotivated to cook brethren, because you can make the sauce, comprised mostly of pantry ingredients, whenever you find 10 minutes of free time and keep it until needed, the noodles are supposed to be cold, and your cucumbers will stay crisp as long as you need them to? No, I do not. But I’ve never let that stop me before, either.
Cold noodles, previously: Apparently, it’s a warm-weather theme at the Smitten Kitchen. Cold Noodles with Miso, Lime and Ginger, Cold Noodles with Peanut-Lime Chicken, Spicy Soba Noodles with Shiitakes, Cellophane Noodle Salad with Roast Pork and my 2008 recipe for Peanut Sesame Noodles (but I like this one better these days)
One year ago: Grilled Peach Splits + News!
Two years ago: Hot Fudge Sundae Cake and Mama Canales-Garcia’s Avocado Shrimp Salsa
Three years ago: Zucchini Bread Pancakes (still a favorite) and Zucchini Rice Gratin
Four years ago: Charred Corn Tacos with Zucchini-Radish Slaw
Five years ago: Scalloped Tomatoes with Croutons (we will be making it this week!)
Six years ago: Best Birthday Cake and Arugula Potato and Green Bean Salad
Seven years ago: Salad Olivier and Sauteed Radishes with Sugar Snaps and Dill
Eight years ago: Roseanne Cash’s Potato Salad and Quick Potato Pierogi
Takeout-Style Sesame Noodles with Cucumber
Sauce adapted from Ed Schoenfeld, via Sam Sifton
Cold sesame noodles, lightened up for summer. I used wide, flat rice noodles (often sold as rice “sticks” typically used for pad Thai here, but 1/8-inch thick Chinese egg noodles, sold frozen or fresh at Asian markets, are more takeout traditional (but not gluten-free). Chinese sesame paste is made with toasted sesame seeds, while Middle Eastern tahini is usually made with plain, untoasted seeds. I used tahini, because it’s what I had on hand, and it works just fine. You can add an extra splash of toasted sesame oil to compensate for any lost toasted sesame flavor, if you wish. Peanut allergies? Just use sesame seed paste entirely here, and toasted sesame seeds for garnish. The flavor will be slightly different, but no less delicious. 2 teaspoons chile-garlic paste is the original recommendation but we just dotted it on the grown-up bowls, so not to scare the heat-averse 5 year-old. Note: while soy sauces are naturally gluten-free, some are brewed using trace amounts of wheat, and if you are gluten-free, it’s best to look for a clear gluten-free label before buying one.
Serves 4, generously, and up to double that if served as shown, with lots of cucumber, peanuts and herbs
3/4 pound dried rice noodles (see notes up top)
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil, plus a splash to loosen noodles
2 tablespoons Chinese sesame paste or tahini (see note up top)
1 tablespoon smooth peanut butter
3 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons Chinese rice vinegar
1 tablespoon granulated or brown sugar
1 tablespoon finely grated ginger
2 teaspoons minced garlic (from 1 medium-large clove)
Chili-garlic paste, to taste
1/2 pound cucumber, very thinly sliced
1/2 cup roasted salted peanuts, roughly chopped
A handful of chopped fresh herbs, such as mint and cilantro, for garnish
Cook noodles according to package directions and rinse with cold water to cool. Drain well. Drizzle with a tiny splash of toasted sesame oil to keep them from sticking until dressed.
Meanwhile, whisk sesame paste and peanut butter in the bottom of a small bowl, then whisk in soy sauce, rice vinegar, remaining 2 tablespoons sesame oil, sugar, ginger, garlic and chile-garlic paste to taste until smooth. Adjust flavors to taste. It might seem a bit salty from the bowl, but should be just right when tossed with noodles.
Toss sauce with cold noodles.
Place a medium-sized knot of dressed noodles in each bowl, followed by a pile of cucumber. Garnish generously with peanuts and herbs. Serve with extra chile-garlic paste on the side.