Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Corn Jumble

I'm really on a vegetable kick, aren't I?

Well, it's summer, and I really don't want to waste a bit of it. With Sous-chef Peter bringing home piles of produce every weekend from the market, I'm having fun thinking of new ways to deal with it all. I know it's impossible to think that you could ever get sick of eating fresh, sweet corn on the cob, and I haven't yet. It's hard to resist five ears for 200 yen, but my fridge and bento box are just too small to hold full ears of corn, so as soon as they come in the door on Sunday, I get to work cutting them down into a more manageable size.

Right now, I'm making a sort of corn salsa/pickle out of them, which Canadian Bento christened "corn jumble". It's as good as name as any, and so I present to you: corn jumble.

This travels great as a side dish in a bento, or to the beach like it did this week as a trio of side dishes for a yakitori cookout on Enoshima beach.

I steamed five ears of fresh corn, and diced up half a red onion; a red pepper, and two Japanese cucumbers. I soaked the red pepper in cold water for ten minutes to take away the sharp onion-y taste - I find even red onions in Japan are stronger than I'm used to. I rubbed the cucumbers with salt, to take away any bitter taste in the peel. Since Japanese cucumbers are so small, they don't need seeding - I'd recommend using an English cucumber or a seeding a regular cucumber. You could add black beans to this to make it more substantial, but since I didn't have any hanging around - I didn't. I seasoned this with a half teaspoon of salt and several grinds of fresh pepper, and then made a dressing from 2/3 cup each white sugar dissolved over heat in rice vinegar. When the sugar is dissolved, I pour the dressing over the whole lot of vegetables; cool; and then leave in the fridge for an hour or so until the flavours mingle. Like most things, the longer you leave it; the better it tastes.

I don't recommend trying to eat it with chopsticks like I did, though. Exercise in frustration.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Ginger Eggplants

Eggplant, as you know, is one of my favourite vegetables. I love the way it slumps into velvety softness when you cook it properly. In Vietnam there was a restaurant that made eggplant stir-fried with garlic and honey that was breathtaking in its simplicity. Each piece was infused with garlicky oil, and was meltingly silky. I have always been frustrated in attempts to recreate this texture in my own kitchen, ending up with tough chunks of eggplant that burned in the wok, despite repeated lowering of the temperature, additions of more oil, tears, and desperate entreaties. Roasting an eggplant in an oven for a long time will eventually yield the texture that I'm looking for, but I'm still without an oven.

So when the summer's first eggplants appeared on our local vegetable stand this week, I turned to my copy of "Washoku" for guidance. The author gives several eggplant recipes, taking seasonality to a new level by calling for eggplants from different parts of summer. I chose a recipe for eggplants cooked with ginger, hoping to recapture some of the Hanoi magic.

I wasn't disappointed, as the recipe yielded a pile of sweetly tender eggplants with the exact right balance of sweet heat from the ginger and briny salt from the dashi. I made them one night after work, and left them in the fridge overnight to be served with sold somen noodles for the following evening's dinner. It was a great way to beat the heat.

I cleaned and scored the skins on five small Japanese eggplants. I'm sure you could use the fatter, bigger eggplants, if they were cut down into sixths. Then, I heated a teaspoon of oil in a frypan. I seared them, skin side down, for about a minute; then flipped them, and added 1 tsp of sake, 1/3 cup of dashi (made from a powdered mix), 1 tsp of sugar, and the peels from an inch stub of peeled ginger. I then covered and cooked them for another three minutes, until the sauce had reduced by half. After picking out the ginger peels, I thinly diced my peeled ginger and added that. The recipe actually calls for grated ginger juice, but since I keep forgetting to pick up a ginger grater every time I'm at the dollar store, I just chopped it up finely. I also added a small slosh of soy sauce and mirin, just to adjust the taste. According to the recipe, it's important to let the eggplants cool in the pan; covered; to allow the flavours to mingle and concentrate. Like everything I make from this book, they turned out perfectly. They can be garnished with white poppy seeds for contrast, but since my ginger chunks were still visible, I thought they provided colour contrast enough.

They had exactly the right texture; soft and yielding to the touch, and I was thrilled to have reached this texture without ridiculous amounts of oil. I'd like to try a Mediterranean spin on this dish using garlic and oregano as seasonings and chicken stock as the braising liquid. The daily piles of eggplants at the mujin show no time of stopping soon, so I'll have lots of raw materials on which to experiment.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Galbi Salad

One of our favourite things to do when it was hot in Korea was to hit up an outdoor galbi (grilled meat) place - the best of which were to be found on the infamous "meat street" in Ilsan, where my friends Dave and Jo live.

Meat street is, in the words of my friend Aaron - "like RibFest all the time" - translated it means that if what you want to eat is meat; meat street is the place you must go. Near to the outdoor shopping plaza called La Festa, this street is lined up and down with barbecue houses selling various pieces of pork and beef, to be grilled up by you and your friends, seated around a metal table with a hot grill in the middle. The best places use real charcoal in their grills, and offer a wide variety of panchan to go along with the meat. At the end of the meal, you invariably need to shower to remove the fine coat of pork grease that seems to hang in the air, penetrating your hair, your clothes, and your soul.

