Monday, September 28, 2009

Scattered sushi ちらし寿司

Smoked salmon and salmon roe scattered sushi いくらとスモークサーモンちらし寿司
This is our variation on scattered sushi ちらし寿司. "Sushi" means "vinegared rice". So any dish which uses vinegared rice will fall into the category of "sushi". Scattered sushi is the easiest sushi to make and is a classic home style dish; made by adding any combination of toppings to a bed of sushi rice. Traditional styles use mostly simmered and seasoned vegetables. These could include, among other things, shiitake mushrooms, carrot, lotus root or "renkon", "kanpyo", thinly cut slightly sweet thin omlet ("kinshiran" 金糸卵, meaning golden thread egg), strips of "nori" sea weed, and pickled ginger root. You could add any kind of cooked or raw fish (sashimi), shrimp, uni (sea urchin), ikura (salmon roe) (if you add all kinds of raw fish, it is called "kaisen chirashi" 海鮮ちらし or "nama chirashi なまちらし).

In Hokkaido, the combination of sea urchin and salmon roe is very popular and called  "uni ikura donburi" うにいくらドンブリ.  To make this regional specialty, an obscenely large amount of uni and ikura are placed on a bed of sushi rice. My mother introduced my wife to this dish some years ago and it now happens to be my wife's favorite. She enjoyed a wonderful example of this dish in the port city of Otaru near Sapporo on our last visit to Japan. At home, we occasionally make our version of this dish but fresh uni is hard to come by most of the time. Salmon roe is easier to get since it freezes very well. So we make our variation using a combination of good quality cold-smoked salmon and salmon roe. Again, this dish would serve as the last rice dish of the meal in our home Izakaya.

1. Cooking sushi rice: Start with a good short grain Japanese rice. We use "Tamaki" rice from California which is "okabo" or non-paddy rice but it is not bad. You could get real "paddy" rice from California as well. Instead of using just plain water, the rice could be cooked with a small piece of kelp and small amount of sake added to the water. Make the rice with slightly less water than would be used to make regular rice. This is so that the rice will be slightly dryer than usual and will absorb enough sushi vinegar. We mostly use an electric rice cooker (my wife is actually in charge of cooking rice--having been coached in what constitutes good rice by my mother in the early days of our marriage). I acquired a special "Donabe" rice cooker recently and the "donabe" rice cooker does make slightly better rice.  Wash the rice and let it soak in the water for 30 minutes or more before cooking it. Then, let it stand for 15 minutes after it is finished cooking.
2. Preparing sushi rice: As you can see in this picture, I use a wooden tub (寿司桶) and paddle (へら) but, of course, a shallow bowl and spoon will also work. You could make your own sushi vinegar or use a commercial bottled one. You could get a more precise recipe for sushi vinegar and how to make sushi rice elsewhere. The amount of sugar and salt in sushi vinegar is a personal preference, some old traditional edomae 江戸前 (Tokyo style) sushi restaurants even omit the sugar. Most of the time, I am too lazy to make my own sushi vinegar so I use a commercial bottled variety. I microwave the sushi vinegar to make it warm before adding it to the rice. Sometimes, however, I even skip this step. The amount of sushi vinegar to rice is another question. I usually put as much as I can without making the rice too wet (warm sushi vinegar appears to be absorbed more). We like a rather strong vinegar taste in our sushi rice. Traditionally, while you are mixing the sushi rice, you fan the rice. My wife helps me by fanning the sushi rice using a Japanese "uchiwa" 団扇. The exact reasons for this process is not really clear but maybe it makes the additional moisture evaporate. The end result is that the rice grains are shinier than they would be otherwise. I cover the tub with wet tea towel and let it stand for few minutes before putting the dish together. My wife is more of a rice connoisseur than I am and she often complains about the poor quality of sushi rice at near-by sushi bars, which is unfortunately often the case.

3. To make the thin egg omelet ("Kinshiran" 金糸卵): For one large egg, I put 1-2 tsp of sugar and pinch of salt and mix. I often add a small amount (1 tbs) of "dashi" broth but this is optional. Use a Japanese style rectangular frying pan or use a 8 inch regular non-stick frying pan with a small amount of butter or oil. You need to make this omelet very thin. The secret is to pour the egg mixture after the pan is hot  (on medium flame) and once the bottom is set, to reduce flame very low and put the lid on. You do not want to brown it.  It may take more than 5-7 minutes before the egg is cooked. Take it out of the pan onto a cutting board. Cut into 4 elongated pieces, stack them and julienne thinly.

4. Put the sushi rice in the bottom of the bowl or plate and top it with bite sized pieces of smoked salmon, salmon roe, thinly sliced salted and vinegared cucumber (excess moisture squeezed out), "kinshiran" or golden egg threads, shredded "nori" seaweed, finely chopped perilla and/or scallion. You can make any variation as you like depending on the ingredients available.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Chilled Tofu 冷や奴

Chilled Tofu 冷や奴 (Mark's book p16)
Deep fried tofu pouch stuffed with Natto 油揚げの納豆はさみ

This is a very simple and also classic summertime dish in Izakaya. One of the problems with this dish is to get good quality fresh tofu, which is sometimes not so easy in Untied States. Although, packaged tofu like those from Nasoya is available in any grocery store, they are not really suited for this dish. When I lived in Japan, there were still stores selling tofu made fresh daily (this may reveal my age). Now even in Japan, these small individually owned artisanal tofu stores are extremely rare if any survive. Fortunately, there are some Japanese Tofu companies making good quality tofu in the US. The one I am using here today is from Kyo-zen-an  京禅庵 which is a Kyoto company making tofu and tofu-related products. As I understand, from their website, they have been making tofu in New Jersey from USDA certified organic American soy beans using an authentic traditional method of tofu making. The tofu is packaged and pasteurized. It lasts much longer than the old fashioned style block of tofu which was scooped from a large vat of cold water; the day it was made was the day it was consumed. I found that this brand is good enough for this dish. There are several other good ones but they are all only available in a Japanese grocery store. I used their silken tofu.

