Grilled as you like it

Spring break: let’s traveling! March 30, 2008

Filed under: Japan,Travel — laurel @ 9:43 am


Throwing water on the Mizukake-fudomyo in Hozenji-Yokocho Street in Osaka

Well, I started writing last night about how excited I was to be going to a hanami-bento making class at Elizabeth Andoh’s Taste of Culture cooking school today. Then I checked my e-mail and found out that I had actually signed up for the Saturday class, not the Sunday class as I had thought. So now I am sitting at home reflecting on my poor planning instead of going to my cooking class. On the plus side, however, at least I found out before I hopped on the train for a 3 hour ride to Tokyo for a class that’s full. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that a spot will open up for me in next week’s tofu class instead.

Right now we are enjoying our almost-one-day break from our spring break travel madness spectacular. I’ll be heading to Tokyo this afternoon to meet my dad and brother. Tomorrow we’ll visit Tsukiji, Tokyo’s wholesale fish market, and Kappabashi, the restaurant supply and kitchenware district.

In the meantime, I’ll be getting ready to post some more about the last week, in which we went to Kusatsu, Himeji, Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo, and Kamakura.

PS-Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten proper English yet, the “Let’s Traveling” title is a reference to the common Japanese-Englishism of putting “let’s do something” in the present instead of future tense (because you want to do it now, not later), which makes sense in Japanese, but not English.


Italian style dinner in Japan March 21, 2008

Filed under: Cooking,recipes — laurel @ 11:40 pm
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I’ve been in the mood for beans lately, so we made an Italian style dinner of pasta e fagioli, garlicky roasted tomatoes and eggplant, and salad with homemade balsamic dressing. Italian food is very popular in Japan, so the ingredients weren’t too hard to find. I did have to go to the international market for the herbs and balsamic vinegar, though. One thing that I wasn’t able to find there was the small shell pasta that I usually use for pasta e fagioli, so I picked out some nice looking orechiette instead.

The pasta e fagioli began life as Giada de Laurentiis’s recipe from Food Network, but I’ve adjusted it to fit my tastes and cooking style. I don’t really pay attention to the time when I make soup, I just set the pot to a simmer and serve it when everything else is ready to eat. Usually this means half an hour or an hour or more of bubbling quietly on the stove while I work on other things. Of course, this would make the pasta mushy for pasta e fagioli, so I try to guess when everything else will be finished, and start the pasta about 10 minutes before that. The roasted tomatoes and eggplant are also Giada de Laurentiis’s recipe. I used all fresh tomatoes instead of canned, so the tomatoes were a bit tart. If I make this dish again, I might stir some tomato paste or sugar into the chopped tomatoes to enhance the sweetness a bit.

I don’t currently have a pepper grinder, so I crack my pepper in a suribachi. This leaves the suribachi coated in ground black pepper. Not wanting to waste this perfectly good pepper, I thought I’d make a salad dressing in the suribachi. The dressing was nicely seasoned, and I can’t help but think that whisking the dressing in the ridged bowl of the suribachi instead of a mixing bowl helped it to come together into a nicely emulsified dressing. Since I was just throwing ingredients together to taste, I am not quite sure of the quantities, but I’ll do my best to guess.

Pasta e Fagioli

6 sprigs fresh thyme and 1 sprig fresh rosemary, discard tough stems, chop finely
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
3 ounces pancetta or bacon, chopped
2 teaspoons minced garlic
6 cups (about 1200 mL) chicken stock
3 cups or 2 cans cooked beans of your choice. I like a mix of white beans and chick peas.
1 cup small shell pasta, orechiette, or macaroni
Freshly ground black pepper
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Chopped fresh parsley

In a large saucepan or dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, pancetta or bacon, and garlic and saute for a few minutes until the bacon becomes lightly browned and renders some of its fat. Add the carrot and celery and continue cooking, stirring occasionally. Sprinkle the vegetables with a good pinch of salt. Allow the vegetables to soften slightly and become lightly browned. Add the broth, beans, and herbs. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then simmer for about 20 to 30 minutes. Remove and discard the bay leaf. Carefully puree one or two cups of the soup in a blender. Before putting the puree back into the soup, add the pasta and cook until it is tender but still firm to the bite. Return the puree to the soup and stir together.

