The cheap (non)meat-loaf generator

I made meatloaf a handful of times in college, but always with cheap ground beef (which I mostly detest), so I could never get around the fact that it tasted just like a hamburger you cut into slices. I remember watching my mom make meatballs out of ground beef. Her meatballs were pretty good, and so was her meatloaf (more or less the same as her meatballs). I guess I just never wanted to make a good loaf enough to invest some thought and consideration into making it more delicious.

Then I went through my vegetarian stint, and started experimenting more with plant proteins. The okara vegetarian burgers from a previous post reflect that. I soon learned that there are many foods – beans, eggplant, mushroom – that can supply that umami flavor, protein, and satisfactory filling feeling just as well as meat.

So, when I came across this Vegan Dinner Loaf Generator, I knew I’d have to give meatloaf a second try. It’s simple, really: choose the ingredients you have on hand, click submit, and follow the recipe. If you don’t have a loaf pan or an oven, make the mixture into patties or a pancake and let them cook in a covered pan.

Here’s the link to the loaf generator.

And here’s a loaf I created with commonly available Japanese ingredients in mind. I added in a few modification options (not all are vegan or vegetarian)

Ingredients:

1/2 cup ground white sesame seeds
2 TB olive oil
One onion, diced
One cup mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
2 cups cooked soy beans, mashed firm tofu, or canned tuna
1 cup cooked brown rice or barley
1/4 to 1/2 cup vegetable broth, as needed
2 TB flour (potato, soy, rice, or regular wheat)
1 tsp. dried basil
1/4 tsp. dried oregano
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 TB soy sauce

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350º F/`180ºC. Lightly grease a loaf pan or 20x20cm baking pan and set aside (a 20×20 pan makes a crisper loaf). Alternatively, line the pan with silicon-coated baking paper.

Place the ground sesame seeds in a large mixing bowl and set aside.

Sauté any vegetables you’ve chosen in the olive oil until soft. Add to the large mixing bowl along with all the remaining ingredients. Mix and mash together well, adding only as much liquid as needed to create a soft, moist loaf that holds together and is not runny (you may not need to add any liquid if the grains and protein are very moist). Add more binder/carbohydrate as needed if the loaf seems too wet.

Press mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until cooked through.

Let the loaf cool in the pan for 10 to 15 minutes, then turn out onto a plate or platter and slice. Serve with potatoes, vegetables, and vegetarian gravy, if desired.

Cold leftover slices could make a great bento filler, or re-fry in a pan for a delicious breakfast hash.

Enjoy!

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Azuki bean and sesame dip

Couldn’t decide whether to call this a “dip” or a “puree.” One reeks of Superbowl parties and Midwestern soccer moms, and the other sounds like a French chef with a nosebleed charging €10 for what is essentially baby food swirled onto a white plate. Dip – for now.

I miss hummus. Sometimes I order chickpeas from the Foreign Buyers’ Club and make it, but that’s not very practical. So I have an alternative for you: behold, the azuki (小豆) bean. When my friend Natalie mentioned making a sort of hummus from mung beans, I knew I had to try to make a bean dip with the cheaper, more accessible Japanese beans. And it just so happened I had a container of freshly cooked azuki in my fridge. Hence, the azuki-sesame dip was born.

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It’s a dip, so you probably won’t eat it with a fork. Not that there’s anything wrong with that . . .

Oh, but first – a little background. You, my chubby sweets-lovin’ gaijin reader, are probably most familiar with azuki in their mashed, sweetened form, when they’re called anko (never confuse with unko) and injected into everything from mochi to bread rolls. But azuki doesn’t have to be sweet! I’ve found it to be an incredibly versatile bean – soft and velvety when cooked, easily added to stir fries, brown rice, or blended into smoothies for protein. You can buy a dry 500g bag for a little under ¥300, which when cooked becomes an entire pot of beans capable of taking you 3-4 days through the week. Compare that to the paltry 120g cooked pouches on sale for ¥200. That’s 278% more per gram! Absurdity! Who are these cooked-bean racketeers and why do we allow them to make a mockery of us?

Don’t be hesitant to make dried beans – I know I was at first, especially after a split pea project that involved me simmering dried lentils for 2 days until they were finally soft enough to eat (turns out the beans were really, really old). Preparing dried beans requires a little forethought (thrift beats laziness in this situation):

1. At least 8 hours (morning of) but no more than 24 hours (previous night) before you want to cook them, put the beans in a pot and cover with water. I learned the hard way why you can’t leave beans to soak too long – they will begin to sprout!

