Sunday, June 29, 2008

Nikko and Shojin Ryori

After an incredibly busy few weeks at work, it was a relief to get some time off, and take our first trip out of the city since the fall. We took a train to Nikko, a world heritage site and national park, home of the Toshogu Shrine.

The town is beautiful, and at this time of year, incredibly quiet. Although the mountains were shrouded in mist and low clouds during our stay, the cedar trees that peeked out from time to time were a breathtaking enough sight. We stayed at the Nikko Park Lodge, a cosy and relaxed hostel with a selection of Spanish red wine and a huge music DVD collection - it was like visiting my parents! The cook at work in the kitchen, Nagisa, was clearly proud of the food in the hostel, and justifiably so. Hostel food doesn't have to be great as guests usually don't have much choice, and especially considering most of the sleepy town shuts down permanently at 8pm. The Lodge, however, along with offering some vegetarian a la carte dishes, and sturdy breakfasts perfect for trekking through the shrines and other sites, offers a vegan set menu styled on the traditional vegetarian cuisine of Buddhist monks, shojin ryori.

The set included an individual pot for each diner, filled with shiitake, enoki, maitake, and bunashimeji mushrooms. The mushrooms simmered over a flame in a light broth, along with some yuba, a specialty of Nikko. Yuba is the skin that forms on soy milk, as it is curdled to make tofu. It doesn't sound particularly appetizing to the western palate, but Peter pronounced it delicious, likening it a sweet-tasting cheese curd. My mission to convert Peter to a tofu lover continues apace. He had been quite hesitant about the idea of a vegan dinner, but the large pot of mushrooms won him over almost immediately, and he happily addressed the rest of the meal, which included a tofu "steak"; a slice of firm tofu that had been fried in a soy-ginger glaze; a pot of vegetable miso soup, with carrots and sato imo - a sort of hard-to-describe wild potato with a silky soft texture and potato-y taste; and a large tub of mixed-grain rice.

The whole meal was presented beautifully, in typical Japanese style, and I could barely push myself away from the table at the end of it, I was so full. It was a real treat to try this sort of cuisine, and I look forward to sampling more of it in the future.

There was so much to see in Nikko - we spent two days chasing waterfall views, racing the clouds for visibility- and between the shrines and the natural beauty of the mountains, we kept busy. We dodged school trip delegations from site to site, and, it seemed, had the whole place to ourselves at times. We met our friends, Niamh and Avinder, on the second night and had dinner at the popular Hippari Dako yakitori shop, which has a large international following by the looks of the business cards on the walls. Impassioned testimonials from past visitors thanking the proprietress for her vegetarian offerings gave a clue to the reasons for her popularity amongst the young Eurpoean set; and frankly I have to give her snaps for making them available - who goes to a yakitoriya looking for a vegetarian meal? Not that vegetables aren't usually available, but...her flexibility does her credit, I guess, and probably makes it a lot easier to stay open during the low season. That aside, her tsukune (chicken meatballs) and hot sake were just the thing after a cold, wet day in the rain, staring at misty voids where waterfalls should be. It doesn't get much more zen than that.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Taco Rice

The first time I came across kits for this dish, I was intrigued. Tacos...and....rice? Together? Genius.

Of course, I'm talking white rice here, Japanese style, short grain rice. And taco mix. Like, Old El Paso taco mix. This is Japanese food? Well, technically, it's Okinawan food, and it's clear to see why everyone lives so long on that island, which such lovely food to eat all the time. Wikipedia has some things to say about the provenance of this dish, and it should come as no surprise to anyone who has lived in Northeast Asia that the American military had an influence in its creation. (Remind me to tell you about budaechigae some time.)

It's a pretty simple dish to make yourself: get an Old El Paso taco mix pack, and cook up some ground beef following the instructions there. Or, if you're like me and can't afford the 700 yen/pack, you buy come cumin, chili powder, and a bag of corn chips and make do. I fry about 250g of ground beef with a tablespoon each of cumin and chili powder, plus a crushed garlic clove and salt and pepper. I layer this, salsa, shredded (iceberg, of course) lettuce, and grated cheese all over a plate of cooked rice. Then, I daringly sprinkle crushed corn chips around the perimeter to finish it off.

