Thursday, December 29, 2011

Osechi & Sweet Beans

Spring is the cleaning season to Westerners, but as the year of the rabbit comes to a close, my Japanese friends begin the ritual osoji cleaning in preparation for the year of the dragon. Windows are washed, shops are cleaned, cars line up at the recycling center with bags to drop off, and I can only guess at the dust flying in each house. Cleaning purifies and make way for the new year's offerings.

Our adopted hometown of Kamakura will soon be swarming with visitors with the city center closed to traffic for three days. Hachimangu, the Shinto Shrine, is the main draw along with the need like lemmings to return to hometowns for the new year. Shops and restaurants close and a great deal of food preparation is done at home during the last two days of the year.

Special foods referred to as osechi are prepared to share with family and guests during the three day holiday period. No cooking is done during the new year holiday. Cooking enough food for three days conjures up images of leftovers. I'd rather fast than eat leftovers. However, I do have a favorite osechi dish- sweet beans. For the new year, the largest and best tasting beans are cooked. Osechi foods are placed in lacquered boxes and served in small amounts. This dish requires that the bean's skin be intact, not broken; that the bite is tender, not mushy; and that the color is preserved, not faded. If you've cooked many beans you can appreciate what a tall order this is.
Kendo Mama's osechi
If your bean drawer is anything like mine, perhaps you also have a few beans to clean out. Consider making some sweet beans to try in the new year. Most Westerners eat savory beans, but sweet ones may be a new taste depending on your exposure to Eastern cooking and foods. The general tip for maintaining the integrity of the bean is to soak, rinse, clean the pot, change the water, and cook gently over low heat.

A particularly festive new year's dish, oshiruko, is a dessert soup made with sweetened mashed red azuki beans (anko) and mochi (chewy rice). The colors, red and white, are celebratory in Japanese culture. I have eaten it both hot and cold, but tend to prefer it cold. Anko paste, in either the smooth or chunky form, is widely available in Japan, but if not where you are, try making this simple soup starting from red azuki beans. Various kinds of mochi can also be used- the chewy texture of the mochi compliments the sweet bean taste. The mochi recipe here includes tofu but it can be made with just rice powder and water. It makes a pleasant, colorful, fat free combination to ring in the new year.
Dried Beans for sale- New Year holiday
Anko Paste for sale
Oshiruko
Soft or Silken Tofu Kinu, 100 gm, drained
Rice powder, 100 gm
Anko, red bean paste either smooth or chunky, 160 gm
Water or Sweetened condensed milk (hot or ice cold), 1/3 cup

Drain tofu. Mash tofu and mix in rice powder with your hand. Should feel soft like your ear. If it is too hard, add a few drops of water as needed. Form into 16 to 20 balls- they should be small (about 1" in diameter) so that they will cook through to the center. Bring a pot of water to boil, boil mochi balls until they float, about 2 minutes. Remove the balls and put them into cool water until ready to use to prevent them from sticking together. Mix anko paste and water or sweetened condensed milk. To serve warm, heat anko and liquid until it just simmers. The soup consistency should be thin so add more liquid as needed. When ready to serve, drain the mochi balls, place a few balls in each bowl, and top with spoonfuls of anko mix. To serve cold, mix ice cold water into the anko, drain mochi. To serve, place 3-5 mochi balls in a dish and top with anko mix.

Red Azuki Beans, soaking in water
Anko Sweetened Red Beans
Red Azuki Beans, 1 cup (250 gm)
Water, as needed
Sugar, 1 cup (250 gm)
Salt, a pinch

Rinse beans in a colander and soak in water overnight (preferably). Rinse beans and clean the pot. Cover beans with 3 inches of water and bring to boil over medium heat. Skim foam off as it forms. Boil beans over low to medium heat in an open pot with a dropped lid to allow the water to cook-down but without disturbing the beans. Cook beans until tender, about 60 to 70 minutes, adding water as necessary to keep the beans just covered. When the beans begin to easily break up, stir in sugar and pinch of salt, and adjust to taste. Use a hand blender or masher to create a chunky or smooth soup base for using in oshiruko. Cook down further, over low to medium heat, to form a paste for use in other Japanese desserts, but be sure to stir the bottom of the pot frequently to prevent burning or sticking. Sweet red bean paste is served on ice cream, as a filling for steam buns, and as a topping for pancakes amongst many other uses.
Sweet Black Beans osechi
Kuromame Sweetened Black Beans
Kuromame Black beans, 1 1/2 cups (300 gm)
Water, as needed
Sugar, 1 1/2 cups (300 gm)
Soy Sauce, 1 tsp

Rinse beans in a colander and soak in water overnight (preferably). Rinse beans and clean the pot. Cover beans with 2 inches of water over low heat in an open pot to allow the water to cook-down. Skim foam off as it forms. Boil beans for 40 minutes. Remove from heat, rinse beans, clean pot. Cover beans with 2 inches of water and bring to boil over low heat in an open pot to allow the water to cook-down. Cook beans until tender, about 40 minutes, adding water if necessary to keep the beans covered. When beans are just tender, stir in sugar and soy sauce, and adjust to taste. Serve warm or cold.

Larger beans are used for special occasions and small jars of them are sometimes given as a gift like jam. Sweetened beans are also served as a side dish at mealtimes.

Itadakimasu, I humbly receive,
Kim