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There are many lessons I learned during my month-long Vegan Experience last year, but one of the most useful—and one that I still use all the time—is that you can make vastly tastier and healthier food by reversing the ratios in starch-based dishes. That is, rather than having pasta with sauce and vegetables, have vegetables with sauce and pasta. It's a trick that works well for Italian pasta dishes, but perhaps even better for Chinese and other Asian-style noodle dishes. Try out Bok Choy with Chives, Black Bean Sauce, and Chow Fun, for instance.
Dan Dan Mein—the hot and numbing cold noodle staple of Sichuan street food—is one of my favorite dishes ever, but I can't help but think to myself, "I'm sitting here eating refined wheat starch coated in chili oil." Now I'm no health nut, but I'm not looking to die young either, and if I can not only have a healthier version of the dish, but one that actually tastes more exciting as well, then why not?
In this version of the classic, I replace a good chunk of the noodles with blanched spinach that I wring dry then cut into thin, thin ribbons. In many ways, spinach ribbons are superior to noodles. The offer some flavor of their own, but they also pick up the chili oil and vinegar-based sauce perfectly, making every bite more flavorful.
The key to perfect sauce is to make your own chili oil. I tend to make mine in large batches so I'll always have some on hand, but you can make just as much as you need for this recipe. It's simple: Just toast chilis (and Sichuan peppercorns if you'd like), add oil, and let it sit. You'll end up with something infinitely better than any bottled chili oil you might pick up.
The dish is hot, but the cold noodles help temper that heat. It's perfect fare for a hot late summer evening, and it comes together in about half an hour.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer 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.