Grilled as you like it

Nakiri-bocho April 20, 2010

Filed under: Cooking,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 10:50 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

I picked this bad boy up in Kappabashi last summer. It’s a nakiri-bocho, or vegetable cutting knife. At first, it might not sound so useful because it’s just for cutting vegetables… not as versatile as a chef’s knife. However, I find that I use it almost every night. Vegetables are probably the thing that you cut most, and this knife does it well. It’s super sharp and thin, so you can get nice, even slices. It does a great job cutting crisp vegetables like lotus roots that tend to split when you cut them with a thicker chef’s knife. And the lightness and flat cutting edge allow you to get into a really fast cutting rhythm (just watch your fingers). It really shines when cutting an herb chiffonade or whisper thin rings of green onion. The thin blade, however, means it’s not for cutting really hard things like kabocha or other winter squash. I also reserve this knife just for fruits and vegetables (though I don’t thing the shape would be very good for cutting meat anyways).

Since I only cut fruits and vegetables with it, cleanup is just a quick rinse and dry. Even though it’s “stainless,” it can’t be left sitting around wet or with vegetables stuck on it, as it will rust on the cutting edge. But with just a little care, it stays in fine condition. I also take time to sharpen it on a whetstone occasionally (about once every month or two). A regular high-carbon steel knife will have more of a tendency to rust, so it is even more important to wash and dry it right away after using it.

Another benefit of a nakiri-bocho is that unlike many Japanese knives which have single-edged blades, the nakiri-bocho is sharpened on both sides, so it can be used by both left- and right-handers (which is handy in my kitchen since I’m left-handed and Alex is right handed).

I bought mine at Kama-Asa Shoten in Kappabashi. As a service, they’ll also engrave your name on your knife. My knife is 速月桂樹 (hayai-gekkeiju), which is my last and first name translated into Japanese. My students always get a good laugh when I tell them they can remember my name as hayai-gekkeiju; I suppose the mental image of a branch of laurel running by quickly is pretty funny.

So if you’re looking to add a traditional Japanese knife to your collection, I highly recommend a nakiri-bocho.


Spaghetti with Mentaiko Cream Sauce April 19, 2010

Filed under: Cooking,Japan,recipes — laurel @ 10:14 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

spaghetti with mentaiko cream sauce and squid at Mashimo

First of all, I’ll be honest, that’s not a picture of my spaghetti with mentaiko cream sauce. I was hungry, and my spaghetti wasn’t about to sit around and wait until I took it’s picture, so I ate it. But it was so good that I thought I should share the recipe, so here’s a picture of spaghetti with mentaiko cream sauce at Mashimo restaurant. (theirs also looks a bit prettier than mine)

My local grocery store, Apita, had a big Kyushu food festival over the weekend, which meant there were lots of vendors with famous products from Kyushu like black sugar, sweet potato desserts, tonkotsu ramen, mugi miso, and mentaiko. Mentaiko are pollock or cod eggs that are marinated with chiles, and a famous product of Fukuoka City in Kyushu. The mentaiko looked pretty good, and I had regretted not buying some when I was in Kyushu last fall, so I decided to make spaghetti with mentaiko cream sauce for dinner. These were salty, savory, and spicy, but not too spicy.

I noticed a jar of capers in the pantry when I was getting out the spaghetti and thought that the salty flavor of capers would go well with the mentaiko so I chopped up a spoonful of those and added them too. It wasn’t until after I had put the mentaiko into the hot oil that I realized that I should have removed the eggs from the membranes first. Oops. (RECIPE UPDATE: I made this again and decided that it is much better to stir the mentaiko in just before serving so that they stay raw. They are less tough and more flavorful this way.) After letting the eggs and capers cook for a few seconds in a mix of olive oil and butter, I added some milk and cream and simmered in briefly to make a sauce. Finally I stirred in the pasta and some chopped parsley and it was ready to eat. Simple and delicious!

Spaghetti with Mentaiko Cream Sauce (UPDATED RECIPE!)
by Laurel Swift

100 grams mentaiko
1 clove garlic, grated on microplane or oroshi-ki
1 teaspoon salt-packed capers, rinsed and chopped
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 to 2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup milk and cream, mixed to your taste
200 grams spaghetti
chopped fresh parsley

Heat a large pot salted of water to a boil.

Remove mentaiko eggs from the membrane. Soak the membranes in the milk and cream that you’ll use for the sauce to save any remaining flavorful goodness. Discard the membranes.

Heat the butter and olive oil in a large frying pan or pot (A wide-bottomed pot with high sides is actually good here because the mentaiko have a tendency to pop and jump when the hit the hot oil). Add the garlic and capers and brown for about 30 seconds. Add the milk and cream. Simmer for a minute or two until slightly thickened. Turn off heat until the pasta is ready.

While you’re cooking the sauce, add the spaghetti to the pot. Cook until al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving some of the cooking water.

Add the cooked pasta to the pan of sauce and gently cook in the sauce for about a minute. Add some of the reserved pasta water or some milk if the sauce isn’t liquid enough. Just before serving add the mentaiko and stir until they are evenly incorporated. Sprinkle with chopped fresh parsley and serve.


Oden April 18, 2010

Winter is over, but the recent cold and rainy weather means it’s still a great time to enjoy oden, a long simmered mix of root and sea vegetables, eggs, tofu, and fishcakes that is sometimes referred to as Japanese comfort food. A steaming pot of oden is a great day to warm up on a cold day, so it can really get you through the winter. Another great thing about oden is that it’s even better on the second day, after all of the bits have had time to soak up the broth overnight. So you can put together the oden on a weekend when you’ve got time, park it in the fridge for a night or two, and then reheat it to enjoy it during the week.

