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Not dead

…just taking 14 credits over the summer including anatomy and physiology. It’s a bit much but updates will arrive at some point.

Freezing rice

I have said on numerous occasions that the single greatest thing I have learned since embarking on my bento journey is that you can freeze rice. Growing up in a Japanese-American family we either made rice fresh or microwaved leftover rice.  That might make sense for a family of four but for two working adults it is a pain. Enter the Just Bento Cookbook and the dawning realization that it is okay to freeze rice if you do it the right way. Even better, by freezing it in unit dose format you can exercise portion control and always have a convenient amount of rice to work with. For myself and my fiance we have discovered that 1/2 cup is the perfect single serving size. If you love rice as much as I do, this will seem small but it should encourage you to fill your bento with other things besides rice.

The Right Way:

Pre-game:

a. Grab your Saran Wrap brand plastic wrap. Throw it away. No seriously, throw it away right now.  To steal and alter an analogy from Neal Stephenson: You do not use Saran Wrap because it is a superior product, you use Saran Wrap because their marketing has convinced you that it needs to be part of your life.

b. Drive down to Costco or Smart and Final and buy yourself a giant roll of stretch-tite plastic wrap. It will come in a giant roll and you will likely use it for years. If you have never used proper food preparation plastic wrap than you are in for a bit of a shock. Real plastic wrap is extremely thin and sticks to itself well. It should look roughly like this:

Doing the rice right:

1. Make some rice. I use a rice cooker, apparently you can make it in a pot but I have my doubts. My theory is that Asians invented rice cookers around the time they discovered fire.

2. Grab a 1/2 cup measuring cup and start scooping out moderately packed cups of rice. You want to do this as soon as the rice cooked so you can capture as much moisture as possible.

3. Place each scoop in its own square of plastic wrap. I suggest doing this one at a time for consistency.

4. Start rolling the rice into a roughly 1 inch cylinder. Do not try and compress it too much or you will end up with a single giant piece of rice.

5. Once you have a nice cylinder shape, flip in the sides and roll up the excess like a humus wrap. Repeat on your remaining rice. I find that when I cook up 2 cups of rice I end up with about 5X 1/2 cup servings.  So when I cook for two I cook up 4 cups of rice on Sunday so there is enough rice for the whole week.

6. Throw them in your fridge as soon as you are done. Reheating them easy. Nuke the rice for about 1 minute, give it a quick massage to break up any chunks and then nuke it for another minutes. Mind the hot steam and enjoy!

Last post I talked about how having a good bento stash is instrumental in making sure you actually make bento on a regular basis. To highlight what I talked about I decided to just show you how to slap together a delicious and healthy bento meal. Total cooking time, plus the time it took to setup my camera and pose the food: <30 minutes.

These are all the raw ingredients I used.
Clockwise from top: Hon-dashi, Asian pesto, frozen home-salted salmon, frozen edamame.

The hon-dashi is to flavor the water for the frozen edamame. The Asian pesto is to flavor the edamame and the salted salmon is the protein in this meal.

How I turned it into food:

1. The frozen edamame went into a post of boiling water. The hon-dashi quickly followed it and after a quick swirl, I let it boil on medium for five minutes.

2. Meanwhile, the salted salmon went into frying pan which I warmed up on medium-high. When salmon started smoking I doused it in a couple tablespoons of white wine (sake would have worked too) and covered it tightly. Five minutes later is was done.

3. The edamame got done first so I pulled it off the heat, drained it with a spoon and then combined it with the Asian pesto in a small bowl (on reflection it would have been better if I just mixed it in the pot). By the time I plated it the salmon was ready and slipped that on top.

4. Took pictures and then immediately consumed everything.

If I was making this for lunch I would have nuked some frozen rice and stuffed everything in a tupperware/bento box. If I wanted to get extra fancy I would have used some silicon cupcake liners to keep everything separated.

So there you go. Much like any kind of cooking; if you take the time to prep when you have the time, you can throw a meal together in minutes rather than hours.

If you are new to bento you can not go wrong by taking a look at JustBento’s “Maki’s Top 10 Beno Rules.” If you follow even half of them, you will be well on your way to bento making bliss. To me the most helpful tip is #8.

