Bowled Over: five healthy noodle bowls

Filling, nourishing and packed with vegetables and lean protein, a well-designed noodle bowl is the perfect one-dish meal. Start with a noodle you love; traditionally, noodle bowls are Asian in influence, but any long, narrow pasta will work. Next, add a flavorful broth that’s based on vegetables, herbs and low-sodium condiments, not salt. Then layer on the extras, like seafood, grilled vegetables, minced herbs or chopped nuts, for nutrition and visual appeal. Details count: pre-warm the bowls, garnish liberally, and be creative. And try these savory selections. You’ll be bowled over.

Flank Steak and Green Beans with Rice Noodles
Serves 4

Based on Vietnamese pho, this shortcut dish simmers pre-made beef broth with traditional spices, and adds green beans for extra nutrition. Charring the onions and garlic brings out their natural sweetness, but you can easily skip this step.
3-inch segment ginger, halved lengthwise
1 small yellow onion, quartered, with some root still attached
6 cups low-sodium beef broth
3 whole garlic cloves
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon turbinado sugar
5 star anise pods
1 or 2 serrano peppers, to taste, halved lengthwise and seeded
1/4 pound thin green beans, trimmed, cut on a strong diagonal into 3-inch segments
12 ounces flank steak, very thinly sliced against the grain
1 to 2 tablespoons low-sodium tamari
1 tablespoon peanut or sesame oil
8 ounces rice noodles (banh pho)
1/2 pound mung bean sprouts
1/2 cup Thai or sweet basil leaves
1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced
1 lime, cut into wedges

  1. Arrange onions and ginger on a baking sheet and broil on the top rack of your oven for 2 to 3 minutes, until vegetables are lightly charred.
  2. Combine onions and ginger in a large pot with beef broth, garlic, fish sauce, sugar and star anise. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 20 to 30 minutes to let flavors infuse. Remove and discard onion, pepper, ginger, garlic and star anise.  Add green beans and let simmer for 2 to 3 minutes, until crisp-tender.
  3. While soup simmers, place steak in a shallow bowl and sprinkle with tamari; toss with your hands to coat and sprinkle generously with black pepper. Heat oil in a large skillet and quickly sear meat until lightly browned, about 1 minute per side. Transfer to plate and tent with foil to keep warm. Pour boiling water over the noodles; let soak for 2 to 3 minutes until softened, and drain.
  4. To serve, divide noodles between bowls. Pour hot broth over noodles. Sprinkle with bean sprouts. Scatter basil leaves over top of bowl. Arrange several slices of beef on top of each bowl.  Sprinkle with scallions. Serve each bowl with a wedge of lime, and serve hot.

Five-Spice Noodle Bowl with Shitakes and Napa Cabbage
Serves 4

This dish is especially good served with additional toppings; offer bowls of shredded daikon radish or carrot, chopped spinach or slivers of bell pepper as add-ons. A small amount of pork is all you need; chicken or shrimp can stand in for the pork, or substitute baked tofu, for a vegetarian option.
1 cup sliced dried shiitake mushrooms (or 1 1/4 cups whole dried shiitakes)
2 cups chicken broth
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 1/8-inch slices peeled fresh ginger
2 tablespoons peanut oil
6 ounces pork butt or shoulder, trimmed, cut into thin, 2-inch-long strips
2 teaspoons Chinese five-spice powder
2 tablespoons rice wine (substitute white wine)
1/2 pound napa cabbage, cored, quartered, and cut crosswise into strips
1 tablespoon low-sodium tamari
1 pound fresh soba noodles
1 small bunch scallions, very thinly sliced on the diagonal (white, pale green and some dark green)
1/2 cup chopped roasted peanuts

  1. Combine shiitake mushrooms in a bowl with 1 cup of hot water to cover and let stand for 15 to 30 minutes, or until soft. Strain, reserving soaking liquid. If mushrooms are whole, remove and discard stems and thinly slice caps.
  2. In a large saucepan, combine reserved soaking liquid, mushrooms, chicken broth, garlic and ginger. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer.
  3. Heat oil in a large, heavy skillet and cook pork until just cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes. Sprinkle with five-spice powder, and stir to coat; cook for 1 minute, stirring. Transfer to a plate and add wine to skillet, stirring up browned bits and spices from the bottom of the skillet.  Add shredded napa and tamari, and cook for 3 minutes, until cabbage is just wilted.
  4. Meanwhile, cook noodles in a large pot of boiling water until tender but firm to bite. Drain and divide between four individual bowls.
  5. To serve, top noodles with napa, dividing evenly between bowls. Divide pork between bowls. Sprinkle with scallions and peanuts, and serve immediately.

Udon Bowl with Spinach and Prawns
Serves 4

A good  udon bowl is all about the presentation. There are a few extra steps involved in preparing vegetables individually, but you’ll think it’s worth it when you see the results. The traditional udon bowl adds a raw egg; use a soft-poached egg in place of the shrimp, for vegetarians.
4 cups chicken stock (substitute vegetable stock)
3 tablespoons mirin
3 garlic cloves, smashed with the flat side of a knife
3 1/8-inch slices ginger
12 large prawns, back vein removed, tails on
1 small red pepper, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise (1/8th inch)
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon black sesame seeds (substitute brown sesame seeds)
1 large carrots, cut into thin (1/8th inch) strips about 3 inches long
4 cups whole spinach leaves, stems removed
2 teaspoons tamari
8 ounces udon noodles
1 scallion, thinly sliced 1/4-inch thick on the diagonal

