Friday, 11 December 2009

Recipe of the year: Rick Stein's Hanoi chicken noodle soup with bok choi

My knowledge of Vietnamese food does not extend much beyond the pho joints along the strip in Richmond, Melbourne, Australia. But what you get there is a vast basin of rice noodles in a steaming, clean, delicately flavoured soup, topped with meat, chicken, or sometimes both, and enough bean shoots, lemon, chilli, Vietnamese basil and mint garnishes on the side to make a meal in itself. It is invariably good, and always cheap. Wouldn't it be great to be able to make pho here in Japan, where Vietnamese food is often so-so and invariably expensive??

I found a fantastic-sounding recipe on Andrea Nguyen's brilliant Vietnamese food blog way back, but it looked like it might be a weekend project, and I never quite got round to it. There is a recipe for beef pho in Les Huynh's Blue Ginger: The Colours and Flavours of Asia, but it calls for about 2 kg of beef, which seems a little extravagant, at least when you live in Japan. So you can imagine how happy I was so happy to find a Vietnamese chicken noodle recipe from Rick Stein that could be made in roughly an hour (most of which is waiting for the chicken to cool). If you've been reading along, you'll know that I am quite enamoured of late with Rick's work on Asian cuisines. And this recipe is a real corker. In fact, it made such an impression on me that I'm naming it my recipe of the year!

I have adapted Rick's recipe, which was for a Hanoi-style bowl-of-joy, to make it more closely resemble the "true" Melbourne pho experience. Thus, basil is in and coriander leaves out (in deference to the Young Man). I left the bok choi in, and like this addition. Also, Rick had 300 g of rice noodles feeding 6 people. I think 100 g per person is maybe more like it, and, with Japanese-sized ramen bowls, I reckon the broth is enough for 4. We might just be greedy, though (g). Certainly, we did have some chicken left over, but that is never a problem, is it?

The excerpt of Rick Stein's Far Eastern Odyssey where I found the recipe did not give instructions for nuoc cham, that delicious all-purpose Vietnamese sauce that will take your bowl of soup right into the stratosphere. I use the one in Les' Blue Ginger, above, minus the water in this instance, as it is to go into soup. Nuoc cham explodes on the tongue with every taste sensation. Use more or less chilli and garlic to suit your taste. Note that this portion of the recipe uses Australian tablespoons which are 20 ml, or 1 non-Australian tbsp plus 1 tsp. You will probably have some left over. Which would be a great excuse for making this.

Hanoi chicken noodle soup with bok choi

Serves 4

A 1.2 kg chicken
25 g peeled ginger, coarsely chopped
12 spring onions, trimmed and halved
20 g garlic, sliced (around 5 cloves)
2 star anise
10 cm cinnamon stick
20 g dried shrimp
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
450 g bok choi [Saffron: in Japan, 2 packets of chingensai]
400 g 1 cm-wide flat rice noodles [S: I used a thinner variety]
4 tbsp fish sauce

100 g bean shoots
Large handful basil
20 g mint leaves
1 small red chilli, sliced very thinly [optional]
Lemon quarters

Nuoc cham to serve (Note: 1 tbsp = 20 ml)
2 long red chillies, deseeded and roughly chopped [or to taste]
1 garlic clove, peeled
1 tbsp shaved palm sugar
2 tbsp lime juice
3 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp rice vinegar
(3 tbsp water)

1 Put the chicken, ginger, 8 of the spring onions, garlic, star anise, cinnamon, dried shrimp, peppercorns and 1/2 tsp salt into a deep pan in which the chicken fits quite snugly. Cover with 2 l of water. Bring to the boil, skimming off any scum as it rises, then lower the heat, cover and leave to gently simmer for 20 min. Turn off the heat and leave to cool for 40 min.

2 Separate the stalks from the leaves of the bok choi and finely shred them lengthways. Cut the leaves across into 3 cm-wide pieces. Slice the remaining 4 spring onions finely.

3 Lift the cooled chicken onto a plate and leave to cool. Drain the stock into a clean pan and discard all the flavourings except the shrimp. Skin the chicken, pull the meat from the bones and break it into chunky pieces.

4 Meanwhile, make nuoc cham. Pound chillies and garlic into a smooth paste with a mortar and pestle. Place in a clean jar and add remaining ingredients. Put the lid on and shake until well blended. Nuoc cham will keep in the fridge for around a week.

5 Bring a pan of unsalted water to the boil. Add the noodles, turn off the heat, cover and leave to soak for 10 min or until tender.

6 Bring the stock back to the boil, add the bok choi stalks and simmer for 2 min, add the bok choi leaves and cook for a further 2 min. Then stir in the fish sauce.

7 Drain the noodles and divide among 4 large, deep noodle bowls. Top with cooked chicken, bean shoots, reserved shrimp, remaining spring onions, basil and mint leaves. Ladle the steaming hot broth and bok choi over the top and serve with the nuoc cham, lemon quarters and chilli on the side.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Harumi's autumnal Japan 3: Spinachi and shimeji shiroae

Here's another of Kurihara Harumi's autumn delights from Haru-mi magazine. It is a kind of spinach and fungi salad dressed with tofu and sesame. Packing two veggies, a protein and sesame, this is the kind of cooking which earned Japanese cuisine its sometimes undeserved ;) reputation for healthiness.

Note, though, that this one dish does not dinner make. I would suggest a meat dish and another veggie side or soup, maybe even from this "autumnal Japan" series, plus steamed rice if you want an authentic Japanese restaurant "set menu" effect.

If you can't get hold of shimeji mushrooms, try any other variety. As before, usukuchi soy sauce is preferred here for its lighter color (shiroae literally means "white-dressed", after all). It is not essential, though, so use regular Japanese soy sauce if that is what you have.

Spinach and shimeji shiroae

Serves 4 as a side dish with other Japanese foods and rice

1 block of silken tofu (320 g)
1 pack shimeji mushrooms
1/2 tbsp cooking sake
1 tbsp mirin
1 tbsp usukuchi soy sauce
1 buch spinach (200 g)
2 tbsp sesame paste [S: tahini will do]
1 1/2 tbsp sugar
pinch of salt

1 Wrap tofu in a paper towel and weigh it down for 10 min to remove the water. Aim to have the tofu weigh about 40% less after this process.

2 Remove the base of the shimeji, separate the fungi and slice in half across the middle.

3 In a small saucepan, bring the cooking sake, mirin and usukuchi soy sauce to the boil. Add the shimeji and cook until all the liquid is gone, stirring constantly.

4 Divide the spinach into leaves and stems and slice into 2 cm lengths. Blanch quickly in boiling water, stems first, drain then revive in cold water. Wring out as much water as possible.

5 Pat the tofu dry and blend it to a pulp in a bowl. Add the sesame paste, sugar and salt, and blend well.

6 Add the shimeji and spinach and mix thoroughly. Adjust the seasoning, if necessary.


Harumi's autumnal Japan 2: Hearty shiitake and ginger broth

Continuing with selections from Haru-mi magazine, here is a hearty shiitake mushroom and ginger broth with the surprising addition of minced chicken. Besides citrus, especially my beloved lemons, I don't think there's a flavour that does it for me as much as ginger. I really love the stuff. You might not have thought about putting it in soup before, but it really warming. This this broth will take you right through to winter.

At my place, dashi is made from bought "dashi packs"--teabag-like sachets that you just add to cold water, bring to the boil and leave to steep off the heat for a couple of minutes. Granulated dashi is also available but as it is already seasoned, you may need to exercise caution with the soy/salt if you use the granules instead. At a push, I suppose a chicken stock cube (and much reworking of the soy sauce) may also work, but the flavour profile would be totally different.

Usukuchi soy sauce (meaning "light flavoured") is a bit of a misnomer. The salt content is actually higher than regular Japanese soy, but the colour is lighter, so it is used when dark colouring is not desired. You are probably not going to want to buy a bottle just for this recipe, so go ahead and use regular Japanese soy. I won't tell if you don't.

Katakuriko is dogtooth violet starch powder in English, apparently (no, I've never heard of it either!). Cornstarch would work just as well. You want to just take the "liquidity" off the broth, not turn it into a sauce, so use with caution (g).

Hearty shiitake and ginger broth

Serves 4

100 g chicken mince
2 dried shiitake
1 knob of fresh ginger [S: or to taste]
4 cups (800 ml) dashi
2 tbsp mirin
2 tbsp usukuchi soy sauce [S: or regular Japanese soy sauce]
1 tbsp cooking sake
1/3 tsp salt [S: optional]
2 tsp katakuriko dissolved in 2 tsp water

1 Rinse shiitake and reconstitute in water. Gently squeeze out most of the water, then cut off the stalks and slice the top into 1 mm strips. Peel the fresh ginger and slice into matchsticks about 3 cm long.

