Noodles


Chilled Japanese buckwheat noodles

This simple, austere, no-frills dish – known as ‘zaru soba’ in Japan – is perfect for hot weather. Well, it’s simple if you shop in Japanese stores regularly, or have all the ingredients on hand – otherwise a trip to a Japanese food emporium is absolutely necessary. The noodles are traditionally served on square wooden zaru soba dishes, but woven bamboo plates or chilled china plates are also suitable.

Use all the ingredients exactly as specified – do not substitute, say, ordinary ramen noodles for the soba, red radish for the white radish, and so on. Not only will it not taste the same, but the dish will lose its distinctive identity. If you’re not used to cooking Japanese food, this recipe is a good excuse to play around with unfamiliar ingredients and flavours. Ready-made dipping sauce and instant vegetarian dashi are perfectly good in this fuss-free, easy-to-make dish, but if you do want to make your own, I have given the recipes below.

Chilled buckwheat noodles are best eaten as a snack or for light lunch in the garden, accompanied by a bowl of clear, delicate miso soup, some chilled silken tofu or a few pieces of tempura (which can be dunked into the same dipping sauce). It’s also fun to make, and the presentation over ice adds a touch of drama and a talking point. Serves 4.

14 oz/ 350g dried soba (Japanese buckwheat) noodles
4-inch piece white daikon/ mooli radish, peeled
8 spring onions, trimmed and sliced on the diagonal
2 teaspoons wasabi (Japanese green horseradish) paste
4 sachets ajitsuke nori seaweed, finely shredded with scissors
One 330 ml/ approx 11 fl oz bottle of tempura-tsuyu dipping sauce (I like the ‘Yamasa’ brand which is delicious and suitable for vegetarians), chilled in the refrigerator

1.    TO PREPARE SOBA NOODLES IN THE AUTHENTIC JAPANESE WAY FOR THIS RECIPE: Bring plenty of water to boil in a large saucepan. When it’s boiling rapidly, add the soba noodles. Return to the boil. Add a mug of cold water and bring to the boil again. (If you want to be a purist, repeat the process twice with a further two mugs of cold water). Lower the heat and simmer rapidly without the lid for about 10 minutes, or until the noodles are just cooked. Remove the pan from heat, drain the noodles, and plunge them in a large bowl of cold water under a running tap. Stir gently to separate the strands, and drain again, very thoroughly. When the noodles have cooled, cover and chill them in the refrigerator. Just before you are ready to eat, place the noodles on a decorative platter over a large container/ bucket of ice.
2.    Finely grate the daikon radish and leave on kitchen paper to drain. Do not squeeze.
3.    To serve, divide the noodles between four square wooden zaru soba dishes (or on bamboo sushi mats arranged on pretty Japanese pottery). Sprinkle nori seaweed strips over each portion. Neatly arrange a mound of spring onions, a dab of wasabi, and a small cone-shaped portion of grated daikon around the noodles. Give each person a small dipping bowl filled with chilled tempura-tsuyu dipping sauce.
4.    To eat, mix the wasabi, grated daikon and spring onions into the tempura-tsuyu dipping sauce. Using chopsticks, take a portion of noodles and submerge them into the dipping sauce before eating.

TO MAKE YOUR OWN TEMPURA-TSUYU DIPPING SAUCE:

12 tablespoons dashi, or light vegetable, mushroom or seaweed stock
4 tablespoons mirin (sweet Japanese rice wine)
4 tablespoons sake (fortified Japanese rice wine)
4 tablespoons Japanese soy sauce

Place all the ingredients in a small saucepan and heat until the mixture just comes to boiling point. Remove from the heat immediately, and allow to cool at room temperature. For the zaru soba recipe above, chill in the refrigerator. (Otherwise this dipping sauce is eaten warm or lukewarm with tempura).

TO MAKE YOUR OWN VEGETARIAN DASHI:

Follow either of my two vegetarian dashi recipes: the more complex one incorporated into the Vegetarian Oden recipe posted on 7th January 2009, or a simplified version that’s part of the Agedashi Tofu recipe written on 31st October 2008.

