Shiitake & Tofu Laksa

Well it’s been a full week of classes now and things are still (*knock on wood*) going smoothly. I’m absolutely loving my lectures. Finally, after four years of Physics and five years in the “real world”, I am studying what I’ve been wanting to study all along: Astronomy. Now I’ll admit it’s a bit surreal jumping headlong into academia again (oh wait, I can only afford two bags of groceries at a time? …you want me to ssh into where??…yes I do in fact know what it’s like to work outside school), but after having my Astronomy studies previously limited to Science Daily, this is just so cool! 😀

One of my biggest challenges so far hasn’t been the work – although my math skills are still VERY rusty – it’s been finding the time to cook even the simplest meals. I need at least two dishes’ worth of leftovers to sustain me through the week and there have been some days when I’ve given in and bought my food, not ok when you’re on a strict budget

…that is why, people, I love this dish. And if you are a person pressed for time with a weakness for flavor I highly suggest you make this soon! Laksa, I’ve learned, is a traditional Malaysian noodle soup marked by its main ingredients of curry, coconut milk, and noodles. Are you familiar with laksas? Is such a dish primarily Malaysian and just borrowed in other cuisines, or do other cultures have their own personal varieties?

Shiitake & Tofu Laksa (very slightly adapted from The Big Book of Wok and Stir-fry)

Ingredients:

2 fresh red chiles, seeded and chopped

1½” (4 cm) piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

2  large garlic cloves, chopped

2 lemongrass stalks, tough outer layers discarded and inner stalks chopped*

small handful fresh cilantro, a few leaves saved for garnish

3   T   vegetable oil

3   C   vegetable stock

14  oz.  canned coconut milk

9  oz.  shiitake mushrooms, stalks removed and thinly sliced

1   C   firm tofu; drained, pressed, and cubed

2   T   tomato paste

2  packs instant ramen (without spice pouches)

2 – 3 scallions, sliced

salt and pepper to taste

*Note: I couldn’t find lemongrass at the time so I added scallions instead. Loved the scallions and bet the lemongrass would make the broth even more delicious so I’ve included both here. 

Procedure:

 1. Puree chiles, ginger, garlic, lemongrass, cilantro, and oil in a food processor until smooth. I deliberately left mine with small chunks in it because I wanted little bursts of flavor in the broth but I’m sure it’s just as delicious perfectly pureed.

2. Heat wok over Medium-high heat and add puree. Stir-fry puree for 30 seconds or until fragrant before pouring in veggie stock and coconut milk. Bring broth to boil. Fill a medium-sized saucepan with water and place on separate burner to boil.

3. When broth is boiling in the wok add mushrooms, tofu, and tomato paste and lower heat to gently simmer for 5 minutes. As broth is simmering, cook ramen in saucepan for just two minutes or so – until soft but not fully cooked (be careful here, it’s very easy to overcook instant ramen!). Drain noodles and set aside.

 4. Remove wok from heat. Taste-test your broth and add salt and pepper as desired. Using tongs or two forks, divide ramen into bowls (will serve 4 without leftovers) and ladle broth over the top. Garnish with sliced scallions and cilantro and serve immediately.

Beezer’s Notes:

I feel a tad guilty saying it, but I think this is the best Asian dish I have ever made. The guilt comes from the fact that this isn’t a Japanese dish, it’s not even an Asian dish I’ve eaten much of, yet I pulled it off better than any of my Japanese dishes attempted so far (speaking of which, I’ve been wanting to get back to those challenges for a while now but haven’t found the ingredients I need within biking distance – yet!). Even Brad, who’s a bit skeptical of international foods he hasn’t tried yet, told me it was really good. The best part? Easily-reheatable leftovers! Woohoo!

