It began with a left-over half-head of cauliflower. After teasing us with a couple of weeks of sun and temperatures that flirted with 60, our weather has turned cold and snowy. Again.
But I’ve had my fill of being cooped up this winter, so got myself and the dogs out for a long hike today anyway. I came home craving something steamingly warm.
But not winter food. Nope. Nope. Nope. Not soup, not stew. Chili, not a chance. Done with all that. I needed something bright in flavor and color to finish off a grey third day of spring. Because if I behave as though winter is over, maybe it will finally go the fuck away.
So I had the cauliflower. Rummaging among the pastas, I discovered a package of my favorite Eden Organic buckwheat soba (8 grams of protein per 2-ounce serving). A couple of weeks ago I impulsively grabbed an entire bag of limes at Costco; it was so bitterly cold and snowy that a whole bag of bright green tartness was irresistible. I knew I could find something to do with them. (It might have been worse, like a bale of kale. I beg you: please don’t sing its glories to me. In theory, I’m with you; in point of fact, I’m just not that into kale.)
I digress. My thoughts took an Asian turn. Just a couple days ago I picked up a little head of savoy cabbage for no reason other than its intrinsic beauty, along with a perfect, palm-sized red bell pepper.
I also had some celery remaining from a recent batch of vegetable stock; I always have carrots and green beans on hand for the bunnies, along with snow peas for salads (mine). Garlic, check; onions, likewise; ginger, of course. And dried shitake mushrooms, well, duh.
I realize that this looks like a daunting list of ingredients. If you don’t have some of them, leave them out. If you have others that seem interesting, add them in. This is much more a pantry dinner than a recipe cast in stone.
I cooked the entire 8-ounce package of soba noodles because I plan on plenty of leftovers. I’ll freeze them flat in ziplock bags and have some heavenly lunches.
This is all about flavors, colors, and textures, so the layering in during the braising process is important to preserving them all.
1 ounce dried shitake mushrooms
4 ounces hot tap water
2 ounces sesame oil
2 cloves garlic smashed, peeled, minced
1 inch knob of fresh ginger peeled, sliced, minced
2 ounces fish sauce
2 ounces mirin (sweet rice cooking wine)
1 ounce soy sauce
4 ounces vegetable stock
Mushrooms and their soaking water
3 stalks celery
1/2 head cauliflower
Handful of green beans
1 red bell pepper
1/2 head savoy cabbage
Handful of snow peas
Juice of 1 lime juice
Sambal olek to taste
1. First, prep the vegetables.
Snap off the stem ends of the green beans and cut them in half across the middle. Divide the pepper in half, remove the core and seeds, and cut it into spears about 1/4″ thick.
Savoy cabbage doesn’t have the huge core that regular cabbage has, so simply cut it in half, then cut one half in half and slice it into 1/4-inch-thick ribbons.
There. You’re ready to go.
2. Place the dried shitake mushrooms in a bowl and add the hot tap water. Cover the bowl with a plate to retain the heat. Steep for 10 minutes.
3. Set a pot of salted water (it should taste like the ocean) over medium heat so that it’s ready to cook the soba noodles at the right moment.
4. I used a broad, shallow braising pan to cook the vegetables; a deep skillet will work, too. Warm it over medium heat along with the sesame oil. When it shimmers, add the garlic and ginger. Sauté them until very fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the fish sauce, mirin, soy sauce, vegetable stock, and mushrooms along with their liquid. Bring everything to a simmer. If you taste it at this point, know that it may taste excessively strong to you. That’s fine, because water cooking out of all the vegetables will bring it to the perfect dilution.
5. The carrots and cauliflower are the most dense of all the vegetables, so add them first. Cover the pot and reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer for 10 minutes, then add the green beans and celery; simmer for 5 minutes more. Raise the heat under the noodle water to a boil. The noodles will take about 8 minutes to cook; they should be a bit al dente when you take them off the heat. Add the bell pepper and cabbage to the braise and use tongs to toss everything together. Simmer for another 5 minutes, then add the snow peas, lime juice, and sambal olek. Simmer for about 2 minutes, then turn off the heat.
6. When the noodles are done, strain them through a colander, then return them to the cooking pot and add an ounce of sesame oil. Use tongs to toss them, then transfer some to a serving bowl. Use a large spoon to top the noodles with vegetables and some of their luscious sauce. Garnish with scallions and serve with a wedge of lime.
And that remaining half head of savoy cabbage? I don’t yet know where it will reappear. But I started on the road to this dinner with but a half head of cauliflower for company, so I imagine it will be another interesting journey.