Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Is Nothing Sacred?

You're looking at a can of Sapporo beer, an inexpensive, fairly decent lager.
Fried Chicken Beer
Now Japanese beers often come in peculiar flavors. One I've seen a lot of lately is ginger beer -- not ginger-beer, but beer with ginger flavoring in it. That's not particularly bad, I suppose, by comparison to such nauseating American products as Pumpkin Cinnamon Beer.

But let's spell out the label here:

フライドチキン: Fu-rai-do Chi-kin
You got it, Fried Chicken Beer.

Fortunately, it turns out to be an ad. "If you're buying this beer at Family Mart, why not pick up some Family Mart fried chicken as well?" Nevertheless, I got a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach when I spotted this. I just had to buy a can, in the interest of science.

I'm actually sort of disappointed, though. I was all prepared to make clever, cutting remarks about the flavor.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Larry the Lox

You probably know lox, gravlaks, gravlax, gravad laks, etc. There are many versions of this, but they all boil down to the same: fish fillet is cured, then sliced thin and served. As a rule, gravlaks is not smoked, and traditionally lox isn’t either. Smoked salmon is a different thing, and I for one find them remarkably different.

Usually this curing process is done with salmon, because it originated around the North Sea where salmon is (or was) very plentiful and used as a staple protein, and because salmon has enough fat and such that it stores very well if processed. Similar products — cured, smoked, and/or dried salmon — are also traditional among many native communities along the Pacific Northwest where Pacific salmon run.

Provided the fish you use is impeccably fresh, you can cure anything, and it’s easy to do at home. You can also cold-smoke at home, but it’s something of a production. I’m thinking of trying that one of these days, too, but I thought I’d start with the easy one.

The only irritating part about making gravlax is that you have to have two pieces which are pretty close to the same size. Of course, that means there’s an easy solution and a hard one. The hard solution is to go find (or cut) two same-sized pieces. The easy solution is to buy a whole fish, since the two fillets will be pretty much identical, assuming it’s not a totally lopsided fish! Fortunately, whole fish is easy to come by in Japan, and if you choose right, it doesn’t need to be expensive.

Meet Larry

I went to Tavelt, which is pretty much the best supermarket in Kyoto. It’s not as comprehensive or as cool as Nishiki Market, but it’s a lot cheaper and carries all kinds of non-traditional ingredients that you can’t find in Nishiki — things like tortillas, capers, cheese, and anything else you pretty much never see in Japanese cuisines.

After looking around quite a bit, I decided on a whole large aji, or horse mackerel. This is one of my favorite fish, excellent sliced raw, grilled, and just about anything else. I figured this was a good choice, because it’s so versatile, and it’s medium-fatty like salmon. It’s also quite easy to fillet, which is nice. To top it off, aji isn’t expensive.

Here’s Larry, soon to be Larry the Lox:
I’m not sure what Larry weighs, because he and his cousins were sold per piece, but I’d estimate a little more than a kilogram. After filleting and such, Larry the Lox should be a little more than a pound. He cost me $6.

Larry Has A Little Accident

Out comes the deba-bōchō — the standard Japanese filleting knife — plus the fish scaler, cavity broom (I have no idea what these are properly called), and the bone tweezers.

First, Larry had his scales removed. Because Larry is an aji, he also has a hard strip of armor in running in front of his tail, and that had to be cut off. Then a cold bath.
Sorry Larry, off with your head!
Then out come the guts. A little careful work with the knife, and all the blood was loose and exposed.
Larry had another bath and a thorough scrub with the brush, inside and out, and here he is all clean and tidy.
The first fillet is cut from the cavity side, in three or four strokes: cut up to the backbone, then along the backbone shearing through the pinbones, then up to the dorsal fin, which last can take a couple of strokes, depending. I screwed up a bit with the last stroke, because I didn’t expect Larry’s backbone to be so thick. Oh well.
The second fillet is done in reverse. Start at the dorsal side, and cut down to the backbone, then through the pinbones, then down into the cavity and off. Here’s poor old Larry as two fillets, with a couple strips from my screwup down front, and then in the sink you can just see his head and skeleton.
Now the ribcage is still attached to the fillets, so we have to cut those off. Then I run my fingers along the pinbones and pull them out with heavy tweezers. Look how many pinbones he's got!
A good wipe-down, both sides, and Larry was all ready to go.

