To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art.
~François de La Rochefoucauld

Yes, I have written about tuna more extensively in a post entitled Ahi “Nicoise” dated May 13, 2010 — look at the search box.  But, please abstain in devouring blue fin tuna as it appears low in numbers.

Then again, earlier (February 7, 2009) there existed here a post about ubiquitous steak tartare — although sublime, but with the firm texture of this finfish, tuna tartare is sapid, damn near nympholeptic.  This does not imply that steak tartare is equally divine, as both are toe curlers.  But, it is a cooling, light, dainty often app repast with tuna diced into chunks and fluidly soothed by Asian flavors (as below) in a chilled vessel, a dish which really did not emerge until recently about 3-4 or so decades ago…perhaps in Paris by a Japanese born, yet French trained, chef by the name of Tachibe — who knows?

A chilled dry white (preferably one that is French oriented or sauvignon blanc) or rosé is essential as quaff.

1/4 C canola oil
2 t grated fresh ginger, with some small chunks retained

1 – 1 1/3 lb sashimi (perhaps sushi) grade tuna, diced into 1/4″ pieces

1 t jalapeño, minced with seeds and veins removed
1 1/2 t wasabi powder
1/2 t mirin
1/2 t saké
1 t sesame seeds
1 T scallion, finely chopped
1 1/2 T lime juice
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Non-pareil capers, rinsed
Caviar

In a bowl, add the ginger and chunks for a few hours to allow to marinate some in the frig.

In a large glass chilled bowl, add tuna to ginger oil as well as small ginger chunks, the cilantro, jalapeño, wasabi, mirin, saké, sesame seeds, scallions, lime juice, then mix well with sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

Using fingers, very slightly strew over the tuna tartare with capers and then caviar.

Serve on chilled shallow glass salad bowl(s) over some flared avocado slices or cilantro or watercress, something like that or those kith and kin.

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Dew Evaporates
And all our world is dew…so dear,
So fresh, so fleeting.

~Issa

Ukiyo-e 浮世絵 is a stunning art form that conceives an evanescent world, a fleeting beauty divorced from the mundane — a genre of Japanese mass produced woodblock prints for commoners in the seclusive Edo period. The polychromatic images depict romantic vistas, transient tales, street scenes, kabuki motifs, comely courtesans, bawdy brothels and even shun-ga (erotica). Life’s momentary insights from shadows and dreams.

Each ukiyo-e image was a collaborative effort: a publisher who coordinated the artisans and marketed the works; an artist who plotted and inked the design on paper; a carver who meticulously chiseled the images, now pasted to a series of woodblocks; and a printer who applied pigments to the woodblocks and printed each color on exquisite handmade paper. Reproductions, sometimes numbering in the thousands, could be made until the carvings on the woodblocks became overly worn.

While a rambling discourse on beloved sushi or sashimi in earlier Japanese culture may seem in order, it is hanukkah so…

POTATO AND TURNIP LATKES

2 medium russet potatoes, peeled and shredded
1 large turnip, peeled, quartered and shredded
1/2 medium yellow onion, peeled, quartered and shredded

2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 T all-purpose flour
1/2 T fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
1/2 T fresh sage leaves, finely chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

3/4 C duck fat, plus more as needed

Place the vegetables in a strainer over a large bowl and allow liquid to drain. Set reserved liquid aside and allow starch to sink to the bottom. Gingerly pour liquid from the bowl, reserving the milky residue (potato starch) and discard the clearer, watery stuff. Transfer potatoes back to bowl with the starch.

Beat together the eggs, flour, thyme, sage, salt and pepper in another bowl until well combined. Add the egg mixture to the vegetables and mix until evenly combined.

Heat duck fat in a large, heavy skillet over medium high heat until shimmering.

Form some “silver dollar pancakes” and carefully place one in the hot fat to test for temperature — the fat should immediately bubble around the edges. Cook until golden brown, turning once, about 3-4 minutes per side. Remove them from the pan and taste, adjusting the seasoning as needed.

Form more potato patties and place them in the hot fat without overcrowding. Fry (undisturbed) until the latkes hold together and become golden brown, again about 3-4 minutes per side. Adjust seasoning to your taste. Remove to a paper towel lined platter and continue frying more latkes until done.

Nosh on them semi-hot or preferably closing in on room temp. If you are even a touch unfamiliar, you will wonder where in the hell these divine spuds have been for all these years.

Omakase (お任せ?) is a phrase that means “I will leave it to you” (from the Japanese, to entrust). When you indulge in that luxury of allowing a fine sushi chef to make the gastronomic calls — the aesthetics, the architecture, the inspiration, the dynamics, the visuals, the sensuous flavors, the enticing aromas, the intriguing textures — all rising to or sometimes transcending the level of theater. Plated delectation.