From personal experience and from hours cruising /r/JapaneseFood I have noticed that the main thing that seems to keep people from cooking regularly is the time constraint. Cooking without preparation takes time that most of us do not have. The key then, is to figure out how to pre-stage as many of your ingredients as possible. This collection of read-to-go ingredients is called johbisai and is the cornerstone to a stress free cooking experience. Maki Itoh has a great discussion about what should be in your stash. It is worth mentioning that she is absolutely right that you should not run out tonight and buy a thousand new ingredients. I found it is helpful to only buy what I am going to use for the week. If you vary your bento menu from week to week you will eventually fill out your complete stash.

If you take one thing away from this blog post, take this: Stock up on frozen vegetables, particularly edamame. The hardest part about making healthy bento is figuring out how to get two servings of vegetable in each meal. If you have a broad assortment of vegetables and a few simple preparations, your eating experience will vastly improve.

The following picture should look familiar but it is still a good one:

Left to right:

Wakame (dried seaweed): I use it primarily for making miso soup bombs  but it comes up in a number of other recipes as well. It keeps forever so it is a great pantry stocker.

White and red miso paste: I am not sure what I did before I had these. Miso keeps extremely well in the fridge and it vastly improves a huge array of foods. Having some boring vegetables? Mix them with miso paste. Having a bowl of generic ramen? Mix the paste into the broth. Want a quick soup? Check out the miso soup bomb recipe linked above.

Hon-dashi (instant soup base): This goes hand in hand with miso paste. You can make miso soup with them or you can just add them to some chicken stock for an upgraded bowl of instant ramen noodles. Another great thing to do with it is boil some frozen vegetables in water with 1-2 tablespoons of hon-dashi. It will give the vegetables a much deeper taste than if you had merely salted them.

A couple more ideas, left to right:

Nuts: Having a stash of various kinds of nuts is a great way to add a snack to a bento. I like pistachios but really anything will work.

Chazuke: These little satchels of rice flavoring come in a variety of flavors. My favorite is ume-boshi because it has a refreshing blend of sour and salty. You pour these over rice and then pour hot tea or water over until you have a quick rice soup.

Small seaweed strips: These are not big enough to use to make sushi but they are the perfect size for making onigiri (rice balls) or for just snacking on.

Hope this helps! Get out there and make some bento!

Cookbooks

Left to right: Just Bento, Bento Boxes, The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook, and Momofuku

As promised, a brief discussion of the cookbooks I use.  I have several more great books but they are more focused on meals and dim sum. Dim sum is certainly acceptable bento fair but I find that making it right usually takes longer than I have. Also, dim sum is generally very technique sensitive and it is easy to screw up.

 The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches To Go by Makiko Itoh is basically my Bento Bible. Itoh is a globe trotter who has had to learn how to cook traditional Japanese food even when she does not have regular access to traditional ingredients. Because of this, almost all of her recipes provide substitute ingredients where appropriate.  In my experience (I have cooked my way through about half of her book) her suggestions are solid. The alternative ingredients might alter the flavor but the final product is still delicious. This book was worth in paltry $11 price for her explanation of how to freeze rice. Growing up, rice was made fresh everyday so I had no idea that you could freeze it. Making rice on Sunday and freezing it in unit-doses is easily the best time saver you will find in this book. The final thing that makes this book awesome is the meal timeline she provides with each full menu. With these timelines you can easily figure out what order you need to prepare things so that they will be ready to be packed when you get done. As a person who has a difficult time making more than one dish at a time, these charts are a life saver.

The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook: 101 Asian Recipes Simple Enough for Tonight’s Dinner by Jaden Hair is not a bento book but it is a collection of 101 Asian recipes that (with a couple of stated exceptions) can be cooked in 30 minutes or so. Hair is like me, an Asian-American who grew up eating traditional Asian cooking but never got around to learning the secrets at our mothers knee. In fact, at the time we kinda hated it and wished our parents would just make hamburgers and spaghetti like normal Americans. Then we got older and realized that we craved all those ethnics tastes that you just cannot find on a regular basis. So we rushed back and tried to learn what we should have learned decades ago. The result, in her case, is a series of recipes that stay true to tastes of Asian cooking (her recipes run the gamut from Japanese to Thai) without having to slave over a point of boiling animal parts for three days. Authenticity is sacrificed for speed and ease of cooking but I think that is a fair trade if you get a home cooked meal out of it.

