Extra Veggies = Extra Flavor: Stir-Fried Lo Mein With Charred Cabbage, Shiitake, and Chives
I've had noodles on the brain (in my noodle, if you will), ever since I read Shao ZhiZhong's fabulous series on how to cook Chinese noodles. The arrival of my Wok Mon home wok kit served as the perfect catalyst for some recipe testing.
Remember that article that Mark Bittman wrote for the New York Times a few years ago recommending that we flip the script on pasta, and serve it with a ton more sauce? I like to think of this dish in a similar way, though instead of extra sauce, it's just extra veggies. While stir-fried lo mein is often mostly noodles with some vegetables for flavor and color, this version comes out with veggies and noodles in almost equal proportions. That means it's packed with more flavor, in this case cabbage charred until sweet, along with meaty shiitake mushrooms and big stalks of chives.
As with all Shao's Lo Mein with Beef and Broccoli, the noodles here are first blanched in hot water. Even though lo mien typically come pre-cooked, this step will help soften them back up and separate the noodles so that they don't clump or break when you stir-fry them.
Shao's recipe suggests that you cook the noodles for three minutes, then shock them under cold running water. This works just fine, but I prefer to take the easier route: I blanch them just until tender (about a minute), then transfer them to a bowl and toss them with a little oil to keep the noodles separated. The residual heat from the water will keep cooking them until they're perfectly al dente and ready to stir-fry a few minutes later.
The next step is frying the cabbage. Even with the aid of a tool like the Wok Mon, your home burner still has a severely limited heat output, which means that the best strategy for getting nice charring and smoky wok hei at home is by cooking in batches.
I stir-fry the cabbage, letting it cook until charred around the edges. Charred cabbage gets an awesomely sweet, nutty flavor that will weave its way through the whole stir-fry.
Next, I empty the wok, reheat it with some more oil (making sure to get it smoking hot!), and add thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms. Mushrooms contain a ton of water and empty space in their spongy flesh, so you've got to cook them long enough to let that flesh break down, concentrating their flavor. They're ready when they've stopped steaming and exuding moisture and instead are sizzling and browning.
Once the mushrooms are ready, I add a handful of chives. These particular ones are flowering Chinese chives, but you can use regular Chinese chives, yellow chives, scallions, or even thinly sliced onion. Stir-fry them just long enough to tame their raw bite, but leave them nice and crisp. The shrooms and chives join the cabbage in the bowl on the side.
Next up are the noodles (after preheating the wok again, of course) for a quick toss.
All of the vegetables go back in, along with a few cloves of minced garlic. I toss and stir-fry everything together just until the garlic becomes nice and fragrant.
Noodles at take-out restaurants are often swimming in gloppy sauce. I like my noodles very moderately sauced—just enough to lightly coat each strand, but not so much that it pools at the bottom of the bowl. This is just a mixture of light and dark soy (you can use straight up shoyu if you don't have both varieties of Chinese soy sauce), along with some Shaoxing wine, sesame oil, and white pepper.
You can stir fry noodles with a spatula, but it's easier to ditch the spatula and use a set of sturdy tongs instead.
The array of flavors and textures you end up with—sweet and crunchy charred cabbage, tender chives, meaty mushrooms, and slippery noodles—makes eating your way through a plate into a fun game of who's-gonna-find-the-best-piece-first. (Hint: it's the person with the longest chopsticks).
Actually, I ended up liking this high-veg noodle idea so much that maybe next time I'll take it to the extreme. I can read the Cook's Illustrated-style headline now: "The Best Chinese Noodles: The Secret is No Noodles!"