Posts Tagged ‘Japanese Cooking’

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December 01, 2015: “Rice Noodle Fish”

December 1, 2015

RNF_Cover_smOne of the joys I have these days is the occasional contact from some of my students from my old job that choose to stay in touch with me. Not only is it a pleasure to see these fine people as they progress through life, but it makes me think that I just may have done a few things right in my old position.

Sometimes it’s fielding Facebook posts from Sarah on her career as one of the finest wedding photographers in New England. Once and a while I’ll get a very entertaining Twitter from Regan’s son, Mason…or perhaps a spirited comment here from her mom. Sweet Emma will chime in on FB, from time-to-time, with news of weird weather patterns, and even weirder wildlife from “the land down-under.” True to form, Isaac may suddenly show up out of nowhere to “kidnap” me to go see a movie, or like his last contact: a phone call to announce the birth of his son!

A couple of weeks ago, Regan sent me a link to an article on okonomiyaki (the comfort food that Yoshio has published a book about, and where this blog gets its name) that she thought I would like…and she hit the proverbial nail on the head! The story was about everything I try to write about in the blog: making good Japanese food in the most authentic way possible, while trying to explore Japanese culture as best a Westerner may. RNF_insert_sm

The story was about a Guatemalan chef who emigrates to Hiroshima to make okonomiyaki…something almost unheard of, as the Japanese can be wary of gaijin (foreigners) and almost never would accept a gaijin cooking what is considered to be Japans’ most hallowed comfort food! The first thing I noticed was the article was very well written: a story/tapestry of  history, Japanese food, travel, cooking techniques, the pursuit of excellence, all wound around a personal story of daring and success! Needless to say, I loved the article, but towards the end of it, I had one of those, “Hey! Wait a minute!” feelings.

Back up to a week and a half before. I’m at my local library, checking out films and asking for help with research on a piece I’m working on. I’m striding to the checkout desk with my usual brisk pace, when a book practically leaps out from the shelf at me!

This has happened a few times in my life, and it always has served me well to follow the instinct: one time, it was a rare book from a former teacher of mine that did the “leaping” and I still cherish that book to this day. So, whenever this happens, I just roll with it.

The leaping book was “Rice Noodle Fish” (Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture) by Matt Goulding. “RNF” is published through Roads and Kingdoms (an independent journal of food, politics, travel, and culture.) The book seems to be strongly attached to Anthony Bourdain, who I gather is some sort of celebrity chef of some sort. I could not be less impressed by this part of it, but if this attachment got the book published… fine, but the writing (and some of the photography) is Matt’s.

My “Waitaminute!” moment was one of perfect synchronicity: Regan’s article to me was from a part of “Rice Noodle Fish” that I hadn’t gotten to read just yet. RNF Food Groups_smWhenever I pick up a new book, I look to the dedication. To my mind this sets the tone of the book, and Matt Goulding has nailed the right tone (and my interest and trust) with his:

“To the shokunin (artisans) of Japan, pursuers of perfection, for showing us the true meaning of devotion.”

With this measure of respect, one can continue, and the rest of the book is just pure fun: it is part travelogue (Matt divides the book into the separate regions of Japan); part etiquette book; and part history book. But the main focus is on the variety of the people and food of Japan. Best of all (for us) Matt’s perspective is from a Westerner, but one who is thoroughly open to Japan’s people and food. Like most of us, Matt freely admits he will never completely understand the myriad of subtleties of Japanese culture, but offers a handful of guidelines, tips, directions, and even some language, to smooth the road for the open adventurer who is looking for a taste of the unfamiliar.

Roads and Kingdoms have made portions of the book available online. It also offers some tips for those traveling to Japan: roadsandkingdoms.com/japan

[Much thanks to the Randall Library of Stow, Ma. for having stocked such wonderful leaping books and for my extension on my loan to complete my article.]

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April 29, 2013: Chilled Tofu

April 29, 2013

Chilled TofuOh, dear…I’m afraid I may lose some of you with this one. [sigh] Well, who must do the hard things? Those who believe they must!

Chilled tofu is probably not your first choice of foods. In fact, drawing from a quick poll of friends and fellow-workers provided info that it was no single persons first choice of foods! But it is (often) MY first choice and I hope to tell you why. I can particularly hear my sister Mary Lou’s voice in my head “TOFU…bleeech!” Well, I will make a deal with Moo and the rest of my readers. Make it through this one, and I promise to concoct one very rich and decadent recipe at some point in the future (…and yes, I will entertain suggestions!)

Ok. So tofu….now wait….giiiiiive it chance!….tofu has a number of things going for it. Shall I list them?

