Revenge doesn’t have to be the only dish best served cold. We combine crispy baked tofu cubes with cold noodles in a spicy sesame – peanut sauce for a fantastic dinner or picnic recipe.
We’re adopting a new strategy to help us cope with the cold Northeast spring: we’re simply going to pretend that it’s summer. That’s right, readers: the tiki bar has been set out in the garden (which, incidentally, is BLOOMING), we’ve slathered on a healthy layer of SPF50, and we’re putting together all sorts of yummy goodies to take on our next picnic. Yes, it’s perfect weather to take a room-temperature noodle dish out on the deck or to our local park. Okay, all that may not be true, but this recipe is a perfect meal to make when you don’t need to serve up a hot dinner.
Why Sesame Noodles?
Of course, both rice and wheat noodles work well served cold in many kind of recipes – we’ve also got a favorite go-to summer Orzo Salad packed with Mediterranean flavors – but rice noodles make gluten-free recipes perfect for any time of the year.
Cold sesame noodles are a popular component of Americanized Chinese cuisine, especially restaurant take-out (if you want to read the history of the dish, the New York Times has a great article from a few years back). We wanted a variation on the recipe that could be made with ingredients that we have in the pantry most of the time anyway – and that certainly includes a big jar of smooth peanut butter which we dig into for many dishes, both savory and sweet. You’ll find Asian sesame paste used in a lot of variations, but we keep things simple by adding toasted sesame seeds to the blender, since we always have those on hand in the fridge.
You certainly could make the sesame noodles without the crispy baked tofu (and the tofu by itself would be great in salads, grain bowls or just with rice) but we love the combination.
In fact, we’ve made a grilled chicken and peanut noodle version – but this time we wanted a vegetarian / vegan dish, which also happens to be gluten-free friendly! (Sorry, paleo pals, we’ll get you later, fam.) If you’re gluten free, use rice noodles instead of wheat, tamari instead of soy sauce and leave out the panko breadcrumbs in the crispy tofu. As always, check all your labels to make sure there’s no hidden gluten. For the vegan version, instead of fish sauce add 1 extra tablespoon soy sauce.
Make sure you buy the extra-firm tofu, since we want to maintain the shape of the pieces (save the softer stuff for smoothies). It’s important to gently press out as much water as you can. We prefer to cut the tofu into cubes first, lay them on a paper-towel lined tray, then lay more towel over them and rest a heavy pan on top. You don’t want to completely squash the tofu, just keep it under enough pressure to expel the liquid. You can leave it for as little as 20 minutes or for up to a few hours.
We bake the tofu in a mixture of oil (toasted sesame oil for flavor, and a neutral oil like vegetable or peanut) and soy sauce. To help it get an extra crispy exterior, we coat in in a thin layer of cornstarch, sesame seeds and just a little bit of panko breadcrumbs (it’ll work fine without the panko for GF). Once it’s tossed together simply bake it at 375ºF for around 30-40 minutes, tossing halfway through. The longer it bakes, the chewier the tofu will get. We love the combination of cool noodles with warm tofu but the tofu works well at room temperature too.
How to Make the Sauce
Meanwhile, prepare the sesame/peanut sauce. We really want to pack a punch with this, since both the noodles and the tofu are relatively mild flavored. As well as the peanut butter, we use garlic, ginger, soy sauce, chili sauce (like samba olek), sugar, and a little fish sauce (unless you want to keep it vegetarian). Blend everything together and add a little hot water if it’s too thick. You want it to be about as thick as heavy cream. Cook the noodles to package directions and then immediately rinse them under cold water to get rid of any excess starch. This will keep the noodles from becoming gummy.
Once they’re rinsed, drain them well and toss them with the toasted sesame oil. This adds great flavor and also keeps the noodles from clumping together. Note: The noodles can be made ahead and chilled for up to a day, once they’re tossed with the sesame oil. You can combine them with the sauce ahead of time too, or just before serving.
Serving the Sesame Noodles
If you’ve prepared this to-go for a picnic, keep the tofu and sauced noodles in separate containers until you serve up, to prevent the tofu softening up too much. We like to serve sesame noodles with a side salad of simple sliced mini cucumbers, radishes, and lime squeezes, and sprinkled with sesame seeds and sliced scallions.
Incidentally, the preparation for this shoot was helped by our friends at Material Kitchen who kindly sent us a couple of hand-finished Japanese-steel knives to try out from their new Fundamentals collection. Both the chef’s knife and the smaller paring-style knife (pictured above) were well-balanced, sharp as anything we’ve used and really beautiful, to boot! Please go and check out their stuff!
- 3 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds, plus more for garnish
- ½ cup smooth or chunky peanut butter (like Jif or Skippy)
- 2 medium cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon minced or grated fresh ginger
- ¼ cup dark soy sauce (like Kikkoman), or tamari
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce (optional, use soy if vegetarian)
- 2½ tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar
- 2 - 4 teaspoons Sambal Olek or other chili sauce, to taste
- 3 tablespoons light brown sugar
- Hot water
- 1 pound fresh Lo Mein noodles or 12 ounces dried spaghetti
- 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
- 4 scallions, sliced thin
- ¼ cup roasted peanuts, chopped, (optional, for garnish)
- 1 lime, quartered, for garnish
- 5 radishes, thinly sliced, for garnish (optional, for garnish)
- 2 cups crispy baked tofu (see recipe below)
- In a blender or food processor, puree 3 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds, peanut butter, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, vinegar, chili sauce, and sugar until smooth, about 30 seconds. With machine running, drizzle in hot water until sauce has consistency of heavy cream, might be up to about 5 tablespoons; set aside.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to boil over high heat. Add noodles and boil until tender, according to package directions (about 4 minutes for fresh and 10 minutes for dried). Drain into a colander, then rinse with cold tap water until cool; shake to drain excess water. Add rinsed noodles to a large bowl and toss with sesame oil until evenly coated. Add ¾ of sauce and toss to combine.
- Divide into serving bowls and add some crispy tofu to each serving. Drizzle a little more peanut sauce over tofu. Top with chopped peanuts, scallions, and sesame seeds. Serve with cucumber salad, a lime wedge for squeezing and a few sliced radishes.
- 1 block (12 to 15 ounces) extra-firm tofu
- 1 tablespoon neutral vegetable oil
- About a tablespoon toasted sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce (like kikkkoman) or tamari
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- Approx. 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
- 2 tablespoons panko breadcrumbs (optional)
- Preheat oven to 375ºF. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper, a silicone mat or foil.
- Remove tofu from package and pour away water. Slice the tofu into 1-inch cubes.
- Line a cutting board with a clean tea towel or 3 layers of paper towels, then arrange the tofu on top in a single layer. Fold the towel over the tofu (or add 3 more paper towels on top), and place something heavy on top to press the excess water out (like another cutting board, weighed down with a heavy pan). Let the tofu drain for at least 20 minutes, up to 3 hours.
- Transfer the pressed tofu to a medium mixing bowl and drizzle with the vegetable oil, sesame oil and soy sauce. Gently toss to combine. Sprinkle the cornstarch, panko and sesame seeds over the tofu, and gently toss until evenly coated.
- Spread tofu out onto the lined baking sheet in a single layer, leaving a little space between cubes. Bake for 20 minutes, then turn and cooking until the outside of the tofu is golden brown and the pieces look slightly puffed, 10 - 20 minutes more. The longer you bake the tofu, the chewier it will be.
- If using immediately, serve while still warm. If saving the tofu for later, let it cool on the baking sheet, then transfer to a refrigerator container. The tofu will keep refrigerated for up to a week.