I was at the market today, perusing the wares at my new favorite vegetable stand, Chez Nino – the best possible place for seekers of culinary inspiration – when I came across a heap of fresh baby spinach and had a flashback to my amazing lunch at Momofuku Noodle Bar last summer.
The Noodle Bar, for those who have not experienced its gustatory wonders, is just one of the many hip, and as far as I can tell, worthy-of-the-hype New York restaurants run by chef/owner David Chang. To have one of their famed pork buns melting on your tongue is to experience true multisensory bliss, and though some would call even the idea of a vegetarian option blasphemy, the cloud-like texture and gentle sweetness of the bun provides an equally heavenly compliment to the mound of carmelized shiitakes that spill from its herbivore-pleasing folds. The restaurant is also known for their ramen, but though I became giddy at the sight of the perfectly poached egg hovering on the soup’s surface, the mountain of pork belly and shredded pork glistening underneath made me realize that I am a one-slice-of-pork-belly-per-day kind of girl.
Seeking something equally noodle-y, I chose instead their spicy noodles – despite the server’s assertively-expressed doubt that I probably could not handle the heat – served chilled on a pile of fresh baby spinach with Sichuan pork and candied cashews. And it was this dish that I returned to this afternoon, remembering the appealing contrast of textures and flavours that it contained.
Back home again, with what I knew were the essential ingredients – ground pork, fresh wheat noodles, spinach and cashews – I sought in vain to locate a recipe on the internet, finding only the trace of recent failures to secure this valuable information. And so, armed only with my memory, my willingness to go boldly in the kitchen, and a handful of recipes to cover gaps in knowledge or lapses in instinct, I forged on, arriving at what I must declare was some pretty tasty fare.
Though not a tricky dish, it has many steps and takes a fair bit of time to prepare. That said, everything can be made in advance, so you can work for a few hours, take a break for cocktails and leisure activities, and then return to quickly assemble the meal when you have long forgotten the hours spent in the kitchen.
FOR THE SPINACH:
Wash, dry and put aside one handful of spinach per person.
FOR THE CASHEWS:
I followed this recipe: one half cup of cashews, one quarter cup of sugar and two tablespoons of water. You throw them together in a sauce pan and heat it over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Once that happens, you continue to cook it, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes or until the sugar crystallizes.
What is crazy is that at about minute 14, you will look into the pot and wonder what the hell the recipe was talking about as no crystallization will have occurred. Filled with despair, you will look away for a second, and when you look back, the sugar will have fully crystallized and be in danger of burning. The lesson: be patient, keep stirring and do not turn away once the liquid starts to evaporate.
As a final step, scrape the cashews onto a cookie sheet and roast in a 350 degree oven for about 15 minutes, or until they are slightly browned and crisp. Put aside to cool.
FOR THE PORK:
For inspiration, I used a recipe for spicy pork from the Momofuku cookbook that I found on a food blog with a less-than-appetizing image on its header. Because my pantry was absent a few required ingredients, I made a few revisions, but it was delicious and contained many of the same qualities as the version I remembered: sweet, garlicky, spicy and porky.
And speaking of the Momofuku cookbook, a friend of mine received it for Christmas, and in addition to being tremendously excited by the culinary adventures that it portends, has found it be an equally satisfying read on a purely intelletual level. But back to the recipe:
Fry ground pork – as much as you will need for the number of people you are intending to feed, maybe about one third cup per person – until nicely browned and cooked through. Put aside.
Drain excess oil and add sliced shallots (or onions) and cook slowly so that they carmelize. For two people, I used five medium shallots, but you could use more or less depending on your taste. When they are done, add them to the bowl with the pork and mix. Put aside.
In the same frying pan, add some oil and when it gets warm, add some dried red chilies to your taste. I used about one tablespoon, but found the dish a little milder than I would have liked, so will add more next time. Now, the recipe will tell you to let the oil get very very hot before adding the chilies, but I would caution against this, or at least caution you against standing anywhere near the pan when doing this, as I narrowly escaped a painful and possibly catastrophic ocular injury when a chili popped, and in an oil-soaked rage, flew out of the pan and into my left eye. Luckily, my husband was standing by with a glass full of water, which I held to my eye socket until the pain subsided. It was more terrifying than anything else, but I wore my glasses for the remainder of the pork prep, just to be safe.
When you can feel the heat of the chilies in the air, add three cloves of garlic to the pan and continue to saute them until they become fragrant. Then, add a teaspoon or so of the Sichuan peppercorns, a third of a cup or so of water, a tablespoon or so of sugar, and two good sized splashes: one of fish sauce, the other of soy. And when that gets to bubbling up, return the pork and shallots to the pan with a big handful of chopped chives and stir until the flavours have mingled to become one. Put aside.
FOR THE FLAVOURED OIL:
Take about a quarter cup of vegetable or sesame oil and add one tablespoon of dried red chilies, one teaspoon of Sichuan peppercorns and one half teaspoon of ground ginger. You could use fresh ginger as well, and even a little garlic if you liked. Let it sit for a bit. Actually, you could make this at the beginning of the recipe, as the longer it sits, the better. Put aside.
FOR THE TOASTED SHALLOTS:
Thinly slice shallots, toss with oil, and roast in a 400 degree oven, stirring often to avoid burning. They should be crisp, so leave them in there as long as you can.
When you are ready to eat, prepare the noodles as per the instructions. Drain and toss with the oil and a little bit of tamari. Then, into a big bowl drop a handful of spinach leaves, a pile of noodles, a pile of pork, and some candied cashews. As a final touch, sprinkle the top with the crispy shallots. It will be as beautiful to look at as it tastes. I promise. I also think it would be pretty good with twice-fried crumbled tofu.
You fry that tofu twice and you can pretty much make it do anything.