First post of 2020!
For Christmas, a dear friend gave me Sonoko Sakai's Japanese Home Cooking. This particular dear friend grew up in Japan, cooks Japanese food like nobody's business, and enjoys food as much as I do, so I knew this book would be a treasure.
Beautifully produced, it is the kind of cookbook I love -- one that tells a story. The photographs by Rick Poon are intimate--an invitation to really value and understand the food, the culture, and the chef. I might challenge the byline a bit: "Simple Meals, Authentic Flavors." In truth, the "simple" part really needs two things: 1) access to some of the ingredients (read: city) and 2) a basic understanding of the culture of Japanese cooking, which is NOT "on-the-go" and "short-on-time." That said, Sonoko Sakai honors her audience and is realistic about what will be challenging, and what will be more simple. I am so enjoying her prose--she has had a rich and varied life, making the book a joy to read. It is a primer on Japanese food culture as much as anything else, and you'll find yourself wanting to really memorize and internalize all the different kinds of seaweed, sake, etc, so you can navigate an Asian food store like a connoisseur in a wine shop.
So, after letting it sit on my table for awhile, as I looked at the cover image and thought about how I see myself in retirement, I finally cracked it open. I read every word about the "five flavors" and the "five senses" and the "five colors" and the "five cooking techniques" and the "five elements of a meal." But what really stood out?
The ultimate goal of cooking and eating are health and pleasure. There is no greater joy than sharing good food with the people you love.I'm Italian-American. Ok, so maybe the "health" part wasn't such a priority for my grandma, but certainly the rest held true. Food was the love language of my family--particularly for my late father. I remember a certain morning many, many years ago. I was a snotty teenager--hellbent on making sure my parents knew how miserable their divorce had made my life (not to say there wasn't a lot to account for on their part)--and my father was desperately using breakfast as a peace offering. I was having none of it. He said, "but you have to eat something! I made you an egg and toast!" I wanted that egg and toast, let me tell you. I was hungry. But my teenage mind said that to accept love (even in a form that wasn't my top choice) was to admit defeat. "I'm NOT HUNGRY," I said, defiantly and emphatically. Really it was: "You love me on MY terms or nothing!"
So that's a pretty extensive digression and I really try not to fill my food blog posts with prose, but let's just say that cooking has become part of my grieving process. So many of my memories of my dad have to do with great food and great wine and great rum. So I'm trying to let those emotions surface a bit when I'm in the kitchen. It feels safe.
Back to cooking. I decided not to bite off more than I could chew, and started with Sakai's very basic bonito and kombu dashi (27). I am blessed to have a wonderful Asian market within an 8 minute walk from my house, and had no trouble finding many of the ingredients that fill the first few pages of Sakai's book.
So after I made the dashi (which was very very simple), I thought I'd try making her shoyu tare (soy-sauce-based seasoning), (105). I was disappointed not to find usukuchi shoyu at the store, so I made do with tamari. This slightly sweet shoyu is quite marvelous added to the dashi, as it turns out.
I had my dashi, and I knew that adding the shoyu was something prescribed for one of those "fancy" recipes later in the book, so I used that as a starting point. I marinated some extra firm tofu in some wonderful smoked shoyu for several hours because you can't go wrong with marinated tofu in smoked shoyu, full stop.
After doing several hours of administrative work, I returned to the kitchen, ready to pull together something scrumptious and healthy.
I rehydrated some shiitake mushrooms. SAVE THE WATER!
I cooked some (dried) udon noodles until al dente (Italian, remember?) and then ran them under cold water so that they didn't stick together. I portioned them into two bowls and topped them with the marinated tofu.
I sautéed the shiitake mushrooms (now sliced) with some green onions (an idea stolen from her Noodle Soup recite).
I heated the dashi with a measure of the shoyu tare AND the shiitake mushroom water, and used it to blanch carrots, enoki mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, and spinach (because I had some I needed to use up).
Here's the inefficient part, but a good call: I removed the veggies from the broth using a slotted spoon and then ran them under cold water in a strainer so that they were truly blanched: