Back to your roots (chicken and burdock soup).

Okay, I chose a grad school. Leaving Japan in August. The morning after I received the good news, the junior high school I work at was serving sekihan (red rice, eaten on auspicious days) to the students for lunch in honor of the upcoming graduation ceremony. The funny part was, the third year students – the ones who are graduating – were out of school on a mandatory holiday due to influenza, so they couldn’t enjoy the lunch in their honor. I, however, helped myself to a big fat sekihan onigiri and dedicated it to myself.

Because I am a raging narcissist. Okay, back to the cooking blog now.

It’s still cold, despite it being March. I’m also still low on funds, surprise surprise. So let’s make cheap soup that will last for many days and can even be turned into a stew provided you have barley on hand.

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Chicken Root Soup

This soup has a remarkable earthy taste that makes you feel like it could be something your ancestors would have eaten, if your ancestors were crunchy herbal healers. It’s composed mostly of daikon and cabbage, which makes it low in calories, but the chicken, burdock root, and milk add a savory element that makes it filling and warming on a winter’s day.

Burdock root (gobou) is delicious but I don’t cook with it often. Why? Because it’s a hassle to prepare. It is the pomegranate of the root vegetable family. You can buy it pre-peeled and cut for a little bit more. If you buy it whole, you will need to thoroughly rinse it while scrubbing off the peel with a tawashi, or you can use a peeler. Afterward, slice it into diagonally into disks similar to the way you’d slice eggplant. Daikon, which you might know as the 2 foot long white radish that sells for like ¥100 right now, is the other root in the soup. It’s slight tanginess layers well with the earthy flavor of the burdock. It’s also quite healthy.

This recipe produces a ton because I like to make big meals and eat them all week, but you could easily halve the recipe.

Ingredients

  • Cooking oil (¥10)
  • 1 onion (玉ねぎ), finely chopped (¥40)
  • 2 cloves garlic (にんにく), finely minced (¥20)
  • ½ large daikon radish (大根), finely chopped or shredded (¥75 or cheaper)
  • 2-3 cups burdock root (ごぼう), shredded – don’t know how many grams, basically just buy an entire 100 yen bunch at the supermarket (¥100)
  • 2 carrots (にんじん), finely chopped (¥80)
  • About 400g (14 oz) cheap chicken cuts, such as thighs (もも), cut into bite-sized pieces (¥300)
  • ½ head Chinese (白菜) or regular cabbage, shredded (¥75)
  • 100 ml (½ c) milk (牛乳)(¥100)
  • salt, pepper, thyme, paprika, parsley (¥10), (add dill if you have it)

Directions

  1. In a large stock pan, sauté the onion and garlic in oil, salt, and pepper.
  2. Add the chicken pieces and sauté for just 1 minute.
  3. Add the daikon, carrots, and burdock root, more salt and pepper, and paprika and thyme to taste. If you buy “exotic” spices at foreign stores like Kaldi, you can add dill here too. Saute 2-3 more minutes.
  4. Add 1000ml water and cabbage. Bring to a boil before reducing to a gentle simmer.
  5. Simmer, covered with the lid cracked, about 30 minutes. You won’t need to stir it much, maybe two or three times during cooking.
  6. Uncover, stir in the milk, and cook about 10 more minutes, or until liquid has reduced and the burdock root is tender.
  7. Turn off the heat. Puree half the soup in a blender (this may take a few rounds) and stir it back in. Garnish with parsley and serve with your favorite grain.*

*Note: After the first day, I cooked a bunch of barley and combined it with the soup. This is the soup –> stew conversion I mentioned above. One bowl is all you need.

Lasts: for one person, this will feed you about 6 hearty portions or 8-10 small portions
Total cost: 800 yen, or about ¥130 per serving. Even cheaper if you trade out the meat for beans or tofu.

