Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Eggplant, pork, and what the heck is cornflour?

Continuing with the Japanese cuisine, I made two dishes on Monday: Ginger-stewed Eggplant, and Gingery Seared Pork. The theme ingredient, by sheer coincidence--ginger!

Both of these recipes called for ginger juice. Ginger juice? How do you get juice out of a ginger? It turns out, if you peel and then grate the ginger, you can squeeze the "shavings" to get ginger juice. I liked the result. In the past, when I wanted some ginger flavor, I would cut up a few pieces and hope it would infuse the dish, but it was more like ginger "surprise" rather than an infusion. I may use this technique in future Chinese dishes.

The eggplant prep was also interesting, as it called for making many shallow diagonal slits on the skin. It seems to have helped make it easier to eat, as well as help the eggplant to more readily absorb the flavor of the broth.

Although the pork recipe calls for marinating the meat for at least 20 minutes, I felt like it could have been longer. The ginger flavor was not as concentrated as I would have liked, and I suspect it would have been better with one hour of marinating.

For dessert, my wife requested this recipe for grapefruit soufflé. Let me tell you, I'm not trusting a recipe from Australia again! First of all, apparently their version of a tablespoon is 20 mL, and the American version is 14.2 mL. Second, and most importantly, they have an ingredient called cornflour.

I thought I was being smart when I thought "cornflour" was Aussie for "cornstarch". Makes sense, no? No. Definitely not, especially when I tried to mix 30 g of cornstarch with 2 American tablespoons of water. Remember in science class when they taught you about liquids and solids? This one was a solid, and there was no way I was going to get 30 g of all-purpose flour to somehow join that party. I even added 1 more American tbsp of water to the mix, but to no avail.

After doing some research online, I found that Australian "cornflour" is some type of wheat product, because the British used to call wheat by the name "corn," and the Aussies call it maize. Wikipedia says Aussie "cornflour" is "wheaten starch." Thanks, Wikipedia. What's wheaten starch? Google doesn't seem to know, either. Maybe this ingredient just doesn't exist in the US?

Oh well, at least the extra grapefruit juice was good.

Ginger-Stewed Eggplant
(adapted from Washoku)
serves 4
4 Japanese eggplants, about 3 oz each
1/3 cup dashi
1 teaspoon sake
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon ginger juice, with peels reserved
1 tablespoon soy sauce
light-colored soy sauce, to taste
mirin, to taste
vegetable oil
  1. Cut each eggplant in half, lengthwise, and make shallow, parallel slits on the diagonal into the skin side of each half
  2. In a skillet, sear the eggplant, skin side down
  3. Flip the eggplant halves over so the skin is facing up, sear for another minute
  4. Add dashi, sake, sugar, and ginger peels, and lower the heat to maintain a simmer
  5. Cover with an otoshi-buta
  6. Cook for 2-3 minutes, or until liquid is reduced in half
  7. Add soy sauce and discard the ginger peels, simmer for another minute
  8. Add ginger juice and cook for another 30 seconds
  9. If necessary, adjust seasoning with soy sauce or mirin.
  10. Remove pan from heat, and let the eggplant cool in the pan, covered
  11. Serve at room temperature or chilled
Gingery Seared Pork
(adapted from Washoku)
Serves 4
12 ounces of pork loin, sliced thinly
2 teaspoons ginger juice
2 tbsp sake
1 1/2 tbsp soy sauce
3 bell peppers
vegetable oil
  1. Mix ginger juice and sake, and marinate pork for at least 20 min
  2. Add soy sauce to marinade 10-15 min before cooking
  3. Quickly sear pork on both sides over high heat, set aside
  4. Lower the heat and sear bell peppers, set aside
  5. Return the pork to the pan, along with any juices released. Sauté for 2 minutes, or until the surfaces are well glazed and slightly browned.
  6. Return the peppers to the pan and warm through.
  7. Serve immediately.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

V-day leftovers

After the Valentine's day meal, I had leftover kabocha squash and dashi left, so I found another recipe in the Washoku cookbook: Soy-Simmered Kabocha Squash with Minced Chicken (kabocha no tori an kaké).

I didn't have ground chicken, but I did my best impression of the guy behind the counter at a Mexican taquería and chopped the heck out of the chicken thigh I had in the freezer.

This recipe, as well as the previous kabocha recipe from V-day, used a technique unfamilar to me--using an otoshi-buta. An otoshi-buta is traditionally a wooden lid that's meant to rest on top of the food itself, instead of covering the pot. The purpose of this is to steam the food while simultaneously allowing the liquid to evaporate, concentrating the flavors. I don't have an otoshi-buta, so I used a lid from another pan to give the same effect. I think it worked pretty decently.

I served this with an extremely simple miso soup made from the rest of the leftover dashi and miso.

