Grilled as you like it

Grilled Eel Lunch February 24, 2010


On our next day in Kyoto we started the day with sightseeing at Kinkakuji and Niji-jo.

After sightseeing, we headed downtown for a late lunch. We were on a mission to find Kaneyo, a historic grilled eel restaurant which I had been looking forward to after reading about it on Kyoto Foodie. The area it’s in is full of fashionable shops, so we actually walked right by on the cross-street and didn’t even notice how close we were. We felt like we were starving by the time we finally found our way back to the right street.

Luckily for us, it was July 18th, the day before Doyo-ushi-no-hi, the traditional summer day to eat eel to give you stamina to endure the summer heat. If it had been the next day, surely the shop would have been packed. Learn more about Doyo-ushi-no-hi at Taste of Culture.

Their specialty is unagi donburi; you can get a regular, large, or special large bowl (or at lunch, a mini). The eel is grilled over charcoal, and according to their website, they have been using the same sauce base for over 100 years, adding to it, but never throwing it away. Alex got the large unagi-don. I got the regular kinshi-don, which came topped with a fluffy pillow of tamago omelet. The donburi came with pickles, and you can also order chawan mushi (steamed egg-custard) on the side. The donburi were pretty big, so we passed on the chawan mushi.

Both bowls were fantastic. Alex deemed it the best eel he’s ever had, and I think I agree. The eel was rich and charred just the right amount on the edges leaving little crisp, caramelized bits. I really liked the fluffy texture and delicate flavor of the tamago too, though the eel in the unagi-don (no topping) were crisper, as the piping-hot fillets steam a little bit under the egg.

I suppose at 1600 yen for the regular and 2300 for the large bowl, it might seem expensive at first, but trust me, it’s worth it. It was a very satisfying lunch, and left us ready for more sightseeing all afternoon, which was a good thing, because it was a long wait until dinner…

Want to see what else we did that day? Take a look at Alex’s photoblog.


Evening on Pontocho-dori February 17, 2010

Filed under: Eating,Four seasons in Japan,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 5:37 pm
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Along the Kamo-gawa in Kyoto, you can see a row of old-fashoined Japanese buildings, their wooden decks jutting out over the adjacent canal. What a wonderful sight it is.

And around the other side, you’ll find a narrow alley lined with equally traditional looking entrances, each hung with a lantern. Welcome to Pontocho-dori, Kyoto’s old red-light district and current home of delicious obanzai restaurants.

In the early evening chefs in their white coats walk up and down the street, or inspect a delivery.

Many restaurants entice customers with displays of their fresh kyo-yasai, Kyoto’s uique vegetables…

…and beckon you with their traditional architectural touches.

We chose a spot that advertised charcoal grilled foods and had hamo on the menu, which I really wanted to try. Sorry, but I can’t remember the name.

They ask customers to choose the set menu in order to dine outside, but that’s ok, because the set menu looked pretty good. We actually started the meal inside due to the rain, but soon the rain let up and we moved out to the balcony overlooking the river.

Octopus, long green onion, and abura-age (fried tofu) with su-miso sauce
Deep-fried fu (wheat gluten) and eggplant
Salad with fried yuba (thin sheets of soy)
Smoked duck with boiled vegetables
Hamo (conger eel) and vegetable tempura
Matcha soba
Pickled Japanese vegetables
Warabi mochi with kinako

Octopus, long green onion, and abura-age with su-miso sauce

Deep-fried fu and eggplant

Salad with fried yuba

Warabi mochi

After dinner, take a stroll back down the alley and enjoy the sights. Goodnight owls.


Gion Matsuri February 14, 2010

We took the opportunity on a long weekend to go to Kyoto to see the Gion Matsuri. The Gion Matsuri is ranked as one of the top three beautiful festivals in Japan, as well as one of the three biggest and the most famous. Wow! The big parade of floats takes place on July 17th every year.

