I really do love to cook, but sometimes I just hate it so much. Like now. I don't feel like making dinner, and if it weren't for the kids, I'd eat a bowl of granola and a handful of cherries every night after drinking many beers. Instead, we have granola for dinner only sometimes, and sometimes we have popcorn and smoothies, and also I troll a lot for dinner invitations (Oh really? Gosh, we are free! Perfect.) and fantasize about having, as Ben says, "limitless money" so that we could eat out every night. And believe me: we would too.
But that still leaves many summertime dinners needing to get made. Grilling is good: easy, outdoors, minimal clean-up. And big salads are good. And this kind of meal, which is similar to the Make-Your-Own (Quinoa) Sundaes, is perfect. It's one of my favorite ways to eat: a bowl of food that you assemble yourself, and that is perfectly balanced: sweet, chewy, crunchy, green, soft, salty, fresh, tangy. Somehow it's both light and filling, gorgeously summery, and everybody loves it. But what I want to make clear is that it can be way less labor-intensive than this version. I had CSA produce I was trying to manage (lots of bok choy, a quart of sugar snap peas), so I was basing the dish around that, but you could make it much easier by using raw veggies: cukes, radishes, a handful of greens. And instead of the fried tofu, you could use prepared baked or smoked tofu or leftover grilled meat or a shredded rotisserie chicken. You could use bottled dressing and already-roasted nuts. See? Much easier. Though if there were two things I'd recommend making, it would be the dressing, which is excellent, and the soba noodles themselves, which boil up into this deep grayish-purplish-brown tangle, and which are deeply grainy and flavorful. Of course, that said, feel free to substitute any other kind of pasta: it will still be good. And you could, of course, toss it altogether in to a big bowl of pasta salad, which would be especially handy if you were pot-lucking or picnicking. But the make-your-own factor is so appealing to kids, who crave control over their own meals and eating, that it's worth trying this way at least once.
But you should still invite me over for dinner because I still want to come.
Cold Noodle Bowl
Total time: 1 hour
This dressing is bright with ginger, dusky with scallions, and just a little sweet. It's kind of perfect. But if you want to swap in a store-bought dressing, I would especially recommend Annie's Shiitake & Sesame, since its Asian flavors will perfectly complement the rest of the meal.
2/3 cup peanut or vegetable oil, divided use
3 fat scallions, white and healthy green, sliced (around 1/2 cup)
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh ginger
2 teaspoons kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon sesame oil or roasted peanut oil
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
Heat a tablespoon of the oil in a small pan over medium-low heat and sauté the scallions until wilted and fragrant, around 3 or 4 minutes. In a food processor or with a hand blender, whir together the scallions with the remaining ingredients until the dressing is thick and emulsified. Taste for salt, sugar, acid, and overall balance, and re-season as necessary.
Soba are Japanese buckwheat noodles, and they are lovely here: sturdy, nutty-tasting, wholesome. Plus, they come wrapped so prettily that you'll feel like someone gave you a present. Look for them in the Asian foods aisle of your supermarket or at Whole Foods or (duh) at an Asian market--but if you can't find them or don't want to, feel free to swap in whatever noodles you like. Soba are pretty salty, so I don't salt the water when I cook them; if you're using other noodles, though, you should.
Cook 1 10-ounce package soba noodles in boiling, unsalted water until just tender, 3 or 4 minutes. Drain, rinse under cold water, drain well, and toss with half the dressing.
The seasoning here echoes the salad dressing in a nice way, but please--feel free to swap in a prepared tofu product: the baked or smoked kind that you can just slice up and serve.
2 tablespoons vegetable or peanut oil
1 14-16-ounce package of extra-firm tofu
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Heat the oil in a wide nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, cut the tofu into 12 slices. Fry the tofu, around 5 minutes per side, until it's browning and crispy-looking. Splash in the soy sauce and vinegar, and continue cooking, shaking the pan and flipping the tofu, until the liquid is evaporated and the tofu is glazed. Remove to a cutting board and cut into strips.
Use the unwashed scallion pan. Feel free to swap in roasted peanuts for ease or a change of pace.
2 teaspoons peanut or vegetable oil
1/2 cup slivered almonds
Heat the oil in a very small pan over medium heat and fry the almonds until golden, around 2-3 minutes. Remove to a small bowl so they don't burn in the hot pan.
The Sugar Snap Peas
Steam until just tender, around 3 minutes. Rinse under cold water.
The Bok Choy
Heat a tablespoon of peanut or vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat, then add a large bunch of clean, wet boy choy (cut off the bottoms of the stems to separate the clumps into leaves) and a large pinch of salt and sauté, stirring, until the stems are just tender, around 6 or 7 minutes. If it's getting overly browned before it's tender, add a splash or two of water. Taste for salt.