I have said before that Japanese cuisine has intimidated me ever since I came back from Japan. Sure, I spent hours in the kitchen to produce a fantastic Japanese-themed dinner we enjoyed at Christmas last year, but other than that, I have struggled to incorporate the delicate but oh-so-satisfying flavors of Japanese cuisine into our day-to-day diet. I make the occasional miso soup and ramen bowl, but most other dishes I know feel too labor intensive to make on a week night and I lack the knowledge to create dishes that truly feel Japanese inspired.
Last spring, I had the pleasure of meeting cookbook author Hiroko Shimbo in New York. She was teaching a ramen-making class during a conference I attended, and I had been looking forward to it for months. In her class, she introduced the idea of playing around with ingredients when making ramen, instead of using the usual classics. She added Brussels sprouts and Swiss chard to the soup, something I had never seen (or thought of doing) before, and she encouraged us to mix things up seasonally. I loved her straightforward, no nonsense cooking and teaching style, and the simple tips she provided throughout the session.
Photo Credit: Nancy Singleton Hachisu
After the class, I told her about my Japanese cuisine “troubles,” and she told me her upcoming book would help a great deal. She had heard my story many times before and found a way to simplify the use of Japanese flavors to allow cooks to incorporate them into dishes more easily. It sounded like the book had been written specially for me and I left very hopeful we would finally be able to enjoy the flavors we fell in love with in Japan, at home.
The key idea behind Hiroko’s American Kitchen: Cooking with Japanese Flavors is that with two basic broths and four sauces, you can make hundreds of different dishes quickly and easily. Hiroko suggests making those broths and sauces in batches and in advance, portioning and freezing them (if required) so that you always have them on hand when you want to whip up a Japanese-inspired recipe. Her book is divided into six chapters and each one is centered on one of the broths and sauces. Appealing recipes featuring each of the sauces are provided, as well as pointers for how to use them in other recipes too.
To date, I have made four of the six sauces, and we’ve fallen in love with each of the recipes I’ve made with them. All the sauces are very simple to make but they pack the complexity that is so typical of Japanese cuisine. Throughout the book are pages that highlight basic Japanese cooking techniques, such as noodle or rice cooking, and I found that every little tip made a difference to my finished dishes. In Japanese cuisine, everything is in the detail. Thus, when you learn that you shouldn’t salt the water you cook noodles in, how to use the sashimizu cooking technique (adding cold water twice during the cooking process to ensure noodles cook more evenly), and the importance of rinsing noodles under cold water (and how to reheat them, if necessary), what you end up with are carefully crafted dishes. Those details, which don’t increase the preparation time, change everything.
Miso-Beef Ragu and Udon Noodles. A Japanese answer to Bolognese sauce.
What I appreciate most about Hiroko’s book is her simple, down-to-earth voice. I feel reassured, supported and empowered by her simple instructions and the background information she provides with recipes and techniques to help novices better understand Japanese cuisine, which in turn let me become more confident at working with Japanese flavors. Instead of sticking to restrictive traditional dishes, she strongly encourages using ingredients that are readily available and seasonal. “Answering the question of what is truly ‘authentic’ is a discussion that can consume a lifetime,” she says, and she goes on to explain that for her, the clichéd miso soup with stereotypical Japanese ingredients such as tofu, seaweed and scallions is boring. The flavor and spirit of a miso soup lies in the dashi stock and miso paste, so you can start from there and make it your own, just like she did with her chunky potato and leek soup with miso (and bacon!), which looks so appealing.
The recipes I have made from Hiroko’s book range from classics (such as chicken donburi, or rice bowl) to innovative snacks (such as the addictive curried miso peanuts). Most dishes can be made on week nights, meaning they don’t take long to assemble when you have the basic sauce or broth on hand, but many are also impressive enough to be served on a special night. Elegant dishes that are quick to prepare are always winners for me, and Hiroko’s American Kitchen has many. Any Japanese cuisine lover should have this new essential book to hand, whether they are novices (and learning the basics) or advanced cooks (and discovering Hiroko’s innovative recipes). It sure has become a reference for me and I’m excited to keep on cooking from it.
Full Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of Hiroko Shimbo’s book from her publisher, Andrew McMeel Publishing. All opinions are my own.
I have chosen to share the recipe that was most revelatory to us. It highlights Hiroko’s clever capacity to add a Japanese twist (grated daikon and dashi broth) to classic flavors (salmon and dill). The salmon and vegetables are lightly fried and they remain surprisingly crispy even once the broth is added (provided you serve it immediately, of course). The broth is delicate and complex, and the whole dish is so satisfying and perfect for this time of year. The recipe makes 4 appetizer-sized servings, but it’s so good that small portions are not enough, so I encourage you to serve it as a main, along with steamed rice and a light, crispy salad. If you have leftovers, let the vegetables and salmon cool completely, then store them separately from the broth. Reheat the vegetables and salmon by placing them on a baking sheet in a 300°F (150°C) oven for 10 minutes, turning the pieces halfway. They will get crispy again and you’ll enjoy the soup like it had just been made.
Serves 4 as a first course, or 2-3 as a main
1 lb [454 g] boneless, skinless salmon fillet
3½ tbsp [52 ml] soy sauce
2½ tbsp [37 ml] mirin
¼ cup cornstarch
1 small sweet potato (about 5 oz [140 g])
2 cups dashi stock
¾ tsp [3.75 ml] sea salt
2 tbsp [30 ml] finely grated daikon radish, drained of excess water (but not pressed)
1-2 tsp [5-10 ml] fresh dill, chopped
Canola oil, for frying
Cut the salmon into 8 pieces. In a bowl, toss the salmon with 1 tbsp [15 ml] each of the soy sauce and mirin and let stand for 20 minutes. Drain the salmon and lightly wipe the pieces with a paper towel to dry. Dust the salmon pieces with the cornstarch and let stand for 20 minutes.
Cut the sweet potato into 1½-inch [3¾-cm] cubes. Add the sweet potato to a pot of col water and place it over medium heat until it begins to simmer. Lower the heat to medium-low and cook the potato pieces for 10 minutes. Drain the potato pieces in a colander and let them cool and dry. Pit, peel and cut the avocado in half lengthwise. Cut each avocado half into 4 wedges. Dust the sweet potato and avocado with cornstarch and let them stand for 15 minutes.
Place the stock, the remaining 2 ½ tbsp [37 ml] soy sauce, the remaining 1½ tbsp [22 ml] mirin and the salt in a saucepan over medium heat and bring it to a simmer. Turn off the heat and set aside. Toss the grated daikon radish with the dill in a small bowl.
Add 2 inches [5 cm] canola oil to a deep skillet and heat it to 340°F [170°C]. Add the sweet potato and cook for 2 minutes or until all sides are lightly golden, turning the pieces from time to time. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the sweet potato to a wire rack set over a sheet pan. While the sweet potato is cooking, re-dust the salmon with the remaining cornstarch. Add the salmon to the skillet and cook it in two or three batches for 4 to 5 minutes each, or until the salmon is cooked through and the outside is lightly golden, turning the fish once or twice during cooking. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the salmon to the wire rack.
Increase the temperature of the oil to 350°F [175°C] and cook the avocado until the outside is lightly golden, about 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the avocado to the wire rack. Divide the salmon, sweet potato and avocado among warm bowls. Add the daikon and dill mixture to the prepared stock and bring it to a simmer over medium heat. Pour the hot broth over each bowl. Serve immediately, piping hot.
Recipe Credit: Adapted from Hiroko Shimbo, Hiroko’s American Kitchen: Cooking with Japanese Flavors.