Zaru Soba

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Cool and refreshing zaru soba!

Summer is nigh upon us and as the weather heats up it’s natural to crave foods that are cooling, refreshing, healthy, and light. Sometimes when the sun’s beating down and the humidity is creeping up I crave Zaru Soba, a classic Japanese dish of chilled noodles with a cooling dipping sauce on the side. It’s pretty simple to make, very healthy for you, and it’ll definitely refresh you on a sultry day.

The dish is made from soba noodles that have been boiled for three minutes and then drained and washed in cold water to stop the cooking process. They should be a little toothsome, but perhaps not as chewy as Italian pastas cooked classically al dente. The soba should be refrigerated for at least an hour before serving. The most widely available soba noodles are made from a combination of buckwheat flour and wheat flour, but for this version of Zaru Soba I used cha soba, noodles that have been made with powdered green tea, which gives them a lovely emerald hue and an elegance that the more rustic soba lacks. If you have a good Japanese market near you look for the green tea noodles — they are fantastic!

Also, if you have access to a decent Japanese market ask for a zaru, which is a sieve-like bamboo mat that chilled soba is traditionally served on. Although you’re supposed to dip the noodles into the cold men-tsuyu sauce on the side, I’ve seen people pour the sauce over the noodles on the zaru; the gaps between the bamboo slats allows for excess sauce to drip off into the plate below, allowing you to have just enough of the dipping sauce clinging to your noodles. It’s simple and quite ingenious.

Men-tsuyu is a simple sauce made from dashi, soy, and mirin and it’s served chilled. I recommend that you start with your own homemade dashi broth (check out my link below) but you can use the instant powdered variety (Hon-dashi from Ajinomoto is one brand I’ve used). Or save even more time and buy the dip pre-made and ready-to-go; you’ll find it in bottles on the shelf at your local Japanese market. It’s not quite as fresh and tasty as the stuff you make from scratch, but it will do in a pinch, especially if this is your first attempt. I really hope you have access to a decent Asian market, but if your neighborhood doesn’t have one try online at asianfoodgrocer.com, which should have everything you need.

The noodles are topped with lots of sliced scallions and shredded nori (dried pressed seaweed — ya know, the kind you wrap up sushi rolls with). In addition I added a sprinkle of black sesame seeds, a few daikon sprouts, and some little bits of crunchy toasted brown rice (genmai), which is typically tossed into green tea for a rich, roasty flavor but which I like to add to the noodles for a little textural zip.

The men-tsuyu should be served in a bowl on the side, with wasabi as a option to mix into it. A little grated fresh ginger might be a nice substitute if you’d like. Sometimes I’ll also add a little shake of ichimi togarashi, a lovely Japanese chili powder, for a bit of extra heat to the dipping sauce. I used fresh wasabi root grated on a sharkskin-lined paddle designed for that sole purpose, but both fresh wasabi root (and the sharkskin grater) are rare and expensive. Use prepared wasabi in a tube or a paste of wasabi prepared from powder.

Men-tsuyu noodle dipping sauce:

  • 2 cups ichiban dashi (made from kombu and katsuobushi)
  • 1/3 cup soy sauce
  • 1/3 cup mirin (Japanese cooking wine)
  • 1 teaspoon sugar

Notes on the noodles:

  • cook in rapidly boiling water for three minutes (if it foams turn heat down)
  • drain and rinse immediately under cold running water
  • drain well again and chill for about an hour (or more)
  • put noodles on the zaru (or in a shallow bowl)
  • top with nori, scallions, daikon sprouts, sesame seeds, and/or crunchy genmai
  • serve with wasabi on the side
  • eat up!

Use the recipe for ichiban dashi is my miso soup post: https://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2012/02/25/miso-hungry/

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Don’t these chilled noodles look yummy?

Easy Tasty Vegan Pizza

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Spicy veggie (and vegan) pizza is a snap to make.

