Yesterday was Daddy’s Day, so I made beef and beans. Today I am paying the price by making a vegetarian meal for Jan and Eilene. After work, Jan usually goes to the gym to work out and de-stress. Depending on which gym she goes to, the session she is attending, and the traffic she can come home anywhere from 6:45 to 7:15. With a stir-fry you can do all of the prep work and then put the dinner on hold, but ready to go, for easily an hour. A quick 10 minutes of stir-frying and a hot fresh dinner is on the table.
When we were living in Chengdu, Sichuan, we were frequently served this and enjoyed it a great deal. We had never eaten, or even seen, lettuce like this before. While its flavor is unique, its texture after it is cooked is very much softer than carrots or other root vegetables. It is closer to cooked celery without the strings.
If you have ever been to an Asian Market you have probably seen lettuce stem and thought, “What is that?” and “How do you cook it?” In the West, we eat the leaves of the lettuce and we like them when they are young and tender. In China, where the use of night soil is common as a fertilizer, they would not risk eating the raw lettuce leaves. The Chinese let the lettuce plant grow to its full maturity and then they peel and cook the stem.
In my discussion of garlic stem I noted that there was very little waste. You could eat almost everything you paid for. Lettuce stem is just the opposite. Almost half of the weight that you are buying is tossed into the compost. If you want half a pound of lettuce stem to cook you need to buy one pound in the market.
Tofu is my go-to substitute for meat. So I bought some to fry and add to my stir-fry. The sauce is just my standard spicy Hoisin stir-fry sauce. Jan does not like white rice, but she and Eilene really like pan-fried noodles. Since this dinner was for them, it was an obvious choice.
Karl’s Tofu, Garlic Stem and Lettuce Stem Stir-fry with Pan Fried Noodles
14 oz. extra firm tofu
¼ cup peanut oil, separate uses
1 lbs. Korean fresh noodles (udon)
2 tsp. dark sesame oil
1 lb. Chinese garlic stem
1 lb. lettuce stem
4 cloves garlic
6 green onions, separate uses
Karl’s Stri-fry Sauce
2 Tbs. Hoisin sauce
1 Tbs. soy sauce
2 tsp. chili garlic sauce
1 Tbs. shaoxing rice wine
2 tsp. ginger, minced
1. Several hours before dinner, drain and place the tofu block on a large plate. Place a smaller inverted plate on top of the tofu. Place a weight on the top to press the liquid out of the tofu. Occasionally, pour off any liquid that has seeped out of the tofu.
2. When you have pressed as much liquid out of the tofu as you can, cut the tofu into ½ inch slabs.
3. Put a half tablespoon of peanut oil into a sauté pan, or wok, and fry the tofu slabs until lightly golden on both sides. Set aside.
4. Fresh noodles are sold in 16 inches long bunches, folded in half. Open up two bunches and break them in half.
Note: Korean style udon is usually sold in trays of four half pound bunches. Figure one quarter of a pound of uncooked noodles per person. Remember you may want some pan fried noodles left over to snack on later. A little season salt, yum!
5. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the noodles and cook for three to four minutes. If the pot threatens to boil over add ½ cup of cold water.
Tip: Take a noodle from the pot and cut it in half. If there is still a little white spot in the center of the noodle it is not quite done.
6. Remove the noodles to a colander and run cold water over the noodles to keep them from over cooking.
7. Pour the sesame oil over the noodles and toss to coat. Set aside.
8. Rinse the garlic stem and cut off the flower heads and the bottom 1/8 inch off of each stem and chop it into 2 inch pieces. Set aside.
9. Peel the lettuce stem and cut it into ½ by ¼ by 2 inch planks. Set aside.
Note: Lettuce stem is sold with the wilted leaves still attached at the top. Trim these and the bottom 1/8 of an inch from the base. Use a vegetable peeler to remove the tough inedible outer layer from the stem. You use only the tender green inner portion of the stalk.
10. Trim the green onions and chop them into 2 inch pieces. Separate the white and green portions to cook separately and set aside.
11. Measure the sauce ingredients and put them in a small cup and set it aside.
Note: Now the real cooking starts! Everything before this has just been prep.
12. “Fluff” the noodles so that they are not a solid mass.
13. Pour a tablespoon of peanut oil in a large non-stick sauté pan and place it over a medium high heat. When the oil is hot, add enough noodles to cover the pan in a layer about half an inch thick. Shake the pan to make sure that the noodles are not sticking.
14. When the noodles have set into a mass and are starting to brown on the bottom, flip the pancake and shake the pan to distribute the remaining oil.
Tip: This is the most difficult step in this recipe to get right. There are many factors that affect how your pancake comes out (the idiosyncrasies of your stove’s heating element; any rough spot on your pan that will cause it to stick; not enough oil; too high a heat; too low a heat; how you hold your mouth while you’re cooking it). Ideally, you want your pancake to be an even crispy golden brown on the outside and soft chewy goodness on the inside.
15. When your first pancake is done slide it onto a baking sheet and place it in the over to keep warm (at about 180° F).
16. Repeat steps 13 and 15 until all of your noodles are fried and in the oven.
Tip: The number of pancakes you will have depends on your quantity of noodles, the size of your pan and the thickness of your pancakes. If you prefer less crispy noodles (or you are impatient) you may make each pancake thicker than half an inch.
17. Put the rest of the peanut oil into the pan, and bring it up to a high temperature. Add the garlic stem and celery stem. Stir-fry the vegetables about every 30 seconds for two minutes. Do not stir constantly.
Tip: I like to switch to a wok at this point, because the high sides keep the vegetables from flying all over the place. Your choice is to clean another pan or the stove top.
18. Add the white parts of the green onion to the pan and continue stir-frying for two minutes.
19. Pull the vegetables to the sides of the pan and add the garlic, tofu, and green parts of the onion. Continue stir-frying for one minute.
Tip: You may cut the fried tofu slabs into ½ dice, small logs, or rip them up into more interesting random chunks.
20. Pull the vegetables to the sides of the pan again and pour the sauce mixture into the pan. Mix the sauce together for about ten seconds and then toss the vegetables to coat them with the sauce.
21. Remove to a bowl and serve immediately with the pan-fried noodles on the side.
Tip: Remove the noodle pancakes from the oven and cut them in quarters. Fluff them slightly to break up the noodles.
22. The diners use a pair of tongs to serve the noodles into their bowls and then place the stir-fry and sauce on top.