Serve topped with freshly grated Parmesan and chopped fresh parsley.

Honey-balsamic dressing

¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
½ cup olive oil

With a small whisk, mix together salt, pepper, Dijon mustard, honey, and lemon juice in a suribachi until the honey dissolves. Add the balsamic vinegar and stir together again. Now, whisking quickly, slowly add the olive oil about 1 to 2 tablespoons at a time, whisking thoroughly between each addition. The dressing should emulsify into a thick liquid. Taste and adjust the quantities of each ingredient. The amounts listed above are my best guess, but may need to be adjusted significantly. I used lemon juice because I had a lemon to use up, but feel free to replace the lemon juice with balsamic vinegar, orange juice, or any other tart liquid.


Hot and sour soup and honey-ginger chicken March 18, 2008


Last Thursday we made two dishes from Kylie Kwong’s Simple Chinese Cooking for dinner. I love to page through this book, with its beautiful full-page color photographs, but I admit, I haven’t taken the time to cook many recipes from it yet.

We started with hot and sour soup. This soup was different from a typical Chinese restaurant’s hot and sour soup. It’s full of vegetables, including peas, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, cloud-ear fungus, and tofu. The flavorful broth is enhanced with soy sauce, vinegar, chili oil, and ginger and finally finished with beaten eggs in the style of egg-drop soup. I forgot to reduce the salt since I used chicken bouillon instead of homemade stock, so the soup was a bit salty, but delicious nonetheless. I did have to substitute dried cloud ear fungus for the fresh cloud ear fungus called for in the recipe, but the rest of the ingredients were easy to find. And of course, my finished soup didn’t match the stylist-perfect photo in the book, but it made up for in flavor what it lacked in the looks department.


Next we made stir-fried chicken fillets with honey and ginger. We started with chicken thighs and marinated them overnight in soy sauce, ginger, five-spice, and honey. Next we stir-fried the chicken. All of the ingredients for this recipe are easy to find and the preparation was dead simple. Since we had started with pre-cut boneless chicken thigh chunks, we didn’t even need a knife. Finally we finished the meal with a simple stir-fry of bok choi and na-no-hana and steamed rice.

Our Chinese dinner was a big success. Kylie Kwong’s recipes are simple and easy-to-follow. I can’t wait to try some more recipes from Simple Chinese Cooking.


Measurements and Conversions

Filed under: Cooking,Japan,recipes — laurel @ 9:55 pm
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One issue I have with writing recipes is that I am an American living and cooking in Japan. I have various recipes and depending on the source, measurements are sometimes given as weight or volume and may be in metric or imperial measurements. I am attempting to write recipes that will be easy to follow for my friends and family in America (that is, mostly volumetric measurements using the imperial system) and also understandable to my non-American friends. However, due to some issues in scaling recipes or conversions that lead to inconvenient fractions (3/5 ounces and so on), some measurements in my recipes may remain in grams or mL. There are some handy conversion calculators online; here are some conversion factors that you may find useful.

1 U.S. cup = 8 ounces (vol.) = 16 tablespoons = 48 teaspoons = 237 mL
1 Japanese cup = 200 mL = approx 0.8 x 1 U.S. cup
1 tablespoon = 3 teaspoons = 1/2 ounce (vol.)
1 tablespoon = 1 大さじ = 15 mL
1 teaspoon = 1 小さじ = 5 mL

1 inch = 2.54 cm = 25.4 mm; 1/2 inch = approx 13 mm; 1/4 inch = approx 6 mm
1 cm = approx. 1/2 inch; 1/2 cm = approx 1/4 inch

rice: 1 cup = 180 grams; 1 rice-cooker cup = 150 grams

butter: 1 stick (US) = 1/4 lb = 4 ounces = 8 tablespoons = 1/2 cup = 113.4 grams; 1 stick (Japan) = 200 grams = 7.1 ounces


Football Sushi March 17, 2008

Filed under: Cooking,Japan,recipes — laurel @ 11:15 pm
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Grandma’s inari are one of those special dishes that we usually only got to enjoy on special occasions when we were kids. The most memorable of these occasions was New Year’s Day, when the whole family would get together and enjoy a buffet of traditional and not-so-traditional New Year’s foods like sushi, tai, gobo beef rolls, teriyaki chicken wings, kurikinton, kuromame, rolled kombu, sweet and crunchy tiny fish, daifuku, rainbow jello sandwiches, and Chinese chicken salad. One of my favorites was “football sushi,” as we called them, perhaps associating the chubby brown sushi with the New Year’s Day bowl games playing in the family room.