The toppings for this dish usually include chopped scallion, perilla, bonito flakes, and thin strips of dried "nori" sheet and grated ginger root. Pour soy sauce over before eating. I actually prefer to use "sashimi soy sauce" or "concentrated soup base for Japanese noodles"; both can be bought in a Japanese grocery store. Again, you must be a chopstick jedi to eat this without the help of a spoon.

Deep fried tofu pouch stuffed with Natto 油揚げの納豆はさみ
I made this dish closely following the classic recipe using a few modifications of my own. Mark's book has an interesting modern variation.  In his version the tofu pouch is stuffed with cheese rather than "natto" (p80), which I have not tried yet. Natto 納豆 or fermented soy beans is one of the Japanese foods difficult to like because of the smell and sticky texture. Every culture appears to have this type of fermented food. Very ripe and runny cheeses from France, Vegemite from Australia, Surströmming from Sweden and so on. Only people who grew up eating this type of food will like it or can eat it. My wife, who is not Japanese but who enjoys almost any Japanese delicacy including some very challenging ones such as a sea cucumber, would not eat "natto" for many years. She did not like it at all. Then, my mother told us some years ago that if you stir it more than 100 or 400 times (I am not sure how many times exactly), the smell will dissipate and becomes easier to eat (she saw this technique on one of the Japanese TV programs). So I tried this method and, now, my wife will eat natto especially when used in this dish.

Natto used to come frozen from Japan but now we see non-frozen natto. I am not sure if these are made here or still imported from Japan. The one I used appears to be made in Japan. If you read Japanese, you may want to check the blog/column in Nippon Keizai Shinbun web site...interesting discussion and information about natto and the regional differences in how natto is prepared. There are quite a few natto recipe sites (all in Japanese) and here is one example. Some of the recipes are quite outrageous! This year, while in Japan, we acquired a special stirrer designed for mixing natto and it is pictured here.

The two prongs are slightly different in length with their tips shaped like scoops and surface has many small round protrusions as seen here in the picture. This works much better than the usual bamboo chopsticks. This device aerates natto very well without much effort. Add mustard, chopped scallion, and the sauce that came with the package (or use your own mustard and sauce if you like). As a kid, I remember preparing natto with the addition of a bit of sugar. Apparently using sugar in natto is done in only certain parts of Japan. These dialects of food culture in Japan, specifically about natto preparation, has been extensively discussed in the blog/column I mentioned above.  Mix vigorously for few minutes. Meanwhile prepare the "abura-age"油揚げ or fried tofu pouch. We get a small "inari" 稲荷 version frozen.  (This is for making "inarizushi", seasoned tofu pouch stuffed with vinegared rice). Pour hot water over it in a colander. This will thaw the pouch and remove some excess oil. Press it between paper towels to remove excess water. Cut one end (leaving three edges intact) and carefully open the pouch. Spoon in the prepared natto. Do not over fill and pat it flat. Place it in a toaster oven and toast until both sides get brown and crispy. You could then just serve with bit of soy sauce. (You could do this dish using a frying pan with small amount of oil but a toaster oven works better. Be careful not to spill the natto inside the taster oven though, it will make a big mess.)  I took mine out of the toaster oven when it is 80% done.

On one side of the stuffed tofu pouch, spread a thin layer of the mixture of mayonnaise and citrus miso I made for the simmered daikon dish (in equal amounts) with chopped perilla mixed in.  Put the pouch back in the toaster oven until the surface browns (a few minutes). I am glad my wife likes to eat even this dish now.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Steamed Lemon Chicken 鶏のレモン蒸し

Steamed Lemon Chicken 鶏のレモン蒸し

I am not sure if this dish really belongs to Izakaya food but we often eat this dish over rice as the last item at our home Izakaya. The last dish you order in Izakaya is generally a starch, a rice or noodle dish and this dish could be that rice dish. It is very healthy, mild, refreshing, and comforting. The original recipe was from one of the Japanese cook books (Now, I do not remember which one this was). I have modified it substantially during the years. It is rather simple and you could prepare the dish one or two days ahead up to the point just before it is cooked and keep it in the refrigerator. Sake, lemon, and salt appear to preserve chicken meat but acid may turn the meat white after 2 days. Although, it is best when freshly made, this dish will re-heat very nicely in a microwave oven.