To gild the lily: if you're super lucky like me, and your clever husband has brought home a bag of overripe avocados that he got for the ridiculously low price of 150 yen, you make some guacamole, too. My guacamole was a bit of a legend in Incheon, South Korea, where it was possible that I was the lone person in a city of 3 million people who knew how to make it. Well, Jo liked it, anyway. My guac is super easy to make - I squash as many avocados as I can afford, with copious salt, lime juice, a bit of crushed garlic, diced red onion, and a pinch of cumin. I have no idea how authentic that is (probably wildly in-, I expect), but since it's unlikely I'll ever serve it to someone who actually does know what it's supposed to taste like, I serve it with confidence.

I made a double portion of everything, and had enough for bentos the next day.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Stuffed Zucchini on a Japanese Gas Range

Peter came home on the weekend with a big bag full of zucchinis and cucumbers that he got a Ofuna market. Yes, it's that time of year again - time to wonder what the @&*% to do with all the zucchini.

In my opinion, it's best to deal with them when they're small, otherwise they breed exponentially, and you find yourself in a weeping pile in the middle of the kitchen, having made zucchini bread, zucchini muffins, zucchini stir-fry; zucchini pickle and having grated zucchini into spaghetti sauce, oatmeal, and finally, in a desperate bid to finish it off, directly into the toilet. It rather reminds me of the time I bought the biggest daikon I could find, and was still making things out of it a week later.

I have no idea what the Japanese do with zucchinis, so I thought back to how I like to eat zucchinis in Canada. All I could remember was roast zucchini, which seemed hard to manage in my oven-less kitchen. One reason why I started learning to cook Japanese dishes was that I'm limited by my gas range - it seems most of the dishes I grew up on rely on having an oven to bake or roast ingredients. (This usually takes longer, but does leave the cook free to wander off and put the wash on or play a short round of Mario Party. ) One dish I really loved in Canada was stuffed eggplant, in which big eggplants are stuffed with ground chicken, breadcrumbs, and herbs, and topped with cheese and grilled in the oven. I though with a little re-engineering, I could make this with zucchini on a gas range. Thus, I give you Erin's Stuffed Zucchini (on a gas range)

Step 1: Sternly deal with Zucchinis

There is always too much zucchini. It's a fact of life. Although Peter brought home only four small zucchinis, I knew it would be too many. I set two aside to be cut up and frozen. The remaining two were lumpy and bumpy and irregularly shaped, like most natural things, so I cut them down to smallish boat-like shapes. The long skinny top bits I sliced thinly and set aside for a side dish for the next day. Then, addressing the boats, I hollowed them out with a knife and spoon, and finely chopped the scooped-out guts. I put them into a bowl to form part of the stuffing. In a pan, I heated some olive oil, maybe a tablespoon or so, and salted and peppered the boats. When the oil was hot, I lay the boats in the pan, hollow-side down, covered them up, and put the heat to medium low.

Step 2: Stuffing Logs

While the boats sizzled, I added about 200 g of ground chicken to the boat-guts (sorry, but boat is so much easier to type than zucchini), along with two tablespoons of breadcrumbs (panko for me, but any kind would do), a crushed clove of garlic, some fresh thyme I had off my thyme plant, and generous salt and pepper. I squashed this all around until it was evenly mixed. At this point, I checked on the boats, and flipped them. They were nicely browned on one side. Going back to the stuffing, I formed it into four flattish sausages, and set them aside. A few minutes later, the boats were nicely limp, so I took them out of the pan, and added the sausages. I pan fried them for about five minutes on each side, until they were cooked through. Then I plopped them into the boat hollows, judging to see which hollow matched which sausage best. Then I transferred the lot of them to my fish grill.

