Grilled as you like it

Ton Ton Matsuri December 19, 2008

Filed under: Four seasons in Japan,Japan,Maebashi — laurel @ 10:20 pm
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I suppose one obvious sign that I live in the inaka (countryside) is that my town has a festival called Ton Ton Matsuri, which basically means Piggy Piggy Festival, or maybe Porky Party. It was a celebration of pigs and pork in honor of Gunma pork, a famous local product around here. One of the highlights of the day was the baby pig race. I don’t think there’s anything cuter than piglets in tank tops running down a corral. Actually, they didn’t quite race, they kind of meandered from one end to the other, with one or two of the contestants getting lost along the way. The little guy in the shirt above turned out to be the winner, while the one below never made it to the finish line. But they’re both cute as the dickens, aren’t they?



Lasagne December 10, 2008


Once the cold winter weather settles in, my mind starts to drift toward comfort food: soups, nabe, enchiladas, and various other dishes that are usually only made better with a topping of melted cheese. It’s been feeling a lot like winter lately, and I’ve been thinking of making lasagne lately. I had some lasagne noodles that I had gotten from the Foreign Buyer’s Club, and some mozzarella that I picked up a while ago at Costco in Saitama. I couldn’t stomach the idea of paying FBC 1240 yen for my ricotta so I decided to make my own from milk from the supermarket, which saved me more than 1000 yen. It’s pretty much impossible to find Italian sausage here so I decided to make that too. And I always make my own pasta sauce. Luckily I already had the lasagne noodles, because making my own noodles might have been the dealbreaker. So last Tuesday night became a culinary undertaking of epic proportion (though why I decided to do this while also babysitting a toddler is beyond me ). By the time I had finished, it was super late, so I had leftovers and a salad that night, and baked the lasagne in the morning.

The verdict: creamy, cheesy, and delicious. I really enjoyed the flavor and texture of the homemade ricotta, but I think I would have liked a more robustly flavored cheese-the generic warehouse club mozzarella didn’t have much flavor at all. At home, I used to use provolone instead of mozzarela, so I’ll be keeping my eyes open for a more flavorful cheese to use. Anyways, here’s how those of you who are truly dedicated to comfort food can make your own lasagne in Japan… or perhaps you will just be inspired to start looking for a good Italian restaurant near you.

Step 1. Make Italian Sausage
I started with a package of ground pork from the store. I didn’t check the weight, but it was probably about 200 grams. I didn’t measure the spices since the amount of meat I was using was so much less than the recipe, but I added a hefty pinch of all of the seasonings from this recipe. After that, I let the sausage rest while I prepared the rest of the ingredients. If you’re planning ahead, I recommend making the sausage the day before so that it will become more flavorful and you’ll have less work to do on lasagne-making day. To make sure that you’ve seasoned your sausage mix properly, cook a spoonful of it in a frying pan and taste it.

Step 2. Make Ricotta Cheese
Next I started the ricotta cheese. If you have time, I would do this the day before too so the cheese has plenty of time to drain. There are lots of recipes for making ricotta online. I used a recipe I found on about.com since it didn’t call for any ingredients that would be hard for me to find in Japan like rennet or buttermilk (I haven’t found it here yet, but if I do find buttermilk, I want to try the recipe on 101cookbooks). For one pan of lasagne, I followed the recipe using a liter of milk, so I reduced the ricotta recipe by a factor of 4. I let the ricotta sit to thicken while I finished preparing the rest of the ingredients and then went to drain it, but in hindsight, it really doesn’t need to sit for long in the pan, but it does take a while to drain. Make sure to start draining the ricotta a few hours before you want to assemble your lasagne.

Step 3. Prepare the Filling Ingredients
The markets in fall are filled with local spinach and mushrooms, so I decided to use those in addition to the Italian sausage in today’s lasagne. I sliced and sauteed a bunch of both eringi (king oyster) mushrooms and shimeji mushrooms. Next I blanched, drained, and chopped a bunch of fresh spinach (of course it would cook on its own in the lasagne, but this way it fits better). Finally, I browned the sausage in the same pan that I used for the mushrooms and would use to make the sauce. Finally, you can grate the mozzarella and parmagiano or pecorino romano cheeses now, or save time by grating the cheese while the sauce is cooking. Of course, the filling is up to you, so just choose a few things that look delicious and in season.

