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Cooking for Comfort

Ken Morris, Cooking for Comfort: Noodles and pasta

Everyone knows what a noodle is, right? And everyone knows what pasta is, right? And they are really the same thing, right? Well, I think it’s time we have that noodle and pasta talk that your parents should have given you years ago.

Ken Morris

Ken Morris

The National Pasta Association defines noodles as containing at least 5.5 percent egg solids, which is a scientific way of saying you must use eggs to make noodles. It’s not clear what they will do if you don’t.

Anyway, eggs allow noodles to be dense and they can be added to soups and casseroles without becoming a soggy mess. They can also be made from a variety of foods, ranging from wheat to buckwheat, mung beans, potato, acorn, and rice. These flours are milled finer than wheat used to make pasta.

The finely milled flours result in noodles that tend to be very soft when heated — no heavy chewing should be required.

As the main or supporting ingredient in many different types of dishes from all over the world, noodles can be served hot or cold, fried, served in soups, or boiled and served with a small amount of meat or vegetables.

On the other hand, pasta is traditionally made with durum wheat — the hardest of all wheats. Its high protein content and gluten strength make durum perfect for pasta and bread.

It can also contain additions of mashed vegetables such as cooked spinach, which turn it green, or squid ink, which turn it black (I got past the pasta looking like squirming black eels in my bowl but I didn’t enjoy the taste).

Beyond the many types of solid pasta shapes, there are lots of tube shapes and some, such as ravioli, have a filling of meat or vegetable stuffed inside a sheet of dough made of wheat and eggs.

So, we’re back to being confused about what is pasta and what is a noddle.

Unlike noodles, pasta shapes have distinct names and are often served with specific types of sauces. When cooking pasta, the goal is to serve it al dente, (to the teeth), neither crunchy nor too soft, but a firm texture when bitten.

There often is confusion between pasta and noodles. The one I see most often online is “Thai vermicelli noodles” when vermicelli is Italian for “little worms” and refers to pasta (durum wheat and water) shaped into very thin strands, much thinner than spaghetti. What they really mean is rice noodles, which we’ll cook below.

Dishes traditionally made with noodles but replaced by pasta taste disappointingly different. And, vice versa.

Spicy Peanut Noodles

Serves 6

Adapted from "The Fiddlehead Cookbooks," Nancy and John DeCherney, Deborah Marshall, Susan Brook

This is not a traditional dish from an Asian country, but Asian ingredients used to make a tasty vegetarian dish. This was a favorite from The Fiddlehead Restaurant in Juneau, Alaska, which sadly closed but it’s like a step back into Southeast Alaska to flip through the cookbook. Alaska is a rough mix of nationalities and races and lots of interesting stories how people ended up in the Last Frontier, and that includes recipes, too.

1 pound soba (buckwheat noodles)

2 tablespoons cooking oil

1 large onion, thinly sliced, cut stem to tip

1 medium red pepper, top and seeds removed, thinly sliced

2 medium carrots, tops removed, cut in half lengthwise, then thinly sliced on the diagonal

2 medium zucchinis, tops removed, cut in half lengthwise, then thinly sliced on the diagonal

½ small head broccoli, florets removed and thinly sliced

1 cup of hot peanut sauce (below) You may want to use less if you’re not fond of spicy food

½ to ¾ cup coconut milk

8 green onions, thinly sliced for garnish

½ cup dry roasted peanuts, chopped, for garnish

Hot Peanut Sauce

½ cup peanut butter, chunky or creamy

½ cup sesame oil

2 tablespoons soy sauce (Fiddlehead always used tamari sauce, which is made with 100 percent soybeans and is totally wheat-free, unlike soy sauce, which is made from a combination of soybeans, wheat, and salt)

2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

3 to 4 garlic cloves, finely minced

1 tablespoon finely chopped green onions

1 tablespoon oriental hot oil (sometimes listed just as Chili Oil or Hot Chili Oil on the label)

1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro

In a large mixing bowl, using an electric mixer set on high, whip together peanut butter, sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar, ginger, garlic, green onions, hot oil and cilantro until creamy. Transfer to a small container and cover tightly. It will store up to 2 weeks in the refrigerator.

Spicy noodles: Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat. Add buckwheat soba and cook as directed on package. Drain, rinse with warm water, drain again. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in wok or large fry pan over high heat until very hot. Add vegetables and stir to coat evenly with oil. Stir and cook for 2 minutes. Cover wok and cook for another 2 minutes. Vegetables should have softened but still a bit crisp. Add 1 cup peanut sauce and ½ cup coconut milk. Stir to combine, then add noodles. Using spaghetti tongs or a large fork, mix everything well. If it seems dry, add additional coconut milk. As soon as mixture is quite hot, transfer to large serving dish or individual bowls. Sprinkle green onions and chopped peanuts over the mixture and serve at once.

