June 16, 2009

good Good Friday lunch, revisited

It's already middle of June, and who is still talking about Easter back in early April? Well, I am. Then again, it's not exactly Easter itself that I am going to talk about, but it's more of the food and cooking I enjoyed for the occasion, which happened to be NOT exclusively Easter-specific. So if you could bear with me while I blab a bit about things I had....

Back in late March and early April, I was in London (just about) and was invited to lunch on Easter Friday, which was great. There would be about eight people or so, I was told, including their family and their family friends visiting from the States whom I'd never met before, which was okay. And they suggested I cook something Japanese for all, which was... what???

The thing was, because the lunch was going to be a bit of international gathering, with them being English, their friends Americans, and me Japanese, my lovely hostess came up with this great idea of making the dinner international, too - by having me do some Japanese starters and the other overseas guests do American desserts, while she herself would do 'things in between'. Which I thought was brilliant, and a deal that totally made sense to me; when you have ten people around the table for a big event like Easter, it makes things so much easier if you share tasks. And besides, the concept of 'international dinner' sounded a lot of fun to me. So I was in.

Then the question was: what Japanese dishes to cook, exactly? Or more precisely, what was I expected to cook, as a Japanese from Japan? Now I have to admit that I'm not really used to cooking for a crowd, let alone people I've never met and whose dietary preferences/requirements I do not know. That was one thing, and another was that, even though Japanese cuisine seems to be gaining increasing recognition and popularity everywhere (or at least in London) these days, it's NOT exactly the same as what we eat back home, naturally; there are limitations in availability of some ingredients, and people inevitably have different tastes . Maybe these are things that anyone is dealing with when they are having guests, etc., and I was just being hopelessly nervous... but oh I was!

But then, there is a matter of misconception, too. Take sushi, for example; sushi as in the form many of you might be familiar with, or nigiri-zushi, is NOT something we make at home - we usually leave it to professionals, while we just eat at sushi bars/restaurants or take some home (although we do make other types of sushi). Sukiyaki and shabu-shabu aren't something we eat so often. Similarly, teppan-yaki isn't THAT common in Japan, either. (And oh, as far as I can tell, there are few 'Sushi & Teppanyaki' joints in Japan; that particular combination seems to be somehow more Western than Japanese.) And don't even get me started on teriyaki something, anything - it's one thing that's supposed to be Japanese but is far more widely used elsewhere than in Japan. And if I can be totally honest, none of these so-called 'typical Japanese dishes' really appeals to me, especially cooking part.

So, what options I might have here, I wondered. Something that can please people in general, can be made with ingredients relatively easy to find in London and preferably not too fussy to make, is not too filling (reminder to self: I am responsible for starters!), AND is Japanese (otherwise I'd just throw together some simple salad or roast vegetables!).

I had well over a week to ponder before I should make up my mind, and ponder I did; I'd look up the Internet, go through my recipe files (which were limited, as I was away from home), talk to friends, and even borrowed a bunch of Japanese cookbooks, for inspiration. And don't get me wrong, I genuinely enjoyed this whole process - I am pretty happy when thinking about food, after all. Yet I was a bit nervous, nevertheless.

Okay, I must have bored you all by now (if you are still with me) with my all-too-common whining of a rookie cooking-for-a-crowd cook. In case you are still interested, I did eventually set my mind on a few things, made a shopping list, and went into town to get everything I needed - for the most part successfully, though it did take a bit of time and running around.

That was the day before Good Friday, and in the following morning (i.e. on the day of the event) I managed to pull off an assortment of easy sushi and two kinds of salads - one vegetarian and the other with chicken, as well as a last-minute addition of sweet and spicy nut mix as light nibbles.

The first and perhaps the most eye-catching of all that I cooked that day was a platter of temari-zushi, or little ball-shaped sushi. Lightly flavored Japanese rice was shaped into tiny balls and topped with a colorful assortment of your favorite toppings (whether fish or not), to make each morsels look like a temari, or a traditional hand ball.

Despite its resemblance to regular, more widely known nigiri-zushi, temari-zushi is somehow far more home cook-friendly, perhaps because it can be made by simply wrapping a tiny amount of rice in a piece of dump dish cloth (or more commonly, plastic wrap) and shaping into a ball, as opposed to nigiri-zushi which must apparently be shaped and finished with skilled hands (and therefore not commonly made at home).