2 In a saucepan, bring the dashi, mirin, usukushi soy sauce, sake and salt (if using) to the boil.

3 Place the minced chicken in a medium bowl. Pour 1 cup of the dashi mixture over the chicken, while quickly breaking up the meat with cooking chopsticks or a wooden spoon.

4 Retur the chicken-dashi mixture to the saucepan and return to the boil, removing the scum that forms. Add the sliced shiitake and ginger and cook for 1 min.

5 Thicken the soup with the katakuriko and water, then ladle into warmed bowls.


Harumi's autumnal Japan 1: Gingered pork

I had some spare time when the Young Man was otherwise occupied and had a wander to the many local bookshops to find a seasonal Japanese "cookmook" I'd seen advertised in a magazine while waiting at the dentist's.

It's a funny thing, but most of the small book stockists in my area only have trashy weeklies, dodgy manga and the inevitable Back Section. Not really my kinds of places, which is probably why cooking mook pickings were also slim. Surprisingly, I found the advertised mook at the little bookshop in front of my local train station. It looked so-so, so I went with Haru-mi, the eponymous title by Kurihara Harumi, the doyenne of Japanese cooking. Think of her as Japan's answer to Martha.

I've said before that cooking Japanese on weeknights can be quite stressful. Ingredient lists tend to be long, recipes full of intricate steps, and worse, you need several such dishes to make one meal. There are not any short-cuts with that one, but this little dish is easy to put together and coordinate with others. It is the most basic version of the Japanese classic shoga-yaki I have yet to come across.

In Japan, wafer-thin slices of meat are sold at any supermarket. Meat has always been a luxury, and this is one way to make a little go further. The easiest way to replicate this would be to use your sharpest knife to shave slices off a block of semi-frozen meat. Luckily you don't need much. On which note, notice that 300 g of meat serves 4 people. Adjust accordingly if Japanese appetites are not found at your place.

Fresh ginger is essential to the recipe, and powdered ginger is not a substitute. It's fresh, zestiness is a good foil for the soy and mirin. A ceramic oroshigane grater like the ones here is what you need to get the ginger slush, but the finest side of a box grater will do as well. The Japanese herb shiso (aka ooba) (perilla) is not necessary here. If you don't have any, some thinly sliced basil would work, or just leave the cabbage plain to soak up the juices.

Harumi's gingered pork

Serves 4

300 g thinly sliced pork shoulder
3 tbsp soy sauce
3 tbsp mirin
1/2 - 1 tbsp fresh ginger finely grated to a slush
1 tbsp vegetable oil

To garnish
shredded cabbage
3 shiso leaves, shredded finely (optional)

1 In a small bowl, mix the soy sauce, mirin and ginger slush. Set aside until ready to cook the pork.

2 Immediately before frying, spread out pork slices in a single layer and cover with the soy sauce mixture.

3 Heat the vegetable oil in a frying pan. Take the pork out of the soy mix and fry quickly on both sides.

4 Mix the shredded cabbage and shiso and create a bed on a small dish. Place the cooked pork on top and serve immediately.


Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Djaj bil karmous wal joz: Moroccan tagine of chicken, figs and walnuts

Always luscious, well herbed and spiced, and often, though not here, featuring my beloved lemon, Moroccan food is an all-time favourite at the Saffron household. But even given all that, this dish is nothing short of alchemy.

It has just a handful of ingredients and only a smidgen of spice, and cooks up in just over 40 minutes. Oh, but the result!

With warm spices cinnamon and ginger, honey and caramelized figs, you might expect this braise to on the sweet side. Instead, it is deeply savoury and autumnal, especially with the added crunch of walnuts. Using little water, this would also be perfect to make in an actual tagine, if you are lucky enough to own one. (I am holding off on getting one, as the Saffron kitchen is already groaning under the weight of too much foodie paraphernalia.)

We had this with totally inauthentic rice for the sake of speed, but I'd love to do it again with a nice fruited and nutted couscous.

The original recipe is from Claudia Roden's Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon, which sometimes gets a bit overlooked in my collection, standing alongside Claudia's major works A New Book of Middle Eastern Food and The Book of Jewish Food.

Moroccan tagine of chicken, figs and walnuts

25 g butter
1 tbsp sunflower oil
2 large onions
1 tsp ground ginger
good pinch saffron threads
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 chicken, jointed
salt & black pepper
1-1 1/2 tbsp clear honey
50 g walnut halves
4-8 fresh figs, peeled, or washed, and cut in half (4 in case of black ones, 8 in case of little green ones)
Squeeze of 1 lemon
Castor sugar

1 Heat butter and oil in a large pan. Put in the onions, cover and let them soften slowly over a medium heat, stirring from time to time. When they begin to colour, stir in the ginger, saffron and cinnamon. Put in the chicken pieces, season with salt and pepper, and turn to brown them lightly all over.

2 Add 250 ml water and cook, covered, turning the chicken pieces over at least once. Lift out the breasts when they are done, after about 15-20 min, and put them on one side. Lift out the remaining chicken pieces about 25 min later, when the are very tender.

3 Let the onions reduce to a rich brown sauce. Stir in the honey and taste to make sure you have enough salt to balance the sweetness and enough pepper to mitigate it. Add walnuts.

4 Meanwhile, sprinkle fig halves with a little lemon juice and a little castor sugar, and put them under the grill for a few minutes to barely caramelize. Serve them as a garnish on top of the chicken pieces.


Chef Wan's Malaysian prawn and noodle salad

Though he'd not been on my radar before then, Rick Stein was suddenly everywhere this summer.

This recipe is from an excerpt from Rick Stein's Far Eastern Odyssey in the September 2009 edition of Sainsbury's Magazine, which I picked up at a Sainsbury's supermarket in Glasgow during our trip. And what a great magazine it is! It was 1.40 GBP (around 210 yen) and chock full of recipes from my favourite British food writers. The only let down for me was seeing Diana Henry, who was so instrumental in sparking this global food journey I'm on with Crazy Water Pickled Lemons, spruiking the supermarket's wares. Still, we gotta do what we gotta do, I suppose. Incidentally, it is actually possible to subscribe to SM, though they don't make their subscription site easy to find. For Japan, it's 59 GBP for 12 issues (1 year). Tempting, very tempting...

But back to this recipe. It can be summed up in two words: Easy and Yum! It's a no-brainer.

You will need some Thai/Malaysian groceries, though, so plan ahead. I didn't have any dried shrimp, the last lot having been forgotten at the back of the fridge and looking slightly dodgy. I substituted prawn/shrimp paste. This is probably the less easy to find ingredient, but I'm all about weird ingredients. A little goes a long way. If you seek it out, you'll know from the aroma coming from the sealed jar whether it is going to be for you. Now that I've opened mine, I suppose I'll need to buy that Thai cookbook I've been lusting over... (G)

This substitution, plus the reduction in the chilli I had to make in order to feed this to the Young Man, made my sauce more like a soup. It tasted fab anyway, but next time I will deseed the tomatoes and see how that goes.

Chef Wan's Malaysian prawn and noodle salad

125 g dried rice noodles
few drops vegetable oil
300 g large, cooked prawns [Saffron: for preference; I used smaller ones]
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
large handful of mixed coriander leaves, mint leaves and chives, torn
100 g roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped
1 stem lemongrass, outer leaves removed and core finely chopped
juice of 2 limes
3 tbsp Thai fish sauce

For the sauce
1 red chilli, deseeded and thinly sliced
2 fat cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1/2 tsp Thai prawn paste [S: in lieu of 25 g dried shrimp, soaked in hot water for 30 min], optional
3 ripe tomatoes, deseeded and sliced
4 tbsp palm sugar

1 Bring a pan of unsalted water to the boil. Meanwhile, put the ingredients for the sauce into a food processor or blender and grind, using the pulse button, into a coarse, wet paste [S: it will be more like a soup if you follow my method].

2 Drop the noodles into the pan of boiling water, remove from the heat and leave to soak for 1 1/2 min, or until just tender. [The timing will depend on the thickness of the noodles.] Don't overcook them as they will soften a little more in the salad later on. Drain and refresh under cold water. Toss with a few drops of vegetable oil to stop the strands sticking together, then leave in a colander to drain really well.

