- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Of all the requests I receive, the most common is for quick weekday dinner ideas.

The greatest need seems to be for nutritious and appealing one-dish meals that can please the entire family. My answer always includes a weekly wok full of vegetables and noodles, also known as a stir-fry.

I suggest that you include at least one stir-fry meal in your weekly menus. If you are laughing at the very notion of weekly menu planning, get out a pencil and paper and, for once, try planning a menu and shopping list.

Through this exercise, you will see that this is the only way to ensure spending a minimum amount of time in the kitchen while feeding your family maximally well.

This wonderful approach to one-dish meals starts with a green vegetable in season, backed up with grand seasonings. In the recipe that follows, fresh asparagus is cooked quickly with mushrooms and noodles in a marinade of lemon, sesame oil, garlic and ginger root.

You can prepare the tofu marinade, cook the noodles and cut up the vegetables a day in advance. Store the cooked noodles in a container of water in the refrigerator, being sure to drain them thoroughly before adding to the stir-fry. If everything is ready before you begin, the actual cooking will take less than 15 minutes, stove to table.

A couple of ingredients used here might need a bit of explanation. Chinese sesame oil is the dark, toasted kind, with deep flavor and aroma. It is sold in little bottles in Asian markets and in the imported-foods section of many grocery stores.

This oil is used as a seasoning rather than as a cooking oil because a few potent drops go quite far. In fact, it lasts so long that I purchase a bottle only about every two years.

In a perfect world, you would be making this dish with fresh, refrigerated Chinese noodles, the jolly fat kind that were made this morning somewhere in Chinatown and shipped to your local market. OK, so that’s not going to happen.

The next best thing is to use dried vermicelli or linguine, which actually will work just fine. (Should you have access to fresh Chinese noodles, cook them for a minute or two in boiling water, then drain and rinse.)

“Trimming” asparagus means different things to different people. Renowned cooking teacher Jacques Pepin shaves off the stiff outer skin of asparagus with a vegetable peeler. Using this ideal but time-consuming preparation technique, more of the asparagus is salvaged and available for the recipe. For less patient people such as myself, trimming asparagus is a euphemism for breaking off the woody stem end and tossing it in the compost.

Two other points for perfectionists:

• Mushrooms taste best when cleaned with a damp paper towel rather than given a full bath or shower. Soaking them in water will dilute their flavor.

• The freshest ginger root is firm and heavy for its size and has skin so thin and tight that you can easily scratch it off with your fingernail. The fresher the ginger, the better the flavor.

Asparagus-tofu-noodle stir-fry

Begin preparing the tofu at least 30 minutes ahead of time (ideally, the night before).

pound firm tofu, cut into small dice

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon minced ginger root

2 tablespoons soy sauce

teaspoon hot red pepper flakes, or to taste

1/4 cup lemon juice

3 tablespoons Chinese sesame oil

3 tablespoons vegetable broth or water

3 tablespoons sugar or light honey

Salt

5 to 6 ounces uncooked vermicelli or linguine

1 tablespoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil

1 pound slim asparagus, trimmed and cut diagonally at 1-inch intervals

12 to 15 medium-size fresh mushrooms, sliced or quartered

8 scallions, minced (include greens)

1 cup lightly toasted cashews, minced

Place tofu in a medium-size saucepan; cover with water. Bring to a boil, turn heat to a simmer, and cook for 10 minutes. Drain thoroughly.

Combine garlic, ginger root, soy sauce, red pepper flakes, lemon juice, sesame oil, broth or water, sugar or honey, and teaspoon salt in medium-size bowl.

Whisk until well-blended, then add tofu. Cover and let stand a minimum of 15 minutes at room temperature, or as long as overnight refrigerated.

Cook noodles in plenty of salted, boiling water until al dente. Drain and immediately rinse under cold water to stop the cooking. Drain again and set aside.

Shortly before cooking, remove tofu from marinade with a slotted spoon, transferring it to a separate bowl.

Place cornstarch in a small bowl. Add about cup of tofu marinade, and whisk until smooth. Return this mixture to the marinade, leaving whisk in or near the bowl for your convenience ” you’ll need it again soon.

Place a large wok over medium heat, and wait a minute or two for it to become hot. Add 2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil and wait 30 seconds or so, then swirl to coat pan. Turn up heat to maximum, and add asparagus and mushrooms.

Stir-fry for a minute or two, until asparagus is just tender, then add tofu. Stir-fry for about 1 minute longer. Add drained noodles, and stir-fry for about 3 more minutes, using oversize chopsticks or tongs to mix and keeping heat high.

Whisk marinade from bottom of bowl to reincorporate the cornstarch, then pour entire mixture into wok. Sprinkle in scallion. Continue to stir-fry 5 to 8 minutes longer, or until everything is coated and sauce thickens. Serve immediately, topped with cashews. Makes 4 servings.

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

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