Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Week Fifteen: A Journey to Japan

I began my week of Japanese cuisine with a serious history lesson taking me back in time to the third century when rice cultivation began and the Japanese shifted focus from hunting to farming.  I was fascinated by the constant shifts in Japanese society due to Chinese influence.  In particular, I was surprised to learn how the Chinese and Buddhist influences led to a decree which outlawed the killing of animals, even fishing.  The ninth century brought an end to the decree against hunters and fisherman, and the cultivation of Japanese cuisine as we know it today emerged.

As I considered a week of Japanese cuisine, I couldn’t stop thinking about the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi.  Jiro’s dedication to his craft and insistence on serving the highest quality ingredients inspired and haunted me.  I felt like I needed to honor this week’s dishes with the utmost integrity.  Perhaps that is also why I chose not to make sushi.  Too much pressure…I’d rather leave that one to the experts.  Instead, I focused on dishes that highlight the flavor profiles of Japanese cuisine:  soy sauce, miso, mirin, ginger, scallion, and rice vinegar.  In this challenge, I learned one important lesson…

Respect the Miso.

I should have learned that lesson when I made Cod in Miso Sauce on Wednesday, but I assumed the saltiness of the sauce was a result of common Japanese flavor profiles unfamiliar to my palate.  When I made Miso Soup later in the week, I didn’t just learn the lesson of respect for miso.  It smacked me in the face!  Consider the message received…loud and clear.  I will forever be more respectful in its use after experiencing its power in excess.

Wednesday Night Dinner:  Cold Spinach with Sesame, Cod in Miso Sauce, and Umeboshi Rice
This menu resulted from a few different inspirations.  Fortunately, my mishmash of ideas formed into a cohesive dinner that I enjoyed in individual components and as a whole.

Cold Spinach with Sesame
I wanted to include a vegetable on the menu, and upon reading Mark Bittman’s recipe for Cold Spinach with Sesame in his The Best Recipes in the World, my interest piqued at its simplicity.  In effect, that is the very essence of why this dish was my favorite bite in the meal.  The cold, previously-blanched fresh spinach and toasted sesame seeds are elevated by the slight subtle inclusions of soy sauce and sesame oil.

I have eaten at “Japan Fusion” in Guangzhou, China, on several occasions with co-workers and friends during my travels.  It is a large restaurant that touts itself as the largest Japanese restaurant in Asia.  Two dishes from there stand out in my memory:  Fried Chicken Knuckles (gristly nuggets that I can live without) and Snowfish (the moistest, most delicious cod I’ve ever encountered).  Inspired by fond memories of that cod, I endeavored to prepare cod filets in miso sauce (also based on a recipe in Mark Bittman’s Best Recipes).  I sprinkled the filets with salt and refrigerated them for a few hours to dry the exterior of the fish for the proper texture.  Then, I washed off the salt and smothered the fish in a paste of miso and soy sauce for another hour.  Finally, I washed off the miso paste, coated the top of the fish with a thin layer of the miso/soy mixture, and broiled the fish.  All in all, it was a delicious preparation, but I could have used less miso.  When I made this dish, I used a dark miso aged up to eighteen months, and I did not understand how much saltier and more full-bodied it was compared to a white miso.  In retrospect, the final dish would have been more appetizing if I had either spread a thinner layer of the mixture over the fish or used a white miso.
Cod in Miso Sauce, Umeboshi Rice
Those little packages of umeboshi catch my eye every time I walk down the “International Cuisine” aisle in Whole Foods.  Unfailingly, I pick up the package, consider what I could do with them, and put them back on the shelf thinking that I am not ready to invest $17 yet.  This week, I put them in my shopping cart.  Inspired by several different recipes for umeboshi rice I found online, I made traditional Japanese short-grained rice (sticky rice) and incorporated chopped bits of umbeboshi into the dish.  Mark Bittman recommends the addition of fresh shiso and notes that a combination of basil and mint will provide a similar flavor profile in its absence, so I added chopped basil and mint to my rice, too.  All in all, the dish was quite delicious, and the hubs actually raved about the rice more than anything else at dinner that night.

Thursday Night Dinner:  Miso Soup, Cold Soba Noodles with Dipping Sauce, Chicken Teriyaki, and Panfried Miso-Glazed Eggplant (Nasu Miso)
Miso Soup
I came home from work and immediately started making Dashi for the Miso Soup and the Dipping Sauce for the Cold Soba Noodles.  I began a plan to make the dishes on my menu in an organized fashion.  I prepped vegetables, made sauces, and boiled noodles.  While the eggplant softened in the sauté pan and the chicken bubbled in its teriyaki sauce, I made the Miso Soup.  Having decided that this would be a quintessential element of the night’s menu, I took care to closely follow Mark Bittman’s directions for making an authentic Miso Soup.  When I added the miso, I was shocked at the dark brown color of the soup and considered that I had just made the most authentic, rich and delicious miso soup that I would ever taste.  I quickly snapped photos and called out to the hubs that I was ready for us to begin dinner.   I grabbed our two bowls of miso soup and sat down at the table in anticipation of my brilliant first course….then, we tasted the soup.  Possibly the worst thing I have ever served us.  I couldn’t believe how inedible this soup was!  I had spent time researching several different recipes for miso soup, and this one appeared to have the same general ratios as all of the others.  The next day, I plowed through recipe after recipe for miso soup looking for answers, and I discovered the fault of my execution.  In over ten different recipes, only one included this special instruction next to the recommended amount of miso:  “add miso in moderation and to taste as some misos are stronger than others.”  If only I had read these words before I made the soup.  I also noticed that most recipes simply called for “miso” while several specifically included “white miso” which would have definitely resulted in a much milder flavor than that of my full-bodied dark miso.  Next time, I’ll know better. 

