Pacific Northwest | February 22, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineFebruary 22, home
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Across cultures, we've learned that nothing serves big flavors better
Tom Douglas' Shiitake Peanut Noodles offer both comfort and kick with hot red-pepper flakes, fresh ginger and garlic.
"DO YOU KNOW what I wanted to call Dahlia Lounge before it opened?" Tom Douglas recently asked me. " 'Oodles of Noodles.' I was going to serve noodles from all over the world."

"You would probably have gone public," I said, "with Oodles of Noodles in every mall and airport in North America."

As it turned out, Oodles of Noodles was relegated to the name of one side dish on the Dahlia Lounge menu. And instead of becoming a noodle house, Douglas' first restaurant became the swank eatery that set the standard for Seattle style during the last decades of the 20th century.

Those of us who watched the Tom Douglas empire grow from Dahlia Lounge to include Etta's, Palace Kitchen, Dahlia Bakery, a catering firm, two successful cookbooks and a family of products including spice rubs, barbecue sauces and party mix, are glad he took the path he did. I mean, noodle shops are all well and good, but what about those Dahlia Crabcakes, that pit-roasted salmon with cornbread pudding at Etta's? Or the spit-roasted duckling at Palace Kitchen? Would you find those things at a place called Oodles of Noodles? I don't think so.

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Still, Douglas' passion for noodles is easy to understand. "Noodles are at ease in any company," wrote Sri Owen, author of "Noodles The New Way," and are perhaps the most democratic of foods. It's true; from udon and yakisoba to spaghetti and spaetzle, fresh or dried, with eggs or without, noodles are part of so many culinary traditions that almost all of us have a soft spot for these slippery delivery vehicles of flavor.

Some people, my editor included, have fond childhood memories of their mothers making noodles for soup. She gets misty at the very mention of the word noodles. I was not so fortunate; while my mother could whip up cakes from scratch, she was not one to make her own noodles. I only had one glimpse of a neighborhood mom making noodles. I watched spellbound as she rolled out the dough and cut it into strips for chicken soup, and I still think of her when I occasionally make homemade egg noodles after the method described in Marcella Hazan's "Classic Italian Cookbook."

When I make noodles from scratch, I get the freshest eggs and the freshest organic flour I can find. Two large eggs and a cup of flour make a nice batch of noodles that serves four people. The food processor does a fine job transforming the egg and flour into dough, and after a 10-minute rest, it can be easily rolled into a paper-thin sheet ready to be cut into noodles of any width. I boil them briefly in plenty of salted water and serve them tossed with butter. For noodles like these, sauce is not the point.

For most people, though, noodles aren't the point. Most of us think of noodles as a neutral base where bigger flavors can shine. Their main contribution to any dish is texture and substance, not flavor.

In "Big Dinners," his latest cookbook, Douglas pairs noodles with some really big flavors in two recipes. One is a spaghetti and lobster dish spiked with red chilies, anchovy paste, garlic and parsley. The other, Shiitake Peanut Noodles, is one of my favorite Tom Douglas recipes ever. A playful interaction of sweet, sour, spice and salt, this is a sauce that has it all. Douglas presents the dish as part of a multi-course Chinese dinner, but to my mind, it's a meal in itself.

Greg Atkinson is a Bainbridge Island writer. Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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