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New Year 2012
Shunryu Suzuki’s 1969 English calligraphy, a framed page from Tricycle magazine

Woke up and went to the George Washington Masonic Memorial: à la Japonaise we sat on the steps overlooking Old Town Alexandria and waited for the sun to rise. But not quite ready to start in on the fish and pickles, we drank coffee and shared a pear-walnut scone. A young Korean man drove up and looked surprised to find us there. But he waited with us as the sky washed salmon-pink at the low horizon, and then, quickly a sliver of light pressed up into a yellow-orange fire.

New Year 2012

Sushi Taro’s osechi ryouri (new year’s food) is on the menu once again for the next few days. I eat these treats thinking of Japan, my teacher, and my resolution to find a way to bring Japanese culture and sake into my life more often this year. As Suzuki Roshi reminds us, the perfect time is now and now and now…

New Year 2012

Links:
New Year’s Day 2006 in Japan

Sushi Taro osechi from 2010

Shimeharitsuru "Jun" junmai ginjo
Shimeharitsuru “Jun” junmai ginjo. An old friend. The large swooping kanji in calligraphy is “Jun” (“pure,” as in pure rice sake, no alcohol added).

One of the pleasures of sake, at least for me, is revisiting old friends. As much as I am in search of the new, the untasted, the learning experience, I often come back around to some sakes I know that are solid, faithful, and fit my tastes very well. Shimeharitsuru “Jun” junmai ginjo is one of those old friends.

I think I tasted it the first time in the summer of 2007 with my then drinking partner, Patricia, at Tomohiro, a tiny izakaya in Yokohama that features Niigata sakes. Patricia and I had decided to try to visit some of the izakaya that John Gauntner wrote about in his books, Nihonshu no Umai Otona no Izakaya (a guide to Tokyo-area sake pubs) and The Sake Handbook. Oh yes, it is delightful to slide open a tiny door and enter, we two American women, to sit at the bar and take in the scene of cluttered glassware and bottles, the posters of Japanese beer girls and sumo banzuke, the humming fridges full of sake, the smells of tempura and braised eggplant, and thus become completely absorbed in the evening’s tastings. My notes that night were pretty terse, “Sweet rice nose, clean.” But I put a check mark next to it, my way of telling future me to go back for more.

I tasted it again when John Gauntner featured it at the first dinner of the January 2008 Sake Professional Course. My notes expanded somewhat and I wrote of its “cotton candy nose” and “classic” profile, plus the fact that it was made of gohyakumangoku rice. I’ve since learned that I often really (really) like sake made from that rice.

I smacked my lips on it on December 31, 2009, at Sushi Taro, before picking up my osechi. That day I drank it heated, which gave it tones of caramel.

And tonight I finished a bottle I had been enjoying over the past few days. It has a clean crispness (crisp cleanness?) typical of a sake from Niigata Prefecture, but the nose is gentle and sort of coy. Tonight that cotton candy nose was there with a slight banana undertone. A delicious tartness refreshes the palate and keeps me wanting more.

Tonight I drank “Jun” with gyūniku no misozuke (“miso-marinated beef,” but we marinated veal chops). I wrapped veal chops (non-factory farmed) in cheesecloth along with some crushed garlic. I spread some inaka miso I had in the fridge mixed with mirin over the outside of the cheesecloth and let it sit a few hours. Then I removed the cheesecloth and grilled the veal. The meat was outstanding, carrying that slightly fermented salty taste that makes me think of Japan. Be careful when you grill it, miso marinades tend to make meat burn more easily. The recipe was from the May/June 1998 issue of Saveur, but a quick search shows me that the author, Hiroko Shimbo, published the same recipe in her later book, The Japanese Table. The recipe is floating around Indra’s net if you want it.

The side was a light Japanese-style stirfry with yellow squash (my addition) and cucumbers from Yasai hatake no reshipi: 106 Recipes from Vegetable Farm [sic], a homey Japanese cookbook I picked up a few years ago. At the end of the recipe is a note which (I think) says: “Cucumber is recommended for people who are difficult to get along with.” [For Japanese speakers:「苦手な人」は英語に何ですか]  Or it could mean something like “People who have a weakness should eat cucumber.”

Luckily my weakness, sake, is not cured by eating cucumbers. But I do become more easygoing when I drink it…

Trevor Corson at Zentan
Photo: Sushi chefs preparing plates at Zentan.

March 3rd at Zentan restaurant in Washington, D.C., Trevor Corson (a native of the D.C. area and author of The Secret Life of Lobsters and The Story of Sushi) gave the first in a planned series of “sushi concierge” presentations. He hopes to come down to D.C. whenever he can book enough people for his sushi talks. I, of course, was lured out by the promise of sake, hoping to score something new.