  1. Combine chicken stock, mirin, garlic and ginger; bring to a high simmer, and simmer, covered, for 5 to 7 minutes, until flavors are infused. Add prawns and cook for 3 to 5 minutes until done. Remove and discard ginger and garlic cloves.
  2. While stock is simmering, bring a large pot of water to a boil and add red pepper; cook for 1 minute, until crisp-tender. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a bowl and sprinkle with toasted sesame oil and sesame seeds. Set aside. Return pot to a boil. Add carrots and cook for 2 minutes, until just crisp-tender; transfer with a slotted spoon to a small plate.
  3. Add spinach to hot water and cook for 1 minute; using a slotted spoon, transfer to a colander and rinse with cold water. Combine spinach in a bowl with tamari, and toss to mix. Return pot to a boil, add the udon noodles and cook until tender but firm to bite. Drain.
  4. To serve, divide noodles between bowls. In one third of the bowl, tuck carrots on a diagonal into noodles, allowing them to extend about an inch above the surface. In another third of the bowl, arrange spinach in a small pile next to carrots. Arrange red pepper strips between carrots and spinach. Arrange 3 prawns in the center of each bowl. Pour broth over bowl, shower with scallions, and serve immediately.

Yakitori Chicken, Mushroom and Spinach Soba Noodle Bowl
Serves 4

Grilling the chicken adds a rich layer of flavor, with no fat and little sodium. Serving the meat still on the skewers adds a festive touch; or for easier eating, take the meat off the skewers, and arrange on each bowl before serving.
12 to 1 pound boneless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces
8 small wooden or bamboo skewers
4 teaspoons low-sodium tamari
4 teaspoons honey
2 tablespoons sesame oil
8 ounces soba noodles
3 bunches scallions, sliced on a strong diagonal into 1-inch segments (white and pale green parts)
3 cups sliced crimini or button mushrooms
2-inch piece fresh ginger, finely minced
3 small garlic cloves, finely minced
4 cups spinach leaves
1 cup chicken stock
1 teaspoon Sriracha or other hot sauce, or to taste
1 to 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
Black sesame seeds for garnish (substitute brown sesame seeds)

  1. Preheat grill to medium high. Thread chicken onto skewers, dividing pieces evenly between skewers. Whisk together 2 teaspoons low-sodium tamari, 2 teaspoons honey and 1 tablespoon sesame oil in a medium bowl. Brush chicken with mixture and season liberally with black pepper. Grill for 5 minutes on each side, or until cooked through. (As an alternative, broil 5 to 6 inches from heat source in the oven, for 5 mintues per side, until done.)
  2. While chicken is cooking, bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook noodles until tender but firm to bite, 5 to 7 minutes.
  3. While the water is coming to a boil, heat remaining sesame oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and cook scallions and mushrooms until tender and lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add ginger and garlic, and cook for 1 minute, stirring. Stack spinach leaves, roll into a tight tube lengthwise, and cut crosswise into thin shreds. Add to pan, along with stock, remaining tamari, remaining honey, Sriracha and toasted sesame oil, and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until spinach is just wilted. Season to taste with black pepper and additional tamari, if needed.
  4. To serve, divide noodles between bowls and pour broth and vegetables over. Place two skewers on each bowl (or remove cooked chicken from skewers, and top each bowl with chicken). Sprinkle with black sesame seeds, and serve immediately.

Rice Noodles and Scallops in Green Curry
Serves 4

This simple but richly flavored curry uses gluten-free rice noodles and substitutes stock for some of the coconut milk, for a substantial savings in fat.
1 14-ounce cans light or regular coconut milk
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon Thai green curry paste
1 1/2 cup low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock
1 small yellow onion, quartered and thinly sliced crosswise
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 5-inch pieces lemongrass bulb
6 1/8-inch slices fresh ginger root
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon fish sauce
1 large red pepper, cored and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 cups snow peas, cut into 1-inch segments on the diagonal
2 small limes, juiced, plus 2 limes cut into wedges for garnish
8 ounces cellophane noodles
2 tablespoons coconut oil
1 1/2 pounds large sea scallops
1/2 cup chopped Thai basil (or substitute sweet basil)
1/2 cup chopped cilantro leaves
1. Heat 4 to 5 tablespoons of coconut milk and green curry paste in a large saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring almost constantly, for 3 to 4 minutes, until coconut milk just starts to separate and curry begins to darken. Add onions and garlic, and cook for 3 minutes, until onion is softened.
2. Whack the lemongrass several times with the flat side of a knife to slightly crush it. Split the lemongrass bulb down the middle and add to the pan with the curry, along with remaining coconut milk, ginger and fish sauce. Bring almost to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 5 minutes, until flavors are infused. Add red pepper and snow peas, and cook for 3 to 4 minutes longer, until vegetables are just tender. Remove and discard lemongrass and ginger slices. Stir in lime juice and rice noodles, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
3. While pepper and snow peas are cooking, heat coconut oil in a large, nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, pat scallops very dry and arrange in skillet in a single layer. Allow to cook, undisturbed for 2 minutes, until a golden-brown crust forms. Turn scallops over and brown opposite side. Transfer to plate, tent with foil to keep warm, and repeat with remaining scallops.
4. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook noodles for 2 minutes, until tender but firm to bite. Drain.
5. To serve, divide noodles between four individual bowls. Pour sauce and vegetables over noodles. Top with scallops, garnish with lime wedges, and serve hot.