Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ginger-Stewed Japanese Eggplant

There is no shortage of cooking issues that keep me up at night, but meal harmony is not one of them.  Somehow the idea that a dish has to present not only perfectly cooked ingredients, but also a harmony of textures, flavors, and colors usually gets put on the periphery of my mind.  Since my cooking is mostly informed by the culinary aesthetic of the Mediterranean, it works fine.  There is nothing wrong with serving a perfectly grilled fish with grilled asparagus as a Mediterranean inspired meal.  Some countries (particularly the US) are perfectly fine with cooking the entire meal including dessert on the grill.  Do French agonize over a perfect color accompaniment to a steak?  Not really.  Brown french fries with brown steak?  Mai, oui!  But when it comes to Japanese cuisine, the answer is a resounding   いいえ. That's one of the 20 words that currently comprise my Japanese vocabulary and it means "No."

Reading the Washoku cookbook made me think about how to put together a meal that adds up to more than the sum of its parts.  Elizabeth Andoh explains that to create a harmonious Japanese meal, one needs to include 5 colors, 5 cooking methods, and 5 tastes.  At first, this approach seemed somewhat complicated.  Doesn't it take an awful lot of planning to put this together?  Do people really do this for every single meal?  But when I tried to do it myself, I realized that it only took me an additional 5 minutes of thinking and assessing the ingredients in my pantry and fridge to make it work.  

I find that in any meal, it helps to have an anchor -- the ingredient you want to show off.  In this case it was Ginger-Stewed Japanese Eggplant from the Washoku book.  As tasty as this eggplant was, it was not very photogenic by itself.  As I was racking my brain for how to make it look good for the picture, it suddenly dawned on me that I can try the Washoku way.  I was planning to serve this eggplant with onigiri (rice balls).  This added another color and cooking method, so only 3 more colors were left.  I needed something green.  A quick look through the fridge has revealed a cucumber and watercress.  I combined the cucumber with wakame seaweed and dressed it with rice wine vinegar to make a tangy salad.  Watercress worked well for a garnish.  While I was digging through my fridge, I also discovered some hard cooked eggs.  "Yes, yellow!" I thought.  One more color left.  I was hoping for red, but since nothing red caught my eye, I settled on orange cherry tomatoes.  I did a run down of the 5 principles in my head.

5 colors: 
  • black -- eggplant (dark colors are counted as black) and nori
  • white -- rice and egg white
  • yellow -- yolk of the egg
  • green -- cucumber wakame salad, watercress
  • orange -- tomatoes
5 tastes: 
  • salty -- eggplant
  • sweet -- eggplant and tomatoes
  • bitter -- watercress
  • sour -- cucumber salad and tomatoes
  • spicy -- cucumber salad (I threw in some chili flakes to spice it up), ginger in eggplant
5 cooking methods:
  • stewed -- eggplant
  • steamed -- rice
  • pickled -- salad (I don't know if it really counts, but after 5 minutes of sitting it tasted a bit pickled)
  • raw -- tomatoes
  • boiled/poached -- egg
It was the easiest photo shoot ever.  After everything was plated, the picture almost took itself and I got to enjoy the nicest lunch I've made for myself in months.  When I am home by myself working, a jar of sardines or a few spoons of almond butter count as a meal.  So I felt exceptionally pampered when I served myself this colorful plate.

About onigiri (the rice balls) -- is that buckwheat in there?  Why, yes!  One of my favorite discoveries from Elizabeth's book is the fact that many Japanese cooks add other grains (for example millet and buckwheat) to their rice.  Since I am Russian, buckwheat tastes good to me in absolutely everything.  Don't you think it would be a great flavor for ice-cream?  I am not kidding.  Buckwheat is very assertive, so it doesn't take much for it to declare its presence.  In each cup of rice, I replace 3 Tbsp of rice with buckwheat to add a bit of earthiness and textural contrast.  

Ginger-Stewed Japanese Eggplant
from Washoku: Recipes from a Japanese Home Kitchen by Elizabeth Andoh
page 192
© Elizabeth Andoh
My notes are in [square brackets].

[I have tried this recipe with long, thin, dark-skinned Japanese eggplants; and long, thin, light-skinned Chinese eggplants.  Both eggplant types worked well, but Chinese eggplant was softer, so you might want to reduce the amount of liquid and shorten the cooking time a bit.  Scoring the skin before cooking makes it exceptionally easy to bite.  I liked the scoring technique so much, I will try it with other eggplant types as well.]

[To make ginger juice: peel ginger and grate on a Microplane zester to make a puree.  Squeeze this puree with your fingers and you'll have juice.]

Serves 4

4 Japanese eggplants, about 3 ounces each
1 teaspoon vegetable oil [I used 1-2 tablespoons adding them as needed to help eggplant brown nicely]
1/3 cup dashi
1 teaspoon sake
1 scant teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon ginger juice (see note above), with peels reserved
1 scant tablespoon soy sauce
Dash of light-colored soy sauce, if needed
Dash of mirin, if needed
1/2 teaspoon white poppy seeds, freshly dry-roasted (optional)
  1. Trim away the stems from the eggplants and cut each eggplant in half lengthwise.  [My eggplants were so long it was hard to fit them into the skillet, so I cut them into 4 inch long pieces.]  With the cut surface to the board, make many fine, parallel slits on the diagonal into the skin side of each half.  These slits should be very shallow, less than 1/8 inch.  Pat the eggplants dry.
  2. In a skillet just large enough to hold the eggplant pieces in a single layer, heat the oil over high heat.  Add the eggplant halves, skin side down, and sear them, pressing lightly to flatten to ensure that the entire surface comes in contact with the pan.  Searing the skin side first will help keep the color vibrant.
  3. Flip the eggplant halves over so that the skin side is facing up.  Continue to sear for another minute before adding the dashi, sake, sugar, and ginger peels.  Lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer.  If you have an otoshi-buta (Japanese drop lid), place it on the eggplants.  If you do not have an otoshi-buta, you can improvise with a double thickness of parchment paper (cut in a circle, 1 inch smaller in diameter than your pan) weighted down with a small, flat lid from another pot.  Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the liquid is reduced by half.  Add the soy sauce and discard the ginger peels.  Simmer for another minute.  Add the ginger juice and cook for another 30 seconds.  Taste for seasoning: The eggplant will be fairly intense, but the flavors should be well balanced.  Neither a salty (soy sauce), sweet (sugar), nor spicy (ginger) flavor should dominate the dish.  If necessary, adjust with a little light-colored soy sauce or mirin.
  4. Remove the pan from the heat and let the eggplant cool in the pan with the dropped lid or parchment paper in place for superior flavor.  It is during this cooling-down period that the flavors meld and enhance one another and the color will brighten.  Serve at room temperature or chilled.  The finished dish will keep, well covered, in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
  5. When ready to serve, cut the halves into bite-size chunks and arrange them so that some show dark skin side up and other the pale center.  For extra textural interest, garnish with white poppy seeds.

1 comment:

MMB said...

The Japanese way of cooking makes sense, is balanced, and so beautiful. I love eggplant and like your presentation. Thanks for posting and for sharing your sources.