Young and old, exacting sushi chefs try to emulate masters like Morimoto, Jiro and Nobu. They bless and coddle your palate with riveting morceaux adroitly shaped with dazzling blade work and raw ingenuity. The genuine article shortly followed by those hushed tones of pure contentment.

So, I will leave it to you or them.

TUNA & AVOCADO CEVICHE

1 lb tuna (sushi/sashimi grade only), sliced 1/4″ thick
1/2 small red onion, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
1/2 T shoyu
1 T capers, rinsed and drained
Freshly ground black pepper

1 Hass avocado, cut into 1/4″ dice
3/4 C fresh lime juice
Small jalapeño chile pepper, stemmed, seeded and very thinly sliced
1/4 C cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
Sea salt

Cilantro leaves, whole

Line a baking sheet or jelly roll pan with plastic wrap. Arrange the tuna slices in a single layer, cover with plastic wrap and freeze until firm but not frozen, about 10-15 minutes.

Stack the tuna slices on a cutting board and using a supremely sharp chef’s knife, cut the tuna into 1/4″ cubes. Transfer the diced tuna to a medium glass or bowl and stir in the red onion, shoyu, capers and a pinch of black pepper. Cover both the tuna and the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about a half hour, stirring occasionally.

Just before serving, gently fold in the diced avocado, lime juice, jalapeño, and chopped cilantro and season very lightly with salt.

Transfer the ceviche to a chilled bowl or glasses. Garnish with whole cilantro leaves.

Ponzu Scheme

February 16, 2012

Tradition is the illusion of permanence.
~Woody Allen

Centuries old, yet rarely recognized east of Honshu until just a couple of decades ago, ponzu has experienced a spirited culinary birth and finally flourishes in the West. Was about time for a break from the usual food-ethnocentricity, self-adulation.

Ponzu (ポン酢?) is traditionally made by heating mirin, rice vinegar, bonito flakes, and konbu (dried kelp). Some chefs substitute dashi (a light fish stock) for the bonito flakes. The simmering liquid is cooled and strained to remove the solids and then citrus fruit juice is added for tartness. In Japan, ponzu is customarily made with an obscure citrus fruit called yuzu, but cooks here have substituted lemon, lime, orange and/or grapefruit juices to create a rough equivalent.

At once subtly sweet, sour, tart, tangy and salty…ponzu is commonly served as a sauce with tataki, nabemono, sashimi or even sushi, but is also for dipping with or drizzled over rice, noodles, tempura, greens, vegetables, spring rolls, shellfish and grilled, seared or sautéed meats, poultry and fish. Adding fine soy sauce creates the ubiquitous Japanese condiment, ponzu-shoyu.

Befitting its versatility, ponzu has a West meets East etymology, deriving from the Dutch ponsen (citrus punch) and Japanese su (vinegar), and so the name loosely means “citrus punch vinegar.” (Nagasaki roots?)

BASIC PONZU SHOYU

3/4 C mirin
1/2 C aged, unseasoned rice wine vinegar
1/2 C bonito flakes
1 T honey
3″ piece of konbu

1 C shoyu
1 T fresh lemon juice
1 T fresh orange juice
1 T fresh lime juice
1 T fresh grapefruit juice

Wipe the konbu with a damp cloth to remove most of the powdery white coating. Combine the mirin, wine vinegar, bonito flakes, honey and konbu in a small saucepan and bring just to a gentle simmer over medium heat for about 8-10 minutes. Remove from the stove and allow to cool completely.

Pour the sauce through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl and discard the solids. Whisk in the shoyu and citrus juices. Tweak the citrus ratios to suit your tastes. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or preferably overnight, so the flavors meld. Just before using, taste and consider adding a small squeeze of fresh lemon or lime juice or some shoyu.

SESAME PONZU VINAIGRETTE

1 1/2″ piece daikon, grated

1/2 C ponzu
2 T sesame oil
1 T white sesame seeds
1/2 T ginger, grated
1/2 t sea salt
1 green onion, chopped

Using a cheesecloth, squeeze the liquid out of the grated daikon. Combine the remaining flesh with the remaining ingredients, and whisk together in a bowl.

PONZU DIJON VINAIGRETTE

3 shallots, peeled and minced
3 T Dijon mustard
1 plump fresh garlic clove, peeled and smashed
2 T ginger, peeled and minced

1 C ponzu
2 T sugar
1/2 C shiro shoyu

2 C grapeseed or canola oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Whisk together shallots, mustard, garlic and ginger in a medium glass bowl. In a smaller bowl, dissolve sugar into ponzu and shoyu and then whisk into the mustard mixture. Whisk in grapeseed oil and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Pourboire: in the interest of brevity, you may simply create ponzu shoyu by mixing fine unfiltered bottled Japanese ponzu with really good shoyu in a ratio to suit your liking.

