Grilled as you like it

Soba Kyoshitsu: a handmade soba lesson October 26, 2008

cutting soba tachi-soba style

Our friends Judith and Kurtis are preparing to move back to America soon and as a farewell present to them, the proprietors of our favorite soba restaurant, Shunmi, treated the four of us to a lesson in making handmade soba. We began our lesson by learning about different styles of soba.

Most soba restaurants make Edo soba, but Shunmi specializes in a type of soba known as tachi-soba. While making Edo soba is mostly practiced by men, tachi-soba is the type of soba that is made in the countryside, and the technique is often passed down by the women in the family. Edo soba is prepared by rolling out a very large sheet of dough that is folded several times and then the layers are cut using a pushing motion with a large, hooked knife with a flat blade. On the other hand, tachi-soba is cut with a different style of knife, and the knife is drawn through single sheets of dough that are stacked together. The cutting is done with just the tip of the blade. While Edo soba is cut using a guide board that ensures that each noodle is cut to an even thickness, tachi-soba is cut with no guide, so an evenly thick noodle is a sign of a skilled chef.

Shunmi prepares their noodles fresh every day, judging each morning how many customers they will get depending on the weather. They are only open at lunch and they said that they will get about 30 customers on a sunny day, but only 20 on a rainy day. They serve both ni-hachi soba, or 80% buckwheat and 20% wheat flour with a bit of egg and tororo-imo (ground yama-imo), and ju-wari soba, which is 100% buckwheat and water. After seeing how much work goes into the handmade noodles, it is amazing that we can buy their lunch set with tea, dessert, pickles, and seasonal tempura vegetables for just 1000 yen.

ready to make soba: enameled bowls filled with pure buckwheat flour

To make the soba, we began by putting 500 grams of buckwheat flour into a large laquered bowl. The water is usually about 50% of the amount of flour by weight, so we measured 250 mL into measuring cups. The amount of water needed can vary with the temperature, humidity, and other weather conditions, so it’s added gradually. First we added half the water and used our fingertips to mix the water into the flour and rub and big lumps with the flour, creating a mix that looked about like panko breadcrumbs. Then we added half of the remaining portion of water and mixed again. Our goal was to create an even mix that looked almost like beach sand. We added more water, little by little, using our fingertips to rub the pieces of dough together. When the dough bits had gathered into lumps about the size of small potatoes, we smooshed them all together and kneaded the ball until it was smooth. Then we split the dough in half, and rolled each half into a ball and rolled the ball on the side of the enamel bowl to smooth out any wrinkles. We flattened each ball into a disc and put one in plastic while we rolled the other.

Making the soba: the dough beginning to come together | the dough kneaded into a smooth ball

We rolled the dough out on a large wooden board with a long rolling pin. We were taught to push the pin with our palms, moving them in circles to press the dough and gradually rotate it on the board. After the dough is rolled into a large circle, we had to focus our rolling on the corners to create a relatively square piece about a millimeter and a half thick. My first circle didn’t start off very well, so our teachers called it the “map of the world soba.” After my troublesome first attempt I had a much better time with my second piece. I really enjoyed rolling the soba: the long, circling motions and the dry “swish swish” sound of our floury hands on the rolling pins was very meditative and relaxing.

the sheets of dough

After we had each rolled our two sheets of dough, we stacked them all together and then cut our noodles. We took turns cutting by laying our hand lightly on top of the layers of dough and using the back of our thumbs to guide the knife, cutting thin, even strips. As we drew the knife along, it was amazing to watch the noodles gracefully fall to the side, our dough becoming soba.

Next we learned to make Judith’s favorite soba topping, kurumi sauce (walnut sauce). We started with a mix of toasted sesame seeds and walnuts, about 50 mL per serving. We ground the nuts and seeds until smooth in a suribachi then added a bit of hot water to help bring out the fragrance. Finally we mixed in soba tsuyu, about 100 mL per serving, to give the sauce the proper taste and texture. It’s easy!

Oh yeah, except that the hardest part might be making a delicious tsuyu. Shunmi starts by making kaeshi, a seasoned soy sauce mixture made with soy sauce, sugar, and mirin. They age the kaeshi to develop flavor for 3 months. After that, they mix it with homemade dashi to make the finished tsuyu. Of course, they wouldn’t share their secret recipe, but they gave us a hint that they use 3 kinds of katsuo to get the proper flavor.

our soba, cooked and ready to eat – you can see that some of the noodles from the irregular ends are a little short

We finished with a lesson on how to cook the noodles properly. They use a huge pot of boiling water to cook the noodles. They cook each portion by itself, not 4 portions in the pot at once. They usually cook the noodles for just 60 seconds. Since our beginner’s noodles were a little thicker than usual, we cooked them for 70 seconds. After removing the noodles from the hot water, it’s important to wask off the excess starch by rubbing them vigorously in a colander with cold running water. Then we dipped them in a bowl of ice water. Finally the noodles were ready to serve. We piled them on a zaru (strainer) and put bowls of kurumi sauce next to them. They also made us some fall-vegetable tempura, served with regular tsuyu, and delicious pickled cabbage and cucumbers with shiso buds. They served the pickles with a yuzu-soy dressing that gave them a completely different, and of course still delicious, flavor.

