Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Food: Japanese Dinner

Progressive Pleasure starts with an ultimate pleasure: food!

Cruelty-free, health-positive and planet-friendly cooking is a quintessential Progressive Pleasure: it is a harmless practice that gives joy to the cook and the eaters, unites people, is a DIY, creative activity, promotes ethical and sustainable agricultural practices, and it can adapt to any budget.

Valentine's day sushi (crédit photo: crumpart)

Here is a set of recipes for a full Japanese dinner that I made for a few friends on Valentine's day.
Of course, this Japanese-inspired dinner that will amaze your friends (that's what you're after, right?) can be made all year round. I started having Sushi For Valentine's last year, and I decided to make it my tradition. I love traditions and rituals when they don't involve cruelty or narrow-mindedness. And tradition is also a good way to cut decision-making time.
-My Valentine's day is pretty non conventional, by the way, it's more of an excuse to get together with dear friends in various states of significant other-ness, and to bake heart-shaped cookies.

Bonus: Leftover Makeover! For you 9-to-5ers, bring the leftovers to work in a lunchbox and blow your office mates' minds! It feels so good to be praised for your cuisine. I love when skeptical non-vegans drool over my bowl.

I prepared this meal in the course of 3 days, a little bit each day.

Menu :
-Japanese soup
-Seaweed salad
-Pickled cucumbers
-Roll-you-own sushi
(stuffing : shiitake mushrooms,
cabbage, steamed and raw vegetables,
marinated baked tofu, baked eggplant)

-Dips and sauces

Accessories: make a thrift store trip to your favorite outlet and score a few small bowls (for dipping sauces) and flat plates, as well as cute fabric napkins.
Bamboo sushi rollers are really convenient, but I did not have any, so I used fabric napkins.
Accompaniment: wasabi and marinated ginger.
For the sushi, you will need seaweed (nori) wraps, and some additional raw veggies (carrots and cucumbers cut in fine strips, avocado...) if you feel like it.

Mirin, rice vinegar, nori sheets and makisu

To drink, sake is appropriate. If you like it hot, you can heat it in a microwave (on low) or on the stove, in its bottle or ceramic container, in a pan full of water, Bain-Marie style. You may also want to drink Japanese beer or, simply, green tea.

Order of preparation: Start with the dishes which need to marinate for a while, and the elements required in the making of other things (like soup stock). It's convenient to be able to do a little bit each day, and to not have to prep everything the day of. Not everybody can dedicate a big chunk of their day to cooking. Some of us do have jobs and stuff, if only to support their expensive fine cooking and dinner-throwing habits...

Day one:
Dashi Stock
Dashi is the Japanese version of soup stock. The most commonly used dashi is non-vegetarian (miso soups in restaurants generally use fish dashi), but actually, many ways of making traditional dashi are cruelty-free. (Yes, you can be traditional AND progressive at the same time!). You should start this whole dinner preparation with dashi, for you will need it in several preparations.

Proportions: one large mushroom per cup of water (I needed dashi for several preparations, so I made 5 cups.)
5 cups water
5 large dried shiitake mushrooms
Put water and mushrooms in a cooking pot. Soak the mushrooms for 30 minutes (less if you're short on time). Turn the heat on and bring to a boil. Turn heat off and let it sit for 30 minutes. Voilà! Put aside. Keep refrigerated. (And don't discard those shiitake mushrooms! They're for later.)

Sesame-seaweed salt
In stores, they sell you readymade "rice seasoning" or gomasio, which is good, but the organic version is inevitably expensive, and they always include roasted sesame seeds, and I like 'em raw, they have more nutrients. I just buy the ingredients in bulk, mix my own seasoning and keep it in a cute glass jar.

raw sesame seeds of several hues
seaweed flakes
sea salt
Mix in a jar, in proportions that suit your taste (seaweed is already salty, so adjust to your liking) and sense of aesthetics (I like the mix of colors). Make a big batch and keep the jar in your fridge to use for everyday seasoning. Sprinkle on top of your stir-fries, salads or plain looking dishes. It will add beauty and nutrients to your meals.

