Wednesday, July 18, 2018

J is for Japan

It’s been a busy half year - this dinner occurred January 6th and I’m just now getting around to writing it up.  Admittedly, my memory is a bit fuzzy on the details, but here goes.

This dinner was in honor of the birthdays of my son Josh and daughter-in-law Emily – coincidentally, both were born on January 10!  It was a smallish gathering – Josh, Noah and Emily, Davida, and Hannah.  The dinner was held a few days before their actual birthdays because Davida and I were heading to the Galapagos that Monday.  That was a fabulous vacation – as you can see from some of our pictures and videos (I especially like the video of swimming with the sea turtles).

There are not too many “J” countries – I had done Jamaica the first time through the alphabet (the jerk chicken was fabulous – have made it several times since) and I thought that Jordan would be too similar to the Israeli food with which we are very familiar.  That left Japan, which is not at all a bad choice.  I decided to forego making sushi, though, since I didn’t want to risk getting food poisoning right before our big trip.  None of the dishes needed to be adapted in any special way for kashrut, but I did need to adjust several of the recipes to make them gluten free (especially making sure to use gluten-free soy sauce!)

The Appetizer:
I love Japanese soups – they are very flavorful, but subtle.  I wanted to make something more interesting than standard miso soup, though.  Fortunately, I found this lovely recipe for Tofu No Ankake – dashi soup with tofu and mushrooms.  The best way to make sure that the dashi was gluten free was to make my own dashi broth.  It was a bit time consuming – mostly in my search for a Japanese grocery store where I could get the kombu (dried kelp) and katsuobushi (bonito flakes).  If I remember correctly, I cooked the dashi for longer than the recipe suggested to get more flavor out of the kelp and tuna flakes.  The aroma was quite earthy, mainly from the seaweed.  The rest of the soup was straightforward, just combining all the ingredients.  While the recipe calls for “mint leaves/sweet sherry,” similar recipes that I looked at use mirin, which is what I used instead (getting it at the same Japanese grocery store).

The soup had a salty, earthy flavor – subtle, but distinct.  The mushrooms (I believe I used shitake) had a wonderful texture, but the tofu didn’t add much to the dish, in my opinion.  Most of the guests rated the soup a 6, with one giving it a 5 (I’m guessing it was someone who was not partial to mushrooms).  I have to go along with the majority – it was a very nice soup, but not spectacular.  That was pretty much the theme of the night – tasty dishes, but nothing that was really a keeper.

The Main Dish:
I wanted to avoid any of the standard Japanese main dishes, such as teriyaki chicken.  I found, instead, what looked to be an elegant, yet simple, grilled fish recipe. The recipe calls for a strong-flavored, oily fish.  When I went to buy groceries for the meal, the only fish that they had that fit the bill was whole mackerel.  The worker was nice enough to fillet two mackerels for me and sent me home with some beautiful fillets and all the bones, heads, and tails.  Given such a bounty, I decided to make fish stock, and the aroma of boiling fish was in the apartment all afternoon.  I froze the stock and have yet to do anything with it, but I’m sure it will be fabulous when I finally figure out how to use it.

Of course, in order to make grilled fish, I needed a grill pan.  I didn’t have one before, but now I do!  It was a lot of fun grilling the fish – getting just the right sear marks.  I remember it looking very pretty being served, although looking now at the picture, I’m afraid there might have been a bit too much charring.  Despite the grilling, the fish had a very subtle flavor – too subtle, for my taste.  It seemed to go over fine with the guests, though – everyone rated it a 6.

The Vegetables:
Here I fell back on an old favorite – tempura vegetables.  Fortunately, I found an easy gluten free recipe that uses rice flour.  Preparing the tempura itself is quite easy – the time-consuming parts are slicing all the vegetables and then frying them just a few at a time.  I used sweet potato, carrots, green beans, and Japanese eggplant.  Personally, I thought that the sweet potato came out the best – it was sweet and still firm; the carrots were not as successful – they didn’t cook enough and were too crunchy for my taste.  Overall, the majority of the guests rated the tempura a 6, with one 5 rating.

The Starch:
My notes indicate that I made a dish called Maze Gohan, rice with vegetables, but I cannot find anything online that matches the recipe I used.  I may have taken the recipe from an actual cookbook, but I cannot find it in any of my cookbooks.  Regardless, it is fairly obvious from the picture what was in the dish – rice, of course (I recall using sushi rice), sliced carrots, diced celery, edamame, and I seem to recall using shitake mushrooms, although none are visible in the picture, so I may be mistaken.  I also think soy and mirin were added to the dish.  I definitely remember that I had bought a package of frozen edamame and, right before making the rice, was surprised to find that they were not shelled, so we frantically shelled the beans as the rice was cooking (and the fish was grilling, and the tempura was frying!)  It probably is not too bad that I can’t find the recipe – it was not a great hit, with an average rating of 5.5 – and this from a crowd that loves rice!

