Noodles – whether they’re the instant types or soba noodles or even good old spaghetti – are one of my favourite comfort foods. Not only are they quick and easy to cook, they are also extremely versatile. While one can easily boil linguine and top it with some marinara sauce, sprinkle it with cheese and serve a side of sausages, eggs or vegetables – there are times when a soupy meal is needed, especially on nights when the temperatures drop or the rain pitter patters outside the window. Cue – Warm Noodle Salad!
This summer has been a rainy one here in Boston, almost as if the weather gods didn’t want us to miss the moody, yet welcome downpours of the monsoons in India. It is interesting that with each passing year, as more time elapses between the present and leaving home, the longing too for that place of familiarity increases, especially less tangible things like smell and feel of changing seasons. And that’s why the incessant rain in Boston has often reminded me of the monsoons, making me yearn for warm comfort food, like a bowl of Warm Noodle Salad.
Bowl of comfort – Warm Noodle Salad
The current recipes – a warm noodle salad with a multitude of vegetables and a slight amount of soup broth – is my attempt at recreating a familiar sensation from eating multiple meals at our favourite Asian fusion restaurants through the years. When discussing Asian fusion – which in most cases indicates east Asian cuisine presented with a modern twist, not Asian as in Indian – one cannot escape discussing Umami, the fifth taste.
From Cured Meats to Asian Cuisines – Glutamates are all around.
For the longest time I did not think or know much about it. I also, like many, had misgivings about the infamous MSG – Monosodium Glutamate. That is where my fellow foodie and physician husband helped clarify the chemistry behind this compound. There is much that can be found on the internet. But one key learning point for me from our dinner table discussions was that compounds from the Glutamate family are a byproduct of protein breakdown in meats. That is why biting into cured meat, even if it hasn’t been seasoned, is a pleasing and satisfying experience. This fifth taste can be artificially added to food by the use of MSG, a compound that has been in use since 1908 when it was discovered by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda. If like me you are addicted to food shows, then you’ve probably already watched Ugly Delicious’s discussion about MSG, its stereotyping as an agent that is harmful and, what chef and critics on the show call food racism. MSG is more pervasive than we think, it is present in most processed foods, especially chips and crisps. For the most part scientific trials and studies have not been able to reproduce the same results/symptoms in participants. That, pretty much rules out any side effects of the compound. I believe if there is any doubt, one should practice personal discretion regarding the use of ingredients because placebo is real. If you believe you will feel unwell, your mind will make sure that you do! MSG might not be the culprit but your mind will fool you, very smoothly.
On my part, I haven’t ever used MSG. But I also haven’t come away after eating an Asian meal – Chinese, Japanese or Korean – and suffered a headache. So, time I used MSG? Feel free to share your thoughts.
For now, let’s head over to the Warm Noodle Salad recipe – my attempt to mix salty, sweet and sour flavours for a homemade umami fix.
Total Preparation Time: 30 minutes
Inactive: 10 minutes, Active cooking: 20 minutes
For the Salad:
- Linguine – 1/4 packet,
- Onion – red – 1 medium or 1/2 large,
- Cabbage 1/2 head,
- Carrots 2,
- Celery 2-3 stalks,
- Broccoli 1 small head,
- Corn kernels 1/2 cup,
- Radish 3-4 (optional),
- Spinach 1/2 cup (optional),
- Soya Sauce 1/4 cup,
- Toasted sesame seed oil 2 tsp,
- Sriracha 1/2 tsp or as needed,
- Salt 1/2 tsp,
- Pepper 1/2 tsp,
- Red chilli powder – if needed,
- Sugar 1 tsp (or honey),
- Water (for cooking the linguine).
For the Chicken:
- 1 or 2 Boneless, skinless chicken breasts,
- Olive Oil 2 tbsp,
- Garlic 2-3 pods,
- Cajun seasoning 2-3 tbsp (adjust to taste),
- Salt and Pepper as needed.
Chicken: If needed, wash and pat dry the chicken breasts. Then season generously with cajun seasoning – both sides of the chicken breast should be covered.
Why Cajun? I know this is meant to be an umami inducing meal and there is no fixed formula for it! So, I use the flavour that go well together. Cajun spice mix has garlic and a good blend of herbs as well as chilli. For me that helps add some spice to balance the saltiness of soya sauce and nuttiness of sesame seed oil used in the salad. Feel free to change this as per your preference. Use a poultry mix or instead just use a mix of spices in your pantry.
Put a pan on the stove on high heat. Once it is warm, reduce heat to a medium high and add oil, followed by the chicken breasts. Cook on one side for 2-3 minutes, then turn and cook the second side for another 2-3 minutes until the breasts are translucent. Turn off the heat, cover the let them sit while you turn your attention to prepping other ingredients.
Linguine/Noodles: I used regular linguine for my salad. Put a large pot of water on the stove and bring it to a boil. Add a pinch of salt to it, then add the linguine. Cook for 7-10 minutes, until just past al dente. Drain and rub in some sesame seed oil when cool enough to handle. Keep this aside until assembly.
*Note: You can use any noodles – follow cooking instructions for your choice of replacement.
Prepping vegetables: clean and wash cabbage, carrots, broccoli, celery, radish and spinach. Then take half a cabbage (enough for two people) and slice it into long slivers. Peel carrots and then either slice them diagonally or use the cheese slicer to make noodle like long pieces. Next, chop celery stalks and radishes. Add all these along with corn kernels into a large bowl. I use frozen corn.
Slice onion, and break or cut broccoli into individual florets. Remove the resting chicken breasts from the pan and use the same pan for sauteing broccoli and spinach. I like to re-use the pan to combine flavours from the chicken and use its juices like a warm dressing for the salad. Add more oil if needed, then add all the chopped garlic and brown it, followed by broccoli. Saute for a few minutes until the broccoli changes colour to a bright green and spinach starts wilting. Then add soya sauce, a pinch of salt, some black pepper, red chilli powder (or chilli flakes), sugar or honey and mix well. Turn off the heat and transfer broccoli and spinach along with all the juices in the pan to the bowl of vegetables. Mix well. Check the taste and if you need more spice add a few dashes of Sriracha sauce.
Now, slice the chicken breast that has been resting into 1/2 inch thick slices at a slight angle, trying to go against the grain. Add slices to the salad.
Then, add the linguine and using tongs or salad tossers mix everything well.
That’s it! Serve right away and enjoy with your choice of beverage.
Warm Noodle Salad – an attempt at recreating umami at home.
Whether this one delivers on the umami or not, it will deliver on comfort and warmth.