Sunday, March 27, 2011

Foodbuzz 24x24: Hanami Bento and Giveaway

Foodbuzz 24x24: Hanami Bento

I’m thrilled that my Foodbuzz 24x24 proposal was chosen for this month.  I am featuring the Hanami Bento. Hanami is a traditional flower-viewing festival in Japan also known as cherryblossom festival. It is said that the Japanese elite celebrated the first Hanami in the 700s but Hanami is so popular now that almost everyone in Japan celebrates it. The tradition has changed little over time. Friends, families and colleagues gather to enjoy food and drink under plum (ume) blossoms or cherry blossoms. Since Japan's fiscal year and school year starts in April coinciding with the end of winter, Hanami symbolizes new beginnings so many welcome parties start with Hanami, a chance to get bond with each other and to renew their spirits.

When news filtered in about the 9.0 (on the Richter scale) earthquake and tsunami that hit the northeastern coast of Japan I was shocked and stunned by the utter havoc caused by the tsunami.  Live videos showed ships, houses, cars and people being swept away by the tsunami. On top of this there was the problem of partial meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

A friend’s daughter lives in Sendai and she had to run down six flights of steps carrying her two daughters when the earthquake struck. Her immediate family was spared but all around them nearly everyone lost someone.  I emailed my former professor inquiring about their safety and he replied that due to power outages half of the trains in Tokyo were not in service and he had to ride his bike to get work.  He lives at least 5 train stations away from the campus.  He said bottled water was being rationed and everything was in short supply. How could I feature a happy event such as Hanami when so many Japanese were grieving for lost loved ones and the uncertainty of the future in the face a nuclear crisis? 

For days I contemplated about pulling out of the event.  But then I came to the conclusion that it was alright to have a Hanami picnic.  Just as Hanami is a time for new beginnings and renewal it is also a time to mediate on our own mortality and the fragility of life.  If we dwell upon this during Hanami then it is worth doing it. 

The day chosen for Foodbuzz 24x24 was unfortunately very cold and grey in Oklahoma.  Temperatures have been erratic in the previous weeks and today it dipped to 30 C.  I planned to share the Japanese picnic meal at the Boomer Lake with a few friends to introduce them to this Japanese tradition and Hanami food. Unfortunately, James and Curtis could not make it because they were sick and Preet had to go to Dallas so it was just me, my sister, Mark and Jshinobi  (Hubby was on call this weekend) who shared the Hanami bento and reflected on the symbolism of Hanami.  We enjoyed our brief but meaningful Hanami picnic under the blossom-laden branches.
This is what I made for our Hanami bento: Inarizushi (seasoned rice in seasoned soybean curd), karaage (japanese fried chicken), simmered spinach with sesame seeds, kabocha simmered in soy sauce, Harumaki (spring rolls), and for dessert we had dango (pink, white and green dumplings skewered on bamboo sticks) and mochi (rice dumplings filled with bean paste).  The recipes are at the bottom of this post. 

I bought pink and white fish cakes (kamaboko), quail eggs, and seasoned tuna cakes and some mochi (rice dumplings with red bean filling and matcha/ green tea mochi).  Since JShinobi was under 18 we had Ramune (Japanese lemonade), Calipco and soy milk for our drinks.
Clockwise: Blanched spinach with sesame sauce, Simmered kabocha squash, Hardboiled quail eggs, Kamaboko, Cucumbers, Chicken karaage, Inarizushi
Top to bottom: Harumaki (spring rolls), Dango, Tuna cakes

The delicate sakura blossom is the symbol of the samurai.  It embodies the spirit of “bushido” or the way of the samurai that combines bravery, valor and stoicism. Hanami is a reminder of the fleeting nature of life and this brings out a peculiar Japanese strength, stoicism and willingness to rebuild and rise above tragedy.  

Most of the recipes I used are from The Just Bento Cookbook so I am also doing a giveaway of this must have cookbook by Makiko Itoh.
Please comment to enter the giveaway.  Random.org will be used to choose a winner and this will be announced on April 22, 2011.

For those who wish to donate to the Japan Disaster Relief efforts please visit Japan Earthquake and Pacific Tsunami link of the American Red Cross https://american.redcross.org/site/SPageServer?pagename=ntld_main

Inarizushi (from can of Shirakiku can of Inarizushi no moto)
1 10 oz. can inarisushi no moto (fried soybean curd seasoned with soy sauce)
2 1/2 cups rice
1/4 cup su (rice vinegar)
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
Cook rice in usual manner. Add sugar and salt to rice vinegar and stir till all crystals dissolve. Seaon cooked rice with seasoned vinegar. Stir rice well so that it will be evenly seasoned. Cool rice with a paper fan while you stir. Pack seasoned rice in Iarishushi no moto. Do not pack too solidly. Fold end of abura-age to cover rice. If you prefer vegetables in the rice use Gomoku no moto.

Chicken kara-gae (from The Just BentoCookbook)
420 g boneless chicken thigh, without skin, cut into 3-4 pieces
2 tsp soy sauce (if you are not making green onion sauce, increase to 4 tsp
2 Tbsp sake or rice wine
2 tsp peeled an grated fresh ginger
Marinade chicken at least 10 min or overnight. If overnight, omit soy sauce and add 10 min before coking so the salt will not draw too much moisture from the chichen and make it dry. Coat pieces in cornstarch and fry chicken till deep golden brown.

Green onion sauce for karaage
1 T rice vinegar
1 T soy sauce
1 T chopped green onions
pinch sugar
a few drops of sesame oil
1 tsp peeled and grated fresh ginger
Combine all ingredients in a frying pan till sugar dissolves.

