- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 17, 2005

One of the best ways I know to bring excitement to your cooking is to be aware of adding contrasting tastes, aromas, textures, temperatures, shapes and colors to the foods you prepare. Serve a dish that balances spicy and mild ingredients, hot and cold, soft and crunchy, and all kinds of other pairings of opposite or complementary qualities, and you are sure to delight your family and friends.

That’s one of the reasons I came to love Asian cuisines so much when I began exploring them back in the early 1980s. Just think of the way crunchy, multicolored vegetables in a stir-fry contrast with tender chunks of chicken, beef or tofu; or how wonderful it is to tab just a touch of the sinus-clearing green Japanese horseradish paste called wasabi on a cool rectangle of sushi.

One of my favorite plays of contrasts to come out of Asia can be found in the spicy cold noodle dishes you find particularly in the kitchens of Thailand, Singapore and China. The way that strong seasonings - hot red chili peppers, garlic, ginger, rice vinegar - harmonize with the earthiness of peanuts or sesame, the refreshing zest of lime juice, and the cool temperatures at which such dishes are served seems to bring exciting new sensations with every bite.

The height of summer is a perfect time of year to enjoy such cold noodle dishes. They let you enjoy one of the world’s favorite foods, pasta, without getting too hot under the collar. You can serve the recipe that follows as a side dish for grilled, roasted, broiled or sauteed main courses. Or turn it into a main dish in its own right by adding strips of leftover chicken, steak or lamb, or whole chilled cooked shrimp.

You can make the recipe with whatever thin strand or ribbon noodles strike your fancy and are easy to find: fresh or dried thin Asian-style egg or wheat noodles; fresh or dried angel hair pasta, linguine, or spaghetti; or even rice sticks, a kind of Asian noodle made from precooked rice, which only needs softening in water and draining before it’s ready to use. Whatever your choice, be sure to follow the manufacturer’s package directions to get them perfectly al dente. Then, follow the recipe’s instructions for drying them slightly, to prevent them from sticking together and to help them mix with the other ingredients.

One important tip to keep in mind whenever you’re making dishes like this one is that cold temperatures mute flavors. Something that’s perfectly spicy when it’s warm will taste surprisingly mild when served cool. So don’t worry if this recipe seems to have especially robust ingredients. They’ll harmonize perfectly in the finished dish.

SPICY COLD THAI NOODLES WITH JULIENNE VEGETABLES, CRUSHED PEANUTS AND CILANTRO

Serves 4

GARLIC-CHILI OIL

1 cup (250 ml) extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 head garlic, cloves separated and peeled

1/2 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes

DRESSING

3 tablespoons light brown sugar

2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon soy sauce

2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

NOODLES

12 ounces (375 g) fresh or dried thin pasta or Asian noodles

3/4 cup (180 ml) thinly sliced 1-inch (2.5-cm) strips green onion

1/4 cup (60 ml) coarsely chopped roasted peanuts

1/4 cup (60 ml) minced fresh cilantro leaves

1/2 cup (120 ml) fresh Italian parsley leaves

1 Japanese-style cucumber, cut into thin julienne strips

1 small carrot, peeled, trimmed, and cut into thin julienne strips

1 1/2 ounces (45 g) Japanese pickled ginger (available in Asian markets or well-stocked supermarkets), chopped

8 lime wedges, for garnish

Prepare the Garlic-Chili Oil ahead of time: Put the olive oil and garlic in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. As soon as the garlic cloves begin to sizzle, reduce the heat to low and cook until the cloves turn golden-brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Do not let the garlic get too dark, or the oil will taste bitter. Remove the pan from the heat and let the oil cool. Then, stir in the red pepper flakes and leave them to infuse for 2 to 3 hours. Strain the mixture into a glass container, cover, and refrigerate until ready to use. (You’ll have more than you need for this recipe; try the extra oil brushed on grilled bread, or use it for sauteing.)

When you’re ready to prepare the noodles, make the dressing: In a small bowl, whisk together the sugar, soy sauce and vinegar until the sugar dissolves. Then whisk in 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of the Garlic-Chili Oil.

Prepare the pasta or noodles al dente, tender but still slightly chewy, following the manufacturer’s package directions. Drain the pasta or noodles, rinse under cold running water, and drain well. Then spread them out on a baking sheet so that they stay separate as excess moisture evaporates off of them, about 15 minutes.

When the pasta is dry, put it in a large mixing bowl. Pour the dressing over it and toss to combine thoroughly; then leave for 1 to 2 minutes to let the pasta absorb the dressing. Reserve a little of the green onion, peanuts and cilantro for garnishing and add the rest to the bowl along with the parsley, cucumber, carrot and pickled ginger. Gently toss until all the ingredients are combined.

To serve, mound the pasta in 4 large serving bowls. Garnish with the reserved green onion, peanuts and cilantro, and place 2 lime wedges alongside each serving for each person to squeeze over the pasta to taste.

(Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays and Wednesdays on the Food Network. Also, chef Wolfgang Puck’s latest cookbook, Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy, is now available in bookstores. Write Wolfgang Puck in care of Tribune Media Services Inc., 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY. 14207.)

2005 WOLFGANG PUCK WORLDWIDE, INC.

DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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