Step 3: Up in My Grill

When the stuffed boats were together, I put them onto my fish grill, and topped them with grated cheese. I had white cheddar, but parmesan or gruyere would be grand as well. Even regular 7/11 pizza cheese would do in a pinch. Then I fired them under the grill for about 5 minutes (while I queued up the next episode of Lost on my computer), and served them up for dinner with some crusty bread. This makes a very light dinner, so I recommend some sort of side - salad, baked potatoes, you like.

As for the rest of the zucchini, since my pan was already dirty, and I had already sliced them up, I popped the slices into the frying pan with some sesame oil, salt, and Korean chili powder. One strategy I try to employ to cut down on my time in the kitchen is to always try to think of two dishes I can make out of one prep session. Prep once; eat twice, and all of that. When they were limp, I put them into a plastic container for the next day's dinner.

Two zucchinis down; two to go.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Eggplant, Aubergine, Ca Tim, Nasu....

I love eggplants so much, I know how to ask for them in four languages. One of my great theories of language acquisition is that you only ever bother to learn how to say the things you're really, really motivated to get. That's why I can order in flawless Japanese at the Starbucks, but any other situation leaves me hopelessly frozen. My friend Evan is an example of the flip-side of this rule - he knows how to make requests for things he really, really wants to avoid, and thus knows how to say "no onions" four different ways in Korean, which I think is a bit of a life accomplishment.

I love eggplants cooked almost all ways, but one of my favourite uses for eggplant is baba ghanouj. I could eat whole tubs of the stuff back in Canada where it was dangerously located in the dip aisle of most major grocery stores.

Now, I probably wouldn't have developed such a keen interest in cooking if I hadn't shipped myself halfway across the earth, away from everything I had grown up with, and away from the convenience foods available in the average North American supermarket.
Suddenly, our first Christmas in Korea, we realized that eggnog would be completely unavailable to us. Eggnog! The bright red 1 litre cartons, appearing on shelves around November first, were a seasonal harbinger, getting us through November with hints of nutmeg and custard and the holiday festivities to come. What would we do without eggnog? Christmas simply wouldn't be Christmas without it.

Somewhere in the back of my mind niggled a thought. Was it make eggnog? Like, from scratch? Surely eggnog must predate milk in cartons? A quick Google search netted me this recipe, which seemed to involve an impossible amount of alcohol, making it just the thing for our first Christmas away from home. I make it every year now, at Christmas, and occasionally baffle and amaze other Canadians that it can be made from scratch. (People from other countries are usually baffled and amazed at its utter existence - who drinks raw eggs and milk for fun?)

Where am I going with this, you ask? Well, eventually it occurred to me that you could make, like, from scratch, all sorts of things that I used to buy already made from grocery stores. Like salad dressing, eggnog, guacamole, chip dip, mayonnaise, and...baba ghanouj.

There are lots of recipes on the net, but I rarely bother following one. I roast some Japanese eggplants - I usually char about 5 of them under my fish grill until the skins blister. Then I let them cool, and squash them up. Next I add a judicious squeeze of lemon juice, a glug of olive oil, salt and fresh crushed garlic to taste. If I have some on hand, I add about two tsp of sesame paste, but if I don't have it, I don't sweat it. Spread on bread, it's heavenly. I mentioned this method to some of my Japanese co-workers and they were intrigued. The next time I have some eggplants kicking around, I'm going to make some and bring it in for them, and see how they like it. Maybe I can start a baba ghanouj craze and eventually be able to buy it in the grocery store again!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Asparagus Green Bean Kinpira

Yet another Harumi creation!

Actually, this sort of recipe is pretty flexible once you know the method. A kinpira is a mix of vegetables sliced thinly, and pan fried with a bit of oil, seasonings, and chili powder for a kick.

Anything can be kinpira-ed I guess, but a traditional kinpira uses burdock root, carrot, or sometimes vegetable peels, like daikon or broccoli peel. I posted about making a more traditional kinpira a while back, but now that summer's hit, and I have a wide variety of vegetables to cook from, I'll be kinpira-ing more creatively.