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Tofu Kimchi + everything Korean all the time

I went to Seoul and had such a good time that I spent much of the train ride back from the airport trying to figure out when I could fly back to Seoul. It’s about an hour and ten minute flight from Fukuoka, a scant 348 miles, but oh what a difference.

Right off the subway, Dane and I stopped into one of the first bulgogi places we saw in Hongdae. Turns out we stumbled into a well-known restaurant, “Mountainous Bulgogi,” that serves steaming plates of meat 24 hours a day. We chose a kalbi and tteokbokki soup that was, well, really spicy. I wasn’t sure if Dane would make it, but he made me proud. He even managed to say something about how delicious it was in between gasping noises (I’m likely dead inside so spice doesn’t affect me as much). And check out the banchan (side dishes): salad with black sesame dressing, fermented fish cake, soup, pickles, and of course kimchi.

So spicy I'm surprised the fumes didn't distort the picture.

So spicy I’m surprised the fumes didn’t distort the picture.

In a flight of feverish post-barbecue fancy, I told Dane I wanted to cook nothing but Korean food for the rest of my life. Given the amount of time it’s taken for me to reign in J-food, I think K-nosh will have to come gradually. Luckily, it’s relatively easy to make basic Korean-inspired dishes in Japan, thanks to the proximity of the two countries (seriously, Seoul and Fukuoka geographically as far apart as San Francisco and Los Angeles). A popular “Korean-style” dish here is “buta kimchi,” pork in a sauce of kimchi, onions, and ginger. Here’s my tofu version, which happens to be vegetarian/vegan.

Tofu Kimchi (serves 4)

Ingredients:

  • 2 tbs cooking oil
  • 2 tbs mirin
  • 1 tsp soy sauce
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup katsuoboshi flakes
  • 1 package shirataki konnyaku noodles, drained
  • 1 leek or onion, cut in half and sliced
  • 1 carrot, finely chopped
  • 50 g ginger root, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 handful shimeji mushrooms (or your favorite mushroom, I’m not a mushroom authoritarian)
  • 1 whole block firm tofu, diced into 1.5 in/2 cm cubes
  • 3/4 cup kimchi (about 150 g)
  • 2 cups bean sprouts
  • Korean red pepper flakes (gochugaru) or hot red chili pepper

Directions:

  1. In a large frying pan on medium heat, heat the cooking oil until it slides around the pan easily. Add the garlic.
  2. Add onion, carrot, mushrooms, shirataki noodles, ginger, mirin, soy sauce, and katsuoboshi flakes. Sautee 1-2 minutes. If mixture looks a little dry, add a few tablespoons of water.
  3. Add kimchi, tofu, and bean sprouts. For spiciness, add Korean red pepper flakes to taste.
  4. Mix the ingredients together until they are well coated in the kimchi and red pepper flakes. Cover and let cook on medium heat, about 8 minutes or until bean sprouts are soft.
  5. Serve atop a bed of hot rice and drink with makkgeoli, Korea’s alcoholic rice drink, or whatever red wine you found at Family Mart.

Tastes better the next day reheated or in a cold lunch box. Enjoy!

Other People’s Recipes: Laurie Colwin’s Spice Cake

There are two famous, somewhat similar cakes on the internet: David Liebowitz’s gingerbread cake, which I have made in Japan and can only rave about (it requires molasses, which is tough to obtain in Japan and therefore renders it inappropriate to the reach of this blog), and Laurie Colwin’s spice cake, which is delicious and sticky and which contains ingredients that are easy to find. So today, let’s make the latter.

Ms. Colwin was a food writer who died before her time, but her warm and sisterly recipe books live on. The story behind this cake is cute in itself, and some people have taken it for an updated version of an older Syrian nutmeg cake. I’m not sure if this can be corroborated, but I like the idea. Incidentally, I switched out the yogurt for cheaper tofu and it was still quite delicious.

