茄子田楽 (Nasu Dengaku)

The other day I was walking home from the grocery store with our heavy-duty, reusable shopping bags stretched to the brim in each hand. I was huffing and puffing my way back up the hill and trying to distract myself from my aching fingers by going over my mental to-do list, which seems to grow longer every day. “Catch Up on Research” is always a big one, closely followed by “Do  Galactic Homework”, and then usually “Grade Pile of Lab Books”. “Squeeze in Practice” has begun cropping up more frequently since I’m painfully close to becoming fully certified with my volunteer organization (if I could just get in a few more hours…) and also “Get Lazy Butt to Gym”, for obvious reasons. Now that it’s midterm week for the undergrads I must also add “Review General Relativity” for the help desk I’m manning this term, plus “Solve Quiz Problems” for a student who needs some extra 1-on-1 help.

I had nearly succeeded in giving myself a panic attack when it began to snow…but it wasn’t the usual burst of flurries we’ve been getting shoved in our faces the last few weeks or so. It was almost as if the snowflakes were suspended around us, gently twirling and looping around, but appearing not to fall; as if they were simply part of the air we breathe: floating quietly up the block and bobbing down another. At this point, the Sun escaped its normal cloud cover and shone more brightly than I’d seen in weeks. The final effect was beautifully surreal as the sunlight made the tiny ice crystals glint and glimmer as they rose and danced around those of us bundled up along the sidewalk.

By the time I made it home, the wind had grown and the snow had returned to its usual cheek-stinking behavior. The Sun had vanished and my fingers were numb (Brad does always complain that I walk slow). Waiting in line for the remaining working elevators, I was happier than any graduate student has a right to be this time of year. It’s amazing what a little fresh air and sunshine can do. 🙂

(茄子田楽) Nasu Dengaku

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

Ingredients:

5   T   white miso

2½   T   sugar

1   T   mirin

1   large egg yolk

¼   Cup   water

1   medium-size globe eggplant (~1 lb.)

2   T   sesame oil, separated

2   T   canola or neutral oil, separated

sesame seeds for garnish

Procedure:

1) First make the miso topping by whisking together the miso, sugar, mirin, egg yolk, and water in a small saucepan. Heat over Medium-low heat and whisk gently but constantly until the sugar has dissolved and the sauce is very smooth – about 4 minutes. Never allow the sauce to come to boil. Remove from heat and set aside.

2) Trim the ends off of the eggplant and slice into ½” rounds. Score each round with a shallow cross-hatching to help miso topping stick. Preheat broiler and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

3) In a large frying pan, heat ½ Tablespoon of each oil (for a combined amount of 1 Tablespoon oil added to pan) over Medium-high heat. When the oil blend is hot, add as many eggplant rounds as you can without crowding (I had to do 4 batches, but if you can fit more at a time go for it). Wait until the first side has lightly browned before flipping the rounds and lightly browning the other side – about 4 minutes per side. After each batch has finished, set rounds on paper towel-lined plate to absorb excess oil. You’ll want the rounds to be soft, but still hold their shape.

4) Once all the eggplant has cooked, transfer the pieces to the prepared baking sheet and spread an equal amount of miso topping over each. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and slide the pan under the broiler about 4″ away from the heat source. Broil until the miso topping is bubbly and has begun to brown – about 5 minutes. Remove from oven, plate, and serve immediately.

Beezer’s Notes:

Well, I told you about my new eggplant kick and my wish to experiment with more miso recipes, so really this combination shouldn’t be a surprise, haha. Traditionally, dengaku is a firm tofu skewered and grilled with this same kind of thick miso sauce. I was first served it at one of my Iaido sensei’s fantastic dinners (look on the grill). I’ve tasted very similar toppings on fish and other veggies as well – although never eggplant…until now. I really love the taste of miso, and so the thick, rich, salty-yet-sweet flavor of this dish was great for me. However, the rounds were very soft and almost gooey with the sauce, making them difficult to eat – even with rice. I think next time I’ll spring for the slightly more expensive mini-eggplants I’ve seen in the produce isle: small globes that look like slightly irregular, dark golfballs. I bet those would be great drenched in this topping and broiled to juicy perfection, and their natural bite-sized nature will make for easier eating.

