Monday, February 6, 2012

5 Thoughts on Cooking & 4 Recipes

COOKING THOUGHT #1: Recipes with antidotes have staying power.

I read cookbooks in bed like some might read mysteries or romance novels. I've done this since high school. Cookbooks are getting more interesting as the years go by- they more often include an antidote before the recipe. A story makes a recipe resonate in my memory banks. Food descriptions induce a Pavlovian response, accompanied by photos, I'm drooling like his dogs. Now that I do so much cooking, I don't have as much time to indulge in reading, but cookbooks and recipes form many of the piles in my living space.

COOKING THOUGHT #2: Culturally grounded cooking gadgets are irresistible.

I like cooking gadgets too. I convince myself that I really will make taiyaki bean stuffed fish cakes popular in Japan enough to justify purchasing a pan. My fear is that I won't be able to find one when I return to the States and that I'll get a hankering for the item that I rarely eat, but it will be really cool to make stuff for potluck. I'll have a basement when I return home, lots of storage. I keep collecting.

My favorite gadget of the moment is the bamboo steamer. My husband and I have convinced ourselves that it imparts a taste, an aroma at least, that is unique. A Japanese friend marveled that I make nikuman and anman stuffed Chinese steam buns. They are sold in the store, ready-made, here in Japan. I'm all for convenience and good taste too, but I won't live here forever and where I'm going, I can't count on steam buns at the ready.

COOKING THOUGHT #3: Written cookbooks are necessary for cooking and replicating dishes.

Where I have whiled away many an hour with a cookbook in bed, my husband got me hooked on watching Cooking with Dog on in bed. It's a cooking show that highlights one recipe at a time of popular dishes in Japanese cooking. The cook is a Japanese woman and her dog, Francis, is the narrator who happens to speak English, thus the show's title. My husband and I refer to the woman as "The Cooking Mama" (inspired by the DS Nintendo game our kids like to play). Cooking Mama has superior knife skills and a number of recipes to indulge one's eating fantasies. It is perhaps better than a cookbook since you can see the recipe evolve while you watch, but I'm not giving up my cookbooks anytime soon. Her recipe for steam buns inspired mine. Cookbooks with the recipes written down make it easy to follow the steps, remember ingredients, and insure consistent results. Some things work out with a pinch of this and glug of that, but not everything. Plus they help me remember to try different recipes as the seasons change. I'm as guilty as any cook of falling into cooking ruts. Cookbooks inspire me. That said, all recipes have options depending on what you have at hand and improvisation is part of cooking.

COOKING THOUGHT #4: Love what you cook.

I am motivated to cook because I want to eat. If I could magically get what I wanted to eat without cooking, I would skip the cooking step. It's labor to me. My husband enjoys cooking and will happily cook anything. I went through a hot bean paste and green beans with pork phase that lasted for several years. He kindly cooked it every week since I kept bringing home the groceries. When suddenly my brain switch flipped to no more, it was at least a year before he said, "We haven't had pork and beans for a while." It was one of his recipes that I initially learned because I just couldn't get enough of it. We haven't had it for a few years now, but love of a dish will push me to great effort.

If you don't like the cooking process, love what you cook. It saves you from getting mad when the gustatory intake is subpar. It will keep you interested in experimenting and trying again. Children are the reason I began to seriously cook at nearly forty, but they can be finicky. Love what you cook so you don't begrudge the time spent in the kitchen. Chasing down tastes and smells that capture my interest, keeps me cooking.

COOKING THOUGHT #5: Cook with real ingredients.

I am reluctant to use fake food. By this I mean food that can't be made at home. I buy food I could make like butter, beer, and tofu because of the labor and material it takes, but the point is if I wanted to make it, I could. Fake food requires a manufacturing process and is often costly. Here I am thinking of things like tofu bacon, artificial sweeteners, and margarine. Eating real fat saves you in the long run- you have to learn to eat less of it, but the real thing satiates the taste buds in a way that only the real thing can. Have you ever noticed that people who eat the real deal are always skinnier than folks eating all of that fake food? Think about France and all of that stinky cheese. In America, I struggle to find unprocessed food when eating out or at a convenience store. In Japan, you can eat fresh made food from 7-11. We're in sad straits in America despite all the complaints about obesity, diabetes, and health care costs. Go to the 7-11 (in the States) and look around. I dare you to find a healthy meal there. Send me a picture if you do so I know what to get next time. Also find a drink that isn't full of fake stuff besides water.

My husband marvels that despite my lack of knife skills, I am able to ferret out recipe problems. It's thanks to all those cookbooks I read.

Idatakimasu I humbly recieve,
Chinese style steam buns or Nikuman with meat or Anman with sweet beans in Japan
Dough for Steam Buns
All purpose Flour, 250 gm (8.8 oz)
Instant Yeast, 1 tsp
Baking Powder, 1 tsp
Sugar, 1 Tbsp
Salt, 1/2 tsp
Sesame Oil, 1 Tbsp
Warm Water, 140 ml (8.5 fl. oz.)