This isn’t much of a recipe post, but more of a suggestion. I whipped up this lovely vegan pizza the other day and it exceeded expectations. Now I’m not a vegan (I’m OMNIVOROUS, baby!) and my tolerance for fake vegan cheese has its limits, but this pizza, notwithstanding the “cheddar-style” rice-based “cheese product” that melted inconsistently over the top, was just dynamite. I’m not going to measure it all out for you this time, but this what I did, more or less.

I had half an Italian eggplant, which was peeled. I diced the eggplant and salted it with a sprinkle of kosher salt. I let that sit for about 20 minutes and then I rinsed the eggplant and dried it well by squeezing it gently with a paper towel. I then sautéed the eggplant in olive oil until nicely browned. Also, I blanched some Tuscan kale in boiling salted water for two minutes. I dropped that into an ice bath to cool it down and then I drained it. I chopped it up nice and fine. I then chopped a little onion and browned that quickly in a pan. I preheated the pizza stone in my oven for 30 minutes at 550ºF (do it on a sheet pan, totally fine).

I took a nice, very flat whole wheat pita and I drizzled a little bit of olive oil over one side. I then spread over it a little homemade tomato sauce (a good jarred one is fine) and then added sparingly a little of each topping: kalamata olives, cooked eggplant, sautéed onions, blanched kale, fresh tomatoes, and pickled jalapenos. I added a few torn pieces of pre-sliced cheddar-style rice (or soy) cheese. I baked it on the pizza stone for about ten minutes. It was, how you say, AMAZEBALLS!

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Yummy and satisfying.

Roasted Paprika-Rubbed “Rock N Roll” Chicken Wings

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Overnight marinating makes these wings super-flavor-flav!

You guys know how much I just LOVE chicken wings, don’t ya? To give you some idea I’ve already published five other posts about wings and I’m sure I’ve alluded to wings in at least six other posts (I’ve linked to the good ones below.) There’s not much more I can add to the pre-existing wing conversation; however, I will reiterate that I absolutely love crisp & chewy skin, I adore the moist tender meat within, and I find irresistible what I like to call the “primal gnaw”, that nearly instinctual desire to chew cooked meat off of bones, using only your hands, in a greasy-fingered manner that recalls primitive man. It’s primal and messy and communal and well, fun.

My usual M.O. when making wings is to par-cook them; first I’ll bake them at a low temperature until about 80% cooked and then I’ll fry them until crisp. This two-pronged approach yields perfectly crisp wings every time. However, cooking them this way means you can’t really infuse the chicken itself with a lot of other flavorings (dried spices and marinades will dissipate the instant the wing hits the hot oil) and you need a finishing sauce of some kind to add some zest — classic Buffalo sauce, bbq sauce, honey-soy sauces, etc. I love the sauces, don’t get me wrong, but the longer the wings are saturated with sauce the father away they get from the skin-crunch ideal.

And of course you can achieve very flavorful wings with other methods — low-oil skillet-frying, grilling — but they don’t come close to deep-frying for crispy skin. I wanted a wing that was shot-through with flavor but came close to the great crispity-crunchity of fried wings. After a little tinkering I found a method that was worth sharing: high-heat roasting wings that have been coated with a moist dry rub, finished under the broil. The results were awesome — crisp and flavorful with no moist sauce to undercut the crunch. I ended up drizzling the still-hot wings with a wee bit of honey and they were AWESOME!

You’ll need:

  • 12 largish chicken wings (tips removed) cut into 24 individual pieces
  • 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon celery salt
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground sage
  • 1 tablespoon mirin (Japanese cooking wine) or anything similar
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus a little extra when you cook them
  • honey for a last-minute drizzle

Now do this:

Put the cut wings into a large mixing bowl. Mix all the dried spices together and dump it over the wings. Using your hands coat the wings thoroughly with spices. Add the mirin, the soy sauce, and the oil. Coat wings thoroughly with wet ingredients and stick them into a ziploc bag. Wait impatiently for 24 hours. Preheat oven to 525º.

