Weeknight Cooking

Noodles in the Time of Cholera

June  6, 2013

Every other Thursday, we bring you Nicholas Day -- on cooking for children, and with children, and despite children. Also, occasionally, on top of.

Today: Nicholas's survival strategy? When all else fails, turn to pasta.

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This column has had a pasta fixation lately. The macaroni peas. The bachelor anchovy pasta. There is a recipe for noodles below, too, and I half-expect you to see it and immediately email Amanda and Merrill and ask that they stage an intervention.

Because too much pasta in the life of a household is a cry for help. It is the post-child equivalent of too many half-eaten ice cream cartons, or a single chocolate martini.

More: A classic martini -- no chocolate.

Different families have different breaking points. Ours sometimes involve the question of whether Pluto is or is not a planet. But they usually involve someone getting sick.

Before you have children, your experience of sickness is roughly: you feel lousy, you rest, you feel less lousy. You have vivid daydreams about The Price is Right and Bob Barker. After you have children, your experience of sickness—yours, theirs, whoever—is more or less that of the apocalypse. A few weeks ago I tweeted: "At point of household illness where Left Behind series is shrunk to single volume, shot as cinema verite documentary, set in your apartment."

It is true that my tweets are not fact-checked, though.

In this state, dinner is just another problem. And like so many problems, it can be solved by throwing pasta at it.

More: Problems that need solving? These 9 weeknight pasta recipes can help.

Every family has the meals that they depend on for survival -- the things you make when you can’t be bothered to think of things to make.

These are rarely the sort of things you most want to make. I may want to make fish head curry. (And for better or worse, I do: see Eat with Your Hands.) But that’s my version of not owning a minivan. It’s my version of those “I Listen to Slayer with My Daddy” onesies. Multi-part, recipe-dependent dinners involving eyeballs will not keep us afloat.

It’s a fine line: you need to be modest and practical—but not so modest and practical that you end up bored, because once you’re bored there’s no reason to go into the kitchen at all, and then you wake up one day and discover your freezer is stocked with entrees from Trader Jose’s and Trader Ming’s.

As is so often the case, Fuchsia Dunlop can help: her Chinese cookbooks are a wealth of dishes that require little work, and less time, but end up, alchemically, tasting wondrous and new. They don’t feel like settling. The recipe below is for the so-called kindling noodles from her Sichuanese cookbook, Land of Plenty. It’s a family staple, a noodle dish with an array of mix-ins, like at Herrell’s, except with sesame seeds and scallions instead of Heath Bars. Everyone at the table can customize their bowl to their highly neurotic taste. And because there’s spinach, and a few other non-Fuchsia-approved optional vegetables, it even looks like a real dinner.

Against all odds.

 Yibin "Kindling" Noodles

Adapted from Land of Plenty by Fuchsia Dunlop (W.W. Norton & Company, 2003) 

Serves 2, amply; 3, more modestly 

8 ounces spinach
10 ounces dried Chinese noodles
3 tablespoons walnuts
3 tablespoons peanuts, unsalted
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
4 tablespoons Tianjin preserved vegetable (optional)
3 scallions
2 teaspoons sesame oil
4 teaspoons soy sauce
4 teaspoons dark soy sauce (if you don't have dark soy sauce, just add more regular soy sauce)
Cablespoons peanut oil
Chili oil

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by James Ransom

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I'm the author of a book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World. My website is nicholasday.net; I tweet over at @nicksday. And if you need any good playdoh recipes, just ask.


Deb W. August 11, 2013
I could NOT love this post more.
Veggielover July 7, 2013
Actually...for sicktime survival we do omelettes...
Veggielover July 7, 2013
Love it! I have four kids and we have just emerged from the survival cooking phase. They are now teens and I can cook pretty much anything and they will eat it! I am living at the grocery store though....
Paula G. June 9, 2013
My survival dish involves eggs and potatoes. Either mashed potatoes or fried potatoes with soft fried eggs, the ultimate comfort food,
berkopat June 9, 2013
What is Tianjin? Also, how many Tbs. of peanut oil?
Nicholas D. June 9, 2013
Around 4 tablespoons oil. But subject to taste.
SweetArlene June 9, 2013
I'm trying this recipe soon! And can I say I love the title?
Fairmount_market June 7, 2013
Thanks for the inspiration. We had a wave of the bubonic plague sweep through our household, and are just getting back to normal.
dymnyno June 6, 2013
Recipe and notes twas brillig!
laurenlocally June 6, 2013
Having had a sick baby this past week and far too much resulting take out Chinese and back of the fridge "salads" (aka random food on a plate with olive oil and cheese) I love this article. The noodles look great!