3 Put the cooked noodles into a bowl and add the sauce, followed by the other ingredients one by one, mixing them briefly before adding the next, easing the noodle strands apart as you do so, as they have a tendency to stick together in one clump. Serve immediately.


Thursday, 1 October 2009

Rick Stein's Bangladeshi eggplant curry with tomatoes, ginger and fennel seeds

It's been a while between posts. Sorry to anyone who's opened up to the not-so-photogenic noodles below these last 2 months.

It's not that I took a break from cooking, more that life got very busy, then the Young Man and I took a two-week trip to the Old Country--Scotland, home of all manner of unhealthy eats that it is perhaps good that we don't have on a regular basis (g). Mid-trip, I managed to break my ever trusty Canon digital camera, which though quickly replaced by a swanky new Ricoh on our return to Japan, is yet to produce any blog piccies due to SD card incompatibility issues. Sigh.

But we are back now!

This is a tasty and really easy curry that was in an excerpt from Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey on the Guardian website (no longer available due to an expired copyright). I'd not really come across the recipes of British food personality Rick Stein before. Mainly because he's been busy winning awards for seafood cookery books. But after this curry, and a toovar dal with tamarind, tomatoes and curry leaves that is just like one my dear Indian friend Sa makes, I'll be keeping an eye out for more on the East from him.

If you will pardon a "language policing" moment, I was intrigued by the "Far Eastern" in the title. To my (Australian) sensibilities, though slightly old-fashioned, the term definitely conjures up the China-Korea-Japan corner of Asia. But perhaps it was an editorial decision, as Rick himself mentions the oddness of "Far Eastern" in the Meet the Author video at the Amazon link above. In actual fact, the book covers South-East Asia (no China-Korea-Japan!) + Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. A book-naming conundrum, indeed!

This curry is a cinch but really packs flavour. Make some quick before the end of the eggplant season!

I forgot to write down how many cloves of garlic and what size piece of ginger was needed, but will update the recipe when I make it again, as I think most will be like me and not want to bother weighing these. I used Japanese eggplants, which weigh about 100 g each.

The technique of brushing the eggplant halves with oil rather than heating it up in the pan is a good one. Eggplants are oil-sucking demons!

Bangladeshi eggplant curry with tomatoes, ginger and fennel seeds

Serves 4

600 g eggplants, ideally Asian finger eggplants
150 ml vegetable oil
40 g peeled ginger, roughly chopped
40 g garlic, roughly chopped
2 green cayenne chillies, finely chopped
2 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tbsp freshly ground coriander seeds
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
400 g chopped tomatoes, fresh or from a can
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp each of chopped fresh coriander and mint

1 Top and tail the eggplants and cut in half lengthways. If using larger Mediterranean-style eggplants, cut each one across in half and then each piece lengthways into 6–8 wedges. Toss them with ½ tsp salt and set aside in a colander for 10 min.

2 Heat a large frying pan over a high heat. Pour the oil into a shallow dish. Brush the aubergine pieces, a few at a time, with oil, put them in the frying pan and cook for 3–4 min on each side until richly browned. Cooking the eggplants in this way helps prevent them from absorbing too much oil, which would make the finished dish greasy. Set aside in a bowl and repeat with the remaining eggplants.

3 Put the ginger, garlic and chilli into a mini food processor with 2–3 tbsp water and whizz to a smooth paste.

4 Put 2 tbsp of the remaining oil into the frying pan and add the fennel and cumin seeds. Leave them to sizzle for a few seconds, then add the ginger and garlic paste and leave this to fry for a further 2-3 min. Add the coriander and turmeric, fry for 1 min and then add the tomatoes, black pepper, 3 tbsp water and ½ tbsp salt. Cover and leave to simmer for 8–10 min until reduced and thickened slightly. Return the fried eggplant slices to the pan and stir well to coat in the sauce. Simmer for five minutes, then stir in the fresh coriander and mint and serve.


Monday, 28 September 2009

Kabaklama: Turkish autumn lamb stew with pumpkin, lemon and mint

Here is a wonderfully rich and savoury stew from Paula Wolfert's The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean. A look at the ingredients list confirms the simplicity of this dish, but not the complexity of the flavour. The decisive element is the aromatic oil "flourish," redolent with mint, pepper and chilli (if you can get away with it (g)), at the end. Don't skip this step--it really takes this stew into sublime territory!

I was telling my dear friend Se, who hails from Konya, Turkey, about this stew, and she quizzed me on the inclusion of pumpkin. In Turkish, kabak means either zucchini or pumpkin, with the former the far more commonly used ingredient. (At least in savories; dear Se was actually serving up a simmered pumpkin dessert when she mentioned this.) Perhaps the writer was mistaken?

Unusually, Paula doesn't give much information about the source of this particular recipe, but I have complete trust in her research. Her recipes are usually spot on. And as a translator myself, I say that if this is the quality of food you get from a possible mistranslation, then bring them on!

I have yet to get a hold of Turkish red pepper paste (biber salcasi) here in Japan, so substituted the equivalent of tomato paste and as much cayenne as I thought I could get away with. I adjusted Paula's recipe for the pressure cooker. If you don't have one, the meat will take at least double the time to cook in step 2.

Turkish autumn lamb stew with pumpkin, lemon and mint

45 g lean shoulder of lamb cut int 2.5 cm cubes and including all bones
1 1/4 tsp freshly ground back pepper
3 tbsp olive oil
1 cup chopped onion (1 large onion)
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp pepper paste [Saffron: or substitute extra tomato paste]
1 1/2 tsp minced garlic (around 2 coves
1 1/2 cooked chickpeas
1 large ripe tomato peeled seeded and chopped
6 cups pumpkin peeled (around 1kg [S: I used a mix of regular and butternut pumpkin]
1/2 tsp salt
4 tbsp fresh lemon juice (around 2 lemons)
Pinch of Aleppo pepper or chilli or to taste

1 Trim the meat of excess fat and sprinkle with half the back pepper. Heat 2 tbsp of oil in a medium-large pressure cooker over medium heat. Add the meat and cook, stirring, until all moisture evaporates, abut 7 min. Add the onion and cook stirring for 1o min.

2 Add the tomato and pepper pastes and cook stirring for 5 min. Add 1 1/2 cups water, cover and bring to pressure. Cook under low pressure for 25 min, or until the meat is tender.

3 Add the garlic chickpeas, tomatoes, pumpkin and salt. Add water to barely cover contents. Cover and cook (without pressure) until the pumpkin is tender, about 15 min. If chickpeas are very tender, add them right at the end.

4 Stir in the lemon juice and remove from heat.

5 Heat the remaining 1 tbsp of olive oil in a small pan until sizzling; add the mint, red pepper and remaining 3/4 tsp back pepper, and stir for an instant. Swirl the oil over the stew, stir once, and serve hot.


Friday, 24 July 2009

Chilled tan-tan men

I've decided not to continue with my cooking classes at ABC Cooking Studio, despite quite a bit of arm-twisting in March, when they wanted me to sign up for an additional year of their new offerings, without first telling us what those might be. I think I made the right decision, as it turns out that the Japanese dish offerings, which were my main reason for taking the classes to begin with, would be reduced, and those they did present would tend to be of a more basic nature. That's the reason I didn't take a class in June, and why I am taking two this month to finish off the last of my prepaid lessons before they expire at the end of the month.

As it turns out, ABC are doing chilled tan-tan men, something I would really like to have done, NEXT month. Typical, really (g). Never fear. I had a look round the net for a recipe, and found the one I translated below on a fan site for the Japanese TV program Danshi Gohan (meals for men).

If you've been reading along, you'll know that I've already featured one recipe for tan-tan men, that great Japanese take on a spicy mince-topped noodle dish from Sichuan, China, on S&L. This recipe is a totally different beast, and not just because it is chilled (a popular presentation for noodles in the hot and sticky Japanese summer). Unlike the earlier version, sesame is quite predominant in this recipe. In seed, oil and paste form!

Highly nutritious, sesame is used extensively in Japanese cooking. There are white and black versions of both seeds and paste. White ones are used in this recipe. If you can't get Japanese sesame paste (or Chinese zhima jiang), you can always substitute tahini. The taste will be slightly different as, unlike the Japanese version, tahini is made from un-toasted sesame seeds. It will still be delicious, I promise.

Negi (Japanese leeks) and nira (garlic chives) may also be problematic sourcing in other countries. Western leeks are not a good substitute for negi, but at a pinch, you could use the white innermost core (Japanese leeks are only around 2 cm in diameter), or substitute finely sliced spring onions. Nira is not absolutely essential, you could easily garnish with some nice cooked spinach or bok choi, more spring onions or any other green thing you fancy.