2. Put the lid on to keep dust and foreign elements out.

3. Go live life and come back. Drain the water from the beans and replace with new water. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, until beans are soft enough when bitten but not mushy – about 45 minutes.

If you want to add salt, do so during the last 10 minutes of cooking; adding any beforehand will toughen your beans (FYI: this is true with corn on the cob, too).

Ingredients

So you have the beans – now what? Well, here’s what you need – all of it can be found at your local super:

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Mise en place, dudes: lemon juice, azuki beans, garlic, olive oil, white sesame paste, and paprika.

Lemon juice, fresh is best but whatever, you already made beans, have a glass of wine instead.

Azuki, once soaked, will increase in size.

Shirogoma white sesame paste (known as tahini elsewhere in the world) is sold at most larger supermarkets. It can seem a bit expensive, but you only need a small amount for each batch of hummus you make.

Olive oil. I find this to be one of the most crucial factors in a hummus-like dip, but you could theoretically use a different type of oil.

Garlic. Raw garlic is strong. Use only one clove or even a half clove if you’re sensitive to the taste.

Salt and paprika. These are the basics of a hummus-style bean dip – from here you can get creative and add different spices, herbs, spinach, or even washoku it up with a few drops of soy sauce, rice vinegar, or nama miso. The world of bean dip is yours to mash.

Directions

Speaking of mashing, that’s really all you need to do.

1. Pour a half cup of beans in a bowl, drizzle with olive oil, a teaspoon or two of white sesame paste, and a teaspoon of lemon juice.

2. Add chopped, pulverized garlic and seasonings to taste.

3. Then take the back of a fork and mash, mash, mash until the mixture starts to look uniformly flecked. Don’t be worried if there are still a few chunks – without a food processor or blender, it’s unlikely you’ll reach a smooth consistency unless you’re willing to put your back into it for an hour. This is how I usually make guacamole, since every time I try with a food processor, the consistency becomes so smooth it feels like it came from a factory.

By the way, if you DO have a food processor – and I highly, highly recommend investing the ¥4000 yen in one – throw everything in, pulse, and you’re done.

You can put a dollop on salad, scoop it up with rice crackers, or eat it my favorite way – with vegetables. Cut a few daikon, carrots, and cucumbers into sticks and use them to scoop up the dip. If you run out of veggie sticks, and you’re by yourself, eat the rest with a spoon and then finally your fingers while hunched over the sink,  the softly humming green fluorescent light as your only witness.

Marinated Cucumbers for Summer

The seasons affect how I cook and what I eat in strong and noticeable ways; this is only exacerbated in Japan, where there are fewer ways to shield myself from the realities of weather, temperature, and climate. In the winter I wanted to make stir fry and soup and then form a human wreath around my space heater, but no longer! Summer is again at our doorstep (or perhaps already standing in the genkan, slipping off its shoes and yelling out “Ojama shimasu! And I’ve brought all these insects with me!”), which means heavy-duty cooking over a hot stove is officially finished. In summers past, I went out of my way not to use the stove, so much so in fact that laziness often prevailed and my diet consisted mainly of chips and salsa, cottage cheese, fruit, and anything that can be marinated and eaten cold. My mom often has a bowl of thinly sliced cucumbers marinating on the counter, and I have continued this practice in my own kitchen.

Big, raunchy looking cucumbers are everywhere right now. Go snap up a bag for 100 yen and make yourself some marinated cucumbers for on a hot day.

The vinegar keeps bacteria from growing in the hot weather.

The vinegar keeps bacteria from growing in the hot weather.

Marinated Cucumbers (makes about 2 servings, or 4 Japan-sized side servings)

Ingredients:

1 large cucumber

100 ml/half cup rice vinegar

30ml/2 tablespoons olive oil

15 g/1 tablespoon crushed black pepper

15 g/1 tablespoon salt

few pinches white sugar (optional)

fresh/dried garlic or herbs to taste (optional)

Directions:

  1. Wash and slice the cucumber into very thin pieces. You can use a knife or, more conveniently, the slicer on a cheese grater or mandolin.
  2. Spread the cucumbers out in a shallow bowl.
  3. Add all ingredients and mix. Cover with foil or plastic wrap.
  4. Let the mixture sit for at least 2 hours. 8 is best, so I usually make it in the morning and eat some that evening.
  5. Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Eat it when you want a cool, refreshing snack or meal addition.