My idea of making temari-zushi for a party was loosely taken from one of many cookbooks I'd borrowed from my friend. It was written by Harumi Kurihara, whom you may know by her Japanese cookbooks published in English like this, although this wasn't the book that I used here. I can't remember exactly what she used for toppings in the book, but I did use her idea of adding julienned shiso leaves and toasted sesame seeds to the vinegared rice.

For toppings, I opted for three ingredients: Parma ham, roast beef, and smoked salmon. Yep, you probably have noticed it; no raw fish. For one thing, I figured it would be a bit tricky to source quality sashimi-grade fish fillets that I'd be happy with, especially when I had to buy all the ingredients the day before the planned lunch (when we buy sashimi in Japan, we'd try and get them on the day we plan to consume them whenever possible). Another thing was that I doubted that many of the guests would be very keen to eat raw fish in the first place; even if sushi is now all too common everywhere, the habit of eating raw fish isn't something everyone enjoys in some cultures, and certainly some people are not as adventurous an eater as others. And the point of our 'international fare' would be for everybody to enjoy their meal, and not for me to scare my good friends and unsuspecting guests.

Now, for the finishing touch, I topped my sushi balls with some chopped flat-leaf parsley for those with Parma ham, water cress for roast beef, and chives for smoked salmon. The salmon ones also came with strips of thin omelet (kinshi-tamago), one of very common home-made sushi ingredients - although nobody seemed to take a notice. Which is okay, as the leftover omelet strips also served its second role as a nest for Easter Eggs later (I don't really recommend it though - omelet was a bit too greasy to hold delicate chocolate eggs. Ouch!)

Overall, I think my temari-zushi squad managed to present themselves well, a more or less pretty as long as you don't look at them too closely; I've never been good in the food presentation department! And as far as I could tell, the little balls disappeared pretty quickly among the guests, who by that time were just an easy, merry bunch after a few drinks, and generous enough not to subject me or my humble creation to scrutiny.

Along with the sushi, I prepared two different salads. One of them was on my list very early in my planning phase, and the other was kind of added at the very last minute, as I was all for trying to make sure I'd have something for everyone at the table.

The first one was light and gingery Edamame Salad with Pickled Ginger, Maccha Salt, and Roasted Almonds, a recipe by my friend and master of breakaway cookery Eric Gower, as seen in his book The Breakaway Cook: Recipes That Break Away from the Ordinary (William Morrow Cookbooks, 2007). The salad consists largely of cooked edamame (which everyone seems to love, in Japan or elsewhere) and avocado, tossed in sauteed shallot-based dressing with the pickling vinegar from gari - that pink ginger slices you'd no doubt find alongside your sushi - and topped with bits of roasted almonds and a bit of matcha salt, which is a mixture of sea salt and green tea powder (matcha).

I first made the salad shortly after the book had come out in early 2007, and we all loved it. And I thought it would be perfect for this occasion - it is a bit Japanese-y with the use of such ingredients as edamame, gari, and matcha, but not too exotic for the Westerners; basically, if you are okay with gari (ginger), there is nothing that will put you off in this salad. Ingredients can easily be found in general, and as soon as you have everything at hand, it is a breeze to put the salad together, even if you'd have to shell a bowlful of beans (for which I did have a helping hand - thanks!).

Pictured above is a one that I made back home, after coming back to Japan, as I didn't have time to take pictures when I was serving the dishes at the party. As I was re-creating this at home, I was out of almonds so I had to make do with pistachios instead, which made the salad really green!

By the way, as much as it makes a great dish on a party table for a crowd to share, this is to me a kind of salad that you can make in a large batch, and eat straight out of a bowl for lunch and save whatever left for later, maybe for lunch next day.

So I was fairly sure that this edamame-avocado bowl would be welcome by most, but I was nevertheless committed to making double sure that there would be 'something for everyone'. Enter my second salad - a simple chicken salad with citrus-chili dressing. Or, you can call it to make it a bit more exciting-sounding with an indication of Japanese touch: Spicy Yuzu-pepper Chicken Salad with Mizuna, perhaps?

