Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Miso soup, my way

Miso soup: comforting; warm; and importantly - cheap.

A simple cup of miso soup and a conbini onigiri is probably the cheapest (and perhaps healthiest) lunch you can grab on the run in Japan. Miso soup is usually made with dashi (fish stock), miso, and something else - maybe a bit of wakame (seaweed) or negi (Japanese leek - my favourite), or sometimes tofu or clams. In Washoku, the author gives a recipe for dark miso soup with sweet potatoes. Two weeks ago or so, I bought an admirably large specimen - sweet potatoes in Japan can feed a family of four, if need be. Then I did some stuff, and some other stuff happened, and I got a bad cold, and I didn't cook much, I just lay around the apartment and survived on chocolate chip melonpans. (Colds respond nicely to chocolate chip melonpans - they don't cure you, but they make you feel better about things) And the sweet potato waited patiently for me, in the bottom of my cupboard. When I finally felt better, I opened up my cupboard, and took it out, with every intention of following the recipe in Washoku.

But all that non-cooking had gotten to me, and I felt the need to mess around with stuff, so I came up with my own recipe, inspired by that one. I call it "My Way Sweet Potato Miso Soup", because I'm sure if I fed this to a Japanese person, they'd be surprised. You don't want to mess around with miso soup on a Japanese person, it's upsetting to them. It's like, if you were making a peanut butter sandwich for a kid, and you went and added - I don't know - slices of chocolate cake. Or brownie chunks. You know, they'd eat it, and they'd definitely enjoy it. They might even ask for another one. But you'd be hard pressed to get that kid into agreeing it was a peanut butter sandwich.

So here it is. I had some small-batch miso (hatcho and aka) from a small soybean shop in Takayama that had a nice depth of flavour. But if you have regular miso on hand, that's fine too. Don't worry about it too much. I also had some chili oil made from Takayama chilis and some of the shichimi togarashi I got there, as well, that I used as a garnish.

My home-made chili oil:
My Way Sweet Potato Miso Soup

4 cups sweet potato, diced
4 cups dashi (or meat stock)
1 Japanese Leek (negi) thinly sliced, or three green onions
4 tbsp. miso (I used two hatcho; two aka)
3 tbsp. sesame oil
2 tbsp. mirin (or a few pinches of sugar at the end)
1 tbsp. soy sauce (use the good stuff, please - no V-1!)

Peel and cube your sweet potato. In Japan, they're yellow inside, and susceptible to discoloration, but the orange ones available in Canada should be fine. In a big soup-making pot, heat the sesame oil, then saute the negi in the oil until they go limp. Add the miso, and cook it stirring to prevent burning for another three minutes or so. Add the mirin and soy sauce, and a little sake if you have it on hand. Toss in the sweet potato, and stir it around to coat it in the miso mixture. Let this cook for a few minutes, just to get the miso flavour into the potato a little. Then add your dashi, and lower the heat. Cover the pot, and let the soup simmer until the potatoes are soft all the way through. Then blend it smooth with a food mill or immersion blender or similar. Or don't - just mash the potato up a bit with a fork to thicken the soup.

I garnished my soup with sprinkles of shichimi togarashi, shredded negi that had been soaked in cold water for 10 minutes to take out the harshness, and swirls of homemade chili oil. We ate our soup with bowls of rice mixed with sesame seeds (a la Soup Stock Tokyo) and tsukemono, but this would go well with fresh bread, too.

I have a lot more to say on the subject of sweet potatoes. I will post more about them later.

As for the miso, you might be looking at this recipe and thinking, "Wow, it looks good, but do I really need a tub of miso lurking at the back of my fridge for months and me with only one recipe for it?" Fear not, kids. I will post about more fun things to do with miso. Stay tuned.

(And for my friends in Korea - you can use Deonjang as a miso substitute. Not that you cook, or anything.)