The soup in this rendering strikes just the right balance between lightness and flavour for a summer's dish. The flavour comes from a shelfful of lovely condiments. If you don't make a lot of Japanese or Chinese food, you might not have some of these, but they are all pretty much staples in any Japanese kitchen. Just in case, you'll definitely want to read the recipe before attempting this!

Also, the recipe is for two, so don't forget to scale up if you've got more mouths to feed. Oh, and this makes a great lunch the next day. I took the cooked noodles-and-meat topping and soup in separate (leak proof!) containers and supped contentedly, catching up on news of the new Iranian revolution, at my desk at work.

Chilled tan-tan men

Serves 2

2 single-serve packs of fresh Chinese noodles

For the soup
500 ml cold water
3 tbsp white sesame paste (or tahini)
2 tbsp toasted white sesame seeds, roughly ground
1.5 tbsp EACH miso paste, oyster sauce, rice vinegar
1 tbsp EACH sugar, sesame oil, soy sauce
1-2 tsp tobanjan (douban jiang in Chinese) or other chilli-garlic paste, or to taste (optional)

For the meat topping
120 g minced pork
10 cm negi Japanese leek, very finely diced [S: or 2 tbsp finely sliced spring onions]
2 cloves garlic, very finely diced
1 knob fresh ginger, as big as your thumb, very finely diced
0.5 tbsp sesame oil
1-2 tbsp toasted white sesame seeds, roughly ground
1 tbsp EACH cooking sake, soy sauce and oyster sauce
Salt and pepper

To serve
Nira (garlic chives), snipped
Rayu (layou in Chinese) chilli oil

1. Prepare the soup. Mix white sesame paste, lightly ground sesame seeds, and miso paste in a large bowl, then gradually add the water, stirring until well blended. Add remaining soup ingredients and stir well. Check the seasoning, and adjust if necessary. Cover with cling wrap and refrigerate until needed.

2 Heat sesame oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Stir-fry the Japanese leek, ginger and garlic until soft. Add the minced pork and break up with a wooden spoon. Once browned all over, add the sake, then the soy sauce, oyster sauce and lightly ground white sesame seeds. Check the seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste.

3 Bring a large pot of water to the boil and cook the noodles according to the package directions (typically for 1.5-2 minutes), drain and plunge immediately into ice cold water to cool.

4 Once cool, drain the noodles and arrange in two large noodle bowls. Pour half of the soup into each bowl, top with half the meat topping and garnish with garlic chives.


Just the thing for the mantlepiece: A square watermelon

Snapped in a Shibuya, Tokyo fruit shop window

In Japan, fruit is a favourite gift when visiting friends' homes, people in hospital and during the summer gift-giving season called Ochugen. If fruit is given, it is usually beautifully perfect specimens costing rather a lot more than one would normally pay when buying for oneself. And it should taste fantastic.

Then again, you might just choose a square watermelon instead! For just 15,000 yen (over US$150) you too can have a melon that fits in a box without rattling around. Just don't get your hopes up about the taste of such a rarefied melon. There's a disclaimer specifically disavowing any flavour guarantee.

Just what you always wanted, eh?


Cooking class 11: Oil free cooking

For my next-to-last cooking class at ABC, the theme was oil-free cooking. On the menu were fluffy tofu-chicken balls topped with onsen tamago ("hot spring eggs", which are cooked slowly at a low temperature so the yolk sets and the white is runny; a soft-boiled egg in reverse) on a bed of rice with 16 grains, three salads, chicken soup made with the cooking water from the chicken balls and an acerola drink with aloe vera.

The main dish of tofu-chicken balls was a take on the yakitori favourite tsukune chicken balls, but simmered rather than grilled. Served with a sweet soya sauce based dressing, the runny egg and strands of nori, which look a little bedraggled in my photo :(, the dish was very tasty.

I'd seen the little bags of mixed grains that you cook together with white rice to boost nutrients and flavour, but never bought any as they can be pricey. Having tried it now, I think I might just get myself a bag as, aside from flavour and nutrition, I really liked the different textures. Overall, this was top nosh.

I don't know what the 16 grains are, but a similar thing, containing glutinous proso millet, pressed barley, red rice, purple rice, hulled barley, soybean, green soybean, azuki bean, germinated brown rice, pressed glutinous barley, sorghum, foxtail millet, Japanese barnyard millet, Job's tears and amaranth, is on sale at Amazon under the name "16-Grain Rice Booster".

ABC often offers classes that put the same ingredients in multiple uses. They call it "eco-cooking". Here tofu got the workout, appearing not only in the chicken balls, but also in the dressings for two of the three salads: gobo (burdock) salad with tofu dressing, mixed bean salad with curry-tofu dressing and mizuna and smallfry with ginger dressing. I especially liked the soy-vinegar-ginger dressing.

The acerola juice with aloe was a bit nondescript to me (I like my tart juices full on, not sweetened into nothingness). The addition of some ginger from the salad livelied it up a bit, and gave my class mates something to gawp at (g).

Monday, 13 July 2009

Macrobiotic apple crumble cake

I am not one of the world's best bakers. In fact, I very rarely make anything resembling dessert except on very special occasions. Despite all this, I seem to have surrounded myself with some of the world's biggest sweet tooths, who have all learned to bring dessert with them when they visit, as they know they'll probably miss out otherwise (g).

And one, dear A, brought this cake, which while lush with apple and rich with a spicy crumble topping, is not overly sweet, and quite suitable for the non-sweet tooths among us.

Being macrobiotic, there are some unusual things about this recipe, which comes from Nakashima Shiho's Mocchiri chiffon sakkuri cookie dosshiri cake (Springy chiffon cakes, crunchy cookies, substantial cakes).

For one, it is made with tensaito, or beet sugar, which has lots of lovely minerals, is less sweet and said to be much healthier than refined sugar. Tensaito might be hard to come across outside Japan, but here it was right with the other sugars, and probably had been forever, I'd just never noticed it before (not being much of a baker... (g)). I don't suppose it would matter if you used any other kind of unrefined sugar if tensaito is not available. I won't tell if you don't.

Next, the fat in the cake is not butter or margarine, but the supposedly healthier rapeseed oil or canola oil.

And if all that novelty wasn't enough, a bain-marie is used when you whip the eggs! The original Japanese recipe just said to use a "water bath", so I improvised with a stainless steel bowl over a pot of boiling water. Since you will have a hand-held mixer whirring away on high when you do this, use common sense and put the bain-marie set up on a flat surface.

This might just be the strangest cake recipe I've come across, but I am quite enamoured with this results. And it made an unusual birthday/farewell cake for my dear Indian friend Sm, who was off back to India for 6 months. Too bad he came to our little farewell bash already laden with lots of leftover cakes from his work farewell. These kept us fed for the next two days. Waaay more sweetness than we in the Saffron household are use to!

Macrobiotic apple crumble cake

140 g plain flour

2 medium eggs
50 g maple sugar
60 ml rapeseed or canola oil

For the apple jam
2 large apples, peeled, cored and roughly chopped
2 tbsp tensaito (beet sugar)

2 tbsp raisins, plumped up in rum for 1 day

For the crumble
50 g plain flour
50 g walnuts, chopped fairly fine
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp rapeseed or canola oil
1 tbsp maple syrup

1 Lightly oil and line an 18 cm spring form cake tin with greaseproof paper.

2 Make the apple jam. Place apple pieces in a small pan and sprinkle the tensaito/beet sugar over the top. Place over medium heat. Once the apples begin to release their juice, turn the heat up to high and cook until the apples begin to lose their shape and all the liquid has evaporated. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

3 Make the crumble. Place the flour, chopped walnuts and cinnamon in a small bowl. Stir a few times, then stir in the rapeseed or canola oil and the maple syrup. Stir until the mixture becomes crumbly.

3 Preheat the oven to 170 degrees C (160 if using gas).

4 Bring a large saucepan half filled with water to a rolling boil and turn off the heat. In a large, heatproof bowl that will fit neatly into the saucepan, beat the eggs and maple sugar with an electric mixer on low speed. Place the bowl on top of the saucepan of hot water and continue to beat at high speed.

5 Once the egg-sugar mixture comes to body temperature, remove the bowl from the saucepan. Continue to whip until stiff peaks form.

6 Turn the mixer down to low and gradually beat in the rapeseed or canola oil. With a rubber spatula, gently fold in the cooled apple jam and rum raisins.

7 Sift the four into the bowl and fold in gently with the rubber spatula. Pour into the prepared cake tin, spread the crumble mixture evenly over the top, and bake for 40 min, or until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.


