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.
What's your go-to weeknight ingredient? Let us know in the comments.
A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).