Welcome to Never Fail, a weekly column where we wax poetic about the recipes that never, ever let us down.
As a once-a-week grocery shopper, Fridays are the days I have to get the most creative in the kitchen. I’m trying to turn anything left in the crisper drawer, the remnants of a rotisserie chicken, and whatever herbs are starting to wilt into what is ideally a quick meal, because it was a long damn week. The “recipe” I turn to when I’m in my most zombie-like cooking state is this udon stir-fry situation: a crispy-chewy, soy-sauced dinner that comes together in 15 minutes. I first made this when the original recipe went live last year, featuring ground pork and cabbage, and I have adapted it at least a dozen times since.
What makes this udon stir-fry so great is the texture of the udon noodles themselves. They’re slippery enough to be slurpable (in soup or stir-fried form) with a toothsome, chewy bite. The most important thing you need to remember is to, first and foremost, buy the right udon noodles (fresh or frozen, never dried), and also to not overcook them. The best part is that they don’t really require cooking, per se—all you have to do is soak them in a bowl of boiling water for literally one minute, and then they can hang out while you prep the rest of your ingredients. I use an electric kettle to boil water fast for this, but TBH, you could just get your tap as hot as it can go and let them soak a little longer if you’re feeling lazy. The best way to test if they’re ready—as is the case with almost everything—is to eat one. It should be warmed-through, bland and a little bit chewy, which is all going to change when they take a bath in a soy sauce–mirin combination and get crispy while soaking up every bit of flavor.
The rest of the cooking process moves pretty fast, so the key to nailing this dish is to have all of your ingredients prepped and ready—once you start stir-frying, there’s no turning back. Focus on your noodles and whatever you’re rescuing from the crisper to pair it with. I’ve added spinach, carrots, zucchini, bok choy, and onions with success, but my favorite combination is garlic, ginger, mushrooms, and some sort of protein (rotisserie chicken always works in a pinch). Shiitakes are my go-to for stir-fries usually since they cook quickly to a chewy-crisp consistency that is very similar to the udon. The most recent time I made them, I quick-braised some king oyster mushrooms in soy sauce and mirin and then added rotisserie chicken, a ton of scallions, and syrupy, thick sweet soy sauce. I’ve done it with shrimp and asparagus, and thin-sliced beef and broccoli too.
In an ideal world, I can make this dish without having to go to the store to buy anything, which is why I keep at least two packs of vacuum-sealed fresh udon in my fridge—they usually last at least a few months. And the noodles themselves are so tasty and satisfying that I have no problem going vegetarian if I don’t have meat in the freezer or leftovers to toss in. A 1:1 ratio of soy sauce and mirin is an easy sauce to memorize, but udon also plays nice with kimchi, butter, and an egg yolk for more decadence, or even a simple teriyaki sauce. Whatever you do, just make it quick and easy so you can get on with your life. Udon know what surprises may be lurking around the corner, but at least you know what you’re having for dinner tonight. (And if you thought you’d get through this post without a pun, udon know me at all!)