Happy 2014: Celebrating the New Year, Japanese Style!

photo of kagami omochi
kagami omochi

Happy 2014 everyone! My family has always celebrated New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day with Japanese traditions. On New Year’s Eve my family would share a steaming pot of ramen as we watched the ball drop over Times Square. Although it is more traditional to eat soba (buckwheat noodles), ramen are quick and simple–and were more readily available when I was growing up. My mother always told me that long noodles would guarantee a long life, and to this day I make sure both to eat noodles on New Year’s Eve and to call or email to let her know. This year my boyfriend and I enjoyed a quick pre-party snack of pan-fried noodles with napa cabbage and scallion, but in the past I have served up everything from Japanese-style noodle soup to spaghetti aglio et olio.

photo of soba noodles
soba noodles – click for the full story

On New Year’s morning, we always awoke to the sounds and scents of ozoni in the making. Ozoni is a delicious soup that features mochi, or cakes made of steamed and pounded sticky rice: Mochi-Making video. These days you can find ice cream-filled mochi at some Japanese restaurants or red bean-filled and sesame-coated fried mochi balls from a dim sum cart all year long, but I always associate mochi with the first few days (or week) of the year. The photo at the top of this post features kagami omochi, which is a traditional Japanese New Year’s decoration. Click on it for full details.

Ozoni recipes vary by region and according to family tastes. At base, it consists of mochi cakes that are warmed, softened, and served in a broth. I’ve linked several recipes below. In the past I have made my broth by stewing a split chicken breast, seasoning the broth with mirin and soy sauce, and adding anything from sliced bok choy to mustard greens (a delicious surprise when I was unable to find any Asian greens), and dried shiitake mushrooms. This year I am trying my hand at Kansai style, which features a shiro (white) miso-based broth. Apparently, Kansai or Kyoto-style ozoni also favors round balls of stewed mochi, but I can only find rectangular pre-packaged mochi in my area. It tends to be a bit hard, so I pre-heat it in my toaster oven–350 degrees, lightly greased with toasted sesame oil–until it starts to puff up before adding it to the soup.

photo of packaged mochi
Packaged Mochi

I’m a few days behind on my ozoni making, so I cannot upload any photos. I can, however, offer a quick snack suggestion: norimaki mochi.

  1. Heat one piece of mochi per snack in the toaster oven as described above (you can also use a microwave, but keep an eye on it and stop the cooking as soon as it starts to balloon).
  2. While the mochi is baking, mix about a tablespoon of soy sauce with a teaspoon of sugar on a small plate or bowl.
  3. I like to warm my seaweed for a crisper texture and that toasty aroma. Holding onto one corner, gently flip a piece of nori over a burner (electric or gas) repeatedly until the color starts to change, and you smell the seaweed.
  4. Roll the mochi in the soy sauce-sugar mixture (the heat of the mochi will melt the sugar), wrap in seaweed, and enjoy!
Source: http://furochan.wordpress.com/2013/01/09/mochi-kaeri/
Source: http://furochan.wordpress.com/2013/01/09/mochi-kaeri/

Up next: final details and shout outs on my #Indiegogo Birthday for Giving campaign!

Lemongrass and Ginger Scented Butternut Squash Soup

About a month ago a friend of mine posted a link to a YouTube video called “Happy Asian Thanksgiving.” Like the guys in the video, I also joke about Asian or Japanese versions of holidays. Our 4th of July BBQs featured hamburgers and chicken teriyaki skewers grilled on a hibachi and served with rice (no buns) and cucumber salad. And I can’t imagine a proper Thanksgiving without sesame green beans and a healthy serving of rice to soak up the gravy. Not surprisingly, our Christmas dinners have always featured my Mother’s twists on American standbys. But as we kids have grown up, our celebrations have become simpler. Lately we’ve been gathering on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day, and a sushi platter has taken center stage.

This year my Mom decided to make inarizushi stuffed with gingered rice, which is one of my favorites. We also decided on steamed asparagus and a simple salad. I wanted to contribute something homemade and seasonal–but with flavors that would complement the rest of the meal. I quickly imagined a butternut squash soup, pale and sweet with coconut milk, but brightened with hints of ginger, lemongrass, and red chile.

bowl of soup
Enjoy!

