When it comes to comfort food, I’m still a Jersey boy at heart – give me a plate of pasta any day. Although the long corkscrews known as fusili lunghi are my favorite, I’m an equal opportunity eater when it comes to shapes. I’m not even particularly picky when it comes to toppings. I enjoy a good garlicky pesto; a simple toss with olive oil, parmesan and black pepper; and a nice tomato gravy (we don’t call it sauce where I come from) from time to time.
It should come as no surprise, then, that I was struck by a feature in one of our foodie magazines (Everyday Food) highlighting soba. These buckwheat noodles are prevalent in Japanese cooking, whether served in soups, salads or on their own with a dipping sauce. Soba (and buckwheat in general) contain high quantities of cholesterol-lowering B-vitamins and rutin, an antioxidant. So we decided to give it a try.
We found one recipe within the feature that caught our eye, a soba soup with shiitake and spinach. Looking through our cookbooks, we also found a recipe in John Ash’s “From the Earth to the Table” for Japanese-style grilled salmon with a cold soba noodle salad. We decided to check out both to experience soba in two very different ways.
One of the recipes was a home run; the other, not so much.
Which one was which (and the secret behind the soba that’s “No. 1 in Japan”) after the jump.
Inside the package, our Hakubaku-brand soba was divided into three 3.1-ounce bundles of noodles. Ostensibly, this is for the sake of convenience…but the nutritional information on the back of the package defines a serving size as 2 ounces (roughly 2/3 of a bundle), and the two recipes we used called for 4.4 ounces and 4 ounces of soba, respectively. So much for convenience.
The first recipe we attempted was the soup from Everyday Food. It was simple and used plenty of ingredients we already had on hand – two big points in its favor. We cooked 12 ounces of shiitake mushrooms (purchased from one of our favorite vendors at the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market), the whites from four scallions, a minced clove of garlic and a tablespoon of minced ginger in a pot over medium heat for about five minutes. At that point, we poured in a 32-ounce container of Trader Joe’s reduced sodium chicken broth and 2 cups of water and brought them to a boil. Then we turned the heat back down to a simmer and added a bundle and a half of soba noodles (roughly 4.6 ounces). We cooked them for five minutes and then tossed in 1/2 pound of spinach leaves, cooking them for just a minute so they stayed bright green and held some of their texture. We added two tablespoons of lime juice and one of soy sauce and then served it garnished with scallion greens, just like the recipe said to.
The verdict? Decidedly meh. Though we enjoyed the slight bitterness of the noodles within the broth and the texture of the mushrooms, the overall dish left a bit to be desired. We both found ourselves going back to add additional soy sauce and lime juice, and the spinach seemed to wither in the heat of the broth. Although the flavors were generally good, it just felt like the dish didn’t quite come together.
It would be up to the noodle salad to sell us on soba.
To make John Ash’s soba noodle salad, we boiled two quarts of lightly salted water and then added the other bundle and a half of soba noodles. Once the water returned to a boil, we added a cup of cold water. We let it boil again and then added a second cup. We did this one more time (for a total of three added cups over the course of four or five minutes) and then drained the noodles, running them under cold water to keep them from clumping. To dress the noodles, we combined 1/4 cup chicken stock with 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1/2 cup rice vinegar, 1 tablespoon sugar and 2 teaspoons toasted sesame seed oil. When all of the ingredients were combined into a Japanese take on a vinaigrette, we tossed them with the noodles and served them topped with some chopped scallions, 1/2 cup juliened daikon radish, and 1 tablespoon black sesame seeds.
And it did not disappoint. The texture of the thin noodles, slightly al dente, was great. The dressing had a tangy-sweet note that came from the rice wine and an unctuousness from the sesame oil. The daikon was light and crisp (not as sharp as traditional radishes). And the whole dish just looked right. We both dug in and thoroughly enjoyed it – so much so that we forgot to stop and take a picture.
So the jury is still out on soba, but we’re inclined to give it another shot. If anyone out there has other recipes in which they like to use soba, please pass them along – email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As for Hakubaku’s deep, dark secret? It turns out that the “authentic Japanese buckwheat noodles” we picked up are made in Australia! Maybe next time we’ll take a trip to Hana Market on Florida Avenue to see if they’ve got a Japanese brand for comparison’s sake.