Friday, September 6, 2013

Japanese Noodles and Chicken Salad

Better than young love?
I know exactly what prompted me to pluck this recipe card from the rack at Everett’s now-defunct Olson’s grocery store back in 1990. The best reason of all: love. You see, it reminded me of the one-time object of my affection, Tim G., a boy who never really knew I existed.

Starting high school was emotionally fraught for a number of reasons, the sudden influx of new boys not the least of them. Tim G. was one of those new boys, and I was smitten the second I saw him whip his three-ring binder out of his Everett High duffel bag during second period English. Despite my best, non-verbal intentions, however, he ignored me mightily. But then I received a helping hand from on high: I was invited to a supper hosted by my friend Annemarie’s church youth group. Glory hallelujah! Tim G. was a member of the same church and was going to be in attendance!

The thrill! The proximity! Eating dinner in a stranger’s house never felt so titillating, so do-or-die. I was sure this was going to be the night Tim G. looked up from his appetizer course and realized the beauty across the table only had eyes for him.

Original Olsen's Grocery Store recipe card!
But then, a funny thing happened that forever doomed any chance of a relationship. You see, the hostess served a “Chinese” Chicken Salad, and from the minute I placed the loaded fork in my mouth, I failed to care that care that Tim G. was sitting a mere six feet from me.

I was in love. In love! In love with the crunch and sass of cabbage and noodle and chicken drunk with soy sauce. Every part of that salad worked so well together. I was dizzy with delight. Stunned that I had never eaten anything so perfect, so intriguing, so plain good. My mind raced, trying to identify all of the ingredients so I could recreate it at home. Too soon, the hostess came by to clear the table and I looked up, sure the entire world must have changed in the last 10 minutes. I stole quick glances at my fellow diners but I seemed to have been the only one who’d had any kind of religious experience. To my complete horror, I noticed Tim G. still had salad on his plate.

I couldn't get the chunks to break "long."
I was converted that night, but not to the Lutherans – no, to the delicious and exotic combination of Top Ramen and Napa cabbage.  I’ve made and eaten variations on this kind of salad so many times over the subsequent years that I’ve lost count. To be fair, this particular recipe, while reminiscent of the salad I had at the church supper, is different. But it’s worth your attention nonetheless. The dressing itself is a refreshing keeper, with its lemon, honey and ginger. The noodles and cabbage soften into the dressing while retaining their crunch.  It’s a solid entry into the “Chinese” Chicken canon, even if it prefers to call itself “Japanese.”

Of course things never went anywhere with Tim G. That was inevitable. The final blow came several weeks after the church supper when I screwed up all my courage and asked him to “Tolo” – a version of a Sadie Hawkins’s dance. He acted surprised. It was the first time I had spoken to him, after all. He stammered an excuse and, just like that, my crush crushed me like a package of Top Ramen noodles destined for the salad bowl.

Beautiful purple cabbage.
So later that year, when I saw this recipe card reaching out to me like a frail reminder of what might-have-been, I snatched it up. If I couldn’t have the boy, at least I could have the salad. And a little part of me knew which one I was destined to have a long-term relationship with.

Japanese Noodles and Chicken Salad
¼ cup honey
grated peel of ½ lemon
¼ cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
2 Tbsp. sesame oil
2 Tbsp. soy sauce
2 tsp. grated fresh ginger
1 medium clover garlic, minced
1 pkg. (3 oz.) ramen Oriental soup mix, broken into long pieces
2 cups shredded cooked chicken
4 cups Napa cabbage, cut in long thin shreds
2 cups coarsely chopped red cabbage
2 cups bean sprouts
¼ cup sliced green onions
¾ lb. snow peas, blanched, drained, chilled

Serves 6-8

In large bowl, combine honey, lemon peel, juice, sesame oil, soy sauce, ginger and garlic. Add noodles. Marinate one hour or longer, stirring occasionally, until noodles are softened. Add remaining ingredients except snow peas; toss well. To serve, arrange snow peas around edge of large serving platter and mound salad mixture in center.

·      I found one package of Top Ramen too skimpy for my noodle-loving family. I went with two.
·      I don’t know how to break the noodles into “long pieces.” They just splintered apart when I tried. My best efforts results in substantial chunks, but they weren’t long.
·      I struck out with another boy named Tim in college. I asked him for coffee and he made some lame excuse about having to “work.” A likely story! But the third time is the charm, folks, because when I met my now-husband of 13 years I had to smile when he introduced himself. “Hi,” he said, “I’m Tim.” He said yes when I asked him out. And one of the very first things we made together, natch, was Chinese Chicken Salad. 
Eat your heart out, Tim G.!