It seems like every neighborhood in suburban Japan has a little unmanned farmstand where the community garden's bounty is stacked every day. It runs on the honour system, and bags of whatever's fresh are left out next to a locked coin box. Take what you like, and leave 100 yen or so. The other evening, bags of runner beans were left on ours, so I picked them up to go with the asparagus Peter had brought back from Ofuna market.

Harumi seems to enjoy fusing western and Japanese ingredients, so her kinpira recipe calls for olive oil and soy sauce as the seasoning. First, you blanch 250 g asparagus and 200 g green beans. Drain them, and heat some olive oil in a large fry pan, maybe two tbsp or so. Lightly fry the drained vegetables, adding 3 tbsp of good quality soy sauce. Harumi calls for a sliced fresh red chili to be added, but darned if I know where she's buying fresh red chilis in Japan, I've never seen them anywhere, even at the posh department stores in Tokyo. I added a tsp of gochugaru (Korean chili powder) since I had it on hand.

This is great served hot or cold, as a salad.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Somen Salad

Sorry I haven't posted in a week, all, it's been a crazy week for me! Back to our regularly scheduled programming.

I wanted to try a few more recipes from Harumi Kurihara's Japanese Cooking, and "Somen Salad" was next on my list.

Somen is a type of thin wheat noodle, usually served cold in the summer. This is a decidedly non-traditional Japanese recipe, though, as it calls for canned tuna and mayonnaise. It takes only a few minutes to make up, and is a great twist on cold pasta salad.

The recipe calls for 100g of dry somen (they come helpfully bundled in 100g bunches in Japan - a bunch of this size likely to be about as thick as your two thumbs together). If you don't have somen handy, angel-hair pasta would make a good substitute. Cook it as you would regular pasta, until it's al dente, then drain and rinse in cold water.

While the pasta is cooking, thinly slice some cucumbers. If you're cooking along in Canada, an English cucumber is your best bet. Japanese cucumbers are thinner and smaller than most cucumbers you'll see there. A lovely tip I learned from my Japanese teacher is that you can lessen the bitterness of cucumber peel by rubbing the outside briefly with a bit of salt, and then rinsing it. I've seen this tip repeated in almost every Japanese cookbook I've read, so this must be as common here as peeling cucumbers is in Canada. You want about a half a smallish English cucumber, sliced thinly and cut into half-moons. If you like a crunchier cucumber, salt the slices with a tsp of salt, and set them aside to drain for five minutes or so. When they've shriveled a bit, rinse them, and squeeze out the extra water.

The recipe also calls for 50 g of thinly sliced onion. If you have red onion hanging around, this would be great. I didn't, so I used another tip from the book, and soaked my onion in cold water for 10 minutes to remove the sharpness. It worked really well - I'd never heard that tip before! Cool beans.

Add everything together in a mixing bowl, along with about half a tin of drained tuna, 4 tbsp of mayonnaise (Kewpie brand , if you can get it - once you go Kewpie, you can never go back), and some freshly ground black pepper. Toss, and chill.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Green Beans, a couple of ways.

People who know me well know I'm hardly a vegetarian, but lately I've been taking a hard look at the way I've been eating and I've concluded that in the case of meat, less is more. First; it's expensive, and grad school's not going to pay for itself. Reducing the amount of meat I have to buy is just another way for me to save up. Second; I've been on a bit of a green kick, considering my country is melting at the top. That sort of thing worries me, and the raising of livestock for consumption is a major contributor to greenhouse gases. So I can add meat-reduction to my list of life changes, along with switching to a bicycle; taking public transit; and using reusable containers for my meals. I'm lucky to currently live in a country that makes these lifestyle changes a bit easier.

The New York Times has a great article on ways to help reduce meat consumption. Number four on its list of ways to eat less meat is, "Buy More Vegetables and Learn How To Cook them". One of the things I've enjoyed about learning to cook in Japan is how vegetables are treated as dishes unto themselves, and not merely something to be boiled and added to the plate at the last minute. (Although, to be fair, as I can hear my mother screaming at the computer in Canada, when I was growing up, especially in the summer, there were always at least two or three side salads on the table; and we always had home-made pickles in the winter.)