When I was a kid, my dad took me to my first sushi bar, where I asked for my favorite, “Football sushi, please.” The chef, of course, had no idea what I was talking about. After some explaining, I learned that they are really called “inari sushi.” The other thing I learned that day is that no one makes them as good as my Grandma’s. Although you can buy the inari ready made, and this is what most sushi bars use, I find that they are insipidly sweet.

It is said that these sweet, brown tofu pockets stuffed with rice are a favorite of Inari, the fox god. The simmered tofu pockets can also be used as a topping for udon or soba noodles–the noodles are called kitsune udon or kitsune soba which means “fox noodles”.

Grandma’s Inari (Football Sushi)

4 cups cooked rice, prepared for sushi
12 sheets abura age (thin, puffy, deep fried tofu sheets, about 2 1/2 by 3 inches square; pronounced with a hard G)
3 cups water
1/2 cup sugar
2 Tbs. soy sauce
1 1/2 to 2 tsp. salt
1/4 cup mirin
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds (optional)

Look closely at the abura age, although they are almost square, one dimensions should be longer than the other. Cut the abura age crosswise (across the long direction) in half. Alternatively, some cooks cut the abura age diagonally to make triangular pockets.

Place in a large saucepan pan of water and use a drop lid or the lid of a smaller saucepan to help submerge the inari below the water. Boil for 5 to 10 minutes to remove the excess oil. Drain and rinse thoroughly with cold water. Shake off the excess water and put the abura age back in pan. Add 3 cups water, sugar, salt, soy sauce, and mirin. Simmer for about 1 hour. Drain and cool.

Squeeze out the excess liquid. Carefully separate the two sides of the abura age to form a pocket, being careful not to tear a hole in it. This step may be a little challenging; I hold the abura age between the fingers of my two hands and use both thumbs to gently pry apart the sides. Alternatively, you could try cutting a pocket in the abura age with a knife, though the best time to do that might have been while they were still puffy before being boiled.

If you are using sesame seeds, sprinkle them on the rice and use the shamoji (rice paddle) to gently stir the seeds into the rice with a cutting motion, being careful not to smash the rice grains.

Fill each pocket with warm sushi rice, gently pressing the rice into the corners of the pocket. You want the pockets to be just full enough that they will stand on their own on a plate, but not so full that the inari pocket becomes tightly stretched or the rice bulges out the bottom.

If you like your inari more strongly flavored, decrease the amount of water in the simmering liquid.

Here is a basic recipe for sushi rice. I prefer my rice not too salty, so this recipe has less salt than most.

Shari (Rice for Sushi)

2 cups (360 grams) sushi rice (I use koshi hikari)
19 ounces water
2 inch square piece of kombu seaweed
1/4 cup rice vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 tsp salt

Put the rice in a mesh sieve. Put the sieve in a bowl that is just large than the sieve. Fill the bowl with cool water and use your hand to gently swish the rice around to remove the excess starch. When the water turns white, drain the rice and fill the bowl with clean water. Continue to swish and drain the rice several times until the water remains fairly clear. Drain the rice. Let the rice stand for about 5 minutes to drain completely. Put the rice in a rice cooker with 19 ounces of water and the kombu and cook. The rice should be fully cooked (not hard in the middle) but not mushy. If the rice is still hard, add more water and continue to steam until finished (being careful not to let it burn or overcook). If the rice is mushy, reduce the water next time.

While the rice is cooking, put the vinegar, salt, and sugar in a small saucepan. Heat over a low flame, stirring, until the salt and sugar dissolve. Remove from heat.

When the rice has finished cooking, put it into a wide flat bowl or sushi oke. While the rice is hot, sprinkle the sushi vinegar as evenly as possible over the rice. This can be done by pouring the vinegar over the back of your shamoji (rice paddle) while moving the shamoji over the rice. Then, use a cutting motion to mix and distribute the vinegared rice with the shamoji. Try not to compact or crush the rice. Use a fan to help cool the rice. Cover with a damp towel. Taste the rice. If you like it more or less flavorful, adjust the amount of sushi vinegar you use accordingly.


