July 18, 2012

Six Sauces and You're Set: a Preview of "Hiroko's American Kitchen"


There's no end to the protean imagination and adaptability of the Japanese cook, and last night I was witness to yet another example of this fact. This fall, cookbook author, chef-consultant and popularizer of  Japanese cooking techniques Hiroko Shimbo will launch her third cookbook, Hiroko's American Kitchen. To give it a test run, she gathered a  group of journalists at her sprawling loft apartment near Union Square to sample some of its dishes.

Shimbo's smart idea is to offer the home cook six basic mother sauces, which can be made in large quantities and frozen, ready to pull out to create deeply-flavored dishes ranging from Japanese comfort foods like omuraisu (fried rice wrapped in an omelet) and okonomiyaki (a savory pancake stuffed with cabbage, noodles, seafood or meat) to hybrid dishes such as miso-braised lamb and a version of  an Italian-style white bean soup flavored with sausage and dashi (dried skipjack tuna and kelp) stock.

This dish, made with mushrooms and poached eggs, was inspired by her visit to a Madrid restaurant specializing in mushrooms, El Cisne Azul. There, a mix of local and exotic mushroom was sauteed in garlic-infused olive oil and topped with runny, sunny-side-up eggs. Shimbo's adaptation pairs a mix of sauteed button, portobello and shiitake mushrooms with her mildly sweet-sour white sumiso sauce and konbu (kelp) stock for a double dose of umami.

The chef noted that one of the icons of Japanese cooking, Yoshihiro Murata of the Kyoto restaurant Kikunoi, has divined the optimal temperature at which to extract the utmost umami from konbu stock: 140 degrees Fahrenheit. In her "chef's method" for making the stock, you wipe a 1-ounce square of konbu off with a moist, clean kitchen towel and immerse it in a large pot of water over medium heat. When it reaches 140 degrees, adjust the heat carefully to maintain that temperature and cook it for an hour. 

There were many other delicious dishes: a dashi-based soup filled with cornstarch-coated, fried wedges of avocado and salmon, infused with grated daikon radish and garnished with dill; thick, creamy eggplant rounds sauteed then steamed and topped with Shimbo's spicy miso sauce, and thin slices of  tempura-style fried beets, squash blossoms, and okra. The chef's two secrets for super-crispy tempura are to  slice vegetables very thinly (unlike in Japan, where thicker slices are the rule), and if you don't have tempura flour, use a blend of 80 percent cake flour and 20 percent cornstarch.

One of my favorites dishes was a whole branzino simmered in a mix of water, sake, mirin, and Shimbo's "super sauce," (a blend of soy, mirin, konbu and dried skipjack tuna flakes) garnished with shredded ginger. She removes impurities by blanching the fish in boiling water for 30 seconds then dipping it in ice water before steaming it. This typically Japanese process of removing impurities (she'll brown short ribs or spare ribs and then pour boiling water over them) can cause consternation among Americans, who fear the loss of flavor, but Shimbo likes the cleaner flavors that result. I recalled that at Brushstroke, chefs either pre-salt fish and then wash it off with water or sake to remove impurities, or will even pre-saute the fish.

You might even see some of Shimbo's six sauces--kelp stock, dashi stock, white sumiso sauce, spicy miso sauce, best basting and cooking sauce (BBC, a sweet soy and sake sauce), and super sauce-- on the shelves of your grocery store one day; she's exploring ways to bottle and sell them commercially.  

July 11, 2012

Mama O Makes Pa Jun

Trees offset barbecue carbon emissions.
Over the weekend, I braved sweltering temperatures to check out meat, beer and all-things-local impressario Jimmy Carbone's second annual "Kimchipalooza and Cook Out NYC," kind of a backyard barbecue for thrill seekers. Jimmy is the gregarious owner of Jimmy's No. 43 in the East Village, a locavore haven he uses as the launching pad for any number of ideas, projects, and festivals.

At this particular Jimmy creation, there was barbecue galore from restaurants around the city, mucho Six Point,  plus numerous hawkers of fiery hot sauces and small-batch condiments. Visitors voted  for their favorite hot dog (winner, best topping: personal caterer and chef Josetth Gordon, for her piquant celery slaw with currants) and there were judged competitions, too.

Looming large at the event was that Korean addition to the haute fast food cannon, kimchi, the beloved national pickle made of fermented napa cabbage and lots of chili pepper. The lure of kimchi drew me to the both of Mama O's Premium Kimchi, right in the center of the action, where Mama herself was hard at work, frying up one of my favorite dishes, pa jun, savory pancakes that are often filled with seafood or meat. 

Who knew that like Americans, Koreans use pancake mix, too? Mama uses a cup of pa jun mix (available at Korean grocers), into which she stirs a cup to a cup-and-a-half of water, a cup of chopped kimchi (excess liquid squeezed out), 2 ounces of ground pork and chopped fresh scallions.  A little vegetable oil and a non-stick pan (the latter is a must, says Mama), and you've got pa jun. 

The adorable Mama and Papa Oh, Myong Ja and Max.
Not only is Mama Oh, or Myong Ja, the inspiration for a whole line of artisanal kimchi, now sold in Whole Foods and several other stores in Brooklyn and Manhattan, she's also a retired operations analyst at the World Bank. Her assistant that day was Papa Oh, a.k.a. Max, former president of the Korean Dry Cleaner's Association.

It was their son Kheedim (meaning "reverence," and "respect") in ancient Korean, who decided to start a line of kimchis based on Mama's recipes. He now makes six different varieties, including an unusual baby bok choy kimchi (great idea!), as well one made with hunks of daikon radish, and another line without fish or shellfish (the standard variety usually contains shrimp paste and fish sauce), which Kheedim calls "kosha kimchi, because I can't afford a rabbi." Kheedim has in fact stopped using shrimp paste in all his kimchi because shellfish allergies are so prevalent and potentially lethal.

His newest product, just unveiled at Kimchipalooza, is a kimchi paste, which allows even neophytes to make perfect kimchi by slicing up a whole cabbage, putting it through an overnight salt water brine, a drain and press, then adding scallions, cilantro, the kimchi paste and water--my next home experiment!

Mama's was also featured in the day's winner for "Food High": Bar Bruno's taco of grilled marinated hanger steak in a corn tortilla topped with Mama O's spicy kimchi, pico de gallo and grated radish. 

As the web address of Mama O's proclaims, "kimchi rules"!