January 26, 2012
I’m so pooped. I’ve woken up every day that has passed since learning that the hungry baby is clear of a bone tumor thinking that I’ll finally feel recharged. Instead, I feel more tired. Like deep down in my bones tired. Like I spent my entire reserve of energy—and then some—keeping it together through the holidays while a black cloud loomed above. And now that the skies have cleared, I’m free to be done. Just—DONE. As it turns out, the Hungry Papa feels the same.
Two depleted parents + two rambunctious little boys = need for an emergency plan to high tail it out of town. So in a rare, last-minute play, the Hungry Papa and I are going to the beach. Alone. On Monday. (This Monday!) This will be the first time we’ve spent more than 24 hours without children in two years.
Sayonara hungry boys. Mama and Papa are going somewhere really beautiful to sleep for four days.
In the meantime, I’m focusing on keeping things copacetic at home. For the dinner table, that means dishing up healthy, quick and easy meals like with this Weeknight Udon made with Quick Vegetarian Dashi.
Dashi, a simple broth that is a staple of Japanese cooking, is hardly something that needs to be made easier. The traditional kind made with katsuobushi (dried bonito fish flakes) takes 25 minutes from start to finish. A great vegetarian version, though, can take longer so that the ingredients, dried kombu, a kind of seaweed, and, if you like, a shiitake can soak, slowly infusing water with their delicate flavors.
Having run out of katsuobushi and patience both, I experimented with a quick version of vegetarian dashi. Instead of creating flavor by soaking the ingredients, I gently simmered them in the way that you do when making traditional dashi (my recipe for which you can get in my cookbook to support recovery in Japan Peko Peko: Family-Friendly Japanese Recipes). I also added more shiitakes than I would have for the soaking method as a shortcut to more bold flavor. Lo and behold, it all worked beautifully.
It’s true that I detected a slight difference in flavor between my quick-cook dashi and the kind made by soaking the ingredients. Dashi made with the soaking method has a more delicate and complex flavor that comes from the kombu, whereas my quick-cook version has a stronger (and more bold stroke) shiitake flavor. It’s not a difference that will mean much to you unless you’re highly attuned to the subtleties of Japanese food. As a base for noodles, soups and dipping sauces, my quick-cook version is a dream that comes true in only 25 minutes.
If you’re interested in trying other simple Japanese soup and/or noodle meals (e.g., plain or loaded miso soup), it’s worth buying kombu and learning more about dashi. As we’ve gone over, it takes no time to make and using dashi over vegetable broth or water will vastly improve any Japanese dish. (A search on Amazon will yield a good range of options and, if you want to get fancy, pick up kombu from my friends at Marx Foods.) Otherwise, you can make this with just shiitake. It’s not exactly a dashi, but it’ll certainly a workable broth with which you can make miso soup, udon or soba.
Weeknight Udon with Quick Vegetarian Dashi
(can be shared with kids 6+ mos)*
For the dashi
Two 14-square inch pieces of kombu, gently wiped (see note above if you don’t have kombu)
Four dried shiitake mushrooms
8 cups cold water
For the udon
3 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce
3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons mirin
2 large carrots, cleaned & sliced on the diagonal
1 cup packed fresh spinach
1/2 fresh red bell pepper, thinly julienned
1 lb fresh or frozen udon noodles, cooked according to package directions & drained
1 small head of broccoli, cleaned, trimmed & blanched
2 scallions, cleaned and sliced, for garnish
Toasted sesame seeds, for garnish (optional)
Togiroshi, for garnish (optional)
1. Make the dashi: soak kombu and shiitakes in water for 20 minutes. Place on medium heat and bring to a rolling simmer. Reduce heat and keep at a low simmer for 4 minutes. Remove from heat and fish out the kombu and shiitakes, reserving the mushrooms. (Note: if you have not already cooked the noodles, do so while making the dashi.)
2. Add soy sauce, vinegar, mirin, carrots, spinach and bell pepper to the hot dashi. (If you’ve set the dashi aside or have stored it for a long while before completing the dish, bring the dashi to a simmer to re-heat. Be careful not to boil). Once the spinach has wilted and the carrots and peppers are just tender and bright, it’s time to plate your udon.
3. Divide udon noodles evenly between bowls. Slice reserved shiitakes. Ladle dashi over the noodles and distribute all the vegetables—the spinach, carrots and peppers from the broth, along with the shiitakes and cooked broccoli—evenly. Top with scallions, sesame seeds, if desiered and, if you want to add spice, a sprinkle of togarashi.
*Note: Puree any combination of the vegetables with a little bit of dashi for eaters as young as 6-months-old. For older babies, share small pieces of vegetables and noodle as a finger food along side broth. Watch toddlers have a ball with slippery udon noodles—let them go to town with long, slurpy pieces!