Soba Lunch and Ume Blossoms March 14, 2008

Last Sunday we tried a new soba restaurant. I don’t know the name of it, but it is in a little house by the river, so we’ll call it Riverside Soba. Here they serve two kinds of handmade soba, 2-8, which means 80% buckwheat flour to 20% wheat flour, and ju-wari, which is 100% buckwheat flour. We decided to get the lunch set, which was green tea, seasonal tempura, a plate of cold soba with dipping sauce, dessert, and black tea or coffee. We also tried the maitake tempura. The ju-wari soba was chewy and delicious, while the tempura was crisp and fresh tasting. The lunch set was 1000 yen, or about 10 dollars, and the maitake tempura was 300 yen; an excellent price for an excellent meal.

After lunch we went to Annaka-machi to view the ume (plum) blossoms. Although it was still a bit too early in the season for most of the trees, some of them were in bloom. It looks like it will be really beautiful by next weekend. Of course, that means it will probably be ridiculously crowded, too. We were able to enjoy a pleasant stroll around the plum blossom park in relative solitude and could still enjoy seeing the blossoms on the few trees that were flowering. We also found Obāchan’s Umeboshi, where a local family was selling their homemade fruit products outside their house. We bought some ume jam and neri ume (umeboshi paste).

update: the name of the restaurant is Shunmi, which means the essence of flavor.


Niku-ja-bocha March 11, 2008

Filed under: Cooking,Japan,recipes — laurel @ 7:45 pm
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Tonight I tried a variation on the Japanese dish niku-jaga. Niku-jaga means “meat and potatoes.” It is made by simmering thinly sliced beef with potatoes, onions, and carrots in a sweet, soy sauce-based broth. The resulting stew is often served with rice. Although it is delicious, the combination of potatoes and rice doesn’t provide a lot of nutrition, so I thought I would add kabocha. With its potato-like texture and sweet flavor, it fit right in. The green skin of the kabocha also adds a hint of color to the dish. I also add shirataki, noodles made from konyaku. Gunma prefecture is known for its fine konyaku, which adds an interesting texture and becomes nicely flavored with the sauce. Konyaku is also know as a good diet food because it can fill you up, but provides only about 5 calories per 100 grams. Although many people dislike the block-shaped konyaku, you might find that the noodles are more enjoyable for your palate. If you can’t find konyaku or you just don’t like it, feel free to leave it out.


1 large potato, peeled and sliced in half lengthwise, then sliced in 1/2 inch half-moons
1 medium carrot (or half of a giant Japanese carrot), sliced into 1/4 inch rounds or half-moons
1 yellow onion, 1/4 inch slices (I slice these radially, that is, from the stem to root end instead of crosswise)
1/4 kabocha cut into chunks, about 3/4 inches in each direction
100 to 200 grams thinly sliced beef (or pork)
1 package (200 grams) shirataki (konyaku noodles)
1 cup water
1/4 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons sake
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Drain the liquid from the shirataki noodles and rinse thoroughly. Although the liquid has a strong smell, it goes away when the noodles are cooked. Blanch the noodles briefly with boiling water. This step is called “aku-nuki” and it helps to remove the stink from the liquid in the package. Using a pair of scissors, cut the noodles into approximately 6 inch lengths. Heat a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Add about 1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil, then brown the meat. Remove the meat and set aside. Reduce the heat to medium. Add the remaining vegetable oil and the onions. Cook the onions until they have softened a bit and are lightly browned. Add the carrot, potato, kabocha, and shirataki noodles and return the meat to the pan. Add the water, soy sauce, sake, and sugar. Stir everything together. The vegetables should be nearly covered with the liquid (it is ok if some of them are sticking out, just stir them around occasionally to make sure everything gets a turn in the sauce). If the liquid does not come nearly to the same height as the vegetables, you can add more water, soy sauce, sake, and sugar in the same proportions. Simmer everything together for about 20 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Be careful not to overcook or boil too vigorously, or the vegetables may fall apart.