A few blogs ago my friend Sian asked a question about how I learn about cooking ethnic food. The answer starts with our year-long travels in 1971-72, beginning with the generosity of Spitidoula in Greece and all the wonderful women in Yugoslavia and Turkey who took me into their kitchens. I saw them making wonderful food out of simple ingredients harvested and foraged from the countryside. Much of their cooking depended on a fire pit with a bed of hot coals; in some homes that was the only “stove.” In one home, the kitchen was the entry hall– a stone sink, a water crock set into the floor, shelves for plates and cooking pots, a work surface, and a two-burner gas stove. Most of the work was done squatting or sitting around a low table or cloth spread on the floor. Being with these peasant farm women transformed my ideas about cooking and kitchens. Most importantly, it introduced me to the incredible flavor of real food.
My favorite thing to do when we travel is to visit the open-air produce markets and to spend time cooking with our hosts. In that way, I get to see and taste the local ingredients and learn how they are handled and transformed through the alchemy of cooking. A dish is no longer just a recipe–it is a memory of tastes and smells and friendship, and of the land itself. When I want to learn more about a type of cuisine, I look to cookbooks that research and document authentic recipes and methods and that are written not only about food, but the life that surrounds it.
Another part of my cooking education has come through “travel in reverse”–the world brought to us by the many guests who come to woodworking classes at our school, County Workshops. I have shared my kitchen and learned from many cooks over the years. This past week I was especially lucky to have Hisayo Shoji, the wife of our Japanese woodworking instructor, in the kitchen with me. Hisayo brought a suitcase full of Japanese ingredients for us to explore during her stay–tiny dried fish, bonito flakes, wakame seaweed, dried soybeans, sesame seeds, and packages of strange stuff that looked like dried French bread. Wonders were in store.
Hisayo studied natural food cooking in Japan; her cooking style is direct, clear, and uncomplicated. She uses seasonings sparingly to enhance the natural flavor of vegetables, meat, or fish. Her finely slivered ginger, green onion, or fresh herbs slide effortlessly from her knife, and just as effortlessly add flavor to her dishes. Harmonious describes both the process and the results. Hisayo made many wonderful dishes for us to try: deep-fried soybeans in caramelized soy sauce, deep-fried ofu, ofu stir-fried with eggs and onion, miso soup, rice balls with umeboshi and bonito flakes, vegetables pickled in rice mash…We started with a simple dish of cucumbers.
Cucumbers with Miso Dip
This dish calls for small, thin-skinned cucumbers and the best miso you can find. We used cucumbers from my garden–my favorite varieties are “Diva” and the Japanese-type, “Summer Dance.” I pulled out all the tubs of miso from my fridge for Hisayo to inspect… sweet white miso, brown rice miso, and barley miso from an excellent local Asheville producer…and a tub of Korean miso. Hisayo chose the robustly flavored Korean style, which was actually a seasoned fermented soybean sauce called ssamjang. It is similar to a chunky, seasoned miso dipping sauce I learned about from a country cook in Mino, Japan.
Ingredients: sweet, crisp, young cucumbers and delicious, organic miso (plain or seasoned)
Cut the cucumbers in half crosswise, and then into quarters or sixths. Arrange on a plate and serve with a small bowl of miso for dipping.
Ssamjang/Seasoned Miso: Mix 3 Tbs miso with 1/3 cup finely chopped scallions or garlic chives, 2 Tbs red chile sauce (or to taste), 2 Tbs mirin, 1 Tbs toasted sesame seeds, and 1 tsp toasted sesame oil
Japanese-style seasoned miso: You can use a variety of vegetables to flavor the miso–onion, celery, carrot, burdock, eggplant, sweet or hot pepper, mushrooms…Finely chop about 1 cup vegetables. Heat 2 tsp oil in a small skillet. Add the vegetables and toss 2 or 3 minutes over medium high heat to soften. Add 1 Tbs sake and 1 Tbs mirin to the pan. Stir until the liquid is mostly gone. Remove from the heat and stir 3 or 4 Tbs miso into the vegetables. Add a few tsp toasted sesame seeds, if you like.
Cucumbers with Toasted Sesame
Hisayo says this dish may be made with cucumbers or small zucchini equally well. We liked them both.
Ingredients: 1 1/2 lbs thin-skinned cucumbers (6 or 7 small), 1 1/2 tsp fine sea salt, 1 1/2 tsp brown sugar, 1 1/2 tsp soy sauce, 4 to 5 Tbs unhulled sesame seeds
Cut the ends off the cucumbers, cut them in half lengthwise, and slice them in half-moons 1/8-inch thick. Put the cucumber in a bowl, sprinkle with salt, and toss well. Set them aside 5 to 10 minutes.
Toast the sesame seeds in a small skillet over medium high heat, stirring constantly until they are fragrant and beginning to pop. Cool and grind to a coarsely with a mortar and pestle.
Squeeze the cucumber slices by handfuls to press out the extra liquid. Put them in a dry bowl and toss with the sugar and soy sauce. Sprinkle with the ground sesame seeds and toss again.
Garnish with thinly sliced mint or shiso leaves.
Fumi’s Cucumber Salad
Fumi made this cucumber salad for us when she visited years ago, and I have made it ever since. Other vegetables can replace the cucumber: broccoli or cauliflower florets (blanch 60 seconds), green beans (blanch 60 seconds), zucchini (blanch 20 seconds or use raw), spinach (blanch 10 seconds), bean sprouts (blanch 1 or 2 seconds).
Ingredients: 1 1/2 lbs thin-skinned Japanese cucumbers (6 small or 2 or 3 larger ones), 1 1/2 tsp fine sea salt, 2 Tbs sesame seeds, 3 Tbs rice vinegar, pinch sugar, 2 tsp mirin, 1/2 tsp soy sauce, 1 tsp fresh lemon juice
Cut off both ends of the cucumbers (peel European type cucumbers). Cut in half and slice thinly. Put the cucumber in a colander, sprinkle with salt and toss well. Weight with a plate and leave in the sink to drain 20 to 30 minutes.
Dry roast the sesame seeds in a skillet over medium high heat. Cool and grind coarsely in a mortar.
In a small bowl, mix together the vinegar, sugar, mirin, soy sauce, and lemon juice.
Squeeze the cucumbers with your hands to press out extra liquid. Put the cucumbers in a bowl and toss with the dressing. Sprinkle sesame seeds on top.