On the three nights before the parade is the yoiyama. The floats are displayed in the streets. Festival goers can buy chimaki, each float’s talisman for good fortune, and even go aboard some of the floats. Local homes display their silks and antiques. And along the streets are rows upon rows of stalls selling all sorts of food, drinks, and sweets.

As we came up out of the train station, we were struck with this sight: scores of people filling the street. Pretty much every cross street from Shijo to Oike and Karasuma to Kawaramachi was equally as packed. That’s a lot of people!

Musicians in the floats performed court music. We heard the song throughout the weekend, and whenever I hear that sound, “kon-chiki-chin,” I think, “Oh, Gion Matsuri.”

I don’t eat takoyaki at festivals in Gunma: too big, too doughy, not so good. But takoyaki is a specialty in the Kansai area, especially in nearby Osaka, so we had to get some. We tried this guy’s takoyaki and they were fantastic: crisp on the outside, chewy on the inside, and insanely hot. After that, we had some kara-age, yakitori, and warabi mochi for dessert.

At the end of the night, these guys are here to make sure you clear out of the street so that they can open it back up to traffic.

The next day, it was parade time. Don’t be a dummy like me and wear your yukata. Yukatas are for the Yoiyama the night before. Just wear your normal clothes to the parade. We arrived at the intersection of Shijo and Karasuma, but the crowd was so dense, so we found a less crowded spot on Oike dori closer to the end of the parade route. The parade moves slowly because it takes a long time for the floats to turn each corner, but eventually it arrived. First came the people.

Next came the floats. This is the first float, which carries the sacred child, or Ochigo, of the parade.

A closer view.

Here you can see the Ochigosan (seated and wearing the golden crown).

The gentlemen with the fans ride on the front of the floats and help signal the men pulling the float when it’s time to turn it.

Several people ride on the roofs of the floats to keep the tall spire on top from running into power lines, street signs, and other obstructions.

That’s a big wheel! The axles don’t turn, so the direction of the float is adjusted by the men who walk alongside with the wooden paddles.

This was one of my favorite floats. The praying mantis would move its arms and tilt its head from side to side.

Then it would flutter its iridescent wings!

One of the most popular sights of the festival is when the floats have to turn the corners on the parade route. Since the axles don’t turn, the men pulling the float place wet slats of bamboo under the wheels and then work together to drag the 12 ton monsters around the corner. One member of the pulling team would also run over with a gift of chimaki for the guys on the corner managing security and keeping the water buckets full.

The men on the float with the fans help signal everyone else when it’s time to heave. You can see the bamboo slats beneath the wheels.

The next day we saw one of the floats being disassembled. It was really neat to see how it was put together on the inside.

See more of our photos from Yoiyama and the parade on Alex’s photoblog.

Learn more about Gion Matsuri: Wikipedia, Mirahouse, and Gion Matsuri Volunteers.


Honeymoon Miso Dressing February 10, 2010

Filed under: Cooking,Japan,recipes — laurel @ 10:13 pm
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I take Japanese lessons on Thursday nights and it’s nearly 7:00 by the time I get home, so I usually ask Alex to make dinner on those nights. A few weeks ago my teacher cancelled our lesson so I wouldn’t have to bicycle there in the cold, raging wind. I asked Alex if there was anything I could do to help with dinner; he said, “I found an interesting looking salad recipe online, so why don’t you make the dressing.” I got out the ingredients and started to measure. “Hey, this recipe looks awfully familiar,” I said, and he answered, “It should, you wrote it.”

It turned out that the recipe was Shiitake and Edamame Salad with White Miso Vinaigrette, which I created for Sunset magazine’s reader recipe contest in 2006. The recipe contest was advertised in the magazine as a chance to win a dream vacation. The prize vacation for the salad category was a trip for two to Kauai. Kauai sounded like a wonderful place, but salad… hasn’t every combination of fruit, vegetable, and dressing already been published? I remembered standing over the blender late one night, measuring spoons in hand, trying to get inspired to create a stellar salad.

