[Miso rice balls (front) and teriyaki beef rice balls (back) in Diamond Harbour for lunch]
While life is an ongoing interesting adventure full of new things to experience and people to share with, sometimes it's nice to create an environment where you force yourself to try new things and experiment.
Now I consider myself pretty adventurous in the kitchen, trying new recipes and new foods as much as possible. But it's hard not to fall back onto those familiar foods we know how to make and can throw together with our eyes closed after a long day of work. A couple of weeks ago, I thought maybe we could try something to push our comfort and force ourselves to learn new things. So the idea of cooking global came up. For a week at a time, we would cook all our dinners (and lunches if at home) from a national cuisine. Looking at our cupboard and seeing what was in season, we decided our first week would be Japanese.
Now, I've never been to Japan, though I would one day love to go. Probably with my brother, who I would take as a guide as he has been there several times already and has a deep passion for all things Japanese. Despite this, I do enjoy their food, or rather, what has been presented to me by mass media as their national dishes - sushi, ramen, and okinomiyaki (a fried egg and cabbage omlette with shrimp and tasty sauce). Ok, the okinomiyaki is probably not a mass media thing, it was rather a dish my brother and dad brought back with them from one of their earlier trips to Japan. But this was what I thought of for Japanese foods. I knew there was more out there, so one of the 'rules' for this little experiment would be to cook things we hadn't cooked before - so no sushi.
I started by going to the library and taking out the cook books they had there. And, probably unique to Japan, I found a manga (graphic novel, comic book) devoted to the exploration of Japanese food. In each volume, Oishinbo explores a different aspect of Japanese cuisine. I had seen them floating around my brothers room back home, so I picked up the one they had on "The Joy of Rice". With my literary guides chosen I headed home to see what we could conjure up for our week of Japanese eating.
[Oishinbo, or "The Gourmet", looks into various aspects of Japanese food. I got my ideas for rice balls from here.]
The first night, a Thursday I think, we ate beef and udon noodle soup. It was absolutely delicious. The next night it was a bowl of rice with several toppings arranged artfully around the top (aesthetics is an important part of food preparation in Japan). On the weekend, I made three different types of rice balls some stuffed, some just coated in flavours. These worked perfectly for our lunches on our hike and ski outings. No worries about squishing bread, just an easy to eat, flavourful treat ready to go at lunch. In fact, towards the end of the week it was getting easy to experiment with our new understanding of flavours and ingredients to make up our own recipes. Although, on our last night, we fell back to our recipe book and made a simple (most of the food we made was surprisingly simple and non-fussy) and absolutely divine sweet miso marinated cod with noodles and fennel salad.
During this week, I learned a few things. Firstly, that by cooking from a specific cuisine we spent far less money on groceries as we only needed a few choice ingredients that we used up through the week (1x 500ml bottle of miso paste, 3/4 bottle of sake, 1/2 bottle pickled ginger, 1 packet soba noodles and 4 packets udon noodles, among others). Our fridge remained spacious and nothing went to waste. It was a satisfying feeling. Second, Japanese food (sushi) has always been presented (or perceived by me anyhow) as an exotic, fancy food for celebrities and executives. This has slowly changed over time as it has become more the norm to find sushi places around town (heck, in Whitehorse there are two, at one point even three, sushi places. This for a town of 25,000). However, the home cooking that we were doing was far from the complicated, many stepped ritual of preparing and rolling rice. We have put several of our experiments into our own little recipe collection for later use. Eventually, these once exotic recipes will become the easy fall back onto which we will look for sustenance after a long day at work.
Below are two recipes I particularly enjoyed. First, spinach gomaae. Always a favorite of mine when visiting a Japanese restaurant, this spinach salad with sesame dressing was something I really wanted to try and make. Little did I know just how easy it was to make. A word of warning, it does have a strong flavour. Although I love it, poor Stephen does not, which was good for me I suppose as I got to eat it all up. This recipe has been taken (and slightly altered) from the New York Times website (that source for all things Japanese ;-). Their link follows.
1 large bunch of spinach (younger leaves are more tender)
4 tablespoons of seasame seeds
1/2 tablespoon sugar (more or less depending on how sweet you like it*)
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sake
a splash of water
1. First, prepare the spinach by chopping just the very tips of the bottoms off (keeping the leaves joined if they are young and keeping the stems if they are larger) and rinsing off any dirt clinging on. Bring a large pot of water to the boil and have ready a large bowl of ice water along side.
2. Blanche the spinach - In batches, place some spinach in a mesh seive and dip this into the boiling water. Using a large spoon make sure the spinach is submerged in the water and hold it there for about 30 seconds, then remove it from the pot and dump it into the ice water. The spinach can sit in here quite happily for a while.
3. Once you have blanched your spinach, remove it in handfuls, squeezing out any excess water. Chop into 2 inch lengths and throw into a bowl.
4. Now, prepare the dressing. Toss your sesame seeds into a dry frying pan on high heat and toast. Keep the pan moving and shake the seeds around until they begin to turn golden brown and become aromatic. Remove the pan from the heat and pour the seeds into a mortar and pestle and allow to cool.
5. Once cool (or at least mostly), grind the seeds until just crushed. You should have a few still whole, but most will be crushed.
6. Combine the soy sauce and sugar in a bowl and stir until the sugar dissolves. Add the sake and sesame seeds, pour in some water to reach the consistency you prefer. I put in about a tablespoon. Pour this over your spinach and mix.
Enjoy your tasty creation. (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/20/health/20recipehealth.html)
The second recipe is the one we made on our last night, sweet miso marinated cod. You can substitute any white fish you like. This is from one of the cookbooks we got from the library, Japanese Pure and Simple by Kimiko Barber. It is simple and so delicious. And although it might look like a lot of sugar, dessert is not common in Japan, mostly it is just fresh, sliced fruit, so I would recommend following this dinner with just that. We served our fish with some buckwheat soba noodles and a fresh fennel salad (sliced fennel root massaged with 1/2 teaspoon salt and sprinkled with lemon juice from 1/2 lemon).
Sweet Miso Marinated Cod
enough fillets of cod to feed your crew
450g light-coloured miso paste (we only had ~350g but it was still tasty)
1. Make up the marinade by placing the sake into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Allow alcohol to burn off for a few minutes, then remove from heat. Add sugar and stir until dissoved. Add miso paste and whisk together.
2. Place fillets into a flat dish with sides and pour over the marinade. Marinade fish in fridge for a few hours, 2-12 hours (any longer and your fish will start to dry out and become overpoweringly miso flavoured).
3. Heat grill to high and place fish under heat for 3-7 minutes (depending on size of fillets). Turn them over once golden and finish cooking (a little bit of caramelization is not bad, in fact it's pretty tasty).
There you have it. Tasty, miso cod. (Barber, K. 2006. Japanese pure and simple: over 100 health-giving recipes. Kyle Cathie Ltd., London.)
Next week - french. I've always wanted to make cassoulet. . .