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Great Udon Soup Ain't Rocket Science

Updated: Jan 10, 2022

A dear friend asked me a while back to gin up a basic 'how to' for Ramen soup. He was tired of those far too salty packets that broke college students rely on. I boldly said "Sure! I can do that! No worries." I tried one based on a fairly trusted site from the internet, and it was just awful. Boring. Insipid. So, I went back to my own, admittedly not terribly authentic way of making a Japanese-inspired, broth-y noodle soup. I know how it 'should' taste. I've spent enough time in Japan to 'get it'. Unfortunately, my 'get it' never came with an actual recipe. What else is new?

To approach this, you really do need to have either 1) access to a decent local Asian market, or 2) internet access so you can order some basics. There are a couple of ingredients that you just can't fake.

Kombu is the first of those 'no substitutions, please' items. Kombu is a thicker, 'beefier' type of dried sea kelp. Nutrient rich, you simply break off several pieces and use this to flavor the most important part of your Japanese soup - the broth. Since I don't use iodized table salt, using instead Kosher salt, I use Kombu - and other sea vegetables - to provide the necessary iodine to support thyroid health et al. I didn't realize until recently that Kombu is also a good source of Omega-3 Fatty Acids. The fish eat sea vegetables and get the Omega-3's from them. We eat the fish. See how that works?

The second 'no substitutions' item is Mirin, which is a subtly sweet rice wine used to flavor all manner of Japanese dishes. If you're going to cook Japanese, you've gotta have it. And, don't buy the Aji-Mirin if you have a choice between that and Mirin. The Aji version is sort of dumbed down, and usually 'cut' with other sweenteners. I buy BIG bottles of the stuff because I really go through it.

Finally, there's miso - that strange fermented soybean paste. I adore all manner of miso, and typically have a couple different kinds on hand. But, if you're not accustomed to it, go with a simple Dashi Miso, or a Mellow Yellow is a good place to begin. Bon Appetit magazine ran a really good miso primer article a few years ago, and if you're new to it, please read it.

Most grocery stores now have many of these items, including that last specialized ingredient - dried Shiitaki mushrooms. I keep a little package in the pantry for flavoring stocks and broths - even those not Japanese.

Oh, and I should probably mention noodles. Any grocery store has dried Ramen noodles these days. And, most also have the thick, wheat Udon noodles. I keep both on hand. The Udon noodles are not dried. You'll find them in the refrigerated section. I toss the little packets of faux-flavor that come with them. It's primarily salt. Who needs it.

And, I'm assuming that you have soy sauce? Tell me that you do.

As I said earlier, making your broth is the first step.

Put about 6 to 8 cups water into a deep pot. Chuck in 4-6 hunks of Kombu. Also about eight to ten Shiitaki mushrooms. A half of a sweet onion, peeled and sliced. About one cup (+/-) of Mirin. A couple heaping tablespoons of miso. And, a couple fat slices of fresh ginger. A splash of soy sauce. Taste it. Is it starting to work for you?

Now, I'm going to throw you a curve-ball. I use a dehydrated vegetable blend, by It's Delish, that I swear by. I buy it in 2-lb bags and use it in practically every broth, stock, soup, stew and even my popcorn seasoning. I toss in about ⅓ cup of that.

Bring it to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for at least 30 minutes. Taste. Taste. Taste. How's it working for you? Adjust the flavors to suit you. With a slotted spoon or strainer, remove all the pieces, bits and chunks. Slice the mushrooms thin, and toss those back in. Ah, heck, the onions, too! I also slice up the ginger into thin batons, and toss those back in. Is the broth too strong? Add water. Not strong enough? Add more miso, mirin or soy sauce.

Cut up a nice, big, fat horse carrot into diagonal planks. Toss that in. Let it simmer until it's just tender. Now's the time to toss in the final ingredients: some sort of protein (or not, it's up to you), some lovely baby bok choy or similar, some fresh snow peas. Play around here. I almost went with planks of Parsnip tonight. Would've worked fine. No baby bok choy? Use the larger stuff. Or any kind of 'greens'. Sliced celery is great. Peas. Green beans. Cabbage. Rutabaga. Turnip. Just make sure to slice/cut whatever it is into small bite-sized pieces that will cook rather quickly. The only ingredients that will take extra time are root vegetables like carrots et al.

Let's talk protein. I only 'do' plant-based proteins. And, for this, I really love the mycoproteins - Meatless Chunks from Quorn. I keep a couple bags of that in my freezer at all times. Reach in for what you need. I buy it at Whole Foods, but have seen it elsewhere. Any other plant-based chikin substitute will work, as will tofu.

So, when your carrots are tender, toss in the rest of your quicker cooking vegetables, noodles and proteins. You'll only need to simmer them for 5 minutes at most, depending on how big the pieces are. I make my noodles soups so heavy with vegetables that Ron and I share a packet of the Udon noodles. And, we push back from the table stuffed. We probably use about 1 to 1-½ cups of the Quorn pieces for the two of us.

If you don't want Udon, use Ramen noodles. Use any sort of noodle that floats your boat. The Udon can be dumped right into the hot broth. Other types may need to be cooked separately, drained and tossed into the bowl, and the hot broth and vegetables ladled on top. I slice up a couple of green onions on the diagonal, and sprinkle those on top of the finished soup.

This will be a very satisfying and filling meal, and I would suggest that you make enough broth that you'll have extra for another meal. It'll keep for several days in the fridge.

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