Winter Harvest

I was playing around with this dish on the weekend and I’m actually really happy with the way this turned out, as it demonstrates to me the everything cooking and eating is about. On the cooking side, this means good, seasonal ingredients treated simply and with respect, and on the eating side it’s people coming together and eat great food without having to get all wanky about it.

Basically, this is an steamed vegetable dish to serve at a winter dinner party  as a first course or together with main in place of ordinary vegetables or a salad. The concept of the dish was really something that could be both simple and spectacular at the same time.

To start, prepare the condiments.

For the Jasmine Tea Salt, grind a small amount of dry jasmine tea leaves and flowers in a mortar and pestle. Then add in a very good quality mineral salt and combine with the pestle. Done.

For the Spiced Mayonnaise, take about 2 tablespoons of good quality prepared mayonnaise and mix through half a teaspoon of turmeric, and about a quarter teaspoon each of cayenne pepper, ground cumin and smoked paprika. Set aside for at least half an hour for the colour and flavour to develop.

For the Black Butter, first toast some black sesame seeds in a dry pan until fragrant. Add 2/3 of the sesame seeds to a small food processor (reserving the rest for serving) and add in softened butter, Fortnam & Mason’s Anchovy Alchemy (this is a delicious condiment, or substitute anchovy fillets to taste), capers, Caramel Sauce, a little garlic, a squeeze of lemon and lots of freshly ground black pepper. Process until combined.

Then it’s time for the vegetables.

Any winter vegetables will do, but I have used here (grouped in order of cooking time): New Potatoes, Sweet Potato, Jerusalem Artichoke, (around 12 minutes) Baby Corn, Parsnip, Baby Carrot, Baby Cabbage (I don’t think I know what this is, it was like a Brussel Sprout but looked exactly like a tiny cabbage), Cauliflower (both white and purple), Broccoli, Romanesco (the extraordinary fractal shaped vegetable similar to broccoli that you can see hiding behind the carrot)(all around 5 minutes), Goubo (burdock root), Radish, Red Chicory, and Snow Peas (1-2 minutes). Plus Ginko Nuts for presentation.

OK, I probably went overboard with the selection here, but this is supposed to be a celebration of winter vegetables.

Scrub them well but leave the skins on everything. As a harvest dish the skins give the dish the earthy quality it needs. I’m very fond of the Jerusalem Artichoke and Goubo for that particular characteristic in this dish.

If using the fresh Ginko Nuts like I did, you need to prepare this by cracking them out of their shells (the handle of the knife brought down on the seam of the nut will do this well, without squashing the nut). Put the nuts in a bowl, pour over boiling water and sit for 10 minutes to loosen the inner skin. Peel the nuts and then simmer in more water for 20-30 minutes to cook. These are the only thing that was cooked separately. The rest were done in the steamer. And that’s the fun part.

Cut all the vegetables to the size you like and lay them out on a cutting board in order of cooking time. Set a countdown timer and add the vegetables in reverse cooking time order, so that they are all ready at the same time. The vegetables should still be quite firm and “al dente”.

While the vegetables are cooking, plate up the condiments as shown in the picture. As soon as the vegetables are done, arrange them in the steamer how you would like them to be presented and get them straight to the table. Steamed vegetables go cold very quickly so I suggest improvising some kind of steam warmer for the table. I did this with the antique wooden dish I bought at a market with a deep plate inside it filled with the steaming water, with the steamer placed on top of the whole thing.

The dish itself looks quite spectacular when it’s brought to the table, but it’s not fussy or contrived at all. When everyone just dives in with their hands and attacks the condiments on shared dishes, it’s as casual an experience as you could ask for.

While of course any of the condiments can go with any of the vegetables, I was blown away by the combination of the parsnip with the Jasmine Tea Salt and the potatoes with the Black Butter. The sweetness of the parsnip matched perfectly with the aroma of the jasmine, and the texture of the sesame and saltiness of the anchovy was amazing with the warm potato.

Good food. Good company. Perfect.

Japanese Crispy Christmas Turkey

Christmas is approaching and here in Japan there is always a little bit of concern around what to eat on the big day.  I don’t really feel inclined to roast a whole turkey and invite 10 people over (seating is always an issue), I don’t want to spend $80 on badly catered turkey from one of the American restaurants here, I’m not a member of the Tokyo American Club so I can’t get their $200 whole turkey and sides thing, and I’m certainly not going to go full native and order KFC.  This is my only alternative.

