Ever since we got Japan: The Cookbook by Nancy Singleton in the shop, I've been literally hungry to make some of the recipes. I'm a huge fan of Japanese food but usually too daunted by my own ignorance about the ingredients to actually try to cook something. That being said, 99% of the time I'm craving Japanese food, I go to Heiwa Shokuda (our local haunt) rather than trusting my own hand in the kitchen. Luckily, this book changed my mind (and my confidence!). It's surprisingly one of the most accessible of our many cookbooks and a lot of the ingredients are available at any grocery store, though you may have to go to your local asian market for some of the less Western components. We chose to try-out these two and it was a total success! As you can see, even baby Lui was on board.
Singleton describes the mnemonic SA-SHI-SU-SE-SO, which means: Sa: sato (sugar or mirin), Shi: (shio, salt), Su: su (vinegar), Se: seu (soy sauce), and So: miso. These five tastes are the basis of all Japanese cooking. If you can master the balance of these, you're ahead of the rest. She also recommends getting all your ingredients of the same quality. For example: high-quality mirin will over power low-quality soy sauce and vice versa. Go high or low, but make sure its all of the same quality for perfect harmony. Honestly, the entire introduction of this book is a gold mine of cooking knowledge, so if you want to learn more about the fundamentals of Japanese cuisine, go grab yourself a copy!
Now, for the recipe: This salad is an quick and easy recipe that can serve as a tasty side dish or a basic lunch alongside some protein. The toasted nutty sesame, and sharp rice vinegar are a classic and well-loved combo that really shines on the humble asparagus. We paired it with the steamed egg custard pot for a simple Spring dinner. The egg pot is a little more labor intensive, but holy-cow, so worth it. I was a very excited about the idea of a savory custard since it's something I normally associate with sweets. The salty dashi, the earthy shiitake, the pungent onion, and the sweet egg all come together creating a divine, cloud-like bite. We kept it vegetarian (are eggs vegetarian?) and didn't use the scallops to make it cheaper (and also omitted the lily bulb) and it turned out delicious anyway. We used our shallow breakfast bowls, nested in a large sauce-pan of boiling water to steam it, which is actually quite easy but will seem very impressive to your guests or family.
STEAMED EGG CUSTARD POTS aka CHAWAN MUSHI:
A dish more delicious than photographable
1 small lily bulb (optional)
1/2 tsp. fine sea salt
3 large scallops
1 tbs. sake
5 oz. soft tofu cut into 6 pieces
3 large shiitake, stems discarded, caps quartered
3 spinach leaves (we used spring onion, yum.)
3 eggs at room temp
1 3/4 cup of dashi
1 tsp. shoyu
Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Sauteé shiitake in high-heat oil, add sake. Put one piece of tofu in the bottom of six 7 fl. oz. chawan mushi, or East Fork Breakfast Bowls. Alternating between the ingredients, drop the shiitake and spring onion into each cup so that they are evenly distributed.
In a bowl, whisk the eggs until well emulsified, then slowly whisk in the dashi and usukuchi shoyu. Pour the egg mixture through a wire-mesh sieve into a large glass measuring cup with a spout. Pour the mixture into the cups. Cover the cups with lids or plastic wrap.
Set up a steamer and bring the water to a boil. Arrange the cups in the steamer basket, cover, and steam over medium-high heat for about 25 minutes. Serve warm.
ASPARAGUS WITH SESAME-VINEGAR DRESSING
1 lb. asapragus
1 tbs. canola oil
2 tsp. gold sesame seeds
2 tsp. black sesame seeds
2 tsp. white sesame seeds
3 tbs. brown rice vinegar
1 tsp. soy sauce
1 pinch flaky sea salt
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Snap the bottoms of the asparagus where they naturally want to to break. Blanch until crisp-tender, 2-5 minutes depending on the thickness. Refresh under cold running water. Pat dry in a clean tea towel. Cut on the diagonal into 3/4 inch pieces.
In a small frying pan, heat the oil over med-low heat. Add the seeds when you can feel some heat rising from the pan. Cook, stirring, until you can smell the aroma of sesame, about 1 minute. Scrape into bowl to cool.
Toss the asparagus pieces with the sesame seeds, vinegar, mirin, soy sauce and salt. Serve at room temperature or cold the next day.