Sober Noodles

“Sober” refers to temperance or moderation, usually regarding alcohol consumption but not always. In the days following the holiday season, I have tried at least once a week to lighten our evening meals by introducing interesting herbal and spice flavors to fish and vegetables instead of relying on the heartier and more traditional winter flavors of butter, cream, and red meat. Sobering us up, if you will, after weeks of (sometimes) wretched excess.

Freed from the tried and true cold weather recipes of the season, I find myself dabbling in cuisines I know little about, going back time and again to those that show their Asian influence. It’s a cuisine where ginger and cilantro add freshness and astringency, hot pepper pastes and garlic yield heat without heaviness, and either small amounts of smoke infused seafood or generous quantities of toothsome mushrooms can stand in for rich meats.

Three recent favorite meals featured soba noodles in place of white wheat pasta. Soba is Japanese for buckwheat, a plant that produces a seed for milling into a taupe-colored flour. Unrelated to common wheat, buckwheat is gluten-free, but amino acid- and B vitamin-rich. Dishes made with buckwheat and buckwheat flour – kasha, Breton crepes, blini, soba noodles – are easily digested, good for you (unless you are one of the few people with a buckwheat allergy), and lend substance without heaviness – an essential quality when making lighter meals in colder months.

I’m hooked on the taste and texture of soba, and I keep my eye out now for any recipe that calls for the noodles. The following three, collected from Food52, Food and Wine magazine, and Epicurious respectively, were family favorites. I thought you might like them too.

Hot Smoked Salmon with Soba Noodles and Greens

The salad billing is deceptive: I found this dish of home-smoked fish and delicately seasoned noodles tossed with greens fully satisfying as a casual, Saturday night supper. We own an indoor, stovetop smoker, and I can often convince my husband to take it down from the shelf to smoke all kinds of fish in it. Inexpensive, I think the smoker is a great addition to a cookware collection. But the recipe includes a link to a how-to for making a rigged-up version of a stovetop smoker, so there’s no reason to invest in a piece of cookware you think you might only use infrequently.

The recipe works well and produced a flavorful meal using minimal ingredients. Because tatsoi isn’t commonly found in nearby markets, I substituted spinach. Find the Food52 recipe here and my own picture of the finished dish below.

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Soba Noodles with Shrimp and Cilantro

Another winner. Rather than make a grocery run for some of the recipe-specific ingredients called for, I made this dish with what I had on hand, substituting honey for agave, and scallions for shallots. In addition, I pan-seared the shrimp after seasoning them first with a sate spice blend, adding yet another layer of flavor. Use your imagination, or what you find in your refrigerator to create your own version. Or use the link here to make Food and Wine’s original recipe to the letter.

  • 12 ounces soba noodles
  • 1/4 cup plus 1 tsp. vegetable oil, divided use
  • 3 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons tamari
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced, divided use
  • 6 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated lime zest, plus 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 1 pound large shrimp, shelled and deveined
  • saté spice rub (optional)
  • salt
  • 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • lime wedges, for serving

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the noodles and cook, stirring, until tender, 2-3 minutes. Drain and rinse well under cold water. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine 2 tablespoons of the oil with the soy sauce, tamari and honey. Add the noodles and toss.

In a skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil. Add three-fourths of the scallions and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until golden brown and crisp. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the scallions to paper towels. Add the garlic to the skillet and cook over low heat until golden and crisp. Transfer the garlic to the paper towels.

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Preheat a large skillet over medium high heat and add 1 tbsp. oil to the pan. Heat the oil until it shimmers. In a bowl, combine the saté seasoning (if using), the lime zest and juice with the remaining 1 tsp. of oil. Stir in the shrimp. Place the shrimp in a single layer in the skillet and cook to golden brown, turning once, until glazed and white throughout, about 2 minutes per side. Remove the shrimp to a platter and season lightly with salt if desired.

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Arrange the noodles on a large platter. Sprinkle with the reserved uncooked scallions, cilantro, crushed red pepper and the fried scallions and garlic. Arrange the shrimp on top and serve with lime wedges alongside.

Spicy Soba Noodles with Mushrooms and Cabbage

Here’s another recipe I took a few liberties with, this time from Epicurious. I had mushrooms, but oyster instead of shiitakes.

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I also had a head of cabbage, but a nice firm Savoy instead of Napa. No Korean hot pepper paste (gochujang) to speak of, and no hope of finding it at Stop and Shop. Instead I took a commenter’s suggestion and substituted sriracha from the large bottle we always have on hand. When I finished the dish and tossed it together, it looked in need of a little more substantial to qualify as dinner instead of side dish. I quickly scrambled a couple of eggs and cooked these into a thin omelet, cut the finished omelet into ribbons and added these at the last minute. Finally, main course-worthy.

Find the Epicurious recipe here.

  •  2 eggs, beaten
  • oil for the pan
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1/3 cup tamari
  • 1 Tbsp. sriracha, or to taste
  • 1 tablespoon packed brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons sesame seeds
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped peeled ginger
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
  • 10 oz fresh oyster mushrooms, roughly chopped
  • 1 1/4 pound Savoy cabbage, thinly sliced
  • 6 scallions, thinly sliced
  • 9 ounces soba noodles

Heat a 12-inch skillet over medium high heat and add enough vegetable oil to film the bottom of the pan. When hot, add the beaten egg to the pan and move it around quickly to make a thin omelet. When the egg has set remove the pan from the heat, and remove the omelet to a cutting board. Cut the egg into ribbons and set aside.

Start a pot of water boiling for the soba. As the water heats, stir together all sauce ingredients until brown sugar is dissolved, then set aside.

Toast sesame seeds in a dry 12-inch heavy skillet (not nonstick) over medium heat, stirring, until pale golden, then transfer to a small bowl.

Heat oil in skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers, then sauté ginger and garlic, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add shiitakes and sauté, stirring frequently, until tender and starting to brown, about 6 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, then add cabbage and most of scallions (reserve about a tablespoon for garnish) and cook, stirring occasionally, until cabbage is crisp-tender, about 6 minutes. Add sauce and simmer 2 minutes.

While cabbage is cooking, cook soba in the pot of boiling salted water (2 tablespoons salt for 6 quarts water) until noodles are just tender, about 2-3 minutes. Drain in a colander and rinse under cool water to stop cooking and remove excess starch, then drain well again. Transfer to a large bowl and toss with sesame seeds and vegetable mixture.

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Serve sprinkled with reserved scallions and egg omelet ribbons.

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©2013  Jane A. Ward