Ants in a Tree is a crowd-pleaser
“Ants in a Tree” is the English translation of the Chinese name for this classic recipe. Built of spicy pork, bean thread noodles (aka cellophane noodles) and scallions, it earned its name because it's not so far-fetched for the finished dish to call that image to mind — the noodles look like tree branches, the scallions like tree leaves and the little bits of ground pork like ants. Admittedly, it's not a very appetizing image, but the dish itself happens to be a crowd-pleaser. Indeed, it's a refreshing break from the usual holiday fare.
Cellophane noodles can be tough to find in your supermarket, which is why I've listed capellini (very thin strands of pasta). If you're not a fan of pork, you're welcome to swap in beef, turkey, or chicken. And if you can't source Asian chile paste (made of chiles mixed with oil or vinegar and salt), use your favorite brand of hot sauce. Of course, if you'd prefer the dish to be mild, leave the hot stuff out of it.
Make sure you prepare every ingredient before you begin cooking. Many of them cook very quickly and are added to the pan in rapid succession. If at any stage the next round of ingredients isn't ready to go, the ones in the pan will overcook.
As a way to help the noodles absorb the myriad flavors of the sauce, par-cook the noodles and finish them in the sauce. If, in the end, you're more in the mood for a bowl of soup than a plate of pasta, add more chicken broth.
Ants in a Tree
Start to finish: 50 minutes. Servings: 6
1 pound ground pork
1⁄4 cup low-sodium soy sauce, divided
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1⁄2 cup thinly sliced white and light green part of scallion, plus 1⁄2 cup thinly sliced dark green part of scallion for garnish
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 to 1 1⁄2 tablespoons Asian chile paste (or to taste)
3 cups shredded Napa cabbage
6 ounces capellini
1 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds for garnish
Put on a large pot of salted water to boil for the pasta.
In a medium bowl combine well the pork, 2 tablespoons of the soy sauce, the sesame oil, the cornstarch and the 1⁄2 cup white and light green sliced scallions.
In a wok or large skillet heat the oil over high heat until it is almost smoking. Add the ginger, garlic and chile paste; cook, stirring, for 30 seconds or until the mixture smells fragrant. Add the pork, breaking it up, and cook, stirring until most of the pink has disappeared. Stir in the cabbage and the remaining 2 tablespoons soy sauce and cook, stirring, until the cabbage is slightly wilted, 1 to 2 minutes.
When the pot of water has come to a boil, add the pasta, stir, and boil it for 2 minutes. Drain the noodles and add them to the skillet along with the chicken broth. Bring to a boil and simmer for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally (the mixture will be soupy at first and then become less saucy as the pasta absorbs the broth). Divide the pasta and pork evenly among 6 bowls, pouring any liquid over it, and garnish with the scallion greens and toasted sesame seeds.
Sara Moulton is host of public television's “Sara's Weeknight Meals.” Her latest cookbook is “HomeCooking 101.”