Soy-Simmered Kabocha Squash with Minced Chicken
(adapted from Washoku)
Serves 4

1/4 kabocha squash, cut into 12 beveled chunks with seeds removed but skin intact
1 1/2 cups Basic Sea Stock
1 tablespoon sake
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons soy sauce
3 oz ground chicken
1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon cold water
1 scallion, finely chopped
salt, to taste
  1. Arrange squash pieces in a single layer, skin side down, in a pot.
  2. Add enough stock to cover the squash barely.
  3. Place an otoshi-buta over the squash and bring the stock to a boil over high heat
  4. Lower heat and simmer for 3 to 4 minutes, or until barely tender.
  5. Add sake and sugar and flip the squash so that the skin faces up
  6. Simmer for 2 more minutes.
  7. Add soy sauce and simmer for another 2 minutes.
  8. Transfer the squash to deep individual serving dishes.
To prepare chicken sauce
  1. Strain the remining liquid if it looks very fibrous.
  2. Add the remaining stock and bring to a simmer.
  3. Add the chicken, stirring well to break up any lumps.
  4. Season with salt if necessary.
  5. Pour cornstarch paste into the simmering chicken, and boil until the sauce thickens.
  6. Top each squash portion with the chicken sauce, and scatter scallions on top of each serving.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Valentine's Day

Valentine's day is coming up, and that's a real high pressure event for any guy. My wife and I actually celebrated an early V-day on Sunday, so the pressure is over for me! If any of you fellas are reading this, here is some advice that can turn this day into a culinary success.

Find out what she likes
Like most women, my wife appreciates flowers. Her favorite flowers are yellow roses, so I bought her a yellow rose. Other girls may like tulips or daisies, or non-floral stuff like candles, too. This will come in handy when setting the table.

What kind of food?
Does she like Italian food? Mexican? Chinese? This is important. You don't want to slave away in the kitchen for hours just to find out she doesn't even like the type of food. If you don't know, ask her (or her friends)! My wife's favorite cuisine is Japanese, so I was able to plan a menu around that.

Plan the menu
This is very important. Make sure you have at least one appetizer in addition to a main course. If your significant other has a sweet tooth, don't skimp on dessert! Think about what you plan to drink that night as well.

I flipped through the pages of Washoku: Recipes From The Japanese Home Kitchen and found two recipes I was sure she would enjoy: Lemon-Simmered Kabocha Squash (kabocha no sawayaka ni), and Miso-Marinated Broiled Black Cod (tara no misoyaki). I would also need to make rice to accompany this, and decided on green tea as the beverage. I opted for no dessert per my wife's request to keep it a light meal (you don't want to end up with food coma on Valentine's Day!).

Always read recipes a couple of days before the event--you never know what you may need to do beforehand.

Miso-Marinated Broiled Black Cod
(adapted from Washoku)
Serves 2

3/4 pounds black cod with skin intact, cut into 2 pieces
1 1/2 cups sweet, light miso
1/3 cup mirin
1 T yuzu peel, grated lemon or orange zest (optional)
Lemon or lime wedges (optional)

To prepare the fish/marinade:
1. Rinse the fish pieces under cold running water and pat dry.
2. To make the marinade, combine miso, mirin and yuzu peel in a medium-sized container and stir to mix well.
3. Push aside 2/3 of the marinade in the container. Lay a single piece of sarashi cloth (equivalent to two layers of cheese cloth, or you can make do with a paper towel as I did) so that half of it is on top of the marinade. Lay one of the fish pieces on the marinade-moistened cloth, and fold the remaining cloth over the fish to enclose it. Spread half of the remaining marinade on top of the cloth, and repeat the process with the second piece of fish. The last half of the marinade will go on top.
4. Place plastic wrap over the top of the fish "sandwich", pressing lightly to ensure even distribution of the marinade.
5. Marinate the fish at cool room temperature (no more than 75 F) for 6+ hours or in the fridge for up to 3 days.

To broil:
1. Preheat a broiler.
2. Scrape away the miso marinade and remove the fish from its cloth wrapping.
3. Place the fish pieces skin side up on a shallow broiler-safe pan and place in the broiler about 3 inches away from the heat source.
4. Broil for 3 to 4 minutes until skin begins to bubble, then flip the pieces.
5. Broil for another 2 to 3 minutes. The fish should be slightly crusty and golden on the surface and white on the inside.

Basic Sea Stock
(adapted from Washoku)
Makes about 1 quart

15 to 20 square inches kombu (dried kelp)
4 1/4 cups cold water, preferably filtered or spring water
1/2 cup loosely packed katsuo-bushi (dried bonito flakes)

1. Place kombu in a pot with the water. Soak for 10-15 minutes before placing the pot over medium heat.
2. Remove the pot from the heat when small bubbles begin to break on the surface and at the edge of the pot. Add the katsuo-bushi, scattering the flakes across the water. The flakes should begin to sink after a few minutes.
3. Within 3 to 4 minutes after adding the fish flakes, strain the stock through a sarashi cloth, or paper towel-lined strainer as I did. You're done!

