So, this may be stretching the definition of “salad”, but what the heck. Zaru soba, cold buckwheat noodles with a dipping sauce, has made it into our weekly rotation. It makes for a great summer lunch or dinner. My kids love how interactive the meal is–they get to practice their chopstick skills and choose what they want from the ”toppings bar” that I set up on the table. I’m not going to lie, when you give a 3 and a 6 year old chopsticks things can get a little messy, hence the topless children at the dinner table, but it’s worth it.
This recipe has a few moving parts and you may have to stock up on a few special ingredients, but, once you have it down, it’s quick and easy and the dipping sauce and some of the toppings can be prepared in advance. The following serves 4 as a main course:
1. To make the base or kaeshi for the dipping sauce: put 1/4 cup of mirin in a saucepan and bring it to boil; lower the heat and let it simmer for a minute. Add 1 tablespoon granulated or superfine white sugar and stir until the sugar has dissolved (I want to try experimenting with raw sugar or a sugar substitute but haven’t yet). Add 3/4 cup dark soy sauce. Once it starts bubbling, pull the pan off the heat and set aside for now. For an easier prep, you can make this base in a larger quantity and store in a jar in the refrigerator for several weeks.
2. For the dashi or stock, which will be mixed with the above kaeshi to make the dipping sauce: soak a small piece of kombu seaweed in 3 cups of cold water in a saucepan for about 20 minutes. Bring the water to a boil, add 1/3 cup of bonito flakes and then immediately pull the pan from the heat. Let the pan sit for 5 minutes and then strain the stock through a fine colander, discarding the bonito and kombu and saving the broth. You can make a vegetarian version by skipping the bonito and using just kombu, letting the kombu soak for at least 1/2 hour or using kombu and dried shitake mushrooms.
3. Combine the above kaeshi and dashi to make the dipping sauce, simmer for a few minutes and then pull of the heat and let it cool. I usually let it cool on the counter and then stick it in the refrigerator so it’s cold when I serve it.
4. To cook the soba noodles, follow the directions on the package. I usually make one 8 oz. box of soba and it’s enough for four. Once the noodles are cooked, but not mushy, pull and strain. Run cold water over the noodles and use your hands to really wash the noodles, rinsing away any starchiness. Make little bundles of noodles on a few plates or a large platter.
5. Condiments/toppings–you can get pretty creative. Here’s what I usually do: sliced hard boiled eggs, chopped green onion, toasted black sesame seeds, cubed firm tofu, and strips of nori seaweed.
Other ideas: fresh grated ginger, wasabi, pieces of salmon.
6. To serve: I pour about 1/4 of the dipping sauce into an individual bowl for each person. I put the platter of noodle bundles and the condiments in the center of the table. Each person can grab a noodle bundle, drop it into their dipping sauce, and add whatever toppings they want. Eat and repeat. I usually serve some cucumber and radishes on the side for a little crunch.
7. If you want, you can save some of the cooking water from the noodles and then add it to the leftover dipping sauce in each person’s bowl and drink it like a soup after the meal. I usually think of this as the cooking water is going down the drain, but, if you can remember, it’s a nice way to finish the meal and the kids thinks it’s cool.