For the inexperienced Japanese food fan, preparing flavorful and impressive Japanese dishes in the comfort of ones home might as well be impossible. After all, to make it properly you need to master its subtle flavors and use techniques that could take years to master... right? As our Wholesale Manager Lisa learned, this couldn't be further from the truth. She shares her thoughts on Mastering the Art of Japanese Home Cooking by Masaharu Morimoto and her learnings while preparing a few select recipes and presenting them in Gato Woodworks.
We live in the day and age of the celebrity chef. Since the early 1980’s when the term “foodie” became popularized, food lovers obsessively began to proclaim their expansive knowledge of all things food related. This included such things as the best restaurants to eat at, their favorite chefs, and even the best farmers market to find top quality organic, and sometimes obscure, seasonal fruits and vegetables. Foodie culture paved the way for a type of food renaissance. It not only brought us out to restaurants but also back into the kitchen, where the influence of TV programming on the Food Network and PBS, as well as glossy magazines such as Bon Appetit, Gourmet, and Food & Wine, had an effect on how we ate and what we cooked.
"...it occurred to me that while I love to eat Japanese food, I had never actually cooked Japanese food at home. ...Here was a master chef saying I could do this at home;
so, I took the challenge."
With countless hours spent watching food-focused television, I realized that it not only inspired me to eat but also to get into the kitchen. The professional chefs I saw on TV had skills I wanted to learn. I began to buy cookbooks and magazines so I could try out new recipes and new techniques at home. One day while in the book store perusing the shelves of the cookbook aisle, I came across a copy of Mastering the Art of Japanese Home Cooking by Masaharu Morimoto. I was familiar with Chef Morimoto from the Food Network’s show, Iron Chef America, and so I began to thumb through the book. The photos were, of course, beautiful, and I immediately wanted to try everything. However, it occurred to me that while I love to eat Japanese food, I had never actually cooked Japanese food at home. There was something about the experience of eating in a Japanese restaurant that made the cuisine, the ingredients, and the presentation, untouchable. Everything from the plating, to the taste, to the colors of the food seemed like an art form that should be left to the hands of a master chef. But here in front of me was a book that said otherwise. Here was a master chef saying I could do this at home; so, I took the challenge.
I read through the chef’s introduction and quickly noted that the cookbook was not divided by meal type or by protein but by cooking techniques. From soups and simmered vegetables, and stir-fry and grilled meat, this book went beyond sushi and ramen. I started with what seemed like the most important thing and that was to make dashi, a dried fish and kelp stock. In comparison to my experience in making bone broths which took hours, this stock took only fifteen minutes to make. The katsuobushi, (bonito flakes) had the most wonderful aroma of smoked fish which when combined with the kombu (dried kelp) created a rich and flavorful broth.
Asari No Miso Shiru
I used the dashi to create Asari No Miso Shiru, or miso soup with clams. Having never cooked with clams before, the chef’s notes on how to cook and strain the broth of any sand was obviously important when I saw the residue at the bottom of my pot. Using a double layer of cheesecloth, I strained the soup, and then served it in a beautiful hand carved, wood lacquered bowl from Gato, and finished it with thinly sliced scallions.
With some dashi remaining from my original batch, I chose to cook Hijiki, a sweet simmered seaweed dish. On my trip to the Asian grocery store, I had a shopping list of familiar ingredients including soy sauce, sesame oil, and mirin, a sweet rice wine, but hijiki was new to me. This black-colored seaweed is sold dry and must be reconstituted by soaking it in cold water for 30 minutes, after which it dramatically expands. As I was cooking, I have to admit that I was quite skeptical. Having never tried this dish before, I expected it to be quite savory and perhaps even briny, but the addition of the mirin and a small amount of sugar turned this dish into a subtly sweet and surprisingly addictive dish.
Kinpira & Ingen No Gomae Ae
In Japanese cuisine, there are practical considerations on how to achieve nutritional balance and aesthetic harmony within a meal. Aside from using a variety of cooking methods, the combination of flavors, whether salty, sweet, sour, bitter, or spicy, are important in terms of creating balance within your meal. Color is equally important. Meals that include foods with a variety of colors such as red, yellow, green, black and white, are said to be more nutritionally balanced. With this in mind, I continued to select new recipes to test out including Kinpira, a parsnip and carrot stir-fry as well as Ingen No Goma Ae, a dish of green beans with sesame dressing. Although these two vegetable dishes would make a great accompaniment for grilled meat or perhaps some tempura battered fish, I ended up eating them along with the hijiki and some white rice for a simple, vegetarian-style meal.
Tekka Don No Poke
Finally, with a concerted effort not to make sushi, I chose a more deconstructed version instead with Tekka Don No Poke, a Hawaiian poke-style tuna rice bowl. With sushi counters now commonplace in large grocery stores, shoppers often make the choice towards convenience over quality. However, once you secure a place to purchase sushi-grade fish, this rice bowl is actually very quick and easy to make. Topped with sesame seeds, scallions, and torn pieces of nori, it breaks down all the component pieces of a sushi roll without the need to perfect your sushi-rolling technique.
Mastering the Art of Japanese Home Cooking gave me a great introduction into the ingredients, proportions, and classic flavor profiles of Japanese cooking. With great admiration for Morimoto’s experience and mastery as a chef, his book also impressed me with its simplified and modernized recipes of traditional dishes. For anyone who is not so familiar with cooking Japanese cuisine, this book can help you get past the intimidation factor and perhaps inspire you to try some new things in the kitchen. Happy cooking!
WORDS AND DISHES PREPARED BY LISA HECHT