Thursday, March 31, 2005


One of the distinctive things about mitsuba is its trefoil shape. This gives a decorative touch to dishes where mitsuba is used as a garnish.

As my mitsuba sprouted, I was pleased yet a little puzzled. The tiny leaves on the sprouts were rounded, not three-lobed, and certainly not serrated. I didn't think the seed company had made a mistake, but it seemed odd. Today, however, the mystery was solved.

When I got home from work, I checked the garden (or "the farm," as my mother called it the last time I talked to her). One of the mitsuba sprouts was showing two new leaves, and these had the expected serrated trefoil shape, in miniature. I heaved a sigh of relief. All was well with the world again (or, at least, the world in that mitsuba pot).

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Pork stir-fry

I've been cooking a lot of Japanese food lately, but when I thawed out some pork for tonight's dinner, it was almost inevitable that I'd go Chinese. My original intention was to make some Sichuan spaghetti, but I decided I felt too lazy to chop up ginger tonight (it's been a long week and it's only Tuesday). I finally turned to Gloria Bley Miller's The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook and found a recipe for stir-fried pork in oyster sauce that didn't require much chopping.

Having picked a recipe, I started altering it. First, the garlic had seen better days, so I substituted shallots. Then I used porcini soaking water instead of chicken stock, without really considering the radical difference in taste between the two.

It's a simple recipe: stir-fry your onion of choice in oil, then stir-fry the pork pieces until they're slightly browned. Add a little light soy sauce, then Shao Xing rice wine, and stir-fry for another minute. Add half a cup of (in this case) porcini water and heat, then add the oyster sauce solution (cornstarch, oyster sauce, water, sugar, light soy sauce). Serve with chopped scallions as a garnish.

This was another success. The combination of porcini water and oyster sauce made a rich savory sauce that was a delight. I will have to remember this combination, since it worked so well. Ok, so chopping four scallions for the garnish was definitely overkill, but the sauce was a real treat. I'll probably reuse the leftovers with rice tomorrow for lunch.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Today's sprouts

Another set of little green sprouts is coming up, this time in the pot that contains scallions, spinach and Chinese celery. Judging from the position of the sprouts, they are incipient spinach plants, though I can't say they look much like spinach at this point.

Of the six mitsuba seedlings, two are looking particularly healthy and strong. Meanwhile, I continue to thin the lettuce patch. Most of those seedlings are long and scrawny; according to my mother this means they aren't getting enough light. It's still a little early to put them outside, though temperatures are moderating. Then again, some of the newer seedlings are less gawky, so maybe they're starting to get enough light.

Next to plant: edible-podded peas, Thai basil, bergamot and hot peppers.

Beef yakisoba

In which Friday dinner is transformed into Saturday's birding lunch and a good time is had by all.

It wasn't quite the same as Dosanko's beef yakisoba, but boy, was it good! I used some of the sliced sirloin that I like so much. I started by marinating it in a mix of two tablespoons shoyu, two tablespoons sake, a teaspoon of sesame oil and a teaspoon of cornstarch. I let it soak for about an hour. In the meantime, I chopped some napa cabbage (since this is a Japanese dish, I should probably refer to it as hakusai for the duration of this post), rinsed some leftover water chestnuts and cooked some chukasoba.

In my quest for a new bottle of good mirin I have so far come up empty. The high-end supermarket was all out, and the Asian supermarket only has aji-mirin at the moment (mirin with additives to increase the sweetness). However, my eye was caught by the so-called "kotterin mirin sweet cooking seasoning" that Kikkoman makes. "Kotterin" seems to come from the Japanese word for "thick;" this mirin is fortified with corn syrup, water, vinegar, shoyu, the ever-popular "flavorings" and a dash of sodium benzoate as a preservative. I figured I might as well give it a try and bought a small bottle. I mixed a tablespoon of this with two tablespoons of shoyu and a teaspoon of sesame oil to make the yakisoba sauce. When I tried it, it tasted great.

Yakisoba was easy to cook as usual. I stir-fried the beef in about three tablespoons of peanut oil until it was rare, and added the veggies and stir-fried for another minute or two. Then I added the noodles, stirred them and poured the leftover marinade and the sauce over everything. After heating through, I plated it.

The beef was perfectly done: right at the cusp of medium and medium-rare, with no pink in the middle but still juicy and tender. The beef juices added their signature to the sweet sauce, which lightly coated the other ingredients. It was a great way to celebrate the end of the work week.