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citrus-spiked-chinese-noodle-salad

As it’s the Chinese New Year – the year of the Ox – I wanted to share a recipe for Chinese noodles. Uncut and unbroken noodles are eaten during the New Year in China as they symbolise longevity. Here they are coated in a spicy lemon and orange sauce and served at room temperature. Leftovers are excellent for lunchboxes, or eaten straight from the fridge.

If you can’t find Chinese sesame paste in Asian grocers, use tahini, peanut butter, or 1 teaspoon pan-roasted sesame seeds, crushed and blended with 1 tablespoon cold water. Cider vinegar can be substituted for the rice wine vinegar; and the chilli oil should not be the sort of chilli-infused olive oil found in supermarkets. Sichuan peppercorns have a distinctive, subtly hot, spiky flavour and fragrance – but if you dislike their grainy texture, use ordinary black pepper.

The addition of oranges and lemons to the aromatic sauce will brighten up the greyest of winter days. Serves 2 as light meal, or 4 as appetiser/ side dish/ snack.

For the sauce:
Finely grated zest of 1 medium organic orange
Finely grated zest of 1 organic unwaxed lemon
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon groundnut (peanut) oil
1 heaped tablespoon Chinese sesame paste
4 spring onions, trimmed and sliced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon Chinese white rice vinegar
1 tablespoon Chinese dark soy sauce
¼ teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns, finely crushed
1 tablespoon Chinese chilli oil
½ teaspoon red chilli flakes
A pinch of sugar, to taste
Salt to taste

For the noodles:
9 oz/ 225g dried egg noodles, OR 1 lb/ 500g fresh egg noodles
1 tablespoon dark toasted sesame oil

Fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves for garnish

1.    To make the sauce, combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Adjust the seasoning to taste. Set aside, or chill until ready to use.
2.    Cook the noodles according to the packet instructions. Drain and plunge in cold water to prevent further cooking. Drain again, and toss in sesame oil. Set aside until ready to use.
3.    Just before serving, toss the noodles with the spicy citrus sauce. Garnish with coriander leaves Serve at room temperature (or chilled).

What will be the first dish that you eat on New Year’s Day? Will it involve fresh truffles, rare cheeses, dark chocolate or champagne? Or will you be using (out of season) strawberries, asparagus or morel mushrooms?

My first dish is always the same: a mixture of lentils and noodles. So why am I choosing such mundane ingredients in favour of luxurious ones? There are two reasons.

The first and foremost reason is: noodles represent longevity in Chinese and other Asian cultures and are always eaten at new year; whereas lentils are believed to bring good luck by people of Italy and other Mediterranean countries, and are traditionally eaten at new year, too. So if you combine noodles and lentils, you are bound to receive a double dose of longevity and luck. Not a bad start to the year!

The second reason is simply that after all the rich, heavy foods consumed during Christmas, this simple, down-to-earth, unpretentious dish brings me comfort and keeps me grounded. And if you have a reasonably well-stocked larder, you won’t have to do any shopping either.

The spices help to kick-start the post-festive jaded palate. I use rather a lot of spices, onions and garlic in this recipe – otherwise it would be plain and bland, as it has no main ingredients other than starch – but you can adjust the quantity to suit your taste.

Like Syrians, I like to eat this dish as it is. However, you can add fresh tomatoes while cooking; or serve it with a simple tomato sauce (not one with too many herbs), or plain yoghurt mixed with some fresh parsley. You may add a squeeze of lemon too, if you like. (If you use any of these suggested embellishments, you might want to reduce the quantity of spices – otherwise there could be too many clashing flavours).

Accompany with a bowl of soup and a crisp mixed salad; or serve with a platter of grilled Mediterranean vegetables – aubergines go especially well. Serves 4.

7 oz/ 175g whole brown or green lentils OR 1 x 16 oz can
1 level tablespoon cumin seeds
1 level tablespoon coriander seeds
2 cloves
1-inch piece cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon allspice berries
½ teaspoon hot red chilli powder or chilli flakes
8 oz/ 200g Middle Eastern rishta noodles (or thick vermicelli, egg noodles, wheat noodles, spaghetti, linguini or fettuccini)
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 large onions, peeled and chopped or finely sliced
8 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
Salt and pepper
2 oz/ 50g butter, melted
Chopped flat-leaf parsley, to garnish

