A scrappy new kid on the block has just stolen home. Well, my heart anyway.
Recently I achieved the impossible. I made a dish inspired by my favorite Thai dish, Drunken Noodle (a.k.a. Pad Kee Mao), and I LIKED it. I REALLY liked it!
Dragon Noodle, above. Hasta luego, drunken noodles, time for you to check into rehab!
It was not Drunken Noodle, a firey-hot meal blazing with the distinctive flavor of garlic, chilies, basil, and onions. Drunken Noodle stirs my soul. When done just right, I feel at one with the universe. This is not a joke.
Drunken Noodle is most often made with fish sauce and may also contain eggs, oyster sauce, meat, or shrimp. I’ve only ever enjoyed it in restaurants. I’d tried to make it a few times and failed. Failed! An old Nine Inch Nails song comes to mind: I tried. I gave up. I tried. I gave up. I tried. I gave up!
But after years of not trying, I tried again, and I hear another song: At laaaast … and here we are in heaven, for you are mine at last!
The dish I made is not a vegan version of Drunken Noodle. It’s its own dish that borrows a lot of the good stuff from its inspiration. My version – let’s call it Dragon Noodle (recipe below) – is lighter and has a higher vegetables-to-noodles ratio. I’m not sure it’s a crowd-pleaser, due to all the lime, which is sour, but which makes all the other flavors really sing. I never, ever, in a million years thought I could create these flavors. But lo and behold, with practice and a can-do attitude, my kitchen and I can hold our own with the restaurants.
Be it ever so humble ...
Speaking of my kitchen, this is it. To put it generously, it’s VERY basic. It has very little counter space. Fortunately it has space for a full-size dining table, which doubles as counter space. I rent my apartment for its location, not the kitchen, and I did not choose the color scheme of white on white on white (yes sir, the floor is white). As humble as it is, I’m posting this picture for a couple of reasons.
"It ain't fancy baby, that's okayyyyyyy!" -- Bon Jovi
First, the food you see on this blog is food I make.
Second, I make this food in this place.
Personally, my sense of vanity would rather have you imagine that I’m in some stainless steel oasis of idealized kitchen post-modernity.
But I want to show that you can make food that you really, really like in any kitchen, be it state-of-the-art or state-of-it-is-what-it-is.
TDF’s Recipe for Dragon Noodle (scroll down for pictures)
Serves 2-4 (main dish – small dish)
3.5 oz (½ standard package) rice stick noodles, cooked, drained, tossed with a little soy sauce and/or oil to keep from sticking
1 Tb peanut oil, untoasted sesame oil, or other light tasting oil that can withstand high heat (don’t use extra virgin olive oil)
1 large yellow onion, roughly chopped
Pinch of salt
6 oz firm tofu cut into strips of your preferred size (I prefer 1.0″ x 1/2 ” x 1/4 “) (see note regarding tofu below)
1 medium red bell pepper, roughly chopped (about 1 – 1.5 c)
3-4 cloves of garlic, minced (or more if desired!)
1-2 fresh chili peppers (or more!) (jalapeno, serrano, or other variety), finely chopped. Retain seeds unless you want to adjust the heat downwards
1 c roughly chopped tomatoes
1/4 c rice vinegar
2 Tb soy sauce, less or more to taste
1 bunch fresh basil, leaves removed from stems (about 1 cup of basil leaves)
1 lime, skin well-washed (see note at end of recipe)
Ground black pepper, to taste
Cook rice noodles according to package directions. Drain very well and toss with a splash of soy sauce and/or a dash of oil to keep from sticking. Set aside. Do not cover.
Throughout this recipe, you will want to keep the heat in your pan as close to high as you can. Of course you should reduce the heat to avoid burning the food. If you have lowered the temperature, however, it’s a good idea to raise the heat to high or a high medium-high when you add new ingredients. The idea in this dish is not to cook the vegetables over moderate heat until they yield and become tender. You want to cook it quickly to maximize the flavors and preserve some crispness in the peppers.