Photo credit: thecookiescoop.blogspot.com

Here’s the recipe as I modified it:

Spicier Spice Cake

Ingredients:

  • 1 stick cold butter
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1.75 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp cloves
  • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 block (200g) silken (the softest you can find) tofu
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • about 1/2 cup chopped nuts

Directions:

  1. Line a round 10in/25cm or square 8x8in/20x20cm cake pan with parchment paper. This step is important; even if you oil the bottom well, the crust could possibly stick and become a crumbly mess. I suggest oiling the sides of the pan as well.
  2. Cut the butter up into tiny pieces and mix it with the sugar and the flour. Using a spoon or, preferably, your hands, mix together until you have a fine crumbly mixture.
  3. Take 2 1/2 cups of this mixture (there will still be some left over) and press it firmly into a layer in the bottom of the lined, oiled pan to make the shortbread “crust.”
  4. Add the spices to the remaining crumbly mixture and mix well. In a small separate bowl, mix the tofu and the egg together  until they are smooth, then add to the dry ingredients. Mix well.
  5. Sprinkle the baking soda on top and mix this in, too.
  6. Pour the mixture on top of the crust layer. Sprinkle the nuts liberally over the top. Bake for 55 minutes in at 350˚F/175˚C.

—I had a picture but I’m updating my computer and it might be lost to the annals. But if I make it again . . .

Kabocha Okara Pan Cakes

Kabocha is Japanese pumpkin that looks like what we’d call squash back home, but tastes sweeter than any acorn or butternut squash I’ve ever had. I like it more than pumpkin, and ate so much last year I actually started to get a little kabocha fatigue. It is the ultimate lazy beggar food – it can all be cooked at once, nearly everything can be eaten, and it’s not very expensive (at least right now, while it’s in season). I bought 1/3 of a kabocha at our local JA store for 130 yen. Not bad considering they are selling them at Whole Foods in the US for $5 a pumpkin.

Kabocha pumpkin contains, to me, the taste of fall (or “autumn” if you’d rather), and tastes delicious steamed with the skin on, but it’s more versatile than that. A friend recently posted this cute little piece on what to do with kabocha. Timely, since I’d just recently made kabocha pan cakes.

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Old Shaky Hands Dane bravely tries to hold a forkful of kabocha cake still enough for a photo.

I’m taking care not to say “pancakes” here, but pan cakes. The former contains mostly sweet batter with pumpkin added in as an element of flavor, while the latter is heartier, more savory – containing mostly pumpkin, they are lightly shaped into patties and set onto a hot, oiled griddle, where they develop a crispy exterior while remaining soft and moist inside. These are not topped with whipped cream and effing chocolate chips – they’re too good for that. If you remember the Okara Burgers from a past post, the shape and texture is very similar

Kabocha Pan Cakes

I let these ones cook a little too long. Meh, still good.

Ingredients:

1/4 kabocha pumpkin
1/2 cup okara
3 tbs brown sugar
1/3 cup cornmeal (preferred, but can be hard to find), rice flour, or wheat flour
1 tbs baking powder
1/2 tsp clove
1 large egg
1/4 cup milk or soy milk
nutmeg, cinnamon, or allspice (optional)
canola or olive oil

Directions:

  1. Scrape out the inner membrane and seeds of the kabocha quarter. Place it in a pot and cover with enough water to steam (don’t worry if you can’t cover the whole pumpkin). Bring water to a boil and then lower to simmer. Cook until the pumpkin flesh is very soft and easy pierced with a spoon, like butter.. Drain the water, leaving the pumpkin in the pot with the flesh facing up.
  2. Combine okara, brown sugar, cornmeal or flour, baking powder, and clove in a bowl. If using other spices, add them in as well. Lightly whisk the dry ingredients together.
  3. With a spoon, scoop pumpkin in chunks into the dry ingredients. If you cooked it well enough, this should be very easy. Don’t worry if a bit of the skin gets in – consider it bonus color and fiber. Add the milk and egg and mash the ingredients together with fork or clean hands, until well mixed.
  4. Heat a large fry pan on medium heat, and add a bit of olive or canola oil to the pan to prevent burning.
  5. Shape the mixture into patties about 3 in/8 cm in diameter. Place in the pan, 3 or 4 at a time. and cover. They should sizzle but not sputter. Cook about 6-7 minutes, then flip over and allow to cook for 5 more minutes or until lightly browned on both sides.
  6. Serve immediately. Top with honey, yogurt, or cheese if desired.

