Last week when I was in Phoenix, I was excited to experience a healthy fast food restaurant concept from a local chain. The restaurant décor was bright, fresh and airy; the menu was inviting; and the service was warm and welcoming.
After such a promising start, the food turned out to be a disappointment. I ordered some mix-and-match small plates. The sesame soba noodles, the red chile-glazed sweet potatoes, and the quinoa and cauliflower tabbouleh all were drenched with sauces that competed with the natural flavors of the ingredients. In no time, my tongue was tingling from the sodium. Someone had used a heavy hand with seasonings in the kitchen that day. With less of everything, it might have been a fine meal.
Which just goes to show you: if you cook a meal yourself, you can control the seasonings and get exactly the flavor you want.
The encounter left me wanting a healthy soba dinner that appealed to my palate. (Actually, there’s no need to add, “noodles,” with “soba,” because soba is a type of noodle. It would be like saying linguini pasta.)
The recipe below may seem long, but it’s not hard to make. First you weight the tofu to draw out as much water as you can. (Otherwise, it will splash when the water hits the oil in the frying pan.) You make a peanut sauce base with peanut butter. Then cube and fry the tofu while you boil the soba. Drain the soba and set it aside while you reheat the peanut sauce base and add the spinach and tofu. Serve over the soba. I pass the sauce separately to avoid over-saucing the noodles.
You can mix and match components of the recipe to suit your time and taste.
- Make just the sauce, without using tofu, to serve on the noodles. You should be able to whip up the sauce itself in 15 minutes or less.
- Instead of spinach, use other vegetables, such as sliced mushrooms or watercress.
- Serve this tofu dish over rice, instead of soba.
- Save time and effort by making this dish without weighting and frying the tofu—just cube the tofu right from the package and add to the peanut sauce; the tofu may crumble a bit but should taste fine.
Tofu with Peanut Sauce and Soba
1 block (14 ounces) extra-firm tofu
½ cup water
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons creamy peanut butter
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon naturally brewed soy sauce
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil
Vegetable oil for frying
1 ½ teaspoons minced ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 cups (about 5 ounces) baby spinach
8 ounces dried soba (Japanese buckwheat noodles)
Sliced green onion, for garnish (optional)
Prepare tofu: Cut tofu in half horizontally so you have two thinner blocks. Lay both halves on a cutting board and top with another cutting board; add a weight (I used some dinner plates) on top of the second cutting board to compress the tofu. Water will drain out, so do this in the sink or on a rimmed sheet pan to catch the tofu water. Allow to sit for a half hour or longer.
Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine water, peanut butter, vinegar, soy sauce, honey and sesame oil and whisk smooth; set aside.
After 30 minutes, dry tofu thoroughly with paper towels, pressing out as much moisture as possible to avoid oil splashes when frying, and cut tofu in ¾-inch cubes.
Pour enough oil in the bottom of a 12-inch nonstick skillet to a level of 1/8 inch and heat on medium heat. When oil is hot, add the tofu in a single layer and do not stir until tofu is golden on the bottom,about 3 minutes. Turn with an egg turner and cook the opposite side until golden. (You may need to cook in two batches.) Remove tofu with a slotted spoon onto a paper-towel-lined plate.
While tofu is cooking, put 5 to 6 quarts of water to boil.
When all the tofu is cooked, drain oil, leaving a thin coating in the skillet. Heat skillet on medium heat and add ginger and garlic. Stir-fry until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add peanut butter mixture and bring to a simmer, whisking occasionally. Turn off heat.
Cook soba in boiling water, stirring occasionally, about 4 to 6 minutes, until tender. Drain noodles, saving a cup of noodle water.
Reheat the peanut sauce on medium heat and add spinach, stirring to coat leaves; cook just until spinach is wilted. Add tofu and stir to heat through. If sauce seems too thick, add soba water, ¼ cup at a time, until thinned to desired consistency.
To serve, divide soba on four dinner plates or bowls. Spoon peanut sauce into a serving bowl and garnish with green onion, if using. Pass the peanut sauce to spoon over the noodles.
Makes 4 servings.
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