In a 10” or larger cast iron pan, heat 1 Tb peanut oil or untoasted sesame oil until hot but not smoking, on high or high-medium-high heat. Add onions and stir. Add a pinch of salt (but not a lot, since you will add soy sauce to the whole dish later). Cook until onions have softened, turned light brown, and begin to darken in places – you want these onions to provide a deep flavor that comes from cooking them well on high heat, so you want these dark places. Push onions to the side of the pan and clear an empty space for the tofu.
Add tofu to pan, positioning each piece so that the surface comes into direct contact with the pan. You may reduce the heat to medium or medium-high to keep the onions and/or tofu from burning. Once the tofu has turned golden brown, flip and brown the other side. Mix tofu and onions together in the pan.
Add red peppers and cook until slightly softened, 2-4 minutes – if you reduced the heat to medium for the tofu, return the heat to medium-high/high at this point. Add minced garlic and chopped chili peppers and stir. Cook until peppers are tender-crisp, about 2-4 more minutes. Stir the vegetable and tofu mixture well.
Add chopped tomatoes and stir. Make sure heat is high or medium high, being careful not to burn the food. Cook one minute. Quickly swirl rice vinegar and soy sauce into the pan, stirring to distribute evenly and to cook off excess moisture, cooking at high heat. By now some of the ingredients in the pan should begin to have a slightly charred look around the edges. If not, cook at high heat for 1-3 minutes, being careful not to make the vegetables too mushy. Holding lime and zester directly over the pan, add lime zest to taste (start with the zest of ¼ of the lime). Add the juice of ¼ to ½ of the lime and stir. Add basil leaves and stir quickly.
Stir about half of the cooked rice noodles into the pan – don’t add all of the noodles at once. Assess the proportions and judge whether the vegetable-to-noodle ratio seems right to you, keeping in mind that you can always add in more noodles and that the flavors reside in the vegetables. Add more soy sauce to the noodles if desired. You can either just heat the noodles enough to incorporate them into the dish, or cook them a bit longer in the pan, so that the noodle edges begin to crisp slightly. Do not cook these noodles too long, or they will become unpleasantly tough or hard, and don’t overcook the whole thing or else the vegetables will turn mushy. Err on the side of undercooking the noodles at this stage.
Remove promptly from heat. I recommend serving on plates using tongs. Garnish with ground black pepper and, as desired, extra basil and/or lime juice/zest.
Note on ingredients generally
Your individual preferences may call for more or less of any component of this dish. You can also add in 1-2 other vegetables. I probably would prefer more onions, garlic, chili, and lime than the “average” person I have in mind. I might toss in some scallions or another half yellow onion. I tried mushrooms once (you can see them in the top photo), but I didn’t feel they added much flavor.
Note on tofu
The tofu I use in this recipe is sealed in plastic, without water (see picture of ingredients, above). When my chopped tofu hits the pan, there isn’t any excess water going into the pan with it.
If you are using tofu that is packed in water, you need to ensure that you don’t add soggy tofu to the pan with the onions. Although the liquid will cook off, some of it will become absorbed into the onions, changing their flavor and texture. Covering the tofu, then pressing it with a heavy pan can help drain the excess water. Another option, which may work better depending on how watery your tofu is and how successful you are at pressing out the excess water, is to cook the tofu in a separate pan with some oil first.
Note on lime
If you wish to omit the lime juice and/or zest until the dish is finished, you may.
If lime juice is not for you, try substituting something sweeter, such as mirin or even sherry (you will need to cook these liquids into the dish, as they contain alcohol). You will want some other flavor component besides soy sauce, otherwise, the dish will taste flat.
Note on cooking times
Preferences are important. The times suggested are approximations only – use your eyes and your tasting skills to judge what works best for you. Don’t let the basil get mushy looking – you want it to be just wilted.
Dragon Noodle Photo Gallery
Once the ingredients are assembled and prepared, this dish comes together pretty quickly.
Chopped onion, my preferred size.
Cooked noodles, tossed with a little soy sauce and a drizzle of oil to prevent clumping.
Onions and tofu browning.
Chilies and garlic, yum!
Onions, tofu, bell pepper, garlic, chilies, tomato, rice vinegar, and soy sauce. Note how much liquid is in the pan and compare to next photo.
After rice vinegar and soy sauce have cooked off, add basil!
Plated and ready to eat. The cooked basil actually wilted too much - but since I had more on hand, it all worked out just fine.