Although I did my best to devour it all, enough was left to pack along as lunch on a birding trip with The Lurker and Perfect Tommy the next day. I happily finished it off as we ate at the Freehold WindMill (Perfect Tommy loves their hot dogs). As The Lurker had a barbecue sandwich and Perfect Tommy (of course) had a hot dog, I made side dishes out of The Lurker's lettuce and tomato for his sandwich, as well as some french fries he was willing to share.

It was a fairly quiet birding excursion, though we did see a rarity and some harbingers of spring. We finished our day at Aljon's Pizza, tucking into a wonderful large plain pie. Then it occurred to me that I needed some orange juice, so I figured a quick visit to the Asian supermarket was in order. Neither of the others had ever been there before (though Perfect Tommy often talks about having to get there someday). I did my tour guide routine and Perfect Tommy oohed about much of the food while managing to walk past it. He met his match in a jar of kimchi, however. The Lurker (not a fan of Asian food) trailed along in our wake, but his eyes lit up when he found a jar of mango powder meant to be used in drinks. He left it on the shelf, but I was impressed he found something of interest there. After some checkout confusion regarding a sale on orange juice (I ended up buying two on sale because it was just easier than explaining to the cashier that I just wanted one), we trooped off into the night.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Braised hijiki

Last night I had a light dinner of braised hijiki. Hijiki is a kind of seaweed; in its dried form it looks like little black wisps. When soaked, it expands in size, but it's still much less substantial than konbu or wakame. To give the dish a little more heft, abura-age is usually added. The drained hijiki is stir-fried in some oil, then the abura-age and the broth ingredients are added. The dish simmers for ten minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed. The broth is a sweet shoyu broth; the version I used last night includes a cup of water, three tablespoons of shoyu, two tablespoons of mirin and three tablespoons of sugar (recipe from Hiroko Urakami's Japanese Family-Style Recipes).

I had expected to need something more to eat, because this is such a light dish, but it was filling enough last night. It would be perfect in the usual Japanese context of a variety of dishes at a meal, but normally I cook one thing for a meal (too much coordination required to have soup, rice, salad and a main dish on the table for one meal).

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Boring random stir-fry

Well, maybe it was boring, but it wasn't bad. I spent most of the day puttering around on various projects. I also planted spinach, scallions and Chinese (or leaf) celery. As a result, dinner was not going to be an important meal. I wanted something a little more involved than pouring some marinara on some noodles, but I didn't want a big production, either.

I started out with some "wok oil," which is oil that has been infused with onion, garlic, ginger and cilantro (House of Tsang brand). I was too lazy to chop up the seasonings tonight. The wok oil has impressed me as too harshly garlicky in the past, but it didn't bother me tonight. I stir-fried some water chestnuts and boiled bean sprouts for two and a half minutes, then added some cooked chukasoba noodles and cashews, then the sauce. The sauce proportions were two tablespoons shoyu, one tablespoon water, two tablespoons sake, a teaspoon of sesame oil and sugar to taste. I wanted a sweet stir-fry, so I added a lot of sugar. I cooked it until it seemed heated through, then sat down for dinner.

The sauce ended up being pretty bland and undistinguished, just like the food's appearance (maybe I should've added some slivered carrots for color, or a green garnish of some sort). The veggies didn't have that ideal fresh crunch you want in a really good stir-fry. But I have to admit that I didn't care tonight. It was simple, it was undemanding, it was filling. It was exactly what I wanted out of dinner tonight. Sometimes wonderful culinary pyrotechnics are just so much overkill. Some other time I can take this basic plan and tinker with it. For tonight, it was just what the doctor ordered.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Spring sleet

Leftover time. My leftovers from the mizore nabe were broth, some daikon, a few chicken pieces and some sprouts. After responding to obachan's comments this morning, I had an idea for lunch. I reheated the leftovers in my big skillet, then added some cubed firm tofu and some more sprouts. I also grated more daikon right into the skillet as it simmered on the stove. I cooked it until the tofu cubes I fished out for tasting purposes tasted good and hot, then poured it into a bowl and anointed it with ponzu.

Ponzu is a citrus-flavored shoyu-based dipping sauce; the recipe that Hiroko Shimbo gives for it calls for yuzu juice, mirin, rice vinegar, shoyu and dashi. Yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit that is very hard to find in the US. When I first started going to the Asian supermarket, there was a little jar of yuzu juice in the Japanese section; since it was pricey, I gave it a miss. Inevitably, it vanished, and I've been kicking myself ever since because it has not reappeared. I've learned from this and other experiences that sometimes there are unusual delays in restocking at the Asian supermarket, and sometimes things never reappear at all. Maybe that's because most of their stock is imported. But I digress. Besides, it's very easy to get a bottle of premade ponzu right in that same Japanese section.

