Zaru soba was one of the meals I ate pretty consistently back when I went abroad to study in Japan almost four years ago now.  Why? It was typically very cheap (400 yen for a serving at a noodle shop, which is about $4), it was filling, and it allowed me to stay cool (as it was incredibly hot out, I was there during August – December).  Plus, you were encouraged to slurp at your noodles, which was very fun, especially with the dipping sauce.

The recipe I’m using for this comes from the cookbook Japanese Soul Cookng, and overall, it’s incredibly thorough. You can make your own soba noodles if you choose, but honestly, it’s saner if you go with premade, unless you have at minimum a whole day to devote to the process of making the noodles.  Cooking the soba itself is very easy; the dipping sauce is honestly the only part where it gets real interesting, and even then, it’s not that difficult. Perfect meal for a hot summer day.

Zaru Soba
Lasts appx 6 lunches as a main course

Ingredients

  • one package soba (usually contains 3 servings)
  • one serving dashi  (use the recipe and instructions in the attached link)
  • .5 c soy sauce
  • .125 (or 1/8) c mirin
  • 2 t sugar
  • 2 T mirin
  • nori, sliced thin (I didn’t have this on hand, but will be adding it)

To cook your soba, bring a large pot of water to a boil, and add your package of soba (be sure to remove the little plastic bundling the noodles together). Swirl the noodles with chopsticks as seen in picture one to separate the noodles, and keep them so as they cook.  Cook for approximately 4 minutes (or check your package’s instructions, but odds are they’ll be similar). You’ll know when your noodles are done when you taste them and they’re cooked through (do so after running them after cold water). Once ready, strain them in a colander, and then put the colander in a large bowl, and run cold water over them, filling the bowl (and the colander), and stir your noodles, as seen in picture 2. This helps them cool down and not get overcooked or mushy. Cool for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Then, drain and put into a container, to use whenever you may want.

To make kaeshi, the soba dipping sauce flavoring base, combine the .5 c soy sauce, 1/8th cup mirin, and 2 t sugar in a pot, and bring them to a boil over high heat. Once boiling, add your dashi and mirin to your kaeshi, and bring back to a boil to make the dipping sauce.  Once boiling, remove from heat and allow to come down to room temperature. Then, put in a smaller container and in the fridge for at minimum one hour, to allow the flavors to combine. The longer you let the dipping sauce sit in the fridge, the more the flavors will come out.

To eat, add the nori to the noodles, and then use your chopsticks to dip into the dipping sauce, as demonstrated by me and my Darth Maul chopsticks in the final picture!  Why yes, I am a massive dork. Be sure to have a paper towel on hand, though, it can get messy.

So, potstickers continue to reinforce two things for me.  One, that I will never win anything that involves making my cooking pretty (see the bottom photo for evidence of this). Two, that while I may start a recipe to try to invoke a zen state of calm (see: folding potstickers, which takes patience and a hell of a lot of time), I will likely end up getting impatient about halfway through and attempting to find a way that works better – in this case, double wrappers, and making the final wrapped product look more like shumai more than potstickers.  And trust me, this recipe takes a pretty long time; total time for me was something around an hour and a half to two hours.

As your farmers markets are coming into season, be sure to check there for your vegetables.  For the most part, you can get some hella good deals on fresh veggies, and they taste better.  Witness: when peas inevitably come into season out here, I’ll be buying several pounds worth (one of the stalls sells them pre-shelled) and freezing them for future use.  For now, though, I used grocery store asparagus (which was way more expensive than the stuff I picked up yesterday) and frozen peas.

General note: I skipped the scallions and chives, here, as they aren’t quite in season at the farmers market (where they’re typically a buck for a large bunch), and they’re expensive otherwise around here.