I made oden for a party, but when you’re making oden for eight the hardest part might just be finding a pot that’s big enough to simmer all that stuff in. I made do with a two-pot arrangement where I used one pot to blanch the age-mono (fried things like fish cakes, fried tofu, and tofu pouches which need to be simmered to remove the frying oil), konnyaku, and boil the eggs and a second, broth-filled pot. When I had finished blanching ingredients and boiling eggs I split the broth into two pots and simmered all of the ingredients for about 3 hours. In fact, even with my two largest pots, there wasn’t quite enough room to fit the eggs in the pot, so I just put them into the storage containers to absorb the flavor of the broth overnight. Actually, this proved to be a stroke of luck because the eggs were flavorful but still had a nice, slightly soft orange yolk since they didn’t simmer for so long with the rest of the goodies.

So there’s about half of my party oden at the top of the page: two types of age kamaboko, konnyaku triangles, daikon, carrot-gobo kamaboko, shiitake mushrooms, thick fried tofu, hampen, boiled eggs, shirataki bundles, chikuwa, age-tofu pouches filled with mochi or egg and tied with kampyo, shrimp surimi balls, and kombu. My favorites are the carrot-gobo kamaboko, eggs, shirataki, and stuffed age-tofu pouches. Another tasty idea from Jiman no Nabe Ryori is Nagoya style oden made with the usual suspects, plus skewered beef tendon and a rich, Hatcho miso broth.

Typically oden is served with sinus-searing karashi mustard, but not being partial to such an intense burn, I also mixed up a slightly sweeter and milder mustard-miso mix to go with mine. (more…)


Miso in the mail April 15, 2010

Filed under: Cooking,Eating,Japan — laurel @ 10:49 pm
Tags: , , ,

If you live outside Japan, you might be tempted to believe (due to the selection that’s available at most stores) that miso comes in two varieties: white and red. Well think that no more. Miso, a fermented paste of soy beans, salt, and koji (a special kind of mold that is usually used by inoculating rice or barley), is a delicious and many-flavored thing. There are so many different varieties that vary by regional tastes and traditions. Basically, Kyushu is home to mugi miso made with barley, different varieties of kome miso made with rice are found across Honshu, and Nagoya is the birthplace of the slightly funky-tasting all-soybean Hatcho miso. In addition to color (varying shades of brown, but usually described as white or red) miso can be classified by it’s texture, level of sweetness to saltiness, and flavorfulness. Many misos are associated with the region they originated in: Saikyo (Kyoto), Echigo (Niigata), Edo-mae (Tokyo), Akita, Shinshu (Nagano), Sendai, and the list continues. Most families keep at least two types to mix their own special blend, called awase miso.

A glowing review in the Japan Times led me to Sano Miso in Tokyo’s Kameido neighborhood. I love seeing their rows of miso barrels with their conical lids, ready to be lifted for a whiff of the miso’s fragrance. The sales staff helpfully made recommendations and would mix up quick cups of miso soup so that I could taste and compare the flavors. There are so many varieties, so it’s really necessary to taste a few before you make your decision. In addition to miso, the store stocks other pantry necessities like dried kombu, katsuo flakes, soy sauces, vinegars, and so on. I highly recommend the giant, delicious, and not too sour umeboshi and the jidai mame, peanuts with a sweet, crunchy coating.

At first, I would stop in when I was in Tokyo on other business, but the train ride out to Kameido and back wasn’t exactly quick. On my last visit, I asked if I could get my miso by mail order. What luck, they gave me their catalog and their web address. Not only can I have my miso delivered right to my door, but with shipping all over Honshu just 290 yen, mail order costs less than a round trip on the train. How wonderful!

After poring over the descriptions of each miso (and finishing the miso that I still had from my previous visit to the Kameido store), I prepared my order. I settled on 500 grams each of red Kogane miso, white Kogane miso, Nagasaki mugi miso, and Sendai miso, along with a case of amazake and a few bags of jidai mame. My order arrived just a few days later with a bill to be paid at the convenience store. And the miso? Fantastic–my favorites are the red Kogane miso and Nagasaki mugi miso, both of which are sweet and flavorful. (I have been very happy with all of the miso that I’ve bought from Sano Miso, with the one exception being their Saikyo miso, which seemed too mild and a bit floury tasting.)

500 grams each (left to right) of white Kogane miso, Nagasaki mugi miso, red Kogane miso, and Sendai miso.

I store my miso in 450 mL glass storage jars from Muji (the stackable rectangular shape fits in the refrigerator more efficiently). I was surprised that I could fit 500 grams of miso in a 450 mL container (with room to spare) until I realized that the salt used to produce the miso makes it somewhat more dense than water. Not surprisingly, the saltiest of the four, Sendai miso, takes up the least space.

If you’re interested in ordering some miso for yourself (in Japan of course), start from Sano Miso’s website. Even if you’re Japanese isn’t quite up to snuff, you can do it easily with some help from Google Translate.


Tsukiji market tuna auction closed to public until May April 14, 2010

Filed under: Eating,Four seasons in Japan,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 10:57 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji Central Wholesale Market, the center of the world’s seafood trade, has closed the famed tuna auctions to tourists until May 8th (see the story in Mainichi Daily News). Although the market has closed the auctions to tourists during the busy New Year’s season, this is the first time that they have been closed outside of that time period. It’s too bad, but on my last visit I did notice that the long lines of (slightly clueless) tourists were in the way and some of the workers at the market seemed frustrated with their mere presence. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the market is completely closed–you can still enjoy a delicious sushi breakfast in the outer market and peruse the shops there. Once the auctions reopen, if you go, stay out of the way of ongoing business, look out for those turret trucks, and don’t touch the fish!

turret truck traffic