Last month, I posted on the sorts of side dishes I make weekly. Because we eat bento boxes for lunch, and a fairly light dinner late at night, it really helps for me to have several salads and cold cooked vegetables in the fridge, ready to go with a bit of rice and some sort of soup or light meat dish. Peter and I now routinely split one chicken breast or thigh between us, and I can stretch 250 g of beef or pork into dinner and lunch for two, just by making sure there are lots of different kinds of veggie dishes on the side. Of course, it helps that in Japan, it already comes incredibly thinly sliced. Another trick I use is to use meat as a sort of condiment - like adding a bit of bacon or ground meat as a topping. People who don't like vegetables, in my opinion, just haven't been adding enough fat and carbs to them!

All of this is an incredibly long justification for a couple of recipes that are so delicious, they really need no justification at all. Both of them feature green beans, which I hated for so long, mainly associating them with the frozen stubby cut ones that so many people in Canada grew up on. Fresh green beans are expensive (anywhere) most of the time, but they seem to be coming into season here in Japan, so I'll be snapping them up while I can. If you have fresh green beans, by all means, use them, but I think frozen whole beans will work just as well.

The first recipe, I invented on the fly while living in Hanoi - although I'm sure similar printed ones exist somewhere. Our local street vegetable lady had a pile of fresh snake beans one day, and knowing how Peter loves them, I picked them up. I cut them into short lengths, and dressed them up. Apologies, as I'm not a professional recipe writer, but this is how it goes...

Take a largeish bunch of green beans - enough to feed two people. Blanch them in boiling water, and then shock them in cold water to help the green colour set. Drain, and put them aside to cool. While they're cooling, in a frypan, fry one or two slices of bacon, cut into thin strips. The better quality the bacon, well...the better. If you're going to eat less meat, you had might as well make it good meat. Once it has rendered a bit of fat, add a crushed clove of garlic, and a healthy pinch of salt and fresh-ground pepper. Stir it around a bit, and add good sherry vinegar, dijon mustard, and sugar to the pan, using the vinegar to pick up any of the bacon that has stuck to the pan. You want to add them in a 1 tbsp:1tsp:1tsp ratio, depending on how many beans you've decided to cook - I usually multiply it by the number of people who will be served. Then, when the sugar has dissolved and the vinegar is frothing, add a very healthy glug of olive oil to the pan. Take the pan off the heat, and toss the green beans. If you want to make a very simple lunch out of this, serve it with some french bread and shavings of parmesan; you won't be disappointed. This keeps in the fridge for a day or so, but it never lasts very long in mine. The green colour will fade somewhat in the dressing, so if you want the bright green look, make it the day you want to serve.

The second recipe I found over at - Just Bento! - for green beans with carrot and ginger.
I'm always happy with the recipes there, and this one was no exception. The green beans are blanched and chilled, just like in the first recipe, but then are dressed with a quarter carrot, julienned and lightly simmered with ginger, mirin, and soy sauce. She's a much better recipe writer than I am, so I'll let you follow her clear directions through the link. A note on mirin if you're following in Canada - mirin is sweet cooking wine, and is an integral ingredient in Japanese cooking. I couldn't imagine my kitchen without it now. It should be available in any Asian food market, or even major supermarkets in bigger cities. If you don't have access to it, you can use honey thinned with water, or just flavour with a smaller portion if sugar. Mirin adds a hint of sweetness that balances out the saltiness of soy sauce.

Just Bento also has a recipe for Asparagus in Spicy Miso Sauce, which you can also see pictured in the back at the top of this post. It calls for both miso and gochujang, ingredients that not many of you probably have at home. If you do, however, I can strongly recommend it - and much easier to make than a hollandaise sauce!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Kimchi Bokkumbap

Kimchi and pork together are one of life's great flavour marriages. There's nothing more delicious, especially after a long day of hiking, than a big plate of Dubu Kimchi (tofu topped with sauteed pork and kimchi). Except possibly a slab of samgyeobsal (pork belly) grilling on a slanted plate with the kimchi cooking in the pooled pork fat below.