1.    Wash the lentils, cook until tender (between 20 to 30 minutes, depending on how old they are), and drain. If using tinned lentils, rinse and drain thoroughly.
2.    In a small frying pan, toast the cumin and coriander seeds, cloves, and cinnamon until they are just a few shades darker and become aromatic. Take care not to burn them. Let them cool a little, then crush them in a mortar or pulverize them in a spice grinder, along with allspice berries (which don’t need toasting). Add the chilli powder or flakes to the spice mixture, and set aside.
3.    Cook the noodles according to packet instructions, drain and plunge in cold water to prevent them from cooking further.
4.    In a wide, heavy saucepan, heat the oil on medium heat and cook the onions until they are golden brown. Turn the heat to very low, add garlic and spice mixture, and stir for a few minutes until it perfumes your kitchen. Make sure it doesn’t go too dark in colour, or it will taste bitter.
5.    Add the cooked lentils, noodles and seasoning. Mix gently and thoroughly so that the noodles and lentils are evenly coated with spices.
6.    Pour over the melted butter and garnish with parsley before serving.

WISHING ALL THE READERS A VERY HAPPY NEW YEAR!

korean-cucumber-noodles

If you’re looking for a dish that’s light yet perks up your palate, then this is ideal. The mixture of hot chilli and cool cucumber is irresistible. Gochuchang is available in Asian grocers or Chinatown. If you can’t find it, don’t leave it out as it’s an essential flavouring in this dish – use miso paste, which is more widely available, instead, combined with red chilli powder to taste. Serve warm, cold, or at room temperature – all give different textures and are equally delicious. Serves 4 to 6.

1 lb/ 450g fine wheat or egg noodles
4 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
½ pint soy sauce
2 fl oz white rice vinegar
1 teaspoon caster sugar
4 level tablespoons gochujang (Korean soybean and red chilli paste)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 bunch spring onions, trimmed and sliced on the diagonal
4 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in hot water for minimum 30 minutes
1 very large cucumber, peeled, seeded, and julienned
4 hard-boiled eggs, shelled and sliced
Small red radishes, decoratively cut into flowers
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
A little cucumber peel, finely shredded

1. Cook the noodles according to packet instructions. Then drain, rinse in cold water, and place them a large bowl. Immediately add sesame oil, and toss around with a fork and a spoon to ensure that they don’t stick.
2. In a separate bowl, combine soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, gochujang, garlic and spring onions.
3. Drain the shiitake mushrooms, carefully removing any grit, and slice them. Add the sauce, mushrooms and cucumber to the noodles, and toss gently until everything is mixed thoroughly.
4. Pile the noodles in the centre of a large serving platter. Surround them with egg slices and radish flowers for decoration, and top with sesame seeds and shredded cucumber peel before serving.

This recipe is perfect for those chilly days when you come home from work, you’re too tired to cook, but still crave something nutritious. It’s made in a jiffy! To reduce cooking times even further, boil the water in a kettle and use frozen vegetables and ready-fried tofu pieces. It won’t be quite as good as the recipe below, but it will still taste better – and healthier – than supermarket ready meals. I have given a combination of vegetables that I particularly like in this dish, but you can also use carrots, spinach, peas, shiitake mushrooms, or baby corn. Serves 2.

3 tablespoons groundnut, corn or other vegetable oil
250g/ 10 oz tofu, drained, cubed, and pressed between kitchen paper to remove excess moisture
16 fl oz/ 400 ml water
125g/ 5 oz broccoli, chopped small
125g/ 5 oz mange tout, sliced on the diagonal
1 pak choi, quartered
2 packets instant ramen noodles with sachets of soup mix
6 spring onions, trimmed and finely sliced on the diagonal
1 tablespoon sesame oil
Schichimi togarashi (Japanese 7-spice pepper), or red chilli flakes

1. Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the tofu cubes on all sides until lightly golden in colour. Line a plate with kitchen paper and drain the tofu while you get on with the rest of the dish.
2. Boil the water in a saucepan, and add broccoli, mange tout and pak choi. Bring the water back to boil and add ramen noodles, stirring to separate them. Boil for 2 minutes.
3. Bring back to boil, and add the fried tofu, spring onions and the packet soup mix. Boil for another minute.
4. Serve hot in large shallow plates, drizzled with sesame oil and a generous sprinkling of schichimi togarashi or chilli flakes.