Round One: Japan.

I decided to start my foray into this World Cup cooking series with Japan. A quick flip through Mark Bittman’s The Best Recipes in the World not only provided me with a deluge of Japanese recipes, but also a suggested menu for each season. Bittman had done my homework for me, so I happily eased into the task.

The menu consisted of cold noodles with sauce (Hiyashi Somen), pan-seared flounder and a cold spinach salad. (I was happy to find a use for my CSA spinach while checking off my first World Cup country.)

My meal required several ingredients that, on their own, made me a bit uneasy, but, in the end, provided an excellent cool meal for a sticky Saturday evening. A trip to the Asian market up the street fulfilled most of my needs, from dried shrimp to wasabi to noodles.

Had I completely read through the methods before heading to the store, I would have picked up a bag of ice, as well. I suppose that it’s fitting that a summer menu would require more ice cubes than I had. I improvised a little and skipped the cubes required in the noodle recipe.

The methodology was truly easy, and the meal didn’t take much time at all to prepare. (Yet another reason I love this cookbook.) My only roadblock was with the dashi (fishy stock) required for the noodle dish. While Mr. Bittman wanted me to make my own, I decided to buy the concentrated stuff at the store. Unfortunately, the instructions for use were all in Japanese (I assume), so I had to guess how many cups of water to add, using taste. Not quite knowing what the final result was supposed to taste like, I was pretty useless at this task. I ended up adding water (five cups) until the salty, fishy taste was bearable.

A little side note: When I read “dried shrimp” in the recipe, I imagined a shaker with powdered shrimp inside. Instead, I found what I was looking for in the freezer section. (I guess maybe I thought it was similar to what they put on prawn-flavored potato chips in Great Britain). I now have more dried shrimp than I will ever need.

Even though the end result was perfect, I used the wrong type of noodles. The recipe called for somen noodles, which are thinner, like spaghetti. I left the Asian market with soba noodles (and instructions to go to an actual Japanese grocery if I wanted anything better.) Feeling lazy, I stuck with the wrong noodles; if Japan makes it to the second round, and I’m still doing this silly experiment, I figured I’d take the job a little more seriously. Meanwhile, I didn’t need to impress anyone.

I was very pleased with the spinach dish and how easy it was to make. After I cooked the spinach, cooled it off and squeezed out the water, I had to roll it up into a log to cut into individual balls, then dip them into toasted sesame seeds. Normally, something this tedious destroys my timing and turns out to be disastrous. (You’re likely never to see me do a post on intricately decorating Christmas cookies.) This recipe, though, was fool-proof.

I suppose my only complaint is that to make a large quantity of these lovely little spinach bites, I’d have to have a refrigerator full of fresh spinach. (With CSA season being in full-force, this is actually a likely possibility.)

Finally, the flounder. After quickly thawing it in cold running water, I pan-seared it in the soy glaze. My main course was prepped for and cooked in less than 10 minutes. I loved the glaze and may try this with different styles of fish in the future.

Tasty, easy and pretty. Score one for Japanese cooking, Bittman-style!

Cold Spinach with Sesame
from The Best Recipes in the World, Mark Bittman

10 to 16 ounces fresh spinach, tough stems removed
1 teaspoon soy sauce, or to taste
1/2 cup toasted sesame seeds
1 teaspoon dark sesame oil, or to taste

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add salt. Add the spinach and cook until it wilts and the stems become tender, 30 seconds to 2 minutes. remove it with a strainer or slotted spoon and immediately plunge it into a bowl of ice water. When it has cooled off, squeeze the excess water from it and finely chop it.

Sprinkle the spinach with a little salt and the soy sauce and shape it into a 1-inch-thick log (or press the spinach into small balls or mounds). cut the log into 1-inch slices. Dip each end of each slice into the sesame seeds and arrange on a plate. Drizzle with the sesame oil. Serve immediately or refrigerate for up to 2 hours before serving.

Hiyashi Somen
from The Best Recipes in the World, Mark Bittman

2 cups Dashi
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons mirin
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon dried shrimp, optional
salt to taste
3 bundles somen noodles
2 scallions, trimmed and minced
Wasabi, optional

Combine the dashi with the soy sauce, mirin, sugar and dried shrimp in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring, just until the sugar is dissolved, then strain the dipping sauce into another container sitting on a bowl of ice to cool (you want it to be between ice cold and room temperature.)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add salt. Drop in the somen and cook for 2 to 4 minutes, until tender, then rinse them in a colander under cold running water.

Serve each guest a small bowl of noodles twisted into a little nest on top of a couple ice cubes and a small bowl with 1/2 cup of the dipping sauce scattered with the minced scallions on the side. Pass a little dish of wasabi, if desired, to stir into the dipping sauce.

Soy-Glazed Flounder
from The Best Recipes in the World, Mark Bittman

1 tablespoon peanut oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 cup fish or chicken stock, or water (I used chicken stock)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
4 to 8 fillets of flounder (or sole)
1 teaspoon dark sesame oil
1/4 cup minced scallion

Put the oil in a large skillet, preferably nonstick, and place over medium-high heat. A minute later, add the garlic and ginger and cook, stirring occasionally, until they soften, about 2 minutes. Add the stock, soy sauce and sugar and bring to a boil; cook until reduced by about half, 5 to 10 minutes.

Add the fillets, in one layer if possible, turn the heat to low and cover. Cook for about 2 minutes, uncover and turn the fillets.

Cook for another 2 minutes, then drizzle with the sesame oil, sprinkle with the scallion and serve.

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4 thoughts on “Round One: Japan.

  1. baseballboy says:

    “I left the Asian market with soba noodles (and instructions to go to an actual Japanese grocery if I wanted anything better.)”

    So you didn’t do your shopping at the place near Henderson and Kenny? Perhaps that’d be a good starting point for Japan, Part “Ni”.

  2. Jill says:

    Truth be told, the car was out of gas, so I only went to grocery stores within walking distance (Crestview Market and the Big Bird). The entire time, I congratulated myself for “being urban.”

  3. Next time the car is fueled, give somen a try. They’re actually much finer than spaghetti, take hardly any time to cook, and are a deliciously cool summer noodle. They are usually only served in summer in Japan, whereas udon is reserved for winter.

    I know we’ve purchased somen other places than tensuke but I can’t remember exactly where. Wild Oats/Whole Foods maybe?

  4. Interesting. I’ve been on a big noodle craze lately, I have no idea why – I just got a crazy craving for noodles!! Is that even possible? I’ve already tried nearly half of all the noodle recipes here and looking for more still! Crazy huh. I should probably stop soon, I dont think eating noodles every day isn’t that healthy…

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