Place wings on a rack set over a sheet pan. Roast wings for 10 or 12 minutes or until the edges of the wings look crisp but not charred. Remove the pan from the oven and allow them to rest for about 15 minutes. Set the oven to broil and place a rack about six inches from the heating element.

Drizzle a little vegetable oil on the “up-side” of the wings. Broil 1 or 2 minutes or until nicely crunchy and a bit charred. Flip the wings and repeat the oil and the broil. Congrats! Your wings are finished.

Drizzle with a little honey if you wish.

Why are they called Rock N Roll Wings? Why not? They rock.

Check out my earlier wing-related posts:

Crispy Wok-Fried Wings: https://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2013/01/13/crispy-wok-fried-chicken-wings/

Honey-Ginger Chicken Wings, Again: https://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/honey-ginger-chicken-wings-again/

Late-Night-Guilty-Pleasure Wings: https://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/08/25/late-night-guilty-pleasure-chicken-wings/

Chicken Wings & The Primal Gnaw: https://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/07/23/chicken-wings-the-primal-gnaw/

It’s Game Time:     https://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/02/03/its-game-time/

Grilled Tempeh & Portobellos

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Very vegan and very delicious.

In the course of my work I’m frequently called upon to make vegan dishes for guests and my coworker Ian (nicknamed Vegan Boy). Here’s one I knocked out the other day, on a whim, and it came out pretty spectacularly, if I may say so myself.

I bought a slab of tempeh, a staple vegetarian food stuff originally from Indonesia, which is a cake of pressed fermented soy beans. Because of its dense, hearty character tempeh makes for a decent meat substitute and can be quite tasty marinated in something flavorful and then grilled.

First I sliced the tempeh into slices about a half-inch thick. I whisked up a marinade composed of about a quarter cup of ponzu sauce, a quarter cup of olive oil, some minced garlic, a little minced marjoram, a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar syrup (a reduction of simple balsamic vinegar from Modena with some sugar added to it), and some salt and pepper. I coated the tempeh slices with the marinade and let it sit for about an hour.

I cut a portobello mushroom into thick slices and marinated those as well. Meanwhile I roasted some broccoli florets in a skillet until a little charred. I also warmed a little homemade tomato sauce in a small pot.

I grilled the tempeh and mushrooms until hot and lightly charred. I put three slices of the tempeh on a sheet pan, topped the tempeh with grilled mushrooms, and then topped the ‘shrooms with a slice of “pepper-jack flavored” soy cheese. I popped the sheet pan into a hot oven (think 400ºF) for about five minutes until the “cheese” melted. I pulled out my vegan creation and pulled out a nice plate.

In the center of the plate I put a little pool of that homemade tomato sauce (a decent store-bought version like Rao’s or Giorgio Baldi’s might work). And then with a spatula I placed my little cheesy tempeh-mushroom creation in the center of the pool. I topped the cheese with some of that roasted broccoli and drizzled a little more balsamic syrup around the vegan grub.

It was damn tasty. At least that’s what Vegan Boy said.

Crispy Fried Frog Legs!

Krispy Kermit

Krispy Kermit

When I was in the South Carolina Low Country last week I managed to get my hands on some absolutely fresh and delicious frog legs. Most commercial frog legs (at least the ones I’ve managed to get) are sold frozen and are usually imported from China. Once frozen the tasty little legs lose much of the sweet tenderness that makes them such a fine treat; the flesh gets a little rubbery and loses flavor. Now, about that flavor — everyone says they taste like chicken, but I don’t really buy into that description. That’s only an excuse to get the slightly squeamish to try something that superficially seems a bit weird — I mean, you’re eating a slimy, mud-dwelling amphibian, right? To me, frog legs taste like, well, frog. The meat is tender, almost gentle in its yielding texture, and a bit sweet with a faint butteriness that’s reminiscent of fresh scallops or mild fish like dover sole. The meat is nearly white, and the legs do bear a superficial resemblance to a chicken drumstick. If you fry them “chicken-style” like I did you could certainly make a case that they “taste like chicken”.

