Hyphen-palooza! In which Martha offers a Japan-inspired, often-hyphenated meal, where every dish has “about five ingredients and minimal prep.” This is also her first foray into recipes that seem like they were developed in the 21st century. A couple of my friends asked if this cookbook was one of her older ones, from the 1980s, but no, this was published in 2009. She does looks like she’s about 28 on the cover, though.
On a personal note, not a lot of cooking happened last week—I had movie theater popcorn, quesadillas, or eggs for dinner most nights, but my stitches are now out. My Frankenfingers are not yet fully functional and it often feels like something is sawing them in half if they move, or sometimes when they are just minding their own business. (I suspect the nerves are growing back, and the muscle is, too?) so things are easier but not yet ideal.
Enough gross talk, let’s get to cookin’ and hyphenatin’!
THE MENU: Broiled Red Snapper, Citrus-Soy Sweet Potatoes, Sesame-Spinach Rolls, Rice Pudding with Candied Kumquats
Suggested order: Cook rice pudding, candy and cool kumquats; roast sweet potatoes and make sauce; wilt spinach, chop, and form into logs; broil snapper and serve; top pudding with kumquats.
This week I “cheated” in the preparation. Well, it’s hard to say I cheated if this is my project, right? Let’s just say I took a different approach this week in order to avoid another cranky fest like last time. Plus, I had afternoon activities that involved margaritas, so I wasn’t sure how much motivation I would have by the time it was dinner-making-time. So in the morning, I made the dessert, washed and dried the spinach, and toasted and ground the sesame seeds.
The citrus-soy sweet potatoes: Take three sweet potatoes, cut into 1” thick slices, toss with mild-flavored oil, sprinkle with salt, and bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes, flipping once. The sauce involves mixing ¼ c soy sauce (preferably tamari style), with an equal amount of lemon juice and 3 T water. (Adapted from Dinner at Home by Martha Stewart. OK? Please don’t sue me!)
The results: What could be easier? I didn’t even cut any appendages! These were so good. I don’t know about you, but it has never occurred to me to slice sweet potatoes thickly then roast them. Everyone seems to love sweet potato fries, but they’re usually too limp and greasy for me. These were like chunky, non-greasy miracles!
The sauce deserves its own paragraph. So simple yet delicious. I loved the salty, savory contrast of the sauce with the sweet potatoes, but The Husband preferred his plain. I think using the tamari sauce (reduced sodium!) was key. I got the San-J brand at Whole Foods, and guess what, locals, it’s made in Richmond! Who knew?
The sesame-spinach rolls: More hyphens! The cookbook says this dish was inspired by a dish called oshi toshi, of which I have never heard. Google hasn’t either, apparently, as I was unable to get any search results for it. Google suggested oshi taoshi, which is a martial arts move, and oshi zushi, which is a type of sushi in which rice is pressed into a mold and topped with fish. Hmmm.
This dish called for SIX ingredients, but maybe she’s not counting water. First, you toast and grind 2 T of sesame seeds. (Do you like how I switch voices mid-entry? I do!) I used a mortar and pestle, which was easier than I thought it would be; it was certainly easier than cleaning out the coffee grinder and using it. The seeds are mixed with soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and sake (which I had never had, believe it or not, so it goes on my Trying New Things List). It seemed a bit ridiculous to buy a bottle of sake so I could use less than 2 T in the recipe, but I did so anyway. Buying it was a challenge—not knowing anything about it or what it was supposed to lend to the recipe, it was hard to decide which one to buy. So I went with one that was mid-range price, not sparkling, and had a good description on its sign.
Speaking of the booze section at Whole Foods! I went shopping there for ingredients Friday night, which was a huge mistake. The store has a little wine bar section, with card-activated dispensers to try various amounts of certain wines, like a soda machine at a fast food restaurant. On Fridays they do some sort of appetizer with wine thing at 5 and the store was still filled with drunk suburbanites of the worst ilk at 8 pm. (Locals know what I’m talking about—Short Pump denizens are particularly reviled here). There were groups of people standing in several clumps in the parking lot, refusing to yield to cars, and besotted people were lurching about the store like zombies with shopping carts. Never. Again.
Where were we? Oh yes. Wilt he lettuce, press out the water and then chop roughly. Martha does not warn to cool the spinach first, and chopping hot spinach is not pleasant, as you can imagine. This is especially ridiculous because the recipe notes that this dish can be served hot, room temperature, or chilled. Then it’s mixed with the dressing, and you shape it into logs. Yes, I said shape the hot spinach into logs with your hands!
The results: The spinach logs were also a hit. The most troublesome part was washing and drying a pound of spinach—that is a lot of spinach (and we didn’t buy the pre-washed baby spinach, which would be CHEATING). It wouldn’t fit in my biggest skillet in one batch, either. The sesame seeds were so nutty, and the sake added just a slight hint of fruit, with a teeny bit of salt from the soy sauce. I would eat this again in a heart beat. The sake seems unnecessary, though. Any semi-dry white wine or vermouth would probably work just as well.