Larry Gets Loxed

Poor Larry deserved a drink after what I’d done to him, so I rubbed a little gin into his flesh.
I’d made up a standard mix of salt, sugar, and black pepper. The proportions seem to vary rather a lot, but I thought I’d go heavy on salt and light on sugar because aji is very sweet. The fillets got a pretty healthy coating.
On the flesh side of each fillet, I put fresh sansho, a bunch of dill, and some shiso leaves. Sansho is in season right now, dill is traditional in gravlax, and shiso goes well with aji — I also happened to have some on hand.
Then the fillets go together with the herbs on the inside.
After coating Larry in lots more salt mixture, I wrapped him tightly in a couple of layers of plastic wrap. This went in a shallow tray, weighted down with a board and shoved in the fridge to cure.
Every twelve hours or so, I took it out, drained off liquid, rewrapped, and put it back in the fridge turned to the other side. After turning twice, I let Larry sit weighted for another day.

Larry came out,
Aji gravlax
I wiped him down, and here at last is Larry the Lox.
Aji gravlax

Larry Comes To Dinner

We've tried Larry two ways thus far, but I've only photographed one.
Aji gravlax
This is Larry the Lox, thinly sliced, presented with a little sour cream. We had this with crusty pain de campagne.

Now I should say that I was rather worried about Larry. Since doing all the preparation work, I happened to see an old Iron Chef episode where horse mackerel (aji) was the theme ingredient. What the judges kept saying was that aji is well known to have a very strong odor, an intense "fishiness". Salmon, of course, is one of the mildest, un-fishy fish around. So I was concerned that maybe this hadn't been the best fish choice, and we'd have something pretty unpleasant in Larry the Lox.

In fact, the main problem is the sansho I put on there. I did that because I happened to have a bunch: it's inexpensive right now, because it's in season. What's more, Japanese cured fish products with sansho are quite common, so I figured it would be a good idea. The only thing is, it's quite intense, and the flavor has definitely been drawn out here by the curing process. The result is that Larry tastes strongly of sansho.

The texture is a bit dense and chewy, but not excessively so. The flavor, beyond the sansho, is really rather nice if you like fish. Larry is a bit fishy, but not in an unpleasant way. In fact, the strong aji flavor stands up well to the sansho. I think Larry might go over rather well here in Japan, but maybe not so much at home in the States, where sansho is not a familiar flavor.

The first tasting, with sour cream and bread, was successful. The cream is excellent with Larry.

For my second tasting, because Larry is so strong-flavored, I decided to use some Boursin cheese to stand up to him: a lot like cream or cream cheese, but with a strong garlic-herb flavor of its own. I put the pair on several kinds of crackers, and the result was very good -- especially with the more flavorful, slightly "bready" crackers, as opposed to something like water crackers.

Which means, of course, that one of the best things I can imagine doing with Larry is...

put thin slices, cut in bits because of the chewiness, on top of a bagel with fresh chive cream cheese. Original, huh?

So this weekend, I'm going to try it -- frozen bagels only, unfortunately, because the fresh ones I've seen are overpriced and mediocre. I'll post photos: stay tuned for the future adventures of Larry the Lox.

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Quickie Carpaccio

I made sashimi last night and had some extra, so tonight was carpaccio.
Cut fish very thin, and spread in a single layer as evenly and prettily as possible on a plate. Drizzle generously with fine olive oil. Grind fresh black pepper and sprinkle coarse salt. Scatter with something acidic and crunchy; I used capers for one plate and scallion (negi) for the other. Shave a little Parmesan on top, if you like. At the last minute, squeeze on some lemon juice and serve immediately with crusty bread.
It was delicious, albeit my wife's first remark was, "it tastes like fish!" Just my luck -- I married a smart aleck. Still, I am rather proud that I made these two plates without going shopping. This is technically leftovers.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Argh Argh Argh (An Especially Articulate Post)

Today I had a most aggravating foodie day. What made it so aggravating was that I’d planned in advance with some care.

First, I looked up when Passover ends, and read Wednesday. Which, of course, I took to mean sundown on Wednesday. So I made this whole plan to eat bread products and stuff on Thursday. Actually, though, it ends sundown Thursday. Not that I’m what anyone would call observant, since I eat shellfish and pork and mix milk with meat and all that. But it’s nice to make some effort once a year. Anyway, that’s one screw-up, which is my own. After that I take no blame.

Skimming one of my favorite Kyoto websites, Kyoto Foodie, I found a bunch of places in fair proximity to one another that are also easily accessible from Sam’s school. Since Sam only has half days at the moment — another annoying thing — I have to pick him up and take him for lunch. Now he adores udon noodles, as well as lots of things anyone would expect a little boy to like, such as ice cream, cake, fruit, and so on. It all clicked....

The Plan

Pick up Sam at 11:40, and catch the #206 bus up to Senbon Imadegawa. Walk a couple of blocks west, and eat at Tawaraya, a famous udon place. Sam can have his usual order — plain (kake) udon noodles with kamaboko fish cake and no sliced scallions. I’ll have the specialty of the house, nihon udon, which is a bowl with just two gigantic (in all directions) noodles. Sounds like an interesting thing to try, and the Kyoto Foodie was fairly positive about it.