Pickled cucumber
You can make these several days in advance. It's so good you could be tempted to eat it all before D Day…
1 English cucumber, thinly sliced (use the blade on your grater or food processor, or a thin mandoline)
salt (to sprinkle on cucumber and drain water out)
4 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2, 3 drops of hot sauce
1 ½ tbsp sesame-seaweed seasoning

Place cucumbers in a colander, sprinkle with salt, mix, and let sit for ½ hour.
Rinse under cold water to remove salt. Press to squeeze out water.
Mix together rice vinegar, sugar, and salt. Stir until sugar and salt dissolve.
Pour over cucumbers, add strips of pickled ginger if you feel like it. Sprinkle with the sesame seaweed seasoning. Mix and keep in fridge.
(You can add pickled ginger and a bit of pickled ginger juice for a more ginger-y taste).

Day two:
Wakame-rice noodles salad
3 Tbs Dashi
1 Tbs Soy sauce
3 Tbs Rice wine vinegar
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp Mirin
1/2 oz Wakame seaweed, dried
1 handful of rice vermicelli
sesame-seaweed seasoning (to taste)

Soak the wakame in lukewarm water for 20 minutes. You can use it as is (if you want to keep the nutrients) or cook it on low heat for 10 minutes (in that case, use the wakame-flavored water, that now holds the seaweed's nutrients, as broth). Cook the vermicelli in wakame water for about two minutes (it's fast). Trim away any rough stems, then coarsely chop the wakame. Pour over dressing, and mix. Top with sesame-seaweed seasoning. (NB: this salad was delicious, but I found the seaweed hard to chew. Make sure your seaweed gets really soft, remove all coarse parts)

Dips and sauces:
Shabutare is a dipping sauce for shabu shabu, a traditional fondue dish in which food is cooked by being dipped in hot broth. I went a little fusion here and made shabutare a dip for makis... Scandalous! (The purists will have to forgive me.)

½ cup tahini
¼ cup miso paste (light in color)
2 tbsp rice vinegar
2 tbsp mirin
2 tbsp soy sauce
½ cup sugar, dissolved in ¼ cup boiling water
½ teasp garlic powder
a few drops of chili oil
½ teasp sesame oil
mix in blender

Tempura sauce: for tempura dips or any dipping purposes.
1 cup dashi stock
½ cup soy sauce
¼ cup mirin

You will marinate the tofu, bake the eggplant sticks and cook the cabbage strips in it.
This recipe is a variation on a marinade that I found in one of my inspirational books: Vegan with a Vengeance, by Post Punk Kitchen Mistress Isa Chandra Moskowitz.

1 cup mirin
6 tbsp tamari
4 tbsp rice vinegar
2 tbsp sesame oil
4 tsp Asian chile sauce (or spicy sauce)
a 2-inch chunk of fresh ginger, peeled
4 cloves of garlic
Chop garlic and ginger, mix all ingredients in bowl, or put everything in your food processor.

Marinated tofu strips
1 package of firm tofu, drained and pressed (let sit at the bottom of a colander with some weight on top)
Cut tofu into strips (thin enough to be stuffed and rolled in sushi). Pour marinade at the bottom of container, lay down a layer of tofu strips, pour more marinade on top, add another layer… Make sure all the tofu is covered and soaking. Refrigerate and let the tofu absorb the marinade.

There is much more marinade than needed for the tofu alone: you will also use it to bake the eggplant sticks and cook cabbage strips.

Day three
Baked eggplant strips
1 big eggplant, or 1 long Japanese eggplant
Pre-heat oven (350). Lightly oil a flat oven-safe pan. Cut eggplant in half, scoop out the middle, and cut in strips (small finger size). Dip strips in cooking marinade, align in pan.
Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Let cook 20 minutes, until eggplant is very soft.

Cooked cabbage strips
1/2 Chinese or white cabbage (keep the remaining half for later –cf Leftovers Makeover)
Cut cabbage leaves in thin strips, put in small pan and pour cooking marinade over. Cover with lid. Cook on medium heat, lid on, for 5 minutes. Take the lid off and simmer on low heat until most liquid is gone.

Mushroom stuffing
5 reconstituted shiitake mushrooms (from your dashi preparation)
5 fresh mushrooms
1/3 cup dashi
1 Tbs sugar
2 Tbs mirin
2 Tbs soy sauce
Remove the stems. Cut mushrooms into small strips. Mix liquids in bowl, pour over mushrooms in a small pan. Simmer until the liquid is almost gone.

