whoever decided to call this stuff “fermented bean paste” clearly had no concept of what sounds appetizing and what does not. if i were asked on the street, “excuse me, would you like a bowl of fermented bean paste soup?”, you can bet your butt i would say no. but “miso soup”? i would be all over that like white on rice.
think about any pasta salad you have ever had. did it involve copious amounts of mayo and/or butter? yeah, that’s what i thought.
as a midwesterner, i am far too familiar with that cloying texture. the sound of pasta salad squelching as you dig a spoon into it still haunts my nightmares. i have learned to fear the gradually deepening yellow color of the salad as it becomes warmer and warmer in the intense heat of outdoor barbecue parties. yes, i begrudgingly enjoy it now and again. but i can feel my arteries screaming in pain as i masticate every bite.
imagine eating a big fat plate of the southern-style pasta salad i just described as the main course of lunch. imagine the unending stomach pains that would result. imagine the huge spike in your blood pressure. imagine all those veggies, still half-buried in their fields somewhere, calling for the imposter “salad” to be deposed.
luckily, somewhere in a lab deep beneath the earth, japanese scientists and farmers were cooperating to create a new breed of pasta salad implementing an innovative hybrid noodle. a noodle with texture, a noodle with flavor, a noodle so fresh that veggies would shriek and swoon at the prospect of being mixed in the same bowl (if they could shriek or swoon).
and they called that noodle harusame.
made of mung bean starch, water, and magic, they are the perfect choice for a fresh, filling, and absolutely delicious summer salad.
when june rolls around in japan, the weather takes a turn for the worst. these few weeks between spring and full-fledged summer are characterized on this side of the world by rain almost every day, intense heat, and truly ridiculous humidity. the japanese call this weather tsuyu, which is of course their word meaning “to die of asphyxiation because the air is so laden with moisture you could drown whilst walking to the grocery store.”
that being said, atrocious weather isn’t the only herald of summer. because of the amazing raw food culture that japan has, all kinds of tasty and extremely fresh foods start appearing in the mom and pop small restaurants all over the country the moment june swings into full-force. while it may seem strange to most of us in the west (with the exclusion of pasta salad, which i was never really that big on anyway), cold noodle dishes like zarusoba and hiyashi chuka become very easy to consume in quantity when the mercury goes through the roof.
and in my mind, there is no cold noodle dish that can hold a candle to sōmen. these japane
se noodles are made from wheat flour and have a milky white color to them, much like udon. but sōmen stand alone in that their diameter is extremely thin (less than 1.3 mm by definition), which makes them super delicate and incredibly fast cooking. once cooked and flash chilled, the noodles are generally added to a deliciously salty broth and topped with all manner of awesome fresh produce.
yesterday, i got to hankering, and decided to give it a go.
i like to tell my friends that, when it comes to cooking, there are three kinds of people in this world.
first, there are the people who have a million different knives, none of which are sharp or useful. second, there are the people who use their knife until it is no longer sharp, and then throw it away and buy a new one.
last, there are people who have one knife that they keep so ridiculously sharp it is at risk of cutting through the food, the cutting board, and the counter beneath.
while this categorization is a little bit cut and dry (no pun intended), there is some truth to it. i admit, i used to be the second type of person. but i can confidently say that now, i am the third type through and through. in my opinion, one knife is all you need as long as you care for it and know how to use it properly.
and when it comes to using a knife properly, japan takes the cake. not only are their knives incredible, the people who wield them command incredible respect and admiration. i have been to a few sushi restaurants that consist of nothing more than a counter and chairs, but left with the feeling that i had been to a five-star restaurant. the flavor of sashimi, maybe more than any other food in the world, is determined entirely by freshness and the knife used to prepare it.
so i thought, why not make sashimi at home? and then i thought, “i’m not a 85-year-old japanese man who can slice perfect sashimi in his sleepo, that’s why.” and then i thought, “even those guys had to start somewhere.”
and then i went and bought some fish. my knife did not disappoint.
close your eyes and imagine you are a five-year-old. it is your birthday, and your parents have tied a bandana around your head to cover your eyes with. the time for presents has come, and when the big reveal finally happens, you find a mini-clydesdale standing in front of you.
it’s a horse, and as a five-year-old, you realize how awesome that is. but once this realization passes, aren’t really sure where to go from here. you don’t know if it will be your friend. you don’t know if it is dangerous or not. you aren’t even sure what an animal like a mini-clydesdale can be used for. can you ride it? do you take it for walks? does it stay in your house or outside? because you don’t know the answers to any of these questions, you just kind of stand there slack-jawed in surprise and excitement and confusion.
now imagine that you are you, and the mini-clydesdale is the perfect 10. i gave you a list. i did a good job of telling you why i made the list in the way i did. but i didn’t really tell you what it is good for.
so now, i’m going to teach you how to ride the mini-clydesdale. that’s right, it is recipe time.
there is a reason they called it stock, and that is because you should always have an inexhaustible supply of it. i don’t know if that is actually why it is called stock, but if it isn’t, it should be.
