Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Backyard Udon Stir-fry

Weeded the garden yesterday. Then cooked up the weeds for lunch.

February and March are strange months in the Pacific Northwest. It's often the best skiing of the year in the mountains, but those same storms that dump powder at elevation (or Cascade concrete, as the case may be) are nourishing the first flush of spring greens down in the valley.


Indeed. This is the time to start looking for fresh wild greens on the West Coast, especially the highly nutritious weeds—when they've just emerged. Right now California is kicking out commercial quantities of stinging nettles, watercress, and—soon—fiddleheads, and my own stomping grounds to the north around Puget Sound are not far behind. In fact, this is the time I usually start filling my larder with the first (and best) stinging nettles of the year, which present an obvious green target against the otherwise drab colors of a forest floor still trying to shake off winter. Dandelions are at their best now, too, before budding; watercress is on the rebound; and bittercress is another favorite.

If you're hesitant to include backyard weeds in your menu, try this simple recipe, which is sort of like disguising a dog pill in a little ball of hamburger. Who doesn't love a big bowl of stir-fried noodles with bright toppings? Wild greens add a distinctive and healthy bite to a dish already brimming with flavors. For the dish pictured, I used dandelion greens and watercress.

A colorful, heaping bowl of noodles with a variety of good toppings is so appealing to me, and it can be even easier to put something interesting together if you have a few ingredients ready to go, for instance pickled fiddleheads or a Tupperware full of five-spice beef short ribs (I make the ribs on Sunday and put them in the fridge for just such a weekday purpose). A fried or poached egg is another easy topping.

Fresh udon can be purchased at many Asian markets, and the pre-packaged stuff (dried or frozen) is available at many conventional grocery stores. Cook the udon according to the instructions and make sure to rinse with cold water and pat dry before stir-frying.

You can vary the flavors in any number of ways if your Asian cupboard is well stocked with a variety of chili pastes, bean pastes, Sichuan peppercorns, black vinegar, rice vinegar, aji-mirin, fish sauce, Sriracha sauce, miso, light and dark soy sauce, oyster sauce, pickled chiles, sambal olek, and so on. Below is the simplest form: just a little soy and aji-mirin (sweet rice wine).

1 package fresh udon
1 tbsp peanut oil
2 green onions, thinly sliced (reserve sliced tops for garnish)
1 tbsp garlic, chopped
1 tbsp ginger, peeled and chopped
1 carrot, thinly sliced julienne
2 cups wild greens, torn (or bok choy, cabbage, etc.)
soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil (optional)

1. Boil udon according to directions. Drain, rinse, pat dry, and set aside.

2. In a wok or large pan, sauté green onions, garlic, and ginger for a minute in peanut oil over medium heat. Add carrot and cook together another minute. Add greens and stir-fry until wilted, 30 seconds or so.

3. Stir in cooked noodles, add a splash of aji-mirin (less than a quarter cup) and a splash of soy sauce, to taste. Mix well, add a little sesame oil, and serve. Top with a garnish of sliced green onions, cilantro, crispy fried shallots, a fried egg, or a five-spiced short rib—or all of the above.


Anonymous said...

Do you find that people have very different perceptions of the bitterness of dandelion greens? I rather like them but my wife can't hack what she describes as extreme bitterness?
Also, any experience with drying the leaves and then crumbling them on salads, omelets, etc? Does drying reduce their nutritional value?

Langdon Cook said...

Anonymous - I'd suggest that Americans in general have difficulty with foods on the bitter end of the spectrum. We've been conditioned by fast food and the proliferation of corn (i.e., high fructose corn syrup) so we yearn for sweet. Farmed dandelions were once a common food in the U.S. and are still widely eaten in Europe and elsewhere. You can limit the bitterness by picking leaves before the plant buds. As for drying and nutritional value, I'm not sure. I dry stinging nettles but not dandies.