Meatless Monday: Peanut Butter 'n' Apple Noodles

Remember when cold sesame noodles were all the rage in the 1980s? How I used to love to tuck into a bowl of the chicken sesame noodle salad at Le Bus, a funky bakery-café in an old house on Sansom Street in West Philadelphia, just a stone’s throw from the University of Pennsylvania, where I studied English. Compared to what was on the menu at the campus dining hall, those noodles were exotic eating.

Not until I began studying cookbooks for a living did I learn that most cooks use peanut butter for the creamy sauce instead of Chinese sesame paste, which is harder to track down, and well, everyone has a jar of PB in the kitchen. I can’t remember the last time I slurped on a bunch of these noodles, but got a real hankering after spotting a version in Sheila Lukins’s new cookbook, “Ten.” In her adaptation of the Chinese takeout classic, Lukins introduces a tart Granny Smith apple to the mix, a throwback to my days of peanut butter and apple after-school snacks. She also serves her noodles hot, an idea that takes a minute getting used to, but I’ve gotta tell ya, it really works, the apples are delightful and it’s a fun slurper-upper for a night when you don’t feel like much cookin’.

While testing, I discovered that the recipe had a few holes, which I’ve patched in my notes, below. The biggest blooper is the recommended amount of peanut sauce for 12 ounces of noodles. Using this ration, you will have a gloppy mess on your hands, so go easy on the sauce! In fact, you can use just half that amount and plenty of nutty notes. Save the rest for leftover sauce for another, smaller serving of new pasta, atop rice or as a dip for carrots.

As you coat the noodles and toss in the garnishes, you’ll discover how fun it is to get creative with both texture and flavor. Next time, I’m adding fresh chile and maybe some julienned carrot or daikon.

Do you have a sesame noodle retro 80s love story to share? Do so in the comments area.

(Kim O'Donnel)

Sesame Noodles With Apples and Cucumbers
Adapted from “Ten” by Sheila Lukins

Peanut sauce
1/3 cup soy sauce
¼ cup rice vinegar (Shaoxing rice wine less pungent but a good Plan B; you could probably also get away with apple cider vinegar)
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar (granulated sugar would be okay, too)
½ inch-long chunk of minced peeled fresh ginger
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup smooth peanut butter (I prefer unsweetened; if you use sweetened, consider eliminating or reducing amount of brown sugar)
¼ cup sesame oil
3 tablespoons peanut oil (I ran out, so substituted Canola oil)
½ teaspoon chile oil, or more to taste (not sure if this is necessary; might substitute hot sauce instead)
salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon neutral oil
12 ounces spaghetti or the even thinner spaghettini
salt and pepper to taste

1 Granny Smith or equally tart apple, unpeeled, thinly sliced, tossed with the squeeze of ½ lime
small cucumber, peeled, seeded and julienned
4 scallions, white and light green parts, thinly sliced
2-3 three tablespoons chopped salted peanuts
Other optional add-ons: ½ cup red bell pepper, diced, ½ cup bean sprouts, a handful of toasted sesame seeds, 1 medium carrot, julienned, another squeeze of lime.

In a blender or in the bowl of a food processor, add soy sauce, vinegar, brown sugar, ginger, garlic and peanut butter and process until smooth, 1-2 minutes.

Combine oils in a measuring cup and with engine running, drizzle into sauce. Taste for salt and pepper and season accordingly. Scoop out of machine and pour into a small bowl, cover and refrigerate for at least 90 minutes, to thicken.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add oil and pasta and cook until al dente, 8-10 minutes. Drain, reserving a few ounces of the pasta cooking water. (THIS IS IMPORTANT.) Place noodles in a large shallow bowl and add half of the peanut sauce. Using a rubber spatula, coat the noodles with the sauce. Add reserved water if sauce needs thinning (and it probably will). Add apples, cucumber, scallions, peanuts and any additional garnishes. Toss to combine and serve immediately.

Makes four entree-sized servings.