Obachan was absolutely right about the ponzu; even though the nabe broth smelled wonderful as it cooked, the ponzu added something to the dish that made it even better. I can't really describe it, except that it was similar to the way a drop or two of sesame oil can bind a sauce together. Thank you, obachan! Another good thing about the leftovers was that reheating them quickly in the skillet made it possible to concentrate on the food, rather than how long it was taking to cook. It was very tasty; I even drank off the leftover broth. Maybe I gave the mizore nabe a bum rap the other night.

For dessert, I relaxed with a cup of genmaicha (green tea with toasted rice) and listened to Wall to Wall Stephen Sondheim on WNYC. I've been a Sondheim fan since childhood (thanks, dad!), and my only regret was that I couldn't hear the whole thing (like those lucky XM Satellite Radio listeners). Even people at Symphony Space in New York were being encouraged to listen for a while and then depart so as to give another person an opportunity to hear the music. I most wanted to hear something from Pacific Overtures, my favorite Sondheim musical, but was disappointed on that score. I still got to hear lots of good stuff, though. A great way to spend an afternoon.

Double your garden, double your fun

I have another crop. Last night, after coming home from a corned beef dinner at The Deacon's, I found one tiny little seedling poking up in the mitsuba pot. This morning I could see its two tiny leaves, all ready to do service as solar panels. Not only that, another little seedling has appeared. I'm very pleased, because I understand that parsleys are much harder to grow than lettuce, and I wasn't sure if any seeds from my indoor start of mitsuba would come up. There they are, ready to go, and a little ahead of schedule, even.

Speaking of lettuce, it continues to go great guns. The seedings are around an inch tall (some more, some less), and even at this small size, some differences in structure between seedlings have appeared. There are big rounded ones and little crinkly ones, neither of which have been identified to variety yet. The official variety breakdown is 25% Deer Tongue, 18% Oakleaf, 18% Simpson Elite, 18% Tango, 10.5% Royal Red and 10.5% of a Red Oakleaf.

Since the lettuce is growing like crazy, the seedlings have gotten very crowded in some parts of the pot. So, I took a deep breath and started thinning this morning. I took out or moved about ten seedlings, and will keep at it progressively. The ones I took out became a very light breakfast snack. They're definitely lettuce, with a light delicate taste. I think I can get used to this.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Mizore nabe

I'm starting to think I should go back to cooking something I have a proven track record with. I've had a succession of new dishes that have not worked out too well. Then again, the sukiyaki wasn't new. Never mind.

Tonight I decided to try making mizore nabe, or "sleet in a claypot," as Obachan so aptly puts it. I was inspired by her post on the dish back in January. After some poking around the internet, I found a recipe for it at Yasuko-san's blog. After comparing and contrasting the two, I decided to take them as a starting point and extrapolate a little from there.

Naming a winter hotpot dish after sleet seems so poetic that I had to try cooking it. The "sleet" is really grated daikon. When I was grating the daikon, however, I realized that I had forgotten what hard work poetry can be. I have a tiny grater, and when I had grated a certain amount of daikon, it would get too slippery to continue until I cleaned the grater off. I finally figured out that more pressure on the daikon against the grater worked better, so I switched hands so that I was holding the daikon in my left hand (which is stronger than my right). It went much better after that.

While I was grating daikon, slicing scallions and selecting bean sprouts, chicken was marinating in a mixture of shoyu, sake and sugar. Mirin is recommended, but I'm currently out of it, so I substituted a tablespoon of sake mixed with two teaspoons of sugar for each tablespoon of mirin, as per Hiroko Shimbo. The marinade smelled suitably mirin-like.

Since this was a nabe dish, I figured it was a good excuse to cook with the donabe. To make a long story short, I think I won't be cooking with the donabe on weeknights any more. It just takes too long. The total cooking time for the mizore nabe wound up being an hour and a half, and I probably could've let it go longer. Getting the donabe warmed up takes a while, and then adding ingredients to it lowers the broth temperature, so I have to wait for it to warm up again. Once it reaches a good temperature, it does cook along quite well; I never raised the burner above medium heat but did manage to get a boil going at times. Then again, I don't know if the crackling sound I heard when the donabe was hottest was boiling broth or crackling clay. At least the donabe seemed undamaged afterward.

