Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Vegetarian Maestro in Saveur's Kitchen

Several times in this blog I've mentioned Harris Salat, the food journalist and co-author of Japanese Hot Pots. He holds regular workshops at the test kitchen of Saveur magazine in midtown Manhattan, and a few weeks ago I had the great pleasure to attend Harris's workshop and sake tasting "From Soba to Artichokes: Japanese Vegetarian Cooking with Chef Masato Nishihara." The featured chef for that evening was Masato Nishihara of Kajitsu, an East Village restaurant that serves shojin cuisine. In keeping with the Buddhist rule of not harming a living creature, shojin cuisine is vegetarian cooking that was developed in Zen Buddhist monasteries during the 13th century.

Harris Salat introduces Kajitsu chef Masato Nishihara

Chef Masato Nishihara's homemade soba noodles

Chef Nishihara demonstrated five vegetarian dishes that were healthy, delicious, and surprisingly easy to prepare. The first item on the menu was soba, which Chef Nishihara makes by hand. Now, that part isn't easy – it takes time and skill to do that at home – so it's best to buy soba pre-packaged in a Japanese grocery store. Other than that, our first dish consisted of soba; soba tsuyu, a broth made of kombu dashi, soy sauce, mirin, and brown sugar; and horseradish and green onions to garnish. Simple as that, and delicious to boot.

The remnants of my soba in soba tsuyu

It's amazing how something created with basic ingredients can taste so yummy. My soba didn't last very long in its bowl, especially because it was paired with a great sake.

Joto Sake's Henry Sidel pours our first sake for us

Henry Sidel of Joto Sake was on hand for the sake tasting portion of the evening. Henry founded Joto Sake in 2005 and imports Japanese artisanal sake into the U.S. Henry chose the sake in the tasting to work well with the items on our menu, and he gave us a quick lesson in "Sake 101." The sake he selected for our soba dish was Shichi Hon Yari Junmai from Shiga Prefecture. This sake is made by Tomita Brewery, which is one of the oldest and smallest sake brewing companies in Japan. Remarkably, it was founded in the 1540s and is run by the 15th generation of the family. This is an unfiltered sake, which I recently discovered that I really like.

Next on the menu was a vegetable salad. You can tell by the photo above that this salad contained ingredients that are not exclusive to Japanese cuisine: Eggplant, crimini mushrooms, peppers, snap peas, and cauliflower. The Japanese items – renkon (lotus root), myoga (a relative of ginger), yuzu (a Japanese citrus), and sudachi (another Japanese citrus) – can be found in Asian food stores.

Chef Masato Nishihara discusses the salad in which "humble ingredients rise to a work of art"

It was important for Chef Nishihara to create dishes that contain foods with which we are familiar so we wouldn't feel intimidated. It's simple to prepare American ingredients in a Japanese way. It also shows us that shojin cuisine transcends Japan and can find acceptance with an American audience.

Our salads await us

The vegetables were sauteed in a rice bran oil and added to lettuce, arugula, mixed greens, and peeled grape tomatoes and topped with a dressing made from the aforementioned soba tsuyu with myoga. The simple accents brought out the full flavor of the vegetables to make an excellent salad. Our second sake was a classic ginjo from Ibaraki Prefecture, Watari Bune Junmai Ginjo 55. Taking its name from the type of rice from which it is produced, Watari Bune was founded in 1854. Ginjo sakes are light, fruity, and aromatic, making it the perfect choice to enjoy with a salad.

Our third tasting actually consisted of two dishes: Artichoke teriyaki and fennel with porcini teriyaki. This may sound complicated, but it actually wasn't. Chef Nishihara took a boiled artichoke heart, cut it up, and added it to a soba kaeshi dipping sauce he made with soy sauce, mirin, and sugar. He topped it off with fried fennel leaves.

An Iwatani burner is the perfect vehicle for sauteing vegetables

It was during this section of the tasting that Chef Nishihara described a theory to which my Okinawan mother also subscribes: Use every part of the vegetable (or whatever it is you're cooking) from top to bottom. Nothing is wasted. Chef Nishihara and my mom come from a mountainous country that lacks arable land and that has also known great poverty. To waste a part of a vegetable that is perfectly edible is unthinkable. Therefore, Chef Nishihara uses every portion of the artichokes and fennel in these two recipes.

Harris wields a knife while giving us an impromptu lesson on the proper way to hold a knife when chopping vegetables

Henry continues his "Sake 101" lesson while we wait for our artichokes

Henry chose a sake from Hyogo Prefecture to complement the artichoke and fennel dishes. It was Kasumi Tsuru Yamahai Extra Dry. It worked well with these vegetables because of its earthy notes. Yamahai is a traditional way of making the yeast starter that begins the sake-making process. Henry's description of the yeast starter sounded complicated, so I won't confuse myself by trying to explain it here.

Artichoke teriyaki (left) and fennel with porcini teriyaki

Fennel has never been an essential ingredient to me, but tasting it here with the subtle seasonings from the soba kaeshi made me wonder why I don't have more fennel in my diet.

Chef Nishihara's assistant prepares our final meal

Our final tasting for the evening was soba dumplings. Chef Nishihara mixed soba flour with water in a pot. This seemed arduous because of the thickness of the mixture. He and his assistant used Saran wrap and rapidly fashioned the mixture into balls, dropping them into a pot of canola oil heated to 350 degrees.

Soba dumpling with grated daikon and green onion

The "deep-fried" description of this recipe probably renders this dish unhealthy, but it was delicious nonetheless. Our sake for this dish was Yuki No Bosha Akita Komachi Daiginjo from Akita Prefecture. Akita Komachi, the rice with which this sake is made, is native to this area in the cold north country of Japan. Like all of the sake we tasted that evening, Yuki No Bosha is served chilled, but Henry also served this one to us heated, just for taste. The sake cup on the upper left of the picture above is the kind that is used during competitions. The bull's eye allows judges to see the color of the sake.

This was an amazing event, and I learned a great deal at the Saveur kitchen. Vegetables, when prepared the right way and with the right seasonings, can be quite delicious. If you're interested in Harris's Japanese cooking workshops, check out his website, The Japanese Food Report for details.

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