Next, walk a couple of blocks due east, ending just south of Senbon Imadegawa, and eat dessert at Chibeta. This is a super-fancy ice cream shop, and so far as my various contacts have learned, it’s about the only really good one, with their own homemade ice cream and sherbet in both classic flavors and their special inventions.

Next, walk a couple blocks more, basically northeast, ending at Le Petit Mec, which two completely unconnected foodie contacts assure me makes the best bread in Kyoto. Buy a fancy loaf to eat with dinner, and if Sam is interested he can have a sweet bread of some kind.

Go home, get him changed, and then play in the park until Mommy gets home.

That was the plan.

The Reality

Picked up Sam, found that he was wearing his exercise pants, but I carefully avoided asking him why: it means he wet his pants, and discussing that leads nowhere good in the short run. As we walked to the bus stop, I explained the plan, and he was amenable.

On the bus, he told me he didn’t want udon. He wanted hamburgers instead. Uh oh. We discussed it, and he decided udon would be okay after all. Whew! The plan was still clicking.

From Senbon Imadegawa, we walked to Tawaraya, which was just where the map indicated. There was something of a crush: apparently a school tour group was having lunch there. Fortunately, noodle places have quick turnover, and high school kids eat fast. We sat and waited, Sam was very good, and we got seated pretty soon. I ordered the specialty:

But this isn’t my photo. Why not?

Sorry, no nihon udon, says the guy. Eh? The specialty dish? It’s also not on the menu, which I find odd. My Japanese is too rudimentary to be sure whether they were sold out or have stopped making it, but in any event I wasn’t going to have it for lunch. Fine. I ordered cold udon with tempura for me, and for Sam the usual: plain hot udon in soup, with no scallion. No problem.

We wait. They serve the table next to us, which ordered after us. I sort of cock an eyebrow, and it becomes clear that our order has been missed. No biggie, these things happen, and fortunately Sam was behaving himself reasonably well. Our food finally arrives... and there’s scallions on Sam’s noodles. Argh! I’m not sending it back, no way. Instead, I pick every one off. Fortunately again, Sam just waits patiently, then eats without complaint.

Results: Frankly, I wasn’t very impressed. The udon place across the street from our house, where they know Sam and give him extra kamaboko (and would never, never give him scallion), is better, and definitely less crowded. When I paid the bill, I also found that Tawaraya is overpriced, albeit udon is never terribly expensive so it wasn’t a big deal. But ten-zaru udon (what I got) shouldn't cost $14, and $6 is steep for plain kake udon. I also noticed that the guy hadn’t written anything on the slip about no scallions on Sam’s noodles, which explains a lot. I still want to try the nihon udon some time, but I’m not nearly as sanguine about it now.

Okay, so now we hike to the ice cream shop. Doesn’t this stuff look delicious?

This isn’t my photo either, though. Because...

It’s closed.

You have to be kidding me. I could swear I looked it up and it isn’t supposed to be closed. There’s a workman’s ladder behind the main window. Maybe they’re closed for renovation or something? Anyway, no ice cream.

Sam was definitely annoyed about this. He mostly got over it when I made it clear that I was at least as annoyed as he was, but after all this walking and no ice cream, his fuse was clearly getting a bit short. I mean, he's not quite four yet, fair enough. So we went looking for other things, heading generally toward Le Petit Mec in hopes of salvaging things a bit — besides, they might have good cake or something.

No luck. The first coffee shop place we passed had a vast selection of coffee-flavored sweets and nothing else. The next was closed. Sam was getting tired of walking and walking, so we took the bus two stops, just past Le Petit Mec, with its beautiful bread...

Which was closed. You have GOT to be kidding me!

Fortunately we were still on the bus as we passed it, so we just didn’t get off until Horikawa, where there’s a fancy patisserie near the corner. We go in there, and Sam picks out a fruit thing that looks to me like he’s not going to like it. I ask him which I should have, and he picks a chocolate thing. I get both. But then it turns out that you can’t eat it there unless you get the cake-plus-drink set, which costs $6.50. Argh. I get ice coffee and milk, and we sit down.

Sam eats the fruit, but doesn’t like the custard, so he eats my chocolate thing. As it turns out, I don’t like the custard either, which tastes like it’s pure egg yolks and has a peculiar citrus flavor that I don’t think goes at all well with it. Heavy and sour, in short. I realize this is how they intend it to be, but I don’t like it. Ah well.

We head home, Sam dozes off on the bus and insists on being carried from the bus stop to the house, so my back starts hurting. Then he refuses to go the park and demands to watch Wall-E on TV instead. After this sequence of failures, I figure the park is probably in flames anyway, so what the heck, turn on the flick.


Then I check some websites.

Chibeta ice cream, closed Mondays. Why is it closed today? No idea.