Allegra's bigger than big chicken, pumpkin & borlotti beans

I've been watching British chef Allegra McEvedy at the Guardian for some time. When her book Leon: Ingredients and Recipes, came out, the Guardian did a series of excerpts, here, here and here and this recipe. Allegra's food is a lot like the woman (to judge by the blurb she gets in the first excerpt, above): bold, feisty and full of zest. I've made the chilli con carne, the meatballs and now this pumpkin, bean and chicken medley, and they've all been great. Good honest grub, with lots of inspiration from the places where food is sustenance for more than just the stomach. The sort of places that I visit a lot on this blog, and some others like Spain and Mexico, which I'm saving for a rainy day (g).

While this dish feels more autumn/winter, I made it on a warm spring day, and loved its bold, sassy flavours anyway. You do need the oven on, though, so this post is probably better timed for those in the Southern Hemisphere (Saffron Papa?).

You'll also need to marinate the chicken and get your beans soaking in the morning or even night before. And if you have a pressure cooker (and I think everyone needs at least one!), this is doable on a weeknight. If not, you might want to save it for the weekend. If you do use the pressure cooker, do not add the cooked beans in step 4 or they will disintegrate. Add them at the end with the pumpkin.

Oh and the book? Well I checked it out in Australia last Christmas, and its retro, homemade look and chummy tone totally won me over, but I'm sitting tight until it comes out in
paperback. I think Allegra's recipes will be appearing here from time to time, so I've given her her own tag. Welcome to my favourite food writers club, Allegra.

Allegra's bigger than big chicken, pumpkin and borlotti beans

Serves 4 (generously)

2 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tbsp wholegrain mustard
1½ tbsp clear honey
½ teaspoon dried chilli flakes
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
¾ tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp dried oregano
2 bay leaves
3 tsp extra virgin olive oil

500g boneless chicken thighs, cut into large dice
120g dried borlotti beans (or 1 x 400g tin, drained, added at the same point in the recipe)
1 x 400g tin of chopped tomatoes
1 medium leek, thickly sliced and washed well
500ml chicken stock
1 heaped tbsp chopped sage
250g pumpkin, peeled and cut into 4cm dice
salt and pepper

1 Put the vinegar, mustard, honey, chilli, garlic, fennel seed, oregano, bay leaves and olive oil into a dish and roll the chicken around in it Put into the fridge to marinade overnight. At the same time, soak the borlotti beans overnight in plenty of cold water.

2 Next day, drain the borlotti, cover with fresh water and simmer until cooked - about 1½ hours. [Saffron: Alternatively, place drained beans in a medium pressure cooker, cover with water and the perforated inner lid or rack (if your pressure cooker has one), to keep the beans down. Put the lid on and bring to pressure, then reduce the heat and cook for 2-2.5 min. Unseal straight away to prevent beans from overcooking.]

3 When the beans are pretty much cooked, fry the chicken with the marinade in a dry, medium hot, heavy-bottomed saucepan - you don't need any oil as it's already in the marinade.
Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally; be careful about it catching on the bottom of the pan - caramelising good, burning bad.

4 Preheat the oven to 210C/410F/gas mark 6½.
Add the tomatoes, leek, cooked drained beans [S: unless using a pressure cooker, in which case, add them with the pumpkin at the end], stock and sage to the chicken, stir well and simmer for about half an hour. [S: Alternatively, cook under low pressure for 7-10 min.]

5 Roll the pumpkin cubes in a little olive oil and some seasoning, lay them out on a baking tray and roast in the preheated oven for about 25 minutes, shuffling them once - you want them to have a bit of colour.

6 Once the pumpkin is done turn the chicken off and stir the pumpkin into it. Add a generous splosh of great olive oil to finish - it's even better the next day.


Monday, 25 May 2009

Cooking class 10: Drinking party snack plate

I took two ABC cooking classes in May, as there wasn't really anything I wanted to do among the June offerings. Actually, I wasn't planning on taking this class, either, but seeing the scrummy-looking plates that another class was tucking into quickly changed my mind.

What we had was basically a degustation menu for a drinking party! Seven more or less healthy snacks, a domburi of sliced bonito topped with Japanese aromatics, and a drink. Nine items altogether. Not bad for a 1-hour lesson. (One hour, by the way, because the teacher cleaned did the cleaning up while we ate and we only had to wash our dishes!)

So, what all did we get? From left to right in the top photo: (back row) deep-fried ginger pork; broccoli dressed in cod-egg mayonnaise; crunchy cherry tomato and rakkyo (Japanese pickled shallot) salad; (front row) octopus with kim chi; deep-fried bonito and cheese parcels; sardine, ume (Japanese pickled plum) and lemon pinchos; and Japanese-style summer rolls.

The cherry tom/pickled shallot combi really hit the spot with me. Tart and crunchy, but still healthy (unlike salt and vinegar chips, say (g).)

The pork was also a bit of a revelation, with the strips of pork basically flung into hot oil still in their marinade. This is the same technique used for frying chunks of chicken, but I'd never come across it for thin strips of meat. The katakuriko (dogtooth violet starch) magically forms a coating when it hits the oil. It's ingenious, really.

I was particularly super impressed with the rice bowl, which was topped not only with my favourite seared bonito, but ginger, myoga (Japanese ginger) and ao-jiso (perilla) and garlic chips as well! A very moorish mouthful. I will definitely be making this again, so stay tuned for a translation of the recipe.

Bonito also showed up arm in arm with cheese in little deep-fried "purses". These fun little bites would probably be perfect for anyone who needs their munchies to be fried.

In case you are wondering, it was not beer, cheap sake or shochu we had to wash this down, but cider vinegar soda. The girls found this a little tart, but it was still a bit on the mild side for me, even with the lemon garnish squeezed in (g). I reckon it also wanted some ginger juice to add a bit of zip.


Monday, 18 May 2009

Cooking class 9: A Chinese party banquet

Another cooking class at ABC Cooking Studio. The Japanese pickings have been a little slim since ABC changed their set-up in April, so it was Chinese food this time.

In the old days, the Saffron household had a "live-in" Chinese chef, so there was never really any reason to have a go at it myself. More recently, the mouth-watering film Eat Drink Man Woman has been about the size of it when it comes to Chinese food (or Taiwanese, as the case may be). Being that it has been a long time between Chinese mouthfuls, I was happy to give this Japanese version of Chinese food a go. It certainly looked yummy on ABC's website.

The main dish was youlinji, or deep-fried chicken with a katakuriko ("dogtooth violet starch" if you will; a common Japanese ingredient) coating the same as Japanese karaage. This was served served with match-sticked veggies, wrapped in uncooked spring roll wrappers, with a garlic-ginger dipping sauce. The chicken was really gorgeous and crisp, the result of two fryings: first at 160 C to cook the meat, then at 180 C until the desired rich golden colour was reached.

There were 2 side dishes. The cucumber and zhacai (Chinese pickled vegetable) salad featured lots of different textures: slippery cloud ears (a Chinese fungus also known as tree ears), crunchy strips of reconstituted kanten, and bumpy bashed cucumbers (a common Japanese presentation), alongside the pickle. It was lightly dressed with sesame paste and sesame oil. I thought the salad had potential, maybe with a little more seasoning.

The "mixed" rice, was very tasty and took all of two seconds to make. A little gently fried pork cut into strips, a little salt and soy sauce, and a little sliced spring onion were simply folded into cooked rice and served up. The girls in the class were quite excited by this one.
We also made a sweetcorn soup, but I felt the egg white was a little rubbery and I'm not so fond of the chicken stock granules used at ABC, so enough said about that one, methinks.

For dessert we took an inordinate amount of time to make sweet bean paste-filled sesame-coated rice flour dumplings (zhima qiu in Chinese, goma dango in Japanese). These were lovely to look at and tasted fine, but if I wanted to eat them, I'd probably just nip down to Yokohama China Town and forgo the palaver of making them (then again, I'm not really a sweet person, so it might just be me...).

I did learn about shiratamako and ukiko (aka jin-ko), which Googling reveal to be "non-glutinous white rice flour" and "wheat starch". As a total novice when it comes to rice dumpling-making, I don't know a thing about either of these, but it seems that ukiko is also used in the translucent wrappers for har gao, the steamed prawn dumplings of yum cha fame. Another interesting nugget is that these fried sweets contain lard. For pliability, apparently. There you go, we both learned something today!