Healthy: Yes, tofu is so healthy, that it has been virtually a cliché connected with health since…well…forever! As tofu has a naturally neutral flavor on its own, we are always tempted to either fry tofu or add gravy (sometimes both) all of which reduce the natural health factor. Instead, I find a light sauce, spices or just tasty veggies add flavor to tofu without adding excess calories. My litmus test for a healthy food is any one that I can eat and immediately go on my 5 mile run. Raw tofu, fresh fruit, and a chilled salad are the only meals I know that I can easily do this.

Variety of Texture: Tofu comes in a many textures to appeal to individual tastes. I prefer a very firm texture, but if you like softer textures, you can go for a silken tofu which is very much like custard in texture. Every texture between firm and silken exists.

Speed of Preparation: Preparing raw tofu is a quick two-step process: wash tofu and put under a press for about 10 minutes to remove excess water. The only added time is limited only by the time needed to prepare the food served with the tofu.

Decorative: Raw tofu adds a white base that combines well with other bold colors to make a simple, but attractive hors d’oeuvre.

Versatility of Tastes: As tofu takes on the tastes of any food it is served with, that means you have practically an infinite variety of taste combinations.

I can hardly consider the meal I made above to be a “recipe” per se, it was so simple. I cleaned and pressed tofu and cut fairly large pieces. I grated a carrot, chopped a spring onion, and grated a small piece of ginger. The sauce is half a commercial “spicy, brown, bean sauce” and half shoyu. As I mentioned, the variety of things you may add is limitless. My other favorites: toasted sesame seeds; thinly sliced nori; steamed, drained, cold spinach; grated daikon; and hot sauce.

I believe the reason many people hate tofu is because they have never had a good brand. Sadly, the stuff they sell in super markets are the worst examples. The best you will find is the home-made kind found in a Chinatown kind of market. The next best you can buy is at a health-food store.

Chilled tofu is wonderful on a hot Summer day, delicious with green tea, beer, or sake.

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April 08, 2013: Kabocha Soup

April 8, 2013

Kabocha SoupFor sure, I am not sorry to see Winter on its way out, but I shall miss some of the good soups of the season. Before it got too warm, I thought I would take a crack at a Japanese Winter-ish soup made from kabocha squash.

Kabocha looks a little like a small flattened green pumpkin, and can be found in the produce department of most grocery stores, owing to it growing well in Mexico. It tastes much like acorn squash (which can be substituted, if you cannot find kabocha.)

How this squash migrated to Japan is a story: squash came from the New World and was brought to Europe by the Spanish. The Portuguese  brought seeds when they went to the East and grew it in Cambodia, and from there, they introduced it to the Japanese. Through a miscommunication, when the Japanese asked the Portuguese the name of the vegetable they were told the country’s name “Kampuchea” (what Cambodians called their country.) From that word, the Japanese got it “kabocha.”

Kabocha Soup
Take two medium kabocha squash (about 4lbs.) and soak in H2O and scrub skin. Remove skin and save. Cut each squash into quarters, de-seed and de-pulp. Cut into 1″ pieces and soak in clean, cold H2O. Wash, skin (save skins) and chop 2 medium carrots and section into 1″ pieces and add to H2O. Similarly, wash, skin and chop into 1″pieces, two medium potatoes and add to H2O.

Add all veggie peelings to a large pot with a little oil, salt and pepper, and over medium heat cook the veggies for a couple of minutes. Add enough H2O to cover veggies and  bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the veggies are soft (about 1/2 hour.) Strain. This is the stock for your soup (makes about 2-3 quarts.)

Strain 1″ cubes of veggies and in a little oil fry 1 chopped medium onion and then add strained veggies. Cook over medium heat while turning for about 10 minutes, add broth, salt and pepper, a sprinkle of cinnamon and dash of nutmeg, 2 bay leaves, and 2,  4″ pieces of kombu. Bring to boil, reduce heat, simmer until all veggies are soft. Remove bay and kombu (all green veggies are removed.) Blend well with an immersion blender until smooth. Add 2C. heavy cream and 2 Tblsp. white miso. Serve soup topped with the chopped green part of spring onions.

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March 20, 2013: Cucumber-Bean Sprout Salad

March 20, 2013

Cuke-Bean Sprout SaladHaving Summer vegetables available year-round allows the delicious taste of this Japanese Summer salad just when we need it the most! Cucumber-Bean Sprout Salad combines crisp  veggies with the nutty taste of sesame and a light dressing of shoyu and rice vinegar.

