18 September 2011

Gypsy Kitchens: Monegasque Cold Noodle Salad

Here is a perfect cure for muggy nights: cold noodle salad with anchovies - a staple fish in Monegasque cuisine. On a hot evening in Monaco, with barely a breeze off the sea, eating a warm meal was out of the question. Our luck was particularly good; we found soba noodles at the grocery store, the first time we've seen them in Europe since (oddly) Belarus. The nutty pasta was excellent alongside the brine and salt of anchovy paste. Light, refreshing and delicious, the dish is so perfect we want to have it every night.
Anchovies were once the backbone of a major industry in Monaco. Salting and canning were done locally into the 1950's, with the fish being stored in coastal caves as they cured. Today, there are still a few fishing boats in Hercule Harbor, but they are vastly outnumbered and overshadowed by mountainous pleasure yachts.
We bought a tube of anchovy paste as soon as we arrived in the country (we have a fridge!), for dressings and sauces. For the noodle salad, we decided on marinated fish, instead of salted, to allow for more fish flavor without overwhelming the other ingredients.
In the heat, dinner needs to be simple. Tomatoes and lamb's tongue lettuce added juiciness and greenery, chopped scallion and fennel root provided flavor and texture. The only other ingredients: olive oil and a pinch of sea salt. Soba is one of the great pastas of the world, with a lot of flavor and earthiness. It works very well as a compliment to greens, because it's not as starchy on the plate and allows the salad flavors to shine. (Soba is also healthier than wheat noodles, and much easier to digest.)
It's good to try a little bit of the paste beforehand, to make sure it's not too salty or otherwise flavored. Ours - made by "Le Monegasque" brand, but not actually produced in the country anymore - is nicely fishy and powerful, with a taste somewhat reminiscent of strong olives.
It would be easy to use all sorts of different greens, as long as they're not too strong-flavored. Fennel is sometimes hard to find in America, but worth the search. Chopped thin, it's succulent and interesting enough to be a salad base by itself. Cherry tomatoes work well for this recipe, but consider using something bigger if you'd like wetter noodles. The larger and riper your tomato is, the more saucy the dish will be.
The "dressing" itself is nothing more than olive oil and fish paste, combined here with the scallion and salt to make a slurry. Start with a conservative amount of oil and add more as you mix your ingredients into the pasta.
A pasta note: soba is made primarily of buckwheat and it cooks very quickly. It's so delicate that it can't be treated like normal, flour pasta. Left hot after boiling, even drained, it will continue to cook and turn to mush. It's important to run it under cold water immediately, and to continue rinsing until the noodles are cool. Also, most soba cooks in only four minutes, so be ready with the colander!
When everything is mixed, your done. The anchovies were tender and huge - splitting them in two made incorporation easier.
A wonderful thing about cold noodles is that they can keep. Made in the afternoon, the salad came out of the fridge at dinnertime ready to serve. This would perhaps make a good side dish, but we were happy with it as the centerpiece of our evening, served with steamed broccoli and cold drinks.
Here is the recipe, if anyone still has questions.
Monegasque Cold Noodle Salad
2 portions soba noodles (they usually come wrapped in a little paper thing)
1 1-2 cups cherry tomatoes
2 cups lamb's tongue lettuce (which is also known as mâché or mache)
Most of one fennel root
2 large scallions
1/4 to 1/2 cup olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons anchovy paste
About fifteen to thirty marinated (not salt cured) anchovies, depending on size
Salt to taste

- Cook the soba until done, usually 4 minutes in simmering water. Immediately remove from hot water and run under a cold tap until noodles are thoroughly cool. Let drain.
- Chop all vegetables into manageably mixable sizes.
- Combine anchovy paste and olive oil until smooth. Add minced scallion and stir.
- Toss all ingredients in a large bowl, adding olive oil if the result is too dry. Serve or keep cool, depending on your immediate needs.

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