Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Squash Salad

Okay, it's not really a salad.

In Japan, the most commonly available squash in the fall is the kabocha. It tastes a lot like the buttercup squash I grew up eating (Microwaved with brown sugar and butter in the middle where the seeds have been scooped out - try it; you'll like it.), but just a bit sweeter, with a faint marshmallowy taste.I like squash a lot, but the best squash I had in recent memory was an acorn squash dish my friend Canadian Bento made last winter while I was visiting her. She roasted it in the oven for a while, and then mashed it up with a secret ingredient - vanilla. She didn't tell us what was in it before she made it, but when I tried it and insisted on knowing what made it so incredible, she revealed the secret - which she's gotten at a Las Vegas buffet, of all places. Which I hear are pretty great these days.

Well, there isn't any acorn squash to be had around my parts, so I picked up an kabocha the other weekend, knowing that it would sit happily in my crisper until later in the week when it could be dealt with. Thursday night, I made shoga yaki - fried ginger pork on rice - so I knew we'd want some sort of creamy side dish to complement the sharp taste of the ginger. Out came the kabocha. I'd been thinking of it all week - I wanted to find a way to balance out the overly sweet taste of it. I chopped it up into cubes, peeled them, and stuck the lot in the microwave in a bowl covered in plastic wrap. Five minutes later, it was ready to be mashed, with a few secret ingredients of my own.

Erin's Kabocha Salad:

(You can use buttercup squash, if you like)


1/4 sweet squash, like kabocha or buttercup, peeled and cubed
1 tablespoon miso
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons fresh parmesan cheese, grated
Fresh ground black pepper

Microwave the cubes in a covered bowl for about five minutes. When they're soft, mash it together with the miso, butter, parmesan cheese, and pepper. Scoop onto a plate, and garnish with more cheese, if you like. You won't taste the miso so much, but the salty flavour will help balance the sweetness. Miso keeps happily in the fridge for a long time, and adds a really nice depth of flavour to savoury dishes like soups - I recommend keeping a small tub on hand.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Marcella's Aubergines

Well, you know how much I love eggplant.

The other week, I was browsing in a used bookstore in Tokyo, and picked up a copy of Marcella's Italian Kitchen. It was written by Marcella Hazan, an authority on Italian cooking in the US. The book was published in the 1980s, when people were starting to think about Italian food as something other than spaghetti and meatballs. (Some people. Not me. I was still eating spaghetti until well into the nineties. I think I discovered penne, which I proceeded to drown in bechamel sauce, in university. D'oh.)

I frequently get frustrated cooking in Japan, since in my small kitchen doesn't have an oven. That means that a lot of non-Asian cookbooks are virtually useless to me. I don't know how many times I've flipped through Nigella Lawson's books, sighed, and put them back on the shelf after noting that the majority of the recipes call for oven time. I could go out and buy a small convection oven, but there's simply nowhere to put it in the kitchen. So when I picked up Marcella's Italian Kitchen, flipped through, and noticed page after page of recipes requiring only a big pan and fresh fish and vegetables - I thought I could make it work.

When I got it home and gave it an in-depth reading, I was happy I picked it up. This book calls for fresh ingredients, used simply, without a lot of added ingredients, a philosophy I can get behind. I immediately got out my set of Muji cleartabs (how much do I love cleartabs?) and started colour-coding the recipes by season. Green tabs for summer products - tomatoes and eggplants; Red tabs for fall - mushrooms and kabocha squash. Gray tabs for dishes that can be made from right out of the pantry - dried mushroom risotto, for example. Peter has been begging lately for some non-rice oriented meals, so I decided to try and cook one recipe a week from the book for a year, or until we got sick of it - whatever happens first.

