False Spring

Neither or Inbetween

I know you don’t read this newsletter to hear me talk about the weather – even though I pretty much always do.  Weather, seasonality, is so tied to what we crave, to the flavors and dishes we enjoy, that it’s impossible to ignore when writing about food.  In the summer, we want light meals, grilled vegetables, vegetables so perfectly garden ripe that they need little more than a sprinkling of salt.  In fall and winter, I crave long slow braises where meat and starch and aromatics meld into a caramelly comforting mess that’s like a heavy warming blanket.  In the spring, we need that first peak at the produce that’s to come, bright, light, fresh and delicate.

We’re edging into at least our second (or is it third?) false spring here in Central Ohio.  It snowed (or really iced) yesterday.  Today it’s warmer, drizzling, and there’s a bird on my windowsill making noise that’s more Hitchcock than Disney princess.  True spring is weeks away.   We won’t see much in the way of local produce around here until the beginning of May.   But this false spring, that change in light and that terrifying bird – who may either be trying to scare me away or may just be trying to steal my coffee – make me want it to be spring.

This week’s menu is an odd hybrid of that feeling – of wanting it to be spring even though it isn’t, it won’t be for weeks – and of a spur of the moment (and carefully socially distanced) shopping trip to one of my favorite local shops – a tiny Japanese market a few miles from our house.  To my taste, many traditional Japanese ingredients – even those that are preserved or fermented – mimic that first blush of spring, that sea air smell you get even hundreds of miles from the ocean, the smell of the soil, the very slightly green onion smell of new growth.

I’m weird.  I know.  But that’s where I found myself this weekend:  standing in a Japanese market in the middle of our second false spring.  So, this week’s menu is a menu for a false spring, for a rootless cuisine that – unlike Japanese cuisine- is neither here nor there. A Japanese tinged European American mashup that’s neither winter nor spring.

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Milk Bread with Seaweed Butter

If you’ve never experienced it, Japanese Milk bread is like American sandwich bread taken to the next level.  It’s impossibly tender, often (if commercially purchased) impossibly white, pillowy, sweet without being dessert, and the perfect squishy container for a crispy chunk of Katsu.  It’s made using a technique that involves pre-cooking some of the flour and liquid to create a roux that helps keep the bread soft.  I haven’t mastered that perfect marshmallowish texture you’ll find in a Japanese bakery, but I’ve really come to love to tender, delicate crumb and use the method to make dinner rolls on the regular.  This recipe is based roughly on a King Arthur Flour recipe that I’ve tweaked over the past few years.  I serve it with a compound butter studded with ground seaweed powder and Japanese seven spice powder.  I love the contrast between the milky sweet bread and the bracing ocean flavors of the butter.

Makes 2 mini loafs

3 tbsp water
3 tbsp whole milk
3 tbsp AP flour
300 g AP Flour
110 g whole milk
15 g dry milk
50 g unsalted butter
50 g granulated sugar
7 g yeast
6 g kosher salt
1 egg
Roux from above.

Make a roux by whisking together 3 tbsp water, 3 tbsp whole milk, and 3 tbsp AP flour in a small pan.

Place the pan over medium low heat and stir until the mixture thickens and the raw flour smell disappears.

Allow to cool completely.

Lightly beat the egg.

Add the beaten egg, the cooled roux, and all other ingredients to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook and process until a smooth dough has formed and is pulling away from the sides of the bowl – about 7 minutes.

Cover, and allow to rise in a warm place about 1 hour, until almost doubled.

Grease 2 mini loaf pans.

Divide the dough in half and shape into balls.

Allow to rest ten minutes.

Stretch the balls into rectangles, and the roll into loaves that fit your pans.

Brush the top of the loafs with water, and allow to proof in a warm place for 30 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 375°F.

Bake the loafs at 375°F until browned on top and cooked through – about 30 minutes for mini loaves.

Serve warm, with seaweed butter.

Seaweed Butter

4 oz room temperature unsalted butter (1 stick)
¼  sheet sushi nori

1/4 tsp kosher salt

1/2 tsp shichimi togarashi

Tear the nori into small pieces and process with the salt in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle until a coarse powder forms. 

Using a silicone spatula, work the salted seaweed powder and shichimi togarashi into the butter until it’s evenly dispersed, and no “white” chunks of butter remain.

Serve at room temp.

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White Salad

This salad – like a lot of things I cook – came together by accident.  I had planned a fancy composed salad with a bunch of perfectly cut rounds dressed with a sauce that was almost a consume.  I my mind it was going to be gorgeous and taste phenomenal. 

It wasn’t.  It didn’t.