The finished meal: homemade soba; eggplant, cucumber and cabbage tsukemono; tempura of fall vegetables, green beans, and kurumi (walnut) sauce

We finished the meal, as always, with a pitcher of hot soba cooking water, which is called o-yu. After you’ve eaten all of your noodles, you pour some of the hot, starchy water into your dipping sauce to make a tasty soup that you can drink. It’s thought that drinking the soup with the cooking water is very healthy.

Our teachers even sent us home with the leftover noodles, but unfortunately we couldn’t eat them fast enough. If you want to enjoy the taste of fresh soba, you’ve got to make it the same day. I tried my hand at making my own tsuyu, and while it was good, it doesn’t measure up to Shunmi’s.

Our soba making lesson was one of the most fun and educational things that I’ve done in Japan. Of course, with typical Japanese hospitality, our hosts wouldn’t let us pay for our lesson, ingredients, or even our dinner, saying that they’re glad to do it for us. We had thought this might happen so of course we brought some omiyage, but it’s such a small thing compared to such amazing generosity and teaching. Alex and I are looking forward to many more happy lunches at Shunmi in the future. I also hope that after we return to America (someday) I’ll be able to remember my lessons and make my own inaka soba at home.


The fruits of our labors October 22, 2008

Grapes (clockwise from top): red Aki Queen (Autumn Queen), purple izumi-nishiki, green beni-fuji, black kyoho. There’s not really anything in this picture to give you a sense of the size of them; that’s a pretty big basket though. For an idea of how big they are, check out the picture of the Takatsuma variety at the bottom of this post.

A few weeks ago, we went back to Noriko’s grape farm in Yoshioka. I had hoped to see the greenhouse a riot of different colored and shaped grapes; lovely clusters hanging from the gnarled vines. I was surprised to see that many of the vines were bare except for their green leaves. Of course! I realized, each of the varieties ripens in succession, which allows for a long harvest season. The vines that were bearing fruit had little white paper umbrellas draped over each perfect bunch, so instead of vines laden with fruit, there were vines dotted with paper umbrellas. We wandered into the greenhouse, passing the already harvested vines on our way to the far corner of the greenhouse, where the grapes that I had pruned earlier in the season were growing. Finally we found them: one paper umbrella with ローレル written in black marker on it. There it was, my bunch of grapes. I peeked under the paper hat: they were giant, nearly black, and very round. I clipped my grapes from the vine and held them up proudly.

On our way back to the entrance we saw Yoshi’s mom, who was working at the grape farm that day. “Beni-fuji” she said, popping grapes off of a bunch and into our hands. The green grapes were sweet and delicious. Baby Shoma stretched out his hands for a grape. Into his mouth it went, as he stretched out his hands for another.

At the farm: kyoho grapes under their kasa | grapes for sale

Back by the seating and sales area, we trimmed the stem on my bunch of grapes and wrapped them in a special bag just for grapes. We taped on a label “Izumi-nishiki.” I was surprised to learn that the Izumi-nishiki grapes are sold for 2000 yen a kilogram! Wow!

Then our friend Tomomi bought some grapes to send to her family. While she filled out the forms for delivery, we sat at the table and watched Shoma play. Noriko brought over some grapes for us to eat. Shoma saw the grapes and opened his palms for one after another. He loved the grapes, though it seemed like some of the bigger ones would barely fit into his mouth. We snacked on the black Kyoho and red Aki Queen.

The Aki Queen were delicious, so I decided to buy a bunch. “Are you sure?” Noriko and Yoshi’s mom asked, “They’re too expensive.” But I like to support local farmers, especially since they’re our friends. “Of course,” I said. Later, as we were preparing to leave our friends tucked more bunches of grapes into our bags. Later still, Tomomi traded my one bunch for her two, saying, “I can get them anytime.”

So after our trip to the farm, we made our way home with not one, but four bunches of lovely grapes to try.

All of the grapes were very good, with different flavors, but my favorite was the Izumi-nishiki, which had a lovely flavor and good balance of sweet and sour. The grapes had a firm texture (which I really like-I can’t stand mushy fruit) and the largest ones were nearly the size of ping-pong balls. My second favorite were the red Aki Queens. They had a more tart and tangy flavor and was really firm. Beni-fuji was sweet and juicy, but a little softer. The kyoho were similar to the Izumi-nishiki, but with less punch: they were good, but next to the others, they just couldn’t compare.

Last week Tomomi brought us another late-season variety to try: Takatsuma. These ones were also very tasty, not to mention huge! I love the beautiful garnet color too.

Takatsuma grapes. I held them to give a sense of the size of the grapes. Instead of making the grapes look big, it seems like they make my hands look small. Trust me, those are my hands, not tiny baby hands; those grapes are huge! Aren’t they beautiful?

