Asian Noodles Bring a New Twist to Dinner

Cookbook author Nina Simonds has been taking the words "twirl, slurp, and savor" to great lengths lately.

Asian noodles have arrived on the scene of American cuisine - and for her, not a minute too soon.

When Ms. Simonds' book "Asian Noodles" (Hearst Books, $21) hit the stores earlier this year, her world went go-go-gyoza. (Gyoza = Chinese dumpling wrappers).

The cookbook with its 60-plus recipes had been in the works for two years and its arrival conveniently coincided with growth in Asian noodle popularity in this country:

*Cooking Light magazine pronounced Asian noodles the No. 1 hottest trend for 1997.

*Small ethnic noodle shops are popping up especially in student enclaves. Well-known restaurateurs are opening up noodle bars and Asian-diner-themed restaurants in major cities.

*Mainstream supermarkets are carrying more varieties of noodles as well as tofu and Asian sauces.

"It's a terrific time for this trend with today's lifestyle," says Ms. Simonds, who admits even cookbook authors look for convenient, nutritious, economical, and quick ways to feed their families.

From a culinary perspective, the Asian noodle craze is a natural direction for people:

"All this brings a new dimension to the whole love affair Americans have with pasta," says Simonds.

But compared with pasta, Asian noodles lend themselves to much more variety.

Even before preparing a meal, there is soba, ramen, cellophane, rice sticks, Korean sweet potato noodles, somen, udon, and more to choose from. Combinations and additions are endless: soups, stews, salads, side dishes, and complete suppers.

Simonds made noodle dishes for about two years and never got tired of them, she says; from Seared Black Bean Chicken on Crisp Noodles to Red Hot Sichuan Noodles; Spicy Sesame Noodles to Vietnamese Shrimp with Vermicelli.

Around spring and summer, people tend to want recipes for do-ahead noodles salads, no-fuss picnic dishes, and all-in-one meals.

Here are some of her favorites.

Of all the curry mixtures I make, this one is the most vibrant,' writes Nina Simonds. 'When pungent seasonings ... are ground in a food processor, their flavors come to life. Use this curry mixture as well in marinades for grilled seafood or chicken.

Curried Coconut Shrimp on Rice Noodles

6 ounces thin rice stick noodles (vermicelli), softened in hot water, cooked until just tender, rinsed, and drained

1-1/2 tablespoons safflower or corn oil

FRAGRANT SEASONINGS

Process to a coarse powder in a food processor or blender:

3 dried red chile peppers or 1-1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes

2 stalks lemongrass, trimmed, outer leaves discarded, and cut into 2-inch lengths

1 1-1/2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and cut in half

1-1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

1-1/2 teaspoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

2 red onions, cut into thin strips

Coconut Sauce

Mix together

1-1/2 cups coconut milk (regular or light)

3 tablespoons fish sauce (soy sauce may be used as a last resort)

1 tablespoon sugar

1-1/2 pounds medium shrimp, peeled, deveined, and rinsed

1-1/2 cups frozen peas, thawed

1 cup fresh basil leaves, cut into thin strips

Arrange noodles on a serving platter. Heat a wok or a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil and heat until hot, about 30 seconds. Add the fragrant seasonings and onions, turn heat down to medium-low, and stir-fry for 3 to 4 minutes, until the onions are tender. Add coconut sauce and cook for 3 minutes more. Add shrimp, turn up the heat to medium-high, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the shrimp turn pink. Add peas and basil, toss lightly, and spoon over the rice stick noodles.

Serves 6.

Rainbow Peanut Noodles

1/2 pound thin noodles, such as linguine, cooked until just tender, rinsed under cold water, drained, and tossed with:

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

5 carrots, peeled and grated

2 English (seedless) cucumbers, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded, shredded, and squeezed dry

2 cups bean sprouts, rinsed and drained

1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into thin strips (about 1 cup)

2 cups sliced cooked chicken (cut into thin strips)

1-1/2 tablespoons minced scallion greens

Chinese Peanut Dressing (see below)

Arrange noodles in a large serving bowl. Arrange the vegetables in concentric circles over the noodles and pile chicken in the center. Sprinkle with scallions.

Serve at room temperature or chilled with Chinese peanut dressing.

Serves 6.

Chinese Peanut Dressing:

One 1/2-inch-thick slice fresh ginger, peeled and sliced in half

8 cloves garlic, peeled

1 teaspoon hot chile paste, or to taste

1/2 cup smooth peanut butter, or more if necessary

1/4 cup soy sauce

3-1/2 tablespoons sugar

3-1/2 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar or Worcestershire sauce

3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

5 tablespoons chicken broth or water, more if necessary

In a food processor fitted with metal blade or in a blender, finely chop the ginger and garlic. Add remaining ingredients in the order listed and process until smooth. The dressing should be the consistency of heavy cream. If it is too thick, add more water or chicken broth; if too thin, add more peanut butter. Refrigerated, in a covered container, the dressing will keep for 2 to 3 weeks. Makes about 1-3/4 cups.

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