Cozy Beef Udon Soup for Now

Try J. Kenji López-Alt’s recipe for a go-to speedy family meal: niku udon.

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By Melissa Clark

The Food section is as busy as a beehive this time of year. We are gearing up to support all your holiday feasts in the coming months, as well as getting ready for our own. People often ask me what I feed my family for dinner during these most hectic weeks — what is my quickest, easiest, most satisfying meal? My answer? Lemony red lentil soup, which I make all year to ward off hunger, illness and general ennui. It freezes perfectly, so I can keep it around for those nights when even chopping an onion and a carrot seems Sisyphean.

My hive-mate J. Kenji López-Alt recently shared his go-to speedy family meal: niku udon (above), a Japanese beef noodle soup, which he wrote about in his column for The Times.

It’s a brilliantly simple technique: Just briefly simmer thin slices of beef and scallion in dashi seasoned with sake, mirin, sugar and soy sauce. Add udon noodles, then spike it all at the end with shichimi togarashi (Japanese seven-spice blend) or chile powder. That’s it! A warming meal in under 30 minutes. The only tricky part, if you’re not used to it, is making the dashi. But Kenji assures us that dashi kits, the kind like tea bags that you steep in hot water, work well here. That’s the sort of tip that can make a critical difference when you’re crunched for time.

Soup is my Platonic ideal of comfort food, but it might not be yours. So how about a nice potpie? Sarah Copeland gave us an easy chicken version using store-bought puff pastry that includes mushrooms for an earthy flavor. Vegetarians might want to try Ali Slagle’s no-holds-barred buttery creamed greens potpie with its mix of spinach, kale and collard greens. And here’s a tarragon-scented classic one for the potpie purists. I know you’re out there.

For a chicken dish that’s not cloaked in crust, there’s Eric Kim’s garlic-braised thighs. It calls for 20 cloves of garlic simmered in wine until the chicken and alliums melt into the sweet and schmaltzy sauce, a combination that speaks to my garlic-loving soul.

It would go well with Naz Deravian’s zucca in agrodolce, roasted butternut squash with sweetened vinegar. The honeyed tang of the squash would make a bracing counterpart to all those garlicky, winy chicken juices. Or you could go with these simple, oregano-scented roasted carrots for a more savory take.

Then for dessert — I always need dessert — try this salted caramel rice pudding. It’s a bit of a project since you have to make the caramel, but it’s completely worth it.

You know what else is completely worth it? A subscription to New York Times Cooking (which is essential to get the recipes). If you’ve been meaning to subscribe, doing it now, just ahead of the holiday season, will be a true gift to your future self. You can also find us on YouTube, TikTok and Instagram, where you can learn how to make Yossy Arefi’s potato and leek focaccia. (The recipe itself is here.)

Now, a question for the hive mind: What are your go-to quick meals? You can let me know at [email protected]

Speaking of hives, actual bees are at this very minute making your dinner possible. It’s been estimated that one-third of the food we eat depends on pollination by bees, birds and bats, though mostly bees. The bee waggle dance has long been known to be an important part of the way they communicate; Karl von Frisch first decoded the dance in the 1920s, but we’re still learning the specifics. Recently, scientists have started developing robot bees as a possible way to aid struggling colonies. For a quick and fun waggle dance lesson, my daughter suggests this. It’s one dance craze I hope goes on forever.

Sam’s here Friday, and I’ll see you Monday.

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