asian

warm summer soba salad (gf, v) + buckwheat by Annie Jefferson

The word 'soba' means both 'buckwheat' and 'noodle' in Japanese. In traditional Japanese diet, soba noodles are led only by rice as a go-to grain of choice. Buckwheat is a seed, not a grass or a grain. It got it's name in part because of how the seed was utilized - as wheat. It's history is long, with first evidence around 6000 BCE in China, and incredibly, it's the world's highest elevation crop, cultivated in the Yunnan province on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, which - 14,800 feet in elevation - is called 'the roof of the world'.

Their ability to grow up in the sky adds to my existing sense that there's something special about buckwheat. To me, buckwheat noodles feel like the earth. Unlike regular white wheat pasta, their dark speckled grey hue is the color of something found in nature, like sand or the branch of a tree. Their flavor is nutty and earthy. Their texture firm, but yielding. I love the delicacy of their flat edges, the lightness of each noodle. They are grounding to all senses. Actual buckwheat flour has a consistency that makes me want to swim in it, and a color that I want to decorate my whole house in. The seeds are shaped like perfect little triangles and often used for porridge.

The hand production of soba noodles is a labor of patience and repetition, a lesson in mindfulness and following instincts. Masters of the trade are trained in precision and take great care to 'adjust their dough according to the humidity in the air, according to the variety of buckwheat, according to the grind of the flour.'

In "The Art of Homemade Soba Noodles" (Saveur, Francis Lam, February 2016), artisan soba maker Sonoko Sakai describes her house as a 'buckwheat monastery'. At her Los Angeles residence, Sakai 'teaches the meditation of noodle making... work(ing) in elegant, nearly ritualistic movements...and committ(ing) herself to the intimacy, the humanness, the smallness of a simple craft that you make, serve, and watch disappear over and over again.' Making soba noodles by hand involves many steps of kneading, forming, rolling, flattening, all requiring great attention to detail and extensive practice, eventually establishing a somewhat meditative state, where the mind is at rest and the body performs the ritualistic work without prompt.

'Soba saved me', Sakai says of the passion she found after leaving behind a career as a producer and buyer in the film world.

This salad is light and refreshing, a lovely choice for a summer day. The noodles are tossed in a combination of coconut oil, miso, sesame oil, maple syrup, and tamari, and then folded together with spring onions, sweet peas, arugula and fresh herbs, topped with lime juice and sesame seeds. It's easy to make and will leave you feeling fresh and maybe even zen.

A note on soba noodles:

Most soba noodles that you'll find at the supermarket are made of both wheat and buckwheat. I find my 100% buckwheat flour noodles at my local Asian grocery. Sometimes farmer's markets carry them. You can also make your own. All buckwheat noodles tend to be darker in color and stronger in flavor. Do be aware of the ingredients when you buy, especially if you're following a gluten-free diet. When you get the full buckwheat experience, you are getting loads of protein, fiber, B vitamins and minerals, such as magnesium 

INGREDIENTS
1 pack soba noodles
3 tablespoons coconut oil
1 tablespoon miso paste
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
4 green onions, sliced
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon red chili pepper flakes
2 tablespoons tamari
1/2 cup sweet peas
1 large handful arugula
2 tablespoons fresh basil, chiffonade cut
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
juice of half a lime
optional: avocado

METHOD

Heat a large pot of water for the noodles. In the meantime, add the coconut oil to a saucepan and once hot, stir in the garlic. Cook for 1-2 minutes until softened. Whisk in the miso paste. Add the green onions and cook for another minute. Remove from the heat. Stir in the sesame oil, maple syrup, red chili pepper flakes, and tamari.

Once boiling, add the soba noodles to the water. They should only take 4 minutes to cook. With 1 minute remaining in cooking time, add your sweet peas (if frozen). Drain and rinse under cool water to prevent the noodles from sticking. Transfer the noodles and peas to the warm saucepan and toss with the miso sesame mixture. Fold in arugula, basil and cilantro. Transfer to a serving bowl and top with sesame seeds and lime juice.

Serve with sliced avocado and fresh basil leaves.

onion oil pancakes with maple soy dipping sauce by Annie Jefferson

Scallion pancakes are a thing most of us have accepted as restaurant food, best enjoyed on Chinese porcelain or out of a take-away cardboard Oyster pail...not freshly fried up on the cast iron in your home kitchen. These folded little art forms are so intricately layered, only someone native to their cuisine could possibly hold the secrets to their perfect croissant-like composition.

My scallion pancake memories have been boxed up and tucked away, frozen in a childhood corner of my mind along with the woody smell of oolong tea, the sound of single-use chopsticks being snapped apart and rubbed together, and the pastel chalkiness of the little after-dinner sweets from the candy tray by the exit of our local Chinese restaurant. My dad has been fluent in Mandarin for as long as I can remember. With years of research trips to Beijing and Shanghai under his belt, he eventually could no longer politely avoid such delicacies as grilled scorpions and roasted dog and fried fish lips, and so by comparison he felt easily at ease at the friendly little Yangtze River restaurant near our house, which boasted, among other American Chinese food dishes, the best Lo Mein in town.