We're at the tail-end of eggplant season in Japan, but my local stand has only had the Japanese market standard - a smallish, thin eggplant around 15 cm long. When I saw the mini eggplants at the market in Takayama, I knew I had to have them. (Peter: "You're taking them to back Kanagawa ken - 400 km away? Think of the carbon footprint!") I'd seen these sized eggplants before, but they were always as a (rather bland, IMO) pickled side dish. I was interested to see what I might do with them. When I unwrapped them at home in the kitchen, rather than opening "Washoku", I decided to open "Italian Kitchen".

I was not let down. She has two recipes for pickled eggplants - one that calls for longish eggplants, and pickles them as wedges. The other calls for thin slices with mint, garlic, and chili; preserved with salt and vinegar. It sounded like a winner, since I had also picked up a pack of long chilis, virtually unseen in Kanagawa. Only I didn't have any mint. So my weedy, sad little basil plant that grows in a cut-off plastic water bottle in my window is now shorn bare, and looking more weedy than ever.

I sliced the eggplants thinly, and layered them with crushed garlic, sprinkles of salt, pieces of chili, and basil leaves, all in a pickle jar (Muji, of course). Then, following instructions, I put a bottle inside the jar, and turned the lot upside down in the sink, for the eggplants to drain for 24 hours. The whole thing looked a little dodgy, since the eggplant quickly went brown, and started to look shrivelled and dry. But I left them alone, and the next day, covered them in (rice; she calls for red wine) vinegar. The instructions then state to immediately tip the lot over again and let the vinegar drain off. It seemed counterintuitive to me, so I let them sit in the vinegar overnight, and drained it off 12 hours later. As soon as I took the bottle off, I was struck by the smell - it smelled so - Italian. The garlic and chili scent was overwhelming, and I sampled one right away, and then regretted it right away, thinking of my poor morning class. The eggplant was sour, peppery, spicy, and deeply, deeply garlicky. They are fabulous. I covered them with olive oil, as per instructions, and they'll purportedly keep in the fridge for up to six months, but I doubt they'll last that long. They're going to be insanely good on a sandwich, or with a glass of red wine before dinner.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Morning Markets: Takayama

This week, the dark lords of employment saw fit to give me a four-day weekend. So Peter and I, who have been planning a trip to Takayama, in the corners of our minds not preoccupied with other things, for a while now. Takayama is a small town in the central alps of Japan, about two hours outside of Nagoya. We took the Shinkansen down to Nagoya, and then a local train for another two hours or so into the mountains to reach this gem of a town. It's famous for a festival that's held there every spring and fall, where floats sponsored by various merchants are borne around the traditional streets of the town. Not since Kyoto have I seen such a collection of small, traditional Japanese streetscapes, and even despite the bus loads of tourists streaming through, the beauty of the place shone through. It's also famous for Hida beef, fabulously marbled beef grilled and served up in a variety of preparations at restaurants around town.

I have a full report on all the beef we ate there over on eGullet, but I wanted to talk about the gorgeous produce I saw in the morning markets. I go on a lot about the produce we pick up cheaply at Ofuna market, but what I get there is nothing on the gorgeous fruits, vegetables, and flowers I saw here in the mountains.

There are two morning markets: one in front of the jinya, a government building in the centre of town left over from the Edo period, and one along the banks of the river that flows through town.

The river market is larger, and features not only beautiful flowers and and handcrafts, but also spices, vegetables, fruit, delicious coffee, sweets, and grilled beef served with local microbrews. For breakfast? Why not?

Dango are another local specialty - balls of sticky rice, called mochi, are skewered, dipped in soy sauce, and then grilled for a chewy snack. The smell of rice grilling in this manner is an essential smell of Japan.

I couldn't resist picking up some beautiful little pickling eggplants (aubergines, dammit, I'm trying to retrain myself to say aubergines. aubergines. aubergines. Why do the British use a French word? Why?) no bigger than my thumb, and the vendor also had long ones, round ones, candy striped ones, and white ones, much to the amazement of the crowd. I never see diversity like that around town. Somebody call Slow Food! We need a chapter in Kanto!