Overall Enjoyment:   ♥   ♥   ♥   ♥   ♥

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ハンバーガー (Hamburger)

Let me say first that this is by far the prettiest Japanese food recipe I’ve made. All my other dishes were very tasty (if I do say so myself – and others have agreed with me), but either the dish itself was rather unattractive or my photos were just shoddy. Finally, I can share with you some delicious 食べ物 that looks as good as it tastes! I hope you’re hungry…

I should explain a bit here about 洋食 (youshoku) or Western Food. Having been influenced by good eats from France, Italy, and China as well as the Americas, Japanese cooks began adapting foreign recipes and making them their own in the early 1900’s. Such foreign adaptations were called youshoku as apposed to 和食 (washoku) which refers to traditional Japanese cuisine. The かぼちゃコロッケ (kabocha korokke) I made is an example of youshoku and was inspired by French croquettes. Gyoza (dumplings) and ramen noodles are Japanese-style Chinese food. Western culinary influence has penetrated so deeply that even in the small town of Uchiko where I lived you could find some rather hilarious – yet surprisingly delicious – spins on fast-food like the spaghetti-dog, mochi and peanut butter sandwiches, and potato salad and sausage pizza. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried, I only wish I had photos. I DID snap a photo of some rather disgusting (to us) string cheese my friends and I discovered at Matsuyama Airport:

"Fish Cheese" is basically the English translation.

Anyway, since youshoku is a relatively easy form of Japanese food for those outside of Japan to make I find that I’ve been making it more often than other, more complicated washoku. As I gain more confidence in my Japanese cooking – or my culinary abilities in general for that matter – I promise I’ll be able to share more traditional style recipes with you. Until then, I recommend Just Hungry: a blog written by self-described nomad Makiko chronicling her Japanese home cooking. Now, ready for some delicious “hanbaga” in a special sauce? 料理をしましょう!

ハンバーガー (Hamburger) (from Let’s Cook Japanese Food! by Amy Kaneko)

Ingredients:

For the Hamburgers…

1/3   C   panko

¼   C   milk

3   T   canola or other neutral oil, separated, if needed*

1 small yellow onion, minced

¾   lb.   ground beef

¼   lb.   ground pork

1   medium egg, lightly beaten

½   t   salt

¼   t   fresh ground pepper

For the Sauce…

2   T   sake

1   C   tonkatsu sauce**

¼   C   red wine

¼   C   water

2   T   ketchup

* Note: I used a non-stick pan just to be safe, although the source recipe doesn’t specify, and found the oil for the patties to be completely unnecessary. The natural moisture in the beef and pork was more than enough to keep the patties from sticking.

** Note: It took a year before I was able to find bottled tonkatsu sauce in my area (see Beezer’s Notes below) so don’t feel discouraged if you’re unable to find it on shelves. I’ve been told Bulldog brand makes a great sauce, so if any stores around you carry Bulldog products you might be in luck. If not, you can either buy tonkatsu sauce online or make a substitute version of Japanese hamburger sauce as follows: in a small saucepan combine 1 Cup ketchup, ¼ Cup Worcestershire sauce, ¼ Cup red wine, ¼ Cup water, and 1 teaspoon sugar and mix well. Cook over Medium heat for about 3 minutes and pour over fully-cooked hamburger patties and coat well before serving. (Also, yes, I suppose you can make the tonkatsu sauce from scratch as well but I have yet to try so I can’t recommend a recipe; if anyone has a good one, please share!)

Procedure:

  1. To prep for the hamburger patties mix together panko and milk in a small bowl and set aside. In a frying pan, heat 1 Tablespoon of the oil over Medium heat and add onions. Cook, stirring often, until lightly browned – about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool completely.
  2. As the onions cool, prepare your Hamburger Sauce by combining tonkatsu sauce, wine, water, and ketchup in a small saucepan over medium heat (or follow the instructions in the Notes above for a substitution if no tonkatsu sauce can be found). Adjust the temperature as needed to allow sauce to simmer for at least 3 minutes and then set aside. My sauce was quite thin so I kept it at a low heat the entire time I cooked the patties and it reduced beautifully.
  3. In a large bowl, combine the beef, pork, soaked panko, cooled onion, egg, salt, and pepper. Using your hands (or a potato masher if you’re feeling less adventurous), mix to distribute all ingredients evenly. Gather the patty base into a large mass and slap it back into the bowl a few times to release any air bubbles. This will help ensure patties that are dense and helps them hold together. Divide the patty mix into 4 equal portions and form each patty into a disk about 1½ inches thick.
  4. In a frying pan large enough to accommodate the patties without crowding, heat the remaining oil (if using) over Medium-high heat. If you don’t have a pan large enough, cook the patties in 2 batches. When the oil is hot, carefully add the patties and cook until a brown crust starts to form on the bottom – 3 to 5 minutes depending on the size of your pan. Carefully flip the patties once and cook until a brown crust forms on the second side – 3 to 5 minutes more.
  5. Add 1 Tablespoon of the sake to the pan, cover, and continue cooking for 2 minutes. Uncover and carefully turn the patties over, adding the remaining 1 Tablespoon sake, cover, and cook until the patties become very brown on the outside and cooked through – about 2 minutes longer. As soon as the patties are done, pour in the Hamburger Sauce, flip the patties once to coat them well, and heat for a few minutes to bring the sauce up to temperature. Serve immediately.

