Sun Fish Moon Fish (calypso72) wrote in vegancooking,
Sun Fish Moon Fish

A Vegetarian Haiku in Four Dishes

From the NY Times Dining In Section

January 12, 2005
A Vegetarian Haiku in Four Dishes

At Sen, her 14-seat restaurant in Tokyo, Yumiko Kano serves what she calls na kaiseki: a vegetarian banquet. Her goal is to create food that astonishes using nothing that isn't plant-based.

I cooked with her recently and found her preparations simple, even humble, yet exquisite and explosively flavorful. But despite my asking through a translator in a few different ways, I could not quite understand why she did without meat.

It didn't seem to be a matter of morality, asceticism, religion or even taste. Why limit her palette? Finally, after we'd cooked and eaten, I got my answer.

"In Japan," she said, "the idea of focusing on a small aspect of something and then exploding it into many possibilities is an appealing notion, in both life and aesthetics. Working in a limited set and not letting it inhibit you but allowing it to take you to another level is part of the pleasure. Think about using just ink and paper instead of the whole palette of colors and media in painting; in the same way, the limits of cooking with plants force me to be more creative, to explode, almost into infinity, all of the possibilities."

Here was someone more than just the ascetic creature I had expected. She sounded much more like the chefs with whom I'm familiar, someone with a burning desire to explore the possibilities of food.

Ms. Kano came to New York "to learn about other food cultures" when her sister Hiroe, a partner in Sen, had a baby, and the restaurant closed for three months.

We cooked at a midtown apartment, with Elizabeth Andoh serving as translator. (Ms. Andoh, a New Yorker by birth, lives in Tokyo and is the most knowledgeable writer in English about Japanese food.)

Ms. Kano, 40, grew up on a farm, and her parents still supply her with ingredients. She relies upon near-perfect ingredients transformed by salting or tossing, raw, with a dressing or by the simplest techniques: blanching, steaming or simmering.

"Because of this, we highlight the inherent flavor, aroma and texture of the food," she said. Ms. Kano uses a minimum of oil or heavy spices and barely uses salt.

But she acknowledged that imperfect ingredients require more aggressive treatments. Shopping at unfamiliar places (mostly in Korean-owned stores), unable to find exactly what she wanted, Ms. Kano realized why many Western-style cuisines rely on braising, roasting and stewing with various spices as techniques to develop flavor. "It was nearly impossible to cook with the recipes I'd brought with me," she said.

But Ms. Kano made adjustments and cooked fluidly and joyfully. These are fairly straightforward recipes. (She avoided exotica like matsutake mushrooms and chrysanthemum petals.) She worked in a Japanese pattern — a soup and three or four other dishes, one almost always based on rice — to create a meal in just over an hour.

She began with goma-dofu, a silken custard of soy milk and ground sesame seeds. While it is traditionally begun by toasting sesame seeds, then grinding them in a mortar, for our meal Ms. Kano used sesame paste. (The Japanese version is called neri goma, but roasted sesame tahini can be a substitute.) She tossed it into a blender with soy milk, cornstarch and kanten (agar-agar, a thickener made from seaweed, found in all Japanese and most health food stores). She cooked, stirring, until the mixture was thick, then poured it into a mold and chilled it. It would be served with wasabi and a drizzle of high-quality soy sauce.

Meanwhile she had prepared rice to make sushi (a term that refers to rice, not fish). Most sushi rice includes both vinegar and sugar, but the sugar is used in part at least to balance the coarseness of the vinegar. By using the mildest, highest-quality kome-su, a pure rice vinegar, Ms. Kano eliminates the need for sugar. (In my adaptation of her recipe I use 2 tablespoons of ordinary rice vinegar — I could not find true kome-su readily — and was pleased with the results.) When the rice was cooked, Ms. Kano would add to it an extremely simple stir-fry of root vegetables and mushrooms.

In this dish and her simple kabocha squash soup Ms. Kano relied on kombu dashi, the vegetarian staple stock made from nothing other than dried kombu, or kelp. (Nonvegetarian dashi includes flakes of dried bonito.) She soaks the kelp in cold water for about eight hours. But you can slowly heat the water and kombu to save time, as long as they don't boil, which will turn the stock bitter.

The most impressive dish was the one that required the least work. She blanched and shocked string beans, drained them and dressed them with a blended sauce of white miso, walnuts, soy sauce and ginger, made in less than a minute in a blender. (If you make none of the other recipes here, try this. It's incredible.)

