Miso-Grilled Vegetables (Dengaku)

Readers, I’ve missed you so! Summer has officially passed, and so far all I’ve managed to write about is frozen sweets. Rest assured, my love of vegetables has not waned in the slightest, but I’ve found myself short on time to cook them in new and interesting ways. This recipe, however, is an exception. The inspiration for this dish came by way of a small restaurant in Matsumoto called Dengaku Kiso-ya. Housed in a traditional wooden building just a few paces from the Metoba river, the shop specializes in a simple dish known as dengaku (田楽). At its most basic, dengaku is tōfu or vegetables (usually eggplant) slathered in a sweet miso sauce and broiled until crisp-edged and caramelized.

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Summer Snapshots (& More Ice Cream)

Ah, August, that most bittersweet of months. Its early, languid days shimmer with heat and promise, offering the tantalizing prospect of an endless summer. Within weeks, dusk vibrates with the hum of cicadas, hinting at autumn’s inexorable approach. Those days are not far off, but there’s something I’ve been dying to share with you before it’s too late: peach and white miso ice cream. Imagine: creamy, caramelized custard layered atop salty tang, each mouthful tinged with the acidity and fragrance of impossibly ripe peaches. The mood of this ice cream is slow and sensual, like eating peaches licked with sea spray and sand after a leisurely day at the beach. It’s summer in a spoonful, and it’s both as peculiar and delicious as it sounds.

In the spirit of brevity, I’ll leave you with the recipe and some favorite scenes from summers past.

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Staying Cool and Sane (Or: How To Survive a Japanese Summer)

Having experienced a few of Japan’s notoriously hot and sticky summers, I’ve picked up some survival tricks that don’t necessitate cranking up the air conditioner. This was particularly important last summer, when energy-saving measures (setsuden) were in effect following March’s disaster. At the time, I was living in a dense Tokyo suburb that routinely ranks as the hottest city in the country. The heat-trapping effects of concrete and asphalt combined with the suffocating environment of a 15 square meter (roughly 160 square foot) apartment meant I had to devise some creative strategies for staying cool, not to mention sane. (Cold showers, frozen washcloths, and a trusty sensu were all critical components of this endeavor.)

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Ice Cream Dreams

Making ice cream doesn’t require a fancy electric ice cream maker, or even an old-fashioned hand-cranked one like the one I use, but a freezer is most definitely necessary. (Of course, ice cream has been around a lot longer than electric freezers, but that’s a post for another day.) Today, frozen food is so cheap and readily available that we often forget what a luxury it once was to simply have ice. Indeed, the notion that we now have machines to make frozen water seems both appalling and magical; what culture could be both so lazy and inspired as to invent a device for such a simple end? And yet ice machines and their kitchen brethren  – immersion blenders, coffee makers, and the rest – make a range of small, simple pleasures readily and widely accessible.* Chief among these simple pleasures, of course, is ice cream.

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Quick Pickles To Beat The Heat

Of all the wonderful shops and businesses I frequented while living in Matsumoto, one of the most memorable was a family-owned produce store in Sōza, a quiet residential neighborhood on the city’s northeastern edge. On balmy summer evenings, just as dusk was settling over the rice paddies, I’d take a stroll over to the shop and pick up whatever looked good for dinner: tiny eggplants with shiny, purplish black skin for nasu dengaku, locally made yakidōfu (grilled tofu), or perhaps a bunch of spiky, crunchy mizuna from one of the many neighborhood farms.

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Miso Soup with Young Turnips

Turnips — those pale, waxy orbs usually found sitting forlornly in bins at the supermarket — may win the title for the world’s most unloved vegetable. It’s no wonder: here in the States, the turnips one most often encounters are bulbous, fibrous behemoths utterly lacking in color, texture, and flavor. Even when roasted into oblivion and doused with butter, they’re a hard sell. Thankfully, learning to love turnips is not difficult if you can track down a bunch of the tender hakurei variety. This Japanese breed, with its smooth, snow-white roots and deep green leaves, is equally wonderful raw, roasted, simmered, or even lightly pickled.

In Japan, turnips (kabu / 蕪) are usually sold with their tender green tops still attached. In one common preparation, the roots are first simmered in a mixture of dashi, mirin, sake, shōyu, and sugar, then served alongside the blanched greens. This simple technique utterly transforms these otherwise unremarkable vegetables: upon emerging from their bath in the salty-sweet cooking liquid, the turnips have a remarkably silky texture and the unmistakable savory depth imparted by dashi.

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Sushi, Deconstructed

Prior to moving to Japan, my knowledge of sushi was mainly limited to the elaborate makizushi (rolled sushi) available at most American Japanese restaurants. Unsurprisingly, these baroque concoctions of mayonnaise, avocado, and processed crab always left me feeling curiously unsatisfied and perplexed. In high school, a friend had introduced me to nigirizushi, but even then my palate was unable to find much pleasure in the unusual combination of sweet, salty, raw, and cooked.

Nigirizushi at Sushi-ya no Nohachi, Asakusa, Tokyo.

During my first week of work at a large university hospital near Tokyo, my employer – the head of the orthopedics department – took me out to lunch at a family-owned sushi restaurant by the train station. After removing our shoes at the door, we seated ourselves on zabuton cushions at the counter, tucking our legs into the hidden compartment beneath the floor. I sat entranced as the owners’ son patted out fingers of warm, seasoned rice for nigirizushi. He worked in smooth, rhythmic motions, quickly dipping his hands in water before shaping the shari (vinegared rice). An assistant stood nearby, deftly slicing fish into perfect, tapered pieces. Soon we were presented with two ceramic platters, each of which held no fewer than ten pieces of sushi. Out of some mix of deference and ignorance, I followed my dining companion’s lead, beginning with the mild, white fish, moving on to more oily, flavorful varieties like mackerel, and finishing with the tamagoyaki (a sweet, layered omelet) and a nori-wrapped round of rice topped with translucent beads of ikura (salmon roe).

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