The mixture will keep for several days in the refrigerator. Enjoy!

“Stamina” Liver

We’ve just begun to come down from the stifling August heat, when schools reluctantly suspend lessons to prevent students from asphyxiating in their non-air-conditioned classrooms (I’m only a little joking). During this time, many tempura-and-noodle restaurants push their “stamina” sets, which typically consist of a high-calorie protein – usually eel – with garlic, noodles, and rice, designed to fortify their consumers with the energy they need to combat natsubate, heat exhaustion.

Unfortunately for an eel-lover like me, it’s not very economical to make at home, and thus is relegated to the Treat Yourself category of food. So where is the penny-pinching cook to turn when she is in need of a hearty dish to sustain her?

Don't be so squeamish; chances are you already consume muscle and adipose tissue.

Don’t be so squeamish; chances are you already consume muscle and adipose tissue.

In a word: liver.

Okay, now that I’ve lost the Americans, let me expound to you the virtues of liver: It’s cheap. It’s full of vitamins and nutrients. It prevents anemia and fatigue. It tastes really good when prepared with a little thought. Let’s explain that last one . . .

The key to good liver is to soak or marinate it before cooking. My mom recently told me she doesn’t do this – and maybe it’s not necessary – but for most people, this seems to be an important step. As with other offal and sweetbreads, the most common way to do this is by soaking the liver in milk for 1 or more hours (overnight in the fridge, even), but you could certainly get creative and brine or marinate with liquid of your choosing.

After soaking, dump the liquid and cook your liver. We had ours for breakfast, so it’s hash style, but here’s a very comprehensive article about liver from the Weston A. Price Foundation that gives several different recipes – including the following from Japan, called “Nira Reba” (liver and chives):

Nira Reba

Serves 4

1/2 pound pork liver
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 bunch nira (Chinese chives)
2 tablespoons arrowroot powder
1 tablespoon grated ginger
2 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sake (rice wine)
1 tablespoon water and 1 teaspoon potato starch
lard for frying

Cut liver into bite-sized pieces and marinate in a mixture of soy sauce, sake and ginger for 20 minutes. Remove liver from the sauce, pat dry and dredge in arrowroot. Heat lard in a deep pan and fry the liver pieces.Remove liver to a heated plate. Chop nira into short pieces and sauté in a frying pan. Add deep-fried liver and sauté with nira. Add the sauce used for marinating liver to the frying pan and stir well. Add the mixture of water and potato starch, stir quickly and remove from heat. Serve immediately.

Sounds delicious. Here is our recipe – I dare you not to like it.

Sunday Morning Liver Hash

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Quick note on dredging: Dredging – or rolling a piece of meat in a starch before cooking it – is a popular way to prepare liver. If you don’t want to do it, it’s certainly not necessary.