Spring Vegetable Potstickers 
Makes between 25 to 50 potstickers (depending on if you single or double wrap them)

Ingredients: 

Potsticker Filling: 

  • 3 to 3.25 c of spring veggies (SK suggests asparagus, fava or lima beans, peas; I chopped up about ¾ lb of asparagus and used 2/3rds of a 16 oz bag of frozen peas)
  • 1 T neutral cooking oil (I used olive oil)
  • 1 T minced ginger
  • 2 large cloves garlic, chopped
  • 6 oz tofu, chopped small (about half of a 12 oz package)
  • 1 t toasted sesame oil
  • ¼ t salt

To Assemble and Cook: 

  • 1 T cornstarch and ½ c water
  • 1 package dumpling wrappers (I got wonton wrappers, and that gave about 50 wrappers, but they were too thin; SK had success with mandu wrappers.  Look for dumpling wrappers, or, if you’re more crazy than me, make your own!)
  • 1-2 T more of the neutral cooking oil mentioned above
  • ¼ to ½ c water

Dipping Sauce: 

  • ¼ c rice vinegar
  • ¼ c soy sauce
  • 1 T sesame oil

Prep your veggies (I recommend googling best prep methods depending on what you have; for asparagus, I chopped up the stalks, and if they were thicker, sliced them in half and chopped those up, and the peas I left whole).  Add 1 T of oil to your pan, and heat to medium. Once that’s ready, add your veggies in order of time it’ll take to get them crisp and cooked through. Asparagus typically takes about 4 mins, and peas 2 to 3 mins (a bit longer if you’re using frozen, like I was). Once they’re done, add the tofu, and cook for about a minute more, and season with salt and remove to a separate bowl, and mix with the sesame oil.  

SK recommends draining off excess moisture; I ended up not doing so.  Don’t think it made that much difference in the final product. If the mixture is still too thick, chop it up (DO NOT PUREE) using a knife and a cutting board, or a blender.  Mine was mostly peas, chopped asparagus, and tofu, along with minced/chopped ginger and garlic, so I left it like it was.  Might chop it up next time. 

To assemble, have a tray ready to put your finished potstickers on (I used a pizza sheet and didn’t oil it, though SK recommends either oiling or parchment paper).  Mix the water and cornstarch, which will be your glue for the wrappers. Have a plate next to your bowl of filling. Once you open your package of wrappers, either use plastic wrap or a damp paper towel to keep the wrappers from drying out.  I didn’t use it, but they didn’t dry out, for the most part.

To assemble your potstickers, brush a wrapper with the cornstarch/water mixture, and set it on the plate. Scoop ½ T of filling (I typically used about a T, and that was a bit too much) onto the center of the wrapper.  Now, SK has a pretty solid picture guide for how to attempt to seal and crease the wrappers.  I tried doing this with single wrappers, then double wrappers, but they never quite worked for me.  The method I ended up going with for the last half or so of the potstickers was to fold the four corners to the center and pinch them shut, and then put that wrapper in the middle of another wet one and do the same, sealing shut with the cornstarch/water mixture. Do whatever works best for you.  😛  Do this until you run out of wrappers, and after that’s done, you can either freeze them for later cooking, or cook them right away. You may have leftover mixture; if it’s still mostly whole like mine, keep it as a side!  Otherwise, save and freeze for future use. I also had leftover tofu, and will likely be using it to make Tofu with Spicy Garlic Sauce.  

Once you’re ready to make your potstickers, heat up your skillet (yes, I used it the same one I used to make the filling, just cleaned it out after) with the oil to medium high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the potstickers in a single layer and cook until the bottom is browned (at least a minute or two). Add water (smaller amt for a smaller batch, larger amt for a larger batch, which will hiss and sputter if it’s hot enough), and cover, cooking for 2 to 3 mins more.  Remove the lid, and simmer until any remaining water (there shouldn’t be a lot left) has simmered away.

Make your dipping sauce by combining all the ingredients.  If you’d like a sweeter sauce, add ½ t brown sugar or honey.

And then, freaking finally, EAT THEM.