No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive.
~Mahatma Gandhi

Buta no kakuni (braised pork belly) is most often associated with the southern Japanese island of Kyūshū, and in particular, the Nagasaki prefecture. The dish was reportedly adapted from a similar Chinese dish, called tonporo in Japan, that was introduced through the port of Nagasaki during isolationist times.

Formerly a secluded fishing village, Nagasaki’s first touch with the West was in the mid 16th century when a Portugese ship landed on nearby Tanegashima island. At the time, Japan was strife-ridden with potent feudal lords vying for supremacy, and the Portuguese possessed that equalizer in their ships’ hulls—firearms. So, Japanese provincial leaders, the daimyo, eagerly began regular trade with the Portuguese and even opened intercourse with mainland China with whom Japan had severed ties earlier.

A half century later, the Dutch expeditionary ship Liefde which was manned by a couple dozen starving sailors, arrived in Kyūshū. The Dutch captain somehow managed to win the confidence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Japanese unifier who had championed cultural seclusion and had just banned Christianity about a decade earlier. The Portuguese soon became unwelcome. Fearing colonization, the Japanese first persecuted, and then completely expelled all Portuguese diplomats, clerics, traders and their families. Enter the Dutch.

After Tokugawa’s death, shogun ordered the construction of the artificial, tiny island of Dejima (“exit island”) in Nagasaki Harbor. This mock isle became Japan’s single port and sole window onto the West yet was designed to keep that nether world at bay. A venue for lively cross-cultural merchant trade, the borders between propriety and pleasure on Dejima became blurred…a bizarre birth of trade relations between Japan and the Dutch East India Company that would endure for centuries.

Chinese ships first entered the port in the late 16th century and soon established trade routes there. Dutch and Chinese traders were the only foreigners permitted to enter Japan for over two hundred years, from 1639 to 1854. But, they were confined to certain ethnic enclaves: the Dutch to Dejima, the Chinese to the Tōjin-yashiki (“Chinese residence”). By the early 1700s, Nagasaki was welcoming hundreds of Chinese ships annually, and a notable portion of the population were from China. The influence of Chinese food culture on Japan, especially via the southern port city of Nagasaki, is palpable. In short, Nagasaki quietly boasts a singular Japanese cuisine that has benefited from Chinese, Dutch, and Portuguese imprints. A paradox in a time of isolation.

Bona fide buta no kakuni? An authentic version? A genuine rendition? Faithful to the original? Perhaps not entirely. But, this is a close adaptation with some poetic license. As has been remarked earlier, fusion cuisine is far from a novel concept.

BRAISED JAPANESE PORK BELLY (BUTA NO KAKUNI)

1/2 T canola oil
2 1/2 lbs, uncured, center cut pork belly (without skin)

4 C water
1/2 C sake
1 T mirin
2″ piece fresh ginger, halved and smashed

3 C cold water
1 1/2 C shoyu
1 C sugar
2 star anise
6 black peppercorns
2 cinnamon sticks
2″ piece fresh ginger, halved and smashed

Steamed Chinese Buns (mantou)
Eggs, boiled, peeled and halved
Scallions, cut into 2″ lengths then lengthwise into thin strips
Daikon radish, peeled and thinly sliced
Sriracha
Hoisin

Sear
Heat the canola oil in a large, heavy skillet over high heat until it shimmers and is before smoking. Add the pork belly, fat side down until golden, about 2 minutes. Turn and sear evenly on the other three sides. Do not allow the pan to smoke. Transfer the seared belly to a platter or sided sheet pan.

Braises
In a heavy Dutch oven or pot, combine the pork belly, water, sake, mirin, and ginger. Bring to just a boil over high heat, uncovered, then reduce heat and lower to a simmer, cooking for 1 hour. Transfer to a platter or sided sheet pan, then discard the liquid and clean the pot.

Next, place the water, shoyu, sugar, star anise, peppercorns, cinnamon stick and ginger into the same Dutch oven. Add the pork belly, and again just bring to a boil, then lower the heat to simmer. Cover and cook gently until the pork belly is quite tender and succulent, about 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Remove the pork belly, transfer to a cutting board and allow to rest. Meanwhile, remove and discard the star anise, peppercorns, cinnamon stick and ginger with a slotted spoon and discard. Reserve the braising liquid.

Press
Transfer braised pork belly to a deep baking dish. Pour enough of the braising liquid into the dish to just cover the belly. Top with a smaller baking dish and weigh down with small dumb bells, cans or bricks. Place in the fridge overnight. Once pressed, remove from dish and skim off and discard any fat that may have gelled on the surface.

Finish
Preheat oven to 400 F. Put the belly, fat side down in an ovenproof saute pan and add enough braising liquid to reach about 1/4″ up the sides. Cook in the oven, basting occasionally, until just heated through, about 15 minutes. Turn the meat over, and roast another 5 minutes, basting more often this time, until the belly is richly browned and glazed. Transfer to a cutting board and allow to rest some, then carve belly into cubes or slices depending on your needs.