I use a skinless, boneless chicken breast. I cut the breast into bite size pieces cutting obliquely across the grain of the meat そぎぎり. (I remove the tenders and use then for another dish.) The thickness (about a quarter inch or less) and size (bite size) of the chicken should be uniform so that all pieces cook evenly. Cut fresh Shiitake mushrooms (after removing the stems) in a similar manner. One mushroom should be cut into two or three pieces but not too small. I like the size of mushroom rather large to be more substantial. Grate the lemon zest using a micro-grater (this is my preferred method) or use your knife if you so prefer but the zest should be very finely chopped. Remove the remaining skin and pith (white part of the skin, because it imparts a bitter taste) from the lemon and thinly slice the meat of the lemon into thin round slices. (for the amount in the above picture, I used two halves of a chicken breast and one lemon). I remove the seeds from the lemon before adding it to other ingredients. If you do not like to bite into lemon slices in the dish, you could add the juice of lemon instead but you need to use zest for a bright lemony taste without being too sour. The amount of chicken, lemon, mushroom are arbitrary and to your liking. You can also add finely chopped scallion or garlic chive (both optional). Put everything in a bowl, add sake, salt, black or white pepper, a dash of dark sesame oil, and sprinkle potato starch and mix well (again, I just mixed these up by eyeballing but the most crucial part is the ratio of starch and liquid...too little starch, the sauce produced after steaming is too runny and too much you will have a glue (I suppose this can be precisely measured and mixed in a measuring cup and then poured over to the chicken-shiitake mixture (I may try this method to make this dish more reproducible. Sorry but I am not a precise cook). I season lightly here since I usually add "Ponzu Shoyu" (recipe is in Mark's book p145 or use a commercial one in a bottle) just before serving. Mix well and place them in a serving bowl like one seen here.  The bowl must fit inside your steamer. I cook this in a high steam for 10 minutes and then mix. Continue steaming another 10 minutes or meat becomes opaque and the sauce is set in nice consistency. Just 5 minutes before finishing, I add any greens available. I used snow peas this time but I also use broccoli or green beans (Green beans takes a bit longer to cook. You can cook these separately for the better control of doneness). Serve over cooked rice. I use a little bit of "ponzu shoyu" or if it is sour enough just soy sauce on the top to add fresh taste but you might want to taste the dish before adding these additional seasonings. If you are the chopsticks Jedi, use chopsticks, otherwise a spoon (for Japanese guests) or fork (for Westerner guests) might be better.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Simmered Daikon with miso ふろふき大根

Simmered Daikon with citrus miso ふろふき大根柚子味噌かけ
Kelp condiment 昆布の佃煮
This is another classic Izakaya food especially in winter. Since it is getting cooler, I made this classic Daikon dish. (Mark's book has a similar dish with pork Miso sauce, p20). I made this with a more classic citrus flavored miso sauce. It is best to use ripe yellow "yuzu" citrus, but I used a combination of lemon and lime zest. The quality of daikon we can get here is not great. It tends to be more fibrous than good quality daikon in Japan.

Again, preparation for this dish requires some work. Peel the daikon and cut the peeled daikon into 1 inch or so thick rounds. Shave off or bevel the sharp edge of the round 面取り and make several shallow cross cuts 隠し包丁 on the side which will become the bottom when served. This is, I think, how I was taught by my mother and it appears to be authentic since similar steps are described in Mark's book. Simmer the daikon in water with a pinch of uncooked rice grains or in the turbid rinsing liquid 米のとぎ汁 from washed uncooked rice, for 10-20 minutes. (I am not sure what this step does but it certainly removes some of the smell, common in cruciferous vegetables such as daikon.) Discard the water and rinse the daikon in cold running water, add a square of dried kelp 昆布 in the bottom of the pan (wipe the surface of the dried kelp with a dump paper towel before using to remove surface dirt) and add fresh water to cover the daikon. Simmer until daikon is soft (probably at least another 1-2 hours). You may want to pull out the kelp after 30-40 minutes if you like the daikon to be very white otherwise, the kelp will slightly discolor the diakon as you can see in our photo. Meanwhile, make the miso sauce. In a small pan mix together 1 tbs of white miso, 2 tsp of sugar. Add mirin and dashi (2 tsp each) (I use the simmering liquid instead of dashi since it is now a kelp broth). I eyeball everything and taste and adjust accordingly rather than measure the ingredients. Put the pan on a low flame, stir and reduce to a saucy consistency. Let it cool down a bit (5 minutes) and add citrus zest (Here, I used 80% lime and 20% lemon since I did not have yellow "yuzu").

To plate, place the kelp square, put the diakon uncut side up on top of the kelp, top the daikon with the miso sauce. Serve while the daikon is hot. The daikon should be soft enough so that it can be cut using chopsticks (may require some chopstick skill).

The sake glass shown in the picture is part of a "husband and wife" めおと set. The "husband" glass is blue and "wife" glass is red. These are hand-cut crystal by Hoya. The chopstick pillow 箸置き is Hagi-ware 萩焼 which is shaped like a sand dab. We purchased this when we visited one of the numerous Hagi kilns in the city of Hagi. The chopsticks are, again, part of "husband and wife" set and, I believe,  are Wakasa-nuri  若狭塗り which were a gift.

Kelp condiment 昆布の佃煮
The kelp used to cook the daikon can be transformed into a condiment "tsukudani" 昆布の佃煮 which goes very well with sake or white rice. Julienne the left-over kelp, simmer with soy sauce and mirin and sake (the proportion is again up to you depending on your taste) until only small amount of liquid remains. Add shaved and dried bonito flakes 鰹節, stir until incorporated. Final product should not have any excess liquid. The above is the one I made after I finished making this diakon dish. This one is not as salty as some of commercial "tsukudani" and go well with Sake as is.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Crispy fried chicken wing with sesame 鶏手羽の唐揚げ

Crispy fried chicken wing with sesame 鶏手羽の唐揚げ
Broccoli with sesame dressing ブロッコリのごま和え

This is a Japanese version of an America classic "Buffalo wings" (sort of), although this is not hot at all. This is also a classic Izakaya or bar food. This recipe is originally from one of the Japanese cook books I have (すぐ作れる酒の肴とおつまみ p40、講談社). This one requires some preparation (which appears to happen often in Japanese cooking). Cut off wing tips and discard. Separate wing from drumett and cut slits in both pieces to ensure even cooking. The next is an interesting and important step (this step is the same as for the chicken skin yakitori preparation). Prepare boiling water with some sake and cook the wings for 10-15 minutes in low medium heat. Skim any scum that floats to the surface. Take the wings out and place on paper towels and let cool until you can handle them by hand. Meanwhile, prepare the batter. Mix equal amounts of potato starch 片栗粉 and bread flour 強力粉 (we are aiming for crunch but you can just use AP flour). Add sake and/or water and soy sauce (to taste) to make a batter with the consistency of a pancake batter (it needs to be a bit thick to cling to the wings. The day I made this batch, my batter was too thin). Coat and marinate the above chicken wings in the batter for 5-10 minutes. Coat each pieces with white or black sesame seeds (here I used white sesame for the wings and black sesame for the drumetts). Deep fry to crisp the skin. The chicken is already cooked so use a bit higher temperature and fry until the skin gets crispy. You need not to worry about cooking it through. Although I have not done so, I suppose you can do the boiling step ahead of time and fry them just before serving. Since it is already seasoned, no need for a dipping sauce. The result, crunchy outside and juicy inside.

