Friday, 17 October 2008

Cooking class 5: Tempura with bean & chestnut rice and tart octopus salad with Japanese egg "mayonnaise"

Tempura, deep-fried seafood and vegetable morsels served with a soy-based dipping sauce, is such a quintessentially Japanese dish it is easy to forget that it is actually a foreign import, brought by the Dutch.

Not one for the oily smell left after deep-frying at home, I was happy to do it in class at ABC, where it was teamed up with bean and chestnut rice and a show-stopping vinegared side dish.

The rice, which had a little "sticky" rice thrown in to give a little more texture, was flavourful and, with it's reddish hue, very autumnal. I wasn't able to pin down why the beans did not need pre-cooking and were merely cooked with the rice, but I suspect they were of a cooked and dried variety. Beans like that are eaten as a snack here in Japan, and are the beans of choice for throwing on Bean Throwing Day in February, when everyone expels "ogres" and welcomes good luck into their homes at the end of winter.

The octopus, cucumber and wakame side dish was superb. Particularly the kimizu (literally egg yolk-vinegar), essentially an oil-free mayonnaise. I learned a new cutting technique called snake's belly, where you make millimetre deep cuts on a slant on two sides along the length of a thin Japanese cucumber. This allows the cucumber to bend like a snake. It's not just for decoration, though: this helps the kimizu to penetrate into the cucumber. Ingenious! I am dying to make this again, but no one around me is game to try the octopus. Perhaps a little steamed chicken might substitute, but it definitely wants to be something slippery.


Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Slatit batata helwa: Claudia's Moroccan sweet potato salad

Sweet potatoes are a funny vegetable. They pop up in many countries, and each has its own way with them.

In Australia, sweet potatoes often get flung in the oven in a medley with other root veggies with the Sunday roast. If a spice is used at all, it's likely to be cumin, otherwise it's topped with lashings of butter.

One freezing winter when I was studying in China, old guys used to hang around the university gates selling for pennies piping hot roast sweet potatoes, which they weighed on old-time pan and rod scales . With dormitory heating on only at set times of the day, we unacclimatized Aussie students were as likely to use those hot pods as handwarmers as we were to tuck into their belly-filling flaky sweetness.

Around Yokohama and Tokyo, the sound of the yaki-imo or stone-roasted sweet potato guy calling out, "Ishi yaki-imo, yaki-imo," from his wood-fired stove-bedecked truck is the first sign of autumn. But buy one from this old guy, and you're likely to pay a small fortune!

Here we have a Moroccan treatment, with spices, lemon, honey and other goodies. This one is boiled, and with its unctuous spicy sweet and sour coating, looks and tastes quite impressive. I'm afraid that I disappointed my dear friend Hw when he asked how long this took to make; is twenty minutes really all it takes to get something this criminally good!

In all the years I've cooked this, I've not once not had to boil down the cooking liquid until it was syrupy. But that could just be the type of sweet potatoes I use. Anyway, this is more than made up for by spicy aroma that wafts through the house whenever I make this. You might want to wait to skim the scum off the surface before you add those spices, though.

This is also from the same article of Claudia's in the Guardian here. And yes, this and the tagine in the previous post are perfect partners.

Slatit batata helwa (Claudia's Moroccan sweet potato salad)

In this Moroccan salad, the mix of sweet and spicy is quite delicious. It is nice as it is but you may add, if you like, a handful of black olives, the chopped peel of a preserved lemon and a tablespoon of capers. Serve it as an appetiser.

Serves 6

700 g sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 4 cm cubes
½ tsp ground ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp harissa or a good pinch chilli pepper
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tsps honey
5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley or coriander

1 Boil the sweet potatoes in just enough water to cover. Stir in the ginger, cinnamon, harissa or ground chilli pepper, lemon juice, honey and salt, and cook, uncovered, for 15 minutes or until the potatoes are tender, turning them over once and being careful not to let them overcook and fall apart. The sauce should be reduced to a thick syrupy consistency. If it is not, lift out the potatoes with a slotted spoon into a serving dish and reduce the sauce further by boiling.

2 Just before the end of cooking stir in the oil and the parsley or coriander. Serve cold.


Claudia's Moroccan lamb tagine with peas and preserved lemons

Autumn is here and we've not had a lemon recipe for a while! Funny how one's thoughts turn to lemons as soon as the skies get moody...

This is one of the very first Middle Eastern dishes I ever cooked (as a way of using those magic preserved lemons), and it is pretty much a classic in my food repertoire now. It's clean, sunny taste is perfect whatever the season, but I reckon its at its best when the weather is less than stellar. It is also as great an introduction to the seductive taste of preserved lemons as you are likely to find.

I made it for an unseasonably cool January birthday party in Australia one year. There was a big spread, and when I first checked, it looked like my "exotic" contribution might have been a bit too exotic. But just a few minutes later, you'd've been hard pressed to get enough to coat a bit of bread. You can't get much more of a vote of confidence than that.

I've adjusted the recipe for metric and the pressure cooker, but the credit for it rightly belongs with my very, very favourite food writer, Claudia Roden, who wrote the wonderful article in the Guardian that it appeared in a few years back. A culinary tour Morocco is one of my dreams, and Claudia's writing is one of the main reasons. Rereading the article now, I wouldn't be surprised if I'm not the only one.

Now there is nothing exotic at all about the recipe, the preserved lemons notwithstanding (and they are only salt and lemons after all). If you don't have any, go and make yourself some now. They're a total doddle. Really. We'll still be here when you've got them ready.

I made the tagine with beef this time, and I can tell you that it is not a patch on the lamb version. Leg being my preference. Perhaps its as well, then, that we were not able to take it to its intended recipients due to the Young Man being sick with the cold. Sorry Sa, I'll make it again next time!

Lamb tagine with peas, preserved lemon and olives (if you can find them (g))

Serves 6-8

1 kg leg or shoulder of lamb, trimmed of excess fat and cut into cubes
2 tbsp vegetable oil [S: optional, I've never put it in, and never needed it]
1 onion, chopped
salt and pepper [S: go light with the salt as the lemons are salty]
1 tsp ground ginger
A good pinch of chilli powder or chilli flakes (optional)
½ tsp saffron powder [S: optional; it is a minor attraction on this dish]
500g shelled peas
2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
Peel of 1 preserved lemon or more, cut into pieces
A dozen green olives

1 Put the meat in a large pressure cooker with the oil (if using), onion, salt and pepper, ginger and saffron. Almost cover with water and cook under low pressure for 45-55 minutes or until the meat is very tender.

2 Add the peas, tomatoes, preserved lemon peel and olives and cook uncovered a few minutes longer, until the peas are tender and the sauce reduced.