What do you eat them with? Naturally, you can eat them by themselves. Or mix them into a salad. I used to eat them with pickled garlic and cottage cheese. But I recently had some with a little rice and a fried egg on top. Total. Heaven.

Enjoy.

Aburaage, the pita pockets of the Orient.

Dane’s parents came to Japan last week! We did Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, and Kobe in a whirlwind before heading down to beloved Fukuoka, where we sat in front of the sea and ate the most delicious sushi any of us had ever had – including the infamous live abalone, still squirming on its roll. The whole experience had me wondering whether or not it’d be possible to make sushi at home, so last night I hacked and huffed my way through my first vegetarian makizushi roll. It made for a nice breakfast this morning, but photos and description will not be posted until I improve my skills and invest in a knife that won’t mutilate nori like Ted Bundy.

Inarizushi: Sushi Wrapped in Fried Tofu

Misconception-banishing TRUTH BOMB: Sushi actually just means vinegared rice, not fish! This is why inarizushi (named for the Shinto god Inari), which is merely sushi rice wrapped in fried tofu, qualifies as “real sushi” every bit as much as a tuna belly nigiri. I have to admit, I was disappointed the first time I bit into a a pocket of inarizushi, hoping to find a center of fish or meat or at least pickles. But no. The Japanese love their rice, whether as a complement to another ingredient or by itself.

Inarizushi. Photo credit: lets-make-sushi.com

Though the plain inner contents failed to impress me, the tofu exterior did. It’s a thin skin of fried tofu known variously as aburaage, sushiage or sometimes inariage. To make it, one cuts tofu into thin slices and deep fries them twice, causing the tofu to puff up into a little pouch (think of it like a tofu beignet or tofu pita). The pouch can then be cut and stuffed with the desired filling.

That sounds like a pain in the ass, so it’s a good thing that nowadays most everybody buys their aburaage pre-made. The cheapest pack of 8 costs about 100 yen. Depending on what you fill it with, 2 or 3 stuffed pouches is a meal. One pack will keep in the fridge for a long time, so don’t feel like you need to make ’em all at once. That’s gluttony, man.

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The cheapest pack of aburaage from my local HalloDay “Food Hole.”

Before You Stuff . . . Blanch!

One thing to mind when cooking with aburaage is its oiliness. Abura as it turns out, means “oil,” and age means “fried.” Thus you are buying “oil-fried tofu.” (Sounds so much less romantic in English, doesn’t it?) Fittingly, this product is, gram-for-gram, high calorie – but an actual pouch probably weighs less than 20g, so I wouldn’t worry too much. To remove the oil, lightly boil each pocket for 1-2 minutes before stuffing. I put that in bold because it’s important, and because if you’re anything like me, you ignore recipe “suggestions” that involve unnecessary extra steps. But really, I implore you to boil them first, if not for health then at least for better texture.

Filling the Pouches

All right, your aburaage are boiled. Now what? Well, you could cut them in half, either lengthwise or diagonally before stuffing them. Or, you could cut a slit into one side and stuff the whole pouch. That’s what I did.

I had leftover stir fry (barley, chikuwa, and vegetables) in the fridge, so I quickly re-heated it in a pan before generously spooning it into each pocket. Then I secured the ends with toothpicks inserted like dress pins.

It’s only proper to make a few “get stuffed” jokes during the process.

Secure the slit (while continuing to make obscene remarks about slits).

The most common way to cook stuffed aburaage is probably to boil it in some sort of dashi-based broth or soup, but I think you could get creative here, especially if your choice of filling is pre-cooked. I pan-seared mine, as they still had quite a bit of oil on them. However, it’s possible to grill, roast, steam, or even bake them if you have one of those microwave/oven/broiler devices that are so popular over here. (For those of us without a roasting pan or a fancy microwave, Daiso sells very cheap “grill pans” that can be set inside a regular pan on top of your range.)

Recommended Fillings

Sky’s the limit.

  • Rice (ha! haha!), barley, or a mixture
  • Finely chopped cabbage and radish, seasoned with red pepper and a little soy sauce
  • Thin strips of pork marinated in miso, ginger, and ponzu
  • Scallions and a raw egg (drop into boiling liquid to poach)
  • Left-over stir fry
  • Mushroom, spinach, scrambled egg, and cheese. Breakfast!
  • Get really Japanese and go with a mixture of seaweed, gobo, soy beans or thin pounded beef, and okara.
  • Natto, ginger, and scallions or cooked onion
  • Onion, potato, and green pepper with lots of paprika and pepper
  • More tofu!!