Ingredients:

1 package chicken livers (with hearts attached); about 6 livers
300 ml milk
2 medium yams or potatoes
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium onions, diced
3 small green peppers (Japanese piman), diced
2 medium red peppers, diced
canola oil
1/2 cup potato starch (for dredging)
salt, pepper, paprika
soy sauce and red wine (optional)

Directions:

  1. Cut the livers into bite-sized pieces and separate the hearts. Soak the livers and hearts in the milk for 2 hours.
  2. While livers are soaking, boil the yams until they are soft enough to be pierced through with a fork. Drain, cut into cubes, and set aside.
  3. Fill a shallow bowl or plate with potato starch, salt, pepper, and paprika. This is the mixture in which you will dredge (dip and roll) the livers.
  4. When liver has soaked, pour out the milk. Return to bowl – don’t pat them dry, as the moisture will help the flour adhere to them.
  5. Heat a large fry pan with a little canola oil over medium heat. Add garlic, onions, peppers, and seasonings. Add a dash of soy sauce and/or red wine if you’re using it. Saute until onions are just soft.
  6. With a wooden spoon, push the sauteed vegetables to the side of the pan to create space and add a little more oil if necessary. Turn the heat up to medium-high. Working quickly, take each liver piece and lightly roll in the starch before popping it into the pan. Do the same with the hearts.
  7. Spread the vegetables lightly around the meat.  Add potatoes. Cover the pan and let cook until the liver turns pale, about 6 minutes. Check for doneness by slicing a piece and examining the insides. As with steak, a bit of pink in the middle is ideal, but it’s up to you.
  8. Plate and serve immediately.

Dane added ketchup because he likes it (gross) but I could also see a bit of Worcestershire sauce or Tobasco working as well. I didn’t add anything else to mine; all that oil and garlic was enough.

Enjoy lovelies.

Renkon!

Renkon! sounds like the name of a monster in a big-budget movie – maybe the Rancor from Return of the Jedi mixed with KING KONG? Run for your life! Get out while you can! The RenKON IS COMING!

Definitely takes more than one bite to eat.

But it turns out, renkon is just the Japanese name for lotus root. Yes, that lotus, the flower of which, along with the ohm symbol, took the tattoo market by storm in the late 90’s. I recently visited the gardens at the Heian shrine, where there is a large and quite famous pond full of lotus (it’s the one Scarlet Johansson hops across in Lost in Translation). As calming as a pond of lotus can be, it’s nice to know that beneath the murky pond mud lie hundreds of edible vegetables. When sliced, renkon has a distinctive honeycombed look, with many small holes that look like spokes in a wheel. It adds crunchy, delicious texture similar to watercress, and remains crisp even when fully cooked.

Because lotus grow in ponds, they’re often sold covered in a residue of dark mud at the store. This can be easily washed off in the sink. To cook the renkon, wash and peel the outside. Cut the renkon into thin (less than a half centimeter) slices, and then maybe cut the slices in half to make half-moon shapes. Sometimes I don’t do this; it probably makes them harder to eat, but I think a round slice of renkon is pretty cool-looking.

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You can add renkon to stir fries and salads, but I personally prefer it as a grilled or sauteed side dish. Renkon sauteed in mirin and soy sauce is sometimes called kinpira, though I think the word refers more to the way it’s cooked than the actual inclusion of lotus root. Here’s a “Western-style” take on lotus root with mushrooms and carrot.

Roasted renkon with shitake mushrooms (serves 1 – 2)

Ingredients: It’s difficult to give precise amounts – just make however much you want to eat.

1 medium renkon root
1 small package shitake mushrooms (about 7-8 mushrooms)
1/2 medium sized carrot
olive oil
parsley
basil or other italian herb
salt and black pepper

Directions:

  1. After peeling, slice the renkon into the thinnest discs you can manage. Slice the discs in half.
  2. Slice the shitake mushrooms into thin strips.
  3. Slice the carrot into thin, 2 cm-long strips.
  4. Put the vegetables in a large mixing bowl and coat with olive oil, salt, pepper, and herbs. Use just enough oil to coat the vegetables, not to pool in the bottom.
  5. Pour the mixture into the middle of a large piece of aluminum foil. Wrap tightly, ensuring that the foil completely covers the mixture.
  6. Put the package in your fish broiler and “roast” for 10-15 minutes.

Carefully take out the hot foil package and check for doneness. Serve alongside your favorite main dish. RAHH, RENKON!