Pasta Szechuan is a quick and easy weeknight pasta recipe that might bear some resemblance to Asian food if you stand far away and look at it in bad lighting. The recipe comes to me by way of Open House, a 1995 cookbook supporting the National Alliance to End Homelessness. A few recipes in Open House come from celebrities and well-regarded restaurants; Pasta Szechuan is one of the many filler recipes that are not. The recipes are credited to the Hillshire Farm company, known primarily for mass market meat products. I’ve got nothing against the good folks at Hillshire Farm, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone that they’re not exactly an authority on traditional Chinese food.
I happen to know a little more about Szechuan/Sichuan cuisine than I do other Chinese sub-genres. We live near one of the best Chinese restaurants in the area, and that’s their specialty. The bulk of the menu leans towards traditional preparations and ingredients, with a few American Chinese favorites thrown in for good measure. The last two pages on the menu invite you to “walk on the wild side” with a list of appetizers and entreés. The appetizers are all served ice cold, and include stuff like jellyfish in chili oil and a marinated pig’s ear. The entreé menu has everything from lamb to dry-cooked frog to “the other parts of the pig”. It’s this part of the menu that tends to lean into the mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. I haven’t yet worked my way through the whole menu, but I’ve found a couple of favorites on the wild side.
The dish on this restaurant’s menu that most closely resembles Pasta Szechuan is called “Chengdu Dan Dan Noodle”, which is a noodle dish with pork and veggies. It’s not half bad, but it’s decidedly not on the wild side of the menu. Their Chengdu Dan Dan Noodle is tossed in a spicy sauce with a generous dose of Sichuan peppercorns, a traditional preparation. In American Chinese cuisine one will often see Dan Dan Noodle served with an Indonesian-style peanut sauce instead. Pasta Szechuan takes the Americanization one step further, with jarred peanut butter and a criminally low spice level. It still makes for a decent weeknight dinner, but it’s several steps removed from anything traditional.
Preparation is straightforward. Scallions, ginger, and garlic are sauteed to soften, then mixed with peanut butter, soy sauce, and rice vinegar, with a smidge of chili oil swirled in to add a (very) little bit of heat. Protein is simmered in the peanut sauce until cooked through. The sauce and the protein are served over wheat noodles and steamed vegetables. There are a few odd substitutions: sliced cucumbers take the place of traditional pickled vegetables, but the Americanization has less to do with the ingredient list and more to do with proportions. The peanut butter and ginger work well together, but there’s not enough of the other ingredients to really make it taste like much of anything. As written, the recipe is certainly missing something. The simple fix was a healthy dollop of sambal oelek, which transforms this from pasta-with-peanut-butter to a properly balanced peanut sauce. It’s got the perfect balance of acid and heat without taking the salt content over the top.
I made a few other changes besides adding the chili sauce. The most significant is using chicken instead of tofu. My family actually quite likes tofu, but it seemed like a bad match for wheat noodles. If I were serving this as a side with a protein main I might consider tofu, but it didn’t seem to have enough substance for a one-pot meal. I also added a smidge more soy sauce and rice vinegar than the original recipe called for, and would probably use an even heavier hand if I make this in the future. These changes aren’t quite enough to transport you back to your childhood in Mianyang or anything, but they certainly make for a more palatable meal.
My family wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about Pasta Szechuan. Not because it was awful, but because I have a much better pasta-in-peanut-sauce recipe in my repertoire already. Despite being underwhelmed, they still ate what they were served and no one snuck out for fast food later on. Even the leftovers were gone the next day.
Pasta Szechuan is a whole meal in a bowl. When I served it to my family we had watermelon slices on the side, but it’s got proteins, veggies, and a starch and doesn’t need any accompaniment. Enjoy!
- 3 tbsp neutral cooking oil
- 1 ½ tsp minced garlic
- 1 tbsp finely chopped ginger
- 1 bunch scallions (thinly sliced)
- 1 ½ cups peanut butter (not all-natural)
- 1 cup water
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- 2 tbsp rice vinegar
- 2 tbsp sambal oelek (or sriracha sauce)
- 2 large chicken breasts
- 3 cups broccoli flowerets
- 2 cucumbers (peeled and thinly sliced)
- 1 16 oz package whole wheat spaghetti (or Chinese lo mein noodles)
- Heat cooking oil in deep skillet or dutch oven over medium heat. Add garlic, ginger, and scallions and saute, stirring occasionally, for 4-5 minutes until softened.
- Stir in peanut butter, water, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and sambal oelek. Reduce heat and whisk until smooth, then simmer, covered, for 5-7 minutes.
- This is a good time to start boiling water for the pasta.
- Trim chicken breast and slice into thin strips. Add to the peanut sauce and simmer for 7-10 minutes more until the chicken is just cooked through. If the sauce starts to break thin it out with a little bit of the pasta water.
- While the chicken is cooking, prepare pasta according to package directions and drain.
- Steam broccoli for 5-7 minutes until crisp tender.
- When ready to serve, arrange noodles, cooked broccoli, and raw cucumber slices in large soup bowls. Spoon peanut sauce and chicken over top. Serve with sesame seeds and additional sambal oelek.