Le Petit Mec bakery, closed... can that be right? It’s closed Monday through Thursday? How can they possibly run a business like that, weekends only? Weird.

Final tally: $33 for two servings of so-so udon and fancy but (to my taste) not great cake, getting and eating which took a total of about three hours.

Argh argh argh!

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Gefilte Fish Again, But Maybe Not So Jewish

After the Great Gefilte Fish Fiesta, we ended up with a lot of strong fish stock and two large gefilte fish balls. So it was time to cook with leftovers. This was a while back, just after the original gefilte fish thing, but I lost track of the photos, so this took a while to post.

The thing is, the Japanese don’t usually make stock in our sense of the word. Dashi, the basis of just about all Japanese cooked food, is made by extracting flavor from kombu (kelp) and often some sort of dried and salted fish product, most commonly katsuo bushi (salted, smoked, dried bonito in shavings). Taking bones and meat scraps and simmering them with some vegetables for a while is a similar process, but it doesn’t come up almost at all in Japanese cooking. That’s one of the ways you know ramen noodles are Chinese, not Japanese, in origin: the soup is stock, not dashi. So here’s me in Kyoto with a couple of quarts of great fish stock. What to do?

My first thought was one of those great Mediterranean fish soups: bouillabaisse, bourride, and so on. But I am informed that there is a special circle in Hell for people who eat these soups without crusty bread, so that wasn’t going to work. Passover has its down side.

Then I thought of Korean soup-stews. I surfed around the Internet to find some recipes, and eventually cobbled together something that seemed workable.

Passover Chigae

Here’s the mise en place for the stew, in no particular order. Chopped onions, slivered negi, two eggs, minced garlic, some shaved beef, cut-up gefilte fish, pack of fresh soft tofu, jar of kimchi, big bowl of stock (not all of which got used). Front-left, a little packet of spicy sesame miso, which I figured would be a decent substitute for gochujang, which is Korean spicy fermented soy paste. In the back, sesame oil, hot chile oil, and a bottle of kimchi juice, something you can get very easily here and which everyone apparently puts in chigae.
Gefilte fish chigae
In case you’re wondering, Sam and Maia got udon soup noodles, which are about as far from spicy as it’s possible to be.

First up, start cooking the beef and the garlic in some sesame oil.
Gefilte fish chigae
Add kimchi and a bit of kimchi juice.
Gefilte fish chigae
Add onion.
Gefilte fish chigae
When the stuff all seems basically cooked, add enough stock to make a thickish soup-stew. If you add a whole bunch, it gets watery, because the tofu will throw water of its own.
Gefilte fish chigae
Bring to a strong simmer, taste, and add a splash or so of hot chile oil and another of sesame oil. Then add the gefilte fish balls and return to a strong simmer. (In the normal Korean dish you’d add fresh seafood, you see.)
Gefilte fish chigae
Add the tofu in large cubes. You can also add the whole pad and kind of break it up coarsely, but the wife likes cubes. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a medium simmer.
Gefilte fish chigae
Now I added a couple Tb of the spicy sesame miso. In some Korean recipes, they add gochujang somewhere along the line, and in others you see shrimp jut, which I’m not quite sure what it is. There’s also something called guk ganjang, which looks a lot like gochujang in the one photo I’ve seen, but I have no idea. Anyway, I added the miso at this point because you generally don’t want miso to be boiled, only simmered.

Once the miso was mixed in, I cracked two eggs on top and sprinkled with the negi shreds.

Now cover, bring to the tabletop induction burner, and bring the temperature to a gentle simmer. Wait a minute or two for the eggs to just barely set, and...
Gefilte fish chigae
Ta da!

The Envelope Please...

Pretty delicious, a definite success. We got enough for four generous servings, easy, and the two of us polished off about two-thirds, so we were groaning a bit, fat but happy. It was spicy, but not blazing, with lots of complexity and depth. The gefilte fish chunks had a slightly odd texture for this stew, but mostly because we knew what they were in advance; I think if I had made gefilte fish with a little Korean twist along the way, such as a hint of garlic and sesame oil, it would have clicked perfectly. To top it off, the dish was disturbingly healthy, yet tasted like something self-indulgent.

A winner! Next time you have leftover gefilte fish, you know what to do.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Happy Japanese Passover

Japanese Gefilte Fish
The Passover season crept up on me this year. Not being surrounded by a distinguished crew of Judaic Studies scholars as I usually am, I just didn’t notice. Besides, it’s not like there are a whole lot of Jews here, so the stores don’t fill up with matzoh as an early warning. In fact, so far as I can tell, you can’t get matzoh here for love or money, making Passover food rather tricky.

