Monday, November 19, 2012

Fast Food

I have many, many reasons for teaching my sons to cook; some that cut really deep, some entirely self-serving, some purely practical, others philosophical, even political. I hope to write about them all, but the reason weighing heavy on my mind right now is this: I want to show my kids that cooking is no big deal, it's not a pain in the ass, not a drag to be avoided, but just a normal everyday thing that you do.

I'm thinking about it a lot these days because I worry that I don't always model this attitude. I work full-time, my partner does too, and 5:45 can find us all tired, hungry, tempted to stick a frozen pizza in the oven or order Chinese delivery. I will more than happily cut myself enough slack to do this sometimes, but during especially hectic times it's easy to over-rely on convenience food and take-out, and I don't like how I feel when we're eating like that too much, or what I'm communicating to my kids (that cooking doesn't fit into a busy life, that cooking is a lot of trouble...)

So I'm cultivating weeknight dinner ideas, looking for simple, from-scratch vegetarian meals that don't take much longer - or much more effort - than frozen pizza. Here's one, not the fastest one, but doable in thirty minutes, easy and adaptable, and particularly satisfying on a chilly fall evening:

Noodles and Vegetables in Broth 

8-ounce package udon or soba noodles

8 cups water

Approximately 3-inch piece of kombu sea vegetable (optional but highly recommended)

4 dried shiitake mushrooms

6 tablespoons soy sauce

3 tablespoons mirin or cooking sherry

pinch dried ginger (optional)

pinch cayenne pepper (optional)

1 lb spinach, washed and chopped - or use pre-washed baby spinach

2-3 medium carrots, sliced into thin rounds

For the vegetables and noodles: Put a large pot,  3/4 full of water, on high heat.

For the broth: In another large pot, combine 8 cups water, optional kombu, and shiitake mushrooms. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium, and leave to a strong simmer for 15-20 minutes while you prepare the noodles and vegetables.

When the pot of plain water comes to a boil, add carrots. After one minute, add spinach. Cook one additional minute. Scoop the vegetables out of the pot (don't dump the water out - you're going to cook the noodles in it) with slotted spoon or strainer. Set aside.

Add noodles and cook according to package directions.

Drain noodles, rinse in cold water, and divide between four deep bowls.

Finish the broth: Remove mushrooms and kombu. Discard kombu. Squeeze water out of mushrooms and slice very thin (discard stems). Return mushrooms to pot. Add soy sauce and mirin. Taste and adjust seasoning (add optional powdered ginger and/or cayenne pepper, especially if anybody has a cold), and heat gently until steaming.

Add cooked vegetables to noodles, pour broth over everything, and garnish however you like - seeds are good, scallions are good, toasted sesame oil is very good.

Henry took thorough notes on this recipe. I'm hoping to someday walk in the door at 5:45 to find bowls of hot noodles and broth sitting on the table, waiting for me. I can't help it, I'm an optimist.

I told you some of my reasons for teaching my sons to cook are self-serving.