Tag Archives: Udon

Vegetable udon

My boyfriend is a funny creature. Ask him what his favorite food is, and he’ll say, “Sushi.” Ask him where he wants to go for dinner tonight, and he’ll say, “Sushi.” Ask him what he had for lunch yesterday, and more often than not, he’ll say, “Sushi.” And yet, when we go to our favorite sushi boats restaurant, it’s not the sushi that gets him excited. It’s the vegetable udon.

I don’t blame him. At this particular restaurant, it’s sublime–shiitake mushrooms, zucchini, carrot, Napa cabbage, noodles, broth, nothing else. The mushrooms infuse the liquid and punctuate each bite, chewy and meaty and just the right size. The carrot and zucchini are julienned, and the cabbage is thinly sliced, so that they mimic the slither and slip of the udon noodles. The broth itself is soft and subtle, ideal for letting the fresh flavor of the vegetables burst through. It’s deceptively simple, and of course it was only a matter of time before I tried to recreate it at home. The result? A quick-cooking, feather-light soup, perfect for dinner on a cool summer night.

There are not many ingredients here. The key is a lightly-flavored broth, or dashi, and vegetables that are cut to maximize textural fun. The dashi itself couldn’t be simpler: a couple sheets of konbu–dried Japanese kelp–and a handful of shiitake mushroom stems, tossed into a bowl of cold water and left to soak overnight. The biggest challenge, unexpectedly, was finding the konbu; I got lucky, and knew of a Japanese market that sells it in resealable packs. If you can’t get your hands on konbu, you could use a very lightly-flavored vegetable broth.

As far as the vegetables, if you have a mandoline with a julienne blade, you’ll fare way better than I did. My knife skills are…well, lacking, and so I ended up with fat matchsticks instead of thin ribbons. It wasn’t a crisis, of course, but I did feel like the chubby vegetables competed with the noodles for attention, rather than gracefully flanking them the way they do at our sushi boat place. But that’s what happens in a home kitchen–things are coarser, stubbier, chewier and stranger than in the restaurant that inspired them. And that, I guess, is the whole charm of taking restaurant recipes like this one home.

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Peanut-ginger udon noodles

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.

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