Settling into Spring

Spring makes me antsy – it puts me in the mood for travel, for adventure, for places yet unseen. The promise of summer’s balmy nights lies not far off, just perceptible, like a taste on the tip of the tongue. I always have to be careful, though, to not wish on summer too eagerly. In the end, it always passes far too quickly, leaving me wishing I had savored the moments between the seasons more judiciously.

This year I’m making an effort to do just that. As we begin the inexorable slide toward summer, I find myself cooking less intensively but still craving sustenance with some body. Although warm food still seems appropriate, spring’s delicate, young vegetables – a far cry from the flamboyant, exuberant bounty of summer produce – call for a light hand in seasoning and preparation.

While Western cuisine can certainly do justice to spring produce (as evidenced by this gorgeous spread), the restrained flavors and minimalist preparations of Japanese cooking seem, in some ways, much better suited to these fleeting delicacies. I’m certainly not butter-averse (particularly when it comes to baked goods), but dousing vegetables with the stuff is not exactly an affordable proposition in Japan, where less than half a pound costs upwards of 350 yen (~4 USD). So, I’ve decided to take a different approach this spring and try my hand at some unfamiliar dishes.

I’d been waiting to cook with fava beans (broad beans for some of you, soramame in Japanese) all year, so when I spied a bag at the store for the bargain price of 200 yen, I snatched them up. Soramame gohan, rice steamed with fresh fava beans, seemed like the natural answer for my craving. This dish is basically a pared-down variation of a family of rice preparations, known as takikomi gohan (炊き込みご飯), in which vegetables (plus sometimes meat, fish, and/or tofu) and rice are cooked together in seasoned broth. (Takenoko gohan, rice cooked with bamboo shoots, is another subtle spring rice dish in this family. If you’ve never tried it, please do!)

As I’ve mentioned before, one of my favorite aspects of Japanese cuisine is its reliance on the deft manipulation of a few key ingredients to produce an astounding variety of textures and flavors. This dish is a perfect example. Kombu, sake, and salt are the only seasonings used here, allowing the natural sweetness of the rice and beans to shine through. Better yet, as the dish cools to room temperature and the flavors meld, this sweetness becomes even more pronounced, making it perfect fare for a bento box or a spring picnic.

I’m in search of more ideas, friends. What do you cook in spring?

Rice Cooked with Fresh Fava Beans(そら豆ご飯)

Loosely adapted from Yahoo Japan

For this dish, I used a special variety of rice, called Awayuki Komachi (淡雪こまち), which I purchased on my recent trip to Akita prefecture. This particular rice, which is a sub-type of a variety called Akita Komachi,  has very short, opaque grains, somewhat similar to mochi rice. As a result, it cooks up wonderfully shiny, with a slightly chewy texture. If you can find Akita Komachi at your store, give it a try in this recipe. If not, any short-grain japonica rice will do.

Serves 2

1 cup short-grain Japanese rice

About 16 fava beans (from about 8 pods), shelled

1 tablespoon sake

1 5-inch piece kombu

Salt


Wash the rice very well.  (If you’re not sure why this step is necessary, check out this great tutorial on the proper way to wash Japanese rice.)  If you have time, you can soak the rice in some fresh water after washing, but I usually skip this step.

Cut a small nick in the outer sheath of each fava bean. Blanch the shelled beans in salted water, drain, and peel.

Combine the rice, sake, kombu, a generous pinch of salt, and 1 1/4 cups water in a rice cooker.

Place the fava beans on top, close the lid, and press go!

When the rice is done, use a wet rice paddle or broad wooden spoon to very gently fluff the rice and incorporate the beans. Serve immediately.

To cook rice on a stove: Follow the steps above, and use a heavy-bottomed saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Bring the rice, seasonings, and beans to a boil; turn the heat to low; cover; and cook about 10-15 minutes. The water should be nearly gone by this point. Turn off the heat and let the pot sit, covered, for another 10-15 minutes. Alternatively, you can cover the pot with a cloth, as suggested here. Fluff gently and serve.


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One thought on “Settling into Spring

  1. Wow! That looks so good. Isn’t it amazing how good fresh fava beans are? You are right, the ability to take a few fresh ingredients and make a tasty meal is a talent. Uncle Greg’s new thing is Gazpacho–a nice fresh treat when it’s 95!

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