In a wok, over medium-high heat, add 1 Tblsp. sesame oil and 2C. bean sprouts. Turning often, fry the bean sprouts until they start to crisp. Remove from heat. Sprinkle with a dash of 5-spice powder, stir and chill. Take a medium cucumber, wash, slice in half (length-wise) and de-seed. Scrape the skin with the tines of a fork, slice thin (1/4″) and soak in salted H2O for 20 minutes (this will remove some bitterness of the cucumbers.) Drain well and chill. Assemble the cucumbers on each plate and top with bean sprouts. Add a small of equal amounts of shoyu and rice vinegar to salad and sprinkle with toasted white sesame seeds.

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February 22, 2013: Complex-Simplicity of Soba

February 22, 2013

Simply Soba

The dichotomy of Japanese cooking is that although it can be prepared in elaborate and exciting ways, the basic ingredients are usually very simple. The ingredients for zaru soba (cold soba noodles) have such a simplicity. The dish seemed so plain, in fact, that I was beginning to wonder if I had got it right. As always when doing a new recipe,  I consult three different sources to assure that I am on track. Yes, zaru soba is indeed this simple, and it is that simplicity of each ingredient that combines for a surprising complexity.

[My addition to this classic Japanese dish is my vegetarian dashi, which if you are used to the classic dashi may be too mild for you. I omit the bonito flakes which make it too “fishy” for my taste. I find the more mellow “ocean” taste of the wakame and shiitake mushroom to be just right.]

Vegetarian Dashi: Bring 1 Qt. H2O +2 Tblsp. sal de mer to a boil. As it approaches boiling add 4 medium-sized dried shiitake mushroom, 2 pieces of 6″ kombu; 1, 6″ piece of each wakame and smoked dusle. When the H2O comes to boil, remove mushrooms and cut in quarters. Return to stock. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 1/2 hour. Strain veggies from stock and return to medium heat. Add 2 Tblsp. each mirin and shoyu. Leave cover off and reduce until 1/3rd stock is gone.

Take 1 bundle (100g.) of soba noodles and add to 1.5 Qt. boiling, lightly salted H2O, stirring occasionally, for about five minutes. Soba should be firm, but tender. Immediately drain, immerse in cold H2O. Do this twice, to arrest cooking. Leave to drain. 1 bundle of soba will make a good side dish for two people or as a main for one.

Toast 1/2 sheet nori, and crumble (or cut into strips for a more decorative look.) Slice two scallions thin and add to dashi. Top soba noodles with the toasted nori, and dip into the dashi with a small dab of wasabi paste added. [If you are not used to wasabi, try a little to start. You can always add more.]

This dish combines the a tender buckwheat noodle with the crunch of the toasted nori, and the mellow dashi with a slight sharpness of the wasabi to exemplify my seemingly contradictory catch-phrase for Japanese foods and culture: “A complex-simplicity.”

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January 13, 2013: Pickled Cabbage

January 13, 2013

Pickled CabbageHere is a Japanese staple for many meals: pickled cabbage. Fresh, bright, simple, easy to make, healthy, and versatile, this delicious side complements most Japanese foods. Known as tsukemono in Japan, pickled cabbage is such a universal dish there, that it is sometimes served with breakfast! For a quick lunch, white rice, a side of fish, and pickled cabbage is a perfect light meal.

Pickled Cabbage
First make brine: add 1 Tsp. sal de mer to every 1C. H2O and bring to boil, then cool. 12-16 cups of brine should be enough for one head cabbage.

Take a small head of Chinese Cabbage (about 1 pound) wash and cut widthwise every inch. Bring to boil about 4 Qts. salted H2O. Add cabbage, thicker pieces first, and cook cabbage for no more than 2 minutes. Immediately drain and immerse cabbage in ice water.  In a large pot, add cabbage and enough cooled brine to cover cabbage. Cover with a plate and weight the plate with something heavy (I used a smaller pot filled with water.) Place 2 small pieces (4″x2″) of kombu (a Japanese seaweed) in the pot. Cover with a towel or plastic wrap. Store in a cool place for at least three hours. [The pressure and salt will remove bitterness from the cabbage.] Drain brine from cabbage and rinse. Drain cabbage well. Add 2 Tblsp. each lemon juice and rice vinegar and 1 Tblsp. mirin. Cool. Pickled cabbage should last for a week in the fridge.

Cabbage can be fine on its own. For variety add, shredded carrots, daikon (a Japanese radish) or chili peppers chopped fine (I added 2 chilis-seeds removed, about 4 Tblsps., to mine.) Top cabbage with shoyu, toasted sesame seeds, or toasted wakame.