By Kim ODonnel |  January 11, 2009; 11:24 PM ET Meatless Monday
Previous: Ball Game-Worthy Oven-Braised Beans | Next: Curling Up With Chicken and Rice


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I'm not sure how retro it is, but rice with peanut sauce is a favorite in our household. Look for a West African recipe. We usually have it with chicken, but that can be omitted. Very simple to make and tasty.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | January 12, 2009 9:48 AM

You hit the DC Cubefarm trifecta! Among my favorite foods in this entire universe are peanut butter, apples, and pasta. I swear if there was chocolate in there, I would quit work right now to make it. I never thought of putting them together, but I will this week. I'm not sure if I can lighten up this recipe, so I might just decide to make it a really small serving.

Long past the 80s, but I finally managed to introduce cold seasame noodles to my husband, who loved them. He resisted the idea for so long.....

Posted by: DCCubefarm | January 12, 2009 9:49 AM

Sounds yummy but I am confused. Does your version of the recipe already have the sauce halved?

Posted by: GreyMouse | January 12, 2009 2:47 PM

GreyMouse: No, the amounts for sauce are as is, but I highly recommend that you use only half of the sum total, as I learned while testing it makes just too much for 12 ounces of pasta, perhaps even 1 pound of pasta. You could certainly try to halve amounts for sauce, but it's hard to divide 1/3 cup soy sauce in half, and so on.

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | January 12, 2009 3:03 PM

I made this for dinner with some changes and it worked fine. First, I definitely don't have 90 minutes to chill something in the evening particularly with a 2 year old nearby. So, I put the sauce in the freezer while I prepped the rest and it was fine. I probably used a bit more than half. I guess I'm not clear why you would chill something for 90 minutes to thicken it then thin it down with the pasta water. In any case, my adaptation worked well. I didn't have cucumbers, but did add carrots I'd sauteed a bit and toasted sesame seeds. The result was tasty and the two year old approved. He seemed particularly fascinated to discover there was peanut butter on his noodles.

Posted by: soonermama | January 12, 2009 9:17 PM

Hello Kim

I still prefer the older versions, using tahini/sesame paste (the kind that's made from roasted sesame seeds, preferably) and peanut butter, Asian-style sesame oil (I do NOT like canola, which is made from GM rape seeds that contain traces of poison), also chile oil for spiciness, as well as shoyu or Bragg's for saltiness, a little lemon juice or vinegar (I agree that cider vinegar is good here) definitely minced garlic, I use lots, and maybe blanched beansprouts. Definitely no sugar.

Posted by: davidlewiston | January 12, 2009 9:35 PM

I made your beans from friday over the weekend...HEAVENLY! Anyway, this seems like there a lot of oil in the recipe...and, Sesame noodles always seemed overly oily...anyway to cut down on that?

Posted by: rlb16 | January 13, 2009 12:34 PM

Rib16, the recipe calls for 3 tablespoons of oil for the sauce, with the chile oil optional. It did not produce overly oily results. If you want, you can eliminate oil from cooking water - added this to help noodles from sticking.

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | January 13, 2009 2:15 PM

Soonermama, actually the recipe originally asked that you chill sauce overnight! Good tip to freeze the sauce. The reason for the chilling is to thicken sauce -- when it comes in contact w/ hot noodles, the sauce could possibly break down, not stay emulsified.

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | January 13, 2009 2:23 PM


There's no sesame oil in these "sesame noodles", except for the tiny amount of chili oil, which may or may not be based on sesame. Otherwise it looks great. I'd serve it with Sriracha garlic/chili sauce on the side.

Posted by: heinpe | January 19, 2009 11:11 AM

Hi Kim, this looks like yet another delicious dish from your column that I must try. Is the sesame oil toasted or untoasted? Based on your comment to Rib16 can I assume that it may be eliminated? Thanks!

Posted by: rxr00 | January 19, 2009 11:31 AM

Heinpe, actually, take another look, there's 1/4 cup of sesame oil listed.

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | January 19, 2009 11:36 AM

Rxr00, I prefer toasted sesame oil, as it has more flavor, but I'll leave that up to you. I think you need a little bit, even if you just add 1 tablespoon. And if you do decide to reduce amount, make sure you add some sesame seeds for garnish. Enjoy!

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | January 19, 2009 11:38 AM

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