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Simple Potatoes, on the side

As I've mentioned before, one of my favourite things about going to a Korean restaurant was enjoying the side dishes, or panchan, included free of charge with the meal. These side dishes were made from whatever vegetables the kitchen decided to use, and varied seasonally, and with the moods of the staff. Part of the fun of going out to dinner was the anticipation for the side dishes - to paraphrase Cartman from South Park, wondering what side dishes we would be enjoying with the meal.

Somethings were quite common, and very Westerner-friendly - such as pan-fried spinach with sesame oil and garlic, or small boiled quail's eggs with salt and pepper for dipping. Barbecue restaurants often featured some sort of creamy salad, like pasta or potato salad. (And cheap places offered mounds of shredded cabbage with a mayo-ketchup dressing) Other panchan were more challenging, like raw crabs fermented in chili sauce, or raw-oyster studded kimchi.

I always enjoyed getting a potato panchan, because thanks to my North American upbringing, a meal never quite felt complete unless it involved some sort of potato. Normally, this craving could be satisfied with the aforementioned creamy salad. But other times there might be whole baby potatoes, simmered in soy sauce and malt syrup (better than they sound). One of my favourites was extremely simple, and I remembered it the other day, when I was staring crankily at two runty potatoes that were malingering in my kitchen.

In Korea, this panchan came with matchstick potatoes fried in sesame oil, garlic, salt, and green chili. Since I wanted to make this to fill out my bento, I made it without the garlic, as I always feel shy about using a lot of garlic in Japan. Instead, I cut the two potatoes into thin matchsticks, heated up a frypan, and added about two tablespoons of sesame oil. The potatoes go in for about five minutes - the key is to madly toss them about in the hot oil, getting them coated, and cooking them no more than until they're still a little firm when you bite them. (Try not to lose too many behind the stove; this really annoys the person tasked with cleaning up.) Then, I season them heavily with the shichimi togarashi I'd bought in Takayama. This is a a flavourful seasoning that isn't particularly spicy, and worth picking up if you're curious about it. If not, try using Montreal steak spice. This takes only minutes to make - most of the work is in cutting the potatoes. It's great for lunch the next day, or in a morning omelette.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Squash Salad

Okay, it's not really a salad.

In Japan, the most commonly available squash in the fall is the kabocha. It tastes a lot like the buttercup squash I grew up eating (Microwaved with brown sugar and butter in the middle where the seeds have been scooped out - try it; you'll like it.), but just a bit sweeter, with a faint marshmallowy taste.I like squash a lot, but the best squash I had in recent memory was an acorn squash dish my friend Canadian Bento made last winter while I was visiting her. She roasted it in the oven for a while, and then mashed it up with a secret ingredient - vanilla. She didn't tell us what was in it before she made it, but when I tried it and insisted on knowing what made it so incredible, she revealed the secret - which she's gotten at a Las Vegas buffet, of all places. Which I hear are pretty great these days.

Well, there isn't any acorn squash to be had around my parts, so I picked up an kabocha the other weekend, knowing that it would sit happily in my crisper until later in the week when it could be dealt with. Thursday night, I made shoga yaki - fried ginger pork on rice - so I knew we'd want some sort of creamy side dish to complement the sharp taste of the ginger. Out came the kabocha. I'd been thinking of it all week - I wanted to find a way to balance out the overly sweet taste of it. I chopped it up into cubes, peeled them, and stuck the lot in the microwave in a bowl covered in plastic wrap. Five minutes later, it was ready to be mashed, with a few secret ingredients of my own.

Erin's Kabocha Salad:

(You can use buttercup squash, if you like)


1/4 sweet squash, like kabocha or buttercup, peeled and cubed
1 tablespoon miso
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons fresh parmesan cheese, grated
Fresh ground black pepper

Microwave the cubes in a covered bowl for about five minutes. When they're soft, mash it together with the miso, butter, parmesan cheese, and pepper. Scoop onto a plate, and garnish with more cheese, if you like. You won't taste the miso so much, but the salty flavour will help balance the sweetness. Miso keeps happily in the fridge for a long time, and adds a really nice depth of flavour to savoury dishes like soups - I recommend keeping a small tub on hand.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Marcella's Aubergines

Well, you know how much I love eggplant.