While I was waiting at the bar for the event to start, I tried some Wakatake junmai daiginjo: sweet, smooth, fruity, but I had a hankering for something a little more fleshy that evening. The Zentan sake list discombobulated me. Several of the sakes are only listed by their English translations rather than their Japanese names. Thus, Ama no To is listed as simply “Heaven’s Door.” The English translations are nice to have, but why no Japanese transliteration? I was completely unmoored by these de-Nipponized sake names with no brewery listings. I’m praying this is not the wave of the future.

Trevor Corson at Zentan
Photo: Three selected sakes of the evening.

Corson’s presentation was designed to help one experience throwback sushi, that is, the more classic fish, rather than the common American style of sushi. As he put it, “Hey, I happen to like California rolls, but I think we should search out a fuller experience.” He specifically excluded salmon and bluefin tuna from the evening’s menu because they are not “traditional,” and wanted to focus on white and silvery fish and shellfish. Whether or not we need to buy into the concept of historical sushi fish versus modern fish, he makes a sound plea for diversity in sushi eating.

Nothing in his lecture was particularly earthshaking, but his focus on expanding the repertoire of sushi in America is admirable. He’s trying to get Americans to eat less appreciated fish that sushi chefs want to serve in the States but can’t get their customers to order. Thus, he emphasized that one should concentrate on texture from shellfish and the more subtle flavors of certain fish rather the “obvious” fatty and simplistic tuna belly, salmon, and unagi. Bluefin tuna should be off the menu for many obvious environmental reasons, but I like Corson’s manner of selling species diversity as evidence of diner sophistication. Will America buy it? Probably not, but it’s a worthy message.

We were served what is apparently the Zentan signature dish, Singapore slaw, which at first has some nice flavors and textures with hazelnuts and fresh radish and crispy rice noodles. Then it gets soggy and makes one think of July 4th party leftovers. The first of three sakes was Ame no To (Heaven’s Door) tokubetsu junmai. This is an old friend of mine from Japan, with that delightful crisp and ricey palate. Good stuff, and not hard to find in the States. In fact, all three sakes of the evening were Vine Connections imports. Corson declined to comment much about the sakes, saying he doesn’t have enough knowledge to do the subject justice. Disappointing, I wonder if he needs a lecture partner?

Round one of some well-made nigiri sushi: kanpachi with yuzu garnish, ocean trout with California caviar, madai with umeboshi, sweet shrimp with salmon roe and deep fried shrimp heads (particularly yummy), anago (sea eel) with the standard eel sauce.

Corson moved on to some well-known etiquette issues: Americans need to stop insulting sushi chefs by rubbing their wooden chopsticks together before eating (something I’ve always found bizarre). Later in the evening when he stopped by our table, I offered him my theory that some people feel the need to “remove splinters” because they are tightly (and incorrectly) pressing their lips against the chopsticks as they pull them out of their mouths (like a person eating chocolate cake with a fork).

He also counseled against pouring copious amounts of soy sauce, making a wasabi slurry, and sloshing away with the fish. As he put it, sushi chefs have told him when they see this they ensure that customer is “off the best fish list for the night.” Again, the choir says, Amen Brother.

He made an interesting point about how tightly sushi rice is packed for nigiri in the United States and that one way to get your sushi chef to regard you as good fish—worthy (the secret stash under the counter) is to ask for a looser pack on the rice. In this case, you’d eat the sushi with your fingers, something he encourages.

Corson confirmed a suspicion I had that sushi chefs in the States were preparing very sweet sushi rice compared with the sushi rice in Japan (even allowing for Kansai/Kanto variations). He said Japanese sushi chefs learn quickly that sweeter rice sells more sushi because it pleases the “American palate.” There’s mention of the American palate again! Someone please wash out America’s mouth with soap.

Sushi round two: sea scallop, horse mackerel with ginger and scallions, flounder with chili daikon, and ye olde bara zushi of mackerel and kelp.  Sake two: Tentaka Kuni (Hawk in the Heavens) junmai. More about that below.

Lecture concluded, Corson visited all the tables to answer questions, and miso soup was offered tragically in a lipped bowl with stainless steel spoons. I stared at the bowl on the table and held the spoon above it wondering what was wrong. Then I realized that so much of the enjoyment of miso soup is bringing the bowl up close to the face, appreciating the aromas, and sipping from a warm lacquer (ok faux-lacquer plastic) bowl. With Western-style etiquette plus a wide lip on the bowl keeping it anchored to the table and the feel of the cold, stainless steel soup spoon, the miso soup lost all its allure. I left it.

The Tozai ginjo nigori (Voices in the Mist) served with dessert was crisp and not as cloudy as many nigoris. Very nice, and I am hard on nigori sake. Dessert was an enjoyable, modern almond panna cotta with pineapple raspberry ravioli and passionfriut sauce.

Trevor Corson at Zentan
Photo: Tentaka Kuni (Hawk in the Heavens) junmai.

I played nice with our waiter and he brought me a free second glass of the Tentaka Kuni. I may have to revisit this one for the interesting bitter nutty taste with a widely spreading palate. Intriguing. Has some warming potential but was served cold that evening.