The whole meal is a steal, as you need only pay for your meat (which comes in 200g orders), beer, and rice. All side dishes are complimentary, and are refilled at your request. If you're a foreigner, they especially love to refill your kimchi plate if you at all show any love for it. We rarely spent more than $12 a head to fill up on meat, rice, soup, and enough soju to cover the table with a forest of green bottles.

Each of my friends had their own grilled meat quirks. Dave always wanted to stay a little longer and get another bottle of soju, as "it's cheaper here than at the bar..". Jo was a creamy salad aficionado, and knew all the places with the best variety of panchan, since she didn't like meat so much. Peter always wanted to see if anyone will go in for the beef, even though it cost double the pork. Evan always grumbled that we always go out for galbi, and why do we never go for ddalk galbi? Corey liked to cook the slivers of garlic in the tops of the grilling mushrooms, and Dan always tried to beg the staff to bring the rice out at the beginning of the meal, instead of at the end, as traditional. And me? I liked to deconstruct the panchan - like, how exactly do they make this? My favourite panchan is what we like to call "galbi salad" - if it has a Korean name, I'm sure I don't know it. But if you're looking for something that goes really well with barbecued meat, this is the ticket.

Clean and tear one head of red leaf lettuce. To this, add several green onions, shredded or chopped thinly. For the dressing, combine 1 tbsp each of sugar, roasted sesame seeds, Korean chili powder, and white sugar. Mix together with 2 tsp. of soy sauce, 3 tbsp of rice vinegar and 4 tbsp. of sesame oil. Shake vigorously, and toss it together with the salad. Spicy, sweet and crisp, this goes incredibly well with barbecued pork chops or pork belly.

Quick Pickles

I ended up having a glut of onions and cucumbers last week, thanks in part to a miscommunication with sous-chef Peter, who is responsible for ingredient sourcing each week at Ofuna market. Since daytime temperatures are hovering above the 30 degree mark in my kitchen, and I'm dealing with a ridiculously small bar fridge, something had to be done. I got this idea from the cucumber thread over at eGullet.org.

My mother used to make cucumber pickles every year, along with jam, jellies, relishes and chutneys. When I mention to my Japanese friends that I make tsukemono (Japanese-style pickles), they're often surprised that a foreigner a) knows how to make them, and b) enjoys eating them. When I mention I grew up on home-made pickles, albeit of a different style, their eyes really bug out. Unlike my mother, however, I don't have an array of canning equipment and a large basement to store things in, so I'm limiting myself to quick pickles - lightly salted vegetables, kept in the fridge in a sweet vinegar bath. I think it's a fast way to use up a glut, and they're a great addition to my lunch box.

If you'd like to play along, just slice some onions and cucumbers, then toss them in a few spoons of coarse salt. Put them in a bowl with a weight on them - like another bowl filled with water, for example. In fifteen or twenty minutes, rinse them off, and squeeze out any extra liquid, and put them into a non-reactive container, like a glass jar or tupperware. In a pot, dissolve sugar in vinegar in a 1:1 ratio - I used 2/3 cup rice vinegar to 2/3 cup white sugar. When the sugar has fully dissolved, pour the liquid over your cucumbers and onions, cover and refrigerate. Add garlic or dill, if you like. Or not. They should keep for about a week, but we're eating them so fast, they're hardly making it that long.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Salt and Pepper Tuna Onigiri

These past few weeks have been quite hectic for me, with increased class loads. That, coupled with the onset of the hot weather here, has meant dinners are getting lighter around my place, and there aren't so many leftovers to remake for lunch the next day.

When my day gets busy, and I need something quick and reasonably healthy to eat, I often resort to that great Japanese convenience store stand-by - the tuna mayonnaise onigiri. But I get bored if I have to eat the same thing over and over, so I took a look around my kitchen to see how I could jazz them up.

I don't usually keep nori on hand, since Peter hates it so much, but it really provides a satisfying crunch and saltiness that I knew would be missing without it. My solution: gomashio - salted sesame seeds. I was following Maki's directions for making gomashio over on Just Bento when I realized that I didn't have quite enough black sesame seeds on hand to make as much as I liked, so I used a mix of white and black seeds. Then, staring at the mix in the pan, I thought - "Hey - this looks like salt and pepper!" So in the pan went some freshly ground black pepper.

The next morning, I mixed up some tuna salad, just as I would normally (with Kewpie mayonnaise, of course). Instead of putting it between a couple of slices of white bread, as I would have in Canada, however, I made onigiri. Rice balls can easily be made by hand, but since I was taking my first crack at putting something inside them, I wanted to use something for a mold.

First up, I took my two cups of warm rice, and added a generous sprinkling of gomashio - maybe a tablespoon or so. I mixed it so the seeds were nicely distributed, and then lined a small ramekin with plastic wrap. I dolloped in some rice, pressed it around, and then made an indentation in the centre. There, I added about 2 tsp. of tuna salad, and then topped the lot with more rice, pressing around the edges to get a good seal around the filling. I then lifted the lot out using the plastic wrap, and wrapped it up as if it were a regular sandwich. I made three filled onigiri for myself, and one plain for Peter out of the two cups of rice, and still had some tuna salad left over. This along with some cherry tomatoes and a miso soup bomb, made for a frugal lunch that I ate with one hand (the other hand, of course, busily cutting up flash cards, as ever.)