The other week, I was browsing in a used bookstore in Tokyo, and picked up a copy of Marcella's Italian Kitchen. It was written by Marcella Hazan, an authority on Italian cooking in the US. The book was published in the 1980s, when people were starting to think about Italian food as something other than spaghetti and meatballs. (Some people. Not me. I was still eating spaghetti until well into the nineties. I think I discovered penne, which I proceeded to drown in bechamel sauce, in university. D'oh.)

I frequently get frustrated cooking in Japan, since in my small kitchen doesn't have an oven. That means that a lot of non-Asian cookbooks are virtually useless to me. I don't know how many times I've flipped through Nigella Lawson's books, sighed, and put them back on the shelf after noting that the majority of the recipes call for oven time. I could go out and buy a small convection oven, but there's simply nowhere to put it in the kitchen. So when I picked up Marcella's Italian Kitchen, flipped through, and noticed page after page of recipes requiring only a big pan and fresh fish and vegetables - I thought I could make it work.

When I got it home and gave it an in-depth reading, I was happy I picked it up. This book calls for fresh ingredients, used simply, without a lot of added ingredients, a philosophy I can get behind. I immediately got out my set of Muji cleartabs (how much do I love cleartabs?) and started colour-coding the recipes by season. Green tabs for summer products - tomatoes and eggplants; Red tabs for fall - mushrooms and kabocha squash. Gray tabs for dishes that can be made from right out of the pantry - dried mushroom risotto, for example. Peter has been begging lately for some non-rice oriented meals, so I decided to try and cook one recipe a week from the book for a year, or until we got sick of it - whatever happens first.

We're at the tail-end of eggplant season in Japan, but my local stand has only had the Japanese market standard - a smallish, thin eggplant around 15 cm long. When I saw the mini eggplants at the market in Takayama, I knew I had to have them. (Peter: "You're taking them to back Kanagawa ken - 400 km away? Think of the carbon footprint!") I'd seen these sized eggplants before, but they were always as a (rather bland, IMO) pickled side dish. I was interested to see what I might do with them. When I unwrapped them at home in the kitchen, rather than opening "Washoku", I decided to open "Italian Kitchen".

I was not let down. She has two recipes for pickled eggplants - one that calls for longish eggplants, and pickles them as wedges. The other calls for thin slices with mint, garlic, and chili; preserved with salt and vinegar. It sounded like a winner, since I had also picked up a pack of long chilis, virtually unseen in Kanagawa. Only I didn't have any mint. So my weedy, sad little basil plant that grows in a cut-off plastic water bottle in my window is now shorn bare, and looking more weedy than ever.

I sliced the eggplants thinly, and layered them with crushed garlic, sprinkles of salt, pieces of chili, and basil leaves, all in a pickle jar (Muji, of course). Then, following instructions, I put a bottle inside the jar, and turned the lot upside down in the sink, for the eggplants to drain for 24 hours. The whole thing looked a little dodgy, since the eggplant quickly went brown, and started to look shrivelled and dry. But I left them alone, and the next day, covered them in (rice; she calls for red wine) vinegar. The instructions then state to immediately tip the lot over again and let the vinegar drain off. It seemed counterintuitive to me, so I let them sit in the vinegar overnight, and drained it off 12 hours later. As soon as I took the bottle off, I was struck by the smell - it smelled so - Italian. The garlic and chili scent was overwhelming, and I sampled one right away, and then regretted it right away, thinking of my poor morning class. The eggplant was sour, peppery, spicy, and deeply, deeply garlicky. They are fabulous. I covered them with olive oil, as per instructions, and they'll purportedly keep in the fridge for up to six months, but I doubt they'll last that long. They're going to be insanely good on a sandwich, or with a glass of red wine before dinner.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Morning Markets: Takayama