The mizore nabe tasted reasonably good. It was probably not as sweet as it would be if I had used mirin in the broth. The broth was a combination of one cup of water, a four-inch piece of konbu kelp, five tablespoons of shoyu, two and a half tablespoons of sugar, and two and a half tablespoons of "mirin substitute." That broth is more or less what I use to make donburi, and the proportions come from Hiroko Urakami's Japanese Family-Style Recipes. The daikon did look sleety while cooking, but once I added the chicken and its marinade, it turned into brown slush. I don't cook with daikon often because I'm not that fond of its flavor, but its strong taste worked well in the mizore nabe.

Bottom line: not a bad meal, and I'm eager to try Obachan's chicken meatballs and Yasuko-san's deep-fried chicken version, but I may not do that in the donabe next time. Unless it's a weekend.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Sukiyaki leftovers

Tonight I had the leftover sukiyaki from my less-than-successful attempt on Sunday morning. Since I was going birding with The Lurker and Perfect Tommy, and since we were starting late, I figured I'd have enough time to whip up a batch of sukiyaki. Unfortunately, I made a few mistakes:

1. Thin beef, when cooked too long, attains the texture of shoe leather.
2. Measuring out a cup of shoyu by pouring it over a cup of sake until you reach the two cup mark on the measuring glass means you'll probably end up with too much shoyu in your broth.

I attempted to rescue it by emptying my bottle of mirin into the brew, cooking it down and pouring it over short-grain rice. It wound up being an edible lunch for a birding trip, but not much more. When The Lurker inhaled the cooking fumes, he thought something smelled Italian, kind of like some sort of toast. I'm afraid that must have been because the rice was a bit closer to burning than I had thought.

So that was dinner tonight. The shoe-leather beef actually had a better flavor than one might expect, and the broth wasn't that bad: just less sweet and more intense than I wanted.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Busy busy busy

March is shaping up to be a busy month, so my blogging may be more irregular for a while. There's been some stuff I've been meaning to blog, but there are some other projects with actual deadlines that need to be taken care of as well.

The lettuce seedlings continue to flourish. I watered them last night and they looked very perky this morning. I'll have to thin some of them soon, as some of the seedlings are practically on top of each other. Meanwhile, still nothing from the mitsuba, but it shoudn't be sprouting yet anyway.

I hope to post later about an actual cooking session, since sukiyaki is on the menu today.

Monday, March 07, 2005


I got home today and was delighted to find little green lettuce seedlings poking up from the pot. They were right on schedule, since I planted the seeds on March 1st and the seeds were supposed to sprout in seven to ten days, according to the seed packet. They're a long way from any kind of salad, but it looks like the kitchen garden experiment may be a go after all.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Vegetarian kung pao stir-fry

Tonight I wanted something a little special for dinner, so I decided to make kung pao chicken. Of course, I had no chicken thawed, so I decided to use Quorn nuggets instead. Then, since I got home later than anticipated, I decided to omit the step of velveting the meat (or protein, in this case) and just make it a simple stir-fry. I used a recipe from Ken Hom's Easy Family Recipes from a Chinese-American Childhood. Instead of using chicken stock, I substituted vegetarian boullion. I also left out the dried chiles, instead making do with a few shakes of Tabasco sauce. I used grated palm sugar, though crushed rock sugar probably would have been more authentic.

The stir-fry went well, though ideally the vegetarian kung pao should have been served with rice. The stir-fry in its dark sauce would have benefitted from the contrast with the bland rice. Since the Quorn nuggets were not precooked by velveting, I had to cook them longer than normal; when the pan and sauce began to smoke, I deglazed the pan with some Shao Xing rice wine (the salted cooking variety, since this sauce called for salt). This probably diluted the punch of the Tabasco sauce.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Spring hath sprung

I suppose it may seem eccentric to insist that spring is well on its way, given that we had our latest winter storm yesterday. But for me, spring has been here since the beginnng of February, when the cardinals and Song Sparrows started singing, just like clockwork. The big flock of wintering Canada Geese has moved out and flocks of blackbirds are moving in. The weather may not know it's spring, but the birds do.

Just to clinch it, I planted my first seeds today. After I got home from work, I sprinkled an assortment of lettuce seeds in one pot, and planted a few mitsuba seeds in another pot. The lettuce should be sprouting in 7-10 days, while the mitsuba will probably take closer to 20 days, since it is a parsley and they are slow to germinate. At least, that's what my information tells me. Planting a garden will be one big experiment because this is the first year I've ever tried it.