This dish is more of a Japanese interpretation of a Christmas turkey.  I’ve used two of my favourite ingredients – shiso, a minty peppery Japanese herb, and ito-tougarashi a long, dried Korean chili that looks amazing.

Japanese Christmas Turkey

  • Turkey or chicken Breast
  • Aojiso (Green Perilla/Shiso)
  • Ito-tougarashi (Korean Shredded Red Chili)
  • Egg white
  • Cornflour
  • Nihonshu (Japanese Sake)
  • Tentsuyu (Tempura Dipping Sauce)
  • Cranberry Pulp or Juice
  1. Remove the skin and fat from the tenderloin or breast. I’ve used chicken in this case but if I end up making this around Christmas I will buy some turkey breast.  From the centre of the breast cut down halfway on the long axis and then across to the right and to the left inside the meat. Fold out the flaps and that should leave you with a flattened breast. Diagonally cut the meat into long, thin strips and transfer them to a bowl. Add salt and nihonshu and leave to marinade while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
  2. Take about 10 aojiso leaves per breast and cut them through along the long axis. Lay the halves on top of each other and roll them up. Now very finely julienne the leaves so you are left with fine threads of the shiso. Put them in a bowl and mix in a roughly equal amount of the ito-tougarashi.
  3. In yet another bowl, add in an egg white (1-2 per breast also) and beat until slightly frothy.
  4. Heat some frying oil in a wok or deep fryer to around 150-160C (at that temperature, small bubbles (but no big ones) should rise from the ends of a pair of wooden chopsticks as soon as you dip them in). You don’t want the oil too hot because you are not trying to brown the meat.
  5. Pour off any excess nihonshu from the chicken and add in a couple of tablespoons of cornflour. Mix thoroughly (using a pair of chopsticks is easiest from here on in) and then transfer first to the egg white and then to the shredded shiso and tougarashi. Mix well and then start adding the chicken to the oil. You’ll want work quickly and to do this one piece at a time, or else you will be left with either a stuck together mass of chicken or burnt parts.
  6. The chicken should only take 45 seconds or so. The chicken should still be mostly white and the shiso and tougarashi crispy but not discoloured. The fast cooking time and egg white make for a very soft and tender chicken (unlike many fried chicken dishes), which contrasts brilliantly with the crisp coating. Drain on some paper and make the dipping sauce.
  7. The dipping sauce couldn’t be easier. Assuming you’re using a good-quality prepared tentsuyu (although it is incredibly easy to make from scratch also, maybe I’ll put some kind of post up about that later) you just put that in a bowl and add in your cranberry juice to taste. I use an organic cranberry pulp but any cranberry juice will do.
Nagatoro River and BBQ Roasted Lamb

Some friends and I were heading off to the river for a bit of a BBQ so I decided to knock up some lamb.  All I did for this was blend all the ingredients together into a paste, spread it over the lamb and left it in a ziplock bag in the fridge overnight.

The photo is the 1.5 kilo shoulder roast I did on the BBQ.  It looks a bit burned in the photo because the coals were a little hot to start, but trust me when I tell you that it really was beautifully pink, tender and delicious on the inside (honestly). The sausage was a marjoram pork sausage tornade I secured with the leftover rosemary skewers after I’d used the leaves for the lamb marinade.

  • 1 onion
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 2 tbsp mustard
  • Lots of fresh rosemary (leaves only)
  • Lots of fresh marjoram (or oregano)
  • Salt and fresh black pepper
  • A few good lugs of Noilly Pratt (or gin if you prefer)

1950’s American Lasagne

I was browsing through a junk sale here in Tokyo a while ago and happened to find a First Edition of the 1957 Sunset compliation cookbook, “Cooking Bold and Fearless”. The book is a collection of recipes sent in by the “Chefs-of-the-West”; male food enthusiasts from all walks of life, from pilots and retired military officers to plumbers and accountants, that submitted recipes to be published in Sunset magazine over the preceding decade.