This week, the dark lords of employment saw fit to give me a four-day weekend. So Peter and I, who have been planning a trip to Takayama, in the corners of our minds not preoccupied with other things, for a while now. Takayama is a small town in the central alps of Japan, about two hours outside of Nagoya. We took the Shinkansen down to Nagoya, and then a local train for another two hours or so into the mountains to reach this gem of a town. It's famous for a festival that's held there every spring and fall, where floats sponsored by various merchants are borne around the traditional streets of the town. Not since Kyoto have I seen such a collection of small, traditional Japanese streetscapes, and even despite the bus loads of tourists streaming through, the beauty of the place shone through. It's also famous for Hida beef, fabulously marbled beef grilled and served up in a variety of preparations at restaurants around town.

I have a full report on all the beef we ate there over on eGullet, but I wanted to talk about the gorgeous produce I saw in the morning markets. I go on a lot about the produce we pick up cheaply at Ofuna market, but what I get there is nothing on the gorgeous fruits, vegetables, and flowers I saw here in the mountains.

There are two morning markets: one in front of the jinya, a government building in the centre of town left over from the Edo period, and one along the banks of the river that flows through town.

The river market is larger, and features not only beautiful flowers and and handcrafts, but also spices, vegetables, fruit, delicious coffee, sweets, and grilled beef served with local microbrews. For breakfast? Why not?

Dango are another local specialty - balls of sticky rice, called mochi, are skewered, dipped in soy sauce, and then grilled for a chewy snack. The smell of rice grilling in this manner is an essential smell of Japan.

I couldn't resist picking up some beautiful little pickling eggplants (aubergines, dammit, I'm trying to retrain myself to say aubergines. aubergines. aubergines. Why do the British use a French word? Why?) no bigger than my thumb, and the vendor also had long ones, round ones, candy striped ones, and white ones, much to the amazement of the crowd. I never see diversity like that around town. Somebody call Slow Food! We need a chapter in Kanto!

I digress.

I got them home and decided they were too small to turn into grilled eggplant (aubergine) with miso (did I mention I bought a couple of bags of miso as well? From a soybean specialist? And some small-batch soy sauce? I'll admit it. I'm such a yuppie. I can hear my parents laughing at me from here.), so they're turning into Italian pickled eggplants (aubergine) from another project I'm working on.

There were also purple striped green beans, and I cannot resist a good green bean, quite frankly, so I bought a bag after sampling some of the vendor's home simmered beans, which she produced triumphantly from under the table when I expressed interest. She also had some gorgeous myoga and unwaxed cucumbers, but I resisted. I will be turning the green beans into Maki's fabulous ginger green beans, which keep great in the fridge for bentos.

There were all sorts of gorgeous flowers.

And beautiful fruit, which you could order by the boxful and have delivered to your home via Black Cat Delivery. Peter selected a nice pear for himself, and I chose an apple. At 100 yen each, that's all we could afford. The smell of cool air and apples made me think of home, and how much I love fall. Peter couldn't resist a bottle of fresh apple juice either, which had us thinking of fresh apple cider from Annapolis valley.

I bought some shichimi togarashi, which is a mix of seven spices, including chilis and sesame seeds, that the Japanese use to dip tempura into, or to sprinkle on ramen. It was so strange to see a spice vendor in Japan - I tend to associate spice mixes with South East Asian foods, and so the lady with her piles of dried spices and large mortar and pestle stopped me in my tracks.

Even this pigeon was curious.

My favourite thing to get in Japanese market is always tsukemono - pickled things. In Takayama, they specialize in pickled red radish/turnips. I struggled to understand the dialect of the granny that sold them to me, but she insisted I take a bag each of sweet and salty - and I wasn't going to argue for 500 yen for both bags. Tsukemono don't come cheap in Kanagawa ken.

Stay tuned to see what I make from everything.