I didn't have the time or inclination to make either of those dishes this weekend, so I had to settle for my runner-up favourite - kimchi fried rice. A staple of lunch restaurants and food courts in Korea, it's traditionally made with Spam; I prefer to use bacon. It's great for using leftover bits of rice in the fridge, which is what I did at the end of this week when I was cobbling together the scraps of the fridge to fill in our bento boxes. A warning - if you've never tried kimchi before, the smell is powerful. I apologized profusely for the smell to my co-worker, but as a kimchi fan, she said it only made her hungry.

The method is simple; in a hot pan, saute around a 1/3 cup sliced kimchi in sesame oil. When it begins to lose a bit of its violent red colour, and becomes a little limp, add a few strips of thinly sliced bacon. Continue sauteeing on low heat until the bacon is browned, then add a cup or so of cooked rice. Conventional wisdom requires the rice to be cold for good frying results, but to be honest, I find short grain koshihikari rice sticks in hard clumps when it's cold, and is almost impossible to break up in the pan. If my rice is cold, I blast it in the microwave first. Continue frying until the rice has soaked up all the kimchi juice and bacon fat it can, and then remove to a hot plate. In Korea, it's often served sizzling on a hot cast-iron plate. I like to garnish it with some toasted sesame seeds and strips of nori when I can. The gilding on the lily is to add a fried egg to the top - if the yolk is still runny, you can let it ooze over the rice as a decadent sauce.

Tomato Mushroom Rice

In the spirit of challenging myself, I bought a Japanese-language cookbook of bento recipes from the fabulous Kinokuniya at Times Square Shinjuku. Since it has lots of helpful photos, I've been able to infer and guesstimate a lot of the kanji I don't know. My food vocabulary is coming along quite well - too bad I still can't have a decent conversation with anyone! The book itself, as far as I can translate, is called "Two-Okazu Bentos", okazu meaning the bits in the bento that aren't the rice. It has a lot of "yoshoku", or fusion-style recipes in it, and in fact is authored by a Chinese writer (which I figured out later, when I bothered to try and read her name).

Actually, I don't have too much trouble thinking up okazu to put in our lunches, since they're usually just leftovers from dinner. Room-temperature rice, on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired, and I'm always looking for ways to jazz it up. A recipe for tomato mushroom rice caught my eye, so I decided to try it this week, since I knew I'd have some chicken thighs left over from dinner. If you happen to have some rice leftover, this is a great twist on fried rice.

The method is simple. To serve two people, take about 100 g of chicken - dark meat is best, but whatever you have will do. If it's already cooked, great - if not, cube it fairly small, and brown it in a frying pan, with some chopped onion if you like. Use olive oil, or neutral oil - whatever you like. Then add some sliced mushrooms - I used eringi mushrooms (the mushroom with my name!), but the recipe actually calls for button mushrooms. Maybe four of those, as you like. Then when that's nicely brown and cooked, add about 1 1/2 to 2 cups of cooked rice. Mix it around, then add one good-sized diced tomato. Toss it all about, and add generous amounts of salt and freshly ground black pepper. (Actually, I added a chicken bullion cube in lieu of salt, a trick I learned from Harumi - boy does it ever add great flavour! All that MSG, I guess.) You want to cook it down until the water from the tomato has been absorbed. Then, garnish with something green - I used some green onion, but a sprig of rosemary or thyme would be nice as well. Heated up the next day for lunch, it's incredibly simple and good! It was nice at room-temperature , too, so I consider it a bento success.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Passion fruit

One of the things I miss the most about living in Vietnam (aside from the coffee!) is the mind-boggling array of fruits available fresh everyday. The memory of the fruit ladies cycling around our neighbourhood, selling bags of fresh sweet pineapples or mangosteens by the kilo; heaps of brilliant scarlet rambutans looking like little muppet heads for sale by the side of the road - it haunts me while I stare grimly at a pile of dusty-looking apples selling for more than a dollar a piece here in the supermarket in Japan.

