This is the time of year that we cooks often forget to nourish ourselves; the ordinary meals that fall between the holiday feast and the baked treats can be rushed and overlooked. Here's a recipe and a book to help you stay centered and nourished in the kitchen: a new favorite, a quiet, thorough look at Japanese home cooking from the perspective of a Western cook. This book is an absolute delight, and the recipe here? Well, we're getting ready to make it right now.
Sarah Marx Feldner is a food writer and editor who spent a year in Japan teaching English. She fell in love with the homestyle cuisine that her Japanese friends would make in their own homes, and she set out to write a book that would really bring these dishes to Western cooks.
I have read and explored many books on Asian cuisine, but there is a lucidity and a warmth to this book that sets it apart. Feldner begins the book with a personal account of her own time in Japan, and moves on to explaining tools, ingredients, and techniques with a focused simplicity. She doesn't hesitate to include and explore Japanese ingredients that may be unfamiliar to the home cook, but she does so in a way that makes them feel accessible.
The book's design also aids the author's voice; there is a beautiful table of contents in the beginning (my personal bugaboo — I love tables of contents!) that lets the reader scan the whole book. Many of the recipes, from vegetable-stuffed rolls (oyaki) to fried eggplant salad have process photos, showing how to score and fry an eggplant, how to make dashi, how to press tofu.
A special note really must be given to the photography: Japanese photographer Noboru Murata brings a clear yet subdued style to the photos. There are no flashy angles or over-saturated colors — just simple, straightforward shots of the food and the techniques. There is an attention to detail and to color, and nearly every single photo makes me want to cook and eat the subject immediately.
For those who love Japanese homestyle cooking but don't know where to start learning how to make it in their own homes, let me suggest this book. It's full of nourishing, simple food — soups, salads, seafood, even chiffon cakes — that all feel very accessible and fresh. I can hardly wait to cook my way through a few recipes in this book; it just invites me in, especially now, in the cold months of winter.
• Find the book: by Sarah Marx Feldner. Published by Tuttle Publishing (April 2010). $18.45 at Amazon.
Udon Soup with Chicken Meatballs Tori Gara Udon
From the moment we arrived at Takeko’s remote A-frame mountain retreat in Nagano prefecture, her daughter Yukari was put to work preparing the chicken meatballs for this delicious soup. The meatballs were made from a frozen chicken carcass. And all activities performed that morning were underscored by the continual metronome-like banging of Yukari, out on the back porch, sledge hammer in hand, rhythmically pounding away on the carcass, which had been placed inside a pillow case. The bones breaking and crunching, breaking and crunching, until the pulverized carcass miraculously turned tender—an extraordinarily laborious task I’d never before considered. (Fortunately, the recipe that follows calls for ground chicken, instead.) It seems this frugal technique was actually an extremely hospitable gesture. As I was later informed, chicken was considered a delicacy by the war-affected generation. Thus, it was only when special guests were invited to dine that a chicken was butchered and a feast had. For such an occasion, Yukari was unfortunately estranged from the social goings-on of the morning.
4 oz (125 g) dried udon noodles
MEATBALLS 1/2 lb (500 g) ground chicken 1 teaspoon salt 3/4 teaspoon shichimi togarashi or 1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne), or to taste
SOUP 8 cups (2 liters) water 1 cup (100 g) shaved burdock (about 1 whole) (optional) 1 cup (60 g) sliced fresh mushrooms, preferably eringi or shiitake One 3 x 5-in (7.5 x 12.75-cm) sheet fried tofu (abura-age), rolled in paper towel to remove excess oil, thinly sliced 1/2 cup (40 g) thinly sliced leek 1/4 cup (65 ml) soy sauce
1. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Cook the udon according to packaged instructions (about 8 to 10 minutes). Drain, rinse, and drain again. Set aside.
2. To make the meatballs, combine the ingredients in a small bowl. With damp hands, form 1 teaspoon of the mixture into a ball. Repeat with remaining mixture; you should have about 18 meatballs.
3. To make the Soup, bring the water to a boil in the same pot used to boil the udon. Add the burdock, if using, and the mushrooms and fried tofu. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer 5 minutes. Add the meatballs, cover, reduce the heat to low and cook 5 minutes more, or until the meatballs are cooked through. Add the leek, soy sauce and cooked udon. Cook 1 minute more to heat through.
Cooking Tips • Unless you use a monstrous pot, the water has a tendency to boil over as the udon cooks. To prevent this from happening, do as Takeko does: Add a small amount of cold water to the pot as it gets restless.
• Unlike Italian pastas, udon noodles need to be rinsed after cooking or they’ll be too slimy.
• Since the noodles are to be added to the hot soup before serving, cook them until they are slightly underdone. They will continue to soften in the warm broth.
(Image and recipe used by permission of Tuttle Publishing)