I digress.

I got them home and decided they were too small to turn into grilled eggplant (aubergine) with miso (did I mention I bought a couple of bags of miso as well? From a soybean specialist? And some small-batch soy sauce? I'll admit it. I'm such a yuppie. I can hear my parents laughing at me from here.), so they're turning into Italian pickled eggplants (aubergine) from another project I'm working on.

There were also purple striped green beans, and I cannot resist a good green bean, quite frankly, so I bought a bag after sampling some of the vendor's home simmered beans, which she produced triumphantly from under the table when I expressed interest. She also had some gorgeous myoga and unwaxed cucumbers, but I resisted. I will be turning the green beans into Maki's fabulous ginger green beans, which keep great in the fridge for bentos.

There were all sorts of gorgeous flowers.

And beautiful fruit, which you could order by the boxful and have delivered to your home via Black Cat Delivery. Peter selected a nice pear for himself, and I chose an apple. At 100 yen each, that's all we could afford. The smell of cool air and apples made me think of home, and how much I love fall. Peter couldn't resist a bottle of fresh apple juice either, which had us thinking of fresh apple cider from Annapolis valley.

I bought some shichimi togarashi, which is a mix of seven spices, including chilis and sesame seeds, that the Japanese use to dip tempura into, or to sprinkle on ramen. It was so strange to see a spice vendor in Japan - I tend to associate spice mixes with South East Asian foods, and so the lady with her piles of dried spices and large mortar and pestle stopped me in my tracks.

Even this pigeon was curious.

My favourite thing to get in Japanese market is always tsukemono - pickled things. In Takayama, they specialize in pickled red radish/turnips. I struggled to understand the dialect of the granny that sold them to me, but she insisted I take a bag each of sweet and salty - and I wasn't going to argue for 500 yen for both bags. Tsukemono don't come cheap in Kanagawa ken.

Stay tuned to see what I make from everything.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


I spend a lot of time talking about the food I make, but like a lot of people in Japan, there are many days when I don't have the time to manage something homemade. However, the Japanese have addressed this situation with all the efficiency they're known for, creating a range and variety of snacks that is unrivalled across Asia.

The home of all snack foods in Japan is the combini, or convenience store. Every station, no matter how small, has at least one - my station has four 7-11s within walking distance. They're the perfect place to stop and get a cold beer for the walk home; an onigiri and instant miso soup for a quick lunch; or a melonpan and coffee milk for breakfast. Or all three, if you need to do your grocery shopping there. Which is fine, because they also have ATMs for getting out money, and the cheerful attendant is also happy to let you pay for your monthly bills at the counter. They are truly convenient. They lack the character and utility of Korean convenience stores - I still fondly remember the Ministop in Gyesan, where they let us sit at the stools all night; drink cheap beer and eat gimbap from the Chinese restaurant next door; and listen to the counter clerks's custom made CD mix of club music. But a Japanese combini has such a variety of interesting foods available that there's even a blog devoted to combini products. Did I mention the offerings are seasonal? So every few weeks or so, there's always a new little surprise waiting for you at the combini.

What's addictive about wandering through the aisles of a combini is the excellent, old-school graphics on a lot of the packaging. Glico products especially seem to offer bold packages that jump off the shelf and into my hand. Pretz is a great example. They're thin breadsticks with a light dusting of flavour powder - enough to give you the impression of the flavour, without coating your fingers. Like all snack products, there is a wide range of varieties available- tomato; basil; pumpkin; beer; green pea; salt - and pictured, cheese. It's Pocky's older brother, meant for a more refined (beer-drinking) palate. I like it because you can have a quick snack between classes, but still have plenty in the pack to offer around to random students and staff milling in the front office.

