Lo mein with mushrooms, peppers, scallions and carrots. (Photo: Alice O'Dea)

Today is the first day of what I like to call "nebulous week"—the days between Christmas and New Year’s that can be marvelously formless and unscripted. We’ve jumped through the holiday hoops, and now our time might once again be our own to do with as we please. In some ways, I feel like this week is the best gift of the holiday season—an offering from the calendar, giving us an occasion when we might get reacquainted with ourselves; a chance to ponder, plan and play.

Also tucked in there is the fact that this is the last week of guilt-free living. In the new year, the pressure will emerge to be resolved to do something. Do more of one thing, less of another; be better; be different; transform somehow. But before we get caught up in the bluster of the new year, let’s appreciate the fact that for now we can just be, and enjoy the shortest days and coziest nights of the year.

After the excess of the holidays, with the elaborate meals, parties, and rich and sweet treats, it will be a relief to get back to eating simple food made with little fuss. This week might be a good opportunity to mix up a pot of soup, some tortillitas, homemade gnocchi or an improvised curry. Or, if you’re in the mood for traditional New Year’s fare, you could improvise a quick lo mein (which, technically, is a custom for the Chinese New Year—which doesn’t come until Feb. 8 this year, but we’re being mellow this week, so that can slide).

Lo mein is a classic stir-fry. There are five components to it, and all of them are subject to variation and improvisation: noodles, protein, vegetables, sauce and a garnish. I’ve perused a number of cookbooks and recipes, and the only truly optional of those is the protein. Pork, beef and shrimp lo meins are all classics, but vegetarian versions of the dish are quickly gaining in popularity. As with all stir-fries, it’s best to get all your ingredients chopped, sliced, diced and otherwise ready to go before heating up the pot, because once you get going, things will need to move quickly.

Start with your noodles. Fresh Chinese noodles are the ideal, but not everybody has access to them, so the rest of us will have to make do with dried pasta (or zoodles!). Rice noodles, egg noodles, linguine or fettuccine are all good options (according to tradition, the longer the noodle, the better, since long noodles symbolize long life). Cook according to the package directions to just short of al dente (they will finish cooking when added back to the rest of the ingredients), then rinse in cold water, toss with a bit of sesame oil, and set aside. If you’re putting protein in your lo mein, cook that and set aside as well.

The fun part of lo mein is in considering the veggies, sauce and garnishes. This is a good opportunity to create your own signature flavor, experiment or just clean out the refrigerator. The classic lo mein vegetables are mushrooms, scallions, cabbage or greens, and snow peas. But if you’d like to start with some slowly cooked slivered onions or julienned carrots, those would be great. Also maybe include things like minced garlic, grated ginger, diced bell pepper, chopped jalapeños, spinach, bean sprouts or sliced bok choy. Just put the heavier vegetables (like carrots) that will need a longer cook time in the pot first, then add things that just need to be quickly browned (like ginger and garlic) at the end.

While the veggies are cooking, assemble the lo mein sauce. This should include soy sauce, tamari or liquid aminos, and the rest is up to personal preference. At its simplest, the sauce can be just soy sauce and oyster sauce, or soy sauce and mirin for a simple vegan version. A more elaborate vegan sauce might also include sugar, ginger, Sriracha and sesame oil. A fancier nonvegan sauce (and some sample proportions) could consist of 2 tablespoons each of soy, oyster and hoisin sauce; a tablespoon of sesame oil; and a quarter-teaspoon of five-spice powder or other seasonings.

Once the vegetables are done, turn down the heat; add your protein, noodles and sauce; and toss until mixed well and heated through. Serve garnished with chopped chives or scallions for a little added punch of flavor.

And that is your quick and easy homemade lo mein. Have a relaxing nebulous week, and when the new year rolls around, don’t forget your New Year’s beans and greens! Happy holiday!

Alice O'Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn't really learn to cook until midlife. When she's not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at aliceodea@gmail.com. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.