Beezer’s Notes:

Mmmm… you know, I don’t cook meat very often (both from expense and from choice) but a recipe like this really makes me want to! These Japanese hamburgers are super moist, very flavorful all by themselves, and especially delicious with the sauce. The sake adds a subtle sweetness while the wine brings a complexity and the tonkatsu gives it a punch.  I haven’t tried the sauce substitute, but I’m sure it has very similar flavors if only lacking a bit in authenticity. I shouldn’t be speaking to strongly of authenticity though, since the tonkatsu sauce I was so happy to find is actually made by a local company which took some real liberties with the ingredients: anise seeds, cinnamon, fennel, and cloves being some. Still, it’s a better bottle of tonkatsu sauce than I could make, I’m sure, and a little extra spice never hurt anyone. Going back to the burgers themselves, you might find that they remind you more of meatloaf than an American quarter-pounder the panko and onions making the mix lighter. Either way, the beef/pork ratio is a real winner in my book and I’ll have to remember it in the future for hamburgers in general.

Overall Enjoyment:   ♥   ♥   ♥   ♥   ♥

かぼちゃコロッケ (Kabocha Korokke)

As I upload this pre-written post I want to take a moment to mention the horrific earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan earlier today. I am very relieved to learn that my friends on Shikoku are safe, but my thoughts and best wishes go to everyone who was and still is affected by this disaster. The Japanese are some of the most resilient people I know who go out of their way to care for strangers and loved ones alike. I have no doubt they will get through this tragedy, but could still use any and all help we can provide – please consider donating to the American Red Cross’s Japan Earthquake and Pacific Tsunami fund!

I have to tell you, I was very excited to make these babies. It had been a while since I cooked anything Japanese (I don’t count my usual rice bowls) and I was having my family over for dinner. While pretty adventurous overall, my posse still has their limits. Raw fish is not an option, anything “fishy” in general is rejected by the younger members of the family, and tofu is left untouched. Some favorites of theirs that I have yet to attempt are: 天ぷらうどん (tempura udon), カレーライス (curry rice), and, of course, ラーメン (ramen). The first two dishes are most definitely on my “to cook” list, but after tasting the absolute genius that is fresh Japanese ramen I don’t think I could ever do it justice. Even in my very Asian-influenced foodie town, where you can now find such yummy treats as mochi ice cream, aloe soda, and even daifuku, I have yet to taste a bowl of ramen as good as the cheapest bowls in Japan. It is an art, people, and if I were ever given a last meal it would be a giant serving of authentic とんこつラーメン (tonkotsu ramen).

But let’s get back on track since this post isn’t about tonkotsu ramen, as much as I wish it were, haha. In my defense, if you haven’t yet tried korokke of any kind you’re in for a treat. Based off the French dish croquette, it may not blow your mind the way the perfect bowl of ramen does, but you can’t go wrong with these crispy-on-the-outside-gooey-on-the-inside little balls of love. You can make korokke out of almost anything, the most popular kinds being filled with chicken, pork, or kabocha (Japanese pumpkin). Once again I substituted butternut squash for the pumpkin and even my brother who doesn’t like squash gobbled these up as soon as they hit the plate. I still need to work on my presentation skills with Japanese food – true korokke looking something like this – but they tasted like the real deal, so it was a good first attempt.