My friend Martin took half the batch and sautéed them French-style (you’ve heard the French being referred to as Frogs, haven’t you?), which means in a hot pan with garlic and herbs and a splash of white wine. They were incredibly delicious, but I prefer frying them because I find that a crisp breading plays wonderfully against the tender meat inside, making for a fantastic textural contrast. Crispy critters are yummy!

Now, I’m not sure exactly where these froggies were “gigged” although the marshy Low Country could certainly produce a bumper crop of our amphibious friends. I’m pretty sure they were local, although the seafood purveyor was a bit cagey about the actual source. Maybe something not entirely above-board in the supply chain? I don’t know, I don’t care, the frogs were exceptionally good. Heck, it’s not like I was buying whale meat.

I got the legs and separated them from the lower half of the frog torsos with a couple of sharp whacks with my knife. I’d never seen them still attached to the body, and the tiny exposed vertebrae and frog ribs had a Sam Raimi-George Romero-David Cronenberg kind of grotesquerie that gave me a brief pause. But I continued and with the same blade hacked off the feet (flippers?). The resulting “drumsticks” I soaked in whole milk for three hours in the refrigerator.

I whisked together a simple breader from one cup all-purpose flour, one and a half cups yellow corn flour (not to be confused with corn starch or corn meal), a quarter-cup of semolina flour, a generous tablespoon of kosher salt, a teaspoon of celery salt, a teaspoon of garlic powder, a teaspoon of ground white pepper, a teaspoon of onion powder, a half-teaspoon of finely ground black pepper, a half-teaspoon of Old Bay Spice, a half-teaspoon of granulated sugar, and a half-teaspoon of cayenne pepper powder.

I set up a fryer for 375ºF and breaded the frog legs by gently shaking off any excess milk and dredging the legs in the seasoned flours. I placed the legs on a rack over a sheet pan and let them sit for about five minutes. I fried the legs five or six at a time until golden brown, about three minutes per batch. I served them simply with lemon slices although a simple tartar sauce or remoulade wouldn’t have been out of place.

They were spectacular — hot and crisp and juicy and tender. Utterly delicious.

They don't really look like chicken, do they?

They don’t really look like chicken, do they?

Grilled Short Ribs + Bacon Grit-Cake + Chinese Broccoli + 5-Spice BBQ Sauce + Creamed Corn Sauce

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I was feeling the fusion when I thought up this dish!

I made this dish a few weeks ago and now I’ve finally gotten around to posting a picture of it. You’ll have to excuse me; what with work and the new(ish) baby and holidays and travel I’ve been hard-pressed to find time to post about anything! But I’m trying to rectify all that and hopefully I’ll be able to pump out a few decent posts in the next week or two.

Anyway, this dish represents a rare fusion-y dish for me. I was striving for an Asian-slash-Southern-US dish, with some Chinese broccoli subbing in for collards and a barbecue sauce spiked with sriracha and Chinese five-spice powder.

I won’t take the time to go into all the minute details, but I’ll give you the broad strokes. If you really need more detail send me a comment and I’ll give you what you need.

• First I braised some short ribs (on the bone) in homemade beef broth and xao xing (Chinese cooking wine) with some shallots and garlic and ginger in a heavy-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid. They took about three hours to cook at 300°F. I let the short ribs cool and then I removed them from the liquid and refrigerated them until they were cold.

• I then sliced nice slabs from the cold short ribs, removing any bone, connective tissue, and excess fat. I allowed the meat to come to room temperature before finishing the dish.

• While the short ribs were braising I made a basic red barbecue sauce (ketchup, mustard, vinegar, molasses, sugar, spices, etc.) and added a nice dose of sriracha for heat and a big tablespoon of Chinese five-spice powder.