I knew I liked honey-miso dressing: seasoned with sesame and a bit of soy sauce, but with its heavy dose of sesame oil, sometimes it tastes a little heavy. I spied a navel orange in the fruit basket. Mmm… citrus and miso, now that sounds good. Into the blender went the orange juice. For the miso, I decided to use just white miso, not a heartier, saltier red miso. I blended those with rice vinegar, honey, and shallot, then drizzled in a mix of vegetable and sesame oil to make a creamy, golden dressing. The rest of the salad, I admit, was just what was in my refrigerator: shiitake mushrooms, leftover edamame, some thinly sliced green onions. I put it together and Alex and I tasted it: pretty good, but it needed some more color. “Baby beet greens,” I wrote in the recipe; it was a long shot. Who even has beet greens anyways? Well, I do in the spring if I’m growing beets, but I certainly didn’t expect that anyone would go out and buy them.

I typed up the recipe, sent it off (as usual, just before the deadline), and forgot all about it. Imagine my surprise when I heard from Sunset’s editors a few months later. I was so excited, and we really did use the prize money to go to Kauai for our honeymoon the next summer.

Alex still loves this dressing, and making our own dressing is cheaper than buying bottled dressing at the store (what a waste!). I’ve made a few improvements over the years. I think the most important thing is to use freshly squeezed orange juice. In fact, if you have the orange’s zest, add that too. I have made the dressing with bottled orange juice, but the flavor just isn’t the same. If you must use bottled juice, add some lemon juice or vinegar to give it a little extra zip. I use Kyoto’s sweet, light, Saikyo miso. I switched from rice vinegar to a milder brown rice vinegar and the dressing was a bit on the sweet side. The balance of acid and sweetness will vary between different vinegars and miso so you’ll have to adjust the amount of honey to your own taste. Finally, less is more with the shallot—the dressing will be thick and have an assertive oniony funk if you add too much. If you don’t have shallot, don’t worry about it, try seasoning the dressing with a bit of ginger or even myoga instead.

I noticed that Sunset recently published a similar very recipe that added tahini and adjusted the amounts of vinegar and honey, so it looks like they’ve been making improvements too.

Back to the other night: since it was vegetari-ish night, we had large servings of the salad for dinner. Alex came up with a great way to add more protein and crunch at the same time. Deep fry sheets of abura-age, drain well, and season lightly with salt. Chopped up, they’re like high-protein croutons (maybe we can call them tofu-tons 😉 ).

Honeymoon Miso Dressing
by Laurel Swift

1 small shallot
1/3 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons high-quality rice vinegar
2 scant tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons Saikyo miso
3 tablespoons grapeseed or vegetable oil
3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds.

Roughly chop the shallot. Add the shallot to the orange juice, soy sauce, vinegar, honey, and miso. Blend until smooth. Next, drizzle the vegetable and sesame oil into the dressing with the blender running. The dressing should be creamy and slightly thickened. Finally stir in the sesame seeds. This recipe makes a generous cup (about 300 mL) of dressing.

*Tip: I make my dressing with a tall, half-liter measuring beaker and a stick-blender. It’s just the right size and easier to clean than a standard blender.

Honeymoon Miso Salad

1 head butter lettuce, washed and torn into bite-sized pieces
2 sheets abura-age (thin fried tofu)
10 medium shiitake mushrooms, or substitute king oyster, maitake, or other mushrooms
vegetable oil
1/2 cup shelled, cooked edamame (frozen edamame are fine)
3 scallions, sliced thinly on the diagonal
orange segments
Honeymoon Miso Dressing

Fill a pot or wok with vegetable oil about 1-inch deep. The oil should be hot enough to sizzle when you add the abura-age. Cut the abura-age into strips and fry them one sheet at a time until they are crispy. The abura-age will float, so use wooden chopsticks or tongs to flip them. Drain well on paper towels and season lightly with salt.

Slice the mushrooms about 1/4 inch thick. In a frying pan, heat about 1 tablespoon of oil (You can use a bit of the frying oil). Add the mushrooms, season with salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned.

