Indeed, not only do shitake mushrooms bring today’s entry much regard, they also glorify it with anticipation of a great meal. The Japanese invented a word to describe the fifth element to engage the tongue, umami. The term has gained wide acclaim lately, both in and out of food circles, and it signifies a delightfully satisfying, savory sensation that caresses the mouth and gets the juices flowing. Unsurprisingly, shitakes are among umami‘s ablest vehicles.
When Milk Street featured a noodle dish rich in mushrooms in its September-October 2019 issue, the picture alone was enough to unleash cravings. Months, it turns out, though, before the dream was realized. You can imagine the anticipation at that point. Fortunately, Udon Noodles with Shitake Mushrooms and Spinach features ingredients not at all difficult to acquire, even as shelves have yet to recover fully from the mob’s earlier deprivations.
It is what it is, but as long as shitake mushroom are available, all is well in the culinary world. Fortunately, there is an abundance:
Even before they were stemmed, brushed and sliced, they bring the dish much honor!
Shitakes are the umami champions here, but other stars illuminate the savory sky. To begin, a flavorful combination of soy sauce and mirin (a Japanese rice wine somewhat similar to sake) imparts a mildly rich brininess that enhances the other flavors. A drizzle of silky sesame oil and nutty toasted sesame seeds completes umami‘s exuberance.
Not that the dish offers but one allurement. Intertwined in the mix are baby spinach leaves, fired briefly, just enough to baste them and to infuse them with other flavors. Yet still, the heat has light enough a touch to preserve much of the spinach’s leafy contrast.
Also present are udon, Japanese wheat noodles. Cooked until tender, but still a bit toothsome, they glide through the bowl, picking up flavors along the way. Not much more to note on them, other than that they come gathered into neat little bundles, so very Japanese, thoughtful, useful and convenient:
Pretty cool, huh?
Today’s offering brings to the bowl enough to supply a satisfying light summer dinner, even without the mushrooms. Still, the shitake elevates this from something that’s “quite good enough” to an extraordinary meal. The mushrooms add such flavored richness, and produce adequate chewiness, to make them easily mistaken for meat. If that’s what you seek. Still, nothing here but the best found in a peaceful garden and in the majestic grove just beyond. Oh, shitake, your habits are most honorable!
Udon Noodles with Shitake Mushrooms and Spinach
- 10 ounces dried udon noodles (*1)
- 1 tablespoon neutral oil (*2)
- 1/4 cup sherry (*3)
- 1/3 cup soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons white sugar
- 2 tablespoons oil (*4)
- 1 pound fresh shitake mushrooms, stemmed and thinly sliced
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 5 ounces baby spinach
- 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
- toasted sesame oil (*5)
- sesame seeds, for garnish
In a large pot, bring four quarts of water to a boil. Add the dried udon and cook, stirring, until al dente, about three minutes. Reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking water, then drain noodles and rinse with cold water. Toss with a tablespoon of neutral oil (*2) and set aside.
In a small bowl, stir together the sherry, soy sauce and sugar. Set aside.
Set a wok or a large skillet over a medium-high flame. Pour in two tablespoons of oil. When it shimmers, add the shitake mushrooms and salt. Stir to coat, then cover and cook, lifting lid occasionally to stir, about five minutes.
When mushrooms are tender and browned, add the spinach and the sherry-soy sauce mixture. Stir, scraping the bottom, until the spinach wilts, about thirty seconds. Add the udon, the white pepper and the 1/2 cup of water you reserved. Cook, tossing, until the noodles are heated through, about a minute.
Drizzle with toasted sesame seed oil, sprinkle with sesame seeds, and serve,
1 – Udon noodles are fairly easy to obtain, but if you can’t find them, a similar quantity of rice noodles or even fettucine would work.
2 – Why not go with sesame oil from the very beginning? Like vegetable or grapeseed oils, it has a subtle flavor and, unlike the other two, its essence anticipates the final product.
3 – Sherry? In a Japanese dish? All due respect to sherry, and much is due, but mirin (sweet Japanese rice wine) is even more integral a choice. Of course, if you don’t have mirin, sherry will do.
4 – Again, as the variety isn’t specified, keep things on a roll with sesame oil.
5 – There you are, sesame oil. I was wondering where you went.