See Trevor Corson’s Sushi Concierge site for more about these lectures in D.C. and New York. He admits that his standard lecture must be aimed at sushi newbies. A private lecture (you must have at least 6) might be better for people who want to delve deeper.

This one’s for Tyson for reminding me that a blog needs to be fed.

Breakfast
Photo: Sunday Japanese breakfast at home. Broiled aji hirakiboshi (split-open, lightly dried horse mackerel), rice, pickles, miso soup, genmai cha (green tea with roasted brown rice).

I woke up this morning craving a Japanese breakfast: miso soup, grilled fish, rice, pickles. I had been collecting all these Japanese products and we hadn’t been fully exhausting the pantry and freezer. Time to make the dashi.

Yesterday I had bought some tofu at the grocery store near my house which is cheap, close and definitely/defiantly NOT going for the Mom’s Organic Market vibe. Even as I picked up the sad little tetrapak I wasn’t expecting much, but this morning when I looked at the package I was horrified to find that it was tofu “lite.” I put it in the miso soup knowing I was making a big mistake. Disgusting. What was I thinking? I had just written on this blog that one need not have tofu in miso soup. It was white tasteless goo, with the texture of pannacotta. Too bad it wasn’t pannacotta, we could have eaten that for a snack with a nice berry sauce. Stupid girl I am. Looks like it’s time to check out Thanh Son Tofu in the Eden Center. But I digress…

Delicious breakfast, and I had enough leftover rice to make a bunch of omusubi (rice balls, perhaps more commonly called onigiri). Leftover rice tip: Rice is much like bread, it keeps much better in the freezer than in the fridge. Of course, if you are making fried rice the next day and need dried out rice, the fridge works. But when I’ve made extra Japanese-style rice—sometimes koshi-hikari from California, uonuma from Niigata when I am jonesing for the supreme stuff—I make omusubi to freeze.

When the rice is still warm, wet your hands, rub your palms with a little salt, and press the rice into thick triangles or round patties (or balls or cylinders, whatever). Wrap in plastic wrap and put in the freezer. When you want rice, you can grill/broil them. Put them in a green tea and dashi broth (to make ocha-zuke). Or eat them grilled and topped with a miso sauce, such as a walnut (kurumi) miso sauce (example at TasteofZen.com). You can also just steam them if you want plain rice.

I got a little overexcited finding this wicked cool Japanese Web site with 100 regional onigiri/omusubi styles. Even if you can’t read Japanese, click on the text around the map to pull up some photos. There are also four categories (click on the the bars at the top of the map) that show: furosato (local style) onigiri, kōraku (sightseeing, picnic) onigiri (with examples for spring, summer, fall, and “late fall”), innovative onigiri for the 21st century, and kihon (basic, fundamental) onigiri.

Fridge miso
Photo: Nandemo (Whatever) miso soup. Tonight there was a potato, a yellow onion, a piece of daikon, some curly kale, and two kinds of miso. Yes, I splashed in a little sake.

Oh food bloggers bring us the perfect recipe for miso soup.

Here we have a step-by-step guide to “classic” miso soup from Trevor Corson at Serious Eats.

How about theme and variation from Makiko Itoh at Just Hungry?

And the motherlode: 66 ways to make miso soup from Harris Salat at the Japanese Food Report.

Miso soup at my house is catch–as–catch–can. Making dashi (broth) is fast and delicious and completely doable even on a work night. I can have fresh dashi made in less than 15 minutes. It’s best if you let the kombu soak in cold water for a while before heating it, but in a rush you can still make a good, quick dashi from scratch. I know you’ll ignore me and use the powder packet, so I’ll shut up now on the joys of homemade dashi.

Besides the dashi, the rest of miso soup consists of using whatever ingredients you have, lightly cooking them in the dashi (usually—I’d blanch fried tofu and meats first), and adding the final addition of whatever mixture of miso you like. You can get really finicky with the blanching, and in some cases it’s worth roasting the vegetables or stir-frying the ingredients ahead, but this is nandemo miso soup, no need to prep for a Saveur photo shoot.

The nandemo part—knowing what you like and what works—takes a little tasting and experimenting, but it’s miso mixing, not nuclear fission. You know not to plop a spoonful of miso in the pot, right? It won’t dissolve, whisk it in some hot dashi first.

Woe unto he who boils the miso! (It really does deaden the flavor.)

So, after your first few goes at it, don’t stare at your laptop screen and measure out exact amounts of tofu and wakame, which you probably don’t have anyway: Get in the fridge, haul out the vegetables, and see what you have.

Tonight I had daikon, a potato, some kale, an onion. I made dashi, simmered the vegetables in it, and added a mix of two misos, hatchō, the super dark, and aka, a standard red. I steamed some leftover rice, added takuan pickles on the side, and Carlos said the house smelled like a Japanese restaurant. He’s so kawaii.

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