I was recently back home in Brooklyn for several weeks, mainly to take care of some important tasks to prepare for my new job here, like getting a Japanese work visa. In my free time, I found myself craving Japanese home cooking – foods like simply prepared vegetables flavored with dashi or miso, grilled fishes and meats, and homemade onigiri (rice balls). In Japan, it’s easy to obtain these dishes from takeout shops that advertise “auntie’s” or “mama’s” cooking. In New York, such a shop would be overpriced, not to mention difficult to find in the first place. Besides, if you have the right ingredients, it’s easier and much more fun to cook these dishes at home.
To satisfy my cravings, I decided to invite a friend over for a home-cooked Japanese dinner. As part of my ongoing quest to become more proficient with the ingredients and techniques of Japanese cuisine, I planned a menu that would encompass a variety of cooking methods and flavor combinations. At the time, New York was experiencing June-like weather, so I went with an assortment of dishes that could, for the most part, be served cold or at room temperature. I also wanted to make sure the dishes would be seasonally appropriate, which was difficult, given the paltry array of produce available at farmer’s markets in early April.
Here’s what we ate:
~Saba no miso ni (mackerel simmered in miso-ginger sauce)
~Agedashi dofu (deep-fried tofu in a soy-dashi sauce, garnished with thinly sliced radishes and scallions)
~Horenso goma-ae (chilled spinach with sesame dressing)
~Inarizushi (fried tofu skin pockets stuffed with seasoned sushi rice)
~Daikon and carrot pickles
~Chilled sake from Nagano prefecture (in the Japanese alps)
~Assorted Japanese sweets: kuroi goma (black sesame) mochi; satsuma imo (sweet potato) cakes; azuki (red bean), ocha (green tea), and kuri (chestnut) manju (soft buns filled with sweet bean paste)
Everything was a hit, particularly the fried tofu and spinach salad, which my friend immediately requested the recipes for. The mackerel, which I had always avoided because of its supposedly fishy flavor, was boldly flavored but not overly pungent, thanks to the assertive sake-spiked cooking liquid. And the inarizushi? They’re not only delicious but also a ton of fun to make and eat!
This will come as no to surprise to those of you already familiar with Japanese cuisine, but these dishes were far easier to make than I expected. Careful prep work and attention to detail are also important, but that is part of what makes Japanese food so wonderful. Below you’ll find the recipes for the main components of the meal. If you try any of the recipes, please let me know what you think – I’m eager to hear your suggestions, feedback, and ideas!
(Spinach in sesame dressing)
Goma-ae is a classic Japanese dressing that works with many vegetables. I can’t wait to try it on grilled eggplant in the summer.
10 ounces spinach, well washed (use mature spinach, not the wimpy “baby” stuff. Also, leave the stems on – they add nice texture and visual contrast to the leaves)
2 tablespoons white sesame seeds, toasted until golden-brown
1/2 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon mirin
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon rice vinegar
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Blanch the spinach for about 1 minute, then quickly plunge it into a bowl of ice water. When the spinach is cool, squeeze as much water as possible from it. Chop the spinach roughly and transfer to a serving bowl.
With a suribachi and surikogi (or mortar and pestle), grind the sesame seeds with the sugar until coarsely ground.
Add the mirin and soy sauce and continue to grind until you have a semi-homogenous mixture. I like to leave some of the sesame seeds whole, for crunch and visual interest, but if you prefer a smooth dressing, pound away!
Using your hands, toss the spinach with the dressing until all the leaves are evenly coated. Eat now, or chill for later.
(Sweet tofu skins stuffed with rice)
Makes ~17 pockets, enough for 3-5 people
3 cups freshly cooked white Japanese rice
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 can inarizushi no moto (Fried tofu skins steeped in a sweet soy sauce. See photo below.)
Place the still-hot rice in a large bowl, and gently but thoroughly mix in the vinegar, sugar, and salt. Taste and adjust seasonings to taste. (The inarizushi wrappers are fairly sweet, so you don’t want to overdo it on the sugar in the rice.)
Remove the inarizushi wrappers from the can and shake them to get rid of some of the excess liquid. Carefully open the wrappers on one end and lay them on a work surface.
When the rice has cooled enough for you to handle it, scoop up about two tablespoons worth and stuff it into one of the wrappers, gently packing the rice as you go. Be careful not to overstuff the wrappers, or they will tear. Repeat with the remaining wrappers, and keep at room temperature until serving. If you need to make the inarizushi in advance, refrigerate them for a few hours and bring them to room temperature before serving. However, the rice will become hard if you refrigerate it overnight.
Saba No Miso Ni
(Mackerel simmered in miso sauce)
I used this exact recipe, with no variations, and it came out perfectly. Per the recipe’s suggestion, I cooked the fish in advance and chilled it to allow the flavors to penetrate the flesh more deeply. I then brought it to room temperature before serving. A little minced parsley over the top was the perfect finishing touch.
A note on the fish: I purchased whole, cleaned (scaled and gutted) mackerel in Chinatown and filleted them myself at home. Mackerel are easy to filet, and buying them whole will save you some money. (Mine cost less than $1 each!) I found this video to be extremely helpful when filleting them.
(Deep-fried tofu served in dashi)
For this, I riffed off a recipe in Shizuo Tsuji’s Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art. I used momen (“cotton”) tofu but a fairly firm silken variety would also work. You don’t need a ton of oil to fry the tofu – just enough so that the pieces won’t stick to the bottom of the pan.
1 block firm or semi-firm tofu
3/4 cup dashi
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon mirin
Sifted cornstarch or flour, for dusting
Neutral oil, for frying
1 scallion, thinly sliced in the diagonal, for garnish
2 small red radishes, halved and thinly sliced, for garnish
Drain the tofu and wrap in several layers of paper towels. Place it on a baking sheet and weigh down with something heavy (but not so heavy that it breaks the tofu). Let it sit for a couple hours to extract some of the water. When you’re ready to fry the tofu, unwrap it and cut into 2-inch cubes.
To make the sauce, combine the dashi, soy sauce, and mirin in a small microwaveable bowl. Microwave until piping hot, divide between two small serving bowls, and keep warm.
Heat the oil in a deep, heavy-bottomed pot until very hot (about 350°F). Just before frying, lightly dredge the tofu squares in cornstarch or flour and lower them into the oil. Fry, turning if necessary, until golden and crisp on all sides. Drain tofu briefly on paper towels and place in the dashi sauce. Top with scallion and radish and serve immediately.