Monday, 11 May 2009

A picnic triad 3: Mashed zucchini with onions, garlic and mint

While googling around for picnic recipes, I remembered that I had not yet bought Claudia Roden's paean to picnics, Picnics: And Other Outdoor Feasts, which I'd spied a couple of years back, what else, getting ready for dear H & Hi's annual picnic! (I've ordered the book (since I know I will use it year after year (g)) and will let you know what I think later.)

I came across this picnic recipe of Claudia's on the American Express site Food & Wine. It's a super easy to make appetizer that is exactly what it says it is on the tin. I used less mint than called for below as I prefer peppermint, and added the juice of the lemon (I couldn't resist) rather than presenting it with lemon wedges. You can do both, if it takes your fancy.

Perfect for picnics with veggie eaters, you can whip this up in no time. Which was just as well in my case!

Claudia's picnic mashed zucchini with onions, garlic and mint

Serves 4-6, with other picnic food

450 g zucchini, cut into 3 cm lengths
1.5 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 tbsp coarsely chopped mint, or to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Juice of 1 lemon
1 lemon, cut into wedges (optional)

1 Place the cut zucchini into a microwave-safe container in one layer and microwave until soft, around 10 min. Drain and, using a fork, mash the zucchini in a colander to squeeze out as much liquid as possible.

2 Heat 1 tbsp of the olive oil. Add the onions and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until lightly browned, about 8 min. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until it just begins to color, about 30 seconds. Add the zucchini, mint and lemon juice, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until well mixed and heated through, about 5 min.

3 Stir in the remaining half tbsp of olive oil and serve warm or at room temperature with the lemon wedges.


A picnic triad 1: Ottolenghi's kisir: a Turkish tomato & bulghur salad

It was time, once again, for the annual picnic in commemoration of dear friends H and Hi's meeting some 15 years ago--on a picnic. Coming around 10 days later than usual, the weather for this year's picnic was nothing short of spectacular.

I was still humming and hawing about what to make 2 days out, but remembered seeing the recipe for this this Ottolenghi take on the classic Turkish bulghur and tomato salad kisir (pronounced "kuh-suhr") on the Guardian website and thought it might go down alright.

I had made kisir before using Claudia Roden's recipe in Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey & Lebanon. Delicious though it was, it didn't really do it for my Turkish guests at the time. Then I had it in Konya, Turkey and all became clear. Claudia's version was a true salad (no cooking!) where the Konya version I had involved stove time and was no side dish.

Looking at my notes from Turkey, I see that the onions were fried in a copious amount of oil, the tomatoes (and red pepper) in the dish were in paste form, and peeled and diced cucumbers joined in the fun. In Konya, at least, kisir is a meal of itself. A great mound is placed on a communal platter and everyone takes his share, parceling it up in lettuce and other leaves, with maybe an extra chilli and a dollop of pomegranate molasses or squeeze of lemon for good measure. Heaven!

Ottolenghi's version more closely resembles that tart, tomato-stained grain dish (though minus the cucumber). I like this fairly sharp, so I've upped the lemon and pomegranate molasses. I also left out the chilli on the day as there were to be a lot of Young People at the picnic.

The Ottolenghi kisir has a pretty pomegrate seed and mint topping that adds a nice festive touch, but which I doubt is authentically Turkish. I packed the topping ingredients separately for the picnic and added them when we were ready to eat. Short of time, I didn't take washed lettuce leaves with me, but it might be fun to do that next time.

Here's a picture of the three dishes I ended up taking to the picnic. Recipes for the other two to follow shortly.

Ottolenghi's kisir

Serves 6-8 as a main dish or a great crowd as an appetiser

2 large onions, peeled and finely chopped
60 ml olive oil, plus more to finish
2 tbsp tomato paste
4 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
90 ml water
400 g coarse bulghur wheat
1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
1 lemon, juiced
6 tbsp chopped parsley (flat-leaf, for preference)
3 spring onions, finely shredded, plus an extra one to garnish
2 green chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tsp ground cumin
Salt and black pepper
Seeds from 1 pomegranate (optional, to garnish)
1 handful mint leaves, some whole, some roughly shredded

Cos lettuce, cabbage and other green leaves, to serve (optional)

1 In a large saucepan, sauté the onions in the oil until they turn translucent - about 5 min. Add the tomato paste and cook over medium heat for 2 min, stirring all the while with a wooden spoon. Add the chopped fresh tomatoes, leave them to simmer on a low heat for 4 min, then add the water. Bring to a boil, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the bulghur.

2 Add the molasses, lemon juice, parsley, chopped spring onion, chilli, garlic and cumin. Season, stir, then set aside until the salad has cooled to room temperature or is just lukewarm.

3 Taste, adjust the seasoning as necessary--it will probably need plenty of salt--and spoon on to a serving dish. Roughly flatten out the salad with a palette knife, creating a wave-like pattern on the surface, then scatter pomegranate seeds over and about. Drizzle olive oil over the top and finish with the mint and the extra spring onion. Serve with cos, cabbage and other green leaves for wrapping.


A picnic triad 2: Fagiolli e tonno: Tuscan beans with tuna

The inspiration for making this simple but delicious bean, tomato and tuna melange was a scrummy antipasto I had a lovely seaside restaurant in Shonan a few weeks back. The weather was rather chilly that day, especially seated out on the restaurant's waterfront deck, but the food was great so who could complain?

This recipe is the first I've tried from the door-stopping Little Foods of the Mediterranean: 500 Fabulous Recipes for Antipasti, Tapas, Hors d'Oeuvres, Meze, and More, and I'll definitely be back for more!

Little Foods was one of the two cookbooks I allowed myself to purchase when back in Oz and finally able to visit the Melbourne cookbook lover's mecca Books for Cooks. If you have been reading for any length of time, you will know I have had to seriously reign in my cookbook purchasing and was on the strictest of self-imposed orders to only buy two from a list of 20 or so titles that I had. Little Foods was not on my list, but edged out 19 other books that I'd been wanting for forever!

Author Clifford Wright had somehow managed to slip under my radar, but turns out to be one of those rare and fabulous writers whose outsider status translates into authority on his subject--which is all things Mediterranean. Little Foods may be the closest we will ever get to the definitive work on "little dishes" (not all of which, Wright rightfully points out, are appetizers). Covering Italy, Spain, France, the Mediterranean Middle East & North Africa, it brings the similarities and differences of this food meant for grazing in convivial company into sharp relief.

The book gives lots of food for thought, and is a fabulous read in its own right. The sheer number of recipes must have made categorization a monumental task! While my vote would have been on a country-by-country format, Wright goes with chapterizing by type of dish, which would cut down on sub-heading repetition, I suppose. All recipes are indexed by country of origin, though, and there is also a great selection of suggested menus for various occasions that is also arranged by country/region.

I am less fond of the flimsy low-quality paper this book is printed on, however. In my shoe-box sized kitchen, the only place for a large-format cookbook is balanced precariously on the edge of the sink. This makes splashes from the washing of hands inevitable and the odd accidental falling into the sink a very real possibility. Mediocre paperback paper really doesn't cut it in my kitchen, I'm afraid. I'm really not sure why cookbook publishers don't think of these things.

But back to the recipe. In its original form, it could take anything up to 1.5 hours to make. You can cut this back to virtually no time at all by soaking the beans overnight and cooking them in a pressure cooker. In fact, I only cooked mine for one (1) minute under pressure, lest they fell apart. It is much safer to finish off the cooking with the lid off the pressure cooker for a few minutes than risk ending up with a mushy pulp.

I also reduced the amount of olive oil in the recipe, because that's what I do.

Although I made the original portion, it was way too much. Halving it (which I've done below) should give you plenty to serve to a crowd with other antipasti and small foods.

Tuscan beans and tuna

Serves 8 when served with other antipasti

3/4 cup dried cannellini or other white beans, picked over, rinsed and soaked overnight
1/2 cup loosely packed fresh sage leaves
3 1/2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, flattened
500 g ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 tbsp loosely packed sliced fresh basil leaves
freshly ground black pepper
200 g tinned tuna in oil

1 Drain beans and place in a small pressure cooker. Cover generously with water, add the sage, and either use the pressure cooker's slotted drop-in lid or add 1/2 tbsp oil to prevent the beans from frothing up. Cover and bring to pressure, then cook under low pressure for 1 minute. Remove lid quickly to prevent overcooking. Test and, if necessary, cook uncovered until tender.

Alternatively, if cooking the traditional way, bring beans and sage to a gentle boil, then cook over medium-low heat, uncovered, until tender. Drain.