• I then threw together a simple grit-cake by cooking white grits according to the package directions and when cooked, mixing in chopped cooked bacon, grated cheddar cheese, butter, chives, and some salt n pepper. I poured the cooked grits onto a small sheet pan lined with oiled parchment paper. I cooled the grits in the fridge until firm and then cut it into rectangular slabs.

• And then I made a sauce from some leftover creamed corn. I thinned out the creamed corn, cooked it until hot in a small saucepan, and then pureed it hot in a blender at high speed. While the creamed corn was blending I added a tablespoon of cold butter and a pinch of sugar. I poured the creamed corn through a coarse strainer and then set the sauce aside.

• Finally I blanched in salted boiling water a big handful of chopped gai lan Chinese broccoli. I cooled the par-cooked greens in an ice bath and then drained them.

To finish the dish I did the following.

• First I crisped the grit cake in a hot skillet until brown on one side. I flipped it and browned the other side.

• Next I sauteed the gai lan in some butter and kept it warm off the side.

• I heated a grill-pan and then lightly oiled the short rib slabs. I seasoned the short ribs with plenty of salt and pepper and then grilled them until I had nice grill-marks on both sides. I basted them with a little of the bbq sauce.

• I warmed the creamed corn sauce in a very small pot on the stove while I assembled the dish.

• I placed the gai lan in the center of a warmed plate. I topped the greens with a cooked bacon grit-cake. I placed two slabs of short ribs on top of that and then drizzled the warm creamed corn sauce around the plate. I dabbed more bbq sauce over the meat and then drizzled a few decorative swirls of bbq sauce on the plate. I topped the meat with a little chopped scallions as a garnish and then I ate the WHOLE THING!!

Today’s Lunch: Chicken Piccata

A light, simple lunch.

I cranked out this tasty lunch the other day at work and my peeps loved it! I cooked some chicken breasts and made a simple piccata-style sauce to spoon over the top. I served it with some crispy little yukon gold potatoes and a salad of romaine, arugula, tomato, red cabbage, spinach, cucumber, crumbled egg, and a little manchego cheese.

Typically chicken or veal piccata starts with cutlets that are breaded with a little egg and flour mixture, but in the interest of keeping it lighter I eschewed that step and simply sautéed the chicken breasts. The tart and zesty drizzle is an herbed lemon-caper pan-sauce made in the same skillet the chicken was cooked in, which allows it to pick up some of those flavorings left in the pan from the chicken.

I’m not going to write out the recipe, I’m just gonna throw it at ya! I’m gonna move fast.

I preheated the oven to 350ºF and then I heated a non-stick, oven-ready skillet over high heat. I generously seasoned three chicken breasts with salt and pepper. When the pan was super-hot I swirled in about two tablespoons of vegetable oil. I added the chicken breasts and browned one side (about three minutes) and then flipped them. I cooked the other side another couple of minutes and then threw the pan into the oven. I baked the chicken for another five minutes and then pulled out the pan from the oven.

I took the chicken out of the pan and put the breasts on a plate and covered them with foil. I poured off most of the oil (leaving maybe a teaspoon in the pan) and then put the skillet back on the stove over medium-high heat. Into the pan I threw one minced garlic clove and about a tablespoon of minced shallot. I stirred that around for thirty seconds to soften the garlic and shallot and then I added two tablespoons of white wine. I scraped the bottom of the pan and boiled off the wine. I added a tablespoon of lemon juice and two tablespoons of capers.

I made a slurry of a half-cup of chicken broth with a tablespoon of corn starch whisked into it. I poured the slurry into the pan and combined everything with a whisk. I seasoned the sauce with more salt and pepper and added about a tablespoon of minced parsley and a teaspoon of minced chives. I brought the sauce up to boil to thicken it and reduce it and then I whisked in a tablespoon of room temperature.

I killed the heat and put the chicken breasts (and any collected juices) back into the pan, turning them to coat them with the piccata–style sauce. I put the chicken on a plate with the potatoes and the salad and then drizzled a bit of sauce over the top of the chicken.

Viola! Lunch is served!