I started over.  I had hearts of palm and daikon from my original plan, and we had Belgian endive we’d picked up at the market.  Because I was already working with Japanese flavors, I decided to dress those in a miso vinaigrette.  It worked.  It’s striking – almost colorless, but a salad – and it’s refreshing.  There are miso-like notes to the endive that, to be honest, I never knew were there until I tried it. 

And if you’ve got a family member who won’t eat green things, you can try to convince them that this salad isn’t.  I wish you luck.

4 heads Belgian endive
4 pieces canned heart of palm
¼ cup loosely packed, julienned daikon or another white radish
1 tsp shiro miso
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
3 tbsp canola oil
2 drops roasted sesame oil

Break down the heads for endive into individual leaves. 

Rinse and drain.

Add the vinegar to a non-reactive bowl.

Peel, trim, and microplane the garlic into the vinegar.

Add the mustard and miso and whisk to combine.

Allow to rest 10 minutes to marinate and to tame the harshness of the garlic.

Wisk in the canola oil and 2 drops of sesame oil.

Cut the heart of palm into rounds.

Peel and cut the radish into 1 inch matchsticks.

Toss the leaves, hearts of palm rounds, and radish with the dressing.

Serve immediately.

Sushi Rice “Risotto” with Mushroom Ragout

American cooks are, apparently, known for abusing risotto.  Italian friends look askance at our habit of topping a serving of carefully prepared, perfectly cooked rice with a big hunk of meat of fish.  They’re probably right.  Given the time, care, and effort that goes into cooking good risotto, it deserves to stand on its own.

This isn’t risotto.  I mean, it sort of is, but it’s not.  It’s short grained Japanese rice, the kind we most often see in tiny plastic sushi boxes lined up in a grocery store cold case, cooked as though it was risotto.  But it’s not risotto.  It’s a risotto adjacent Umami bomb.

If you’re reading this newsletter, you’ve probably heard or read about Umami somewhere else.  It’s a Japanese concept – roughly translated it means something like savory delicious – that’s entered the culinary lingo worldwide.  This recipe piles on a bunch of ingredients that bring Umami to a dish:  dashi made with dried kelp and katsuobushi (dried smoked tuna), fresh mushrooms, and a mushroom stock made with charred onions.  The end result is a creamy, savory rice and a rich mushroom ragout.

1 cup short grained Japanese rice
4 cups dashi (see below)
½ cup mirin
3 tbsp butter
1 scallion or green onion
Salt to taste

Bring 4-5 cups of dashi to a low simmer.

Trim the scallion and slice, keeping the white part separate from the green.

Reserve the green scallion for garnish.

Add 1 tbsp of butter to another thick bottomed pan over medium heat.

As soon as the butter stops foaming, add the white scallion and the rice.

Cook, stirring constantly until the rice looks opaque instead of clear.

Add the mirin and stir until fully absorbed.

Slowly add one cup of hot dashi to the rise mixture, stirring constantly until fully absorbed.

Repeat with an additional 3 cups of dashi – this should take nearly 20 minutes.

Taste the rice, individual grains should be fully cooked but firm and the overall dish should be loose but not liquid.

Fold in the remaining 2 tbsp of butter.

Taste for seasoning and season with salt if necessary.

Top with mushroom ragout.

Simple Dashi

5 cups water
1 4x4 inch piece of Kombu (dried kelp)
¼ cup Katsuobushi (bonito flake)

Bring the water to a simmer.

Add the Kombu.

Cook at a very low simmer for 10 minutes.

Add the Katsuobushi and remove from the heat.

Allow to infuse for 10 minutes.

Strain, and return to a low simmer to use.

Mushroom Ragout

2 cups wild mushrooms
1 clove garlic
½ cup seasoned mushroom sauce (see below)
½ cup mirin
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tsp soy sauce

Clean and trim the mushrooms.

Peel, trim, and crush or microplane the garlic.

Add 1 tbsp butter to a pan over medium high heat. 

Add the mushrooms, garlic, and soy sauce and sauté until the mushrooms just begin to soften.

Add the mirin and mushroom sauce and cook until the liquid is reduced by about half.

Serve over sushi rice risotto.

Seasoned Mushroom Sauce

4 cups water
1 cup assorted fresh mushrooms
4 dried shitake mushrooms
1 ½ inch piece of ginger
2 scallions
1 medium onion
½ tsp kosher salt

Slice the onion, unpeeled, and arrange the slices on a small sheet pan.
Place under a broiler until lightly charred.

Add the charred onion, and all other solid ingredients to the water.

Bring to a boil, then simmer uncovered for 1 hour.

Strain out the solids and return to the heat and reduce at a fast simmer until 1 cup of liquid remains.

