ReLocavore: Redefining "local"

Back to Wisconsin, my cheesehead friends

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The least local thing we eat – Japanese Foods

Sam and I have a love for Japanese food. I don’t quite know where it all came from, but we’ve incorporated a lot of key Japanese foods into our diet, and we are always exploring new Japanese dishes. Warning flag… This is NOT a post about local foods. This is actually a post about the least local thing we eat… Nonperishables imported from Japan. Claims of locavore hypocrisy are welcome in the comments!

Sunday, Sam and I took a trip to Boston to scout out the Japanese and Asian grocery stores and came home with a mess of pantry staples. There are a lot of key pantry staples that we just can’t substitute. Maki at JustHungry has a great review of what these basic foods are and how to cook with them. 

1. Yamasa soy sauce. 2.

1. Yamasa soy sauce. 2. Kombu, dried kelp used in making dashi stock. 3. Hiyashi chuka noodles: Sesame vinegar dressing with hot mustard. 4. Brown sushi rice. 5. Hon mirin. Not the shitty corn syrup stuff. 6. Fried tofu pockets for making inarizushi. 7. eggplant pickles (the only way I will eat eggplant). 8. More noodles. 9. Cucumber pickles. Totally unlike all American Kosher Dills. 10. Tonkatsu sauce. 11. Takuan, pickled daikon radish. 12. Ripping hot spicy mustard. 13. Salmon Furikake. It’s a mix of sesame, nori (seaweed sheets), and dehydrated salmon that you shake on top of rice or tofu. 14. A foam skimmer. It’s a joke. I’ll explain later. 15. Yamaimo or slippery potato or mountain yam. 16. Botan rice candy. 17. Ume plums. Pickled apricots with a minty herb called shiso. 18. Beni Shoga, or pickled ginger. Unlike the stuff at sushi bars, this has no added sweetener and is a little salty. 19. Fish cake. This is pollack that is died and pressed into shapes. I serve it in noodle dishes. 20. More noodles, but this kind is fresh instead of dried. 21. Kouya dofu, or freeze-dried tofu. I’ll use it to make mochi nuggets, like vegan chicken nuggets. 22. More fish cake, but this time extruded into a log with a pink spiral shape.

We visited two different Asian groceries:
Ebisuya Japanese Market in Medford, MA.
65 Riverside Ave Medford, MA 02155
This was a Japanese-only grocery store and where we bought about 90% of our pantry staples. They had some fresh foods, but mostly shelf-stable foods. They were operating a busy fish counter and had a sushi bar attached to the grocery. The whole store was the size of a big convenience mart. I was very impressed with the selection of foods at Ebisuya. Someone with a great love of Japanese food is making sure the Japanese of Boston metro area have access to fine-quality imported foods. They even had fresh green ume plums!

H Mart
43 Middlesex Turnpike, Burlington, MA 01803
H Mart is the Big Box asian grocery. Frankly, it was very intimidating to be there on a Sunday afternoon – the whole store was PACKED with customers. There was a wait for parking. H Mart is mostly Korean goods, but they carry a lot of Japanese foods as well, due to the overlap between the cuisines. We only picked up a few items there because Sam and I were both completely overwhelmed by the size and business of the store. We’ll try to go back midweek and midday and hopefully it’s not so crazy. I think we could find everything we wanted there, and the prices were about comparable to Ebisuya. H Mart does have a large produce section, if we’re wanting produce for whatever reason.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting some videos and explanations of how I use a lot of these foods in my cooking.

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Orange Hoisin Tofu

My photography leaves much to be desired. This dish was not as orange as this photo makes it out to be.

My photography leaves much to be desired. This dish was not as orange as this photo makes it out to be.

The recipe for tonight’s dinner we made up from scratch. We had stuff around the house to make stir fry, but we didn’t quite know how to flavor it. Sam wanted lemon, but I wasn’t in the mood for something tart. By coincidence, we had bought a jar of orange marmalade at the COOP yesterday. TA DAA! A nice complement to hoisin sauce.

