Basic noodle lesson: Soba is brown; somen is white. Both Japanese noodles are thin and light, the first made of buckwheat, the second from white wheat flour, which accounts for the difference in color -- not to mention the deeper flavor and chewier texture of soba. Somen is normally served cold; soba can go etiher way.
That understood, today's topic is the soba salad, because the weather is warming up and something cool and light is often the right idea for lunch or even dinner.
Gail Goto enjoyed a soba salad a few months ago, describing it as a refreshing alternative to a somen salad, topped with kamaboko (fish cake), egg strips, lettuce, shiitake mushrooms, "and a host of other ingredients." She asked for a recipe.
What she's describing sounds like a pretty basic Japanese soba salad, normally served with a soy-based dressing, but when I set about looking for a recipe I found a surprising number of variations, from that soy basic to a fusion pesto made with herbs, sesame oil and garlic.
This recipe comes from "The Farmers' Market Cookbook," published by the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation (Watermark Publishing, 2006), and is credited to Noreen Lam, former chef of the Contemporary Museum Caf. It's a stylish vegetarian version, but look at the variations and it sounds like the salad Goto is looking for -- just substitute lettuce for the watercress. The dressing is the key.
The best thing about a soba salad is it can be anything you want it to be. Use any combination of toppings over a bed of shredded lettuce or other greens. Toss the dressing with the noodles, then mix everything up. For a more elegant presentation, arrange the veggies on a platter with the noodles mounded in the center, pour dressing on top and serve extra dressing on the side.
The long, hot summer is coming. Plenty of time to try several approaches and several dressings.
Watercress Salad with Soba Noodles and Tofu
1 bunch watercress, washed, dried and cut in 2-inch pieces
2 cups bean sprouts (optional)
8 ounces dry soba noodles, cooked, drained and rinsed in cold water
1 14-ounce block tofu, well-drained and cubed
1 medium Japanese cucumber, halved, seeded, in 1/4-inch slices
12 grape or cherry tomatoes
2 stalks green onions, sliced diagonally
Toasted sesame seeds, for garnish
» Garlic-Soy Dressing
1/2 cup low-sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon ginger, thinly sliced
To make dressing, combine soy sauce and sugar; stir to dissolve. Heat oil in small saucepan, add garlic and cook over medium heat until light golden. Add ginger and cook a few seconds longer. Remove from heat; add soy mixture.
Arrange watercress and bean sprouts in platter. Mound noodles in center. Scatter tofu, cucumbers and tomatoes around. Mix dressing and pour over salad. Garnish with green onions and sesame seeds. Serves 6.
Variations: All or some of tofu may be replaced with sliced kamaboko (fish cake), char siu or egg strips.
Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving (based on firm tofu and including sprouts): 340 calories, 14 g total fat, 2 g saturated fat, no cholesterol, 800 mg sodium, 42 g carbohydrate, 4 g fiber, 7 g sugar, 18 g protein.
"Favorite Island Cookery Book VI," Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin (1995)
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup sugar
6 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon grated daikon
Combine ingredients in jar and shake. Makes about 2 cups.
"Flavors of Hawaii," Child & Family Service Guild (1998)
1-1/2 cups chopped cilantro
1/3 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
In a blender, pure cilantro, parsley and olil until smooth. Stir in vinegar and red pepper flakes. Makes about 2 cups.
"Asian Noodles," by Nina Simonds (Hearst Books, 1997)
1 to 2 hot chili peppers or 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
6 cloves garlic
1 cup basil leaves
1/2 cup mint leaves
1 tablespooon sesame oil
Blend to a paste in food processor or blender. Makes about 1 cup.
Nutritional analyses by Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S.
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