Where do dinners come from?

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Who knows where dinners come from? Your dinner tonight only happened because of two serendipitous events last night—events that, for most people, wouldn’t even register as events.

First, when putting away in the freezer the ice cream you bought (you never buy ice cream; why last night?), you noticed that there was some diced beef and some ‘fresh’ ‘Shanghai’ noodles in there, right next to each other.

Then, later on, flipping through Bittman’s How to Cook Everything for some guidance on proportions for the potato and leek soup you were making, you came across this:

Crisp Pan-Fried Noodle Cake

A great side dish for almost any meal that has some spice, Chinese or not, this noodle cake is most appropriately used in place of rice as a bed for any moist stir-fry. Great hot or at room temperature as a snack, too.

12 ounces fresh egg noodles
1/4 cup minced scallion
1 tablespoon soy sauce
4 tablespoons peanut (preferred) or other oil, plus more if needed

1. Cook the noodles in boiling salted water until tender but not mushy. Drain, then rinse in cold water for a minute or two. Toss with the scallion, soy sauce, and 1 tablespoon of the oil.

2. Place the remaining oil on the bottom of a heavy medium to large skillet, preferably non-stick; turn the heat to medium-high. When the oil is hot, add the noodle mix, spreading it out evenly and pressing it down.

3. Cook 2 minutes, then turn the heat to medium-low. Continue to cook until the cake is holding together and is nicely browned on the bottom. Turn carefully (the easiest way to do this is to slide the cake out onto a plate, cover it with another plate, invert the plates, and slide the cake back into the skillet, browned side up), adding a little more oil if necessary.

4. Cook on the other side until brown and serve.

Before you even turned to the soup recipe, you walked over to the freezer and transferred the noodles and the beef to the fridge. Oh, Bittman. A Crisp, Pan-Fried Noodle Cake? You started picturing something like the scallion pancake at Ollie’s (that you used to eat back when 84th street was a subway ride and not a trans-Atlantic flight away), but with the gummy weight of noodles. You were suddenly so entranced by this dish, that you briefly considered ditching the soup, running out for some noodles, and making this instead. But no, it would wait.

And the beef, of course, would make sure the cake would be “appropriately used,” as part of a stir-fry. What stir-fry? Well, that part was easy; your brother just came back from six months in Beijing with some recipes from a cooking class he took there—one of them was ‘Stirfry Beef with Celery.’ Done.

So today, you got some shabby looking celery and spring onions from the new bodega around the corner on your way home from work, and get to it. The stir-fry you’ve made before; it’s easy, quick, and strangely great:

Stirfry beef with celery
Qing cai niu rou

Ingredients:
250 g. beef (1/2inch dice)
250 g. celery

Seasoning:
3 tsp. diced ginger
3 tsp. diced garlic

Marinade:
3 tsp. soy sauce
1 1/2 tsp. cooking wine
3 tsp. starch

Thickening:
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp sugar
1 1/2 tsp starch
3 tsp. soy sauce
3 tsp. wine
9 tbsp. water

Methods:
1. Marinate beef with marinade for 15 mins.
2. Saute beef with 2 tbsp oil, add ginger and garlic, mix for one moment. Add celery, mix for moment, add thickening. Wait until sauce is boiling. Mix, done.

No problem. The noodle cake, as well, looks easy to put together. But as you follow Bittman’s instructions, and press the noodles down into the pan, doubt starts to creep into your head as to whether this will turn out as you’ve pictured it. How, exactly will this tangle of noodles, soy, scallions, and a little oil turn into a cake? You’re sure that cooking already-cooked noodles in oil is going to lead to tasty results—there’s definitely some browning going on under there—but you’re not going to turn your back on it for a minute, then come back to find that it’s suddenly a cake.

And sure enough, you’re right. The thing never does turn into a cake. But, as you guessed, it’s still good. The noodles do brown a little, do get a little more flavorful, and serve their purpose as a foil for the stir-fry. The beef and celery is, as usual, so much better than the sum of its parts. The sauce is salty and thick, so the celery is a welcome contrast in flavor and texture. A delicious dinner.

As you wash the dishes, you wonder why you can’t get a decent scallion pancake in London.

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One Response to “Where do dinners come from?”

  1. boxofbirds Says:

    I haven’t tried fried noodles, yet. I’m still a little new to cooking Asian dishes. But after this I might have to try it.

    I wonder if it would form a better cake if you didn’t rinse the noodles after boiling them and didn’t mix any of the oil with the noodles and soy sauce…..

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