Post-war 1950’s America is not really a place or period you would generally associate with male cooks, culinary experimentation or inter-cultural understanding (Arkansas was still using the National Guard to prevent blacks from enrolling in schools and Mickey Rooney was probably reading scripts to play Japanese stereotypes) but the recipes in this book show the desire of the contributors to explore other cultures and foods. There are recipes for Spanish rice, Chinese ribs, Lebanese dips, Slavic borscht, Japanese tempura, French stews etc., all cobbled together from what these cooks could find in their 1950’s supermarkets.

So in homage to that pioneering spirit, I made this using the kind of ingredients those 1950’s cooks would have used, and put it together in the style of the time. Economy of ingredients and processes; bold flavours, primary elements and a basic, geometric construction. This was not a traditional Italian lasagne by any means, but it had a different kind of authenticity to it. It genuinely tasted to me like how I would’ve imagined a 1950s Californian lasagna. I loved it, and really enjoyed the process of making it.

Today, an American lasagna differs from a traditional Italian lasagne in that the bechamel is replaced by a cottage cheese mixture (sometimes using eggs or shredded processed mozarella), but I think that was a development through the ’70s, so this recipe uses a cheese sauce like I’ve seen in some earlier American lasagna recipes. The original 1950 first edition of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook had an American lasagna recipe but I have not been able to find it. If anyone has that recipe I’d love to have a look at it.

Each of the recipes in the book I found were also signed by the contributors, so I thought I’d do that too. Identity thieves please note that this is actually my real signature so I’d appreciate you not using it for forging cheques and buying imaginary houses and whatnot. Thanks a bunch.

1950’s American Lasagne

  • Meat Sauce: Vegetable Oil – Ground Beef – Onion – Garlic – Tinned Tomatoes – Dried Oregano – Dried Basil – Tomato Ketchup
  • Cheese Sauce: Butter – Flour – Milk – Dried Bay Leaf – Ground Nutmeg – Grated American Cheddar Cheese – Grated Parmesan Cheese
  • Dried Lasagne Sheets
  1. Start with the Meat Sauce. Chop the onion and garlic and saute with oil in a pot or deep pan until softened. Add in the ground beef and brown. Add in the diced tinned tomatoes, dried herbs and ketchup. Cover and simmer for an hour or so.
  2. For the Cheese Sauce, start by heating some milk in a saucepan with the bay leaf and half an onion (unchopped). Heat the butter in another saucepan and add in the flour when melted to make a firm paste. Cook through for a minute or two (without browning) and add in the hot milk a little at a time, working it after each addition to make sure there are no lumps. You need to cook the bechamel for around 20-30 minutes to cook out the raw flour flavour, so add more milk so that it doesn’t become too thick. After 20-30 minutes add in grated cheeses to taste and ground nutmeg.
  3. Cook the lasagne sheets in boiling salted water for a few minutes until softened. Lay these out on a damp towel while you wait.
  4. Build the lasagne (in an oiled pyrex dish for added 1950’s authenticity) with a layer of meat sauce, then cheese sauce, then pasta, etc. End with a layer of cheese sauce and add more of both cheeses to the top. Cover with foil and bake at 180C for around an hour, uncovering for the last 10-15 minutes to brown the cheese. Let the lasagne cool out of the oven for 20 minutes or so before serving with a salad.
Vegetable Confit

I’m not sure if this turned out more as a condiment or a soffrito. I guess it doesn’t really matter but the long and the short of it is that it can be used almost anywhere; you can add it to stews or casseroles as a great boost to flavour; serve it on top of grilled fish or meat, or simply toss it through some wholemeal pasta with lots of fresh parmesan and some parsley.  In the picture, I’ve used it a  topping for bruschetta along with some goat’s cheese.  The sweetness of the confit is a great foil for the acidity of the cheese.

  • 1 Carrot
  • 2 Stalks Celery (leaves removed)
  • 1 Medium Onion
  • 1 tsp Brown Sugar
  • 1.5 tsp Sea Salt
  • 0.5 tsp Dried Marjoram
  • 1 Bay Leaf
  • 1 strip Lemon Zest (taken with a peeler, about the same size as the bay leaf)
  • Black Pepper
  • 0.5 cup Olive Oil

The preparation is basic, just a brunoise of the vegetables mixed together with the other ingredients and baked under oil in a low 110C oven for about 4 hours until the vegetables break down.  There should be a slow stream of bubbles escaping the oil as the water in the vegetables steams off.