Broccoli with sesame dressing ブロッコリのごま和え
To accompany this dish, I made a very simple broccoli dish in the category of "goma-a-e" ごま和え using sesame paste as a main ingredient of the dressing. Blanch broccoli floweretts in salted water and shock them in ice cold water to stop cooking at your desired doneness (we like it bit crunchy) and pat dry using paper towels. In a small bowl or, in my case, a small "suribachi", add Japanese creamed sesame paste 練りごま (if this is not available use tahini), sugar, soy sauce and a small amount of rice vinegar (this will lighten the color of dressing as well as add some subtle sourness) until the dressing reaches desired consistency (if vegetables are watery make it bit thick). Dress the broccoli and place additional dressing and sesame seeds on the top. "Goma-a-e" is classically done with green beans. Mark's book has a more sophisticated version of this with green beans and fava beans (Mark's book p36). I made the recipe in his book. It does add more dimension especially by soaking green beans in "happo-dashi" 八方だし. Next time I make the recipe I will remember to take a picture.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Grilled Chicken Thigh with salt 鶏の塩焼き

Grilled Chicken Thigh with Salt 鶏の塩焼き
Vinegared cucumber salad キュウリの酢の物

When it is too much to set up a yakitori grill outside, the next best thing is to make this dish. Since skin is an important element of this dish, you probably have to get bone-in thigh and bone it yourself. Remove excess fat and butterfly the thickest part to make it even in thickness. Simply salt both sides (may not be good for you but you need to salt it quite heavily to taste good). For a grill, I use a very small electric indoor grill (George Forman's brand) but the grill needs to get rather hot. If you use a grill which can cook both sides at once, I put skin side up to make skin crispy. You can certainly make this with a frying pan or a grill pan. In that case, you put skin side down first and weight it down by a panini press or similar heavy item. You need to remove excess fat using paper towel while cooking to make the skin brown and crispy then turn over to complete cooking (do not cover). The result is very crispy skin and juicy thigh meat. Cut it up into bite size pieces, squeeze lemon and enjoy

I served this with a cold sake and a simple cucumber salad or "sunomono" 酢の物 with finely テ貝の薫製 from Hokkaido and topped with salmon roe いくら. Since it was a week night, I cheated and just used bottled Sushi vinegar (good quality one like "Mitsukan" or "Mizkan"ミツカン brand and one which uses real rice vinegar, not distilled white vinegar). After thinly slicing cucumbers, salt them lightly, mix and leave them for 5 minutes before squeezing out excess water. Mix with scallops and dress. Top with salmon roe.
crumbled semi-dry and smoked scallops ホタ

The sake glass is made by a local artisan in Asakusa, Tokyo, "Hashi-oki" 箸置き or "chop stick pillow" is also hand-made by Kitaichi glass, in Otaru, Hokkaido, and the cold sake is Yaegaki "mu" 八重垣 ”無” Junmai Daiginjo 純米大吟醸. Not bad for a week night!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Tuna "Maguro" 鮪 Part 2

Tuna Sashimi 鮪刺身、中トロ

This is "chutoro" 中トロ we got from a local Japanese grocery store (not from Catalina Offshore Products which I mentioned previously). It looks OK in the picture but the freshness was just marginal (it is usually better than this). Our grocery store may have gotten a fresh shipment from New York on Thursday (we bought this on Sunday). In Japan, we could get much higher quality sashimi from the gourmet food floors (usually basement floors) of department stores. In any case, even at home, we often start with a bit of sashimi, before proceeding to other Izakaya food. Although, my knife skills are not even close to the level of a professional chef, I try to do "katsura-muki" かつらむき to make daikon garnish "tsuma" 刺身のつま and to do some decorative cuts on a cucumber (again, American mini-cucues). Please click and see this Youtube episode. You will be amazed at the true skill of a professional chef. The cucumber "cup" is filled with salmon roe or "ikura" いくら. Although, for sashimi, the quality of tuna is by far the most important, other condiments also play significant roles such as wasabi and soy sauce.

A few words about "wasabi" 山葵. Real wasabi comes from the root of the wasabi plant (Wasabi Rhizomes). If you have not ever tasted the real stuff, it may be worth it to try at least once. It tastes quite different from fake wasabis made mostly from horseradish, starch, and green dye. You can buy an American grown real wasabi root from the company called "Real Wasabi". It is expensive, does not last that long and needs a special grater (the traditional one is made of shark skin). I tried it once from this company. It was really good but, unless you are having a big sushi and sashimi party, it may be difficult to justify the purchase. Some of wasabi pastes in a tube can be quite good using a certain amount of real wasabi but you can also buy a real wasabi powder from this company.

Soy sauce 醤油 is also important. Many of my American colleagues have told me they think soy sauce will last for a long time (basically forever) but it will get oxidized fairly quickly once it is opened. Oxidized soy sauce tastes quite unpleasant (to me, at least). You could make a special soy sauce for sashimi (dried bonito flakes and mirin are needed) but you could also buy special soy sauce for sashimi in a bottle.