Do you cook with aburaage? What have you put in it?

Barley: the sexy grown-up grain!

In most supermarkets, next to the rice, a curious little bag of grains awaits you. If you’re unfamiliar with them, the contents may look like rolled oats at first. But, oats they are not. This is barley (mugi in Japanese) and you should absolutely be cooking with it.

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Rolled barley.

There are different kinds of barley, but you are most likely going to run into one main type: “pressed barley” or “rolled barley.” As with rolled oats, the kernels have been run through a roller and flattened. This reduces cook time significantly without destroying the nutritional integrity of the grain. And oh, what integrity! Let me sing barley’s praises to you:

Barley:

  • Has a lower glycemic index than rice, meaning it’s better for those with diabetes or insulin resistance problems. It stabilizes blood sugar, whereas other grains tend to spike it.
  • It’s higher in fiber than oats and wheat, meaning it digests slowly and make you feel fuller longer. It’s especially helpful as a weight-loss aid, since you’re less likely to eat if you feel satiated.
  • It’s high protein. In fact, it has twice the protein of wheat. Vegans and vegetarians, take note!
  • Some studies have shown that it reduces cholesterol and blood pressure. I’ll believe it, though I’m fairly sure you can still commission a study to prove gay marriage causes cancer if you know the right people.
  • TASTES F***ING AWESOME. Fluffy yet pleasantly chewy and substantial, barley is that bespectacled nerd whom you never notice until the day you find out he’s actually a superhero from the planet Krypton, has a 401(k), and totally respects women. Yeah, that’s barley.
  • Cheap. I bought an 800g bag for ¥368 at my local supermarket. That’s much cheaper than rice, by the way.
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Kyushu Pride: We can grow barley, too!

Barley can be mixed with rice to make mugi-gohan, a popular sight on many a school lunch tray in Japan. It can also be toasted and strained into a deliciously refreshing tea, mugicha. But it stands up well on its own, too: use it in soups, pastas, salads, stir fries, or plain with a little salt and pepper. The possibilities are innumerable!

And did I mention, you can make it in your rice cooker? Of course, you can also make it in a pan; just stir every now and then to avoid burning.

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Wholesome goodness in about 10 minutes. Ii nee!

What are your favorite ways to eat barley?

Other People’s Recipes: Vegan Lemon Bars

Bakin’ with tofu, no longer just for trustafarians!

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While I’m not a big baker – save for one cookie I make every year around Christmas – I’m a fan of the blog Chocolate and Zucchini, run by a lovely French woman named Clotilde (one of those names that sounds exotically beautiful, but that I could never pull it off with my own spawn). Browsing through her archives the other day, I spotted a recipe for vegan lemon bars made with silken tofu and lemon juice. I’m always on the lookout for delicious, butter-free dishes, since butter is prohibitively expensive in Japan (unless you’re in Hokkaido, I suppose). I have a theory this is why macaroons have become so popular in Japan – it’s the one cookie without butter!

There were a few noteworthy modifications made. I’d recently been gifted the Worst Citrus Ever, so I grated some of its fresh peel right into the filling mix until it took on a pleasant smell and a yellow tinge. I also added some powdered yuzu, because why not, we’re in Japan! I hate measuring, so the zest was added “to taste.” I also added a pinch of nutmeg to the filling and reduced the sugar by about 25%, and it still came out sweet as hell. Finally, for about half the bars, I pressed a single raisin into the center of where each bar would be before baking. Dane (mah life partner) said the raisin bars were better than the plain ones.

Instead of coconut oil, I used regular canola oil for the crust. It’s a crumb crust, and Clotilde recommends that the crumbs be “pressed loosely” into the pan. I pressed them a bit more firmly. Even then, the crust was a bit thicker than I would have liked, though the texture was wonderful. In the future, I’ll probably reduce the sugar from the crust, too, and maybe add a bit of flax meal if I’m feeling saucy.

All in all, these bars were outstanding, easy, cheap, and vegan. One caveat: despite the presence of tofu, they abound with sugar and carbs . . . so cut those pieces small and make your coworkers happy with a lemon bar giveaway.

While mixing up the batch last night, I remarked to my neighbor, Kay, that I bake more in Japan than I ever did in the States, which is hilarious because I don’t have an oven.