Fortunately, my mother sent me two boxes of Streit’s matzoh meal some months ago, for making matzoh ball soup, which the kids love — you should see Maia trying to eat a matzoh ball the size of a baseball. Other than that, the Passover season is pretty awful here if you’re observant (which I’m not) and follow the Ashkenazi tradition, which means you can’t eat rice, corn, or legumes in addition to any grain flour. That means you can’t eat much of anything here except vegetables and meat, and you can’t have seasoning with them, because most seasoning here involves soy sauce and/or sake, which is rice wine.

Now as I say, I’m not observant, but I generally make some effort to pay attention to the Pesach rules. I do cheat and follow the Sephardi rules about flour: rice and legumes are OK, though I don’t think you’re supposed to make bread out of them. That of course makes everything much easier. No, as far as I know I’m straight-up Ashkenazi, but I’m not above a little self-serving shifting around, and the Sephardim do have better food. Besides, it doesn’t really make that much difference from a Jewish legal standpoint: since I normally eat things like pork and shellfish, it’s pretty much irrelevant which version of the Pesach rules on leaven I decide to sort of obey.

In any event, one thing a lot of non-Jews don’t understand about Passover is that despite all the food restrictions, it’s really a very big food holiday. There are certain foods that are special Passover things, and although you can eat them any time, they’re extra-special at Passover. I suppose, though, that every Jewish holiday is a big food holiday, except for Yom Kippur when you fast. Well, anyway, Passover is big food.

Among the most famous, or infamous, of the Passover dishes is gefilte fish. Lots of people hate this, but lots of people haven’t had the good stuff. If you think gefilte fish comes in jars, for example, you haven’t had the good stuff.
...gefilte fish for others
You also have to like fish, I suppose, but it’s pretty mild and un-“fishy” if you use decent fish. And you have to like horseradish, the standard accompaniment.

Good fish? Horseradish? In Japan? You see my line of thinking....

Gefilte Fish 101

As far as I understand it, originally gefilte fish was stuffed fish: gefilte, filled. You took a whole salmon, gutted and boned it intact, and then stuffed it full of minced white fish (whitefish, pike, carp are the classics) mixed with matzoh meal and vegetables. Then you poached the whole thing in a strong stock made of all the bones and skins. You served it hot or cold, in the latter case often glazed with a bit of the jellied stock.

Now think about Thanksgiving turkey or whatever. You know how the turkey is pretty good, maybe, but the stuffing is evil and always eaten in much greater quantity? Okay, so let’s suppose you just made the stuffing by itself, but kept calling it “Thanksgiving turkey” anyway. Same thing: gefilte fish is the stuffing all by itself.

You take white fish, carrot, onion, egg, matzoh meal, and oil, and you make a fairly smooth puree. Then you poach fat patties of the stuff in a strong fish stock. You chill the patties, and serve them with horseradish sauce or relish. It’s usual to poach a whole carrot with the patties and serve it in slices.

Now I haven’t seen whitefish or pike here, and carp is I think out of season. But there are lots of good white fish here, and it’s not expensive to buy stuff good enough to eat raw. Carrots and eggs are easy and good, negi scallion substitutes well for onion (not that you can’t get onion, but negi have a nice bright flavor), and for horseradish wasabi root seems to be in season right now. Matzoh meal is tricky, but as I say, Mom sent me a bunch.

Making Gefilte Fish
If you want to play along at home, the recipe I more or less used is this one. Why? Because the 2d Avenue Deli is brilliant.

So, first, I bought about three pounds of white fish fillets and steaks. I bought buri and karei. Buri is Japanese amberjack, a species of yellowtail. Karei is a kind of flounder, actually a lot like sole.

Now I considered buying these things whole, but buri are huge, and I didn’t see any nice big fillets. As to karei, I just didn’t see any whole ones that didn’t cost a fortune, but cut ones were inexpensive, don’t ask me why. The problem is that when you buy cut fish here, it usually has a lot of bone in it, as well as the skin, and it’s a lot harder to deal with these in little pieces of fish than it is with whole ones. Nevertheless, I bought pieces. This meant half an hour removing bones and skin.

Fortunately, I have pretty good knives for this purpose. In fact, I had just sharpened my yanagiba (sashimi knife), used for skinning and for cutting the boneless flesh in slices or chunks, which speeded things along. In this photo, the really big knife is a gyutō, or Japanese-style chef’s knife; the thick black thing is a deba-bōchō, for dealing with whole and bone-in fish; and the thin shiny knife is the yanagiba, which is only used on boneless fish. For some reason the shine doesn't show well in this picture.
Actually, I had a disconcerting experience with this: as I was skinning the fish with that shiny yanagiba, and thinking how easy it is when your knife is really, really sharp, I got careless and just barely touched the tip of my left thumb with the blade.

