Oodles Of Noodles
Warm up your winter with flavorful Asian dishes

By Ying Chang Compestine
Photos by Rita Maas

When I was a little girl growing up in Wuhan, in central China, winter days were long and gray, filled with icy rain and snow. Because coal was strictly rationed, our apartment went unheated most of the time. The high point of my day came when I cupped a warm bowl of Grandmother's noodle soup in my chilled hands and inhaled the aromatic steam.

Noodles originated in China, where they're served as an edible symbol of long life and prosperity. In Asia, people enjoy them year-round and in countless forms, from an inexpensive lunch offered by street vendors to elaborate, multi-ingredient dishes served at holidays and weddings. Now, of course, the enjoyment of noodles spans cultures and continents around the world. Through the years imaginative cooks from numerous traditions have enhanced the basic formula (flour, water, and sometimes egg), creating innovative flavors by adding ingredients such as green tea, spinach, beet juice, tomato, and garlic.

Because of their mild flavor and versatility, venerable noodles—naturally low in fat and sodium—are a great staple to have in your kitchen. Interchange and pair them freely; you can substitute udon for wide fettuccine or bean threads for angel hair pasta, and any noodle makes an outstanding accompaniment to vegetables, fruit, soy, seafood, and meat in both hot and cold dishes. With minimal effort, you can turn fresh or dry noodles into a satisfying, nutritious meal.

Stir-Fried Udon with Flavored Tofu

Serves 6 / Stir-fried udon is one of the most enjoyed dishes in Japanese cuisine. My version is vegetarian, but you can always substitute your choice of meat for the tofu.

1/2 pound udon noodles, fresh or dry
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup fresh shiitake mushrooms, cut into 1-inch-wide strips
8 ounces flavored baked tofu, julienned
1/2 cup julienned carrots
1/2 cup snow peas, fresh or frozen
1-1/2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
1/2 tablespoon rice vinegar
6 green onions, cut diagonally into 2-inch-long slices Salt and pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon sesame oil

1. Cook noodles according to package directions. Drain and rinse with cold water to prevent sticking. Set aside.

2. Heat a nonstick wok or large, deep skillet over medium heat. Add oil and swirl to coat. Add ginger and garlic. Stir-fry until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add mushrooms and tofu and stir-fry for 2 minutes.

3. Add carrots and snow peas. Stir-fry for 1 minute or until carrots soften. Mix in noodles, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and green onions. Stir occasionally until noodles are heated through, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

4. Stir in sesame oil. Toss to combine. Serve warm.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 254 calories % fat calories: 34 Fat: 10g Saturated Fat: 1g Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 30g Protein: 13g Fiber: 2g Sodium: 562mg

Asian Chicken Noodle Soup

Serves 6 / Feel free to substitute tofu, seitan, or shrimp for the chicken in this comforting soup.

3 tablespoons rice vinegar
1-1/2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon shredded fresh ginger
2 teaspoons cornstarch

3/4 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into thin strips
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup shredded leek, white part only
4 cups organic chicken broth
1/2 cup frozen corn
1/4 pound dried bean thread noodles
1/2 pound spinach leaves
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon hot sesame oil
Low-sodium soy sauce, to taste

1. In a zip-top bag, combine all marinade ingredients and add chicken strips; toss to coat. Marinate in refrigerator for 30 minutes, or overnight.

2. In a large pot, heat oil over medium-high heat. Sauté ginger, garlic, and leek until softened, about 3 minutes. Add chicken broth and corn. Bring to a boil.

3. Add noodles and chicken strips with marinade sauce into boiling broth. Cook, stirring occasionally, until noodles are soft and chicken is done, about 5 minutes.

4. Add spinach, cover, and let it simmer until heated through, 1-2 minutes. Add white pepper and stir in sesame oil. Season with soy sauce. Serve hot.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 206 calories % fat calories: 22 Fat: 5g Saturated Fat: 1g Cholesterol: 31mg Carbohydrate: 25g Protein: 17g Fiber: 2g Sodium: 776mg

Long-Life Noodles

Serves 6 / This recipe, one of my son's favorites, comes from my third children's book, The Story of Noodles (Holiday House, 2002; reprinted with permission). Serve this to your children and enjoy the delight on their faces. Even better, have them help you make it. You can substitute raisins, grapes, or any fresh berries for the cranberries.

