The Allure of Shiso
Long ago, my husband jokingly gave me the rather apt but embarrassing nickname of “Black Thumb Jung.”
I admit I’m no Martha Stewart when it comes to nurturing my backyard. In fact, I’m sure Martha would give me one of her telling looks if she only knew that I’ve actually killed ivy and cactus. Things that people say are impossible to kill. I’ve done it, though, with my lethal gardening skills.
But there is an exception to that predictable massacre. I can grow shiso like nobody’s business.
OK, I admit it doesn’t take much for that to happen. Years ago, I planted one seedling in a pot and ever since then, I watch it die over the winter, only to regenerate on its own in summer, when it grows with abandon.
Every summer, I get big green leaves with saw-toothed edges that have the unmistakable and unusual taste of basil crossed with citrus crossed with mint. An Asian herb in the mint family, it’s most commonly found as a garnish on sashimi plates in Japanese restaurants. When I am dining out, I always save it for last. Its bright, refreshing jolt is like a natural after-dinner mint candy.
Though I most often add it to summer salads, I’m always on the lookout for new ways to use my home-grown shiso. That’s why this recipe for “Cold Udon with Fresh Tomatoes” caught my eye. It’s in the newest cookbook by New York City Chef Tadashi Ono, of which I received a review copy. “Japanese Soul Cooking” (Ten Speed Press) is full of recipes for ramen, gyoza, donburi, curry and other comfort dishes typically found in mom-and-pop restaurants or made by home-cooks.
This cold noodle dish could not be more effortless. Seriously, it would take you longer to take a shower than to make this.
Cold noodles also are ideal for a hot summer night.
Just cook the udon — which takes like two minutes — then mix with soy sauce, olive oil and fresh tomatoes that you’ve peeled and squashed with your fingers to release all their heavenly sweet-acidic juices. Mound julienned shiso leaves over the top, and serve.
Think of it as a Japanese-Italian pasta salad, only made with thick, chewy, slippery long noodles. The olive oil and tomatoes are the Italian part. The soy sauce takes it to Asia, plus adds a meaty, salty savoriness. Round out the meal with a simple green salad or chicken teriyaki skewers or even tofu skewers if you want to keep it vegetarian.
The recipe calls for eight shiso leaves. I added more — just because I have so much on hand already. If you don’t grow your own, you can buy packages of shiso in the produce section of Japanese markets.
If you find yourself hooked on the fragrant herb, do try growing it yourself. After all, even this black thumb can make it happen.
Cold Udon with Fresh Tomatoes
(Serves 3 to 4)
4 bricks (8.8 ounces each) fresh-frozen udon or 4 packages (3.5 ounces each) dried Sanuki udon
4 ripe beefsteak tomatoes (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup soy sauce
Pinch of pepper
Pinch of salt
8 shiso leaves (or more), thinly slices
Prepare the fresh-frozen udon, according to package directions. (Generally, bring a pot of water to a boil, drop in the bricks of udon and stir with chopsticks to separate the noodles. When the water comes back to a boil, the udon is done. Drain and rinse with cold running water; drain again.)
To remove the skin from the tomatoes, prepare an ice bath and set aside. Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat. Plunge the tomatoes into the boiling water for 5 seconds, then transfer to the ice bath to cool. The skin will now come off easily; peel with your fingers.
Transfer the peeled tomatoes to a cutting board and cut each tomato into quarters, then slice the quarters in half horizontally through the center of each piece to make 8 pieces. Add the tomatoes, any tomato juice from the cutting board, the olive oil, soy sauce, pepper and salt to a bowl. Use your hands to knead the tomatoes for about 30 seconds, to bruise them and release their juices, and combine all the flavors in the bowl, creating a fresh, cold tomato sauce. Add the udon and use your hands to mix together with the other ingredients, so the noodles are thoroughly coated.
Divide the udon and tomatoes among 4 plates or bowls. Garnish with the shiso leaves and serve.
Adapted from “Japanese Soul Cooking” by Tadashi Ono
More Cold Noodle Dishes That Feature Shiso: Summer Thai Shrimp Noodle Salad with Peaches
Plus More Tadashi Ono Recipes: Lamb Curry