The effect was electric. Instantly, the hair stood up on the back of my neck and I got a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach. I carefully put down the knife and started washing my hands, knowing I was going to have a nasty, bloody cut. In fact, however, I had to look hard to see it: at the tip of my thumb, in the very surface layer of skin, there is a small, perfectly straight cut. No blood, no nothing. But when I touched that blade that way, I knew. In case you were ever wondering what a very, very sharp knife is like, that’s one (extremely unsafe) way to know: if you touch the blade straight-on and get this reaction, it is very, very sharp.

In passing, there is a fun way to know if your knife is really sharp — not necessarily scary sharp, but sharp. Put the knife on its spine, edge up, on the board. Take a cherry tomato and hold it about a foot above the edge, and drop it. If the knife is really sharp, the tomato will cut cleanly. Isn’t that cool? I love this.

Anyway, other than nearly cutting myself in thin slices, it wasn’t that bad a process, just a little tedious.

Next I minced some carrot and negi and a bit of ginger. When in Kyoto....
Into the processor, and whizz! Took several batches, of course, because my processor is tiny. Then add beaten eggs, oil, salt, white pepper, and sugar, and stir well.

Incidentally, there seem to be a lot of people who freak out at the notion of sugar in gefilte fish. Why? Because they don’t know anything much about cooking. A little sugar goes into quite a number of dishes that aren’t sweet, because it helps bring out certain kinds of flavors. This is why you add it to tomato sauce, for example. And some kind of sweetness is extremely common in Japanese fish dishes, usually in the form of mirin (sweet cooking sake). With gefilte fish, the last thing you want is for the flavor to be dull or flat, so you use a little sugar. Why not?

Anyway, it looked like this after I beat it smooth.
Then I added matzoh meal and beat it smooth again.
Isn’t that delicious-looking? I knew you would. In any event, I covered it with plastic and put it in the fridge to set up and develop flavor.

About 10 hours later or so, when it was convenient, I cooked the stuff.

Along with the fish itself, I’d bought two packages of fish heads and bones for making simmered tai no ara, on which see this entry.
Yum! Fish heads!

I put these, all the trimmings from the fish and carrots and such, and some more carrot into a pot with a lot of water, then brought it gently to a boil, skimming scum as necessary. The puree I made into big lumps, sort of halfway between balls and patties. You do this with wet hands or stuffing of any kind sticks like mad.
These patties I gingerly lowered into the pot. Here I had a bit of trouble: I had so much trimmings and stuff for the soup that the patties were going to get impaled on bones. I put a colander in the pot over everything, which was fine, but I didn’t have a whole lot of space because the pot is too small. They fit in, just, so I left the lid on the pot, and figured they’d half-simmer, half-steam, which is fine — you want that with matzoh balls, for example, because they’re lighter that way. But then the things started to expand, which always happens when you cook stuff that has matzoh meal in it, which of course I hadn’t thought of. Argh! So I pulled out half and cooked them in two batches, which of course took an extra 90 minutes. Oh well. At least that gave me time to remember the carrot, which I forgot initially.

This is what they looked like straight out of the pot.
They went into the fridge covered with plastic, along with the carrot. Then I strained the stock, let it cool, and refrigerated it. (Useful tip: never cover hot stock and shove it in the fridge, because it tends to breed bacteria. Let it cool uncovered, then cover and refrigerate. If your kitchen is very hot, plan ahead and freeze several heavy-duty freezer bags full of water, then drop these in and stir in order to cool the stock rapidly without diluting it. But I digress.)

Preparing the Dish

The weather is medium-warm at the moment, and gefilte fish are really better cold, so that’s how I served them.

For some strange reason, the stock didn’t gel. I can’t think why, considering how much bone and stuff simmered in it for how long, but it didn’t. Thus I couldn’t glaze my gefilte fish, and I’m just saving the stock to make fish soup with.

For horseradish, I used fresh wasabi. Since it is essentially unavailable outside Japan, let me show you what it looks like and what you do with it. Here is a wasabi root, not very good quality, which cost about $6:
First you scrape the really dark stuff off the outside using the back of a knife, then cut off the very tip.
Then, as shortly before serving as possible (the stuff loses flavor rapidly), you grate it using a circular motion on a little grater. I’m using a ginger grater, because I see very little point in buying a sharkskin grater — the best for wasabi — since I can’t get wasabi outside Japan. Besides, a ginger grater works fine.
I decided to try two different approaches here. One is just plain wasabi, in a little ball, the way you see it (or rather, its artificial imitation) in sushi shops. But I also thought something more like a sauce would be nice. One of the most common sauces is mayonnaise, lemon juice, and horseradish, sometimes with beet juice added, so I figured I’d do a variant on that.

