This is a vegetarian recipe for a simple side dish. But how little that sentence does to describe the taste of a crisp-tender sugar snap pea that has marinated, after cooking, in a sweet and tangy sauce made from sesame seeds and gotten better the more of the Japanese-inspired flavor it soaks up. This is a vegetarian recipe for a a simple side dish that you will want to make again and again, for a sauce you will want to mop up with rice or bread or whatever carb’s handy, or just pour into your mouth.
Roles have reversed around here. For more than two years, I had a flexible schedule. I worked on the book and the site from home, rode the subway at length for meetings and freelance gigs around town, and always had the ability to make myself a homemade breakfast and lunch, and to cook Alex and me an awesome dinner. And then I decided to throw myself into my writing, to see where being a journalist in realms beyond food could take me, and for the summer, I’ve been working as a reporter. That means I leave home early and get home late. At the same time, a project Alex was on at work that kept him glued to his computer into the wee hours has finally subsided, and he’s finally catching his breath just as I gear up to go.
So in an exceptional course of events, Alex took a day off from work, picked me up at my office, and took me out to lunch. We went to one of those midtown Japanese restaurants that don’t serve sushi but focus instead on other delicacies: little pickles, fried chicken, silky miso soup. This place is cool and dark, with zen-like table arrangements and a confusing menu from which we ordered sort of arbitrarily. Moments after we did, our first course arrived.
Tiny black ceramic bowls of inch-long string beans pieces were drenched in a sweet sesame sauce. But they weren’t just drenched. The beans had really absorbed the sesame, so each bite was a combination of sauce and green vegetable. When we had eaten all the beans, we stared down at our bowls, debating whether manners had to trump instinct, aka whether we could bend down and lick the extra sauce. (Manners won.)
A full spread of Japanese flavors followed, and then I went back to work. But I couldn’t get the taste out of my head. So I came home, steamed some sugar snaps, and experimented with sesame sauces until I found one that delivered the same richness and sweetness and mysteriousness as the one in our lunch’s appetizer. The winning sauce is made from roasted sesame seeds–not tahini, not peanut butter–and a heaping spoonful of sugar. You’ll probably want to eat it on everything–spinach and chicken and tofu are just a start.
I like to spoon both sugar snaps and sauce onto white rice to eat. You can also serve this dish in place of any cool summer salad, like a slaw or a potato salad, beside a grilled or simple main dish. It makes a great replacement, since the sugar snaps get better the longer they sit in the sauce and you can make the dish way in advance.
Sesame Sugar Snaps
Sauce adapted from Martha Rose Shulman
about 4 cups sugar snap peas, washed and trimmed
3 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds*
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
2 teaspoons dark sesame oil
*You can buy roasted/toasted sesame seeds from Japanese markets, If yours aren’t roasted, here’s what to do: place them in a dry frying pan over medium heat and cook, shaking the pan constantly, until the seeds smell nutty and get golden. The second the get golden, transfer them to a bowl – they go from gold to burnt really quickly!
Combine the sesame seeds and sugar and a pinch of salt in a mini food processor. Grind for about 60 seconds, until most of the seeds are coarsely ground. It’s okay if a few of them stay whole.
Add the soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and sesame oil, and pulse until the seeds turn into a sauce. If it seems very thick, add about a tablespoon of water, but you don’t want to thin it so much that it won’t coat the beans.
Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Blanch the sugar snaps for 5 minutes. Drain.
Place the sugar snaps in a medium bowl and toss with the dressing. This is best at room temp. You can make this a few days in advance and keep in the fridge and then just let come up to room temp before serving. Garnish with a few extra toasted sesame seeds.