My junior and senior years of college, I spent a lot of time at a place called the Book Mill. It’s a hidden gem of a used bookstore, tucked away in a serene corner of rural Massachusetts. Slogan: “Books You Don’t Need in a Place You Can’t Find.”
The bookstore itself is housed in a 19th-century gristmill. It’s a strange, slightly crazed little building, with odd-sized rooms, sharply angled rafters and staircases so narrow your shoulders bump the walls. The walls are lined with bookshelves, which are filled to creaking with books of every size and binding. There are vintage armchairs in every corner, for settling in and reading. The whole place smells musty, the way a good used bookstore should.
But the Book Mill is more than just a bookstore. It’s a creative and social hub, with several artists’ studios and a small cafe attached to the old mill building. When my friends and I needed to escape from the pointy-headed bubble of our college campus, we would drive out to the Book Mill and claim ourselves one of the big black wooden tables in the cafe. We would order lunch–crusty brie-and-apricot sandwiches, fruit and cheese boards with honeyed yogurt, peanut-ginger udon noodles, a glass of maple milk to wash it all down–and sink ourselves into an afternoon of classwork or thesis writing, while the river tumbled by under the windows.
I still miss those afternoons, deeply, achingly. The cafe, the bookstore, the food and the river: they were all of a place, that old pastoral New England place, that just can’t be imitated anywhere else. Recently, on a hot afternoon, I tried recreating those peanut udon noodles from the cafe. I’ve never seen peanut noodles done anywhere the way they were done at the Book Mill, with udon noodles and broccoli and just the right clinging layer of sauce. So I stuck close to memory and tried to feel my way based on the flavors I had tasted dozens of times.
The noodles came out perfect, supple and chewy, and the sauce was rich and velvety like I remembered. It wasn’t the same, of course, but if I closed my eyes, I could just barely make out the feeling of a heavy wooden table under my elbows as I held my fork.
Peanut-Ginger Udon Noodles (serves 4)
1 small head of broccoli, cut into florets
1 lb (16 oz) frozen udon noodles
2 tbsp natural peanut butter
2 tbsp unseasoned rice vinegar
2 tbsp toasted sesame oil
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp brown sugar
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and finely grated
1 small carrot, shredded
2 scallions, thinly sliced on the bias
Salt to taste
Toasted sesame seeds, for sprinkling
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the broccoli florets and blanch for 1 minute, or until bright green and just barely tender. Remove from the pot, leaving the blanching water behind, and lay out in a single layer on a clean towel to dry. Set aside.
Return the water to a boil. Add the noodles and cook until just tender, 3-5 minutes. Drain the noodles, then rinse them gently under cold running water until the water runs clear. Pat or shake the noodles dry, and set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together peanut butter, rice vinegar, sesame oil, soy sauce, brown sugar, and ginger. Add broccoli, noodles, carrots and scallions, and toss to coat everything with the dressing. Taste and adjust the salt as needed (you probably won’t need any, since the peanut butter and soy sauce are already plenty salty).
Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds, and serve at room temperature. Leftovers are also great cold, straight from the fridge.