Kaiseki in the Rain

My friend Brian, he of raw milk and smuggled French cheeses, lives in a Japanese-influenced mid-century modern home in Pasadena. Approaching the house from the street, you come up a few steps to a large door framed by stained glass windows. Inside the door is not the interior of the house, but a raised, covered wooden deck bridge through a Japanese garden that connects front entrance and front doors.

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A couple years back, upon our first visit to his house, I commented that I wanted to do a winter kaiseki dinner on the bridge during a rainstorm.

I often present friends with interesting home situations with my wild ideas about dinners I want to do there (such as the winter storm seafood dinner I wanted to do at our friends’ Steve McQueen Malibu beach house), but rarely receive more than a polite nod. But Brian seemed enthusiastic. Then — now! — a couple years later, I receive a text from Brian. “We missed the storm! But there’s rain in the forecast for next weekend. Shall we do our dinner?” He didn’t have to ask me twice.

It was pouring in Topanga, as if someone had taken a knife and split open the swollen belly of the black cloud above, when we left for Pasadena. But sometimes the rainclouds get stuck on our coastal mountains, and the sky was blue by the time we reached Pasadena. Nonetheless, Brian had set out his traditional kotatsu table onto the bridge surrounded by paper lanterns and plum blossoms, I had brought a bag full of ama ebi, striped bass, wagyu beef, simmered duck and other delights, and we would eat well.

The kotatsu on the bridge

The kotatsu on the bridge

The front door was opened not by Brian, but by his new friend Makkie, a very giggly and beautiful Japanese woman. This was a trap, I immediately concluded — like some domestic version of “Iron Chef,” a test of my meddle. You think you’re a Japanese chef, hot shot? I imagined Brian thinking to himself. Try cooking for a REAL Japanese person! But I didn’t shrink from the challenge — it was ON! I’d cooked French food for French people, Italian for Italians, Mexican for Mexicans… I’d even done chicken Kiev for our Ukrainian friends. I wasn’t easily intimidated.

We drank Japanese beer in the kitchen and then moved to the kotatsu. The blue skies had clouded over, and it was drizzling. The first course was raw ama ebi sweet shrimp and striped bass sashimi with herb flowers and a salad of greens — miner’s lettuce, sour grass and mustard greens — I had foraged that morning in Topanga.

Sashimi

Sashimi

Oishi!” Makkie giggled, covering her mouth with her hand. Delicious, Brian translated. One point for the challenger!

Next we moved on to duck legs and thighs that had been long-braised in apple cider, sake and dashi broth, cubes of kabocha pumpkin lightly cooked in the finished broth. More “oishi,” more points for the chef.

Simmered duck and pumpkin

Simmered duck and pumpkin

Leslie, Brian and Makkie

Leslie, Brian and Makkie

From our beer, we had also moved on to sake. Makkie had brought a good bottle, and Brian had several to contribute as well. I once did a post on the evocative names the Japanese give their sakes — “Wandering Poet” or “Mansion of Dreams” — and while I didn’t catch the names of these particular sakes, each was more delicious than the last.

The kaiseki dinner, for those not in the know, is a formal and highly ritualized occasion in Japan. It is sort of the Japanese version of — and, I would hazard, the precursor to — the popular Western “chef’s tasting menu”: a series of small, seasonal dishes exquisitely prepared and presented. Some of the formality less typical of a Western meal comes from the prescribed ordering of the dishes. I’ve never been able to quite unravel precisely the rules and regulations, but it goes something like this: you begin with sashimi, followed by a simmered dish, followed by a grilled dish, followed by a steamed dish, followed by…

Tempura — sorrel leaves, wild mushrooms, shiso leaf with sea urchin

Tempura — sorrel leaves, wild mushrooms, shiso leaf with sea urchin

Fried ama ebi with sea urchin noodles and Chinese fermented bamboo shoot

Fried ama ebi with sea urchin noodles and Chinese fermented bamboo shoot

By nature, I like to break with tradition. So I took the spirit of kaiseki, with its attention to detail and season, and abandoned the formality. My tempura course — sorrel leaves, wild mushrooms, shiso leaf with sea urchin — might’ve jumped ahead of my grilled course. And where in the instructions does it say anything about a noodle course!??

Oishi” was my guiding principle for the night.

During my preparation of one of the courses, Makkie came into the kitchen carrying plates. She wanted to know how I learned Japanese cooking, where I got my ingredients. She wanted to watch and learn. Yes, I believed, the challenger had won the competition.

Wagyu steak — the "grilled" course

Wagyu steak — the “grilled” course

The promised rain still hadn’t come. We’d had a beautiful dinner, and after the final course of wagyu zabuton steak with broiled eggplant and fresh wasabi raw butter, we sat luxuriating under the heated blanket that covered our legs. The roar of rain pouring down all around us while we ate was not to be.

“It was a test run,” Brian said.

The kids were tired, it was time to go home.

Imogen under the kotatsu

Imogen under the kotatsu

It was, of course, still raining when we got home to Topanga. The clouds had gotten stuck. But then I received a text from Brian:

“Began raining just after you left. Makkie and I just chilled out on the deck and enjoyed the rain.”

I was glad someone got to.

*    *    *

Braised duck with kabocha pumpkin
serves 4

2 legs & thighs duck
1 tsp. vegetable oil
salt & pepper
1/2 cup dashi broth
1/2 cup apple juice
1/2 cup sake
1 cup cubed kabocha pumpkin

With a cleaver, remove the knobby bone from the end of the duck leg (chop it off) about 1/2 inch from the end. Chop the leg/thigh into 2 or 3 sections, depending on preference. Season liberally with salt and pepper.