Ingredients

  • 1 butternut squash
  • 1 shallot
  • 1 stalk of lemongrass
  • 1 slice of ginger, about the size of 3 quarters stacked
  • 2 cups water or vegetable broth (I used a cube of unsalted vegetable stock)
  • 1/2-3/4 cups coconut milk
  • red chile flakes and salt to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. While it is heating slice the squash in half, scoop out the seeds, and place in a baking pan with the shallot. Bake for 25-46 minutes, testing the squash after 25 minutes. While the squash is baking, cut a slice of ginger. Slice the ends off of the lemongrass and bruise the stalk (smash it with the flat side of a knife, cut a few slashes in it). Set these aside.

photo of lemongrass, ginger, and shallot
Simple Seasonings
Baked Squash and Shallot
Baked Squash and Shallot

Scoop the baked squash into a dutch oven or stock pot. Peel the shallot and place it in the pot as well. Add 2 cups broth or water, the ginger and the lemon grass,  and bring to a simmer. Cook for 20-30 minutes. When everything is soft and smelling fragrant, remove the lemongrass and ginger (keep it in the soup for a stronger ginger flavor). Puree the soup–shallots and all–until smooth. I let this cool, packed it up, and finished just before serving.

photo of soup pot
Ready for Pureeing

Finish the soup by adding coconut milk to desired consistency (I used about 2/3 cup). Add salt to taste and red chile flakes for a bit of heat (I used about 1/8th of a teaspoon).

photo of coup with coconut milk
Stir In Coconut Milk

This soup was delicious and warming. Next time, however, I plan to use a kabocha squash and finish it with fine shreds of kaffir lime leaves.

Stone Soup 2: Red Lentil Soup Plus More Roasted Vegetables

photo of red lentil soup
Mmm, soup

Sunday was bitingly cold. Although we had enjoyed an unseasonably mild fall, yesterday brought a rude reminder of winter’s imminent arrival. I took stock of what we had lying around the kitchen and thought about what I could make with those ingredients (to avoid having to bike to the nearest grocery store and freezing my face and hands).

Photo of soup ingredients
Hmm, what can I make with this?

A quick survey revealed the makings of Turkish red lentil soup. The prospect of dipping into mercimek çorbası made me particularly happy because a dear friend has been on my mind a lot lately. She has been living in Istanbul for the past few years, but the lentils in my cupboard reminded me of how her eyes lit up when we discovered an authentic bowl from a local restaurant when she was back in Philly.

chopped carrots, celery, scallions, and garlic
mirepoix, improvised

For basic guidelines, I used a recipe from the Whole Foods website: Whole Foods Market Turkish Red Lentil Soup. Here is my improvised list of ingredients–Janielle, I hope you approve:

  • 1 cup red lentils, rinsed
  • 1 carrot, diced
  • 1 stalk of celery, diced
  • 3 scallions, sliced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1/8 tsp marash pepper
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cube no-salt vegetable broth (makes 2 cups)
  • 6 cups water
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • salt to taste

I heated the olive oil over medium heat in my favorite Le Creuset dutch oven. Once the oil started to shimmer I threw in the cumin, paprika, and marash pepper. After a few stirs (the spices become fragrant almost immediately) I added the “mirepoix” (vegetables). I stirred that a bit, dropped the heat to low, and covered the pot. After the vegetables softened (really only a few minutes), I added the remaining ingredients except the tomato paste and salt. Le Creuset recommends not cooking on high heat, since cast iron is such an excellent conductor. I cranked the heat to medium high, put on the lid, and let the soup come to a boil. As soon as the soup started to boil I stirred in the tomato paste, dropped the heat to low, and let it simmer for about 20 min.

At this point I turned off the heat because my boyfriend and I were due to meet a friend at a local watering hole. The great thing about soup is that you can just let it sit–it’s only going to get better as the flavors develop.

Fast forward a few hours (and glasses of wine), and I’m back home and somewhat peckish despite snacking on roasted broccolini, gravlax, and spiced peanuts (Philadelphia boasts some truly wonderful gastropubs). I spy a third of a head of cauliflower, a small bagful of brussel sprouts, and–daring me to make something of them–a bag of bright red radishes leftover from an old farm share.

Thirty minutes later I am nibbling on mixed roasted vegetables and looking forward to easy dinners over the next few days:

  • brussel sprouts–quartered, tossed with sliced shallots, about a tablespoon each of sesame oil and soy sauce, then lightly glazed with about a teaspoon of honey
  • cauliflower–cut into florets, tossed with quartered kalamata olives, a tablespoon of olive oil, a sprinkling of marash pepper, and sea salt
  • radishes–quartered, tossed with a teaspoon of olive oil and a sprinkling of thyme and sea salt

photo of roasted vegetables

Coming soon: a recent hip sequence that had participants sighing, and how I am turning my birthday into an opportunity for giving. Meanwhile, safe travels and happy holidays to all!

