Let's face it: Some nights are harder than others. I can't tell you the number of times I've saddled up, ready to work at my kitchen counter ― sleeves pushed up, hair pulled back ― and had a stare down with the cutting board, willing a dinner idea to reveal itself.
And especially these days, that's fine. I don't have to tell anyone about the importance of keeping a well-stocked pantry, but there are a few specific ingredients that have proven their worth, time and time again. In my kitchen, udon noodles enjoy that MVP status.
I keep blocks of sanuki udon (like these or these) in the freezer. "Sanuki" refers to the product's origins in Japan's Kagawa Prefecture, an area famous for its udon. They look like the pleasantly thick, square-edged noodles we're familiar with here in the States; but unlike vacuum-sealed refrigerated or shelf-stable udon, frozen sanuki udon are a bit less doughy and white after cooking. When sanuki udon are cooked, they take on a beautiful translucence. (Separately, there is a flat variety of dried udon, like these, which tend to be the thinnest of store-bought udon, and are also nice to keep on hand.)
The beauty of the sanuki udon blocks — in addition to their unmatched texture, of course — is that they're ready in a flash. They're pre-cooked, so all they need is a gentle zhush-ing in hot water, straight from frozen, to release them from their caked state. This "cooking," or more like blanching, step will usually take less than a minute, so you'll want to be on guard. As always, give the package instructions a good read before you start.
Of course, these quick-to-enjoy noodles will be great in a familiar udon soup, but I just love them cold and in stir-fries. If you're using them in a cold preparation (like in zaru udon or a cold udon salad), rinse them with cold water before adding to your final dish. This step is helpful for halting the cooking process and removing excess starch. In stir-fry noodle dishes, I've found it is enough to simply drain the noodles well before introducing them to the skillet. (You can also toss them with a bit of oil to prevent them from sticking, if not using right away.)
Since udon's primary ingredients are flour, water, and salt, try subbing them where you would normally reach for a wheat noodle or even dried pasta. They're fantastic in everything from vegetable-loaded yaki udon to ground pork and scallion stir-fried noodles, and especially my spicy, smoky riff with gochujang. If you love a pleasantly chewy fresh noodle (and who doesn't?), I promise you won't be able to resist frozen udon's slippery ways.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
- 1 tablespoon neutral oil
- 2 slices of thick-cut bacon, sliced into 1/4-inch strips or lardons
- 3 to 4 scallions, thinly sliced (reserve 1 tablespoon scallion greens for garnish)
- 2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced or crushed
- 2 egg yolks, at room temperature
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon gochujang
- 2 blocks frozen udon noodles
- 1/2 cup reserved udon cooking water (you will not be using this all)
- 1/4 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
- 1 pinch kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper, plus more to taste
- Bring a medium pot filled with water to boil for the udon.
- In a skillet, heat oil over medium-low heat. Add the bacon, scallions, garlic, and a pinch of salt. Let the bacon fat render slowly and saute all until golden brown, about 5 to 6 minutes. Monitor the heat and lower it if it browns too quickly.
- In the meantime, in a medium or large mixing bowl, add the egg yolks. Add the cheese, pinch of salt and coarsely ground pepper (at least 8 to 10 turns). It will look like a paste at this point, but the udon cooking water will loosen it up shortly. Set aside.
- Lower the skillet's heat to low. Add the soy sauce and gochujang and "fry" in the bacon's oil. Coat the bacon mixture with the gochujang.
- Cook udon noodles according to package instructions (usually 45 to 60 seconds). They are already cooked, so you are just warming them through and gently releasing them from their caked state with tongs or chopsticks. It's important not to overcook them. Reserve about ½ cup of udon cooking water. Drain in a colander and add the udon noodles to the pan (alternately, you can also use a spider strainer to lift up and drain the udon noodles from the pot and into the skillet — it's OK to have a bit of the residual water clinging on). Toss until well-combined and udon noodles are coated in the gochujang-bacon sauce. Turn off the heat.
- To the mixing bowl with the egg-cheese mixture, add 2 to 3 tablespoons of the reserved udon cooking water and mix to form a slightly looser paste. Add the udon noodles and toss until well- combined (you can also add the egg-cheese mixture to the pan that's off the heat, being careful not to curdle or scramble the eggs). Drizzle in a bit of sesame oil. Season with salt and pepper, to your taste. Give it another toss before plating. Top with reserved scallion greens and more coarsely ground pepper, if you'd like. Serve immediately.