Momofuku by David Chang  and Bento Boxes: Japanese Meals on the Go by Naomi Kijima and Laura Driussi are both excellent books. Momofuku is the gonzo journalist equivalent and Chang is a cook who is willing to drop a few f-bombs to get his point across. As a man who likes coarse language I fully approve. Kijima’s book is an excellent resource for more traditional bento fair but it is not something I would recommend to the Japanese food neophyte. Unlike Just Bento, there are few substitutions and if you do not have “tree-ear fungus (kikurage)” then you might be stuck. Both excellent books for inspiration but they are not nearly as well-worn as the first two.

The biggest problem with green tea ice cream, at least for someone trapped in Arizona, is finding decent green tea powder.  Green tea powder, more appropriately called matcha, is the end product of carefully grinding down green tea leaves. As you can tell from the Wikipedia article, it is an involved process. Good matcha has a strong green tea taste without being overly bitter.

It was a trial to scour the “ethnic” markets of Arizona until I found a suitable source at a reasonable price. Our standby, Lee Lee, did not have green tea powder on any of the occasions we visited.  Mekong faired no better but I will admit that I do not know my way around its narrow aisles. There could have been an entire section devoted to green tea powders and I simply did not recognize it as such.

Undaunted, our expedition pushed deeper into desperation. For only  desperation could have led us too: Whole Foods. This is where I learned that matcha is apparently the most expensive substance on Earth because they tried to push a $50, 1 oz container of matcha on me. Unwilling to leave empty-handed I decided to spring for this stuff.

Do not make the same mistake. This is not matcha, this is matcha flavored powdered sugar. It is actually fairly tasty but it lacks the strength that real matcha possess. You can see the difference below:

The “sweet matcha” is the lighter outer ring, the real matcha is dark green stuff in the center. Using “science” I would suggest that real matcha is 2-3 times more potent then the colorful but ultimately weak sweet matcha. To get real matcha we had to drive out to Fujiya. They only had one brand but it turned out to be pretty good:

It might not have cute packaging but it had the kick I needed for this recipe.

The take home lesson here is that you should give serious thought to just ordering matcha online.

I used a hybrid recipe for my green tea and made a few modifications to the protocol. For the basic ratio I went with SteamyKitchen.com’s “Matcha White Chocolate Ice Cream” recipe but I omitted the chocolate and roughly doubled the amount of matcha. I combined Hair’s recipe with this one that I found online. Unlike most the ice cream I make, this is a custard base which means it is a bit more involved then adding cream to eggs and sugar.

Matcha Ice Cream Recipe:

Adapted from Jaden Hair and nameless Teavana corporate writer #366

Ingredients:
1 ½ cups heavy cream
1 ½ cups milk
1/8 teaspoon fine salt
4 large egg yolks
4 tablespoons matcha powder, sifted
1/2 cup granulated sugar

1. Mix the cream, milk  and salt in a double boiler. Bring to a low simmer, stirring constantly. Reduce heat. I used a heavy saucepan but it would have been less stressful in a double boiler.

2. Whisk the yolks, matcha and sugar until mixed. Pour a thin stream of about 1/2 cup hot cream mixture into the yolk/sugar, mixing constantly. Pour the now tempered yolk mixture into the main cream mixture, stirring constantly.

3. Stir constantly on low heat until an instant read thermometer registers 180°F, it should be noticeably thicker at this point and will easily coat the back of a spoon. Do not let the mixture boil! Strain through a fine mesh and refrigerate.

4. Put it in the ice cream machine as per manufacturer instructions.

Additional Notes: I think most custards are not supposed to be heated past 170°F. In my experience this yields an ice cream that is not noticeably different than what you would get if you skip the heating step altogether. 180°F yields a ridiculously thick and smooth custard that justifies the additional effort.

Enjoy!

Taiyaki!