stock comes in all different kinds, and that is why it is just so darn indispensable for a well-prepared cook. chicken stock, beef stock, pork stock, fish-based stock (such as japanese dashi), and the myriad vegetable stocks that exist all have very different flavor profiles. each can help you accomplish a particular goal in the kitchen. try them out and see which one does best with your particular style of cooking. if you can’t decide, it never hurts to have all of them on hand.
stock keeps remarkably well. in the case of chicken, beef, and pork stock, it is regularly frozen in bags or cubes and stored. it can then be used directly from the freezer. in the case of fish stock, like dashi, or vegetable stocks, such as seaweed-based broths, they are often condensed into dry granules that can then be reconstituted when mixed with hot water.
there is no possible way that i can list all of the uses of stock without typing until my fingers bleed. stock can be used as a flavorful alternative when boiling pasta, an aromatic base when steaming or broiling meat, the backbone of any good soup, a base flavor for sauce, or palette cleanser between the courses of a meal. which is just to name of few of the more popular implementations.
it comes in a can pretty often in the states, but if you go to your local butcher shop often times you can find it frozen in a bag. the stuff the butcher shop has is generally going to be a little fresher and a more pure, but for the difference in cost it might not matter to you. remember, buy the stock you want for your recipe, and don’t be enticed by claims of “less fat” and “half the sodium.” sometimes, your stock needs those things to function in the way you want it to, and to exclude the “fat” and “salt” from your broth can often be a recipe for bland food.
like any charcuterie will tell you, fat is your friend.
without stock, you would never be able to make things like bacon leek and potato chowder, real miso soup, any kind of gravy, white bean chicken chili, french onion soup, or beef stew. i don’t even want to imagine a world without beef stew. what a terrible, terrible place that would be.
don’t call me a fatty or judge me or anything yet. butter is amazing, and yet on the whole completely misunderstood. as much as i like to make fun of france, they understand a single tried and true fact more than most other countries.
very rarely is there such a thing as too much butter. and while you may disagree with me based on your experiences, you are wrong. don’t worry, i will tell you why.
salted butter is the bane of butter lovers everywhere. if you had told me twenty five seconds ago that there is such as a thing as too much salted butter, i would have nodded in agreement and maybe given you a fist bump or something equally corny. salted butter has extremely limited uses (e.g. for sauces, basting meats when grilling, and frying eggs). even in situations for which it is well-suited, it can often ruin food when used in too great a quantity and might better be replaced with unsalted butter anyway. i invite you now to throw salted butter aside.
those of you who have yet to get up from your chair to throw your salted butter in the garbage can are more likely than not bakers, whether professional or amateur. baking, especially the creation of wonders like puff pastry and pie crust, involves the use of copious (see: appropriate, glorious) amounts of butter. it is butter that provides these baked goods with their flakiness, their fluffiness, and the airy light texture we all know and love.
sure, you can spread it on things. yeah, you can put it in a frying pan instead of vegetable oil. ok, go ahead and put it on top of your baked potato. but don’t sell butter short. it is so much more than you ever could have imagined, and the mild creaminess of unsalted butter is an invitation to try to use it in whatever you can. it won’t kill you, i promise.
we have butter to thank for mashed sweet potatoes, crepes, croissants, phyllo dough, baklava, the greatest grilled pork tenderloin recipes of all time, and most indian cuisine involving lentils (such as daal, which is fan-freaking-tastic). the list goes on.
people who don’t like cucumbers need to learn to relax. yeah, they are watery. sure, the skin can tend to be a little bitter and the seeds can be a pain in the butt. but don’t concentrate on the negatives. concentrate on the crispness. the bountiful, bountiful crispness. the cucumber is a wonder because, despite the almost violent crunchy goodness, it has a flavor so mild and friendly that it seems to say “go fraternize with other vegetables, but know that when you come back, i’ll be waiting for you.” and once you learn to effectively utilize the cucumber, you might never leave home again.
like spinach, cucumbers are absolutely delicious when raw. unlike spinach, it is generally ill-advised to use cucumbers in any kind of cooking that involves heat. yes, i can feel your incredulity through the internet. trust me, i’ll explain.
why in the name of all that is holy would a vegetable that should never be cooked end up on a list of ingredients which is supposed to be comprised of the most essential groceries for cooking?
if you remember when i first described the concept of the perfect 10, the purpose of the list was not to provide a series of ingredients, each with a unique and complex flavor profile which could make or break your cuisine. if that were the case, the perfect 10 would be rife with black truffles and iberian bacon and smoked gruyere cheese and the like. but instead, the point of the perfect 10 is to provide cheap, versatile, long-lasting, and easily prepared foods to aid the common person in filling their belly and feeding their soul.
it is the “easy” portion of that description which most aptly fits cucumbers. it is totally valid to criticize cucumbers for their inability to be cooked. but such criticism cuts both ways. cooking food with heat requires time and effort and preparations before the cooking part even begins. preparing food without heat requires nothing but technique and a little bit of imagination. start cooking potroast, and i’ll start making a salad. we’ll see who ends up eating first.
or we could not do that, because i think you already know who will win.
cucumbers could easily be one of the fastest foods to prepare. from the refrigerator to the serving dish, a beautiful, complex, and delicious cucumber salad can be prepared in under ten minutes with just a little bit of know-how.