2 green onions, white part only, chopped
2 small cloves garlic
1/2 cup smooth almond butter
1/2 cup light coconut milk or soy milk
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon soy sauce, or salt to taste

1/2 pound thin wheat noodles, fresh or dry
1/4 cup roasted nuts, for garnish
1/4 cup dried cranberries, for garnish

1. Combine all sauce ingredients in a blender or food processor. Process until smooth.

2. Cook noodles according to package directions. Drain and rinse with cold water to prevent sticking.

3. In a large bowl, toss noodles with sauce. Garnish with nuts and cranberries. Serve cold.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 312 calories % fat calories: 48 Fat: 17g Saturated Fat: 3g Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 34g Protein: 8g Fiber: 3g Sodium: 403mg

Spicy Pad Thai in Lettuce Wraps

Serves 6-8 / In this savory dish, the wide, silken rice noodles absorb the spicy, sweet-and-sour peanut sauce. To save time, make the sauce early; it will last up to a week when refrigerated in a sealed container. Fish sauce and chili-garlic sauce are readily available in most supermarkets.

1/2 tablespoon cooking oil
1 clove garlic, minced
2-3 fresh chili peppers, such as jalapeño or serrano, seeded and minced
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
2 tablespoons minced white onion
1/4 cup unsalted creamy peanut butter
1/4 cup soy milk
1/2 tablespoon lemon juice

2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

3/4 pound medium raw shrimp, peeled, deveined, and diced
8 ounces wide rice noodles, fresh or dry
2 heads iceberg or butter lettuce
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 cups sunflower greens or daikon radish sprouts, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup diced red pepper
Fish sauce and pepper, to taste
Cilantro leaves, for garnish
Chili-garlic sauce, for dipping (optional)

1. To make peanut sauce: In a small saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Add garlic, chili peppers, ginger, and onion. Sauté until onion softens, 4-5 minutes. Add peanut butter, soy milk, and lemon juice. Cook, stirring, until sauce is hot and peanut butter melts, 1-2 minutes. Pour mixture into a blender or food processor and process until smooth, about 30 seconds. Let cool.

2. Combine marinade ingredients. Add shrimp and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes or longer. While shrimp marinates, cook rice noodles until barely soft. Drain and rinse with cold water to prevent sticking. Set aside.

3. Cut out lettuce cores and separate leaves. Cut leaves into 4-inch squares to make "cups." Arrange lettuce on a large serving plate.

4. Heat oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add shrimp. Stir-fry until shrimp turns opaque, about 2 minutes. Add sprouts and red pepper; stir-fry for 30 seconds. Stir in noodles and peanut sauce. Mix thoroughly. Season with fish sauce and pepper. Transfer to serving dish. Garnish with cilantro leaves.

5. To serve, place about 3 tablespoons noodle mixture into a lettuce leaf cup, wrap, and eat by hand. Dip in chili-garlic sauce, if desired.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 359 calories % fat calories: 32 Fat: 13g Saturated Fat: 2g Cholesterol: 86mg Carbohydrate: 44g Protein: 18g Fiber: 4g Sodium: 452mg

Cold Noodles with Smoked Salmon

Serves 4-6 / A dish I ate at a Chinese restaurant in the Philippines inspired this recipe. I guess it was the combination of Philippine and Chinese cuisine that I couldn't forget: The cold noodles were topped with stir-fried vegetables and fresh squid. I use smoked salmon instead and think this version tastes even better than the original.

8 ounces thin soba noodles
2 tablespoons teriyaki or shiitake mushroom sauce
1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded, and cut into thin strips
1 small yellow pepper, seeded and cut into thin strips
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
4 ounces smoked salmon, cut into long strips
Salt and white pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

1. Cook noodles according to package directions. Drain and rinse with cold water to prevent sticking.

2. Place noodles in a serving bowl. Mix thoroughly with teriyaki sauce. Toss in cucumber, yellow pepper, oil, vinegar, and salmon. Season with salt and pepper if needed. Garnish with sesame seeds.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 305 calories % fat calories: 23 Fat: 8g Saturated Fat: 1g Cholesterol: 8mg Carbohydrate: 44g Protein: 16g Fiber: 1g Sodium: 1020mg Ying Chang Compestine is the author of three children's books, including The Story of Noodles (Holiday House, 2002), and three cookbooks, including Secrets from a Healthy Asian Kitchen (Avery Penguin Putnam, 2002).