I suspect by now many of you may have some idea of what yuzu is, but if you are already a fan of this aromatic citrus fruit and love your food spicy, AND have never heard of or tried yuzu-kosho, you are in for a treat. More precisely called yuzu-gosho, it is a Japanese condiment originally from the southwest island of Kyushu where various kinds of citrus trees thrive. 'Kosho' in Japanese normally means peppercorn, but here it refers to chili pepper which is mixed in with zest and juice of yuzu citrus, and pounded to chunky paste.

Packed with heat and tang, yuzu-kosho can be used in just about any dish that you think goes well with citrus and chili, but I find it particularly great with chicken.

So here's what I did: I'd poach a few chicken breasts in water added with a bit of sake or white wine, and perhaps some pieces of herb and/or spices such as spring onions, ginger, garlic, and so on. When the chicken is almost done, remove from heat and let it cool in the cooking liquid, which will gradually finish cooking the fillets. When completely cool, tear the breasts into small strips as if you'd use them in tacos, and dress with a mixture of some yuzu-kosho, freshly squeezed juice of lemon, a glug of olive oil, and generous grindings of black pepper and salt, along with thinly sliced onion. Check and adjust the taste, making sure it tastes slightly saltier and stronger than you would like, as the chicken mixture will now be served on top of a pile of washed and roughly cut mizuna (leaves and stems and all), for you and your guests to mix everything up in the serving bowl or your individual plates.

To finish up, I sprinkled some toasted chopped cashews over the salad. I might have added some thin strips of cucumber to the chicken and onion mixture, and might also have used some arugula along with mizuna. But I just can't remember such details now that it has been two months since I made it, especially when it was a dish that I improvised by literally throwing things in a bowl. It is a kind of salad that I'd make at home, using stuff lying around in the fridge, with no specific recipe in mind.

This is also a re-created version of the salad - I forgot the nuts!

I've seen other people making a salad like this, and also eaten something similar at izakaya restaurants, too. So in a sense, this might just have been a best representation of casual menus we make and/or eat in Japan. Sort of.

I made each of these two salads in a large bowl, and both seemed to be accepted fairly well. (If anyone raised their eyebrows, I didn't see it.) People seemed to especially like the edamame salad, for which I was asked for the recipe. And another thing I made that apparently was the most popular among the guests that day was the one that was the easiest to make of all, one that was added to my menu, and made at the very last minute: sweet and spicy nuts.

I was thinking about some appetizer in addition to starters, and flavored nuts are an ultimate crowd pleaser, especially where booze is involved. As far as nuts are concerned, I have one great standby that I've made at Christmastime for the past few years, but it was more on a sweet side than savory, and takes a bit of time to make, due to long and slow oven-drying. So I tried a search on the Internet for something that comes together more quickly but hopefully just as delicious, and happened upon this recipe.

Also included (in a slightly modified version) in his new book, David's Spiced Glazed Nuts and Pretzel Mix features mini pretzel twists and nuts of your choice dressed with a sweet and spicy cinnamon-chili glaze. In keeping with the 'Japanese' theme for the event, I replaced cayenne with shichimi-togarashi, or Japanese seven-spice mix. Although, really, this wouldn't make a dramatic difference in the resulting nut mix, but you could add some extra sansho (Japanese Sichuan pepper) to boost the flavor. Note that the same volume of shichimi yields less heat than cayenne alone, so you might want to use a little more of shichimi if that is what you are using.

As a sweetener, the original recipe uses maple syrup (along with brown sugar), but I didn't have any at the time I was making them, so just used honey, which turned out just right, if not a bit sticky. For the nuts, David provides a list of different nuts he'd use in the mix, but suggests that you can use any mix you fancy. And here I used whole almonds, pecan halves and cashews, and they were all so equally tempting it was hard to choose which one to pick!

Another reproduction from the party; I was still out of almonds, so I went with cashews, pecans, macadamias, and hazelnuts. I also used maple syrup, but I found myself actually preferring them with honey. Good either way, though.

This is really easy and quick to whip up, and requires a total of only 20 minutes or so in the oven, which sounded like a perfect solution when I was planning to make three other dishes to bring to a party. That was why I was making them, but I ended up running late for the lunch. And the nut mix wasn't to blame at all, but it was me that started late to begin with, and found that I was out of cashews right before I started. (I could have done without them, but I did want them and we needed to go out to buy some other stuff, too, so might as well.)

