The simplicity and elegance of Japanese food can be deceiving. As any woman worth her salt can attest, putting on make-up that comes across as, "natural," is more difficult than slapping on some blue eye shadow. The same can be said of seemingly simple foods. As I grow as a foodie and cook, I'm pushing myself to prefect "the natural look." It's all well and good to make a divine Coq Au Vin when you have things like bacon and red wine to make it delicious, but what about one, single, lonely shrimp? How do you strip down your foodie instincts to enhance that solitary bit o' protein? Enhance being the critical word here. Because in fact, that's the key to a cuisine like Japan's... enhancing.
It starts with the best, freshest ingredients. That doesn't mean the most expensive, either. The monetary difference between a frozen and fresh chicken breast is most likely pennies, but the difference in texture and sometimes even flavor, can be dramatic.
It's one thing to wax poetic about food philosophies and another thing entirely to cook them, however. So, in my own, informed way, I'm navigating the calm, simple culinary waters. Below is my own take on two very classic Japanese dishes that are beautiful and easy to make at home. I urge you, as always, to make your own additions and versions.
Tofu Agedashi, Duchess-Style
Firm Tofu (not extra firm or regular, but firm)
Asian Pear (sometimes Asian Apple)
Enoki Mushroom (optional, for garnish)
Oil, for frying
-The most important step is to drain and dry the tofu well. Wrap up the tofu block in either paper towel or a dish towel, then weigh it down making sure its not so heavy as to break the tofu block. Repeat this as many times as necessary to wick-away all the moisture.
-While the tofu is being pressed, using a mandolin, slice the Daikon. Core the pear and also using the mandolin, slice it. Mix together, cover with plastic wrap to retain the moisture, and set aside (you can refrigerate if you like, too). Slice scallion in thin strips or coins and set aside.
-Put about two or three inches worth of oil in a pot and heat. Slice the tofu into approximately two inch cubes. Cover in corn starch and shake off excess, then fry. This is a quick fry, no more than three minutes. The point isn't to color the tofu, but to crisp the outside.
-Compile your bowl. Place a nice pile of Daikon and pear on the bottom, then pour a tablespoon or so of Ponzu over it. Place the tofu on top, then garnish with scallion and Enoki. Zest lime directly over the entire dish. Serve.
Soba Noodle Soup, Duchess-Style
Vegetable or Chicken Broth
Miso Paste (red or white. I prefer red - it has a more intense flavor)
Shrimp*, peeled and de-veined
Chicken, sliced in thin strips
Shitake mushrooms, sliced
-Boil Soba noodles according to package. Drain and immediately rinse in cold water. Set aside.
-Dissolve two parts Miso paste to one part water in pan. Sautee the chicken and shrimp in concentrated slurry, then set aside.
-Bring the stock to boil with mushrooms and 3/4 scallions. Add soy to your liking.
-Compose soup in serving bowl with noodles, broth (containing the mushrooms and scallions), chicken, and shrimp. Garnish with a little raw scallion and serve. This can be done with any protein you like.
*Just a quick word about shrimp. Unless you live someplace where shrimp is farmed or fished daily, buy frozen. Most of the shrimp you find in fish stores or grocery stores was frozen anyway. Fresh shrimp is caught and frozen immediately, usually on the actual boats they were fished from. It's as fresh as you'll get away from the shore.