September 27, 2010

Discovering Japan: Creamy Edamame Soup with Shichimi-Togarashi

Tokyo is a weird and wonderful place. On the surface, it shouldn't work as well as it does.  Millions of people crowded into a very tiny space.  Incomprehensive street addresses (every taxi driver struggles to find your destination, GPS working overtime, map scrutinized at every light).  A subway system that spiders all over the city in a confusing web of intersecting lines.  No English signs in sight, and barely more "English spoke here" places.  What pulls it all together is the Japanese themselves.  Unfailingly courteous and interested, the Japanese make strangers feel welcome and cared for.  Even if you're not 'xactly sure what you're eating. 

Barbecued eel for lunch, in a restaurant that served nothing but

There are so many things to love about Tokyo, but what I love most is the reverence with which food is held. The Japanese worship at the altar of seasonality, each piece of fruit, each specialty food item sacred. Food is not merely sustenance; it’s something to be savoured, appreciated, each meal a leisurely exploration of every taste.

Wasabi grating in action at Seamon

Nowhere is this reverence more apparent than in the hundreds of tiny food shops that dot the city. Many have been in business for decades, honing their expertise in either crafting or choosing the very best. Many sell just one thing – a certain type of pickled plum, say, or Japanese omelettes (come early – the shop closes when the omelettes are gone).  On a recent trip to Tokyo, and with Food Sake Tokyo* as our bible, we set out on the trail to find culinary treats to take home. Musk melons at $250.00 were out of the question (and, yes, that’s not an incorrect decimal point!), as was fresh wasabi, seen grated a la minute at sushi counters throughout the city.

About $250USD for two - and perfect in every way

Fresh wasabi - slightly more reasonable at about $16USD

Spices seemed like a good bet, and how could we not visit Yagenbori, in business since 1625, and the proud originators and purveyors of Shichimi-Togarashi? This wonderfully complex seven spice blend gives dishes deeply subtle nuances of flavour.  It's a medium-spicy blend of seven ingredients: black sesame seeds; the dried peel of the unshu mikan (Satsuma orange); Japanese sansho pepper; dried capsicum; roasted dry capsicum; hemp seeds and poppy seeds.

The delicious mixture for Shichimi-Togarashi

While your spices are being packaged you can choose a traditional wooden shaker

I knew exactly what I wanted to try it on when I got home – my attempt to recreate a cold and creamy edamame soup I had in Tokyo that was so so good. The soup turned out to be incredibly easy, and with fresh edamame still available at the farmers’ market (and frozen a grocery store away), edamame soup is as easy as one-two-three.

Creamy Edamame Soup
serves 4-6

Edamame beans, fresh or frozen, enough to yield two cups shelled
1 shallot, sliced
2 c chicken soup stock
½ tbsp vegetable oil
1½ c fresh buttermilk or skim milk
1 tbsp fresh butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Shichimi-togarashi for garnish (optional - you can order it here)

1. Boil edamame beans. Shell edamame and also remove the fine skin on the beans. While this may seems like an additional step, it will yield an ultra smooth soup.

2. Heat oil in a saucepan and sauté shallots. Add chicken soup stock and edamame, bring to a boil, and simmer for 30 minutes on low heat.

3. Puree the edamame beans, and put back into the saucepan. Add the buttermilk and butter. Simmer for 5 minutes on low heat. Add butter, salt, and pepper to season.

Fresh edamame beans - beautiful variations of colour

The buttermilk yield from homemade butter

Final step to soup...

This rich, delicious and nutritious soup is fabulous served either warm or cold. Serve it in small cups as a starter, or in shot glasses for a wonderfully different appetiser.

A taste of Japan

*If you visit Tokyo, you need a personal guide to help you navigate. The newly published Food Sake Tokyo is all you will need. A carefully edited and lovingly assembled collection of all things food, chef and former depachica sommelier Yukari Sakamoto turns even the shortest trip to Tokyo into a culinary adventure. Check out her blog for up to the minute tips and tastes.

September 07, 2010

Can-O-Rama: Italian Tomato Sauce

While September may signal back to school for most, for me it’s indelibly linked with something else – the smell of tomato sauce. September meant bushels of tomatoes in the backyard, the back porch spread with even more to further ripen in the sun; huge pots bubbling on the stoves in the kitchen and the basement; jar after gleaming jar filling the tiny kitchen table; and most of all, my parents, working as a tag team, up early and well into the night, conversation sparse, focused on the task at hand.

After trying plum jam with success, it seemed time to honour my parents’ memory by making my own tomato sauce.  And, like my parents, it was a team effort, me and Rich both chopping, stirring, and tasting the afternoon away.  For such a simple thing, there are seemingly a million ways to make the sauce, all sanctioned by legions of Italian nonnas.  I'm looking forward to perfecting our very own tried and tested technique in the years to come.

Italian Tomato Sauce
makes approx 6 litres

This excellent sauce will form the essential basis to any great tomato or meat sauce. It’s deliberately salt and seasoning free, the better to leave a blank canvas upon which you can create your own sauce masterpieces.