In addition, this recipe illustrates one of my favorite cooking techniques – velveting. I learned this technique from the Cooks Illustrated recipe “Marinated Velveted Chicken Stir Fry” from May 2004. Velveting is a common technique used in Asian styles of cooking, but somehow Americanized versions of Asian recipes morphed into “breading.” Take the basic Chinese restaurant-style of preparing sweet and sour chicken: pieces of chicken are dipped in batter and deep fried, producing a breading that soaks up the sweet and sour sauce. Velveting is the same principle, but doesn’t involve the deep frier and produces (I think) a better coating on the chicken (or tofu, in this recipe). In general, velveting involves tossing uncooked meat or tofu in a mixture of oil and cornstarch, coating the meat in a very thin batter-like coating. The meat or tofu is then cooked in a hot pan with very little oil, producing a coat of partially-cooked cornstarch around the meat or tofu. The meat or tofu stays moist because the coating keeps the meat from coming in direct contact with the pan.  Then a thin sauce is added to the hot pan, and the sauce combines with the uncooked cornstarch to make the sauce thick and the meat coating “swollen” and rich-tasting. The end product is similar – tender pieces of meat with a thickened sauce. I make most of my stir-fries using this technique. Caveat: it doesn’t work well with fatty beef  – the fat makes the coating come off.

Orange Hoisin Tofu

  • 5 carrots, julienned
  • 1/2 head napa cabbage, stems and leaves separated, cut into 1cm shreds
  • 1 block firm tofu, pressed. cut into 1cm x 1cm x 5 cm strips
  • 1 tbsp corn starch
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
  • 1 tbsp minced ginger
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tbsp orange marmelade
  • 2 tbsp hoisin sauce
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • vegetable oil for stir frying

Mix cornstarch, vegetable and sesame oil in a large bowl. Add tofu strips and gently toss to coat.

Heat a nonstick pan on medium-high heat. Add a small amount of vegetable oil and swirl to coat the pan. When the oil shimmers, but not smokes, add the tofu in a single layer. (You may need to cook the tofu in two batches.) Don’t shake the pan around – just let one side of the tofu get nicely browned. Methodically turn all of the pieces of tofu to the second side, and again leave the pan alone and let the second side cook. I know this doesn’t seem very stir-fry like, but it’s important to evenly cook the tofu so the breading sticks. If you’re more patient than I am, you can cook the other sides of the tofu, but I usually only cook 2. Put the tofu into a bowl and set aside.

Add a small amount of oil to the hot pan, again swirl to coat and wait for the oil to shimmer. Add the carrots and the napa stems. Toss in the pan to cook about a third of the way to done. Add the cabbage leaves. Splash the vinegar into the pan and QUICKLY cover with a lid. This steams the cabbage leaves. Leave the lid on for a half a minute, then remove and toss the vegetables to spread around the vinegar. When the vegetables are about halfway cooked, tender but still firm, transfer into a bowl and set aside. They’ll keep cooking in the bowl, so pull them off early… Mushy vegetables are yucky in stir fry.

Now to build the sauce. Add a small amount of oil to the hot pan, but leave it in a puddle. When the oil shimmers, pull the pan off the heat. Turn the burner down to medium-low. Add the ginger and garlic into the oil and stir around until everything smells good – 30 seconds maybe? With the pan still off the heat, add the hoisin and marmalade and mix together. Return the pan to the heat (now on medium-low) and let the ingredients cook together until bubbly – a minute or two. Add the chicken stock and stir. Bring the sauce to a simmer.

This is based on this recipe making 2.5 servings (two dinners and one half-sized lunch).

This is based on this recipe making 2.5 servings (two dinners and one half-sized lunch).

Once the sauce is simmering, add the tofu. Gently stir the tofu and sauce to coat all of the sides of the tofu. Bring the sauce back to a simmer – the sauce should thicken slightly. Once the sauce has thickened, add the vegetables and gently stir to coat the vegetables with sauce.

(As a sidenote, until I wrote this post, I thought it was spelled “marmelade.” Learn something new every day!)