Thursday, 24 May 2012

SmartCooks Energizes with Umami Otsu Soba Noodle Salad

SmartCooks here.  

Umami Otsu Soba Noodle Salad was missing from my life .... but no longer.

The mission for the week was to find food that packs an umami energy burst and is not too complicated to assemble or heavy to digest. I'm still recovering from a viral lung infection that flattened me for a week and I'm aiming to get energy levels back to where they where. Umami Otsu Soba Noodle Salad definitely fit the recovery bill. 

Otsu Soba Noodle Salad

I'd never heard of 'Otsu' before my research. 'Otsu' in Japanese apparently means 'quaint, stylish, spicy, chic, tasty, romantic' ... and it fits this dish.  It's made with buckwheat soba noodles served hot or cold (the cucumber adds to cool). The sauce is a blend of smooth and spicy -- ginger, tahini, lemon, soy sauce, and Sriracha mixed with cucumber, cilantro, scallions and tofu.  I added shiitake mushrooms and eggplant for vegetables. 

Food bloggers have been writing about Otsu for years.  Heidi Swanson (at 101 Cookbooks) first found the dish in 2004 in Northern California at Pomelo Restaurant where it remains on the menu today.

She was so impressed with it she wrote about it on her Food Journal blog and included it in her stylishly designed and photographed cookbook, Super Natural Every Day, which was published in 2011.  

She describes the dish as "unlike many pasta recipes that leave you feeling weighed down and sluggish, (Otsu Noodles) makes for a healthy, invigorating, and energizing meal that will quickly become a favourite.” She recommends using Nigari tofu but I couldn't find that type of tofu so substituted extra firm tofu instead.  

Chef Michael Natkin was also inspired by 101 Cookbooks. On his blog, he writes that the recipe:  "made me leap out of my chair and turn the refrigerator inside-out to see what I was going to put in the version that most definitely had to be made right now." 

In Herbivoracious he ramps up the spiciness factor by adding more lemon zest, lemon juice (or yuzu or lime), a Balinese long pepper, and Sriracha to the sauce. Unfortunately, I couldn't find Balinese long peppers in Ottawa so substituted a few black peppercorns. (But I ordered on-line for next time!)   For more umami, he suggests adding miso, wasabi or garlic.  I intend to try these in the next few times I make the dish.   

Anyway, both versions of Otsu Noodles -- 101 Cookbooks and Herbivoracious -- are excellent energizers with umami oomph.  The sauce is simply divine.  The first time I cooked and ate it, I was sitting with my husband and watching re-runs of Murphy Brown and Bob Newhart on Deja TV.  I kept saying, "This is simply the BEST dish I've enjoyed in a long, long time!" 

Hope you think so as well.  Try it and Enjoy!    

SmartCooks Umami Otsu Noodle Salad  
(Inspired by 101 Cookbooks, Herbivoracious and a pix from Behind the Skillet) 


(For the sauce):

1/4 cup tahini
2 T tamari or soy sauce (shoyu if you have it)
1 T sweet soy sauce or 2 T
2 T brown rice vinegar (or unseasoned rice wine vinegar)
Zest from 1 lemon (or yuzu or lime) 
Juice from 1 lemon
1 inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated
1 T Sriracha or 1/2 T cayenne pepper (more if more spiciness is desired)
Sea salt and black pepper
1 piece of Balinese long pepper, crushed (or a few black peppercorns)
2 T olive or sesame oil (optional, if needed) 

(For the noodles):
12 ounces soba (Japanese buckwheat noodles)
1/2 English cucumber, cut into strips and then 1/2" pieces
12 ounces extra firm tofu (if you find Nigari... the best)
1/4 cup fresh cilantro
4 green onions, sliced thin (more or less depending on taste)
1/3 cup toasted sesame seeds
Sea salt

(For the vegetables):
A handful of shiitake mushrooms and eggplant, cut into pieces
Lettuce for serving, if desired

Whisk all of the dressing ingredients together, and let it sit for flavors to develop while you make the noodles and vegetables.  If the sauce is too thick, a bit of olive or sesame oil will help ensure the desired consistency.

Prepare the noodles. For me that meant rapidly boiling the buckwheat noodles for 4 minutes in salted water. Don’t let them overcook. Rinse in cool running water.

Thoroughly pat dry the tofu and slice into approximately 1" long rectangles (1/2" thick), and saute in a single layer with a bit of olive oil over high heat until nicely browned and golden on both sides.
Saute the mushrooms and eggplant in the frying pan with a bit of olive oil until brown and crisp. 
To assemble the dish, in a large bowl, toss together the noodles, dressing, cilantro, cucumber, tofu, sesame seeds (reserving 1 tablespoon) plus the shiitake mushrooms and eggplant. 

Serve on a platter and garnish with remaining 1 T sesame seeds, green onions, and a couple of pinches of sea salt and black pepper.  Can also serve it on lettuce, if desired. 

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