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An Elegant Japanese Dinner Menu

Every year, E and I reserve one night over the holidays to celebrate Christmas together, just the two of us. On that night, I like to cook a special meal, something fancy with many courses, usually inspired by a recent trip or cuisine discovery. This year, of course, it had to be Japan. Since we returned, I hadn’t yet tackled this fascinating country’s cuisine, and I admit I was rather intimidated by it, probably as much so (or even more) than before we’d been to Japan. You see, fine cuisine in Japan is all small servings of beautiful, meticulous dishes. I like to think of myself as a meticulous person, but since I don’t have a full kitchen’s restaurant staff on hand, I was a bit wary that creating a 5-course Japanese menu might be an impossible task.

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I almost dropped the project, in fact. A week before Christmas, I vented to E, telling him I didn’t know where to start, that I wasn’t familiar enough with the techniques, that I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find the ingredients. I glanced through a book that I’ve owned for many years and from which I’ve never cooked anything but miso soup and it just worsened my fear of not being able to pull it off. The dishes felt too traditional, a bit fussy, and nothing like we actually had when we were in Japan.

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As I was beginning to brainstorm on another theme for our Christmas dinner, I remembered a blog that I like very much for its beautiful pictures, short and sweet posts, and unfussy recipes, No Recipes (yes, despite the name, the blog does feature recipes). The author is a Japanese chef and photographer who loves to add a modern twist to traditional recipes. His ‘Japanese Recipes’ section was the true inspiration I needed to begin planning our Christmas dinner. I browsed through all the recipes, selecting all that appealed to me, and then chose courses that I felt would fit harmoniously together. Finally, my menu was starting to take shape!

It turns out that the recipes I selected were totally doable and didn’t require that I slave in the kitchen for hours prior to our dinner. Shopping for ingredients was the most time consuming, then I did about an hour of prep work the morning of our dinner. At night, I prepared one course with E’s help, we ate it, and then we prepared another one. Preparing the meal in this way allowed us to pace ourselves and enjoy the full 5 courses, and meant that making the meal together was a great activity in itself. We were filled with nostalgia, but we were also very happy to be able to enjoy the flavors we loved so much in Japan, at home!

It was undoubtedly one of our best homemade Christmas dinners. I’ll take you through the courses and share the links to most recipes, as they are all worth bookmarking for sure.

A Japanese Dinner Menu

Snack: Edamame with yuzu sea salt
To drink: Japanese beer and Umeshu (plum wine)

Courses:

  • Miso soup with mussels
  • Tofu with crab sauce
  • Chirashi sushi
  • Miso glazed black cod with sautéed broccoli
  • Yuzu crème brûlée

To drink: A dry and bright sake, served cold

Miso Soup with Mussels

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This course was dead easy to make, but so satisfying! In fact, I served appetizer portions (about 12 mussels each), but we would have gladly eaten a huge bowl of it. After having a mind-blowing oyster soup in Japan, I knew shellfish and Japanese soups were a natural match. This recipe in my traditional Japanese cuisine cookbook was a no brainer: it’s a simple miso broth prepared with homemade dashi and the mussels’s cooking liquid, which both make the soup it deeply flavorful. Adding the mussels is a plus that makes the soup fun to eat as well. I will for sure make this again as a main course.

Tofu with Crab Sauce

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A simple mini course, but a flavor bomb. Preparing it with such convenient ingredients as canned crab meat, I was wondering whether it would be lacking in flavor, but the key here was, again, the homemade dashi broth in which the crabmeat is simmered lightly. The freshly grated ginger on top added a welcome dash of spiciness.

View the recipe for Tofu with Crab Sauce

Chirashi Sushi

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This dish was the highlight of our meal. It required the most advance prep and assembling it felt like working on a piece of art. I tried to put all my meticulousness at work and exercise Japanese restraint: use ingredients of a better quality in a smaller quantity. The dish itself is fairly common in Japan and often served in sushi restaurants. The best way to describe it I think is as an ‘open face sushi’, meaning the vinegared rice is put flat on the bottom of a plate and then it’s topped with colorful ingredients like vegetables and raw fish. Mark, from No Recipes, made its version a little more posh by using salmon eggs and uni, two ingredients I couldn’t find at home. I remembered a bento box that we bought at the Kyoto train station which looked very much like chirashi sushi (now that I know what it is). It was topped with shrimp and asparagus tips, so I decided to use these very common ingredients instead. Amazingly, I was able to find smoked eel and trout eggs, which truly brought the dish to the next level. The vinegared rice (which requires some technique to make), simmered shiitake mushrooms, tamago (seasoned scrambled eggs) and all of the other components (from tobiko – flying fish roe – to sesame seeds) made the dish look and taste very refined and elegant. I will definitely make it again and again, using a different and seasonal ingredient combination every time.

View the recipe for Chirashi Sushi

Miso Glazed Black Cod with Sautéed Broccoli

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For us, the black cod was the special element of this dish because it’s hard to find at home and so I had only once made it at home before – but it’s a fish we love to have at restaurants. Marinating it in miso have it a flavor kick and the cooking process was flawless. The fish was flaky and just perfect. The sautéed broccoli provided a discreet but nutritious backdrop to the dish.

View the recipe for Miso Glazed Black Cod with Sautéed Broccoli

Yuzu crème brûlée

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A surprise ‘fusion’ ending to our meal, the yuzu crème brûlée is a luscious dessert that I’ll remember for quite a while. I had never made crème brûlée, always figuring they had to be banned from my lactose-intolerant stomach, but a dairy company here in Quebec recently started selling lactose-free heavy cooking cream, so it opened the door for me to try my hand at this classic dessert. I found the foolproof recipe on Hélène Dujardin’s blog, Tartelette, and because I didn’t have fresh yuzu on hand, of course, I was able to substitute bottled yuzu juice and dehydrated yuzu zest I brought back from Japan. I’m sure the taste would be even better using the fresh citrus, but let me tell you, this was amazing all the same. If you can’t find precious yuzu lemons either, Hélène suggests a clever mix of citrus fruits that should provide a taste that’s very close to the real thing. I bruleed the top using pure cane sugar from Okinawa, and was very happy with the perfectly crunchy result that my gas oven allowed me to get.

View the recipe for Yuzu crème brûlées

Well, that was certainly one of the best meal I ever made and it have me the energy to try my hand at more Japanese cuisine at home. Did you ever try it? What are your favorite recipes?

Happy New Year to all, and I’ll see you in 2012!

An elegant Japanese dinner menu: Sake

Interesting and delicious links to more Japanese recipes:

Yum

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