While I'd fumble with my chopsticks, peeling plump dumpling dough away from pork fillings and pushing aside the latter, and slathering sugary plum sauce onto Moo Shu pancakes, he would find a way to talk to the waiter in strange, undulating tones, but with a clear - even to me - sense of mutual understanding. I made sure the understanding was especially clear when it came to one thing: Con You Bing.

The literal translation from Chinese is 'onion oil pancake' and you can make them at home. As the name suggests, oil and onion - along with flour and water - are the main ingredients of this savory, unleavened pancake. Traditionally, Con You Bing is served alongside a hearty and saucy meat dish or as a street food-style snack served - often for breakfast - with dipping sauce. It's the Chinese take on the flatbread, and many cuisines across the world have their own versions. In India it's the Paratha, in Korea the Pajeon and with the the addition of a little leavening it's the Middle Eastern pita, the South Asian naan bread or the Italian pizza.

Word on the web is that the best scallion pancake in Shanghai comes from a small stall on Nanchang Road owned by a hunchbacked old man named Mr. Wu who, starting at 5am each day, turns out hours upon hours of individual fried cakes, each with the most perfect crisp to cloud ratio. His secret is finishing off the pancakes with a couple minutes in a high- heat kiln, achieving that ultimate combination of crunchy golden crisp on the outside, and soft airy cloud on the inside.

What I love about the scallion pancake is this tension between fresh and the opposite of fresh...rich, dense, heavy. It's fried to a brittle crisp, but it's also soft and tender. Salt dominates, but there's a lingering sweetness. It's a dough, but the fresh greens taste like spring. Scallions are a young form of the regular onion we're familiar with - they're just picked before they can fully develop a root bulb. Spring onions, green onions (what we use here), young leek and young shallots are all part of the Scallion family. The fresh bite of this baby vegetable is an important key to the complexity of the otherwise simple flavor profile in this dish. Note that we discard the dark green ends, as they can have a bitter flavor

Another key lies in the importance of the gluten development of the dough. Here we use hot water dough, which actually destroys the gluten composition, resulting in less of a stretchy, fluffy dough (for example, like a hole-filled loaf of bread) and instead more of a tender chew (similar to a dumpling dough). Both resting times - before and after creating the individual pancakes - are also critical to allow the little gluten that does exist to relax and to end up with that thin, flaky dough.

Finally, Mr. Wu-like patience in frying time is your ticket to that perfect crisp to cloud ratio. So, hunch yourself over that frying pan and get Con You Bing-ing!

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MAPLE SOY DIPPING SAUCE

INGREDIENTS
4 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons almond butter
1 tablespoon maple syurp
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1/4 teaspoon garlic, finely diced
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon chili oil
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon sesame seeds

METHOD
Start by making your dipping sauce. Simply whisk ingredients together until fully incorporated and you have a thick brown sauce. Allow to marinate while you make your pancakes.

 

ONION OIL PANCAKES
It can be challenging and take a few practice runs to get your dough right with scallion pancakes. Here is a video from chef Martin Yan showing his process. Kneading and resting is a critical step.

INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon red hot pepper flakes
2 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
3 scallions, thinly sliced with dark green ends discarded
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/3 cup toasted sesame oil
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 cup boiling water
2 scallions, thinly sliced with dark green ends discarded
vegetable oil for frying

METHOD
Start by making the chili scallion brushing oil. In a large pot combine the red pepper flakes, garlic, scallions, ginger, and oils. Over medium-low heat and stirring occasionally, bring to a low, bubbly simmer. Cook gently for 15 minutes (the temperature shouldn't rise above 250 degrees). Set aside to cool.

Make the dough. Using your fingertips, mix together flour, salt and sugar at the base of a large mixing bowl. Slowly add boiling water, continuing to stir with your fingers as you go until a wet, shaggy ball of dough has formed.  Knead the dough with the palm of your hand at the base of the bowl for 5 minutes, adding more flour if necessary, until the dough forms into a ball that stays together and doesn't stick to your hands. Return dough to mixing bowl, cover with a cloth and let it rest for at least 30 minutes to an hour.

After resting, take the dough and pull / roll it into a long rope. Divide the dough into 3 equal sections. Take each section and roll it into a flat rectangle, getting as thin as you can using a rolling pin. Brush the chili scallion oil onto the flattened dough, getting as close as you can to the edges. Sprinkle additional chopped scallions on top of the oil.

One by one, starting from the long edge, roll each piece of dough into a tube. Then starting at one end, roll into a coil, like a cinnamon roll, and tuck the opposite end under the roll. Allow to rest, covered with a cloth, for another 30 minutes.

Coat a frying pan with vegetable oil and heat over moderate heat. Using the palm of your hand (not the rolling pin), gently flatten each coil into a pancake. Cook pancakes about 6 minutes on each side, shaking the pan as you go to ensure even dispersement of oil and peeking underneath to check for burning.