Tuna in grated mountain yam "Yamakake" 鮪のやまかけ

This is the dish I mentioned in the previous posting about low-quality tuna. You could make this with good quality tuna and of course, it would taste better. You can use cubes of tuna as is or, especially if the tuna is not good quality, you can marinate it. My marinade consists of equal parts mirin and soy sauce. I leave the tuna in the marinade for as short as 10 minutes or as long as overnight (overnight marination will produce a soft and slightly slimy texture which some like and some don't).
The name of this dish is-- "yama-kake", "yama" comes from the word "yama-imo" which means mountain potato and "kake" which means to pour over. So the literal translation is "poured over mountain potato".  I grate the "mountain" yam or "yama-imo" 山芋 after peeling the skin. In the United States, I can only get a domesticated version of yama-imo called "naga-imo" or long potato 長芋.  A Japanese style grater (one with multiple holes allowing the grated yam to drop into the lower container) or a Japanese mortar "suribachi" works best. I also dissolve wasabi paste in soy sauce and mix it into the grated potato.  The more traditional way of doing this would be to put a dab of wasabi on the side of the dish letting the diners mix it in with the soy sauce. I like my method better because with the traditional way, the wasabi paste often does not get evenly distributed and the person eating it can get a real jolt of concentrated wasabi.
Add the tuna cubes to the grated mixture and garnish with a large amount of "nori" seaweed. The slimy consistency of the grated yam may not agree with many Westerners but this is certainly my wife's favorites.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Tuna "Maguro" 鮪 Part 1

Grilled tuna with teriyaki sauce マグロの照り焼き
As Mark's book mentions, many Izakaya regulars start with Sashimi 刺身. We are no exception. In the United States, good sashimi-grade tuna or other sashimi items are not easy to get. We occasionally mail order from Catalina Offshore Products in San Diego. They have a fairly good quality fish for sashimi including very excellent "uni" 雲丹 or sea urchin. They ship overnight   either frozen or ice packed. The only problem is that we have to order a rather large quantity especially if you want several different varieties of sashimi. I hope I can post our sashimi feast sometime soon.  So, I resort to getting sashimi from the local Japanese grocery stores, not the best but certainly OK. When I am desperate, I even get a frozen sashimi-grade tuna block さく of  yellow fin tuna, which is treated with an "odorless" smoke (euphemism for carbon monoxide) to retain its red color. We even saw this type of tuna being served at a Japanese restaurant in North Carolina (poor sushi chef and customer). "Yellow fin" tuna is least desirable for sashimi.  Blue fin tuna ほんまぐろ or bigeye tuna めばちまぐろ are much preferred. In any case, sometimes, the quality of these frozen tuna blocks is just barely good enough to eat as sashimi, thus, I made these two dishes. Other ways are to marinate the tuna in soy sauce and mirn for several hours or overnight in the refrigerator (this is a very similar to what I mentioned in the squid posting called "okizuke") after cutting into cubes or slices and make "tuna domburi" 鉄火丼 or "yamakake" やまかけ (I will post these later).

After thawing the tuna block, I smear grated garlic (I use a garlic press), black peper and salt. Sear very quickly in hot frying pan/skillet (for 10-15 seconds each side) with bit of vegetable or olive oil. Take the tuna out and set aside. Add about equal amounts of mirin, soy sauce and (good quality but not super expensive) balsamic vinegar and reduce in half or until a saucy consistency is reached. (You could add cold butter to make it more like western style sauce.) Slice the tuna in half inch thick pieces, arrange on the plate, add sauce and sprinkle with sesame seeds. You will be surprised how good the combination of balsamic vinegar,  soy sauce and tuna is. Now, it becomes rather palatable!

Tuna tartar with cream cheese

This is another dish I made from this low-grade frozen block of tuna. Mince tuna in small pieces. You need softened cream cheese in 1/3 to 1/2 amount of the tuna. Add grated or finely chopped garlic, dash of sesame oil (darkly roasted, of course), soy sauce, wasabi (more about this in the future), salt and pepper to taste. Fold the tuna into this mixture. Sprinkle chopped chive and splash of lemon juice.  You could eat this as is or with slices of baguette or crackers. It goes well with wine (do not put to much lemon juice if you are drinking wine) or sake.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Deep Fried Items 揚げ物

Squid Tempura イカの天ぷら

Like any bar food in United States, deep fried items 揚げ物 are very popular in Izakaya. Mark's book contains quite a few deep fried goodies. Deep fried chicken nuggets ("tori no kara-age" 鶏の唐揚げ and "Tatsuta-age" 竜田揚げ, recipe in Mark's book p84) are definitely Izakaya teiban 定番 (regular or classic) items.  On our last trip to Japan, we were in Kanazawa in June. It was the season for small white shrimp called "Shiraebi" 白エビ.  The Izakayas we ate at in Kanazawa offered this seasonal treasure in either "kara-age' (simply fried) or as "Kakiage" かき揚げ (more about this later). We loved the kara-age version of it. In addition, it was also the season for tiny, fluorescent squid called "Hotaru-ika" 蛍イカ or "firefly squid" (firefly for obvious reason). We had this squid in a very simple preparation called "Okizuke" 沖漬. What a treat!

The picture  above shows a fried squid dish I happened to make the other night since relatively fresh squid was available at the near-by Barducci's gourmet market. Talking about squid in U.S., nothing comes even close in terms of quality, variety, and freshness to the squid available in Japan. An extreme example of which was the "live" squid sashimi (生き造り) we had at the port city of Hakodate in Hokkaido. (I am sure we will have a chance to share our experience with that regional delicacy with you another time). You could use legs げそ as tempura especially in a form of "kakiage" but I used only the body parts this time. The problem with squid is that it contains lots of water which makes it splatter in the hot oil while cooking and makes it difficult to achieve a crispy crust. Also, cooked squid meat could be very chewy. A few preparation steps required to prevent this.