Noodles au naturel

When cooking naked, an apron goes a long way towards protecting delicate areas … just kidding. As soon as I published my last post it occurred to me – lots of people cannot tolerate msg in their food, and most instant noodles packs, especially if they are made in Asia, probably contain a ton of msg in the broth packets.

Cartoon about the ill effects of msg in food

So how do you make a tasty bowl of noodles that won’t give you a headache? Use unflavored dry noodles and make your own soup base. How do you make your own Japanese-style soup base you might ask? Well I’m about to tell you!

Oh! if you haven’t noticed, I don’t really measure ingredients or follow recipes when I cook. In fact, someone once (jokingly?) accused me of deliberately altering recipes constantly so that no one could ever reproduce anything I served, thus insuring my dishes remained elusive. While I don’t try to keep my recipes secret, I am forever playing with them. I’ve given ballpark measurements, but you need taste things as you go along. I tend to “under-salt” almost everything (and make up for it by eating potato, pita, and tortilla chips like I’m on a mission), so make sure to taste and adjust.

Miso Soup Base for Noodles (vegetarian)

Ingredients (aside from water):

  • dried mushrooms (shiitake add plenty of flavor, so count on about 2 per cup)
  • scallions (put fine shreds of the white portion in the broth, mince the green part to use raw as a garnish)
  • ginger and/or garlic – both can be “smashed” with the flat side of your knife, thrown into the pot, and fished out later
  • vegetables – I like to use Asian greens like napa cabbage and bok choy
  • miso – white (shiro) miso is sweet and mild, the least salty, and makes a beautiful creamy-looking broth, but red is richer in flavor

NOTE: some dried mushrooms have a lot of grit stuck in their gills. You can soften your mushrooms in hot water (just enough to cover). Once they are soft, strain the liquid into your soup base – I use a tea strainer lined with a small piece of paper towel – and rinse the mushrooms. But I’ve also found an amazingly grit-free brand (and crazy-inexpensive at my local Asian grocery). If you know your mushrooms are clean, you can just throw a few into the pot to simmer with everything else:

photo of Dynasty brand sried mushrooms

Directions:

  • Put a little oil in the bottom of your pot, once it shimmers, throw in any garlic (1 clove), ginger (roughly the size of a quarter), or other aromatic herbs (curry powder is also really delicious, and even 1/4 tsp will add plenty of flavor)
  • Stir them a bit, just until they start to soften and smell amazing, then pour in your water (1.25-1.5 cups per person) and vegetables
  • If you pre-soaked your mushrooms, rinse them off, remove the stems, slice thinly and add them to the pot (I’ve also served them whole, stems and all); if your mushrooms are reliably clean, throw them in with the vegetables
  • If you want a true one-pot dish, wait until the vegetables are not quite done, then throw in your noodles
  • Bring everything to a boil and simmer just until the vegetables (and noodles) are tender
  • Remove about a 1/4 cup of water and “dissolve” your miso in it – this is really hard to gauge, since miso varies so much in saltiness. Start with a teaspoon per cup of water, because you can always add more. Once the miso has dissolved, add it back into the pot.
  • Taste and adjust the seasoning. Feel free to add more miso or maybe some soy sauce, tamari, or mirin

NOTE:  miso should not be boiled (it kills the enzymes), so either add the noodles to the pot before you add the miso, or boil them separately, place in your bowl, and ladle the soup and veggies over them.

Remember: every bowl of noodles is a new adventure! Use whatever you have on hand, and make it your own! Yesterday I topped a bowl with stir-fried celery and red swiss chard but skipped the scallions. Since I had added a pinch of curry to the soup, the fresh crispiness of the vegetables provided a wonderful contrast to the rich and spicy broth. It also looked really pretty!

Flat noodles with celery and chard

Stone Soup (or how to make a bowl of noodles)

Remember that old folk story called “stone soup?” A man sets up a pot of water with a rock in it and nonchalantly tells bystanders that he is making stone soup. He tells them – despite the tried and true nature of his recipe – it would be even better with a few additional items. The townsfolk are curious and cannot help but contribute a carrot here, some parsley there. As the soup bubbles away, more people are drawn by the wonderful smell, and they all eagerly offer something from their own stores. In the end everyone enjoys a bowl, which really is delicious.

