Yes, simply buttered noodles or a packet of instant ramen can make for a nearly effortless dinner. And yes, my family has made it clear they generally prefer them to anything more complex that I can whip up. And sometimes, that’s exactly what we do.
But, as the third party naysayer who always wants (but rarely has time for) much more, I latched onto this line in Lara Lee’s new cookbook, A Splash of Soy: Everyday Food from Asia, about Lara’s take on the iconic Jakarta noodle dish, ketoprak: “The kettle is your friend in this no-cook version.”
Lara goes on: “Boiling water makes instant peanut sauce, softens the rice vermicelli, blanches the edamame, and warms through the cubes of tofu in one fell swoop.” This means dinner essentially cooks in one bowl in three minutes.
How did Lara unlock such wild convenience? In the years since publishing her runaway hit debut cookbook, Coconut & Sambal, on the bright food traditions of Indonesia, she welcomed her now 3-year-old son Jonah and began to hack at the brambles that can slow the path to vibrant family meals. “There are days when all I feel I can manage as a working mum is the act of boiling the kettle. So I craved food that could be ready in 15 minutes, without the faff of washing up multiple pots and pans,” says Lara.
In this faff-less meal, she simply boils a kettle, dumps the hot water over the noodles; protein, and vegetables; and allows it all to soak for a few minutes. The noodles plump, the rest warms through, and dinner is all but done. “The ease of it was exhilarating,” Lara says.
But for boiled water to make a gripping dinner, some crackly and creamy toppings and a dynamo of a sauce are key. Namely: store-bought shrimp chips and fried onions, cucumber, avocado, and sparks of fresh red chiles up top—plus an instant salty-sweet peanut sauce smeared beneath.
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More Ways Boiling Water Can Fast-Track Dinner:
Lara leans on this kettle trick for lots of other quick shortcuts, many of which can be found in A Splash of Soy. A bowl of hot water softens the cabbage and bean sprouts for her shortcut gado-gado while the tofu, potatoes, and garlic caramelize in the oven. It wilts spinach for a gochujang-cured salmon poke bowl and a choose-your-own-adventure bibimbap. And it’s how Lara now cooks all her instant ramen noodles, soaking for 3 to 4 minutes. “They retain their al dente bounce better,” she says, especially if you’re planning to stir-fry them with a sauce and other goodies.
When I started to brainstorm riffs on Lara’s genius method, I thought about other starches that cook by simply soaking. Fonio—an ancient West African grain—and couscous—the tiny North African rolled pasta—came to mind. Both conveniently only need only to hang out in just-boiled water for 5 minutes to fluff up.
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Sending the grains swimming with friends in a bowlful of boiled water turned out to be less consistent, but stirring them into a small pot on the stovetop was just as easy, and more predictable. (In other words, however you play with Lara’s technique, respect the package instructions.)
In this case, the ‘friends’ are chopped hearty greens (I liked a mix of purple kale and baby broccoli), but any quick-cooking vegetable in your fridge or freezer would work. Green beans? Frozen peas? That smug kohlrabi that’s been stumping you since you brought it home from the farmers’ market? Sure!
For a simple sauce that could tie together a meal as cheerfully as Lara’s instant peanut one, I turned to taratoor, the electric lemon-y, garlicky tahini sauce used widely in Arabic cooking. Making it is as easy as stirring up a few pantry ingredients, and by loosening it with boiling water like Lara does, the garlic flavor shifts away from raw and punchy to savory-soft.
All that was left to scream not-a-shortcut dinner was a couple of crunchy, juicy fresh vegetables on top—I went with seasonal snap peas and baby tomatoes, but you and your crisper are your own bosses here.
Scooping up a rainbow of toppings for Lara’s tofu noodles made for one of my family’s happier, more memorable recent meals, and inspired lots of ways to resist the hegemony of buttered noodles. These quick-boiled grains and greens are just one of them.
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