Prepare it day of. Allow enough time to cool down.
You must get sushi rice, the kind that gets sticky. If it doesn't stick, you cannot make sushi.
Wash rice until water is clear. Put rice in pot, drown rice in water.
How to properly cook rice? I used to have problems with water/rice proportions and would always end up burning the pot… until a Chinese-American friend gave me her mom's tip. To know how much water should cover the rice, measure by putting the tip of your index finger on the rice: the water over the rice must reach your first knuckle (the one closest to the tip). It works all the time! Cover the pot, cook on high heat, bring to a boil, and then put on low for 10 minutes (don't open the lid!). Turn the heat off and let rice sit for another 15 minutes. (You can also do it in a rice cooker, but the metal container is usually made of aluminium, which, according to some, is not a safe cooking material)
Put your rice in a container that can close hermetically. Let cool, but not in the fridge, where it would dry. You don't want dry rice.

Clear soup
Soup is a common fare in Japan: miso soup, of course, soba and udon soups (with noodles, that you slurp straight out of the bowl!) but also clear soups. They are all prepared with dashi.
3 cups water
2 cups dashi (more would outpower the taste with shiitake mushroom flavor)
½ tsp mirin
1 teaspoon soy sauce
2 oz tofu cut into cubes
1 dried shiitake
1 oz mushrooms
veggies :1 small zucchini, cut in cubes, 1 carrot, cut in small cubes, some cabbage
1 scallion, thinly sliced
I thought it needed a little more taste, so I added ¼ cup of the liquid in which I had cooked the cabbage. Put in a pot all the ingredients together (except for the scallion), and cook until the veggies are soft but not mushy. Serve in bowl with sliced scallion on top.

Dessert: at Minako's, an organic, vegan-friendly Japanese restaurant in San Francisco's Mission district, they serve an orange-mint, agar-based sweet treat at the end of the meal. Agar is this seaweed that solidifies like gelatin, but is not made of bones. I never found any recipe for the Minako treat, so I tried to make my own. I have to say that it was not met with wild enthusiasm! Anticipating the effect of such a controversial fare, I had asked a guest to pick up some non-dairy green tea ice cream, and it was a good idea! I'm sure there are good agar desserts out there, but this attempt was not my most successful cooking endeavor!

Dinner time!

Your work station (photo: ici)

Place all you need to make sushi on a table or countertop and have your guests make their own rolls. Procedure: with tongs, roast for a second or two your seaweed on the stove, lay it flat on the bamboo sushi roller, cover with a layer of rice (but leave one inch, on one side, uncovered), put whatever stuffing you desire and roll! Cut the roll into six pieces with a sharp knife, and dip these pieces in whatever dip you fancy (it can also be plain soy sauce with wasabi).

No animals were harmed in the making of these very cute rolls
(Photo credit: here)

Leftover Makeover!
You probably didn't use all of your cabbage, so we are going to make Stuffed cabbage leaves.
I took this to a friend's the day after. It got me a: "If it's the way vegans eat, I understand why one can be vegan" from a certified, nonquestioning omnivore.

Bake whatever remaining vegetables (cut in thin slices or strips) in what's left of the tofu marinade. Just put everything in a casserole dish and cook on medium heat. Cooking time will depend on veggies and size of slices.
Stuff a raw cabbage leaf with rice and baked veggies and dip in leftover sauce.

Leftover shabutare: use it for any dipping purposes. It's an easy to make, crowd pleasing dip that will ensure you success at parties. You can also recycle this thick dip into a salad dressing by adding water, oil, soy sauce (to taste).

Leftover rice: if you put it in the fridge, it must be kinda dry. Just steam it for a few minutes, and you have a hot, moist, sticky rice. You can also stir-fry it with leftover veggies for a colorful fried rice dish.

Another satisfied customer...


Popularity points: 4,5. It was delicious, nicely presented and it was visible that I had put time and energy into this. It was nice for everybody to try out their maki-rolling skills.
Karma points: 4/4,5. Some things come were not made/grown locally (Mirin, algues...), but I biked to the grocery store! -And I celebrated love and friendship in a fun and unusual way, without buying into the commercial hysteria of Valentine's day.

The Post Punk Kitchen's vegan sushi
Just Hungry

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