Welcome to Cooking Without Recipes, in which we teach you how to make a dish we love, but don’t worry too much about the nitty-gritty details of the recipe, so you can create your own spin. This is digital recipe editor Jill Baughman’s recipe for veggie japchae.
My love for noodles knows no bounds. But my love in particular for japchae, a Korean stir-fry made up of beautiful glass sweet potato noodles, is one of my go-to happy-place lunches. The key lies in its versatility—you can have it warmed up, you can have it right out of the fridge, you can leave it sitting on your desk at room temp all morning and it’s still delicious. A generous helping of these starchy noodles may not be the healthiest thing for lunch, so I rationalize consuming them in my brain by keeping it veg-based. Look for them in Asian sections of larger supermarkets, Korean grocery stores if you’re lucky enough to live near one, or online. I’m actually able to find mine at my local Costco.
Anyway, back to the “recipe.” The first step might be the most annoying one for those who like to keep meal prep under 15 minutes. But to get the best flavor, you gotta soak some dried shiitake mushrooms. Place them (I usually go with 4) in a heatproof bowl, cover with really hot water, and let sit until softened, about 30 minutes (some shiitake purists may say like 4 hours minimum, but #lazy). You can prep everything else while they’re soakin’. You can even use room temperature water and let them soak overnight if you want. And okay, you can use fresh mushrooms, but it’s not the saaaaaaame.
At this point I’ll go watch an episode or two of Game of Thrones and then come back to make a very simple sauce. A quarter cup of soy sauce, a couple teaspoons of light brown sugar, and a couple teaspoons of sesame oil…that’s it!
Cook the noodles just like you would any other kind of pasta (I follow what it says on the package; it should take 5–7 minutes). Rinse them under cold water, which washes off the starch, making them look nice and shiny and glassy. You can toss in some sesame oil so they won’t stick together. Your best bet if you’re finding them too unwieldy: Put them in a bowl and cut them up with some kitchen shears—this makes them a lot easier to eat.
As the noodles are hanging out, go poke your mushrooms and see if they’re soft. Strain them through a fine-mesh sieve into a small bowl. Be sure to keep that umami-rich liquid! But also rinse the grit off the mushrooms—eating that is no fun. Then take off the stems and thinly slice the caps. You won’t miss any rich meaty flavor when using these guys.
Now cook your favorite veggies in some sesame oil. Using a large skillet or wok, I’ll cook a couple cloves of garlic and a knob of cut-up ginger until softened. Then half a large onion, a couple of sliced carrots, and the mushrooms I expended so much energy to soak. After everything’s softened a little bit, I throw in lots of spinach, but you can use any kind of hardy greens you have lying around. Toward the end, add the noodles, a couple teaspoons of that mushroom liquid, and the sauce. Right before taking the wok off the stove, I’ll sprinkle everything with sliced scallions so they cook down a little bit from the residual heat.
You’ll probably have made more than enough japchae to last you for a few lunches, but it keeps great in the fridge. Right before chowing down, I’ll sprinkle on some sesame seeds to make the lunch Instagram-worthy, then drizzle with some extra sesame oil to loosen it all up. Scoop on some Gochujang if you like things spicy.
About that Gochujang…
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