1) After cleaning the squid (if it is not already cleaned), cut open the tube, and make sallow criss-cross cuts. These are called "kanoko-giri" かのこ切りor "matsukasa-giri" 松かさ切り (see the diagram on left). Then, cut into small bite sized pieces. This will make the squid meat less chewy and easy to bite off.
2) Dry the squid by sandwiching it in a paper towel.  If you have time, you could refrigerate the squid in the paper towel "sandwich" for 10 minutes.
3) Before dipping into tempura batter, coat the squid with flour (I use potato starch).
4) There are many version of tempura batter but I use a whole egg (classical recipes use egg yolk only), 1 cup of cake flour and ice cold water mixed to the desired consistency. But do not over mix. You want a light flour so you do not want to develop the gluten in the flour. For vegetables, I prefer a thin watery batter--for shrimp and squid a slightly thicker batter.
5) I use peanuts oil since it imparts a nice peanut flavor to the squid and has a high smoke point. To test if the oil is hot enough I drip a very small amount of the batter into it. If the batter sinks into the oil half way and then immediately floats back to the surface, the oil is ready. (another method I use to check if the oil is ready, that was taught to me by my mother, is to put the tip of a bamboo cooking chopstick into the oil and if bubbles come out of the chopstick, the oil is ready). Depending on how things go, you may want to "double" fry the squid. Be careful to take out any stray pieces of tempura batter left in the oil ("tenkasu 天かす which can be used as a topping for needle in a soup dish and has other use) after the squid is cooked through and removed, otherwise they will burn making an unpleasant taste. Increase the heat and crisp up the crust for the second time (just 15 -20 seconds). You may need to try this several times before you will get it right.

6) Traditionally, tempura is eaten using a warm dipping sauce "tentsuyu" 天つゆ (dashi, mirin, sugar, soy sauce or buy in a bottle) with grated daikon and ginger root. But we usually eat it with "green tea salt" 抹茶塩 (a mixture of Kosher salt and powered green tea) and lemon. The  night I made this tempura, we went more traditional .

Monday, September 7, 2009

Sunomono 酢の物

Wakame with vinegar dressing わかめの酢の物

This type of side dish belongs to a general category of "sunomon" 酢の物 or "vinegard items". This is my version of wakame salad. Mark's Izakaya Cookbook has two entries of this kind;


You can make many variations by changing the dressing and/or adding (or removing) any ingredients available (or not available) at a given time. But you need to use vinegar dressing to qualify for "sunomono".  The closest we can get for nanohana here in the U.S. is brocolli rabe (rapini)  but it is too bitter and too tough to eat raw. For this dish, I blanched the broccoli rabe. For cucumber, in stead of Japanese cucumber, I used American "mini cucues" which became available in our grocery store recently. It is closest to Japanese cucumber in size and taste (of course, you could get a Japanese cucumber from a Japanese grocery store). I also added skinned tomato (we do not like tomato skin), avocado, and wakame. I cut the cucumber in "jabara" 蛇腹 or "snake belly" fashion as suggested in Mark's book. If you have not seen how this is done, please check out this youtube episode. For dressing, I used "ponzu" (ポン酢) here (Mark's book has a recipe p154 but good quality one can be bought in a bottle) but you can make "nihaizu" 二杯酢 (rice vinegar, soy sauce and dashi) or "sanbaizu" 三杯酢 ("nihaizu" plus mirin) or simply use "sushi vinegar" (this is not just rice vinegar but seasoned with sugar and salt) from the bottle. We usually omit  "dashi" since the liquid from the vegetables takes out some of the harshness of the vinegar. Other common variations of the dressings, especially if you add seafood such as boiled squid legs, octopus, or shrimp, are "sumiso" 酢みそ (Miso paste, sugar and rice vinegar) and "karashi sumiso" ("sumiso" plus Japanese hot mustard).

Yakitori 焼き鳥 Part 5

Grilled Rice Ball 焼きおにぎり
Salted vegetables 浅漬け 

This is also our favorite to complete a yakitori meal. Mark's book has a more elaborate version of this old favorite,

Grilled Rice Balls with Vegetable Miso (p148).

You can make this using a frying pan and/or in a toaster oven but you never get the crunchy surface you could get when it is grilled over a direct charcoal fire. I usually use  simple miso paste (white or red miso or a mixture of the two), mirin, add sugar, sesame oil or tahini if you so desire, and heat and mix well to reduce to the original consistency of miso). Of course, you could follow the recipe in the book to make Vegetable Miso. This time, I was too lazy to make the miso mixture and used a mixture of soy sauce and mirin (in equal parts) instead. Just brush it on the rice ball toward end of the cooking process. It will penetrate the surface and further caramelize (because of the sugar in the mirin). It makes a nice crunchy crust and adds flavors. My wife likes it extra crunchy and squeezes lemon over it as she eats it. One of the reasons I like this so much is that this reminds me of "okoge" おこげ  or burned rice in the bottom of a rice cooker when rice is made in the old fashioned way rather than with an electric rice cooker. As a kid, I liked to munch on "okoge" with a bit of miso. My wife likes it because "what is not to like about crunchy on the outside soft and piping hot on the inside".