Extras Needed
Parchment paper, 8 pieces cut in squares, one for each bun

Prepare dough: Whisk together dry ingredients. Add in oil and water. Use your hands and knead the dough 3 to 5 minutes until thoroughly mixed. Form into a ball.

Rest dough: Place dough in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Allow dough to raise and relax in a warm draft free place while you prepare the filling, about 20 minutes.

Prepare filling and make into 8 balls.

Prepare buns: Divide dough using a bench cutter (best not to tear the dough) into 8 uniform pieces. Form each into a ball, place onto a lightly floured pan, and keep covered with the plastic wrap to prevent it from drying out. Allow the buns to raise again for at least 15 minutes. Cut parchment paper squares. Place a pot of water over medium low heat with a steamer on top. Take one ball of dough and gently press from the center outward with your thumbs and fignertips to shape it into a round flat disc. Place this over a ball of the filling. Pick up the dough and filling, turn over so that the open edges are on top, and pinch the opposite sides of dough together- first in the center, then each side, until the filling is sealed within the dough. Place the bun onto a parchment square and place it in the steamer.

Steam Buns: When all of the buns are prepared, steam them for 15 minutes, add 5 minutes more if they include meat. Serve hot. You can wrap the buns in plastic to save for a day, but moisten them with a bit of water, loosely cover with pastic wrap or a cover, and microwave for about 30 seconds (depends on the microwave) until hot.

Use ONE of the filling recipes below with the dough recipe or double the dough recipe to make both.

Meat Filling
Chinese Nappa Cabbage, 1-2 leaves, finely chopped, depends on how much you like
Salt, 1/2 tsp
Ground Pork, 250 gm
Shitake Mushroom, 1-2 dried, reconstituted in warm water, diced
Fresh Ginger, finely diced, 1 Tbsp
Pepper, a pinch
Sugar, 1 tsp
Soy Sauce, 1 tsp
Oyster Sauce, 1 tsp
Potato (or Corn) Starch, 1 Tbsp
Sesame Oil, 1 tsp

Finely chop the cabbage, sprinkle it with salt. If using dried shitake mushrooms, place in hot water to reconstitute. Place the remaining ingredients into a mixing bowl. Now squeeze the water from the cabbage mix in your fist, allowing some of the water to drain and add it to the meat mixture. Remove the stem of the shitake mushroom and then finely dice, add to the meat mixture.

Mix all ingredients together by hand for 2 to 3 minutes, squeezing it through your hands and fingers to insure that it thoroughly mixed. Form into 8 balls of equal size. Try throwing a ball of filling into your opposite hand to get the air out of the filling, do this a few times. Once all of the balls have been prepared, they are ready.

Take a ball of dough and flatten it in your hand into a disc shape, gently stretching it from the center. Drape the disk of flattened dough over top of the filling. Pick up the ball holding the dough and turn it over so that you see the uncovered filling. Now pinch the opposite edges together until the filling is sealed within the dough- note directions above. Place each dough ball onto a square of parchment paper. Steam in covered steamer for 20 minutes over a medium steady steam. Eat with spicy Japanese mustard as you like.

Bean Filling
Smooth Anko Red Bean Paste, 250 gm
Sugar, 1 Tbsp
Goma Black Sesame Paste, 1 Tbsp

Mix thoroughly in a bowl- there should be no black streaks. Form into 8 balls. Drape the disk of flattened dough over top of the filling ball and pinch edges together until the filling is sealed within the dough- note directions above. Place on parchment paper. Steam in covered steamer for 15 minutes over a low but steady steam.

I almost always make this salad to serve with the steam buns as my children love it as much as my husband and I do so I've come back to add it.
Bean Sprout Salad
Bean Sprout Salad
Bean sprouts, 1 package
Vinegar (Rice), 1 Tbsp
Soy Sauce, 3 Tbsp
Sesame Oil, 1 Tbsp
Sesame Seeds, 1/2 Tbsp, toasted, I tend to use black for contrast but white are fine too

Rinse bean sprouts and soak them in hot water for 5 minutes. Rinse the sprouts in cold water to cool down. Drain the sprouts and toss them with vinegar, soy sauce, and sesame oil. In a small pan over low heat, toast the sesame seeds about 5 minutes just until you smell their aroma. Sprinkle seeds onto sprouts. Set aside in a cool place until ready to serve. Toss sprouts periodically. Drain off dressing a bit before serving.

Bamboo Steamer
Place dough disc over the ball of filling and pick up the filling
Pinch opposite sides together, stretching the dough as necessary to over the filling
Pinch opposite sides together to form the bun
Pinch dough together and place onto parchment paper and steam 
This is ready for the steamer

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