Barber, a Japanese expat who writes cookbooks in England, offers two cookbooks that I'd recommend to anyone who wanders the Asian aisles and wonders how to use the treasures wrapped in plastic packages. Noodles. Seaweeds. Tofu. Daikon radishes. I walk past these items, and I never know how to get them on my table.
My first hints were in The Chopsticks Diet, Barber's new cookbook that uses Japanese ingredients for light, flavorful dishes. Ignore the diet stuff. Most diet cookbooks are horrible. Barber's is imaginative and fun, although a little laden with questionable medical advice. The recipes are "fusion" dishes -- each uses a Japanese ingredient like dashi, miso paste or soba noodles, but they're completely accessible. Mostly, they're simple like a salad of shredded daikon radish with carrot, cucumber, peppers and shelled edamame, Japanesed-up with a vinaigrette made from rice vinegar, soy sauce, honey and yuzu juice.
After a lunch of pit beef at Oakey's and Pioneer, my friend and I cooked a light dinner for Mrs. HowChow highlighted by a "chilled misopacho" -- a gazpacho soup flavored with soy sauce and red miso paste. Flavorful
and fresh with a second plate of seared scallop and tuna, fava beans and pomegranate served over sushi rice and herbs.
From there, I branched into Barber's The Japanese Kitchen. (Full disclosure: I emailed the publisher trying to get a JPG of the Chopstick Diet's cover, and they sent me a free copy of The Japanese Kitchen. But I'm only writing because I love both books. Trust me, there was a third book by someone else. Not writing about it.)
The Japanese Kitchen is the perfect cookbook for someone who wants to explore. Barber organizes by ingredient -- a section on noodles, on vegetables, on fish, on sauces . . . . Each ingredient gets two or three pages, and you get a truly interesting explanation of each product and then two to four recipes. You could buy this book just for the noodles section. Soba, udon, somen, hiyamugi . . . They're in every Asian market, and they're cheap and flexible. But I never knew how to use them until Barber explained the differences and gave me some options to try. Then, I paged on and learned how to use seaweed and lotus roots, budock and salmon roe. (Salmon roe looks great, but it's a special occasion food because H Mart only sells $10 packages. Too bad my family demands super-traditional Thanksgiving.)
These are Japanese recipes, not the fusion of the Chopstick Diet. Chilled somen noodles were flavored with shiitake mushrooms, bonito flakes, mirin and seaweed. That's delicious. It's foreign in a way that made me want to explore the rest of the book, from the freeze-dried tofu to the mackerel simmered in miso. Ironically, the books' only stumbles come from Barber's British side -- some flawed conversions from metric, references to "British HP sauce" and "green bacon," and an explanation of a soba dish by describing it as "the Japanese equivalent of haggis on Burns' Night in Scotland." (Burns' Night?)
Most cooks have a few good ideas, but not enough inspiration to make them worth buying. Barber's books joined my "first team" shelf because these are recipes that I want to cook -- simple enough for weeknights, but exotic enough to be interesting -- and food that I want to eat: heavy on flavor, light on the stomach because it's mostly vegetables, fish, noodles and rice. The Japanese Kitchen is also extremely well-written. Clear explanations. A little Japanese culture. I'm going to carry it on months worth of H Mart trips, and I'll discovery something new every time.
Below is one recipe to try from The Japanese Kitchen. All the ingredients are available at Lotte in Ellicott City, H Mart in Catonsville, or Super Grand in Laurel. They're all pretty cheap, and they're all staples that you can keep in your pantry and use when you want. Don't be intimidated by the dashi. H Mart sells bonito flakes in a package with a bunch of small packages inside. (It's the red packet on the right of the top photo.) It was very easy to use small package. The rest is safe in my pantry. Nothing smells like dried fish.
You can use these ingredients again. I used the extra mushrooms to bulk up a tomato, mushroom and eggplant sauce for polenta. I used the nori for sushi rolls. I'll use the other stuff as I work through Barber's book.
Hiyashi Somen(from The Japanese Kitchen)15 oz dried somen noodlesFor the dipping sauce8 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in four ounces of hot water for 15 minutes8 ounces (1 cup) of dashi broth (see below)2 ounces (3 1/2 TBL) mirin2 ounces (3 1/2 TBL) soy sauceCondiments1 ounce (2-inch piece) fresh ginger root, peeled and shreddedshredded peel of yuzu (or lime, which I used)1 sheet nori (dried seaweed), shredded4 scallions, finely choppedPut the mushrooms, their soaking liquid and all the other dipping sauce ingredients in a saucepan and heat over medium heat. Simmer gently until the mushrooms are soft, then let cool. Remove the mushrooms and chop them finely.Boil a saucepan of water and add the noodles. Stir with chopsticks to separate them. When the water is about to boil, add 1 cup of cold water and let it return to a boil. Drain, rinse under cold running water and drain again. (Alternatively: Cook the noodles according to the package's directions.) Serve the noodles floating in a big bowl of ice water. Serve with a cup of dipping sauce, the mushrooms and condiments. Each person can mix the noodles and condiments. The first night, I dipped the noodles in the sauce. For lunch the next day, I pour the sauce on noodles and packed them in a plastic container.Dashi(From The Japanese Kitchen)1 piece dried konbu (kelp), postcard size4 c. water3/4 ounce bonito flakes (about a handful)Put the konbu with the water in a saucepan. Heat gently and take the konbu out when it begins to float. When the water begins to boil, remove it from the heat. Add the bonito flakes. Let them settle to the bottom. Strain the broth through a fine strainer lined with paper towels.
For more about Asian foods, check out my post about Asian grocery stores. Or check out the post about "Eight Japanese Ingredients" by a woman who attended a Kimiko Barber demonstration in London.
You can borrow The Chopstick Diet from the Howard County library, which is where I discovered it. Or you can buy either book on Amazon through these links (which means Amazon would pay me a referral fee):