Copyright 2008 LMS


Holding on to the taste of summer October 15, 2008

Filed under: Cooking,Four seasons in Japan,Japan,recipes — laurel @ 10:22 pm
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fresh basil, red peppers, and tomatoes

I love the late summer and fall, when many fruits and vegetables are overflowingly abundant. As the nights get cooler the harvest begins to slow down a bit, but there are still plenty of delicious vegetables at my local vegetable shop, Shoku-no-eki. To hold on to the taste of summer for a little bit longer I decided to put up some of these yummy vegetables in my freezer last week.

I’ve been wanting to try Paul Bertolli’s recipe for tomato conserva, which I had seen in the LA Times a few years ago but had never gotten around to trying. I recommend that you only try this recipe if you have a food mill. I tried to strain the mix through an uragoshi (Japanese mesh strainer) but the mesh was too fine. After switching to a metal colander I was able to strain the puree, but it took over an hour. Then I slowly roasted the puree in a glass pan in my oven over low heat. In the end, I had transformed 1500 grams (3.5 pounds) of tomatoes into a scant cup of delicious tomato-ey paste. (although the tomatoes in the picture above are grape tomatoes, I actually used large round tomatoes to make the conserva). The recipe says that the conserva can be kept in the refrigerator with a thick layer of olive oil on top to prevent oxidation and discourage mold, but I decided that it would be safer and easier to keep it in the freezer. I packed the paste into a small lidded container, used a butterknife to cut it into tablespoon-sized sections and then popped it into the freezer.

The next day I made roasted red peppers by fire roasting the peppers on my stove until the skins blistered. Then I put the peppers into a covered bowl to steam. After that I peeled off the skins, removed the stems and seeds, and put the peppers into resealable containers in the freezer.

Finally, on the third day I made pesto. Basil is plentiful and cheap at Shoku-no-eki. I bought five bags for 80 yen each, which made a very generous amount of pesto. To keep the color nice and green and to make it easier to blend, I blanched the basil for a few seconds in boiling water and then shocked it in an icewater bath. After that I squeezed out the extra water, chopped it roughly, and blended it with garlic, olive oil, pine nuts, and a pinch of salt. I also added a small squeeze of lemon juice to help preserve the green color. To save space in my freezer, I left out the cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano) which I can add later when I use the pesto.

Now my freezer is stocked up with some special treats that I can use to recapture the taste of summer all winter long.


Tomato Conserva

Mario Batali’s Basil Pesto and Trenette with Pesto, Beans, and Potatoes

Roasted Peppers


Spiced Kabocha and Apple Soup October 8, 2008

Filed under: Cooking,Four seasons in Japan,Japan,recipes — laurel @ 7:32 pm
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creamy spiced kabocha and apple soup

On a cool, rainy fall day, hard squashes like pumpkins, butternut and kabocha really hit the spot for me. You won’t see many butternut squash or pumpkins in Japan, but there are plenty of kabocha squash. The kabocha has a similar flavor and texture to a butternut squash, but unlike a butternut the kabocha’s thin skin is edible. I learned from another teacher at school that the best time for kabocha is actually late summer in July and August, but then the weather is so hot so I’m not really in the mood for a hearty roasted squash dish just yet. Japan’s long, hot growing season means the squashes are ready to eat much earlier in the year than I’m used to seeing them. Luckily, these squashes store well so I can enjoy them in the fall and winter too.

I bought a local kabocha the other day and decided that it would make a great creamy soup. I decided to use ume-shu to add both sweet and sour notes to the soup. I also used a bunch of spices, but I think the soup could be just as good with simpler seasoning. Feel free to spice it to your own taste.

Spiced Kabocha and Apple Soup

1 yellow onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 tablespoon olive oil or butter
pinch of salt
1 apple, diced
1/2 cup ume-shu (plum wine, can substitute white wine)
1 small kabocha or half of a larger kabocha, peeled and cut into large chunks
4 to 6 cups water or chicken stock
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, finely grated
ground nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, cumin, curry powder to taste
2 whole star anise, optional
heaping tablespoon Saikyo miso (Kyoto-style sweet white miso)
lemon juice, vinegar, or apple juice to taste
fresh cream, sour cream, or yogurt

In a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil or butters. Add the onion, carrot, and a pinch of salt and sweat the vegetables over low heat. When the vegetables are tender add the apple. Allow to cook for a few minutes. Add ume-shu and scrape the bottom of your pot with a wooden spoon to remove any browned bits. Add the kabocha, stock or water, ginger, and spices. Simmer until the kabocha is tender, at least 20 to 30 minutes.

Remove the star anise from the soup. Add a heaping tablespoon of Saikyo miso. Puree in batches in a blender or food processor. Return the pureed soup to the pot. Taste and adjust the seasoning with additional salt and spices. If the soup is very sweet but not very tangy, add lemon juice, vinegar, or apple juice to add a sour contrasting note.

To serve, top with a bit of fresh cream, sour cream, or yogurt.

copyright 2008, LMS