Simmered kabocha squash (from The Just BentoCookbook)
3 c kabocha squash, cut up
1 c dashi stock
2 T sake
2 T mirin
1 ½ T sugar
1 ½ T soy sauce
Mix dashi stock, sake, mirin, sugar and soy sauce. Place in a saucepan with peeled kabocha squash and simmer till tender.  Leave kabocha to cool down in the liquid to absorb flavor.  Drain well before packing.

Blanched spinach with sesame sauce (from The Just BentoCookbook)
1/2 tsp white sesame seeds, toasted
1 tsp sugar
1/s T soy sauce
t tsp white sesame seeds for sprinkling
Boil spinach for 1 min Drain, and balnch spinach in cold water. Form into a log and cut into even pieces.
Put sesame seeds and sugar into a motar. Grind seeds well until seeds are crushed and smells nutty. Add soy sauce and mix well. Add cooked spinach and mix well. Sprinkle sesame seeds.

Hanami Dango (from http://www.saucemagazine.com/recipe/9)
½ cup nonglutinous rice flour
½ cup mochiko*
½ cup cornstarch
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
½ Tbsp. yomogi or matcha*
Dash red food coloring
1 tsp. vanilla extract (optional)

In a bowl, whisk rice flour, mochiko, cornstarch and sugar together with a fork. Add 1 cup of water and blend until smooth. Divide batter into 3 ¾-cup portions.

In a medium saucepan, heat 1 portion of batter on low, stirring constantly until the batter pulls away from the sides of the pan to form a solid mass. Set aside. This will be used for the white dango.

To make the green dango, add the matcha to the next batter portion. Heat it on low, stirring constantly until the batter pulls away to form a solid mass. Set aside.

To make the pink dango, add the food coloring and vanilla extract (if using) to the remaining batter portion, blending well. Repeat the steps to cook.
After the dough cools, knead each portion separately in clean hands. Roll each portion into 10 1-inch balls. Thread the balls onto skewers in order of green, white and pink. Bring water to a boil in a steamer basket. Place the skewers on a lightly greased plate, ½ inch apart. Steam on high for 10 to 12 minutes. Cool.

*Mochiko, yomogi and matcha are available at Asian markets. Yomogi, also known as mugwort, is a bitter herb associated with spring in Japan. Matcha, or powdered green tea, may be substituted instead.

Harumaki spring rolls (link is here)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Candied Winter Melon and Orange Peel over Greek Yogurt

Baida had given us our second winter melon, organically grown in his Denton, Texas garden.  The first one I gave to my sister to use in her cooking.  Winter melon is delightful in soups but a melon is just so big you have to find creative ways of using them so I wanted to make candied winter melon. While growing up we ate them as snacks or in baked buns. Have you ever tried them?  Candied winter melon is white as snow, hard outside but soft inside, very sweet and addictive.  

We always bought them from the store and I had no experience making them. I looked for recipes but most required soaking the winter melon in alum.  It took me a while to find the alum ( found it in the Asian store) so the winter melon lay untouched for a long time.  Alum is supposed to make the texture less mushy when cooked and keep them white in color. 

On Monday I had a chance to finally try out a recipe that called for soaking the sliced fruit in 5 c water and 1 t alum for 2-5 hours.  I  did this late in the evening but it was a long day at work and I had fallen asleep. The next morning, in my rush  to get to work and I completely forgot about the winter melon slices.  They were soaking for more than 24 hours by the time I remembered.  After repeatedly washing the slices in cool water they were a still a little bitter.  I went ahead and cooked them in syrup. The winter melon slices were odorless so I added orange peel to impart a pleasant, citrusy aroma.  The syrup had turned amber in color and with the orange peel in it the winter melon slices turned yellowish and had a citrus flavor.  I dried them overnight in my food dehydrator but they did not turn hard as I expected.  They were absolutely delicious but they remained tacky even after 7 hours in the dehydrator.    Not the candied winter melon I expected but even better.  They were very sweet, had a pleasant texture and flavor so I decided to put them as topping over Greek yogurt. Perfection.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Smooth Creamy Broccoli Cheese Soup

At Quizon's Hubby goes for the Prime Rib Mushroom Swiss Sub with Garlic Aoli on Rosemary Parmesan Bread each time while son loves to experiment with Mesquite/Baja/Honey Bourbon Chicken Subs or the Chipotle Prime Rib. As for me, I can't get enough of the Broccoli Cheese Soup! Sometimes though it's too thick and lumpy.  I often wish the soup were smoother and creamier.  I found this recipe in  the "New New Orleans Cooking", by Emeril Lagasse and Jessie Tirsch.  To make the soup velvety smooth my secret is to use Wondra flour instead of all purpose flour in making the roux. Try it next time you make any creamy soup.

Smooth and Creamy Broccoil and Cheese Soup
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus 2 tablespoons cold unsalted butterd
1 cup yellow onions or sliced leeks (white parts only)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper 
Pinch of nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour (I used Wondra flour)
3 cups chicken broth
1 (16-ounce) package frozen broccoli, thawed and separated
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 1/4 cups shredded medium cheddar

Melt the 3 tablespoons butter over medium-high heat. Add the onions, salt, pepper, and nutmeg and cook, stirring, until soft, 3 minutes. Add the garlic and thyme cook, stirring, until fragrant, for 20 seconds. Add the flour and cook, stirring until the mixture is well blended and smells fragrant, 2 minutes. Slowly add the chicken stock, whisking constantly, and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat and simmer until thickened, about 5 minutes. Add the broccoli and cook, stirring, until tender, for 10 minutes.

Remove the pot from the heat and puree with a hand-held  immersion blender.

Add the cream and simmer to heat through. Add the cheese and cook over low heat, stirring, until melted. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons cold butter, stirring to blend.

Remove from the heat and ladle the soup into bowls and serve immediately.