While I’ve never tricked anyone into handing over a carrot, I do regularly make a bowl of noodle soup out of odds and ends. The last time I did, I posted a photo of the finished result on my Facebook page. A bunch of people “liked” the photo, one friend asked for the recipe, and someone even asked me where I had bought that dish (!). So, P-Girl, this is for you.

Because I subscribe to a CSA, I often have random vegetables in small amounts in my refrigerator. On this last occasion, I had one big zucchini, a few bunches of baby bok choy, and a handful of snow peas. Other vegetables I like to use include asparagus, sugar snap peas, any kind of greens, and aromatic herbs such as scallions and cilantro.

When I’m feeling ambitious, I will make a stock and use plain dried noodles. Any Asian store will stock a wide variety of noodle types such as wheat, rice, bean thread, buckwheat, egg noodles, flavored and unflavored (usually shrimp). These noodles will also come in a variety of widths and lengths:

Asian noodles
Various dry Asian noodles

Most often, when I make noodles I eat them as a quick lunch or dinner, so I start with prefab. That’s right, I am a huge fan of instant ramen. Now, I know what you are thinking, “But they are soooo unhealthy! They are fried! Haven’t you looked at the sodium content??? I once saw a photo of undigested ramen in someone’s stomach …”

To this I say, “Do you know who invented instant ramen? Do you know what nation tops the world in longevity?” The answer to both questions is the Japanese. So forgive my faith in my ancestors, but I am not going to let one nasty photo stop me from enjoying my birthright! And, honestly, about that photo – do you think if that person chewed his or her food maybe it would digest? Anyway, on this particular occasion, I started with instant udon (which are thick, non-fried, wheat noodles). You can find them at you local Asian market in the refrigerated section, although I have seen a spicy seaweed ramen (which looks halfway between ramen and udon to me) at Trader Joe’s. Udon packages come in all sorts of “flavors” such as pork, crab, abalone, mushroom, “oriental,” and spicy, and this is what they look like:

instant udon packages
Instant Udon

Don’t worry if the directions are in Japanese or any other language. Disregard them if they are in English.

Recipe!!!

  1. Boil some water in a pot that will fit everything (I use about 1.25 cups for myself, more for my boyfriend because he likes having more broth).
  2. Throw in whatever vegetables you would like to simmer. In this case I decided to simmer the baby bok choy so that it would flavor the soup and become soft. Sometimes I don’t put any veggies in the water and just stir fry them all; if I’m feeling really lazy, I boil everything so I only have to wash one pot. The options are truly endless – and endlessly delicious!
  3. As the water is boiling, heat up a non-stick or cast-iron skillet on medium. Grease lightly with olive oil, coconut oil, whatever you like. I use a non-stick skillet and pour on about a teaspoon of roasted sesame oil. I use Kadoya brand, but there are so many brands that you cannot go wrong.
  4. Once the skillet is hot, put in the vegetables or anything else you want to stir fry. This time I lined up slices of baked tofu and zucchini. Once one side browned, I flipped them all and threw in the snow peas.
  5. By this time, you water will be boiling, and your veggies will be simmering. Here is where we go wild. Open the broth packet that comes with the noodles, but only pour half of it into the water. Taste. In many cases, this is all the flavor (and the salt) you need. If you want more, add more, but err on the side of caution.
  6. Save the leftover half-packet of broth. I have a small box of leftover broth packets that I keep for when I want to use the plain dry noodles – because sometimes only flat noodles will do.
  7. Put the noodles in the pot, drop the heat to low, and let it simmer a bit (yes, even if it’s instant ramen, let it simmer a little).
  8. Your skillet veggies should be almost done by now. I like to splash a little mirin (Japanese rice wine) over the veggies and then cover the whole pan, just for a minute. This adds depth to the flavor and makes the veggies glossy.
  9. NOTE: you can also add about a tablespoon of mirin to the broth instead, or both.
  10. Pour the contents of the noodle pot into your bowl.
  11. Artfully arrange your veggies, tofu, etc. on top.
  12. Garnish with finely sliced scallions, cilantro, etc. I dabbed on some Vietnamese chile garlic sauce, which I prefer over sriracha. I also sometimes drizzle a bit of sesame oil on top, which just makes the bowl smell like my Mom cooked it.
  13. Slurp your noodles and enjoy!
noodle bowl
Bowl of Udon