Back in 2007, Mark Bittman wrote what I thought was one of the more brilliant columns of The Minimalist in The New York Times. Every good Italian cook knows that a bowl of pasta is mainly about the pasta; the sauce is merely there to accent it. His simple idea? Who cares what Italian tradition says: reverse the ratios and make your dish focus on the sauce and vegetables, using pasta as a tasty, textural accent, not the centerpiece of the recipe.
It's a really good idea for anyone—even omnivores—but as a vegan, I've found it to be a total life-saver when planning meals. Could that Pasta with Braised Broccoli and Tomato I made last week be better as Braised Broccoli and Tomatoes with Pasta? Indeed it is, from both a health, and flavor perspective (let's face it: we all love pasta sauce).
The other day, I stir-fried some chow fun noodles in the office and served them with a bit of scallions and a black bean sauce. As I was eating, I thought to myself: why not apply Bittman's trick to other cuisines?
Once I'd broken that psychological barrier, I found myself experimenting. A mapo tofu inspired dish of simmered soft tofu with chilis and flowering chives should have been served daintily scooped along with a big bowl of white rice to dilute its intense flavor. Instead, I decided to tone down the flavor a bit, add some extra tofu and vegetables, and serve it with just a tiny bit of rice on the side.
Dry-fried chow fun is one of my favorite foods in the world (exhibit a) but at its core, it's essentially a huge pile of refined carbs with not much nutritional value to offer. As a meat eater, that's fine. I've got meat as a concentrated source of protein, and perhaps a pile of steamed dark green vegetables on the side. As a vegan, I need to pack more fresh vegetables into my meals if I want to make sure to stay healthy.
The solution? Cut way back on the noodles and add a whole slew of vegetables. That's exactly what I did here. Instead of noodles, the base of the dish is stir-fried bok choy (cooked in a super-heated cast iron wok to get some nice, smoky wok hei into it) along with flowering chives, Chinese chives, and leeks in a savory fermented black bean and soy-based sauce. The noodles are still great—perfect for adding a bit of textural and flavor contrast—but now their ratio is more akin to the marshmallows in the Rice Krispies.
I know that I'm going to be playing around with this method a lot more in days to come, and I'd encourage anyone who cooks a carb-with-sauce based meal to try it out. You may find it to be surprisingly delicious.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.