Overall Enjoyment:   ♥   ♥

味噌汁 (Miso Shiru)

I have finally found a Japanese grocery store. It’s a cute, tiny place about the size of my living room that is stocked full of most Japanese staples and – best of all – is within walking distance of my apartment. Although there are still numerous Japanese items on my “To Make” list, this first one was a no-brainer: I’ve recently caught a bug (Murphy’s Law: you can never begin school without being at least moderately sick) and nothing screams healthy like a piping hot bowl of Miso Soup.

These days miso soup is not as foreign in the West as it once was. You can find instant, watered-down versions accompanying most meals in Japanese restaurants across the States. Some dedicated Japanese and even Pan-Asian restaurants will make theirs from scratch, and – if your lucky – offer varieties of the soup itself. Once I learned just how easy it is to make a basic miso broth I have a hard time understanding why folks bother with the instant versions at all. Making your soup from scratch is not only simple, but it gives you the added health benefits this soy bean paste is known for having. There’s even a “Japan Miso Promotional Board” dedicated to spreading awareness of this wonder-food. If you’re curious about miso’s history, varieties, and usage there’s a very informative online-book from the JMPB. Here’s an example page below:

味噌汁 (Miso Shiru) (slightly adapted from Let’s Cook Japanese Food! by Amy Kaneko)

* serves 4 as an appetizer or 2 as the main course *

Ingredients:

4   C   dashi*

4   T   white miso paste

2   whole shiitake mushrooms sliced (if dried, reconstitute first)

1   generous pinch dried wakame, reconstituted

5   oz.  soft tofu cut into small cubes

2   green onions, minced

* Note:   Dashi is a traditional Japanese fish stock that is used as a base in many Japanese recipes, but does not have a very strong “fishy” taste as you might think. Most Japanese home cooks today use varieties of “instant dashi” which come in several forms. The easiest to find in the West, I think, is hondashi: granules that resemble instant yeast and work as a sort of bouillon. Unfortunately, the only hondashi I’ve found so far has MSG in it – which I refuse to use. If you can’t find instant dashi or if you’re like me and can’t find any without MSG, I found that I can replicate a dashi stock fairly well using dried bonito flakes, two pinches of salt, and a pinch of sugar. Add those three ingredients to 4 Cups of boiling water, let soak for 5 – 10 minutes, and strain out the bonito flakes: ta da! …a milder form of dashi stock. Pick up the procedure below at Step 2 and proceed as normal.

Procedure:

1) Bring dashi to boil in a small saucepan. If you are using dried shiitake and prefer a strong mushroom flavor you may want to add them in here to reconstitute as the stock is heated. Dried wakame can be reconstituted this way as well, just keep an eye on it – it will soften faster than the mushrooms and it shouldn’t be overcooked as it will get mushy (alternatively, the shiitake and wakame can be reconstituted separately by soaking in warm water for 30 minutes for the seaweed and up to an hour for the mushrooms).

2) Reduce the heat to Medium-low and begin incorporating the miso the following way: put 1 Tablespoon of the paste in a large spoon and, holding the spoon in one hand and a pair of chopsticks in the other, dip the edge of the spoon into the hot stock. Scoop up a bit of liquid onto the spoon and use the chopsticks to stir the paste into the liquid to dissolve the miso before adding the mixture back into the pot. Repeat with the remaining 3 Tablespoons of miso. Careful: once the miso is in the pot the soup must never boil!

3) When the miso has been mixed into the stock, add the tofu cubes and heat through – about 1 minute. If you haven’t already done so, add the wakame and sliced shiitake next and cook for an additional 30 seconds or so. Sprinkle green onions into the soup before serving.

Beezer’s Notes:

I have made two batches of this soup in the last 24 hours, if that tells you anything, haha. Even Brad, who isn’t the biggest fan of seaweed or Japanese food in general, slurped down three bowls after I had agreed to dice the tofu into tiny cubes. White miso gives the soup a sweet earthy flavor that is also quite delicate. I increased the stock to 4 Cups where the source recipe called for 3 and used my bonito-flake dashi substitute for the base, so I think my version is a bit milder than the original. If you are using the bonito flakes and want a stronger soup, it’s an easy fix: just add an addition Tablespoon or more of miso. I also love to use miso paste as a spread on sandwiches or a glaze on fish. Now that I know where to buy several varieties, I hope to share some more miso recipes with you in the future!

Overall Enjoyment:   ♥   ♥   ♥

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:   ♥   ♥   ♥   ♥   ♥

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