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every dish has a story

BakudanOct 09, 2011

Oishiiiiiiii!! A few months ago, I grabbed drinks and dinner after work with a good friend at Hecho. We were intrigued by the restaurant's izakaya-meets-tequila bar concept, and we were not disappointed. The highlight of the meal was a dish called bakudan, meaning "bomb," and boy was it an explosion of flavors. The artfully constructed dish contained uni (sea urchin), amaebi (raw shrimp), ikura (salmon roe), uzura (raw quail egg), and natto (fermented soy bean) that you briskly stir into a delicious soup, roll up in a rectangle of roasted nori, and munch away for a beautiful bite of the sea.

Yosenabe Hot PotMay 15, 2011

I'm catching up on a few weeks' worth of cooking, and realized I had some leftover pics from our week of hot pot (for which I've only managed to do one post so far). We tackled mala hot pot and a milder chanko nabe miso-aji, so next up was yosenabe, a Japanese seafood stew. I returned to one of my happy places, 99 Ranch, to pick up some spitting clams, shrimp, fish, and scallops, and there I realized that I'm still just a stranger in a strange land. My conversation with the guy behind the fish counter went something like this:

Me: Hi, I would like four large prawns.

Him: Four?

Me: Yes, please.

Him: FOUR?

Me: Yes, four.

Him: That's all?

Me: Yes, please.

Him: [laughs] Ok... [picks out exactly four prawns, hands them to me in a bag] Anything else?

Me: Yes, please. May I have six scallops?

Him: SIX??

You get the picture. Clearly, cooking for two is not a common occurrence at the Asian market. At Mollie Stone's, no one thinks twice when someone asks for one chicken thigh, skinned and deboned, or a ribeye steak, trimmed of excess fat. Here, among half of my people, I am met by giggles. But along the way I have learned that I'd get nowhere if I didn't ask a few silly questions or come across as the oddball. A few weeks ago, I attended a class on fruit-tree pruning in which I asked if watering my lemon tree once a week was enough. The room (including the instructor) broke out in uproarious laughter. Apparently, the answer is "No — at the bare minimum you should water it twice a week." Well, now I know, my lemons are far better off than before, and everyone gets a good chuckle. Back to the yosenabe, I'm not sure what I learned, per se, but I certainly wouldn't have ended up with this fantastic dinner had I not sucked it up and played the part of court jester. For the recipe, read on.

ManjuMar 25, 2011

Today I met a friend for lunch at Mifune in Japantown, and after my meal of tempura udon needed something sweet. There's a new cupcake shop in the center that I passed earlier on my way to Kinokuniya Bookstore, but I consider it a travesty to crave sweets in Japantown and not pay a visit to Benkyodo Co. This business opened over a century ago, surviving the WWII internment camps and the slow erosion of Japanese-owned businesses in and around Japantown. Its main attraction is manju -- sweet, pounded rice cakes often filled with sweet bean paste and traditionally served with tea. My parents began bringing me here when I was very young, and I have been manju-crazy ever since.

Despite the end-of-days monsoon we are experiencing here in San Francisco, it is spring -- technically -- so I was delighted to see sakuramochi! Pretty in pink, this little cake is a perfect representation of blooming cherry blossoms and will always remind me of our trip to Japan last year. Spring was particularly cold there, so despite arriving in Kyoto in late March, we had a very difficult time finding sakura in bloom around the city. When we finally came across one in Maruyama Park one drizzly afternoon, it was as though nature celebrated with us because the sun burst out from behind the clouds! Suddenly, I understood why these magnificent trees are such a national treasure. I imagine that this year's emerging sakura flowers must give many Japanese hope in light of the horrible events of the past few weeks.

Today I painstakingly selected a few different kinds of manju and mochi, and just as I walked out of the shop with my purchases, the sun very fittingly crept out from behind the fog. To see descriptions of what I bought, read on.

Matcha Green Tea FrostingMar 10, 2011

I have found that frosting is a great way to infuse certain ingredients into a pastry that do not fare well with heating or baking or to add additional layers of flavor to a dessert. Matcha (finely milled green tea) works great as a flavoring agent in baked goods, but it comes through great in frosting, as I found with this recipe. It is on the sweet side, so I might try this again as a cream cheese frosting.

