At last, success! I'm not giving up on the L.A. Times just yet. I should have known that a recipe recommended by Russ Parsons would work. From the now out-of-print The Poetical Pursuit of Food by Sonoko Sakai (Kondo) comes this deceptively simple and utterly delicious meal of chewy, slippery soba noodles with a flavorful, light dipping sauce. I put it all together in less than half an hour. With leftover dipping sauce in the fridge, I can't wait to make this again.
I found the ingredients all clustered together in the same section at Whole Foods. I had to buy soba noodles, mirin, soy sauce and bonito flakes. It was not cheap: my total came to $17.26. But it was worth every penny.
Soba noodles are made with buckwheat flour. Mirin is a Japanese rice wine used for cooking. Bonito flakes, also known as katsuoboshi, are thin shavings of dried and compressed mackerel. The open bag of bonito has a strong and pungent smell, but when combined with boiling water it mellows out into a wonderfully flavored broth. This broth, known as dashi, is a cooking staple in Japanese cuisine (comparable, I suppose, to chicken stock?)
To make the broth, I brought four cups of water to boil, then turned off the heat for one minute before dumping in three loosely packed cups of bonito flakes. The flakes wilted and shriveled upon contact with the steam. I let this steep for five minutes before draining the liquid into a bowl (don't press on the flakes, or the liquid will turn cloudy).
I measured out two and a half cups of the liquid, and brought it to a boil with five tablespoons of mirin and a half cup plus two tablespoons of soy sauce. As soon as it boiled, I turned off the heat and dumped in three more cups of bonito flakes. I let them steep for one minute before draining the liquid into another bowl (again, don't press down on the strained flakes). This makes the dipping sauce for the soba. Refrigerated, it keeps for a week.
I brought a pot of salted water to boil, then threw in 600 grams (or 21 ounces) of soba noodles. When foam started appearing at the top, I turned the heat down and cooked the noodles until they were done. This can take anywhere from one to five minutes, depending on the brand. I drained the noodles and rinsed them under cold running water until they were cool. I divided the noodles among four bowls, and served two thirds of a cup of the dipping sauce alongside them.
To round out the meal, you could steam up a bunch of spinach or swiss chard and serve it with a drizzle of toasted sesame oil on top. A perfect plum would nicely finish this virtuous but delectable Japanese meal.