When I was 15 I worked in an ice cream store…let’s call it Raskin-Bobbins. It was a fabulous gig, given that it was literally 1 mile from my house, lacked any kind of supervision, and provided all-you-can-eat ice cream at a time in my life when I could eat gallons of the stuff without ever jumping past a lanky size 2. Nowadays, all I have to do is walk past an ice cream store and I feel the gentle spattering of thousands of molecules of fat hurling themselves at my legs and clinging for dear life in hopes of hitching a ride to my abs. It sucks.
Another benefit of Raskin-Bobbins is that it was directly next door to a great Chinese takeout place, and across the parking lot from a McDonalds (when McDonalds was still a fun treat and not the birthplace of American obesity). So when my delinquent coworkers and I tired of eating pralines n’ cream directly from the tub with tiny pink spoons, we’d take turns delivering pints of free ice cream to the Chinese place and McDonalds. In exchange for these pints, the kids who worked at either restaurant would give us whatever free food we wanted. It was a solid bartering system, and it meant that in any given four hour shift, I ate at LEAST 6000 calories. About 1/4 of those calories came in the form of greasy, flavorful pork lo mein. If you want to be really horrified, I will tell you that I didn’t even eat the vegetables out of my lo mein, but gave them to the weird kid who I was pretty sure might rat us out. I knew at an early age that implication buys silence.
At some point, the Chinese restaurant caught on to the game and replaced their hoodlum employees with very serious-looking Chinese people. While they would no longer accept ice cream as payment, they WOULD accept our petty cash as payment. We all lost our jobs shortly thereafter.
I haven’t ordered lo mein very much since then. It’s usually just a disappointment, with restaurants fobbing off spaghetti noodles or rice noodles as lo mein, which is a load of horse poop. Lo mein noodles, in my experience, should be thick, chewy noodles of substance. After some research, I found the right ones. Let us rejoice!
They’re called Canton noodles, Chinese egg noodles, pansit Canton, or something else. They’re thick and yellow and eggy, and are not found in any grocery stores around here. You know where they are found, though? That’s right baby! Asian Market.
God knows I love a trip to Asian Market, even though it smells like dirty bajangos. It’s less threatening than Middle Eastern Market, and I’m allowed to wear my running shorts without being made to feel like a harlot. Asians don’t really care if you are dressed like a skank. I mean, they practically reinvented it with Anime. Plus, their food selection is cool. Half delicious and half morbidly fascinating (dried shrimp candy lollipops), I always find wack shit to bring home. This time I got some doozies, but I won’t give them all away now. I will tell you that I brought home a couple of different Thai energy drinks, one of which lists nicotine as an ingredient, and the other of which has a demonic bull skull on the front. Not sure who’s going to cave first and try drinking one, but my money is on Chris.
I also got my Canton noodles, and headed home for the preparation of authentic, takeout-style pork lo mein. The only thing I couldn’t replicate was the pork with the hot pink edges. I’m not sure what that is made of, but all Chinese restaurants seem to have it and I love it. It’s probably just food coloring or something, but it seems special. After a millenium of chopping time, I had piles of julienne vegetables festooning my cutting boards and was ready to go. Here’s the recipe I used, which was kind of flying by the seat of my pants, but worked out perfectly.
4 oz pork tenderloin, cut into batons (partially frozen pork will slice much easier)
8 oz canton noodles (the thicker round ones)
4 oz carrots, julienned
4 oz celery, julienned (this adds needed texture, trust me)
1 oz reconstituted wood ear mushrooms, julienned (these are also called black fungus)
1 oz button mushrooms, julienned
3 oz green cabbage, shredded
1 small white onion, sliced 1/4 inch wedges
1 t minced ginger
1 t minced garlic
1 oz roasted peanut oil (for stir-frying)
3 T garlic chili paste (marinade)
3 T soy sauce (marinade)
1 T sesame oil (marinade)
2 T rice wine vinegar (marinade)
1/2 C beef or pork stock (for sauce)
3 T soy sauce (for sauce)
2 T rice wine (not vinegar, for sauce)
1 T rice wine vinegar (for sauce)
1 T cornstarch (for sauce)
1 t white sugar (for sauce)
1 t sesame oil (for sauce)
2 T oyster sauce (for sauce)
1 t ground white pepper (for sauce)
The night before: stir together marinade ingredients, add pork, toss to coat, cover and refrigerate overnight.
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and cook canton noodles until al dente (about 2 minutes). Shock in cold water and drain.
2. Heat peanut oil to almost smoking in a large skillet or wok. While this is heating, whisk together your sauce ingredients.
3. Add minced garlic and ginger and stir with a wooden spoon for 30 seconds.
4. Add vegetables in this order, leaving 20 seconds between additions: button mushrooms, onions, carrots/celery/cabbage, wood ear mushrooms. Cook for an additional minute, over high heat, tossing constantly. Transfer to a plate.
5. Heat pan back to very hot, but not smoking. Add pork and marinade and toss to brown on all sides, but don’t overcook. Transfer to plate with veggies.
6. Add a touch more peanut oil to the pan and heat til almost smoking. Toss in noodles and stir around very quickly to separate and prevent sticking. Stir fry noodles until they start to get a touch of color on some parts (about 1 full minute).
7. Dump in the vegetables and pork and stir fry for 1 full minute.
8. Pour the sauce into the hot pan and toss the veggies, noodles, and pork quickly to coat completely. Serve immediately.
Trust me when I tell you this is just like great takeout, only the veggies are still fresh and crisp instead of all limp and mealy. You can add or subtract whatever veg you want, and you can substitute whatever meat you want, but don’t omit anything from the sauce. The oyster sauce is in every Chinese stir fry, basically, and it doesn’t taste like oysters or fish or anything like it. It’s just a deep, slightly sweet and slightly salty addition that’s jam-packed with umami, and makes it taste authentic. If you’re horrified by the idea of oysters (and if anyone would be, it would be me, so you have no excuse) then there is such a thing as vegetarian oyster sauce. It’s made from oyster mushrooms, and has a similar level of umami. If you’re a vegetarian, leave out the meat, sub vegetable stock, and use vegetarian oyster sauce. It’ll be great.
For dessert, we went with something a little special. I bought some Asian pears at the market the other day, and they were unlike any I’ve had before. I haven’t had too many Asian pears in my life, but they’ve always been like a cross between a pear and an apple. These were fully ripe, though, and they tasted like a very familiar liquor that I couldn’t place. After careful research of tasting every alcohol in my cupboard, I determined that they tasted just like butterscotch schnapps. Incredibly good and different. I was so happy to experience them this way.
So, for dessert I tossed the sliced pears in flour, browned some butter in a pan, and gave them a quick saute. I sprinkled the tops with brown sugar, and just when things were allllllmost too brown, but not yet, I deglazed with butterscotch schnapps. OMFG. So good. I removed it from heat immediately and poured the mixture over homemade French vanilla ice cream. A sprinkle of fleur de sel over the top, and we were in the money.
This dessert was so fantastical, it blew me away. The only thing I’d change is to peel the pears next time. The skins got a touch bitter from the saute, but not so much as to take away from an awesome and unique dessert.
There are times, like when I’m watching Top Chef, that I wish I had a culinary niche. I wish I could figure out what genre was my “specialty.” But then there are times when I use the middle part of a pork tenderloin to make schnitzel one night, and use the two ends to make lo mein the next night, that I’m really grateful to have the ability to make whatever the hell I’m craving. I’ll never have to be the girl who says “Dude, I’m craving Chinese food. Let’s scratch the Mac n’ cheese for tonight and order in!” Unless I’m hungover, in which case I’m totally getting it delivered.