かぼちゃコロッケ (Kabocha Korokke)

(adapted from Let’s Cook Japanese Food! by Amy Kaneko)

Ingredients:

½ kabocha or butternut squash, cut into 1-2″ chunks*

1   C   low-sodium chicken or veggie broth

1   T   unsalted butter

½   yellow onion, minced

2   T   soy sauce

2   T   Kewpie-brand mayonnaise (see my 南瓜とマヨネーズ post)

pinch of salt

¼   t   ground black pepper

1   C   flour

1   large egg

2   C   panko

canola or other neutral oil for deep-frying

Tonkatsu sauce for serving**

* Note: Leave the skin on if using kabocha (but remove any “warts”) and peel skin off if using butternut squash.

** Note: Tonkatsu sauce is a thick, sweet and spicy sauce similar to Worcestershire sauce that is used frequently in Japanese cooking. According to the source book “almost no one ever makes this sauce at home” and so you’ll need to buy it. I searched all my local grocery stores, Co-ops, and our single Asian market and was unable to find it. If anyone has a tried and true recipe for tonkatsu sauce, please let me know!

Procedure:

  1. In a saucepan, combine the squash pieces with broth. Place over medium heat, bring to a simmer, cover, and cook until the flesh is soft enough to mash – about 15 minutes.
  2. While the squash is cooking, melt better in a frying pan over Medium heat. When the butter begins to foam add the onion and cook, stirring often, for about 5 minutes or until the onion has become translucent. Remove from heat and set aside.
  3. When the squash has finished cooking, drain well and transfer to a large bowl along with the onion. Using a potato masher or two forks, mash until fairly smooth with only a few small chunks visible. Add the soy sauce, mayo, salt, and pepper and mix well. Let the mixture cool a little before shaping and breading.
  4. Get three small shallow bowls ready and fill one with flour, the second with panko, and the third with the beaten egg. Also spread a little flour on a flat plate or tray. Next, dampen your fingers with a bit of water and mold the filling into little golf ball-sized rounds (there should be about 20), placing balls on the flour-dusted plate as they are formed.
  5. Fill a heavy-bottomed saucepan with oil until the oil is about 3″ deep. Heat to 350°F using a thermometer or test with a bit of panko: if the panko rises immediately, the temperature is hot enough.
  6. When the oil has reached temperature, dust the balls with flour (shake off excess), dip them in egg, and cover with panko before dropping them gently into the hot oil (the balls can also be covered and then frozen for later – see Beezer’s Notes below). Be careful not to crowd the pot and watch the korokke at all times as they cook fast! Fry until medium brown and crispy – about 2 minutes each fresh or 4 minutes each frozen. Using tongs or chopsticks remove from the oil and drain on a paper towel-lined plate.
  7. Serve korokke hot and with tonkatsu sauce (if available) and Kewpie mayo, as desired. Leftovers can be eaten at room temperature the next day and are equally delicious.

Beezer’s Notes:

This recipe is one of those I like to store away in my “good for everyone” folder. It is very adaptable, multicultural without seeming extreme to Western tastes, and is a party-friendly food: you can freeze bags of korokke in advance and then just fry them right out of the bag! If making in advance, bread the balls completely and then place on a rimmed baking sheet in the freezer. When the balls have frozen, transfer them to a plastic baggie and store for up to 3 months. I am definitely making them in advance next time since serving them hot from the stove meant I ate while cooking instead of at the table with the rest of the family.

As for the taste, my batch was very close to the real kabocha korokke I had often in Ehime. I missed the contrasting soft skin that comes with true kabocha (it also makes the dish more beautiful to look at, with those little flecks of green), but overall they were really tasty and everyone in the family was eating them faster than I could fry them up. On a technical note, I recommend freezing ahead of time not only for convenience, but also because the mixture itself was much softer than I anticipated and difficult to work with. Lastly, I’m wondering if I could get a crispy shell from baking frozen balls instead of deep-frying them, getting rid of the only unhealthy part of the recipe. Future dinner parties will have to see! 🙂

Overall Enjoyment: ♥   ♥   ♥   ♥


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