Adapted from Cupcake Bakeshop

Ingredients:

  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/4 c. heavy cream or half-and-half
  • 1 tbsp. matcha powder
  • 3 c. confectioners sugar, sifted

 

Directions:

  1. In the bowl of an electric mixer, whip butter until fluffy.
  2. In a small bowl, mix cream and matcha until well combined.
  3. To the electric mixer, add 1 c. sugar and beat until combined. Scrape down bowl, then add 1/3 of the cream-matcha mixture. Beat to combine, scrape down bowl, then add another cup of sugar. Continue alternating until you have used up all of the remaining ingredients. Turn the mixer to high, and whip until frosting is light and fluffy.

Mochi Cupcakes with Koshi-an (Sweet Red Bean Paste) FillingMar 10, 2011

Mmmmmm-mochi. There's something about the chewy, sticky rice cake that makes me want to hum a little ditty. Of course, the OG mochi that we stockpile at New Year's is unsweetened, and I like to toast it and dip it in a shoyu-sugar mixture. Most folks know as its more marketable tea go-with incarnation: daifuku manju. As I learn more about wagashi (Japanese sweets served with tea), I have found that there are so many ways to work with mochi and mochiko rice flour. So where to start? Cupcakes became the introductory lesson. For the recipe, read on.

Koshi An (Smooth Sweetened Azuki Bean Paste)Mar 10, 2011

Sweet bean paste is an acquired taste. I have been eating it since I was very young, so I never went through that initiation phase. But for those to whom an (as it's called in Japanese) is a new thing, if you can get past the intense sweetness and textural hurdles, you are in for a real treat. It's best paired with some type of pastry (preferably rice-based), but I'm sure there are combinations out there that are yet to be invented. I prefer smooth bean paste (koshi-an) to the kind with the bean skins left on (tsubushi-an), a preference I think is akin to smooth vs. chunky peanut butter. You either like it or you don't. However, it really depends on the context of the dessert. In some cases, only the chunky variety will do.

Bean paste can be red or white, and the red variety can be bought pre-made at many Asian grocery stores. I've found it to be too sweet, so making my own allows me to control the sugar. To save a little time, you could buy the canned beans and skip the parboiling step (step 1). Some recipes called for soaking the beans over night, but as long as you parboil 3-4 times, I don't think that soaking is necessary. For the recipe, read on.

Sutamina RamenMar 10, 2011

When we Americans have a big day ahead of us, what do we typically eat? Muesli. A bowl of steel-cut oats. An Egg McMuffin. Maybe a Clif Bar if we're in a pinch. What do the Japanese eat? Really spicy, rich, pork-based ramen. We discovered Ramen Dojo down in San Mateo because it was the big thing in ramen shop openings last year, and now it's one of our favorite spots...and we're perfectly happy to do the 30 minute drive to get there.

Ramen Dojo's sutamina (stamina) ramen consists of chewy noodles surrounded by a rich, garlicky pork bone broth, and sprinkled with plenty of chili flakes and topped with fried garlic, shiitakes, nari (chives), slices of chashu pork, and a boiled quail egg. I requested a helping of menma (bamboo shoots) and corn, Dave got menma and an extra helping of noodles.

According to the Japanese, sutamina ramen is spicy and hearty, so it gives you energy for the day's work. But we found ourselves fast asleep at 10pm, soon after we arrived home.

TakoyakiMar 07, 2011

The first I heard of takoyaki was from my coworker Julie who threw a takoyaki-making and -eating party at her place one evening and came back to work to report that it was a smashing success. She and Sabs dubbed these things "octoballs" which I suppose is one step up the teenage boy humor ladder from "octopus balls" which is actually an accurate term but not usually a socially acceptable answer to the question, "What are you eating?"

Takoyaki literally means "grilled octopus," but it's a little more than just hunks of mollusk. You mix up some batter (not unlike pancake batter), pour it into these little ball-shaped mold pans, quickly add a few pieces of chopped octopus to each ball, and serve them piping hot with a drizzle of okonomi sauce and kewpie mayonnaise and a sprinkling of katsuobushi (shaved bonito flakes). In Japan, it's served as street food which we were happy to sample on our trip out there last spring. The tako doesn't really add much flavor -- you primarily taste the accompaniments -- but the springy chewiness gets your jaws going and gives the doughy bite some real textural interest.

I'm tempted to buy a special takoyaki pan. They sell them at Daiso and Ichiban Kan, and even the Korean supermarket near our house. But it has been hard to rationalize yet another single-purpose tool in my kitchen, both from a cost perspective as well as a space one. So in the meantime, we've found that Ramen Dojo in San Mateo does an awesome, authentic takoyaki in just the right serving amount for the two of us. Heck yeah, I eat octopus balls.

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.

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