As we arrived (late) at the host's house for late lunch, everyone else was already there and I still needed to assemble the temari-zushi (I'd made rice balls and had all the topping ready before I left the kitchen). I was the one to serve the starters, so if I was late (which I was) it meant I was pushing back the whole lunch; I felt terrible, but everyone was really nice and told me not to worry. They were already having drinks ("As soon as your guests arrive, hand them something to drink and everything will be okay", my hosts always say) and enjoying themselves as they had a chat and sip. And there, the nut and pretzel mix came extremely handy; they certainly bought me some time, and before I knew it two bowlfuls were demolished among twelve people (yes, there were a total of twelve of us). And while I was working busy finishing things up, I was far from being left behind in snacking on the nuts - these were so addictive.

So there I was, finally getting everything ready for the table.

Once we all seated ourselves and shared a toast, the rest was just easy and fun - food was eaten, wine was drunk and a great time was had by all.

I didn't take too many photos (for me, anyways) around the table while eating, but my starters were followed by a magnificent prosciutto-wrapped pork roast and pasta bake for the main (with all the trimmings), and then as a dessert, lovely strawberry shortcake that was the epitome of spring.

Meanwhile, we'd have a sleek rose and a light white to start with (there was even Pimm's, too, although the weather wasn't quite Pimm's-ready), and coffee with Bailey's after dessert. When we didn't have enough coffee left for everyone for their second cup, they shrugged and said: "Oh, just fill it up with more Bailey's". This is why I love them.

And we drank more wine, too. As we munched on praline eggs, we went on to sloe gin and some liquor that I certainly tried but cannot remember what it was. It was quite a sight; the table was literally filled with empty glasses of every shape and size!

By the time we made another toast with champagne before we called it a day, I had long lost track of time. It was past seven o'clock when we got to our feet, and although it wasn't a sunny and warm one like it had been up to the previous day, the day was getting longer and we all knew that spring was upon us.

And that was about it; this is my long-overdue memorandum of the delightful Good Friday lunch I was so fortunate to join in for. Granted, we don't celebrate Easter in Japan like most of you might do on both sides of the Atlantic, but it was still definitely one of the most memorable Easter holidays I've ever had. So my thanks go to everyone I shared the table with, especially my gracious hostess who is capable of putting everything together in such an effortless and elegant manner, and reassured me by saying: "Don't stress it is supposed to be fun".

You know what - I did stress myself out a bit, but it really was fun. And I hope it was so for everyone else, too. (I mean, the fun part, of course!)


Eric Gower said...

Gorgeous as always, Chika! And thanks for the sweet compliments.

Cartoonist62 said...

Uwa those little sushies look divine! Photos are fabulous. I'm always "hungering" for more :)

laura said...

let me introduce myself... my name is laura, italian.....and I have just discovered your blog reading "cavoletto di bruxelles".. and as I'm love with japan, food and photos.... I think I will follow you regulary...

your picture in flikr are wonderful

Zina @ tastedbytwo said...

Lovely set of photos from what looked like a wonderful get together. Beautiful!

Reginald said...

Looks like a great lunch.

And the photographs are absolutely stunning.

Liska said...

Oh, that MUST have been delicious! And you're absolutely right - we, Europeans have a wrong meaning of Japanese food. And probably we think it's quite complicated to cook Japanese at home. Recently I've bought a cookbook by Kimiko Barber and I hope to learn something useful :)

.Sol said...

your photos are absolutely delicious!.. it is such a treat to visit your blog.

Melanie said...

wow, this is NOT the kind of white trash hoe-down we tend to have in my family!

Anonymous said...

Are you leaving in a real world?
Your pictures are so beautiful! It looks like pictures from a magazine! It's very refreshing!

Coffee and Vanilla said...

Hi :)

A while ago you have been nominated to Inspiring Food Photography poll and I would want also to give you Beautiful Blog
award (replacement for IFP event):
If you agree place link or badge linking to the B B List somewhere on your site or mention it in the post and I will place your link on the list.


Aleta said...

Wait . . . meat on Good Friday? This was not a Catholic gathering, I take it? =)

Anonymous said...

Lovely party and amazing photographs. I especially like the picture of your temari-zushi! they are so cute!

chika said...

Hello everyone - thanks so much for your commenting and kind words :) It really was a great get-together.

Eric - becaues you deserve them!

Margot - thanks!

Liska- have you tried anything yet? :)

Aleta - no, it was simply a family lunch over the easter weekend, I guess.