Cold Soba Noodles with Dipping
Sauce and Condiments
During this week’s research, I discovered a great food blog called Just Hungry, which focuses primarily on Japanese cuisine.  I turned to this blog for direction in making two dishes for this night’s menu.  The Cold Soba Noodles with Dipping Sauce intrigued me, and I must say this dish was a big hit!  Not wanting to fill us up to quickly, I only served a small portion of noodles to my husband who promptly devoured them and went back to the kitchen for more.  I served fresh ginger, toasted sesame seeds, nori, and scallions as condiments for the sauce, and we used them all.  Great dish for a summer night!

Chicken Teriyaki
Miso-Glazed Eggplant
I also turned to Just Hungry for a Teriyaki Chicken recipe.  I love this blog because in addition to providing a recipe, it explains the origin of the dish.  Interestingly, most of us think of “teriyaki” as a sauce, but in actuality, it is the name of the cooking method.  “Teri” means shining, and “Yaki” means pan-fried.  This simple presentation of chicken thighs in a sauce of soy, fresh ginger, mirin, and sugar was delicious.  I served it with Japanese eggplant and peppers that I sautéed and mixed with a miso sauce. 

Sunday Night Japanese BBQ:  Grilled Onigiri, Tokyo-Style Grilled Chicken Dumplings, Bacon-Grilled Enotake Muschrooms, Yakitori, Negima
In Planet Barbecue, Steven Raichlen includes several recipes and explanations of grilled Japanese dishes most of which are considered popular street food.  I selected several recipes from his cookbook and added a couple of other grilled dishes that I read about in other places to create a tasting menu by the grill.  We started with a bucket of ice-cold Sapporo beer and grilled each dish one at a time.  
Grilled Onigiri
Quite simply, onigiri are balls of sticky rice.  It’s a portable option for rice that is even sold in convenience stores in Japan.  They can be shaped in different sizes and sometimes they are even stuffed.  As a special treat, they can be grilled although this is not the traditional presentation for them.  I had leftover sticky rice and umeboshi, so I opted to make a few plain rice balls and a few stuffed with umeboshi.  We brushed them with a mixture of soy sauce and mirin while they grilled just until crispy all around.  I must say it was a tasty morsel although I think I should have only used about half of an umeboshi for filling.  The whole one was a bit overpowering.

Tokyo-Style Grilled Chicken Dumplings
Next, we made Steven Raichlen’s Tokyo-Style Grilled Chicken Dumplings.  Following Raichlen’s recipe, I used my food processor to pulse together chicken thighs, chicken fat, scallions, fresh ginger, coriando, black pepper, egg whites, and cornstarch just until they were combined and still chunky.  (According to Raichlen, this texture is the key to making authentic dumplings.)  The only thing I will change when I make them again is to simply make the patties without the fuss of the skewers.  I didn’t find them necessary in grilling.  Otherwise, the flavors were amazing, and the dumplings were moist and delicious.  This was the group’s favorite bite of the evening.
Bacon-Grilled Enotake Mushrooms
Bacon-Grilled Enotake Mushrooms was the dish I was most excited to try.  Unfortunately, they were also the most disappointing bite of the evening.  The chewiness of the mushroom stems was almost unbearable.  Honestly, this is the first time I ever cooked with Enotake mushrooms. Maybe I didn’t cut off enough of the stem.  I’m not sure where they went wrong.


Yakitori was the final selection from Steve Raichlen’s cookbook.  This is the ultimate street fare.  The key to authentic yakitori is the tare, a syrupy sauce of chicken stock, soy sauce, mirin, sugar, scallions, garlic, ginger, and lemon zest.  The chicken is grilled just until it is cooked on all of the outer surfaces, then it is dunked in the tare.  After another few minutes of cooking, it is dunked in the tare again.  In addition, tare is also served a dipping sauce with the final product.  All in all, this was a nice grilled item.


Negima served as our final grilled bite of the evening.  I pounded out thin slices of sirloin, slathered them with soy sauce, and rolled them around bundles of scallions that had soaked in a mixture of soy sauce, rice vinegar, and mirin.  Just before putting them on the grill, we brushed them with the soy mixture, again.  These were definitely a treat!  The bite of the scallions with the sweet sauce and rich beef created a balanced and satisfying flavor.

Matcha Ice Cream

Taking a cue from memories of childhood summer barbecues, I knew that the perfect ending to the evening would be homemade ice cream.  I found several mentions of Matcha Ice Cream being served for dessert in Japanese restaurants, and I decided that would be an appropriate ending for our Japanese barbecue.   I found a minimalist recipe on the blog Just One Cookbook which included only half and half, sugar, match powder, and a pinch of salt.  The result was a delicious sweet ice cream.  With the tea, it even felt a bit like a palate cleanser after so many rich meats and sauces.  A perfect ending to a gorgeous night in the backyard!

All in all, my week of Japanese cuisine revealed nuances that I had not expected to discover.  Although I never enjoy failure, I must admit that I had a really good laugh about my miso miss.  Sometimes it's good to have a few misses, because it makes the hits so much sweeter.

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