In a small saucepan, heat the tsp. oil over medium high until it begins to smoke. Sear the duck, skin side down as applicable, until brown, about one minute. Turn over and sear the other side.

Reduce heat to medium and add three liquids. Bring to a simmering boil, lower heat to low, cover and cook for 90 minutes.

Remove from heat. Let cool, then remove duck and strain stock. (This can be done the day before serving.)

Place duck pieces under a broiler and broil until golden brown, 5 to 10 minutes depending on heat and proximity to heating source. While duck is broiling, place stock in a small saucepan over medium heat. When it begins to simmer, add pumpkin cubes and cook until tender, about 5 minutes.

Scoop some stock and pumpkin cubes into each of 4 shallow bowls. Top with 1-2 pieces of duck and serve.

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The Legend of Hannosuke

“They may have tasted good sushi in the United States of America, but chances are they have never encountered authentic superb tempura.” — A sign promoting the opening of the first Hannosuke America

When I was in Tokyo, one of the things that impressed me was the profusion of restaurants, counters and stands devoted to a single particular type of food. There were of course sushi bars. But there were also tempura bars. And there were joints serving only chicken on skewers, and others serving only chicken hearts, gizzards and tendons on skewers. There were shabu shabu places, sukiyaki places, places that served horse, places that, sadly, served whale.

The legendary Mr. Hannosuke-san

One of my favorite meals in Tokyo was the dinner I had for my birthday with friend Joe at the tempura bar in the New Otani Hotel. I didn’t know tempura could be served at a bar, nor that it could be so good. More

Tokyo Tempura Bar

I was in Tokyo for business on my thirty-somethingth birthday, and my friend Joe who was traveling with me took me out to dinner to celebrate. We went to the tempura bar in the lobby of our fancy hotel. I had never been to a tempura bar before. Have you?

I’d always loved tempura, ever since I was a kid and we’ d go to the Tempura House. Over the years I’d grown used to the Big Five of tempura – shrimp, broccoli, sweet potato, green pepper and carrot. Supplemented if the tempura cook really wanted to go out on a limb with perhaps an onion ring or spear of asparagus. And I was perfectly happy with those. But the tempura bar in Tokyo was a revelation. I ordered nothing. The chef simply presented things before me — a tiny shrimp, a small butterflied fish, a leaf as light as air, a chili pepper, a piece of eel squeezed with lemon, sea urchin wrapped in shiso leaf. One after another, bites of tempura emerged from the hot oil encased in a delicate, crisp shell of batter you could see right through. No green bell pepper, no onion rings.

I like to impress my friends at home by doing tempura bar. It’s surprisingly easy and makes an even funner evening than fondue! I like to discover my own favorite things I can batter and drop into the oil — whole soft shell crabs, small bundles of snow white enoki mushrooms, chunks of king crab. And I like to offer up different dipping sauces for the different types of tempura.

You can do tempura bar at home like me! I’ll teach you. It’s best done with a small group of friends — maybe you, your spouse and your favorite other couple. And it’s the most fun if your kitchen has a bar like ours. But if not, a table will do, so long as you’re close to the kitchen. Pick up a nice cold saké and have some Sapporo on hand. Here’s how, knock yourself out:

Tempura
for batter:
6 oz ice cold water
4 oz. flour
1 egg yolk

Set mixing bowl in larger bowl filled with ice. Mix together ice water and egg yolk. And flour and stir until mixed.

for tempura:
(note: you can improvise and fry almost any seafood or vegetable)
3 cups canola or peanut oil
1 cup flour, spread out on a large dinner plate
4 shrimp, cleaned with tail left on, and flattened with the flat side of a large knife
1/2 lb king crab legs, meat removed in large chunks from shells
1/2 lb boneless black cod or other whitefish fillet, cut into quarters
1 Japanese eggplant, cut into four pieces
1 small sweet potato, peeled and cut into four pieces
4 shiso leaves (or substitute spinach leaves)
1 bunch enoki mushrooms, cut into four small bundles
4 green onions, trimmed of dark green ends

Have your guests sit wherever you’re going to serve them, with plates and dipping sauces ready. You will serve each guest immediately as the tempura emerges from the oil. Give each guest a bowl of steamed rice, and have soy sauce on the table too.

Heat oil in a large wok over medium high heat until a drop of batter sizzles and floats. Cook tempura a few pieces at a time — you’ll probably want to do your tempura in stages, cooking all of one item before moving on. (i.e. start with mushrooms and shiso, move on to shrimp and crab, then eggplant and onion, etc.) Quickly dip each piece first in flour, then in the batter. Then drop in the oil. Cook for about 3-4 minutes, or until golden and crisp. Remove to a plate lined with paper towels, and serve to your guests while hot. Continue until all the tempura is cooked.

You will want to have a skimmer on hand to skim out bits of tempura batter from time to time as you go, as they will burn and lend an unpleasant taste to your tempura.

Dipping sauces:
Dashi Soy
Mix 1/2 cup water with powdered dashi stock to taste. Add 1/4 cup low sodium soy sauce and 1/4 cup mirin cooking wine. Heat until warm. Serve with vegetables, shrimp.

Ponzu Butter
Heat 2/3 cup ponzu and juice from one lemon until warm. Remove from heat and stir in 1 tbsp. butter. Serve with crab, shrimp and other seafood.

Spicy Dipping Sauce
Heat 1/4 cup soy sauce and 1/3 cup sweetened rice wine vinegar. Remove from heat and stir in 1 tbsp. Srirachi or other chili pepper sauce, 1 tbsp. sesame oil and 1 tbsp. minced green onion. Serve with vegetables and seafood.