Monday, January 02, 2006 12:34 AM
Hiromi slaved over osechi
I’m usually more involved in our nightly dinners, but I don’t deserve any credit for tonight’s New Year’s Day dinner. I put my best effort into photography and lighting, but I didn’t contribute much to preparation.
Hiromi wanted to make a vegetarian version of the classic osechi New Year’s meal, and I’m not nearly as competent in this area as I’ve only spent New Year’s Day in Japan once, and it was at the very early stage of my development of passable Japanese cooking skills. Traditionally, these dishes are made a day or two before New Year’s day, because nobody wants to cook on New Year’s day. It’s supposed to be a restful day, so people historically spent way more time than normal making foods a few days before the New Year, finishing on New Year’s Eve. Accordingly, vinegared dishes such as sunomono are common, and other dishes with a fairly high salt content, especially fish, make frequent appearances. Now, of course, both the common dishes and the pattern of preparation have changed, because so many fancy options for osechi meals can be purchased at department stores in Japan and even at local souzai-ya-san, a growing industry of neighborhood pay-by-weight side dish vending shops.
Actually most people in Japan wouldn’t go through as much trouble as Hiromi did. But the standard Uwajimaya osechi wouldn’t have been much fun for me as a vegetarian, and the quality would not be that impressive for her. So instead, she made a seriously labor-intensive meal.
This rolled konbu or konbumaki contains blanched green beans, carrots, and daikon. Usually it would have a bit of cured or salt-seasoned bits of fish, but we ate it with some pickles instead.
This is one of the sunomono I make on a regular basis, though usually less elegantly presented than Hiromi did tonight. We don’t have fresh yuzu available, so we substituted Meyer lemon for the shell, which has a passable aroma and contributes the right overall shape. Hiromi splashed the daikon and carrot with a bit of yuzu juice to give it the desired aroma. My one significant contribution was running the daikon and carrots through the mandoline…
Hiromi prepared koyadoufu (freeze-dried tofu), carrot, shiitake and mizuna for this year’s ozouni, and I nearly set my Silpat mat on fire trying to toast them with the oven’s broiler set to “low” toasting the frozen mochi. In substitution for the usual katsuo-based broth, a dried konbu and dried porcini based dashi contributed a nice body. I stumbled upon the porcini alternative to dried fish a few years ago, and now Hiromi swears by it for any dish where the soup stock needs to have the kind of fullness usually provided by katsuobushi or niboshi.
My only experience with tamago-yaki tends to be the saltier types served at izakaya as a drink accompaniment, or that made by sushi chefs, but this version, a classic New Year’s dish called datemaki tamago, is substantially sweeter. Datemaki tamago is typically made with a fish cake called hanpen, Hiromi substituted rehydrated koyadoufu. I provided the token contribution of beating the rehydrated koyadoufu into submission, chopping it into extra tiny bits. Hiromi sweetened beaten eggs and incorporate the koyadoufu, and made a thick omelet in a tamagoyaki pan, rolled up using the same kind of mat that can be used for sushi.
The egg was plated together with this dried-persimmon based side dish. The custard-like filling is made with steamed yamaimo (mountain yam), a starchy tuber, which Hiromi combined with egg yolks while the yamaimo was still hot, and a fair amount of sugar. The dried Hachiya persimmons were stuffed with this custard, and eventually sliced. Hiromi says this is essentially a Kyoto-style osechi dish.
Hiromi blanched renkon (lotus root) for a few minutes, just enough to retain a nice crispness, and added vinegar, sugar, a bit of salt and some shredded Korean chilies to make another kind of sunomono.
I’m not usually terribly fussy about how my vegetables are cut, even for Japanese food; I use mostly rustic style rolling cuts for carrots. But osechi is as special occasion, so Hiromi slaved away cutting and faceting red and orange carrots for this nimono, or simmered vegetable dish. Our shape cutters, even the smallest ones, are too big for the scrawny American carrots typical in U.S. supermarkets. The nimono also features takenoko (bamboo shoots), renkon, satoimo, gobo (burdock) and shiitake.
Hiromi opted not to buy off-the-shelf kuromame, or sweetened boiled black beans, as most Japanese would do. For some reason, they didn’t quite stay black, but they tasted nice. She boiled them with yakimyouban (alum) and salt, then later added a serious dose of sugar. They would typically be boiled in a cast-iron pot, but my cast-iron pan doesn’t have a cover, so it was cast aside. It’s possible that the iron in the pot would make the beans shinier and blacker… we’ll try again next year.
A couple of months ago I made my second or third attempt at making kurikinton, sweet potato paste with chestnuts. It might have been a bit early in the season, because they had a slightly whiter color than Hiromi’s. These are thankfully less sweet than most of the commercial kuri-kinton available in Japan, so they make a nice side dish even among savory things.
Hiromi spent more than a day on this elaborate meal… Here was the reward:
After all that work, I suspect I’ll be doing most of the cooking for the rest of the week…