Sesame Sichuan Peppercorn Noodles
Organizing my spice drawer yesterday (yes, that is one of my favorite activities), I came across a jar of black Sichuan peppercorns that my bestie gave me when I visited her in Shanghai. I was immediately transported back to my favorite meal in Shanghai, to a Yunnan restaurant she took me to called Lotus Eatery. My favorite dish of all was a plate of Sichuan black peppercorn noodles with sesame. It was so simple, but exquisite. The noodles were super spicy, but extremely flavorful and balanced with a perfect sweetness. I kept going back for more, and I couldn't identify that curious flavor that felt simply unexplainable: I finally discovered that flavor was the Sichuan peppercorn. I wouldn't call it "spicy" but rather, numbing. Your whole mouth gets a gentle tingling sensation, combined with a bright citrusy taste, and even a little sweetness. I asked the waiter repeatedly what the ingredients were, and he named so few - it was clear that the entire dish hinged on the Sichuan peppercorn.
My friend planned the most beautiful weekend of eating for us in Shanghai (she knows me so well!), and I think it's important to note how committed we were to the food over those two days...we literally ate 96 dumplings in 48 hours. Just wanted to throw that little tidbit in there. Some might feel embarrassed...I feel sort of proud ;)
Below, my healthy take on Sichuan black peppercorn noodles - white sesame seeds, black sesame seeds, toasted sesame oil, crushed roasted peanuts, toasted and crushed Sichuan peppercorns combine to create a nutty, thick, numbing, sweet paste, that's perfect when tossed with noodles and a million crunchy veggies.
1 cup white sesame seeds
1 cup black sesame seeds
2 cups shelled peanuts
3 tbsp black sichuan peppercorns
3 tbsp coconut sugar (or brown sugar)
1/2 cup toasted sesame oil
1/2 cup grapeseed oil
2 tbsp aleppo chile flake, or another fruity pepper like marash, espelette
1 box rice noodles
1/2 head large cabbage
1/2 lb sugar snap peas
4 cara cara oranges (or any orange)
1 bunch scallions
optional (for a heartier salad)
2 tofu blocks
1 yellow onion or 2 large shallots
3 tbsp white miso
a drizzle of soy sauce
Slice cabbage into thin strips. Coarsley chop sugar snap peas, removing tough ends. Segment cara cara oranges by cutting off the top and bottom, and then slicing off the peel. Then segment the orange by slicing in between the membranes. Reserve the remaining orange and squeeze into a bowl to get all the juices out. Slice the scallions into small circles. Place scallions in bowl with orange juice.
Dice tofu into 1/2 in cubes. Pour a glug of grapeseed oil into a nonstick skillet. Cook down finely sliced onion or shallots until caramelized, about 10 minutes over low-medium heat. Add tofu, miso, and a drizzle of soy sauce. Cook down until tofu has dried out, with bits of char around the edges, about 15 minutes tossing frequently.
Preheat the oven to 350. Place peanuts on a baking sheet, and toast for 10-12 minutes, until lightly toasted/golden brown. Set 1 cup peanuts aside, and finely crush the other cup with a spice/nut grinder or coffee bean grinder. Place white sesame seeds and black sesame seeds on the baking sheet, and place in oven for 1 minute, 30 seconds. Toss seeds, and place in oven for another minute. Immediately add sesame seeds to a mixing bowl with crushed peanuts. Don't let the sesame seeds sit on the hot baking sheet - they burn easily. Place peppercorns in a dry skillet over low heat, stirring frequently for 1-2 minutes. Crush in spice grinder/coffee bean grinder. Add to sesame seed/peanut mixture. Add coconut sugar. Fold in toasted sesame oil, until you get a thick paste. If it seems that much of it is still dry, add another 1/4 cup sesame oil. Set mixture aside.
In the skillet you used for the peppercorns, add grapeseed oil and place over low-medium heat. Add aleppo chile flake and stir for 3-4 minutes before removing from heat. Set chili oil aside.
Place rice noodles in boiling water for 1 minute, 30 seconds. Drain and rinse under cold water. Let drip dry in the colander, tossing often and separating the noodles with your hands, getting the noodles as dry as possible.
Toss noodles with half of sesame-sichuan paste. Toss salad, adding tofu last, with orange juice-scallion mixture. Serve noodles on top of salad. Top with more sesame-sichuan paste and drizzle with chili oil (getting more chile flake and less of the actual oil).
Serves 4 as a light main course, 6 as a side dish.
Sesame-Sichuan paste: other ideas include baking into a brittle, as a crust on fish (or chicken) while baking, tossing with literally any roasted veggie - especially carrots.