I was very pleased with the final taste, but luckily, Teja was by and it was very good to get his opinion as to how “correct” my pickled cabbage was. He said I had made it a bit more hot than the cabbage he had in Japan, making it closer to the Korean kim chee, so a little less of the pepper would make it more authenticHe also said it could use a bit more sweetness, so maybe a dash more mirin could make it better. He also said cabbage is never served by itself in Japan…always with fish, rice, and usually something sour like umeboshi (pickled plum.)

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December 05, 2012: “Jiro…” Revisited

December 5, 2012

jiro-banner_typeBack in April, I mentioned a movie that had just come out that I thought readers should be aware of: “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” Going to movies (and other luxuries) have not been part of my life plan for a while now, due to a very limited budget, but I was very much wanting to see this. Luckily for me, the best little library in the world, the Hudson Public Library, generously lobbed a lazy pop-fly to my part of the field, and “Jiro…” landed right in my glove!

I want to re-emphasize a thought I had when I first heard of “Jiro…” I thought it would be a great date for people to see the movie and go out for sushi after. Having seen the film, I can tell you that if you at all open to sushi, you will not be able to see the film without craving sushi…so fair warning. I was immune, as a vegetarian the only pieces that are made in the film I would be able to eat are the tamago (egg) and gourd ones. I would normally prefer other veggie sushi varieties, so I was free to scrutinize the techniques of not only the film, but the food artists portrayed in the film.

Jiro Ono is rare is in many ways, but the most unusual (at least to the Western mind) is his complete and utter devotion to the one craft of making the best sushi in the world. To all accounts (having  been awarded three Michelin stars…the highest honor afforded any chef) he has already achieved that goal, but having perfecting his craft for almost 80 years, Jiro is far from done. As the title suggests, sushi-making invades Jiro’s dreams at night, informing his artist’s mind on ideas that could improve, still, his craft.

Jiro has had a fairly tough life. He was practically on his own at age seven, when he started his apprenticeship in sushi-making. It takes ten years to be labeled as a bona-fide shokunin (sushi master.) That’s essentially a doctorate of sushi! Eventually, Jiro purchased his own sushi restaurant, the same one he has today, that is located in a Tokyo subway station and has only ten seats for diners! Needless to say, his restaurant is sometimes booked months in advance from people from all over the globe, some who travel all the way to Japan just for Jiro’s sushi!

“The reward is the craft,” says Jiro. Clearly, this kind of dedication is not solely about money. It is this very human quest to be the best at what you do, with absolutely no compromises, that I found the most inspirational about Jiro’s story. I’ve known individuals who have a great deal of this desire, and I certainly have it in myself, but I know of no one who has literally dedicated their entire life to one goal (‘tho Yoshio comes very, very close, but he is 20 years younger than Jiro.)

I was surprised that Jiro was not the only master portrayed in the film. It also looks into the lives of his two sons, both, in their own ways following in their father’s footsteps and the film addresses how being the son of a master affects them. The film also interviews a fish-master and a rice-master and all three masters point out the balance of fish and rice qualities that are needed to achieve unami or “perfect experience” when sushi is prepared just right.

I learned a number of things about sushi preparation that I didn’t know: that rice must be body temperature; that the fatty tuna the West values so much are considered “too strong” for the Japanese palate; that the quality and temperature of the rice cannot be understated, as rice is the foundation for sushi. At the beginning of the film, I noticed that the chefs were painting a liquid on the sushi and I was very curious to what it might be. At first, I thought it was a glaze of sorts, but later it was explained that the chefs apply the correct amount of shoyu to each piece of sushi, not allowing the diners to smother shoyu on pieces like they do in the West!

Jiro’s tenets of every great chef are worth noting:
1. They must take their work seriously.
2. They must consistently perform at their highest level.
3. They must aspire to improve their skill.
4. Cleanliness is tantamount.
5. They must have both impatience and stubbornness at having their own way.
6. Passion for their craft is essential.

The film-making of “Jiro…” is interesting as well. Director David Gelb was allowed much more access to not only locations, but also ideas, by virtue of  his foreigner status. He was also given the Japanese politeness of “extras” not staring at the camera. His ability to get such good photography in really tight places was very impressive. If you are interested in Japanese culture and an East-meets-West comparison, it is well worth seeing the film a second time with the director’s commentary.

Although there are many good quotes from all the masters portrayed in “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” the one that sticks with me, and that I think defines every artist’s pain is from the fish-master,

“Just when you think you know it all, you realize that you are just fooling yourself…then you get depressed.”

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