Another great Glico product is Bisco. Who could resist that face, that cheery red pack? Inside are mini biscuits, faintly lemon-flavoured cream sandwiches, that go perfectly with an afternoon cup of tea. The three-pack size ensures that you'll have plenty of biscuits to offer to co-workers who have been too busy to get out to the combini themselves.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Iced Coffee: Cafe Den Granita

This weekend, we were out and about it Tokyo, and Peter was craving pizza. There are all sorts of Italian chains all over the city, so we stopped into one of them in Ebisu - Pizza Mare Napoli, which specializes in Napoli style pizza. One of the great things about lunch in Japan is that restaurants often structure their menus so there are "lunch sets" available for reasonable prices. A starter, drink, main dish, and a bit of something sweet at the end (dessert being far too ambitious a word to use to describe the tiny dish of what you actually get) for a price somewhere around 1,000 yen. It's good value. We ordered pizza sets each, and the pizzas were up to the tasks of satisfying Peter's pizza craving - although not to his "pizza slice" standard, which is of course, set by the Costco food court. *sigh*

Anyway, at the end of the meal, for our sweet, we got a small glass of refreshing grapefruit granita. I hadn't thought of granita since university, when the coffee shop I used to work for sold "granita" as their iced coffee offering. The machine that made it was everyone's nightmare, with gaskets and seals that were a pain to clean, and always ended up rolling behind something really inconvenient.

Real granita is actually quite simple to make, and doesn't require a special machine - just some free time and a willingness to walk back and forth between the sofa and the refrigerator for a few hours - a skill at which I've devoted a significant portion of my life to honing. I read my first recipe for granita in "The Man who Ate Everything", a collection of food writing by Jeffery Steingarten. He wrote that in Sicily, people often have a bit of espresso granita for breakfast, into which they dip little bits of brioche as they go. I remember thinking, "What a civilized way to live."

While I was having my dessert in Ebisu, I remembered this, and thought regretfully that I had no espresso to make my own. But - in a brainwave, I remembered that I had a rather large bag of Vietnamese coffee, sweet and chocolatey tasting, sitting on my counter at home. The next day, I brewed some Vietnamese coffee, black and without sugar, and slipped it into a plastic container in the freezer. Over the next few hours, I poked at it and turned it around with a fork. It developed the perfect icy flavour shards that you would expect from a granita sometime around midnight - the absolute last time of day I want to be ingesting coffee. (Although I remember when I was working in that coffee house in university, I could drink free black coffee all night, and did. No wonder I always got my reading done!) I left it regretfully in the freezer. This morning, when I took it out, it was, of course, a giant coffee ice cube. I don't who these Sicilians are, and how early they're getting up to make granita, but after 20 minutes of hacking at the giant cube, (and spraying coffee shards all over the kitchen) I had enough granita to call it breakfast.

I was right in thinking the Vietnamese coffee would be nice - it gave a lovely caramelized flavour to the ice, and was sweet enough on its own, without added sugar. I thought, however, that a swirl of some condensed milk on top would have made it perfect.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


One of my favourite dishes to eat out in Japan is tonkatsu. It's a cutlet of pork, breaded with large breadcrumbs called panko, then deep fried and served with mountains of shaved cabbage and a thick sauce reminiscent of HP sauce.

There are all sorts of variations on tonkatsu - you can get it with hire or rosu cuts; tenderloin and loin, respectively; with a variety of fillings, such as cheese or garlic; and a variety of toppings, such as curry sauce or shredded leek. It's not exactly a healthy dish, and since I don't like to mess around deep-frying, it's not something I make at home. Last Sunday, however, Peter and I were on our way to the Japan Beer Fest in Yokohama, and wanted something greasy and filling to coat our stomachs before spending the afternoon tasting a variety of craft beers from around Japan.

We stopped at Yokohama station and went into Yokohama Mores, which is undergoing a dramatic renovation. The restaurant floor was already finished, but the shrouded and scaffolded building kept the crowds at bay, and we were able to walk right into a restaurant at lunchtime on a Sunday. Miracle! We chose Genkatsu, a place that specializes in tonkatsu made with thin sheets of pork folded over and stuffed with a variety of flavourings. I tried the garlic; and Peter chose black pepper, after a brief moment's hesitation over their cheese version.