My favourite of them all, the bestest of fruit is the passionfruit. (Some people prefer mangoes, but I always feel that if I wanted to eat a pine tree, I'd go back to Canada) I like it in all forms, but the most simple is as a juice. Koto, a great restaurant near the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, sells a fabulous version mixed with ginger and pineapple juice, that is the bees' knees, and I miss it daily.

Peter saw passionfruits at the market in Ofuna the other day, and sweetly brought one home for me. I scraped it out, and mixed it with a little water, a spoon of sugar, and some ice. If it hadn't been before noon, I might have added a slug of gin, which complements the tangy taste well.

Hanoi, I'm counting the days until I return!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Sesame Chicken Bento

I've been cooking enthusiastically from Harumi Kurihara's, "Harumi's Japanese Cooking", which is a super book, and really accessible if you're cooking in North America. A lot of the recipes appeal heavily to Peter, as well - who is a lot less afraid of trying new things these days, but still likes Western-style dishes best.

His favourite recipe is Steamed Chicken Salad with Sesame Sauce, and I have to admit, I think its gorgeous too. It takes only a few minutes to throw together, and uses the microwave, which is great if it's hot outside. I guess it would keep well in the fridge for lunches the next day, but every time I've made it, we're fighting each other for the last bit on the plate. The only way to keep some aside for a bento is to take it out first and hide it away!

Which I did recently, to make this bento for Peter....

I heated the salad up in the microwave to thicken up the sauce, and spread it over plain white rice. Most of the cheap veggies at the market this week were green, so I had to really think about how I would get any decent colour into this box, but I found some takuan hiding at the back of the fridge, and cut out some carrot flowers to go with my snow pea "leaves". I got a happy "good lunch!" text message from Peter later, which is the highest of honours, really.

The salad itself goes like this:

Take a largish boneless chicken thigh, skin on, and poked with a fork. You want about 250 g of meat. You could use BSCB if you like, but...I'm afraid to say I've completely gone off them myself, they're so flavourless. But anyway, use what you have. Put it in a microwave-proof dish with a piece of crushed ginger, S&P, a drizzle of sesame oil, a splash of sake if you have it, and the tops of some green onions. Put the chicken on the bottom of the bowl, and everything else on top. Cover it and nuke it for about 6 minutes, or until it's cooked. Set it aside to cool while you mix up the sauce. Don't drain it!

Okay, the first time I made the sauce, I didn't have any of the sesame paste called for, so I subbed chunky pb, which Peter raved about. But in Japan, chunky pb ain't cheap, nor does it grow on trees, so now I use the sesame paste instead. Which, while still not cheap, is readily available.

So the sauce goes like this: use the liquid from the bowl with the cooling chicken in it (this is why you want to use thighs!), and add 4 tablespoons of sesame paste; 2 tablespoons of soy sauce; 2 tablespoons of sugar; 2 tsp of rice vinegar; 2 tsp of chili paste (I use Korean gochujang since I always have it on hand and it's pretty mild. If you don't want to bring the spicy, add some miso or more sesame paste - but I think it adds something and isn't really that spicy); 2 tablespoons of sesame seeds (I use black ones for the pretty colour); more chopped green onion, and 2 tsp each of chopped ginger and garlic. It sounds complicated, but it's worth it. And if you've made it once, it goes much easier the next time. Mix it all together and throw in the cooled chicken, shredded. Serve it with chunks of cold cucumber, or green salad. Harumi also mentions that it goes nicely with cold noodles. She also swears that it feeds four as an appetizer, but she's never met my husband.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


I love noodles.

Peter likes ramen noodles, but is less keen on soba (buckwheat noodles), so on days when he's not around, I like to indulge.