The small vegetable dish on the side goes well with grilled rice balls or any rice dishes, for that matter. We made a simple  "asazuke".  We cut up cucumber, carrot, Nappa cabbage ("hakusai" 白菜) or regular cabbage, diakon, myoga, radish or whatever vegetables are available.  They can be whatever size you like but not too small or too thin so as to give some texture. I add thinly sliced Jalapeno pepper (seeded and deveined), lime slices, finely minced ginger, red pepper flakes, and/or hydrated thinly sliced kelp ("konbu" 昆布). I add enough salt to sparsely coat the veggies ( I never measure) and mixed well by hand. Place it in a Japanse pickling pot. This can be bought at Amazon or simply use a bowl with a plate which can fit inside and weigh it down with whatever is heavy enough (such as a large unopened jar of pickles). In, at least, 4-5 hours or overnight, a surprising amount of water comes out over the vegetables. Move the vegetables in a plastic container and into a refrigerator. This will last at least several days. Use of Jalapeno pepper and lime is our modification of the basic recipe but works well.

Yakitori 焼き鳥 Part 4

Minced Chicken Patties つくね

This is from the recipe in Mark's book (p130). Although "tsukune" is a regular item in any yakitori place, this one is a bit unique and we really liked it. There are many variations to these recipes but the constant is ground or minced chicken. Usually, this is cooked with a "tare" sauce. Many yakotori places mix in chopped up cartilage but we do not like it. The texture of the cartilage reminds us of store-bought ground beef patties with bone fragments in it--which my wife hates. I used the thigh meat here and did not remove the fat as meticulously as I would otherwise do before mincing it by hand (a la Iron Chef Morimoto style) into the desired consistency. Of course, I could have bought ground chicken or used a food processor. Since I did not have "yuzu" (and even limes for some reason), I used lemon zest (using micro-grater) with finely minced onion and some salt following the recipe. For different texture, you could mix in chopped "renkon" or lotus root which gives much gentler crunch than adding cartilage. I think the secret to forming patties without any binders is, as stated in Mark's book, to knead it by hand until it becomes sticky enough. Then, take  a ball of the mixture, and "throw" it on to a cutting board surface forcefully like a pro baseball pitcher (use your discretion, though) several times and shape it to a flat rectangular shape (this removes entrapped air). Put two skewers through as seen here (In this upper picture, I probably browned the surface too much but it tasted just fine) and refrigerate several hours. This step makes the patties firmer (Mark's book mentions this. Do not skip this step. This is very important especially if you do not use any binders and want to use skewers. I refrigerated the skewered patties rather than the meat mixture.) After refrigeration, the patties will not come apart too easily. The lemon flavor is very nice but if we could use a real "yuzu", it probably would have been better. (Sometimes we see yuzu in our Japanese grocery store several days before New Year's day. Unfortunately, they usually look dried up and shriveled--not really good and awfully expensive). Here is the image of "tsukune" and "skin" being grilled side-by-side. Next time, I may mix in "yuzu kosho" (the recipe is included in Mark's book p145 but this can be purchased in small bottle or tube in a Japanese grocery store) to see how it works.

Yakitori 焼き鳥 Part 3

Chicken Skin 雛皮

We love cripsy skin of any kind very much. This is a common yakitori item made of just chicken skin.  But to make it all nicely crunchy without causing flared up when it cooks, which gives it a gasoline-taste,   requires some preparaion. You can use any part of the skin but I usually use the thigh part. To remove any strong smell and to render out some of the excess fat, the skin is placed in salted boiling water with some sake. (Although I have not tried, some people use roasted brown tea or "bancha" 番茶 for this.) I boil the skin a good 5-7 minutes until I see fat floating on the surface. Wash the skin in cold water and pat dry. Next question is how to skewer the pieces. Most yakitori-ya, apear to make multiple folds or make a stack of small square pieces of skin on skewers but, for us, this does not work well since the skin does not get crunchy throughout. Instead the edges of the squares or tops of the folds get too singed and the insides of the folds are soft. You see how we did it in the pictures. You need to avoid flare-ups while grilling by moving them to colder areas of the grill.

Chicken liver 肝 きも

Chicken liver is our (especially my wife's), favorite. Again, it requires some prepping and this is my version. Fortunately, chicken liver is very cheap and comes in plastic tubs at most grocery stores near us. But unfortunately, you need to carefully sort out the fragmented and blemished parts and remove any fat, vessels, connective tissue attached to it. Then soak it in ice water for 10-15 minutes. I then use a marinade consisting of equal parts mirin plus sake and soy sauce with grated ginger root (sort of teriyaki marinade but not very sweet). I marinade the liver for a couple of hours in the refrigerator. When skewering the liver paying attention to some details can help. As you can see in this picture, either I use metal yakitori skewers with flat surface (4 sewers on left) or use two bamboo skewers (two on right) to prevent the liver from rotating when it is turned. I spray the metal grills with a non-stick spray (I use a Weber brand which works best). Attention to these details will result in a lovely textured chicken liver--nice grilled surface with a creamy center, and lots of flavor. We should have some more discussion regarding sake and wine later but the liver goes extremely well with red wine. This evening, we had Syrah from Languedoc, Domaine Famille Ligneres Montagne d'Alaric "Notre Dame" 2004, before switching to sake.

