When James and I were moving in together, I used to think a lot about the phrase “merging households”. There are a lot of practical considerations when two middle-aged people decide to occupy the same space, with all their accumulated belongings: Whose dishes will we use? (His. They were prettier.) What will we do with all the extra furniture? (We had a big-ass yard sale.)
And really, because I’m a geek like that, What will we eat?
Not to get too ultra-metaphorical about it, but merging our foods and food habits has been emblematic of the merging of our lives in general. In our prior live-in arrangements, each of us had done all the cooking, and felt a fair bit of homemaker pressure in general; now we partnered to get dinner on the table, and to do everything else—laundry, shopping, everything. I had been vegan, and he a big meat-eater; now we were both eating (and continue to eat) some meat, but not much, and lots and lots of fruits and veggies. He taught me how to cook just enough food for one meal, to save us from having rotting leftovers in the fridge. I taught him how to bake bread, to save us from paying $4 a loaf for something we could have fresh from the oven.
My first James-inspired food discovery was udon. Hard to believe I’d never eaten it before, but there it is. Suddenly, about once a week, there would appear this satisfying, hot bowl of soup that I didn’t have to cook for myself, and that just nourished me on so many levels. Sometimes, he made the udon with tofu; sometimes with meat or seafood. Sometimes, he used store-bought seasoning packets, and sometimes he made a rich broth redolent with miso and spices. Nearly always, there was bok choy. Nearly always, onions. Beyond that, it was whatever caught his fancy, and it was always just so delicious.
This is one of those things you don’t need a complicated recipe for, and that’s kind of a metaphor for us, as well. We don’t have a lot of rules or stresses in our personal life; we sort of go with each day as it comes, and make it up as we go along. Everything that was hard about my previous relationship is now so easy. We don’t bicker and fight; we don’t take each other for granted; we make each other soup. See? I can stretch a metaphor with the worst of them.
As far as the actual soup goes, if you can find fresh udon noodles in your store, get them. They’re cheap, usually packaged in single-serving amounts (sometimes three to a package), and better, texture-wise, than the dried noodles. Dried are sometimes easier to find, but hey, if you can’t find udon, use fettucine — it’s almost the same, especially if you put a little miso in the broth at the end. At any rate, if you’re using fresh, you’re good to go; if dried, cook them up first, according to package directions, then drain and rinse them under cold water and set them aside.
The basic prep is as follows, but really, it’s a very forgiving dish:
If you’re using the seasoning packet from store-bought noodles, just follow the directions on the pack. Otherwise, stir together a tablespoon per serving of miso (any flavor) and enough water (roughly equal measures) to loosen the paste enough to blend with the soup. Set the miso-water mixture aside.
Put about 3 cups water or stock and a tablespoon of soy sauce (to taste) per serving into a soup pot along with chopped onions, maybe some garlic and/or ginger, and any longer-cooking veggies you want to use (carrots, for example). Bring that to a boil and cook for a few minutes, then toss in the quick-cooking veggies (bok choy is our standard, but greens are good, or bean sprouts, or whatever) and the udon.
For protein, we often throw in some tofu or shelled shrimp or cooked sliced meat or vegetarian gluten meat substitute at this point; you can wing it on the protein question. It’s a really good way to use up leftover meat or tofu from a prior meal.
Bring the soup back to a boil, then cook and stir for two or three minutes, until the udon has come unclumped and the soup is heated through, and take the soup off the heat. Stir in the miso-water mixture. Serve it up hot.
This really isn’t very good left over, so I recommend you only make as much as you need for one meal. And I can’t think of a relationship metaphor for that, so I’ll just let it go.