Step 4. Make the Tomato Sauce
I made a simple tomato sauce by browning onions and garlic with a pinch of salt and then adding a splash of wine and a can of tomatoes. Toss in a bay leaf, some dried oregano, and a pinch of pepper, and simmer until slightly thickened. I like my tomato sauce for lasagne a little smoother, so I pureed about half in the blender and added it back to the pan. Don’t forget to season with more salt and a bit of sugar if necessary.

Step 6. Par-cook the Noodles
I really miss no-boil lasagne noodles; they’re great. If you’re using regular noodles, boil them for a few minutes so that they’re soft but not cooked all the way through or your lasagne will be mushy. If you can get no-boil lasagne noodles, get them! They always seem to come out just right for me without all the trouble of boiling the noodles and spreading them out so that they don’t stick together.

Step 5. Put it together and what have you got?
Finally, I was ready to make my lasagne. To assemble, put a ladle-ful of tomato sauce in the bottom of your baking dish. If your oven is the same size as mine, that means 9 x 9 inches. Add enough noodles to make a single layer (2 in my case), if there are some small gaps, that’s fine; the noodles expand a bit as they cook. Top the noodles with about 1/4 of the remaining sauce. Sprinkle 1/3 of each of the filling ingredients (sausage, mushrooms, spinach, ricotta) on top of the sauce. Add a layer of grated mozzarella cheese. Repeat 2 more layers of sauce, filling, and mozzarella. Finally, add the last layer of noodles, top with sauce and cover with mozzarella and grated hard cheese such as parmagiano reggiano or pecorino romano.

Step 6. Bake and Serve
If it’s not 10:00 at your house by now, cover the top with aluminum foil bake at 375 F or 190 C for 30 minutes. Uncover and continue baking for 10 more minutes or until nicely browned on top. If it’s very late at your house too, wrap the baking dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate until tomorrow. Bake according to the directions above. I find that lasagne is easier to cut and serve if you let it rest for a while after cooking, but who can resist it’s cheesy goodness for long?

Step 7. Wash Dishes while Contemplating Going to Nearest Italian Restaurant Next Time


Black bean soup with chicken and avocados December 1, 2008

Filed under: Cooking,Japan,recipes — laurel @ 10:50 pm
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Here’s an easy black bean soup that I made for dinner recently. I wasn’t originally planning to make a bean soup, so I hadn’t soaked any beans ahead of time, but as I was getting ready to make dinner, I was struck with a craving for something with southwestern flavor. I headed to the store and picked up an avocado, chicken breast, and bell peppers. I wish I could have gotten cilantro too, but they were sold out at Marche (my local international store), so I seasoned it with fresh sage and dried oregano instead. Amazingly, I even harvested some cherry tomatoes that are still growing out on my balcony to add to the soup.

Luckily black beans cook quickly so I started them boiling first while I chopped and sauteed the vegetables for the soup in another pot. By the time the vegetables were ready, the beans were cooked too. Of course, the easier way to make it would be to plan ahead and soak your beans ahead of time. If you don’t want to take the time to cook dried beans, I think that this soup would be almost as good with canned beans.

After I got the beans cooking I sprinkled a chicken breast with a mix of chili powder, paprika, salt, and my secret ingredient: smoked salt. I love having a jar of smoked salt on hand to give a bit of smoky kick to dishes whenever they need it. Of course, if you don’t have smoked salt, regular salt will do fine too. I let the chicken rest with the seasonings while I chopped the rest of the vegetables. After that I sauteed the chili-chicken, which by the way was tasty on it’s own too, and I made it a few days later for my bento too. Then came the vegetables, and finally I put it all together to make a tasty soup. It’s great with toasted tortillas or tortilla chips. Mmmm….

Black bean soup with chicken and avocados
by Laurel S.

1 cup dried black beans, soaked overnight or 1 can black beans
1 chili-chicken breast (see below)
1 yellow onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 green bell pepper (or 2 Japanese green piman), diced
half carrot, diced
1 to 2 cloves of garlic, minced
splash of beer or tequila
chili powder
1 or 2 bay leaves
fresh or dried oregano and sage
water or stock (chicken or turkey is good)
handful of cherry tomatoes or tomato, diced
handful of fresh or frozen corn kernels
1 avocado, cut into cubes
splash of lime juice or vinegar
sour cream (more…)