Yakitori 焼き鳥 Part 2

Ume-Shiso Rolled Chiken 梅しそ巻き

This is from the recipe in Mark's Izakaya Cookbook, page 130. "Shiso" or more precisely "Aoziso" or green shiso (Perilla) can be grown very easily in most of US or can be bought in a Japanese grocery store. It has a very distinctive flavor; not quite mint but somewhat similar. The sauce is "Umeboshi" paste ("Bainiku' 梅肉). Umeboshi is salted plum (actually Japanese apricot). They are salted togerther with "Akaziso" or red perilla. The red perilla imparts a red to pink color to the end products. This salty and slightly sour condiment is a very basic Japanese taste. The simplest form of lunch box or  "Bento" consists of a bed of white rice with red umeboshi in the center. Since this looks a bit like the Japanese flag it is called "Hinomaru bento" (Japanese flag lunch box). In any case, I made this paste from my mother's homemade umeboshi by cutting fruit from the stone and putting it into a Japanese mortar and pestle ("Suribachi") with a little bit of sweet cooking wine "mirin" to make a paste. You can buy commercial umebosh paste in a tube as well. This combination is very classic and excellent. Another recipe I often use is chicken tenders tempura with umeboshi paste. I cut a small slit in the meat, put umeboshi paste in the slit and then wrap everything in perilla. I then coat the packet in tempura batter and deep fry. The result is as good as this yakitori.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Yakitori 焼き鳥 Part 1

Our first posting of a dish has to be Yakitori. It simply means "grilled bird". It is skewered small morsels of meat (mostly chicken) or vegetable grilled on a charcoal fire (or any other direct heat sources). Some Yakitori chefs prefer electric far-infrared heating elements for precise temperature control but charcoal is most authentic. Offal are also frequently used such as chicken liver, gizzard, pope's nose (if you know what this is), testes (did you know chicken has testes), skin, even cartilage and pork intestine etc. The seasoning are usually  "Tare (sauce)" or "Shio (salt)". "Tare" sauce main flavors are soy sauce and sugar (some yakitoti places may have a secret "tare" sauce which is said to have been used for generations. New ingredients are added to the old and the bottom of the "kame" or earthenware vessels where tare is kept may contain mysterious "sludge" imparting the  je ne sais qua character to the "Tare" sauce (although this is most likely just a myth) or simply salted ("Shio"). We prefer salt and lemon for most yakitori items.

Although Yakitori-ya or Yakitori restaurant specializes in this one particular type of cuisine and is not a traditional Izakaya, the idea is the same. The classic yakatori-ya is  small, shabby (it has to be) smoke filled (both from cigarette and yakitori grilling) noisy places. They are getting increasingly rare in Japan and are being replaced by more sanitized versions including (again) Yakitori chain stores. In any case, our fond memory of Yakitori goes back 25 years in Sapporo where my wife had first tasted Yakitori with turbid sake ("nigori zake").

Equipment: At home, we use a special Yakitori grill purchased from Korin. Bincho charcoal, which you can purchase from Korin as well, is said to be the best but we use lump hickory charcoal with good results. One can use any direct heat source including gas, charcoal or even electricity. A Weber grill works well but you certainly loose some of the enjoyment of cooking at the table as you eat.

For skewers we use both bamboo and metal. The metal skewers are specifically designed for Yakitori (purchased in one of the stores in Kappabashi district, Asakusa, Tokyo). They are much shorter than regular metal skewers and also flat preventing soft items such as chicken liver from rotating while being turned. You can use two bamboo skewers with the same results. Bamboo skewers, however, need to be pre-soaked to prevent them from burning.

In this picture, taken in our back yard at home, from right to left, we have chicken thigh, pork with onion (this is said to be in a "Muroran" style named after a port town in Hokkaido and eaten with hot mustard), eggplant, shishito (small green Japanese pepper) chicken wings and drumettes. The shishito pepper is usually not hot. However, it is somewhat like playing Russian roulette because some may be unexpectedly "atomic" hot. While this occasionally happens in Japan for some reason it is much more frequent in the United States.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Izakaya 居酒屋

I decided to renew this blog. Our wine blog "" has been going for some years chronicling our weekly wine tasting. The initial intent of this blog was to post whatever remarks I may have but not suitable or appropriate for winepath blog. Obviously I have not posted a new blog for 2 years. We (my wife and I) like food and wine and especially fond of series of small dishes go well with drinks. Tapas will be the most well known for this category of food in US. Another is Izakaya (居酒屋) food from Japan. Every time we go back and visit Japan, we made a bee line to some of our favorite Izakayas. Izakaya is a small drinking establishments in Japan which started
out in sake stores. They provided sake and small dishes go with sake
on the premises for their customers. But in recent years, it is getting more and more difficult to find small chef-owned Izakayas. These are replaced by "chain" izakayas like you see here in Ginza. The chain stores are not all bad and come in many different levels from cheap to expensive. They are aimed at different clientele. In general, the food is fairly uniform (probably the majority being prepared in a central kitchen or factory). The chain stores are characterized by plastic laminated menus depicting the food in color pictures--somewhat similar to American fast food restaurants.

We can enjoy something similar (ordering small dishes or appetizers a la carte) in some Japanese restaurants as well. Some Western-style restaurants also put more effort into making a series of small dishes such in Komi and Minibar in Washington DC (of course, similar restaurants are in many other cities as well). But for us, atmosphere of Izakayas, their food are most enjoyable and sometime we resort to recreating these at home.

Recently, we came across very interesting book called "Izakaya. The Japanese Pub Cookbook" by Mark Robinson. He was born in Tokyo and grew up in Sidney but now lives in Tokyo for some time. We are impressed that he really understood and captured all the essence of Izakaya we love. I do not know how many people who read this will try to make dishes in this book. I have already made many of the regular Izakaya affaires (called "teiban" or 定番) but was also inspired by this book. We communicated via email and Mark was kind enough to share his extra copy of the book which is considered in Japan as the bible of Izakaya exploration by Kazuhiko Ohta.

My intention is not to prepare dishes in this book. "Making-all-dishes-in-a-cookbook-and-blog-about-it" appears to be very popular activities among food bloggers ("Julie and Julia", even made it to a movie). I just wanted to share some of our Izakaya-inspired dishes, which my wife and I enjoy from time to time.