Tomato Sauce Ingredients:
1 bushel San Marzano or Roma tomatoes

Citric acid, ½ tsp for each 1 litre jar
1 large bunch fresh basil (optional)

We searched high and low for San Marzano tomatoes - the ultimate plum tomato

Before plunging into sauce making, prep your equipment. You may want to have a jar or two extra on hand in case your tomatoes yield more.  This website provides a great "Canning 101" and will give you lots more information if you're interested.

Here’s what you’ll need:

• 8 1 litre Mason jars
• 8 jar lids and screw bands
• Tongs
• Canning funnel
• A stockpot to cook the sauce. I used a 14 litre capacity pot, and had to make the tomatoes in two batches. Depending on your budget and ambition, you can scale up or down.
• A canner to seal the jars

Tongs, jars and a canning funnel: canning essentials

1. Prep your equipment. Clean and sterilise your jars by washing them in warm soapy water and rinsing thoroughly; putting the through a quick wash cycle in the dishwasher is even easier and ensures sterilization. Set aside on a clean tea towel.

2. Wash and sort tomatoes. Trim, core and cut into quarters.

3. Put two cups of tomato quarters into an oversized stockpot. Bring to a boil. Using a potato masher, crush the tomatoes to release the juices.

4. Add more tomato quarters, two cups at a time, bringing to boil and crushing as before. Continue adding tomatoes until your pot reaches capacity. You may need to cook the tomatoes in two batches. At this point, cook an additional ten minutes until the tomatoes are completely soft. Cool slightly.

5. Pass the tomatoes through a food mill to separate the seeds and the skin from the puree. Put the tomato puree back into the stockpot (be sure to rinse the pot of any stray seeds or skin). Bring to a boil, reduce heat slightly, and continue to cook at a rolling boil until the puree is reduced by a third (about one to one and half hours). For a thicker sauce, continue boiling until reduced by half.

6. While the puree is cooking, finish prepping your canning equipment. Wash the lids and the bands. Keep the lids hot in a small pot of simmering water. Fill your canner with water, add the clean Mason jars, and put on the stove over medium high heat to begin heating the water. The water will eventually need to be brought to a boil.

7. When the sauce is ready, you’re ready to can! Using the tongs, carefully lift a jar out of the canner, emptying the water back into the canner. Set the hot jar on a tea towel and place a sprig of basil in the jar. (Note: my mother always slipped a sprig of basil in each jar, but that strong oils will definitely change the flavour profile of your sauce.  For pure tomato goodness, eliminate the basil).

8. Place the funnel on top of the jar and put a ladleful of hot sauce into the jar. Add ½ tsp citric acid and continue filling the jar, stopping ½ inch from the top.

9. Run a small spatula or skewer around the inside of the jar to release any air bubbles. Wipe the top of the jar to remove any bits of sauce.

10. Carefully remove a hot lid from the pot and place firmly on the jar. Screw a band on until just fingertip tight. Place the jar back in the canner ran proceed with remaining jars.

11. Once the jars are all done, bring the water in the canner to a boil, ensuring the water is at least one inch above the tops of the jars. When the water boils, cover the canner and process the jars for 40 minutes.

12. Take the jars out carefully with tongs and place on a tea towel. Let rest for 24 hours and test to ensure the seal is firm.

Buon appetito!

September 01, 2010

Summer Cornucopia: Heirloom Tomato and Grilled Corn Salad with Marjoram

The dog days of summer are here, and as hot sultry August becomes September, the hot days are redeemed by the abundance of the season.  Although shrink-wrapped corn is available year round, it's only now that I want to buy the crunchy, milky ears.  And while it's dead simple to boil an ear or two and douse them with butter and salt, these beauties deserve a gourmet treatment.

Paired with über ripe heirloom tomatoes, dabs of lemony scented sheep's milk cheese and fresh marjoram, this salad is super easy and addictive.

Tomato and Grilled Corn Salad with Marjoram
serves four

4 large leaves butter lettuce
3 ears of corn, silk and husks removed
1 dozen heirloom cherry tomatoes
2-3 medium heirloom tomatoes; choose red, orange, yellow
¼ c olive oil
½ tbsp sherry vinegar
½ tsp fine sea salt, more to taste
Coarse black pepper to taste
⅛ c chopped fresh marjoram, plus a sprig or two for garnish
½ c soft sheep or goat milk cheese (I used Blossom from Monforte Dairy; if you can find a soft cheese with lemon zest, try it - it will give your salad a subtle zing)

1.  Line a platter with the lettuce leaves and set aside.

2.  Grill the ears of corn until they are lightly charred.  Cool, cut the kernels off and place in a medium bowl.

3.  Add the cherry tomatoes, cutting the larger ones in two, and add to the corn.  Add half the olive oil, sherry vinegar, salt and pepper and toss lightly to combine.  Spread the mixture over the platter.

4.  Slice the larger heirloom tomatoes and place them on top of the tomato-corn mixture.  Dab the cheese on top, drizzle the remaining olive oil over the platter, and sprinkle a bit more salt on top of the sliced tomatoes.  Garnish with marjoram sprigs and serve.

Summer never tasted so good