I put the juice of one little sudachi lime, a big blob of wasabi, and an egg yolk in a bowl with salt and pepper. Then I beat in oil, part olive and part canola, just the way you’d make mayonnaise.
To serve, I put two gefilte fish balls on a bed of lettuce, garnished with slices of the poached carrot, and presented with the two wasabis. Here's the photo again, in case you forgot:


The taste was pretty good, but a little flatter than I’d have liked. The main thing was that the fish wasn’t really light enough, probably because buri wasn’t the best choice. It also lacked a bit of that distinctive gefilte fish texture, which is silky smooth, because the stock didn’t gel: if it does gel, you see, the fish balls are partly bound together with gelatin, making them silken. My wife isn't a big fan of that texture, so she didn't mind, but I think gefilte fish are better with it.

The wasabi was definitely not very good quality, and didn’t have nearly sufficient intensity. Straight, it seemed kind of bland, and in the sauce you could barely taste it at all. Still, when I used a fair wodge of the plain and the sauce together, they did come together nicely and had a good flavor.

Maia was okay with it, but only really liked the carrots. Sam insisted that it had to be warm, and then ate a couple of bites, but I don’t think he liked it much either. Mom and Dad ate them fairly happily, on the whole, but as I say I was a little bit disappointed — I made much better ones last year, but I don’t have that recipe with me here.

I suspect that our Japanese friends would like these things. That’s sort of how the whole idea started in the first place, actually, with us musing on how there are certain odd convergences of Japanese and Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine.

All told, a medium success.

Future Attempts

Unfortunately Sam is in school only a couple of hours in the morning for a couple of weeks, so I don’t have a whole lot of time to fool around in the kitchen, but I am planning to do my other gefilte fish recipe one of these days, Passover or no Passover.

See, I have this idea: what if there was a large Jewish population in some great culinary places where, in point of fact, there are basically no Jews? Japan is one, and that produces something like what I just did. Another is New Orleans. So how about gefilte fish, New Orleans-style? I’ve done it at home in Boston, with fair success, but now I’ve got access to much better fish and also know how to cut the things a good deal better. So we’ll see when I have time, but that’s coming up as soon as I can.

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Friday, March 6, 2009

Not Lunch!

I just want to point out that this is not a plastic flamingo.
I also want to point out to the flamingo that Sam is not a fish, and not lunch.

He may, currently, be pretending to be so blase that he might pass for a fish, but he is not a fish, and he is not to be eaten.

Rotten bird-brains.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Fish Heads, Fish Heads

I'd like to share with you a classic Japanese home recipe that is cheap, delicious, exotic, and perhaps a little disturbing. Right up front, I'm going to call for help, though: the main ingredient isn't usually available as such in America, at least not on the East Coast, so substitution is necessary.

Brace yourself, some of this may get a little ugly.

Tai no Ara Taki (鯛のあら焚き): Bream-Bits Kindling

Tai (), or sea-bream, is the king of fish in Japan. It's got a distinctive sweet taste, and it holds up well in an enormous range of different cooking types: raw, poached, broiled, simmered, etc. Its many parts are generally good eating as well, and to top it off it's pretty. This one looks rather small; the big ones are a good 2 feet long.

Once you've gracefully removed the fillets from the bones, though, why waste a good thing? What you have left is the ara, the bits: head, collar, fleshy backbone. There's good flavor there, and firm meat, so let's make something good out of it.

The name of this dish, the bit about “kindling” (
taki), comes from the way it's cooked. Not that you light it on fire, but you put it on a bed of sticks of gobō (burdock) that look kind of like a pile of kindling. And then you simmer the heck out of the fish bits.

The end-result is a plate of bits with the head-halves on top, with a little
gobō as a garnish, in a puddle of thick, rich, brown sauce. You sit there with chopsticks—and pretty soon your fingers too—and pick all the succulent parts out of the bits.

Sound gross? You'd be surprised. It's delicious.

What's more it's cheap, easy, and fairly quick.

The Fish

The first step, of course, is to acquire your fish.
Tai aren't cheap, if they're any good, being the king of fish and all that. A big good one can run you more than $100 here... a lot more. But a decent one can be down around $25. You have to remember, from this you're getting two fillets as well as the bits for making this dish. One fillet you make into slices for the nabe pot, and the other you trim as sashimi, and all that's left is the bits, which you now turn into this wonderful side-dish. Here's one presentation of tai sashimi, which I had at Roan Kikunoi.


Of course, in America you can't get tai off the West Coast, at least not that's really worth eating. Certainly I wouldn't make sashimi out of it. So you've got two basic choices: buy a whole comparable fish, or convince the fishmonger to sell (or preferably give) you the heads.

I'm betting that if you cozy up to your fishmonger, he'll just give you the heads, as they're garbage to him. If we all can figure out an appropriate few fish for the purpose, this makes the dish dirt-cheap. In Japan, you can buy heads and bits for this purpose, but in the U.S. they throw them away as a rule.

Which fish? Err... that's where it gets tricky.

