a japanese feast in brooklyn
I had been told that the shopping in Japan was unparalleled, and I suppose it is - stationary meccas, and enormous department stores, avant garde boxy clothes, and so many random gadgets. All of which was well and good, but completely forgotten the moment we stepped onto the food floors and discovered everything edible. So many snackies! So many sweeties! And all so beautifully wrapped! And half the time you don't know what's inside, so it's a surprise, too! (And the other half it's red bean paste, and then YAY RED BEAN PASTE!).
Suffice to say, I got ... a bit... carried away and had to not once, not twice, but three times be dragged off the confectionary floor, leaving a trail of sugar in my wake.
Sadly the majority of the most delicious little Japanese things are freshly made and completely untransferable (beyond plane ride gorging, which of course we took up with gusto: my "carry-on item" was inevitably a paper bag the size of a small car, with crackers and katsu sandwiches and Tokyo Bananas flying off the top).
But what did make it back to NY was 11 boxes of shrimp chips (because some of them had faces on them. Faces! And others were literally just giant shrimps but somehow 3-dimensional?) and 18 varieties of pickled plum. And so a party was in order!
To begin: said shrimp chips, and two unidentifiable snacks that I bought because their boxes were so pretty. To drink: bubbly with a touch of fermented plum: a touch sweet, a touch salty, and just a little something more.
- Dashi, with yuzu & parsley
- Halibut sashimi with plum kosho and pickled green strawberries
- Chawanmushi egg custard with enoki and shimeji mushrooms
- Many pickles with cherry blossom rice and soft tofu with ginger and scallion
- Grilled chicken with shichimi togarashi, grilled green onion, and pickled ramp (and forgotten: miso dressed greens!)
- ...And so much sake, finished off by a plate of mochi
- And of course fermented plum sweet tea
Recipe details below...
My theory is anything mixed with dry bubbly is delicious. In this case, it was as simple as taking plum paste (easily found at any Japanese market) and gently whisking it into a glass of champagne. I used a little matcha whisk, but really a fork would do. It was a strangely umami-y way to start the meal, but hey! at least everyone knew what they were in for.
As it turns out, dashi is the base for the majority of delicious Japanese dishes outside of the fresh fish realm. A simple stock made of seaweed and dried fish, it adds depth and just a hint of something more to soups and dishes like miso or soba. It also happens to be delicious on its own, or in this case brightened up just a touch. We used it as a nice way to start the meal - so clean, so Japanese - but really it could go at any time, with any meal.
- Great big kombu, or seaweed (unlike the little snack packs, these are giant sheets that typically look and smell like they're straight from the water)
- Dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi) - these generally come in large packets, almost like a large chip bag, and look almost more like papery thin bacon than anything fishy. (Note that it's delicious as a topping on all sorts of other things, including the tofu below.)
- Optional: yuzu. Unfortunately the fruit is nearly impossible to find in the US, so I'd recommend frozen peel (we found it an Asian market, though it's online as well) or juice. Lemon would do in a pinch.
- Parsley to taste
Note - you can do this the "hot" way by bringing kombu to a simmer, taking off the heat then adding the dashi. We've tested both and preferred cold infused, but whatever's easiest!
- Add 40 grams of kombu to 9 cups of water.
- Let sit for 4 hours in the fridge.
- Bring to a bare simmer (not boiling!).
- Remove from heat and add 40 grams of bonito.
- Five minutes later, strain the dashi and voila! Dashi.
- Note the dashi will keep easily in the fridge for a few days, or freezes well. If reheating, be careful not to bring to a boil.
- If you want to go fancy, before eating throw in a bit of yuzu peel and a little parsley.
So here's the thing: fresh, raw fish is one of the most beautiful, luxurious things you can ever eat, and it is literally one of the easiest things to prepare.
- Find yourself some high quality fish. For this I recommend spending extra - a good old fishmonger or Whole Foods will do. Ask the nice person behind the counter what they have that's sushi grade. Often, they'll actually recommend farmed fish rather than wild, because it's more controlled. Trust them. We used halibut, but fluke would be ideal with this meal.
- When ready to eat, slice the fish going against the grain. Remove any brown bits or anything that looks like it might be tough.
- Serve with something a little spicy: we stumbled into the most magical plum store our first day in Kyoto and found ourselves plum kosho (effectively a plum chili paste), but our usual go-to is yuzu kosho or just good old wasabi.
- In this case, we went wild and served it with fresh pickled green strawberries (see pickles below), but anything acidic is easy here.
Chawanmushi is a Japanese-style egg custard, airy and silky and somehow both light and rich. It's often served with chicken, shrimp, and vegetables but after an incredible experience at Olmsted, we went a bit rogue with mushrooms and fish roe. This would be a beautiful dinner on its own, perhaps with a side of sauteed greens, a quick upgrade from a good old fried egg.
Ingredients & tools:
- A steamer or oven-safe baking dish or broiling pan with sides
- 6 small oven-safe bowls or cups
- Saran wrap or lids for the bowls
- Fine sieve or cheesecloth
- 6 eggs
- 4.5 cups dashi (see details above)
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons mirin
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Fish roe
- Prep a steamer over high heat, or do as we did and turn your oven on to roughly 350
- If using an oven, boil a pot or kettle of water
- Prep mushrooms. We did a mix of raw shimeji and sauteed enoki, but really anything would be great.