2 In a large nonreactive frying pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat and cook the garlic cloves , stirring , until they begin to turn light brown, about 1 minute. Remove the garlic from the pan and discard. Add the tomatoes and lightly season with salt. Raise the heat to high and cook until slightly thicker, about 8 min, stirring frequently to prevent sticking, and lowering the heat if it splatters too much. Reduce the heat to low, add the drained beans and the basil, season with pepper, and simmer, covered, until the beans are hot, about 10 min, stirring occasionally.

3 Turn the heat off, add the tuna and its oil, and stir. Adjust the seasoning. Let the mixture rest for 15 min. Serve hot or at room temperature.


Mughal mushroom curry

I've been feeling the need for more meatless food these days for some virtuous reasons and one not so virtuous one: my freezer's already full of yummy stuff being saved for a rainy day (or at least a lazy evening).

There is another practical reason for going veggie at least part of the week and that is that it usually cuts down your cooking time. You can't beat that!

From Najmieh Batmanglij's Silk Road Cooking: A Vegetarian Journey, this recipe is a relatively quick weeknight fix. It features an unusual apple, sultana and nut topping. I've read that the use of fruit and nuts in savory dishes is characteristic of Mughal cuisine. It also chimes in nicely with a similar theme in Persian cuisine, which might explain why this recipe caught the eye of Najmieh khanom.

To cook with yogurt, you often need to stabilize it first to avoid splitting. Mixing in cornflour, as in this recipe, is just one method. I had no trouble with splitting, even when reheating the dish in the microwave the next day.

I left out the garam masala and chillies out of respect for the Young Man's delicate palate. Next time, I think I might add a little turmeric, say 1/4-1/2 tsp, to give it a nice golden colour.

Mughal mushroom curry

4 tbsp vegetable oil, butter or ghee
1/2 cup blanched almonds
1 green apple, peeled and sliced
2 small onions, peeled and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
1 tsp coriander seeds
2.5 cm fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1 bay leaf
2 red chillies, seeded and sliced, or to taste
450 g assorted mushrooms, sliced
1 cup chopped celery
2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp hot curry powder
2 tsp garam masala
1 large tomato, peeled and sliced
1 1/2 cups plain yogurt
2 tsp cornflour [cornstarch]

1/4 cup chopped fresh coriander [cilantro] to garnish (optional)

1 In a wok or deep-sided frying pan, heat 2 tbsp oil over medium heat, until very hot. Add the almonds, raisins and apples, and stir-fry for 20 sec. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.

2 Heat the remaining oil in the same wok, until very hot. Add the garlic, coriander seeds, ginger, bay leaf and chillies and stir-fry for 1 min. Add the mushrooms and celery, and cook for 5 min. Add the salt, pepper, curry powder, garam masala and tomato. Cover and cook over very low heat for 10 min.

3 Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, combine yogurt and cornflour. Beat, in one direction, for 5 min.

4 Just before serving, discard the bay leaf and gradually add the yogurt mixture to the wok over very low heat, stirring constantly to prevent curdling.

5 Adjust seasoning to taste. Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with the almond mixture from step 1, and coriander, and serve hot with rice, pasta or couscous


Cooking class 8: "Home party" menu

ABC Cooking Studio has changed its setup and none of last month's offerings took my fancy, so it's been a while between lessons. Previously I have been taking the Japanese food class, but that option has now changed to a class in basics, and some of it is a little, well, basic. I decided to go for the entertaining class this time. Let's have a "home party" (so called because urban Japanese rarely entertain at home due to space constraints. For the record, I've never let that stop me).

The menu was two kinds of oven-baked rice croquettes, one flavoured with tomato and Camembert, the other with curry and Camembert; taramasalata with pan-fried veggies; a tomato-based seafood soup; and crepes Suzette for dessert.

I liked the idea of the croquettes more than the final result. Baking rather than frying them increased the likelihood of their falling apart, and more than a few of the ones we made did just that.

The taramasalata (hiding under the veggies) was a bit bland to my taste buds, but my Japanese classmates liked it well enough.

But oh the seafood and tomato soup! I'll definitely be making that again. While it only contained 3 kinds of seafood (prawns, white fish and octopus), the taste was rich and unctuous. The secret, apparently, is to blast it in the oven for a bit after it is finished cooking on the stove.

I will also make the crepes again. Big taste with little fuss: my kind of cooking. And the block of butter and slosh of Cointreau in the sauce have absolutely nothing to do with it (g).

My orange zesting skills from Persian cooking came in handy here. I used the veggie peeler rather than fuss about with the chef's knife as the instructor suggested. Life's too short.

Being Japan, this was my opportunity to learn the fine art of flipping crepes with cooking chopsticks. It can be done*, but I'm not sure why you would bother.

* Lay one chopstick across the frying pan and lift the edge of the crepe onto it with the other. Lift the chopstick with the crepe draped over it and with a rolling motion, gently turn the crepe over.


Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Hummus with pomegranate molasses

About a year ago, a strange thing happened to me on my way to work; my 70-minutes-each-way, hang-off-a-strap train commute to work: someone offered me a seat! And not just any someone, but a fellow non-Japanese someone. Normally, the chances of this happening are only slightly better than winning the lottery, but to find out that the someone in question was not only from Iran, but also a fellow foodie, well, it's probably not even worth calculating odds anymore.

S and his dear wife and daughter visited us last November, laden with all kinds of Iranian and Japanese goodies (including the most amazing macrobiotic apple crumble cake, which I then made for another Iranian-Japanese family we visited this Persian New Year. Recipe for that coming soon). I finally got to return the compliment on a glorious spring day this month.

This was just the excuse I was waiting for to try this mouth-watering hummus idea from Classic Vegetarian Cooking from the Middle East & North Africa. It must seem like this is the only book I cook from these days, but the appetiser section is just so good I want to try them all!

You may know hummus in its most well known form of chickpeas and tahini. But "hummus" simply means "chickpeas" in Arabic, and there are many other possible variations, as Mr Salloum's book above attests.

Pomegranates are one of my very favourite fruits, so I was itching to try this pomegranate-laced version for the longest time. And it was just as good as I imagined! I did tweak the recipe a little, however, using dried chickpeas instead of tinned, and sharpening it up with lemon juice, as the Lebanese pomegranate molasses I used gave the hummus a sweeter taste than I wanted.

The pomegranate seeds you see in the photo are from a little stash I froze in an inspired fit of organization during their short season here. They added just the right festive touch on top of the hummus, but did, unfortunately, loose some of their juice on defrosting.

Hummus with pomegranate molasses

300 g cooked chickpeas*
1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
1 tbsp lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 tsp salt**
1/4 tsp pepper
4 tbsp olive oil
chopped flat-flat leaf parsley, to garnish
pomegranate seeds, to garnish

1 Place chickpeas, pomegranate molasses, lemon juice, garlic, salt, pepper, and 2 tbsp of the olive oil in a blender or food processor and process until smooth.

2 Spread on a serving dish and garnish with parsley and pomegranate seeds. Sprinkle with remaining oil just before serving.

* If you are going to the trouble of cooking chickpeas from dried, do yourself a favour and make more than you need for this recipe and freeze the remainder for later. Rinse chickpeas and soak overnight. Drain. If using a pressure cooker, cover with water and the metal inner lid to prevent the peas moving around too much in cooking. Bring to pressure, lower heat and cook for 2.5 min under low pressure. If you don't have a pressure cooker, cover with water and simmer until tender, which can take anything up to 90 min, I am told. You'll probably need to top up the water if cooking for so long.

** If you use tinned chickpeas instead of dried, reduce or eliminate the salt from the recipe.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Zesty meze 1: Chickpea and tamarind dip

A month back, we had a big surprise when a favourite former teacher of the Young Man and dear friend, O, mailed to say he was back in town and had some goodies from Turkey for the YM. Wahoo! As it happened, my birthday fell the next week, so we arranged to have dinner at our place.

A fellow foodie, O is also one of the world's more dedicated chocoholics, so this was a chance to try out my new go-to chocolate cake on an honest critic. That seemed to go down very well, and we had a jolly time reliving a past experiment O and the YM had with biscuit-thin brownies (which they nicknamed brow-kies), that perhaps O would rather forget! O did get his own back, though, by casting aspersions on my dolma-rolling skills. As the YM said in my defence (bless his heart), we all have a first time, don't we?!

Luck was really rolling on our side when O agreed to a big day of table tennis with the YM followed by another supper at ours. Fortunately or unfortunately, a dearth of vineleaves in dead-of-winter Yokohama prevented me from defending my dolma rolling this time, but I'll be working on it for next time, you can be sure!

