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every dish has a story

Horenso No Ohitashi (Seasoned Spinach)Feb 16, 2011

My mom never needed to prod me nor threaten me with a deficiency of Popeye-sized muscles to get me to eat my spinach. Next to broccoli, this is my favorite vegetable, and I will eat it until I turn green. Of course, it helped that my mom would give my boiled spinach a sprinkle of shoyu...and you know about my salt addiction. Thanks to my friends Audrey and Kevin, I have this great cookbook which is quite simply called "The Quick and Easy Japanese Cookbook," the title of which I find funny because most Japanese home cooking is quite quick and easy if you have the right ingredients on hand. At any rate, these recipes are -- as the title suggests -- simple and fast, and among them I found a one that reminds me of the shoyu-drizzled spinach of my youth, with a few grown-up touches. And I just happened to have all of the ingredients for this one in my pantry/crisper, so it found its way into my mackerel-experimentation meal, somewhat on the fly. For the recipe, read on.

Saba No Miso Ni (Miso-Simmered Mackerel)Feb 15, 2011

I'm really not a fan of mackerel. And that's saying something, because I generally like and will eat anything that no longer moves or breathes. But fishy fish have never been a favorite of mine, and while that goes against my love of gamey meats and other strong flavors, I have been perfectly happy to steer clear of mackerel and herring and cod. But while Dave was on a business trip in NYC, I took the opportunity to experiment with some foods that I normally won't touch. Nijiya had some nice looking mackerel fillets (even though I don't eat it, I can still appreciate a lovely fish steak when I see one), so that sealed the deal.

It's interesting how certain flavors can so effectively tone down others. That's why your local sushi chef will often serve saba nigiri with some grated ginger and slivered green onions -- they cut that metallic fishiness. Same goes for miso. After simmering the fillets in a shoyu-based broth and then finishing with some red (aka) miso, the fishiness was gone! I added a few shiitakes while the fish was simmering, but root veggies woould work well, too. For the recipe, read on.

Szechuan Dry-Fried Green BeansFeb 13, 2011

Green beans are a lovely spring vegetable -- most people have visions of them delicately sauteed in butter and sprinkled with almonds and a dusting of freshly ground sea salt and pepper. But me? I like them fried in oil and spicy as heck. For this recipe, you can use Chinese long beans, but I actually prefer regular blue lake beans. Wok-frying gets them nice and plump and avoids the tooth-squeaking that sometimes happens when you undercook the long beans. For the recipe, read on.

Steamed Whole Fish With Soy-Ginger SauceFeb 13, 2011

Meet Red. I met him at a Ranch 99 in Daly City, where he lay among his friends and family members in a pile of ice, wholeheartedly regretting his decision to swim after that colorful thing bobbing on the surface of the warm, blue waters of his native Mexico. So I took him home with me, promising him a steam bath and a drink of shao xing rice wine to get the chill out. Little did he know that the trip to the sauna would also entail a body splash of soy sauce, ginger, and green onions. Thanks for the memories, Red. I commemorate your sacrifice with this blog post so that we will always remember your exceptional contributions. For the recipe, read on.

Jiaozi (Pork Dumplings)Feb 11, 2011

It's funny, two of my favorite Japanese dishes actually find their roots in Chinese cuisine. Perhaps this is related to the phenomenon whereby many people mistake me and my best friend (who is Chinese) for sisters. Or the fact that I can pronounce "har gow" with a native speaker's precision (I assure you, that is the only word I can annunciate...the others sound hacked and tortured). Both ramen and gyoza are known to most Americans as Japanese fast food, but in fact, both were brought back to Japan by soldiers stationed throughout China during WWII. Gyoza is the Japanese name for the pan-fried version of jiaozi, which is basically the Chinese term for a meat-and-vegetable-stuffed dumpling. Regardless of where they come from, I eat them with gusto!

So alongside my New Year's-inspired shrimp dumpling experiment, some celebratory jiaozi seemed in order. The fantastic thing about making dumplings from scratch is that you can never make too many. Cook only as many as you can eat the day of assembly, and any uncooked dumplings can be frozen (first lay out on a cookie sheet in the freezer, and when frozen through, toss into a freezer-safe Ziplock) to be cooked later. So go bonkers. Make three recipes-worth. On those nights when you have nothing in the fridge and are too lazy to call for take-out, you'll thank me for it. For the recipe, read on.

Shrimp and Chive DumplingsFeb 11, 2011

Since the start of the Year of the Rabbit, my mind has turned to dumplings. I always have a bag of gyoza in the freezer for nights when Dave is out of town and I don't have to handcraft meals from scratch (ok, I suppose I never have to, but since he's the only member of the household currently earning an income, I have rationalized that he deserves a real home-cooked meal when he gets home), but the other day I was craving har gow, siu mai, and anything with nari (Chinese flat chives). Looking up recipes for har gow, I deemed the wrapper a bit too intense for my first stab at dumpling-making, so I settled on shrimp won ton instead. And yes, I copped out and bought a package of dumpling wrappers instead of making them from scratch, though my friend claims it's quite easy to do the latter (so I have included the recipe if you are in an authentic dumpling-making state of mind).

