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Monday, July 30, 2018

Noodle Variations: East Asian-Inflected Pesto with Ramen Noodles, Soy & Butter Oyster Mushrooms, and Tobkio

For reasons that I won't get into here, I've had a lot of upheaval in my personal life lately. Not all of it has been bad, but the combination of worthwhile but exhausting work and a lot of change at home has meant I've been eating out a lot and cooking very little the past couple of weeks. I figured that if I was going to get back into the rhythm of cooking, it needed to be with something I was excited to try, so I decided to experiment.

Pesto is one of my favorite things to make. It's delicious, adaptable to both hot and cold dishes, and it freezes beautifully, so that you can get fresh herbal flavor easily even long after a fresh batch of herbs would have wilted or rotted. The traditional Italian formula with basil and pine nuts is phenomenal, but over the years I've done versions with arugula, broccoli rabe, kale, and cilantro, and they've all been lovely. However, the basic formula and applications remain relatively European; even when swapping the greens, I've typically kept things like the parmesan the same. Today, I wanted to try something else: using pesto techniques but adapting the flavors for use in an Asian-inflected take on pesto and pasta.  I served it mixed into ramen noodles (since there's no broth, this is more of a riff on mazemen), with some oyster mushrooms cooked in soy sauce, butter, and wine and a garnish of tobiko, the crunchy, salty flying fish roe you've probably had on sushi.

I should be clear upfront that this is in no way authentic to any cultural tradition. It was an experiment on my part, and I'm sure I'm not the first person to try something like this. The pesto was bright, with a welcome sharpness from the chives, and had an intense herbal aroma. It balanced very nicely with the savory mushrooms and pleasantly chewy ramen, while the tobiko added color, some welcome briny flavors, and a pleasant crunch for contrast.

I served this with a smashed cucumber salad on the side. I went with Chef John's excellent recipe, which you can find here:

East Asian-Inflected Pesto Over Ramen Noodles, with Soy-Glazed Oyster Mushrooms and Tobiko
~45 minutes
Serves 4.

1 pound ramen noodles
~3 tablespoons pesto (see below)
8 oz oyster mushrooms, rinsed and coarsely chopped
1 large red bell pepper, sliced
1 tbsp neutral oil
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp soy sauce
~1/4 cup white wine (large splash)
1 tsp tobiko per serving

1. Add neutral oil to a pan and heat on medium high until shimmering.
2. Add the mushrooms to the pan and stir, spreading out into a thin layer.
3. The mushrooms will give off a good deal of liquid. When liquid volume starts to reduce, add the soy sauce and stir until well combined.
4. When the liquid has cooked off, continue cooking until fond builds up on the bottom of the pan. Then, add the wine and scrape aggressively until fond dissolves. Add the butter and bell pepper and cook until liquid is nearly gone.
5. While mushrooms are cooking, boil ramen until tender and slightly chewy.
6. Combine ramen, pesto, and mushroom-bell pepper mixture and portion out in individual plates/bowls
7. Top with the tobiko and enjoy.

East Asian-Inflected Pesto
1 packed cup Thai Basil leaves
1 packed cup Chinese Chives, sliced into strips
1/2 packed cup mint leaves
1/2 cup chopped toasted cashews
~2-3 tbsp olive oil or neutral oil
2 crushed garlic cloves
1/4 cup dried shrimp or dried anchovy (opt. but recommended. For a vegetarian version, use well-cleaned dried shitake)
1 tbsp green cardamom pods (opt.)
~2 tbsp unsweetened dried coconut
1/2 oz fish sauce
1/2 oz lime juice
1 tsp sriracha or gochujang
Salt to taste

1. Process the shrimp and cardamom pods until reduced to a powder. Add the garlic and process until finely minced.
2. Add the cashews and pulse until they are as finely chopped as possible.
3. Adding one handful at a time to a food processor, process the basil, chives, and mint until all are finely minced. If the blade becomes too bound up to work, proceed to step three and then add the remaining herbs.
4. With the machine running, drizzle in the olive oil until the mixture reaches desired consistency–a thick, smooth puree that the blade can stir without issue.
5. Add the coconut, fish sauce, lime juice, and Sriracha, adjusting proportions to taste.
6. Season with salt and other spices if desired and reserve until needed, in the fridge or at room temperature.

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