So here’s a funny story: I consider myself to be pretty fearless. After all, it’s part of my Blog title! I’ll try most anything once. That attitude has afforded me many wonderful, funny, and enriching experiences throughout my life. That said, there is one ingredient with which I have had an unfortunate history. In response to a kitchen disaster of what seemed at the time to be galactic proportions, I have avoided this ingredient like the plague, in cooking and in consuming. Cellophane noodles. Even writing the name makes me wince.
Twelve years ago, shortly after I was diagnosed with celiac, I grabbed some cellophane noodles thinking I would make chicken noodle soup. I wanted something comforting and warm, and cellophane noodles were the only gluten-free noodle available in the store. Cellophane noodles are Asian noodles made with mung bean or potato starch, and they turn clear when cooked, also giving them the name glass noodles.
There weren’t any cooking instructions on the package, so I popped them in the water like a regular noodle, added my chicken soup ingredients, and excitedly cooked away…
By the time the soup was ready, what I had happily envisioned enjoying for dinner looked like a dead jellyfish floating in detritus. To steal a line from Bridget Jones, I had created “congealed gunge”. Hardly appetizing or beautiful. My husband couldn’t even get his spoon into the center of the noodles. It was so bad, that without apology, he looked at me lovingly and deposited the clear blob of what was supposed to be fabulous, gluten-free chicken soup into the trash. Ouch. I couldn’t argue. It was awful. Fast forward to a week or so ago when I told my husband I’d decided to try cellophane noodles again. This time, I was going to cook them properly and therefore make them taste and look delicious. He cringed.
While I was trying to figure out how to prepare the noodles without destroying them a second time, I learned that they are the key ingredient in a classic and very popular Korean dish, Japchae; traditionally served at weddings, birthdays, and other festive celebrations. Now, my experience of Korean cuisine is limited to the two nights I spent at an airport hotel six years ago in Seoul on the way to and from the Russian Far East. I enjoyed my meals, I actually like kimchi, and the sushi I had was incredible. But that is the extent of my knowledge and experience of Korean food. The ingredients in Japchae actually looked quite delicious, and after a lengthy conversation with a new friend, Jean, who had grown up in Korea, and with help from the wonderful people at the Oriental Market in Overland Park, Kansas, I was feeling brave and confident enough to give it a go!
First stop- my local Asian market. If you’ve never visited one, it is an experience for all your senses. When I stepped in the store, my nose was greeted with the smell of roasting sesame, my eyes lit on a feast of colorful packages, unique sweets, a wealth of cooking and serving items, and a myriad of ingredients I’d never encountered. It was so much fun to wander the aisles, reading packages and wondering what everything was. In reality, I was stalling. I already had my noodles in hand, and was just putting off what a small part of me feared might be more “congealed gunge”
Once I arrived home, it was time to dive in. The secret to cellophane noodles is that once they’re cooked, you need to drain them, then toss them with a little oil. This keeps them from sticking together. There seems to be disagreement about whether or not to rinse them in cold water. I did not, and the 2 tablespoons of oil I used to coat the noodles worked like magic. There was no “gunge-y” quality to these noodles whatsoever! I could feel myself getting excited, but one ingredient does not a recipe make. As with many stir fries, the key is to cook the ingredients separately, then mix them together at the end. I did this with the rest of the Japchae ingredients, tossed them with the noodles and sauce, and voilà! Before my eyes was a lovely looking dish.
The best part though, was the first bite. The noodles had a great texture- a little chewy and slippery, the sauce- a blend of soy sauce, sesame oil and sugar- was subtle, so I could taste the individual flavors of each ingredient. My husband smiled proudly, my kids asked for seconds. This dish is so easy and delicious I’ve made it twice this week. If you’re looking to explore a new cuisine, I highly recommend trying Japchae. The ingredients are simple, many of them are familiar, and the preparation is very easy. Since I’m no longer intimidated, and I have a grocery sack of noodles to use up, I’ll be experimenting with some different flavor combinations. Although, I have to say that nothing tastes as good as redemption!
Serves 4 with a little leftovers
1 ½ bunches potato starch cellophane noodles. (Korean cellophane noodles are only made from potato starch. That said, if you can only find the mung bean variety, you can use that too)
3 medium carrots, julienned (about 2 cups)
4 cups spinach leaves
½ medium onion, sliced horizontally-as in ½ of an onion ring (about ½ cup)
1 ½ cups reconstituted wood ear mushrooms (Jean tells me fresh shitakes or button mushrooms will also suffice)
1 bunch green onions, green parts only, chopped small (about 1 1 /2 cups)
3-4 garlic cloves, minced (about 2 tbs)
1 lb lean beef, sliced very thin (I used bottom round and cut against the grain)
4 tbs Soy Sauce (for Gluten-free soy sauce, purchase wheat-free tamari. It’s just like soy sauce, but without the wheat)
4-5 tbs roasted sesame oil
2 tbs + 1 tsp sugar
Sesame seeds for garnish
Set a large pot of water on the stove to boil. Do not salt the water. When the water is boiling, add the cellophane noodles and gently stir as the noodles soften. Let the noodles boil about 3-4 minutes. You can tell the noodles are ready to pull when they plump up a bit. Use a pair of tongs to grab a noodle and taste it- the texture should be soft, but a little chewy.
Pour the noodles into a colander and briefly let them drain. Give the colander a shake to eliminate excess water and pour the noodles into a large bowl.
Drizzle 2 tbs of sesame seed oil over the noodles and toss with a pair of tongs until the oil has evenly coated the entire mixture.
Refill the same pot with 1-2 inches of water and set to boil. When the water is boiling, add the spinach and briefly stir- no more than 30 seconds. The idea is to just barely wilt the leaves. Pour the spinach into the colander and run ice cold water over the spinach. This is called ‘shocking’ and stops the cooking process in order to preserve the color of the vegetable.
Using the same pot (You are welcome to use a different pot, or wok, or skillet, but why dirty another dish?) add 1 tbs of sesame seed oil to the bottom, and place over medium heat. When the oil is hot, but not smoking, add the julienned carrots, and cook until just softened, about 3-4 minutes. Remove carrots from heat and add them to the bowl of noodles. Next, (to the same pot) add the onion and garlic. Stir until you begin to smell their aroma- about 30 seconds You may need to add a tiny bit of sesame oil so the garlic doesn’t stick. Add the meat, 2 tbs of soy sauce and 1 tsp of sugar and stir until well mixed. When half of the meat has browned- about 2 minutes, add the mushrooms and continue to stir. After another 2 minutes, or when meat is barely pink in the middle, add the green onions and mix well. Pour contents of the pan onto the noodle mixture.
In a small bowl, whisk 2 tbs of soy sauce, 2 tbs of sesame oil, and 1 tbs of sugar, until an emulsion has formed (this is when the oil and soy sauce no longer separate when you stop whisking- the mixture will look a bit thicker) Pour over the noodles and accompanying ingredients and toss with tongs until noodles are completely coated. Jean says to use your hands during this process, which is definitely fun, but you have to let the noodles cool a bit more before trying it that way. When adding the sauce, the important thing to remember, is that the noodle is the star of this dish. The ingredients and the sauce should compliment the noodles, not over power them. You may serve family style from the bowl- just sprinkle about 3 tbs of sesame seeds over the noodles prior to bringing to the table. Or, you may plate individually and sprinkle sesame seeds on each plate. Do whatever works with your occasion and your family.