In a large bowl, toss the lettuce with 2 tablespoons of dressing. Pile the dressed greens on large plates. Top with mushrooms, fried abura-age strips, edamame, onions, and oranges. Sprinkle with more sesame seeds and serve the remaining dressing on the side.


A new year, a new plan February 4, 2010

A new year is beginning, and we decided quite a while ago that this will be our last year in Japan. That’s right, we’re going home (or somewhere new) in August. As the days pass, I can see the signs of the seasons changing. In the fall, we had our last gorgeous Japanese grapes, our last Japanese persimmons, our last Japanese nashi. Apples are still plentiful at the store, but they’re not as crisp and fragrant as the fall varieties. Just the other day I saw the first ume blossoms of the year. Our last ume (though these will be blooming for months still).

Thinking about all of the wonderful sights, smells, and tastes in Japan that come and go with the seasons, I couldn’t help but realize that we’ve fallen into a routine. I try to make interesting, exciting dinners, but our fall-back easy dinner is rice, salad, miso soup, and grilled salted fish. Ichiyaboshi hokke, shio-jake, shio-saba, sometimes a miso-zuke or kasu-zuke gindara… but the routine is always the same: out of the package and into the broiler. There are so many delicious varieties of fish and seafood available here; they’re super-fresh and really cheap compared to back home in Colorado. So I’m on a mission to eat seafood twice a week. Why twice a week? Well, that’s because burnable garbage day is twice a week (Monday and Thursday), and twice a week will demand some creativity whereas once a week I could fall victim to my own routine-loving laziness. So seafood night is Sunday and Wednesday (so I can put out any bones, shells, or guts in the next day’s trash). It’s not just good for my tastebuds, seafood is full of good stuff like protein, omega-3s, and vitamin E. And seafood is easier on the environment (in some ways) than meats like pork and beef.

Of course, I don’t want my new dining plan to be wreaking havoc on the seas, so I’ll try to stick to sustainable fish as much as possible. My go-to source is usually Monterey Bay Aquarium’s seafood watch list. Of course, their lists are for customers based in the US, so it’s a little more challenging to find out what’s a good choice and what’s to avoid in Japan, but I’ll do my best. Luckily, I can find the country of origin labeled right on every package at the store here.

While we’re at it, we’re also having vegetari-ish night once a week too. So far it’s been Mondays, but I may be moving my weekly Japanese lessons to Monday night so vegetari-ish night will have to get the boot (probably to Thursday or Saturday). Vegetari-ish night means a mostly vegetarian meal, but since we’re not strictly vegetarians ourselves I’m willing to make exceptions for some flavorful background players like dashi, fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce (well, I don’t have any anyways, but if I did it would be ok), oyster sauce, small amounts of tiny dried shrimp or scallops, or stock (since it’s made from an item that would otherwise be wasted; plus my freezer is tiny, so I can’t keep my chicken stock around forever… if I’ve got it, I’ll use it). There is some continuing debate over whether a small amount (an ounce per person) of bacon, say in a lentil soup or veggie chowder, would still meet the goals of our plan, but we’ve had enough other veggie meals in the week that a little bacon hasn’t thrown any kinks into the plan yet.

So far (well, it’s only been a few weeks), seafood night and veggie night have been a big hit. I feel like I’m thinking more creatively and we’re enjoying the bounty that’s available locally. And I feel like we’re eating more healthily and environmentally.

The inaugural veggie night dinner was saag paneer with homemade paneer (it was a holiday–this is definitely not an after-work recipe if you’ll be making the paneer yourself). The paneer recipe is adapted from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s Mangoes and Curry Leaves, and the saag recipe is based on Madhur Jaffrey’s recipe and this recipe from Olive magazine. Instead of water, I used some of the leftover whey from making paneer as the liquid in the recipe. I liked being able to use something that would have gone to waste otherwise, but it was a little bit more sour than I expected (because of the vinegar in the whey). In the future I’ll probably use a 50/50 mix of whey and water.