Despite my better judgment, given how relatively unsuccessful my country desserts have been, I decided to make castella, a traditional Japanese cake.  This apparently popular cake is like a sponge cake – lots of eggs whipped up frothy.  I substituted gluten-free flour and did not have the traditional wooden baking pan, but the cake looked like it came out fine.  It was just dry and fairly tasteless, and the guests all rated it a 2.

Fortunately, I also made my standard chocolate birthday cake for Josh’s and Emily’s birthdays.  While I could have made a dairy cake, the recipe I’ve used for 15 years is pareve, and I figured I shouldn’t mess with tradition.  In that vein, I used regular wheat flour, so Hannah couldn’t partake, and was stuck with the castella – sorry, Hannah!  Happy birthday, Josh and Emily – have a great year!

Up next: Kazakhstan!

Saturday, December 9, 2017

I is for Iran

A year ago, I started the A-to-Z Kosher blog with an Afghani meal for my extended family the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (see “A is for Afghanistan”).  I am somewhat surprised that I have done only 8 such meals in the 52 weeks since, but Thanksgiving 2017 was a perfect opportunity to make another one.  Most of the same guests were here as last year – Josh, my son; Rachel, my daughter, in from Los Angeles; my niece, two nephews, my mother-in-law, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, and, of course, Davida.

Davida and her children had visited Iceland last summer, so it was tempting to make an Icelandic meal, but (no offense intended) the recipes did not look particularly exciting.  I have a really exceptional Persian eggplant/chicken dish that I make, so I was convinced that I would find some good Iranian/Persian recipes.  I was not to be disappointed – my main problem was winnowing the choices down.  I decided to make mostly recipes that Wikipedia cited as popular in Iran, but that still left lots of choices.

The Appetizer:
There are several Iranian thick soups, called Ash, that look very appealing.  My initial choice was a barley-based soup, but that has gluten in it, so it was not an option.  In the end, I decided on Ash-e-Reshteh, a thick bean and vegetable soup with noodles.  I usually cook with canned beans, but the recipe recommends using dried beans and cooking them from scratch, so I decided to do so.  I started soaking the beans Tuesday morning and made the soup on Tuesday night, so that the flavors had time to meld (and, so that I wouldn’t be so rushed on Wednesday).  Originally, I was going to use gluten-free noodles, since Davida’s daughter, Hannah, is celiac, but we switched to regular pasta when she dropped out a few days before the dinner.  We had some whole-wheat spaghetti in the apartment, and I ended up using that.  Since this was to be a meat meal, I left out the kashk/yogurt, and since Rachel has an aversion to cilantro I left that out, as well.  It was quite a chore cooking down the spinach – 1.5 pounds of spinach is a very large volume, uncooked.  I needed to add it in thirds because my pot was already quite full with the other ingredients, but once the spinach got warmed up in the soup, it shrunk right down!

Carmelizing the onions was a lot of fun – the sweet, smoky smell is just sensational and adding the mint just upped the ante.  I put them in a large wok, so that the onions would be mainly in a single layer, and stirred them around often to avoid burning.  As it was, though, I felt that the mint got overdone – next time, I would add the mint much closer to the end (perhaps right before serving – when I heated up the onions to crisp them up a bit after having made them the evening before).

Tasting the soup, I felt that it was a bit bland.  I added some more turmeric, a significant amount of salt, and several boullion cubes.  After everything cooked together, the soup was flavorful, but mild.  I also chopped up some cilantro for those who were not averse to it, but forgot to serve it with the soup.  The guests mostly thought the soup was fair – the majority gave it 5’s, with a few 6’s and 7’s (average 5.7). Personally, while I thought it was good, it was not my favorite soup, and I would have given it a 5, as well.  Maybe if it had the cilantro, I would have liked it more…

The Main Dish:
I was definitely intrigued by the chicken recipe called Fesenjan, with a sauce made of ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses.  It is apparently a very popular dish in Iran, and, after eating it, I can understand why – it was one of the best chicken dishes I have ever eaten!  The key to the dish is the pomegranate molasses; while it can be bought in stores, I did not readily find it, and decided to make my own, following this very simple recipe.  I got a 4-cup bottle of pomegranate juice and quadrupled the recipe.  It took well over an hour for the juice to boil down to the required amount – I think for the first 30 minutes, or so, I was just being too careful to avoid burning.  But, when it was done, the flavor was just amazing – it was all I could do to stop myself from consuming it all, right there.  It might be something just to make and keep around, since the recipe indicates that it is used in many Middle Eastern recipes (although I had never used it before).

