Savoring the Japanese Kitchen

Recently our friends Julie, Dean, Barb and Tim wanted to come over to Bret’s Table to cook and enjoy dinner together.  Barb also wanted to show-off our kitchen to her son and daughter-in-law who were visiting from California.  Of course, anytime friends call and ask, “Can we cook at Bret’s Table?” if we’re available, the answer is always, “Absolutely, come on over and bring a bottle of wine.”

Being inspired by Hiroko’s recent visit, I wanted to come up with a Japanese menu for the occasion.  With both her books sitting on the counter, The Sushi Experience and The Japanese Kitchen, I picked up the latter and started thumbing through it, asking myself, “hmm what to have, what to have.”  Due to the August heat, I was looking for recipes where the oven would not have to be used at all or if so, only briefly.  Let’s just say, I wasn’t about to roast a whole stuffed salmon, when it’s 90 degrees outside.

Also, as with any multi-course menu that I plan, I was looking for flavor combinations that would compliment each other or at least tie each course together with a common thread.    Sometimes I’m more successful than others in accomplishing that goal.  This time, it seemed to work beautifully.  Maybe it’s because I sent a quick email off to Hiroko to verify that my ideas would tie together or at least be successful enough so that if one was Japanese, one wouldn’t be offended.

Barbs’ son, Lance, is a big foodie and wanted to learn a new technique or two in the process of our cooking together.  He’s such a foodie that the last time Barb and Tim and Julie and Dean were over prepping for a dinner together, we called Lance and his wife, Meghan, for we were cooking out of Thomas Keller’s book, The French Laundry.  Lance and Meghan had been fortunate to have just eaten at the restaurant of the same name.  Since none of us had ever eaten there, we could say that what we were cooking was just as good and wasn’t costing $250 per person.

Anyway, for the Japanese menu, I decided that we should tackle Hiroko’s Heavenly Rice Crackers which are quite simple to make and truly heavenly to eat with their crisp texture and nutty flavor.  To accompany them, we made an Edamame Pâté.  I had recently been given the recipe for the pâté and had been wanting to try it out.  However, as soon as we tasted the original recipe, we promptly changed it, as it was too bland for our taste.

For the second course, I was intrigued by Hiroko’s recipe for a Duck Dumpling in Consommé for two reasons.  One was the fact that the dumpling was made by combining duck breasts and sea bass into a paste.  I would have never thought of combining these two proteins.  And secondly, how Hiroko explained making the dumpling shape, I immediately thought of  a quenelle.  Of course, I’m always a sucker for wanting to practice a technique and a quenelle does take a little effort to get the hang of it.

To continue the fish theme, I decided on a Miso-Marinated Salmon with Spinach Sauce alongside perfectly-steamed brown rice.   Hmm…spinach sauce.  I like spinach, but pureed?  However, I thought that since Jon’s been on this spinach kick lately, now would be the time to venture into this territory before it was too late.

For dessert, we would repeat what Hiroko and I made for a party when she was here :  a rhubarb soup with Izzy’s vanilla bean ice cream and brandied cherries.  I know it’s not very Japanese, but the rhubarb was from the garden and we had brandied the cherries earlier and they were sitting on the refrigerator shelf, begging to be enjoyed.

I handed out the recipes and divided everyone into teams.  Julie and Dean, after many taste tests, came up with the new version of the Edamame Pâté.  Meghan rolled out and baked the crackers.  Lance and I dug into the dumpling and consommé recipe and Barb and Tim tackled the sauce for the spinach and well as cooked the rhubarb soup.  Last but not least, Jon was in charge of the dishwashing throughout the evening.

After much laughter and no kitchen mishaps, we sat down to enjoy dinner and several bottles of 2009  Shine  – Heinz Eifel – Riesling.  We took lots of pictures, but unfortunately, not one photo of any of the food.  We were all too busy taking pictures of each other.  You’ll have to trust me that it all turned out beautiful as well as delicious.

I have made another batch of the crackers.  They are easy to make and could be enjoyed not only with the Edamame Pâté but also with a fresh tomato salsa.  Making the salsa may be a challenge though if you happen to have a partner that turns every last tomato into a paste before you can say “fresh tomato brusschetta”.

Usuyaki Senbei
Adapted from The Japanese Kitchen by Hiroko Shimbo
Yields 32 crackers

2 ½ ounces (about ½ cup) cake flour
3 ounces joshinko (rice flour)
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt, stirred into a scant ½ cup lukewarm water
1 ½ tablespoons white sesame seeds
1 ½ tablespoons black sesame seeds
Cake flour for dusting

In a medium bowl, combine the flours and baking powder. Add the salted lukewarm water to the flour mixture little by little, stirring, until the mixture has a dough-like consistency.

Divide the dough into two portions.  Flatten one portion, sprinkle the white sesame seeds on top and knead them in.  Incorporate the black sesame seeds into the other piece of dough in the same way.  Shape each piece of dough into a disk.  Wrap the disks in plastic wrap and refrigerate them for 1 hour.

Heat the oven to 400ºF.

On a lightly floured counter, form each disk into a log about 2/3 inches in diameter. Cut each log into quarters, then each quarter into quarters, to make 32 dough disks. Dredge the cut sides lightly in flour to prevent them from drying out.

With a rolling pin, roll each disk into a circle 2 ½ inches in diameter. Arrange the thin disks on a parchment or Silpat lined baking sheet and transfer it to the heated oven. Bake the crackers until crisp and light golden, about 15-20 minutes, turning the crackers over halfway through the baking process.

Transfer the crackers to a rack to cool, and then store them in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Serve the crackers with your favorite spread or salsa.

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