Saag Paneer

1 liter milk
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice or vinegar (I use rice vinegar)

1 to 2 bunches fresh spinach, washed and trimmed
vegetable oil or butter
1 yellow onion
5 garlic cloves
1 to 2 inch piece of fresh ginger
1 tablespoon tomato paste
seeds of 10 cardamom pods
6 cloves
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon turmeric or curry powder
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
dried New Mexico green chile powder to taste
1 cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon garam masala

Place the milk in a large pot and heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until it’s just below the boil. Take off the heat. Add the lemon juice and stir with a clean wooden spoon. You will see the curds separate out, looking like blobby bits floating on the surface. Keep on stirring the milk for several minutes, then set aside.

Moisten a piece of cheesecloth or loose-weave cotton cloth (I use Japanese sarashi cloth), place a sieve over a large bowl, and line it with the cloth (fold the cheesecloth so you have several layers to line the sieve). Pour in the the milk mixture. Pour cold water over it to rinse off the taste of the souring agent, then let drain. The liquid will gradually drain through the curds into the bowl: pull the cloth tightly around the curds to press out extra liquid, or tie the top of the cloth to make a bag and hang it on a hook over the bowl to drain. You will have soft moist cheese in about 30 minutes. Transfer to a clean bowl and scrape any remaining curds off the cloth into the bowl.

Next, working with clean wet hads, shape the curds together into a square block. Wrap tightly in cheesecloth or a clean cotton cloth and place on a plate. Put a heavy weight on top to press the moisture out of the cheese. From time to time, pour off any liquid that has accumulated. After 4 hours or so, the cheese will be very firm and drier. Make the paneer a day ahead of time or set aside while you make the saag.

Chop the onion, ginger, and garlic finely. I use a stick blender in a tall, glass measuring cup. Or use a food processor. Blanch the spinach in a large pot of boiling water and then chop (I don’t have a food processor, but you could use one here to chop the spinach finely). Grind the cardamom seeds and cloves in a spice grinder (you can use whole spices, but then you would need to fish them out before you puree the saag. Of course, it’s not a problem if you puree the spinach in a food processor before adding it to the pot. Hmm…).

Heat a large pot over medium heat. Add a bit of butter or vegetable oil. Cook the onion, garlic, and ginger with a pinch of salt until softened and golden. Next add the tomato paste, cardamom, clove, coriander, cumin, turmeric, black pepper, chile powder, and cinnamon stick. Stir and cook for about a minute until fragrant. Add the chopped spinach, bay leaves, and about half a cup to a cup of water. Stir and cook until the spinach becomes tender and well-cooked (at least 20 minutes). Stir occasionally and add more water as necessary. If you haven’t yet, fish out the bay leaves and cinnamon stick and puree the saag. Be careful, it’s hot! Add garam masala and season with salt to taste.

Cut the paneer into bite-sized cubes or triangles. Heat some oil in a cast iron frying pan. Add the paneer to the pan and brown. Turn and continue cooking until hot and browned. Add the paneer to the saag and stir gently (the homemade paneer may crumble easily).

Serve hot with naan or rice.


What’s in my freezer? February 2, 2010

Filed under: Cooking,Eating,Four seasons in Japan,Japan — laurel @ 10:27 pm
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Let’s play what’s in my freezer. I’ll give you a hint, it has ten legs and tastes delicious.

If you guessed 6 kilos of frozen snow crab, you’re our big winner! Just delivered today, straight to my door for just 9450 yen. Sure, it’s a lot of money, and we’ll be eating crab like it’s going out of style, but I’ve been meaning to try out some mail-order seafood while we’re here, and it was a price (per kilo) that I just couldn’t pass up. I placed the order on Friday night, and it was delivered C.O.D. on Tuesday at 6:30, right on schedule. After that it just took a few minutes to pack it up into ziploc bags (I had to break off the legs and break them into smaller pieces, but we’d need to do that to eat them anyways) and then came the hard part, squeezing them into my tiny freezer that didn’t have a lot of room to spare in the first place.

My freezer is officially F-U-L-L.