Bean Thread Noodles and Sweet Chili Shrimp

Serves 4

Adapted from "Merriman’s Hawai’i" by Peter Merriman and Melanie Merriman

It’s not coincidence that my first two recipes are from the United States’ two non-contiguous states. Hawaii also seems to attract a confusing mix of different nationalities (Native Hawaiian, Philippine, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans…not to mention Protestant Reform missionaries) and the food crashes together, causing ingredients to insert themselves into a different nationality’s dish. The noodles here are long, thin, and translucent, made from mung bean starch. Chef Merriman points out that they are lighter and more fragile than wheat or rice noodles and they are gluten-free.

12 colossal shrimp (U-8) peeled and deveined

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 (4-ounce) packages bean thread (made from mung beans) noodles

3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

¾ bottled sweet chili sauce

½ medium cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded and sliced into ¼ inch pieces

3 ounces snow peas or sugar snap peas, diagonally cut in half

½ red onion, thinly sliced

1 carrot, julienned

½ cup fresh cilantro leaves, roughly chopped

½ cup roasted, unsalted macadamia nuts, roughly chopped

Add shrimp to 2 quarts boiling water, add 1 tablespoon salt and cook for 2 minutes, or until pink. Cool, peel and cut each shrimp into 3 or 4 pieces. Place noodles in a large bowl and add enough boiling water to cover. Let sit for 15 minutes; drain and rinse under cold water. You can use scissors to cut noodles into shorter lengths for easier serving.

Add sesame oil and remaining salt to the drained noodles and toss. Add sweet chili sauce and toss again until well coated. Add cucumber, peas, onion, carrots, and shrimp and again toss.

Divide among 4 large bowls and top with cilantro and macadamia nuts.

Thai Fried Rice Noodles

Serves 2-3 but easy to double

Adapted from article by Darlene Schmidt on The Spruce Eats website

This is not pad Thai, the famous Thai dish that everyone makes, but an easier dish that uses a noodle made from rice. The Spruce Eats website has more than 16,000 recipes, so you’re bound to find something you like and you can sign up for their email list that sends you a steady stream of recipes and links.

For the Marinade:

2 teaspoons cornstarch

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1 to 1 1/2 cups bite-sized chicken pieces

For the Noodles:

8 ounces rice noodles (usually called Thai Rice Noodle or Rice Stick on the package)

3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced

1 piece thumb-size galangal (this is in the same family as ginger but has kind of a mild piney, citrus-tinged flavor and is denser) or use ginger) sliced into matchstick-like pieces)

1 cup fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced

1/2 cup chicken stock

1 bell pepper (orange or green), sliced into thin strips

2 to 3 cups fresh bean sprouts

2 green onions, sliced thin

Handful fresh cilantro

2 1/2 tablespoons oil

For the Stir-Fry Sauce:

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon dark soy sauce (Dark soy sauce is thicker and less salty than regular soy sauce but has a richer flavor and darker color)

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1 teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon lime juice

1/4 cup chicken stock

1 to 2 teaspoons chili sauce (or 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, to taste)

Half of a fresh lime to finish

Mix cornstarch with soy sauce until well combined. Marinate the chicken in the cornstarch-soy sauce mixture, coating all sides as you boil the noodles. Set aside.

Gently boil rice noodles 5 to 10 minutes just until noodles are soft enough to eat but still firm and a little bit crunchy (they will finish cooking later). Drain and briefly rinse with cold water to keep from sticking. Drain and set aside.

For the stir fry sauce: In a small bowl, combine soy sauce, dark soy sauce, fish sauce, 1 teaspoon sugar, lime juice, 1/4 cup stock, and chili sauce. Stir well to dissolve sugar. Set aside.

Heat a wok or large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add 2 tablespoons oil and swirl around to cover the cooking area; then add the garlic, galangal or ginger, chicken (together with the marinade), mushrooms, and a few tablespoons of stock. Stir-fry 5 minutes.

When pan becomes dry, add a little more chicken stock, 1 to 2 tablespoons at a time. Add pepper and stir-fry another 1 to 2 minutes. Add the reserved noodles plus stir-fry sauce. Using two utensils, lift and turn the noodles or use a tossing motion like they toss a salad on the TV chef shows. Keep the heat turned up. Stir-fry in this way until the sauce is well distributed throughout the noodles (1 to 2 minutes). Add bean sprouts, continuing to stir-fry another minute. Remove from heat and taste-test for salt and flavor, adding 1 tablespoon more fish sauce or soy sauce if not salty or flavorful enough. If too salty, add another squeeze of lime juice.

To serve, lift noodles out of the wok or frying pan and mound in a bowl or serving platter. Sprinkle with the sliced green onion and chopped cilantro. A wedge of fresh lime squeezed over the dish just before eating adds to the deliciousness.

Ken Morris has been cooking for comfort for more than 30 years and learning in kitchens from Alaska to Thailand to Italy. He now cooks and writes from his kitchen in Napa. Email macmor@sbcglobal.net.

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