Speaking of shrimp dumplings, I will never forget the time that we went out for dim sum, and -- thanks to my pronunciation of "har gow" being surprisingly spot-on that day -- I fooled one of the cart ladies into thinking I spoke Cantonese. For the next two hours, my shoulder-shrugging, head-nodding and -shaking seemed to reassure her that her assessment of me was correct, but my inability to verbally communicate also proved to her that I was mentally deficient. Thankfully, the har gow were delicious, and they saved what would otherwise be a completely awkward meal. For the recipe, read on.

Momofuku Milk Bar's Compost CookiesFeb 10, 2011

Last August, Melissa and Sabs introduced me to the marvelous world of Momofuku restaurants in NYC. We (plus Randall) had an awesome dinner at Ma Pêche, and afterwards we pored over the goodies at Milk Bar upstairs. We took back to the hotel about 75% of the store, and among the loot was this enormous, ugly-looking pastry called the Compost Cookie. I eyed it cautiously and then took a bite.

And it was AWESOME.

Aside from normal cookie ingredients, the geniuses at Momofuku threw in pretzels, potato chips, graham cracker crumbs, and coffee grounds, and then added your run-of-the-mill chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, and oats for good measure. The result is a delectable sweet-salty (yay!), chewy cookie that blows ol' Toll House out of the water. So when Dave was out in NYC for work last week, my one souvenir request was a single Compost Cookie.

He brought me 6.

I love that man.

Kimchi Bokkeumbap (Fried Rice)Jan 28, 2011

Here's an oldie but goodie...I was reminded of it this week as I was eating the leftovers from my weekend batch. Kimchi fried rice is great when you have lots of leftover rice and kimchi that is teetering on the brink of over-ripeness, and it's fine with any meat you have in the fridge -- chicken, pork, beef -- but it's stellar with Spam. Yes, Spam. I buy it in bulk at Costco. It makes for an easy Hawaiian breakfast with eggs and rice, and generally substitutes for meat when the fresh variety isn't easily accessible. My dad grew up eating meat out of a can -- granted, he was born at the outset of World War II when rationing was mandated -- and he will agree that sometimes you can't beat an evenly-formed loaf of salty pork parts.

Kimchi bokkeumbap is also fantastic hangover food, not that I've actually put it to the test in recent years given my teetotaling ways. But as it's the perfect blend of eggy, spicy, starchy, salty, and a little greasy, it reminds me of those Sunday mornings back in the late nineties when I'd get myself back on track with a Denny's Grand Slam and a bottle of Tabasco. For the recipe, read on.

Chanko Nabe Miso-AjiJan 23, 2011

Japan is a country of extremes -- nothing is sufficient until it is perfected to the nth degree. It is the home of geisha, bonsai trees, tea ceremonies, ninja, eating contest champions, harajuku girls, and -- of course -- sumo wrestling. You'd think that being as large as they are, rikishi (literally "strong man," as the wrestlers are collectively known) would maintain a diet similar to six-time hot dog eating champion Takeru Kobayashi, but remarkably, the sumo diet is remarkably healthy and low in fat. In fact, despite being what medical professionals would call morbidly obese, rikishi have a very low occurrence of obesity-related illness such as heart disease, diabetes, and high cholesterol due to the placement of their fat. Thanks to a disciplined regimen of intense exercise paired with high-volume consumption of high-protein foods, most of their fat is subcutaneous, lying just under the skin. Compare that to visceral fat which is located inside the abdomen and often infiltrates the internal organs. This is the same phenomenon that causes even your fittest of friends to have cellulite deposits and some outwardly skinny people to suffer from hypertension or high cholesterol.

So what do these big boys eat? Since they live together in heya (literally "stables," or training establishments), chanko nabe is an efficient means to provide a healthy, high-protein meal in immense volumes. A stew made with a protein and plenty of vegetables, chanko nabe is prepared in a communal hot-pot style, with a base broth simmering in the center of the table and ingredients added as they are needed. Generally, the protein used is pork, chicken, or fish, although some heya believe it's bad luck to use four-legged animals (symbolizing being down on all fours) or fish (no hands or feet), so chicken is the only allowable meat.

Seeing as how we had no upcoming sumo matches planned, we tried chanko nabe miso-aji (miso-based) using thinly sliced pork belly and an assortment of  vegetables. For a true hot pot experience, serve it with hot rice and individual bowls of ponzu for dipping the meat and veggies. For the recipe read on.

OkazuJan 20, 2011

In Japanese, okazu means a side dish intended to accompany rice...which could really represent anything you eat in Japan because rice is such a staple. But in my grandmother's day, okazu and rice was a full meal. My great-grandmother passed away from tuberculosis when my grandma was just 8 years old, and that left her, the sole daughter, to cook for her father and six brothers. Okazu was filling, could be made from any vegetable and/or meat that happed to be available, and was all that they could afford being indentured farmers in the Sacramento Valley.

Grandma's okazu is one of my earliest flavor memories -- the broth was virtually the same, regardless of the main ingredients -- and it's a tradition my mom continued throughout my childhood for fast, easy dinners, especially on cold nights. Generally, we eat okazu with pork sirloin and vegetables ranging from nappa cabbage to Chinese long beans to cauliflower. Tonight, we had pork and nappa okazu to accompany a New York strip steak...normally, I attribute such a large meal to my bottomless pit-of-a-husband (as my hairdresser says: "I wish I had his metabolism"), but I have to say that with such a nostalgic meal, I was the glutton tonight! For the recipe, read on.

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