Not exactly cheap at 2100 yen each; the lunch set does come with a choice of red or white miso soup; pickles; and all-you-can-eat cabbage and rice. We spent some time filling up on paper-thin shreds of cabbage drenched in ponzu dressing- a combination I heartily endorse. Ponzu itself is quite flavourful, and hardly needs any oil to mellow the flavour, as it's made from citrus and soy. Considering the rich nature of the main dish, it's important to fill up on something like this first.

The tonkatsu itself was delicious; rich and crispy without being excessively greasy. It was my first time trying a layered-pork version, and I'm not sure it was worth the price differential - regular tonkatsu can usually be found for around 1400 yen a person for a similar set. I probably won't be rushing back to this location any time soon. We did have a lovely view of the station from the 8th floor, however.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Ploughman's Pickles

A ploughman's lunch is a simple affair of bread, cheese, pickle, and perhaps some other vegetables or pate dressing things up. When I say pickle, I don't mean a pickled cucumber, I mean some sort of preserved vegetable. Pickled onions, I think, are popularly served with a Ploughman's, and I think Branston pickle is also a reliable contributor. It's a little known fact about me that when I was growing up, I loved cheddar cheese and dill pickle on white bread, which must have bemused my mother to no end. While other kids were unwrapping their PB&J, I was happily working through my cheese and pickle sandwiches.

These days, cheese is pretty rare in our house, as it's quite expensive in Japan. Every once in a while, though, Sous-chef Peter crumbles and comes home with a wedge of extra-old cheddar from the Seijo Iishi, an imported-foods store. This week, the stars aligned, and while Peter was in Yokohama, buying a wedge of cheese, I was in Chigasaki, picking up a bag of red onions for the ridiculously low price of 198 yen. When I got home and realized what I had on hand, I went to work making a quick sweet pickle from the onions.

I cut up about 5 smallish red onions, and tossed them in 2 tablespoons or so of salt. I use sea salt, since it's what I have on hand, but pickling salt is probably best for this sort of thing. When you make proper canned pickles, it's important to get the ratio of salt correct for food safety reasons, but since I don't have the proper equipment or storage space for canning, I go about this as if I were making a quick pickle. A jar of pickled onions doesn't stand a chance of last longer than a couple of days in my house, anyway. Once the onions are salted, I use a Japanese tsukemono-ki (pickle press) to press out the water. You could leave your onions in a non-reactive bowl, with another bowl, full of water to act as a weight on top. After 10 or 15 minutes of this (long enough for me to die trying to attempt world 1-1 in Super Mario Brothers) I drain off the liquid, and give the onions a quick rinse in water. I try to squeeze out any extra liquid with my hand. Then I put them into a glass jar - one I got at Muji, for just this purpose.

Once I crammed all the onions into the glass jar, I boiled 2/3 cup each of rice vinegar and sugar. No particular reason for this measurement, other than it seems to fill the jar I have on hand. If you have a smaller or larger batch you'd like to do, just use a 1:1 ratio of vinegar and sugar. You may find this yields quite a sweet pickle, especially if your onions are quite mild. In this case, you may want to reduce the sugar down to 1/2 cup. I've also heard of people using Splenda instead of sugar, and why not?

I left the onions in their bath overnight, and today I ate the marvellous sandwich pictured above for breakfast. A bit of rye bread, toasted, and spread sparingly with butter. Then, a heaping pile of onions for tang and crunch, topped off with a few shavings of cheddar (at 700 yen for 200g, you'd better believe a thin shaving!). If you wanted to make a killer, decadent sandwich, you could smother the onions with cheese and broil the whole lot of it, so that the molten cheese conceals a layer of sweet, tangy pickle. Not that I thought about doing that, though. I am a model of restraint.