Note: This stock must be used fresh; it loses its flavors when frozen. It will keep for 3-4 days in the fridge.

Lemon-Simmered Kabocha Squash
(adapted from Washoku)
Serves 2

1 cup Basic Sea Stock (above)
1 small lemon, zest removed and reserved, lemon juiced
2 T mirin
1/4 kabocha squash (10 oz), cut into 8 beveled chunks with seeds removed but skin intact
1 teaspoon light-colored soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
Lemon or lime slices for garnish, if serving chilled (optional)

1. Combine stock, lemon juice, and mirin in a pot wide enough to hold the squash pieces in a single layer.
2. Bring to a simmer over low heat, and skim away any froth.
3. Add the squash pieces, skin side down, in a snug single layer.
4. Place two layers of parchment paper over the squash, cut in a circle 1 inch smaller in diameter than your pan and weigh it down with a small lid from another pot.
5. Adjust the heat to maintain a steady (but not vigorous) simmer. Cook for 3-4 minutes, until barely tender. With a toothpick, you should be able to pierce the squash but still meet some resistance.
6. Flip the squash pieces over so the skin faces up. Replace the parchment and lid, and simmer for another 2 minutes. Test again with a toothpick; you should be able to pierce the skin without much difficulty, but the flesh shouldn't be so soft it crumbles.
7. Add the light-colored soy sauce, swirling the pan to make sure its evenly distributed, then simmer for another minute or two. The toothpick should meet no resistance now. Add the soy sauce, swirl again, and simmer for a final 30 to 40 seconds.
8. Remove the pan from heat and allow the squash to cool in the pan. When it's ready to be served, spoon the leftover liquid over the squash.

The game plan
This was actually the first time I cooked Japanese food, so there were quite a few ingredients I did not have, and techniques I have never used. I needed a game plan.

1 day ahead
Buy groceries
Marinate fish
Make sea stock (dashi)
Set the table

2 hours before
Make kabocha
Make rice

10 minutes before
Broil the fish

For most of the Japanese ingredients, I went to my local Japanese market, Nijiya. I was pleasantly surprised to see they actually had yuzu! I was going to use lemon zest for the fish marinade, but fresh yuzu zest is even better since it's more aromatic, and it's the authentic Japanese ingredient!

I finally had the ingredients and it was time to marinate. Now, I have never heard of a technique where the main ingredient wasn't touching the marinade (the recipe called for a layer of cloth between the fish and miso), and was worried that the miso flavor would not penetrate the fish. However, I stuck to the recipe, substituting a paper towel for the sarashi cloth. The other thing was that it seemed like it called for a heck of a lot of miso! But once again, I decided to trust the recipe. Once the fish was all wrapped up and covered in miso, I placed it into the refrigerator overnight, hoping the miso would somehow find its way through the paper towel and into the fish.

The sea stock, or dashi, was very easy to make. The only thing that didn't seem right was that the bonito flakes didn't sink into the water after 4 minutes. Maybe I didn't heat the water enough? It tasted okay though, so I saved it and put it in the fridge.

The day of, I made sure not to forget to make rice (I always forget that!), and I made the kabocha in advance, since it's supposed to be served at room temperature. The recipe called for bevelling all the corners off, so I did that dutifully, though I'm not sure what difference it made.

I had never made kabocha before, so I didn't really know how it was going to behave while cooking. I think I overcooked some of them, however, because some parts were quite dry and crumbly. Of course, I saved the best ones for my wife.

As soon as she came home (she was at a baking class), I took the fish out of the fridge and unwrapped the paper towel and miso. To my delight, the paper towel had become moist, and the surface of the fish had changed color, indicating to me that it had absorbed the miso!

I popped it in the oven for about seven minutes (making sure to flip it halfway). It looked really good coming out of the broiler. The skin was crispy and the surface was slightly charred. Garnished with a lemon wedge, it looked perfect. Hopefully my wife would think it tasted as good as it looked!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Cooking for my Wife

Hello world!

About six months ago, I got married. In an attempt to be a good husband, I've tried to do nice things like cooking for my wife.

The problem wife is difficult to please. Don't get me wrong. She's cool and all, but if there's one thing she's, um, particular about, it's food. It doesn't help that she used to be a food critic for her college newspaper, either.

Along with her passion for food comes indecisiveness. Consider this typical after-work conversation:

Me: What do you wanna eat for dinner?
Wife: I don't know. Something good.
Me: Want me to cook something?
Wife: Okay.
Me: What do you want me to cook?
Wife: I don't know.
Me: Chinese food?
Wife: No.
Me: What's wrong with Chinese food?
Wife: Because you're going to make Broccoli Beef or Tomato and Egg.

The conclusion is that she usually ends up cooking, or we eat out. My mission: to make something she actually likes! In this blog I will chronicle my adventures.