A curious craze if there ever was one, kelp noodles have gained popularity in leaps and bounds, going from unheard oddity to pantry staple for many overnight. Though still a more difficult ingredient to procure, ever since I discovered one fateful package at a local international market, rather than an expensive specialty shop, they’ve been showing up on my plate more often.
Finding them mixed amongst the bottles of soy sauce and bean paste was inspiring, not only due to the substantially lower price. Despite their typically raw preparations, these chewy, translucent seaweed strands are a perfectly tasty ingredient for cooked dishes, and in fact, may be more palatable warm. A brief sauté seems to relax the tightly wound noodles, making them more like starch-based cellophane noodles or sweet potato dangmyeon. With this realization, it became crystal clear that these particular kelp we destined to become japchae.
Switching out the traditional beef for thinly sliced seitan, the dish came together in a snap. Packing in the fresh vegetables for a lighter rendition, this is the perfect dish for bridging the gap between winter and spring. Bright and colorful, the sheer variety of flavors and textures makes for a highly satisfying eating experience. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to japchae, so consider my instructions more as guidelines. The best additions are what’s in season and what’s on hand. Consider switching in some sliced asparagus and fresh snow peas to really celebrate spring, or give chopped kale a shot rather than the standard spinach. Of course, if kelp noodles still elude you, the traditional dried and cooked cellophane noodles are always a welcome swap.
Kelp Noodle Japchae
1 12-Ounce Package Kelp Noodles, Drained and Soaked Water with a Splash of Vinegar for 15 Minutes
2 Tablespoons Toasted Sesame Oil, Divided
8 Ounces Seitan, Thinly Sliced
1/2 Medium Yellow Onion, Thinly Sliced
1 Teaspoon Finely Minced Fresh Ginger
1 Clove Garlic, Finely Minced
6 – 8 Rehydrated Dried Shiitake Mushrooms, Stems Removed, and Thinly Sliced (Soaking Liquid Reserved)
1/2 Cup Sliced Fresh Cremini or Button Mushrooms
1 – 2 Small Carrots, Julienned
1 Red Bell Pepper, Julienned
3 Tablespoons Tamari or Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Light Agave Nectar
1 Tablespoon Mirin
1/4 Teaspoon Freshly Ground Black Pepper
6 Ounces Fresh Spinach
1 Scallion, Thinly Sliced
2 – 3 Persian Cucumbers, cut into 2-inch julienne
Toasted Black or White Sesame Seeds (Optional)
While the kelp noodles are soaking (which helps to soften them up a bit,) heat 1 tablespoon of the sesame oil in a large skillet. Once hot, toss in the seitan, and sauté for about 5 – 8 minutes until the pieces are all nicely browned. Move the seitan onto a plate, and let rest while you move on to the remainder of the stir-fry. Start draining the kelp noodles at this point so that they’re not sopping wet when you need them.
Add the remaining sesame oil to the pan, and start by adding in the onion, ginger, and garlic. Cook until the onion is translucent and highly aromatic. Toss in the mushrooms, carrots, and pepper, along with about 1/4 cup of the reserved shiitake soaking liquid, and cook for another 8 – 10 minutes, until all the veggies are softened but still crisp. Mix together the tamari, agave, mirin, and pepper, and pour the mixture into the skillet, stirring to incorporate. Add in the kelp noodles and cook for 3 – 4 minutes, to allow the flavorful liquids to become assimilated. Finally, toss in the spinach, and cook for only 30 seconds or so to lightly wilt the greens. If using kale or any heartier greens, give it another minute or so to become tender. Turn off the heat and stir in the scallion and cucumber. Top with sesame seeds if desired. Enjoy hot or let cool and eat as a salad.
Makes About 4 Servings