I needed to triple the recipe, which ended up being a lot of walnuts and a lot of chicken.  I had to toast the walnuts in two batches and brown the chicken in about half a dozen batches.  Everything just barely fit in my big Creuset pot.  Except for using margarine, rather than butter, I did not change any part of the recipe.  I did exactly what the recipe said, in terms of amount of seasonings (although added a bit more pomegranate molasses than called for) and did not feel the need to adjust the seasonings at the end. The chicken cooked very slowly, as the recipe indicates and, sure enough, the chicken just fell off the bone when served.  Garnishing with pomegranate seeds was a nice touch and added a nice crunchy texture.  Next time, though, I need to find an easier way to extract the pomegranate seeds – it took me forever to do it by hand.

The dish got nearly unanimous top ratings – all 7’s, except for one 5 and one 6 (average 6.7 – I believe that is the highest average rating of any dish I’ve made, so far).  Given the use of pomegranates, I think this will end up becoming one of my staples for Rosh Hashanah meals.  It is truly a keeper!

The Starch:
Many years ago, Dani Goldberg, a postdoc that worked with me, introduced our family to Persian rice – white rice with a crust at the bottom. We all loved it, but I never really mastered it, so did not make it often. But, when cooking Iranian, do what the Persians do – and I decided to try my hand at it, once again.  I knew that my children would be especially appreciative.  The recipe is called tahdig, which means “bottom of the pot” in Persian, and the goal is to get a nice golden crust of fried, crunchy rice, with soft fluffy white rice on top.  I usually don’t try recipes beforehand, but was concerned enough about messing this one up, based on prior experience, that I did a test run of 1 cup of rice a few days prior.  Although I followed the recipe, it did not go well (while the bottom was crunchy, it was not golden and did not stay together), but I was determined to soldier on.  Mainly, I felt that I needed a deeper layer of rice on the bottom, and that making a full pot of rice would enable me to do so.  In fact, I decided to make 4 cups of rice in two big pots, to double the amount of tahdig that would be produced. 

Making the recipe was quite a bit more work than simple white rice – soaking the rice, parboiling, adding some saffron water, and then slow cooking for an hour.  But, it worked!  Both pots produced a golden crust and one pot’s tahdig stayed together in a complete circle.  It was amazing how quickly the tahdig was consumed – it was completely gone less than halfway through the meal.  I’m sure if I could have made only crunchy rice, the guests would have preferred it that way.  This was mostly borne out in the ratings: The majority gave it 6’s and 7’s (average 6.2), but with one 4 and one 5. 

The Vegetables:
Looking for vegetable side-dishes, I came across kuku sabzi, an egg-based fritter with lots of fresh herbs.  The main ingredients are parsley, cilantro, dill and chives, along with walnuts and barberries (for which I substituted currants).  Chopping up all the herbs was a chore, especially enough to feed a dozen people.  I ended up making two fritters – one with cilantro and one without.  The overall ratings were very mixed – two peaks at 3 and 5, with scattered ratings from 1 to 6.  While the average rating was 4.0, but with such a large variation, the average doesn’t really mean much, except that I would have given it a 4, as well.  I don’t think the variation was based on whether the guests had the version with cilantro or without, as I had both and found them equally average.

I was anticipating that the fritters might not have been big hits, so I made another vegetable – a Persian Shirazi salad featuring cucumber, tomato, and onion salad, with a lemon/mint dressing, similar to an Israeli salad.  One of the guests commented that I should have cut the pieces smaller, and I think I added too much onion (even though it was less than the recipe called for).  I also couldn’t find any sumac, so used lemon zest, instead, as some websites suggested this as a reasonable substitute.  The salad faired quite a bit better than the fritters - there were rating peaks at 4 and 7, with scattered ratings of 2, 5 and 6 (average 5.3).  I guess it is hard to wreck a simple salad recipe.

Both Rachel’s birthday and my nephew Zach’s were a few weeks before Thanksgiving.  I’ve been making the same pareve chocolate birthday cake for each of my children’s birthdays for over 15 years, and this year was no exception.  Even though the writing and decorations are not very pretty, the cake itself (especially the frosting) is very tasty, and it was enjoyed by all.  There was even a piece for Rachel to take home with her to LA.  Happy birthday, Rachel and Zach!

Up next: Japan!