You need a firm, white-fleshed fish: salmon (red) or mackerel (blue) won't work. Salmon doesn't have enough taste, and mackerel has too much. You want a head that has lots of bits of meat and flesh to eat, and here my encyclopedias and such are no use, because they don't talk about this very much. Maybe a relative of the sea bream (Pagrus major, red Pacific seabream)?

I don't know. I'm going to proceed from here as though you have a
tai on hand, and hope you'll try it with what's local and let me know.

The Head

So now you have a fish head. Ick!

No, wrong answer. The right answer is, "split it." Here's how:


You now have your fish-head, split, possibly cut into medium chunks.

If you have a meaty backbone, shear off the part that still has skin up at the top and bottom. Then cut the backbone into chunks.

Put a big saucepan full of water over high heat and let it get close to a simmer, i.e. when little bubbles are definitely forming on the bottom of the pan and there is real steam rising. This is the point when you think, “it'll boil any second now,” creating the adage about a watched pot.

Drop in the fish, bring to a rapid boil over as much heat as you can, and then move the pieces into a big pot of ice water.

Once the fish is definitely cool, even cold, feel the surfaces all over for any blood clots or remaining scales. This is your last chance to scale, so make good use of it. A few scales are okay in this dish, but the fewer the better—and no scales is definitely excellence.

The Kindling

For one fair-sized tai head, you need one big or two medium stalks of
gobō (burdock), which you can get at a surprising range of stores these days. If unsure, get it from an Asian market, which is sure to have it. It should be cheap: it's a destructive weed in America, so eat lots. It looks like this.
和風牛蒡絲 (Japan Burdock)

Scrub the burdock, preferably under running water, with a coarse plastic scrubber like you'd use for a nonstick pan. You want to get all the dirt off, and it can be pretty deep.
Cut the burdock lengthwise into quarters, then in about 2-inch lengths.

Rinse well in water and drain. Pour into a big, deep skillet or wide saucepan.
Arrange the fish bits on top, with the eyes upward.
At this point you can stop, cover the skillet with plastic, and refrigerate for a good 12 hours or so. Fish heads are perishable, of course, so you don't want to go too long, but this isn't a fine-detail sort of dish.

Cooking the Dish

About 60 minutes or so (and there is considerable latitude here to work earlier) before serving, add 400cc water and 400cc of drinkable sake. It doesn't have to be anything grand, but salted cooking sake is out. Put on a drop-lid, which should cover everything and be slightly covered with liquid. Add water if necessary.

For this I've used a folding drop-lid available at any hardware or home-good store here for about $2. You could also use a smallish pot-lid, a dinner-plate, or even a couple of sheets of paper towel. The dinner plate will be hard to lift, and the towel even more so, but all of these things work. The point is that this will hold the stuff under the liquid for a preliminary cooking.
Now bring the heat to medium and wait until the stuff comes to a true boil—not just a simmer, but a proper boil. Remove the lid—you won't use it again here.

Skim the white scum.
Add 5 generous Tb sugar and 50cc mirin; if you cannot get real mirin, as is likely, use 45cc sake and another Tb sugar—brown sugar would be lovely here. Shake the pan around a bit to distribute, and baste the fish with the liquid. Boil fairly rapidly—medium-high heat—until the liquid is reduced by about half, basting now and again.

Add 60cc soy sauce, or preferably
tamari, but either will do fine. Keep boiling until the liquid is starting to turn into a syrup, basting fairly often.
Before it gets there, grate a big chunk of peeled ginger on the finest grater you've got, held over a bowl. Squeeze the gratings over the same bowl through a fine-meshed strainer. You should have fair bit of ginger juice.

When the liquid is turning to syrup, the bubbles will start getting fatter, the sound of the pan will change, and when you lift the pan and shake a bit, there won't be all that much liquid left.

Add the ginger juice and shake it around a bit, then baste vigorously as the sauce gets shiny and, well, sauce-like.

When it gets to this point, remove from heat. Put the bits in a soup plate or the like, garnish with a bunch of the burdock on the side in a clump or something, and then pour on the sauce.

Yum! Fish Heads!
To eat, just pick up an appetizing-looking bit and eat anything that isn't bone, munching and sucking as you go to get all the goodness out.

I know, sounds gross, but honestly it's wonderful. And if you can get fish heads for free or very, very cheap, as I suspect you can, you can make this dish for very little. What's more, it can sit for days and be picked at cold, lukewarm, or nuked-hot; it won't be as good as freshly-made, but it'll be good.


Now I want all of you to run right out and try this. The big question is the fish: what's white-fleshed, firm, flavorful, and fairly local? If there's a choice, what will the fishmonger give you for free? Now make the dish and tell me how it tastes, and whether the flesh is still firm enough to make it worth eating. I want you to figure it out, because I'm going to come back to the East Coast and want to make this (my wife loves this), and I want somebody else to have done the experimenting to figure out the right fish for the purpose.

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