Soba, the quick-cooking Japanese buckwheat noodles with a nutty, slightly tangy flavor, are traditionally served on their own with a simple dipping sauce. Taking some liberties, I pair them with mild chicken, earthy spinach, and a sesame dressing for a light yet filling early summer dinner. Keep the Japanese theme going by serving cucumbers in a simple rice vinegar dressing and matcha-flavored steamed cakes (maybe the easiest cupcakes you’ll ever make) with some fresh berries for dessert.
SESAME-GINGER SOBA WITH CHICKEN AND SPINACH
For this dish, I prefer the flavor of fresh spinach over frozen. You can substitute mature spinach for the baby leaves, but you’ll have to remove the tough stems. As the soba sits, it will absorb the dressing, so before diving in for seconds, you may want to stir in more of the reserved cooking water to loosen the texture.
6 quarts (loosely packed) fresh baby spinach (about 12 ounces)
1 3-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, trimmed
1/3 cup unhulled sesame seeds
1½ teaspoons light brown sugar, granulated sugar, or honey
3 tablespoons mirin
1½ tablespoons soy sauce
12 ounces soba
2 teaspoons Asian toasted sesame oil
Set a large colander in the sink. In a small Dutch oven, bring 2 quarts water to a strong boil. Add 1 teaspoon salt and the spinach, in batches if necessary. Cook until just wilted, about 30 seconds. Quickly drain the spinach in the colander and run cold water over it to stop the cooking. Allow the spinach to drain. Spread a clean dish towel and place the spinach in the center, gather the edges and corners, and twist hard to wring out as much liquid as possible. Place the spinach on a cutting board, chop it, and set aside.
Finely grate a 1-inch piece of the ginger (you should have about 2 teaspoons), and set aside. Cut the remaining 2-inch piece of ginger into 3 or 4 thick slices and smash each with broad side of a knife. In the Dutch oven, bring 1 quart of water, the smashed ginger pieces, and chicken to a gentle simmer, skimming any scum that rises to the surface. Add 1½ teaspoons salt, cover, and set aside off heat to rest, until chicken is firm to the touch and cooked through, 13 to 15 minutes. Remove the chicken (reserve the liquid, leaving it in the pot), shred into bite-size pieces, and set aside. Discard the smashed ginger.
Meanwhile, in a small skillet over medium heat, toast the sesame seeds, stirring frequently, until golden and fragrant, 6 to 8 minutes. Reserve 2 teaspoons of the seeds. In a mortar or mini food processor, immediately crush the remaining hot sesame seeds until very well pulverized and fragrant. Add the grated ginger, sugar or honey, mirin, soy sauce, and ½ teaspoon salt; whisk or process to blend well and set aside.
Add 2 cups of water to the liquid from poaching the chicken and bring to a boil. Add the soba, stir gently to separate the noodles, and cook, stirring occasionally, until just tender, about 3 minutes. Set aside about ¾ cup of the cooking liquid. Drain the soba in a colander, immediately rinse with cold water until cool to touch, and drain again. Transfer the soba to a large bowl, add the sesame oil, and toss to coat thoroughly.
Add ¼ cup of the reserved cooking liquid to the sesame dressing and mix well. Add about two-thirds of the dressing to the noodles and toss to coat well. Taste and adjust the consistency with more cooking water and the seasoning with salt, if necessary. Transfer the soba to a large serving bowl or platter, and arrange the chicken and spinach. Drizzle with the remaining dressing, sprinkle with the reserved sesame seeds, and serve at once.
JAPANESE-STYLE SIMPLE CUCUMBER SALAD (SUNOMONO)
Makes about 3 cups
Salting and resting the cucumbers releases about ¼ cup of liquid, but if you’re pressed for time you can simply place the slices in a clean dish towel and twist hard, which should squeeze out about 2 tablespoons of liquid.
Peeling the cucumbers about 50 percent, alternating peeled and skinned strips, gives the slices some pretty green color, but you can peel them fully, or not at all, if you prefer.
2 English seedless cucumbers scrubbed, and very thinly sliced (about 6 cups)
2½ tablespoons rice vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
1½ tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted lightly and cooled
In a colander set over a bowl, toss the cucumbers with 2 teaspoons salt. Fill a 1-gallon zipper-lock bag halfway with water, seal tightly, and place on cucumbers to weight them down. Drain for at least 1 hour. Rinse the cucumbers, dry them well with paper towels, and place them in a medium bowl.
In a small bowl, whisk the vinegar, sugar, and ½ teaspoon salt to dissolve. Add the vinegar mixture to the cucumbers and toss to combine. Serve immediately or cover and refrigerate until chilled. Adjust seasoning with sugar or salt if necessary; just before serving, stir in most of the sesame seeds, then sprinkle salad with remaining sesame seeds.
TIP: PUTTING THE BRAKES ON
GREEN TEA MUSHI PAN (STEAMED CAKES)
Makes 6 small cakes
The kitchen towel in the pan keeps the ramekins from clattering as the cakes steam. You can use a 12-inch skillet in place of a braising pan, but as the cakes rise, the tops will touch the cover, marring their appearance.
Matcha is green tea powder that gives the cakes a green hue and distinctive flavor. You can approximate its flavor, but not its color, by grinding about 2 tablespoons of green tea (from 4 tea bags, if that’s what you have) in a mini food processor until powdery. This is adapted from justonecookbook.com.
1 large egg
1/3 cup plain yogurt
1½ tablespoons neutral oil
1½ tablespoons honey
¼ teaspoon vanilla
¼ cup sugar
¾ cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1½ teaspoons matcha (green tea powder)
Fresh berries, optional
Line the bottom of a 12-inch-diameter braising pan with a kitchen towel. Set 6 ramekins in the pan and fill with enough water to come halfway up the ramekins. Remove the ramekins, set a muffin paper in each, and set aside. To prevent condensation from dripping onto the top of the cakes as they steam, wrap the pan lid in a large, clean kitchen towel, being careful to stuff the loose ends in the lid’s handle, and set aside. Bring the water to a boil over high heat.
In a medium bowl, whisk the egg, yogurt, oil, honey, vanilla, sugar, and ¼ teaspoon salt until uniform. Sift the flour, baking powder, and matcha into the mixture and fold until just incorporated and no lumps remain (do not overmix). Divide the batter equally among the ramekins. Place the ramekins in the pan, cover (take care to tuck the edges of the kitchen towel up away from the burner), adjust the heat to low, and steam until the cakes are springy and a toothpick inserted into the centers comes out clean, 12 to 14 minutes. Using tongs, set the ramekins on a wire rack to cool for at least 10 minutes. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature with fresh berries if desired.Adam Ried appears regularly on “America’s Test Kitchen.’’ Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.