I had everything on hand for a soba fix thanks to my lovely co-worker Akiko. The other week, when I was dealing with my giant daikon, I made some Korean banchan with part of it. I made so much that I brought some in for one of my students, whose family loves spicy things. She had brought me a whole cabbage a week before, and I wanted to return the favour. Since I was bringing in something for her, I couldn't not bring in some for Akiko, who is quite the chef herself. This week, she brought it some soba and tsuyu she had made herself to say thank-you. (How do you say "gift spiral" in Japanese?)

The soba gets boiled up - well, I couldn't quite read the package instructions, so I just tested every few minutes, and it seemed done after around seven or so minutes. I drained it, and ran it under cold water to cool it off. I didn't need it too cool, since it's been so cold and rainy here lately. You serve the noodles separately, coiled for easy chopstick handling, and dip the noodles briefly into the cold tsuyu, before slurping them up quickly, trying not to get it all over your top, if possible. I garnished mine with some grated daikon and green onion, as per Akiko's suggestion. You can buy bottles of tsuyu in the shop, if you like, but here's Akiko's recipe:

Soba Tsuyu (450cc for 4 people)

100 cc of soy sauce (The good stuff-don't skimp here!)
500 cc of water
30 cc of sugar
30 cc of mirin
5 g of konbu
10 g of katsuo bushi (dried bonito flakes)

Boil for 8 minutes on a low heat without a lid. Oishiiii-so!

I had to run out to the shop briefly to get some toothpaste, and couldn't resist picking up these inari sushi as well - something else Peter doesn't particularly care for, but I love. They're made from tofu skin that has been simmered in soy sauce and mirin, then stuffed with sushi rice. I hear they're pretty delicious home-made, but it's the sort of thing that you have to make a lot of in one go, I think, and then I'd be stuck eating them all myself!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Hijiki and Carrot Salad

Since I had pledged to try a new vegetable each week, to familiarize myself with Japanese produce, I knew eventually I'd want to try some sea vegetables. While wandering through the fish section last week at the supermarket, I found packages of fresh hijiki, and decided to have a go at carrot and hijiki salad. I found the recipe for this in Washoku, and was interested in it, as the author mentions it keeps well for bentos. In fact, she said it would keep happily for 5 days in the refrigerator, which is just the sort of side dish I need when I drag myself out of bed every morning, and start scrounging to fill the lunch boxes. (Although recently, I've taken to diagramming the bento-breakdown on our kitchen whiteboard to help jog my memory for side dishes - some smaller leftovers tend to get lost in the back of our fridge and end up in the garbage on Sunday-purge-the-fridge-day).

I made the salad with julienned carrot and fresh hijiki. The recipe calls for dried, reconstituted hijiki, but I'm not sure if that is because the cookbook assumes that fresh hijiki would likely be unavailable for her readers. It's not really a salad, but more of a braise I suppose, as the carrot and hijiki are simmered in dashi, but it looks like a salad, so that's what I'll call it. The vegetables are sauteed briefly with a bit of oil, then sake is added, and sauteed until it evaporates. Then, after adding about 125 ml of dashi, you cook it covered, on a low heat. You cook it until the liquid is almost gone, then add a tablespoon or so of sugar, plus another 125 ml of dashi. That should
be cooked down again, and finally the soy sauce is added, and cooked for another minute or so. It should then be cooled in the pan with the lid on, to allow the flavours to mingle.

When I made this, I hadn't read that final step, and was a little disappointed with the salad - I thought the carrot and hijiki were too separate - and I thought the hijiki really overwhelmed the whole dish. But when I tried it the next day in my bento, I found that the flavours had settled, and it tasted like more than the sum of its parts. It looked so pretty in the bento as well - the orange and black provided a nice colour contrast with the green bean side dishes I had this week. When I mentioned to some of my co-workers I had made this, they were surprised- I guess it's a pretty old-school Japanese side-dish.

Next week, I want to make a few of the side dishes Maki has featured over on just bento - her spicy miso asparagus looks incredible!