Instead, I put together an array of meze goodies to go with Tessa Kiros' wonderful avgolemono, made this time with 2.5 l of water and the rice thrown in from the beginning of (pressure) cooking.

The first of the meze was a Gulf variation of that old stand-by, hummus, this time with tongue-tingling fresh ginger and tamarind! It is an adaptation from a recipe in Classic Vegetarian Cooking from the Middle East & North Africa by Habeeb Salloum, one of the 3 cookbooks I permitted myself to bring back from Australia over Christmas/New Year.

I've already made a couple of things from this book, and adore the exciting and unusual combinations of flavours that have been eye-openers even for me! This zippy hummus was so addictive that our guest ended up not leaving enough room for the soup, silly boy (g).

If making this in Japan, tamarind paste (the pulp in jars is easier to use than the blocks, which contain seeds and fibres) is available from various places on-line (none of which I've used before), or check out your nearest Thai, Vietnamese or Indian food store. I usually get mine in Australia, where the zingy paste is readily available in the local supermarket of the small town where Saffron-Papa and Mama live. It keeps for a goodly long time in the fridge, but you might also want to give the some of the other tamarind recipes I've gathered here a go, too.

As for me, I'm chomping at the bit to try out Mr. Salloum's hummus with pomegranate molasses!

Oh, and just a word about the etymology of tamarind. As you can see from the name of this hummus below, tamarind is tamar Hindi in Arabic (and Persian, also). Yup, that's "Hindi" as in "India/n". Which reminds me of the story O told us of how the native-to-the-US bird that goes gobble-gobble came to be known as turkey in English and Hindi (India, again) in Turkish! Don't you just love language!

Hummus bi tamar Hindi: Chickpea and tamarind dip

2 cups cooked chickpeas
3 tbsp tahini
2 tbsp tamarind paste, or to taste
1.5 tbsp finely chopped fresh ginger, or to taste
Salt & pepper to taste
1 tbsp chopped cilantro [coriander] or flat-leaf parsley
1 tbsp olive oil

1 Place all ingredients, except coriander or parsley and oil, in a food processor and process into a somewhat thick paste, adding a little water as necessary. Taste and adjust flavours to taste.

2 Place on a serving platter and sprinkle with coriander or parsley and oil just before serving.


Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Maazat halyoon: Syrian/Lebanese avocado appetizer

I've made this yummy dip/spread a couple of times now, and it seems to go down very well. I wouldn't necessarily have thought of it myself, but avocado, lemon and sesame combination really goes well.

The sesame paste I am currently using is a Japanese one (Makoto no goma, available in nice big jars for not too much yen at Otsuya in Ueno), which means the seeds are toasted before grinding. It is very flavoursome, and I think you can get away with using slightly less than is called for in this recipe (I have adjusted it accordingly). As ever, let your own taste buds be the guide. More or less of anything is not going to spoil the dip. The parsley gives this some body and texture. Don't whizz it to oblivion, and make sure you use flat-leaf parsley, as the curly stuff would be a little strident here.

This is another from the amazing appetizer chapter of Habeeb Salloum's brilliant Classic Vegetarian Cooking from the Middle East and North Africa. It goes particularly well with Argentine chimichurri bread.

Avocado appetizer

4 tbsp lemon juice
2-3 tbsp tahini
1 large or 2 medium avocados
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley
2 tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
pinch cayenne
1/2 tsp paprika

1 Place lemon juice and tahini in a blender or food processor and blend for a moment. Set aside.

2 Pit and peel avocados and cut into pieces. Add, with the remaining ingredients, except paprika, to the lemon juice-tahini mixture. Blend to a smooth paste.

3 Place on a flat serving platter, sprinkle with paprika and serve as is or chilled.


Stir-fried pineapple with ginger (and garlic and lime!)

Here is an unusual savory pineapple side dish. It is just bursting with zip, tang and heat. There is so much going on here that it may outshine the main course, so make sure it is something really able to stand up to it.

The original recipe is in India's 500 Best Recipes, which I have written about before. However, there is no indication as to where it originates (not all of the recipes are from India, despite the book's title). The soy sauce suggests that it a Southeast Asian source might be more likely than an Indian one. Not that it matters when it tastes this good.

You could probably substitute tinned pineapple, but make sure it is not sweetened. Or then again, that might be another interesting variation you could offer as a dessert...

Stir-fried pineapple with ginger

1 pineapple
1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped finely
1/4 onion, sliced thinly
5 cm piece fresh ginger, peeled and sliced into fine matchsticks
2 tbsp light soy sauce
Juice of 1/2 lime
1 fresh red chilli, seeded and sliced finely

1 Trim and peel the pineapple. Cut in quarters lengthwise and cut out the core. Chop into bite-sized pieces.

2 Heat the oil in a wok or frying pan. Stir-fry the garlic and onion over a medium heat for 2-3 min, until golden. Do not let garlic burn or it will become bitter.

3 Add the pineapple. Stir-fry for about 2 min, or until the pineapple pieces start to turn golden on the edges.

4 Add the ginger, soy sauce, lime juice and chilli.

5 Toss the mixture together until well mixed. Cook over a low heat for a further 2 min. Serve the pineapple as an accompaniment to grilled meat or strongly flavoured fish.


Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Warm glass noodles with edamame

Life events have overtaken me lately and I've not been very inspired in the kitchen. In fact, I even lost my sense of taste for a while. Bad times, indeed. But like the gambling addict who always thinks his next big win is "just round the corner," I am determined to stay in the game!

Luckily for me, this Ottolenghi recipe from the Guardian caught my eye and I think I may have turned that corner at last.

Edamame, you say; from a Middle Eastern food specialist?! Well why not? The recipe is touted as Japanese-inspired on the Guardian site, but in reality, edamame, or young green soy beans, is the only Japanese influence. What really makes it is the blend of lip-smacking Southeast Asian flavours--galangal/ginger, tamarind and garlic--in the sauce. (You'll see from the photo above that I omitted the red chilli, but only out of respect for the Young Man's palate.)

This is a breeze to make, or rather it would be if you don't have to pod your edamame before you start. Here in Japan, edamame are a summertime treat served chilled in their pods after a light boiling and salting. Perfect with the big jugs of beer that are so popular here in the dog days of summer. Those days being far from nigh, I contented myself with frozen edamame, still in the pods. You'll want to defrost them in water before even attempting to extract the tasty green beans inside, so make sure to get them out of the freezer in good time (I'd pop them in the fridge in the morning before going to work next time). Having a YM in the house usually expedites such mundane but essential processes as podding, but in this case my YM was otherwise engaged with his studies.

I took Yotam Ottolenghi's advice about boosting this with some yaki dofu, or extra-firm tofu that's been grilled, giving it a lovely colour. This kind of tofu, if well drained (by placing a plate or other weight on top of it for about 10 minutes), stands up really well to stir-frying. You'll need to break it up a bit before you put it in the pan. I found that I didn't have enough sauce to really flavour the tofu (which really sucks up the flavours), and added some Thai fish sauce to compensate. Even making it more substantial with the tofu, you'll probably want another side dish or two to make this a meal.

Ottolenghi's warm glass noodles with edamame
Serves four

250g glass or cellophane noodles
1 pack firm tofu such as yaki dofu
2 tbsp sunflower oil
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
300g (net weight) cooked edamame beans, podded
3 spring onions, including the green parts, thinly sliced
1 fresh red chilli, finely chopped
3 tbsp coriander [cilantro] leaves, chopped, plus a few whole leaves for garnish
3 tbsp mint leaves, shredded
3 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted

For the sauce
2 tbsp grated galangal (or ginger)
4 limes, juiced
3 tbsp groundnut oil
2 tbsp palm sugar
2 tsp tamarind paste
1 tsp Tamari soy sauce
1 tsp fine sea salt

1 Soak the noodles in a bowl of hot water until soft - about five minutes. Be careful not to leave them in the water for too long because they can go soggy. Strain and leave to dry.

2 In a small bowl, whisk together all the sauce ingredients and set aside.

3 Heat the oil in a large frying pan or a wok and add the garlic (and drained tofu, if using). As it starts to turn golden, remove the pan from the heat and add the sauce and noodles. Gently mix together, add most of the edamame, the onions, chilli and fresh herbs. Stir while you return the pan to the heat for a few seconds, just to heat through, taste and add salt if you like.

4 Pile up the noodles on a large platter or in a shallow bowl, scatter over the reserved edamame and the sesame seeds, and garnish with the whole coriander leaves. You can also serve the dish at room temperature, in which case adjust the seasoning just before you do so.