Easily one of the best things about living in Japan, even for a non-Japanese speaking yonsei like myself, is going to any of the seasonal celebrations (I am a fan of the cherry blossom festival) and gorging on all the delicious festival foods. Of those, taiyaki is probably my favorite. Taiyaki are basically slightly crunchy, filled pancakes. They traditionally come in the shape of a fish, although simpler hockey puck (imagawayaki) ones are also popular. Pretty much all of the taiyaki I had in Japan were filled with azuki bean paste but there are ones filled with various sorts of cremes as well. My fiancée loves taiyaki as well and she has been pestering me to learn how to make them.

Challenge accepted.

I have seen taiyaki molds at several Asian stores but your best bet is to look for one at a Japanese specialty market. We got ours from a Marukai during a recent visit to Los Angeles and it looks identical to basically every other taiyaki mold we have seen. We looked over a handful of recipes and settled on Mamaloli.com’s recipe because it did not require too many specialty ingredients.

Our taiyaki mold, greased up and ready to make delicious.

Enough preamble, let’s cook some taiyaki.

As much as I like azuki bean paste, I know from experience that it is a process to make properly. Further, my fiancée loves the creme filled taiyaki. After some debating we settled on this Hawaiian style coconut pudding recipe. Sugar, coconut milk and a pinch of salt go into a pot on medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Shredded coconut is added and warmed until it softens up. In the future, we will probably give the shredded coconut a light toasting prior to adding it to fluid. In another bowl, whisk together equal parts water and cornstarch. Once the cornstarch is properly emulsified, pour it into the coconut milk mixture and continue to stir. The cornstarch should thicken the mixture instantly but we had to cook it for another couple minutes to get the yogurt consistency indicated by the recipe. When it has thickened to your liking, set the mixture aside to cool. Ideally, you want to have it chilled before you start shoveling it into your taiyaki.

Yogurt like consistency achieved.

Next up, the batter. The batter is very simple and resembles pancake batter. The same principles apply to the taiyaki batter; whisk the dry ingredients together and then pour the wet into the dry. Whisk thoroughly and you are ready to pour. The taiyaki mold should be heated over a low-medium temperature, on both sides.

Our best guess is that you want to use about 1/2 cup of batter per taiyaki. That is definitely not a hard and fast rule though so play around with it.  Do not worry too much about making sure the filling gets into every nook and cranny. If the pan is hot enough, the batter should rise and spread as it hits the pan. It takes some time to get used to this process so do not feel bad if your first few taiyaki come out shaped funny.  Our experience showed that you want to add batter until it is about equal with the edges of the mold.

Next, add the chilled filling. We found that 1-2 tablespoons appeared to be the proper amount. Too much filling will punch holes in your taiyaki and too little will make the taiyaki into a very ornate dry pancake.  In the picture above, you can see that we put some filling in the dorsal fin. This will made the final fish look odd but otherwise did not prove to be much of a problem.

A final layer of batter is poured over the filling. Aim to cover as much of the filling as possible but if some filling is still visible do not sweat it.

We found that it was best to cook it over a medium-low temp and rotate it every minute or so. If your pan was hot enough and you oiled it up right, you should be able to pry the taiyaki off the mold and check both sides for doneness. The picture above shows what the taiyaki looks like just prior to being trimmed.

Where Things Go Wrong: Troubleshooting your taiyaki
From our own trial and error we identified four areas where taiyakis go awry.

1. Overfilling.
2. Overcooking.

If you overfill, as I did in the picture above. Your taiyaki will burn onto the mold and then it becomes a pain to get it out of the mold, either to check if it is done or to get them out of the molds at the end. Also pictured above, is what happens if you cook your taiyaki to death. The filling will begin to boil out of weak spots in the taiyaki. They still taste fine but they just do not look as cool with bits of white fluid leaking out of them.

3. Under filling.
4. Cooking too slowly.

If you under fill your taiyaki, as I have done in this picture, you will end up with sad finless fish that may or may not have filling oozing. Again, still completely edible, just not very cool looking. Your fish will also fail to rise if the pan is not hot enough when you pour the batter. More importantly, the pan must stay hot after you add the batter. We had a couple batches of taiyaki that lacked fins and I concluded that this was because the batter never expanded to fill the periphery. If you rotate the closed mold immediately after pouring it will fill in the edges better.

Those are the four basic problems we ran into while making taiyaki. As you can see from the picture below, you can totally use your two good taiyakis to hide their misshapen brethren.


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