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Broiled Halibut with Miso Caramel and Pickled White Asparagus

I love fish sauce caramel.  In fact, a chicken dish made with the unlikely sounding stuff is one of the most popular dishes on my other website – The Chicken Thigh Guy.  Sure, it sounds like a ten-year-old’s gross out joke, but the stuff is phenomenal, sweet, funky, rich … just delicious.

This dish, which I’ve made with halibut but could just as easily be prepared with sea bass or any other firm white fish, is a sort of play on fish sauce caramel.  Basically, it IS fish sauce caramel, but I’ve subbed in salty fermented soybean paste – miso – for the salty fermented fish sauce.  The miso is a little less aggressive and has a different funk than southeast Asian fish sauce.  The paste itself can have an almost caramelly flavor, and it makes this dish way more complex in flavor than the presentation would seem.  I serve it with thinly sliced pickled white asparagus to cut the sweetness of the caramel and the fish.

Makes 4 portions

1 lb. halibut
1 tsp kosher salt
Pickled asparagus (see below)
Miso caramel (see below)
Green onion for garnish

Clean and cut the halibut into 4 even servings.  You can choose to remove the skin or leave it on.

Heat your broiler on high.

Season each piece with salt then brush each piece with a generous portion of the miso caramel.

Broil until just barely firm.

Serve with pickled white asparagus and shredded green onion.

Pickled White Asparagus

8 pieces white asparagus
1 cup water
½ cup rice wine vinegar
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp granulated sugar

Thinly slice the asparagus lengthwise.

Add the vinegar, salt, sugar and water to a pan and bring to a boil.

Pour over the asparagus, chill, and allow to marinate for at least 1 hour.

Miso Caramel

1 tsp shiro miso paste
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup mirin
1 star anise pod
1 1-inch piece cinnamon
1 garlic clove
½ cup plus 2 tbsp water

Add the sugar, and 2 tbsp water to a thick bottomed pan over medium heat. 

Cook, untouched, until a medium caramel has formed.

Add ½ cup water and allow the caramel to dissolve.

Add the mirin and miso and whisk to combine.

Add the whole garlic clove, the cinnamon, and star anise.

Simmer on low until reduced to a thick syrup.

Strain to remove solids and use to brush fish.


Yuzu Hoshigaki Baba au Rhum

I had already planned to make Baba au Rhum with this menu before I saw the tray of hoshigaki – dried Japanese persimmons – at the market, but finding them just sealed the deal.  Baba is traditionally studded with dried fruit, and sometimes flavored with citrus before being soaked in rum, so I thought it would be a great addition.

It worked.  Also, there’s rum in these.  I like rum.  A lot.  Probably too much.  I think I’ve talked about that before.

Anyway, Baba is a little unusual in that the cake component is yeasted instead of relying on chemical leaveners or just eggs to provide rise.  That means they take a little longer to prepare, but the yeast really adds another layer of flavor – one that goes particularly well with the funky flavors you’ll find in a good dark rum.  For the rum, you should look for a good dark – and I mean dark, not golden – rum.  Dark rums from Jamaica such as Myers Dark or Coruba will work, but I’m particularly partial to the Demerara rums from Guyana.  I used Hamilton 86, a blend of Guyanese rums that has a lot of intense caramel and brown sugar notes and works really well for baking.

Makes 4 large, or 6 small individual cakes

1 cup AP or cake flour
¼ cup milk
3 eggs
4 tbsp butter, melted
1 tbsp dark rum
1 tsp yuzu juice
1 tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp instant dry yeast
1 hoshigaki (Japanese dried persimmon)

Preheat your oven to 350°F

Cut the hoshigaki into ¼ inch or smaller pieces.
Add the yuzu juice and rum to a bowl with the hoshigaki and allow to soak while the rest of the batter is prepared.

Wish together the eggs, sugar, milk, and yeast.
Sift the flour into the egg mixture, whisking to combine well.

Slowly drizzle the butter into the batter, whisking to incorporate.

Fold the rum and yuzu soaked hoshigaki into the batter, along with any remaining liquid.

Portion the batter into 4-6 ramekins, baba molds, or muffin tins.
Bake at 350°F until cooked through and just beginning to brown, about 15-30 minutes depending on the size of the molds.
Allow to cool, then brush generously with Yuzu Rum Syrup.
Top with whipped cream.

Yuzu Rum Syrup

½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup water
1 tbsp apricot jam
¼ cup dark rum
1 tsp yuzu juice

Heat ½ cup sugar and ¼ cup water in a pan until the sugar is fully dissolved. 
Remove from the heat and stir in the apricot jam.

Allow to cool to room temperature, then stir in the yuzu juice and dark rum.
Strain to remove any fruit solids, and use to soak Rhum Baba.

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