Since I spent about a minute between arriving home from the airport and heading out to the grocery store yesterday evening, I didn’t have time for my usual cookbook browsing and neurotic shopping list assembly. Instead, I turned my cravings into recipes in my head and shopped accordingly. I was craving homey, carb-rich, comfort foods from my past and I knew I needed to eat my mom’s favorite party dish – Virginia Lee’s Chicken and Cold Noodles with Spicy Sauce.
As long as I can remember, whenever we had a big party in the summertime, my mom made these noodles. She made them for birthday parties, she brought them to potlucks, and we often had them for dinner for just the three of us and lunch the next day. We always had all the ingredients in the pantry and freezer, since my mom often replaced the tahini in the recipe with smooth peanut butter. But my dad had very strong opinions about the peanut butter and if he had enough advance notice, he always made sure that my mom had tahini to use instead.
I just happened to have a giant jar of tahini in the fridge, leftover from who knows what, that I was dying to use up and this was the perfect opportunity. I didn’t bother looking up the recipe, since I was stuck with the ingredients I had on hand and I felt like my memory would serve me well. So, I improvised. I replaced mom’s spaghetti with angel hair. I added sesame seeds. I roasted the chicken instead of boiling it. I used the garnishes my mother always used – steamed asparagus, diced cucumbers, and chopped scallions – but stirred them into the noodles and chicken. I remembered there was vinegar, but I also added lime. I forgot there was chili oil, but I added red pepper flakes and lime zest and juice. In the end it was a complete success. It reminded me of summer and family and dinner at the picnic table on the porch with a cool breeze and fireflies in the yard.
The food and the feeling recalled a poem that Garrison Keillor read to me on the Writer’s Almanac a few weeks ago that I’ve been holding onto and mulling over and waiting to share. So, I leave you with some verse and the original Virginia Lee recipe, which I looked up after we ate seconds and thirds, for curiosity, for laughs, and for you.
The Last Perfect Season by Joyce Sutphen from After Words
No one knew it then, but that was the last
perfect season, the last time sky and earth
were so balanced that when we walked,
we flew, the last time we could pick a crate
of strawberries every morning in June,
the last time the mystical threshing
machine appeared at the edge of the field,
dividing the oats from the chaff, time of
hollyhocks and sprinklers, white clouds over
a tin roof. Everyone we knew was young then.
Our mothers wore dresses the color of
dove wings, slim at the waist, skirts flaring
just enough to let the folds drape slightly,
like the elegant suits our fathers wore,
shirts so white they dazzled even
the grainy eye of the camera when
we looked down into the viewfinder to
press the button that would keep us there,
as if we already knew that this was
as good as it was ever going to get.
Virginia Lee’s Chicken and Cold Noodles with Spicy Sauce
1 large chicken breast
6 oz. fine egg noodles
1/4 cup sesame paste
3 Tbl. water
2 tsp. hot chili oil, optional
3 Tbl. light soy sauce
2 Tbl. red wine vinegar
1 tsp. plus 1 Tbl. sesame oil
1/4 cup peanut oil
2 Tbl. finely chopped garlic
Bring about 6 cups of water to the boil and add the breast. Do not add salt. When the water returns to the boil, simmer about 10-15 minutes. Remove the breast but save the broth.
Bring the broth to the boil and add the noodles. Cook, stirring occasionally, about 5-7 minutes. Drain and run under cold water until chilled. Drain thouroughly and add to a mixing bowl. Add the teaspoon of sesame oil and toss.
Cutting with a knife or using fingers, cut or pull the chicken into fine shreds. Add the sesame paste to a bowl and add the water, stirring. Add the chili oil, soy sauce, wine vinegar, the tablespoon of sesame oil, peanut oil and garlic. Arrange the noodles on a serving dish. Cover with the chicken and spoon the sauce over.