Thursday, March 23, 2006
Next Time I'm Using Capellini
I have seen my mother, wonderful chef that she is, spend hours cooking something, take a taste, make a face, and then turn and dump the entire meal into the garbage.
Tonight I almost joined her. And it always starts with high hopes.
Looking to make a light dinner, I thought I'd try to conjure the Asian peanut sauce of my dreams. Who needs a recipe? I started with some organic peanut butter and added whatever I felt like. A little sake, a chopped-up chile, a dollop of hoisin... The sauce wasn't the problem; it was the noodles. I saw two aging packages of flavored ramen in the pantry and figured I'd use the noodles and toss the seasoning packets. But like a fool I obeyed the cooking instructions: three minutes in boiling water.
As a kid, I learned how to make instant ramen from a Taiwanese friend. His mom would get the real packaged ramen from Chinatown, the kind with no English on the label at all, the kind with an oil packet and a bouillon packet, the kind with even more MSG than usual. From third through maybe fifth grade, it was my most coveted food. I couldn't get it at home, and so I craved it all the time and elevated it to mythical status. The few times I actually got to eat some, I felt like the luckiest kid in Jersey.
Frank would cook ramen like this: He'd put the block of noodles in a bowl along with the contents of the seasoning packets, then pour boiling water over it and cover the bowl with a plate for a few minutes while the noodles softened. Had I understood the term al dente, that's what I would have called ramen prepared this way.
Tonight, despite my better instincts, I dropped the noodle blocks into boiling water and left them there, at full boil, for the entire recommended time. They came out practically more bound together than they'd gone in, a gummy, gluey clump that didn't yield to the bite as much as simply give up. But I knew a hungry Margy would be joining me soon, and so I plowed ahead and tried pouring some of my (tasty but admittedly too thick) peanut sauce on the noodles. This wasn't a great move. The sauce helped to join together the few noodles that remained relatively free.
As I mixed the sauce and noodles in a big bowl, which basically amounted to flipping over a solid mass of ramen again and again, Margy walked through the door to see me struggling with what she hoped was an almost-ready dinner. "I think we have to order out," I said.
But she told me, bless her heart, she was sure it would be fine. So I dutifully went through the remaining motions -- steaming some spinach and sprinkling cilantro and sesame seeds on top of our sad, insubstantial little bowls of noodles. I stopped eating about halfway through my bowl, unable to face the harshly overcooked ramen any longer. Margy finished hers and then said, "So, what's for dinner?" But she said it with a smile.