Pour any remaining braising liquid into a heavy saucepan, bring to a simmer, and reduce to the consistency of a thinner sauce. (If boiled eggs are visiting your table, ladle some braise over the open halves in a bowl before reducing.)

Serve with whatever whets your appetite: steamed rice, Chinese buns, boiled eggs, scallions, daikon radish, cilantro, chiles, Sriacha, Hoisin Karashi (Japanese mustard), and, of course, the reduced braising sauce.

In America we eat, collectively, with a glum urge for food to fill us. We are ignorant of flavour. We are as a nation taste-blind.
M.F.K. Fisher

Often time is limited. So, when mulling over ideas for a hastily drawn home meal, my thoughts invariably turn to a simple grilled steak or mixed grill on the barbeque. Involving just thirty five minutes of primarily hands off grill preparation and about 10 minutes active cooking time, steaks are fairly tough to surpass…especially if olive oil brushed veggies and baguette slices join the fray. An instant sumptuous feast.

The ancient Greek philosopher, Democritus, once remarked that when you masticate (preferably with your mouth closed), food eventually breaks into four basic shapes. Sweet morsels are “round and large in their atoms.” Salty fare land as “isosceles triangles” on your tongue. Bitter is typically “spherical, smooth, scalene and small,” while sour is “large in its atoms, but rough, angular and not spherical.”

When taste buds were microscopically “discovered” in the 19th century, tongue cells appeared as minute keyholes into which food might lodge, and it was deduced that there were only four different keyhole shapes—one for each basic taste.

However, a new taste, umami, was identified almost 100 years ago, by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University. He had sought to scientifically identify an official fifth taste, which was recognized for centuries in dashi and kombu. Dashi, meaning “boiled extract,” often forms the base for Japanese soups. So, although the concept of umami is ancient, the nomenclature is relatively recent.

In 1908, Dr. Ikeda succeeded in extracting glutamate (an amino acid) from kombu and discovering that it was the main active ingredient in this edible seaweed. He coined the term “umami” to describe the flavor with the closest English equivalent being “delicious” or “savory”—even “yummy” is used occasionally. Umami is a not so easily recognizable subtle taste that occurs naturally in many vegetables and dairy products as well as in meat, fish and seafood. Even foods without broth—such as mushrooms, tomatoes, proscuitto, anchovies and aged cheese—are loaded with glutamate and the essences of umami. This makes little mention of nước mắm Phú Quốc (fish sauce) which simply exudes umami.

Umami results from the presence of glutamate plus five ribonucleotides including inosinate and guanylate. Glutamate is naturally present in some degree in most foods; inosinate and guanylate are present in many foods, and another nucleotide, adenylate, is abundant in fish and shellfish.

Soy sauce, a fermented sauce made from soy beans, roasted grains, water and salt is inherently rich in umami. Originating in China, soy sauce was introduced in Japan by Buddhist monks in the 7th century, where it is known as shoyu.

From childhood, I was weaned on grilled steaks bathed in soy sauce, but they were also sprinkled with seasoned salts and peppers. In the ensuing eons, I began to experiment with a variety of pre grill steak dressings, whether they be moist or dry (see Dry Rub A Dub, infra.), landing on nothing more than a bare soy sauce bath (no other seasonings) as the one truly preferred coating. At first, this may sound uninspired, but to the contrary it draws out the luscious simplicity of the meat with a rich umami touch.

GRILLED STEAK

2 1 3/4″ thick Kansas City Strip or Ribeye steaks, bone in or boneless
Premium quality soy sauce (preferably shoyu)

Have your friendly local butcher freshly cut some nicely marbled steaks. Place steaks in a single layer in a glass dish. Pour soy sauce over sparingly, turn steaks to massage and coat all over, taking care not to drown the meat. Allow to rest about 1 hour before cooking, turning a couple of times. The meat should be nearing room temperature before grilling.

Preheat charcoal grill to medium high heat. Hold your open hand about 2-3 inches above the hot grate with the coals already spread. Count how long you can keep it there before the pain demands you retract it, about 2-3 seconds for medium high.

Grill steaks to desired doneness, about 4-5 minutes per side for medium rare. Cooking time will vary depending on the thickness of the steaks, the size of the ‘cue and the heat of the grill. For the touch test, gently put the tip of your middle finger to the tip of your thumb. Press the fleshy area between the thumb and the base of the palm with your opposing index finger. Voilà, medium rare.

As always, let meat rest before serving so that the juices migrate throughout.

Serve with olive oil slathered grilled vegetables (such as mushrooms, peppers, Japanese eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, yellow squash, asparagus) and olive oil brushed grilled baguette slices and a silky red.