- Crack 6 eggs and gently mix using chopsticks (you can use a fork instead, but try not to add much air)
- Add dashi, soy sauce, mirin, salt
- Strain eggs through a fine sieve or cheesecloth
- Place mushrooms in the bottom of bowls and pour in egg mixture.
- If using oven, cover each bowl with saran wrap or a sealed lid
- If using oven, place bowls into an oven-safe dish with sides (e.g. a baking dish or broiler pan), then fill pan with the boiling water so that it hits roughly half-way up the way up the bowls
- Bake or steam until set. If using oven, this will be roughly 30 minutes.
- Once cooked, top each chawanmushi with a spoonful of roe.
Cherry Blossom Rice
The key to this one is all in the discovery and purchase of dried cherry blossoms, preserved in salt. During sakura, they could be found in just about every store, usually in bright pink packaging with cartoon drawings of flowers. Amazon, however, is a miraculous place and it should be relatively easy to order them year-round, even if you don't find yourself in Japan.
- Once procured, your biggest challenge will be convincing yourself to use said blossoms because they are absurdly pretty even when crumpled and soaked. But, forge ahead: take a few teaspoons worth of blossoms and soak in water for 5 minutes to remove the salt.
- Pluck from water, and gently dry.
- Pull out your favorite, most adorable blossoms and save for garnishing later.
- For the rest, lightly and roughly chop, then add to uncooked Japanese short grain sushi rice + water. Prepare the rice as you normally would.
- When serving, garnish it up with the few remaining blossoms.
At the end, you'll have rice that is very slightly more brown than normal with a gentle flowery, almost plum-like (again! I know!) aroma and flavor.
Literally the easiest side dish, once you've got your dashi. Delicate tofu is draped in soy, dashi, and mirin with a touch of ginger and scallion and topped with bonito flakes. This has been one of my favorite dishes at our local Japanese spot for years, and I can't believe we didn't try it until now.
- Here's the thing: you could make yourself some fresh tofu...or you could buy it. So uh, buy yourself a block or two of silken tofu.
- 1 cup dashi
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons mirin
- Bonito flakes, roughly 1-2 handfuls for each block of tofu
- Grated ginger, sliced scallions to taste
- Bring dashi, soy and mirin to a boil, then turn off the heat and put to the side.
- Let cool, then pour over tofu.
- Top with grated ginger, sliced scallions and a pile of bonito flakes.
I've always liked pickles just fine, but it wasn't until our trip that I truly appreciated that you can pickle just about anything, and add them to just about anything, and it will always be delicious.
We went a bit crazy here and attempted American-style vinegar pickling on green strawberries and ramps (Bon Appetit has a great primer) and Japanese pickling (pressed in salt, rather than steeped in vinegar) on a bunch of radishes, but truthfully: go to an Asian market and pick out whatever you like. My favorites are the bright yellow sweetish radish, ume plum, and stinky mustard greens, though be careful with the latter, as the scent can take over everything in your fridge.
Grilled chicken with shichimi togarashi
It's tough to beat beautifully crisped up chicken thighs with a bite of chili and a side of vinegar. In this case, we used shichimi togarashi, or a common Japanese 7-spice blend, but that can be swapped out for really any chili powder (marash is great, as is New Mexican chili pepper for taco night.)
- Bone-out, skinless chicken thighs, roughly 1-2 per person. I'd recommend going for the nicer chicken here from chickens that have been hanging out in meadows, or whatever it is they do.
- A couple tablespoons shichimi togarashi spice blend
- Grapeseed oil (or another high-smoke point oil)
- Green onions and pickles for serving
- Heat up a few pans with a little grapeseed oil - you want to get them quite hot, so depending on your stove let's say medium-high heat. (Or if you are one of those dreamy people with a full-on grill situation, get that thing going!)
- In the meantime, break out your chicken thighs and densely sprinkle both sides with salt and the spice of your choice.
- Clean and trim the green onions, then drizzle with olive oil and salt.
- Lay chicken on the pans, saving 1 pan for the onions. Do not crowd! The chicken should sputter up quite a bit, but if you get the sense they're burning, turn your heat down a bit. Avoid moving the chicken around at all costs!
- After 10-15 minutes, check to see if the chicken lifts easily (vs sticking). If so: flip to the other side and cook another 10 or so minutes until it's seared and crispy. Usually the chicken will feel firm and slightly shrunken. The good news is that chicken thighs rarely dry out, so keep on going if you don't feel like you're getting enough of a sear.
- Toss the green onions on the remaining pan to char them up a bit. Flip them around as needed so they don't burn. (Again, a grill would be excellent here.)
- Slice the chicken and serve with an extra sprinkle of spice, grilled onions and pickles.
Plum tea & sweets
A cheater dessert course: after debating green tea cakes and red bean paste cookies and the charms of shiso granita, I realized all I'd ever really want after a meal like this was good old mochi. So: purchase yourself an array of mochi, or if you're really brave, make yourself up a batch.
Serve, once again, with plum paste -- in this case, turned into tea by dissolving it in hot water with sugar until beautifully purple and both sweet and salty. Then lean back and thank the world that you have 8 more bags of shrimp chimps stashed away, and so, so many more plums to be eaten.