Although my husband preferred the sweet potatoes without the dipping sauce, he used it on the spinach logs. I thought they went well together, but the spinach had enough flavor on its own that it wasn’t needed.
Can I just say that the whole log thing seemed a bit “precious,” as my husband said? Yes, it looked cool on the plate (and my husband remarked that it looked like a picture in a magazine) but as soon as you dig in with a fork the log disappears. If I were just serving it to us, with no plans to photograph it, it would be plopped on the plate with a spoon, and we’d be happy. The husband did suggest it might be tasty to wrap the spinach mixture in seaweed.
The fish: The recipe calls for red snapper I put it on my list, but when I couldn’t find it at Trader Joe’s I remembered that it has been over fished, and environmentalists suggest that it be avoided. Trader Joe’s follows the “Seafood Watch” advice offered by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in terms of what species the store will sell. The Aquarium has a nifty web site, and pocket guide to which fish are sustainable and recommended for consumption. I used to have one of their pocket guides and lost it, but it looks like you can print one out here:
What to do? I bought some mahi mahi instead. It has no skin, but I seasoned it with salt and pepper, which is all the seasoning the recipe advised, but I added a bit of oil and lemon juice before baking it. (I had planned to broil it, but I accidentally put it in a pan that you can’t broil. I didn’t feel like washing two dishes, so I just baked it). The recipe suggests garnishing it with cucumber and radish or alfalfa sprouts, or radishes.
The results: The fish was about what you would expect of a baked white fish with little seasoning—ho hum. It tasted ok as far as fish goes, but it was so bland compared to the sweet potatoes and spinach. We agreed that it would have been better to poach the fish in some miso broth. I forgot the cucumber, but the radishes didn’t add much of anything so I don’t think it mattered.
The rice pudding and candied kumquats: Oh, Martha, you are killing me with the slimy, dairy old-people desserts. Of course, all the actual “older” people I know don’t spend their days eating custards and rice pudding. Who is she cooking for? Needless to say, I don’t care for rice pudding at all. It’s got that cold dairy slime with chunky bits from the rice. No, thank you.
Let’s also discuss how non-Japanese rice pudding seems. BUT! You use sushi rice, so it’s ok, I guess. Kumquats originated in China, and are used frequently in Japan, so at least that’s authentic. Have you had kumquats? You can eat the skin, which is hard to wrap your head around. We bought some last year and ate about half before the rest of the pint languished uneaten in the frig.
The rice pudding calls for boiling sushi rice, water, milk, sugar and salt until the rice is soft, and most of the liquid disappears. Then it’s chilled with plastic wrap on top, to prevent a skin from forming, probably. Oh, Lord, what could be worse than rice pudding with a skin? :::shudder:::
The kumquats were easy—slice thin, then boil with sugar and water until the skins are translucent and the liquid is syrup. She says to cool it completely.
The results: We had run out of sugar, and I didn’t feel like waiting to go to the store to buy some before making this, so I substituted the vanilla sugar my husband makes and keeps in the pantry. That was a good call, because I actually like the rice pudding!!! I can’t even believe it myself. First the clafouti, now this. Maybe I am turning into an old person. The vanilla flavor is delicious, and it helps that it’s sushi rice so it’s not all gelatinous like regular rice would be. I do think this would be quite bland if it was made as instructed.
The candied kumquats were also quite fun by themselves. It kind of reminded me of marmalade, but with pesky bits of skin in it. The skin was still a bit chewy for my taste, but I liked the citrus flavor. It might be good on toast. By the time the syrup cooled, it had turned into a big, sticky mass, and I had to reheat it a bit to get the kumquats to separate enough to place on the pudding. The candied kumquats totally overwhelmed the pudding when they were added. The vanilla taste was lost, and the kumquats took over. I liked them both better individually.
You know how if you eat something really hot, like Indian food, or a pepper, and you can feel the burn all the way through your digestive system? The citrus nature of the kumquat was the same way for me—I could feel citrusy goodness emanating from deep in my stomach hours later. Kooky!
With the exception of the dessert, the elements went well together, especially the sweet potatoes and the spinach. We rarely cook Asian recipes, figuring it will be better if we go out for it, but both will be added to the repertoire. It’s hard to argue that something doesn’t go with bland fish, so that doesn’t really count. The dessert was a bit nutty–the flavors didn’t really go together too well in the same dish (although my husband liked them together), let alone after the other items. I would have preferred a miso soup starter and no dessert.
The soy and lemon sauce was the real star. We’re planning to try it as a marinade for tuna and salmon, and I kind of want to run out and buy some dumplings to dip in it.
If I add up all the time I spent in the morning and evening, it took about an hour and forty minutes to cook the meal.
Sweet potatoes: A
Soy/lemon sauce: A
Spinach logs: A-
Rice pudding and candied kumquats: B
Next time we’re back to the wacky combo of ingredients, “Swiss-chalet style.”