Seat-of-the-Pants Noodles

A welcomed rainstorm arrived late yesterday afternoon, casting a gentle gray pallor on the skies. It was moody weather appropriate for reflection.

Earlier in the day, I told Mister Mighty Appetite I'd cook dinner, but forgot about the part that the fridge was bereft of fresh veggies. With my bags still unpacked and a house in newly-moved chaos, I was stumped on what I'd fix for dinner, a little low in the kitchen inspiration department.

Improv noodles to a last-minute supper rescue. (Kim O'Donnel)

A quiet moment of meditation took me back to the Emergency Communities kitchen, where my CulinaryCorps colleagues and I were tasked with cooking four meals for 300 people with limited ingredients and under challenging rustic conditions.

Dinner on the first night was prepared by Kelli, who teaches kid's cooking classes in North Jersey, Grace, a culinary student in Buffalo, N.Y., while moonlighting at UPS, and Sandy, the executive sous chef at The Four Seasons Hotel in New York.

Sandy designated himself grill master and the group got busy whipping up a marinade, using what was in the pantry, for a few hundred pork chops. Meanwhile, the girls made a green salad, a mix of melons and a cold Oriental-style noodle salad with veggies, and they pulled off the enormous task of feeding a few hundred hungry souls. I had my eye on that noodle salad from get-go and slurped up a bunch after service. Man, cold noodles never tasted so good.

Given my recent diet of heavy meat and seafood, the idea of a veggie-centric supper fit the bill. I scanned the pantry and had all the fixings of a Asian-y dressing, and decided it was just fine to improv with spaghetti rather than worry about foraging for Asian rice noodles. After all, that's what we did on the fly in New Orleans. All we needed were a few veg that worked well in their raw state, offering plenty of crunch and color.

While the pasta boiled, Mister MA and I collaborated on veg prep, and I fiddled with the dressing. Within 40 minutes, it all came together, simple yet full of flavor, light fare on a warm early summer eve, and a good reminder that when you meditate for just a minute, you can always make something out of nothing.

Here's to Sandy, Kelli and Grace, my seat-of-the-pants supper muses.

Seat-of-Your-Pants Sesame-Soy Noodles

3/4 pound spaghetti (about 12 ounces)
1 large cucumber, peeled
2-3 medium carrots, peeled and trimmed, and julienned
handful snow peas, julienned on the diagonal
2 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch pieced of peeled ginger root
1 fresh chile of choice, seeded and diced
1 tablespoon sesame oil (and more to taste)
1-2 teaspoons rice wine
Approximately 2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Juice of 1/2 lime
A few ounces of toasted walnuts, chopped
Sesame seeds for garnish
Other possible add-ons: Red bell pepper, scallions, cilantro, bean sprouts, water chestnuts, jicama, cashews

Boil pasta in salted water and drain. Resist the temptation to rinse under cold water to cool; instead, place pasta in a bowl, which fits into a larger bowl filled with ice water.

Meanwhile, prep your vegetables: With a peeler, shave cucumber into long thin shards. Place in a bowl with carrots, snow peas, garlic, ginger and chile.

In a separate, small bowl, combine sesame oil, rice wine, soy sauce, sugar and lime. Whisk with a fork, until sugar dissolves. Taste and adjust dressing ingredients accordingly. Pour over vegetables and allow to marinate while pasta is cooling. Add walnuts.

In a large serving bowl, combine dressed vegetables with cooled pasta, and with tongs, mix until pasta is completely coated. Sometimes pasta needs a wee bit of sesame oil for slickness and ease of tossing.

Sprinkle sesame seeds and serve. Even better the next day.

By Kim ODonnel |  June 13, 2007; 11:06 AM ET Dinner Tonight , New Orleans , Vegetarian/Vegan
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This sounds good, but perhaps there's a typo? What is "giginger root chile"? Your directions for the dressing say to add ginger and chile, so should the ingredient list really say 1-inch piece ginger root AND some portion of chile?

Posted by: Lois | June 13, 2007 1:27 PM

Ack. Yes, Lois, it's a typo and I'm fixing it right NOW. Thanks for catching.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | June 13, 2007 1:38 PM

I love your column.

I don't know if you ever head out to Virginia, but at Lake Anne Plaza in Reston (the 'historic' district) there's a restaurant called Tavern on the Lake that recently hired a New Orleans refugee as their executive chef. Prior to Katrina, he was a chef at the Court of the Two Sisters in New Orleans. His house was destroyed. Interesting guy, great food. It's a tapas place, and he's brought some creole cooking with him.

Posted by: Claire | June 13, 2007 1:44 PM

I have to say, I have never liked cold noodles. Would this work hot, or at least warm? The flavours sound good.

Posted by: DS | June 13, 2007 2:00 PM

I'll have to file this one away for the next time I'm faced with an unplanned dinner. I'm getting better at menu planning, but sometimes I still forget to defrost the meat or buy some crucial ingredient. I bet these noodles would be even better the second day, for lunch.

So far, my standby "seat-of-the-pants" meal is stir-fry. I almost always have some rice. Start that going, slice up some frozen meat (or go veggie), make a sauce from whatever I have on hand, and use whatever veggies I have. The cool thing is that frozen meats and veggies still work in a stir-fry, though they aren't ideal.

Posted by: DC Cubefarm | June 13, 2007 3:42 PM

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