Spicy Szechuan Peanut Noodles

When I shut down the meal delivery service, a few clients asked if I wouldn’t mind sharing a few favorite recipes. I’m a big recipe sharer—I don’t get this whole “secret recipes” thing. I want everyone to be eating delicious animal-free food, so why wouldn’t I share recipes?

Well, it does take some time, and it’s nice to have a photo to accompany a recipe, and those two factors are, to be honest, usually enough of a deterrent to prevent me from pretty much ever posting a recipe. But I’m going to push on in this case, because I so adore my former clients, and because recipes are nice. So, over the next few weeks I’ll be posting a few beloved meal delivery recipes. Let me know how they turn out for you!

The first in this series is spicy peanut noodles, the Szechuan classic also called dan dan mian. (Or: the Sichuan classic called dan dan mien, if you prefer.) Do you have dishes you always order in restaurants, even though they almost never live up to your hopes? Maybe you had a great version the very first time you tried the dish, and that sets you up for a lifetime of disappointment (or maybe you’ve just developed your palate over time? Or become a snob?). Why can’t we stop ordering them? When I see baingan bartha, or fried dumplings, or pad see ew, I have a weird compulsion to order it, even though I know it’s so often a recipe for failure. Sadly, peanut noodles are often in that camp. What’s up with peanut noodles in restaurants? Gummy, greasy, gritty, gloppy, undersalted, underspiced, underflavored, with over- or undercooked noodles, too cold, too old, made with spaghetti (!!)—for such an easy dish, terrible versions abound.

So maybe it’s time to stay in and make them ourselves.

Around my house, the stripped-down version of this dish (minus pretty much everything but the noodles and a sauce made from shoyu, peanut butter, rice vinegar (or lime juice), sesame oil, and chile paste)  is our default 10-minute meal: put water on for the noodles, then make the sauce. When I’m making it on the fly like this, I don’t measure anything, and I make sure I’m not forgetting anything by reminding myself of the building blocks of Southeast Asian cuisine: hot, sour, salty, sweet. Keep tinkering until the sauce tastes balanced, and by the time the noodles are done, the sauce is ready. Any old green thing from the garden is great as a bright burst of grassy flavor on top: chives, scallions, garlic leaves, Thai basil, or a nice steamed green like kale. Done.

But for nights when you want something a bit more complex, here’s the deluxe version of the recipe, a dressed-up quickie meal that’s so great that I used to have a client who would order five quarts of it at a time (“It doesn’t freeze!” I would tell him. Maybe he had a peanut noodle party every time it came on the menu??).

Though this is a Chinese dish, my version puts a bit of a Southeast Asian spin on it, as I’m almost always drawn to the bright, clean flavors of Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. I’ve built in quite a few variations from the traditional dish: fried tempeh stands in for ground pork, and I use peanut butter, though it’s also traditional to make the sauce with sesame paste. (I like both, but since I buy peanut butter by the case, it’s just what I usually reach for.) As well, I almost always cook up udon or soba noodles, though fresh Chinese wheat noodles are more common (breaking with tradition yet again, I serve this dish hot, when usually it’s cold. I love the way the hot sauce melts the noodles a bit.). Overall, a more traditional dan dan mian is a bit soupier and a ton spicier, spiked with preserved mustard leaves and sparked with ground Szechuan peppercorns that make your mouth buzz. Feel free to veer in that direction–this is an endlessly adaptable dish.

Here we go: Continue reading