I doubt that any of our ingredients came anywhere near her standards. Yet not only the ordinary green beans in their delicious sauce but also the thick and rustic kabocha squash soup, smoothly elegant goma dofu and earthily satisfying sushi rice were delicious and beautiful, and not at all fussy. Even Ms. Kano seemed pleased.

The Recipes

Recipe: Burdock and Mushroom Sushi

Adapted from Yumiko Kano

Time: About an hour

1 3- to 4-inch piece kelp (kombu)
1 1/2 cups short-grain rice, washed and drained
1/2 cup kome-su (pure rice vinegar) or 2 tablespoons rice wine or other light vinegar
1 teaspoon light sesame or other neutral oil
1 stick gobo (fresh burdock root), peeled and julienned or finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and julienned or finely chopped
5 fresh button mushrooms, cleaned and finely chopped
5 fresh shiitake mushroom caps, cleaned and finely chopped
2 tablespoons mirin (sweet rice wine)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon ginger juice
5 chives, finely chopped, for garnish.

1. Put kelp and 1 3/8 cups water in pot over low heat until first bubbles appear; do not boil.

2. Combine rice, kelp broth, salt and vinegar with 2 cups water in a pot or rice cooker, and cook until rice is done, 20 to 40 minutes.

3. Put oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat and stir-fry burdock root and carrot until aromatic, about 5 minutes. Add mushrooms, and continue to stir-fry for another minute or two. Add mirin, soy sauce and ginger juice, then continue to stir-fry until liquid has evaporated, a minute or less.

4. Toss together stir-fry mixture and rice; taste and adjust seasoning, then garnish with chives and serve.

Yield: 4 servings.

Recipe: Sesame-Soy Custard

Adapted from Yumiko Kano

Time: 20 minutes, plus time to cool

2 cups unflavored soy milk
3 tablespoons sesame paste (neri goma), or use the finest sesame tahini you can find
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon powdered kanten (agar-agar)
Wasabi paste
Soy sauce.

1. Combine the first four ingredients in a blender, and blend very thoroughly; let machine run for at least a minute. Pour this mixture into a medium saucepan over medium heat, and cook, stirring constantly but gently with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula until the mixture comes to a boil. Adjust heat so mixture barely simmers, and cook, stirring constantly, until it thickens, 2 to 5 minutes.

2. Pour through strainer into any medium-sized container with at least 1-inch sides. Knock dish against counter once or twice to remove as many bubbles as possible. (If you're a perfectionist, use a toothpick to draw bubbles to and then up the sides.)

3. Allow to cool, and then refrigerate. If chilled for more than an hour or so, bring it close to room temperature before serving. Invert onto a plate or cut serving pieces straight from the mold; serve with a dab of wasabi and a drizzle of soy.

Yield: 4 servings.

Recipe: Green Beans With Walnut-Miso Sauce

Adapted from Yumiko Kano

Time: 20 minutes

10 ounces green beans, strings removed
1 inch-long piece ginger
2 tablespoons light (sweet) miso
1/2 cup shelled walnut meats
1/2 teaspoon soy sauce, or to taste.

1. Bring pot of water to a boil and salt it; blanch beans in water until they are bright green and just tender, about 5 minutes. Drain and refresh in cold water, then drain again. Place in a serving bowl.

2. Grate ginger over bowl, then place in small fine strainer and press out juice, about a teaspoon. Combine ginger juice with miso, walnuts, 2 tablespoons water and soy sauce in blender and blend until smooth, stopping machine and scraping down sides if necessary. (You may add a little water or soy sauce if mixture is too thick.)

3. Toss beans in sauce, and serve at room temperature.

Yield: 4 servings.

Recipe: Kabocha Squash Soup

Adapted from Yumiko Kano

Time: 30 minutes

1 3- to 4-inch piece kelp (kombu)
1 teaspoon light sesame or other neutral oil
1 6-ounce block firm tofu, drained and roughly crumbled by hand
4 ounces kabocha, pumpkin, or butternut squash peeled and cut in 1/4-inch dice (about 2/3 cup)
4 fresh shiitake mushroom caps, sliced lengthwise into strips
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 scallions, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces.

1. Place kelp and 4 cups water in pot over low heat until first bubbles appear; do not boil. Let sit.

2. Put oil in saucepan or medium skillet with deep sides, and turn heat to medium; add crumbled tofu, and cook, stirring, until slightly browned at edges. Add kabocha and shiitake, and continue to cook, stirring, for another minute.

3. Add kelp broth; when liquid comes to a boil reduce heat to barely a simmer and cook until kabocha is tender, less than 10 minutes.

4. Season with soy sauce and salt. Just before serving, add scallions.

Yield: 4 servings.
  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your IP address will be recorded