I’ll be the first to admit that our pantry probably isn’t what you’d call typical. Though it took some cajoling, my daughters now know that when they want a quick snack of seasoned seaweed we more than likely have it on hand. Asian ingredients are a huge inspiration in our kitchen. And while you may not have four different kinds of soy sauce floating around (I’m a little funny that way), I’m willing to bet that you can pretty easily get — or already have — most of what you need for this very simple supper.
Why soba? Because it’s easy to prepare, it’s cool and refreshing, nothing on the plate is intimidating, and the ingredients aren’t “mixed together” so much that they will offend my five-year-old’s still developing palate. Plus, it’s a kind-of elegant presentation that uses a lot of seasonal fare. And by that I mean a lot of the produce from our farm share that will spoil if not used within the week…before getting more on the next pick-up date.
One of the things I liked most about this meal was actually engaging the kids in a discussion about how we were going to make it. I’d been able to prep the veggies and dipping sauce in the afternoon so during the car ride home from day care we talked about the buckwheat noodles, and the five-year-old actually got excited about the opportunity to put carrots and cucumbers on her “nests.” But the prep for this meal is so simple that you only need about 30 minutes from getting in the door to putting food on the table.
We were lucky enough to have some leftover grilled strip steak in the refrigerator which I sliced thinly and served alongside, but you can substitute anything…or be a traditionalist and stick with just the noodles and veg. Grilled chicken, a couple of seared scallops, fried tofu: they would all make a nice protein option to round out the meal.
One last comment about our pantry staples. This recipe calls for dashi, a simple broth made from konbu (kelp) and bonito flakes. And yes, I actually have both kelp and bonito flakes in the pantry. But I also have instant dashi packets with no MSG that I picked up at the Asian market one town over. You can find instant dashi on Amazon (though I recommend you try to find one without MSG if you can), or even kelp and bonito flakes if you’re so inclined — it’s quite easy to make dashi. Dashi is pretty nuanced and I recommend it for this recipe but if you need a substitute try a vegetable broth or light fish stock. You’ll also need mirin, which is a cooking wine that you can find in the Asian section of most grocery stores.
Finally, it’s worth noting that when it came time to make the dipping sauce I turned to my copy of “The Japanese Kitchen” by Kimiko Barber. There are lots of dipping sauce recipes out there, but I’m a bit of a traditionalist and like the simple, very Japanese version that is featured in the zaru soba recipe.
Here’s how I made our “nests.”
For the noodles:
4 portions (approx. 12 oz) of dried buckwheat soba noodles
3 carrots, peeled and julienned into three-inch-long strips and, if you wish, cooked slightly to soften in boiling water (I like crisp, but my oldest daughter likes cooked carrots)
1 cucumber, peeled and julienned into three-inch-long strips
1 radish, thinly sliced
1 scallion, thinly sliced (wait to slice until just about ready to serve or your scallion may taste a little soapy)
For the dipping sauce:
3 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
3 1/2 tablespoons mirin
2 1/2 cups dashi broth
Wasabi paste or fresh grated wasabi, if you wish
Mix together the dipping sauce ingredients (soy, mirin and dashi) in a medium bowl and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Fill a large saucepan with water and bring to a boil. Add salt (1 teaspoon or to taste…you’re just seasoning the water) and cook noodles until just tender. Do not over cook. Drain in a fine mesh colander and rinse well under cold water to both remove the extra starch and cool the noodles.
Arrange noodle “nests” on plates topped with carrots, cucumbers, radishes and scallions. Serve with individual portions of dipping sauce on the side. Float some scallion in the dipping sauce if you wish. Include a small amount of wasabi on each plate to eat — sparingly — along with the noodles or stirred into the dipping sauce.
Serves 4 as a main with a small portion of protein (we had some sliced steak with our noodles).
Mom rating: five stars. I love this summertime dish. I love leftovers for lunch the next day too. No need to heat anything up.
Kid rating: four and a half stars. BOTH girls cleaned their plates, though I served the five-year-old’s meal without radish and scallion knowing that just wouldn’t play. She also told me “Mom, I’m not crazy about the dipping sauce.” The three-year-old ate everything but a couple of radishes and even drank the dipping sauce (not that I encouraged it). No wasabi for the kids. They just aren’t ready and I don’t want the meal to end the second after someone eats something that is “too spicy!”