and if you have a little more time, cucumbers can become something truly spectacular. homemade pickles (or japanese sunomono) and tsatziki sauce are just two examples of excellent foods that can be prepared with a very few ingredients and almost no effort to speak of. just remember to bring along cucumber’s three best friends: salt, garlic, and anything creamy.
yogurt is pretty good for you. i think. i honestly don’t know, because that doesn’t matter to me and it isn’t even close to the reason why i put it in the perfect 10. so it must be on the list because it goes so well with fruit, right? yeah, well, i don’t really ever eat fruit, so i’m not too sure about that one. oh, so it must be on the list because it tastes like heaven when you pour honey on it. so does everything else in the world, so we can throw that reason out with the rest of them.
i’m not trying to write you off. yogurt with fruit at the bottom is really tasty, and using yogurt as the main ingredient in smoothies is a great idea. and you aren’t wrong, yogurt with honey is great. but yogurt was meant for so much more than being a creamy fruit/honey delivery system.
the bacterial cultures present in yogurt give it a chemically dynamic nature that milk and butter can’t even begin to hold a candle to. granted, the living nature of yogurt can cause it to spoil quickly, burn, fall victim to over-mixing, or become a seemingly unending font of water. but the good far outweighs the bad.
yogurt is a beautifully engineered, chemically complex powerhouse of possibilities. to make yogurt from milk is a waste of time (for the average person), mainly because it would most likely be faster and cheaper to just go out and buy yogurt. but to use yogurt as basic building block for the creation of much more expensive, harder-to-come-by foods is not only easy, but smart and cost-effective. for instance, all you need to make a healthier version of sour cream is a drip coffee filter, a cup, a tub of plain yogurt, and time. i know, i do it all the time. and from this pseudo-sour cream to cheese (such as lebaneh), all you need is a little more time and lemon juice (or any other citrus-based acid). starting to understand why yogurt is on this list?
i won’t lie to you, yogurt can take some practice to use effectively. but once you start to embrace the practical chemistry of its uses, you will find yourself becoming a more self-sufficient person and a more practical cook.
“well, if you are such a good cook, why don’t you use real tomatoes, huh?” i do. pretty regularly. but there are a few questions about real tomatoes that can get in the way of a good cooking session. for instance:
how do you know if a tomato is ripe? what do you do with the seeds? what do you do with the skin? why is the tomato green on the inside? why is the tomato grainy and not very good? where the heck is all this water coming from? what is the difference between all these types of tomatoes?
and with canned tomatoes, all these questions can go away in the blink of an eye. can you make all the same recipes as you would have been able to with fresh tomatoes? simple answer, no. bruschetta with canned tomatoes is terrible. pico de gallo with canned tomatoes is terrible. margarita pizza with canned tomatoes is terrible. i think you get the idea.
but instead of these recipes (most of which aren’t exactly price or time-friendly), you can make some simpler, more suitable meals for a fraction of the price. canned tomatoes, when utilized appropriately, can cut down on preparatory time, cost, amount of seasoning required, and even cleanup. but there is one advantage to canned tomatoes that often goes overlooked.
reliability. canned tomatoes are pretty darn consistent. when you pop that can lid, very rarely are you going to be surprised by what comes out. the tomatoes will be soft, they will be contained in their own juice, and there may be a little bit of salt added for the sake of preservation. fresh tomatoes, however, could be one of the most unreliable fruits around. even an expert occasionally picks out and pays for a tomato that just isn’t good. i would estimate that for every three fresh tomatoes i have purchased in the grocery store, at least one was mealy, not ripe yet, too soft, bruised, or severely lacking in usable flesh. there are just so many things that can go wrong with fresh tomatoes, and while 3:1 is a pretty good success ratio, it isn’t nearly good enough for somebody who is living on a budget. 25% of your food going to waste just isn’t cost effective.
and so instead of the bruschettas and pico de gallos and margarita pizzas, i invite you to make foods that are a little more conservative. homemade tomato sauce, tomato-based curry, dark chocolate mole, chili, beef stew, and minestrone are all rib-sticking, delicious meals in and of themselves, and the quantities in which they can be produced can save you from having to cook every day. just something to keep in mind.
are canned tomatoes a shortcut to good food? you bet your butt they are, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
if you hadn’t already guessed, it is sauce week in the poor man’s kitchen. which means yesterday, i went out and bought myself a few cheap plastic sauce bottles and committed myself to making at least nine sauces this week. but i can’t go about just drinking sauces out of the bottle, now can i? i mean, i suppose i could, but i’m not so sure i would want to.
so instead, by taking mister mcgee’s lesson to heart, my plan is to make three meals this week which each highlight three sauces. the goal of each of these meals is to take three pieces of a single food, prepared in exactly the same way, and by applying a different sauce to each, create three distinct and independently delicious flavors.
last night, chicken breasts were my sauce vectors.
i purchased three chicken breasts, butterflied them, cooked them in a pan with a little bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper, and then subjected them to my first three sauces of the week. and i even had two insane canadians over to my house to share in the bounty.