Japanese Pickles (Tsukemono): Hakata-Style Cabbage Pickle

I’ve been wanting a Japanese pickle press for a while, but all of the ones I’ve seen have been pretty big and I feared they’d take up too much room in my refrigerator and make far more pickles than two people could reasonably eat. I probably could never make too many traditional dill pickles for Mark to consume, but I generally intend tsukemono to accompany a single meal and only need two servings at a time. So when I saw a small press at Soko Hardware in San Francisco’s Japantown last weekend, I snatched it up. I also picked up a tsukemono recipe book, Easy Japanese Pickling in Five Minutes to One Day. This book is not completely vegan, but it is mostly so.

Many Japanese pickles are made by extracting excess water from veggies by applying weights to them. The plastic pickle presses you can find in Japanese markets (or online) work by applying pressure in the form of a spring that clamps a lid down onto the pickles. A special press is not at all necessary, however. In fact, this particular book describes how not to use a press. Instead, it suggests placing the pickle ingredients into a bowl, covering with plastic wrap, and using cans or other weights to press the pickles.

I chose a simple pickle (most of them, in fact, are quite simple) last night, using my new press instead of the cans-in-a-dish method recommended by the book. The pickle press simply eliminates a little extra work (and plastic wrap, which I try to avoid) and also provides easy storage of leftovers.

Nakata-Style Cabbage Pickle

400 grams cabbage (check out that “baby” cabbage I got at Wegmans! It weighed 412 grams: perfect!)
2 tsp salt
2-3 Tbsp water
1/2 carrot, julienned
30 shiso leaves (I used fewer, but was very glad to be able to trim my rampant shiso plant, which for some reason is not only not dead, but thriving)

Core the cabbage.

In the words of the book, “Slice to fit a small rectangular container.” Their pickles ended up retaining layers, looking a bit like a cabbagy petit-four, but I made mine “scattered”, much like the sushi I served it with. So basically I just chopped the cabbage into bite-sized pieces:

Place the cabbage in a bowl and sprinkle with the salt and water. Mix together using your hands. Let sit for 15-20 minutes to soften.

Meanwhile, julienne the carrot and cut the shiso leaves into bit-sized pieces (I used kitchen shears). When the cabbage is ready, squeeze it dry, then layer in a pickle press (or a rectangular container), alternating with rows of shiso and carrot.

If using a pickle press, put the lid on and tighten the screw as much as possible:

If you don’t have a pickle press, cover the vegetables with plastic wrap, place a small plate or bowl over them, then put a can or other weight onto the plate or bowl.

Let the pickle stand for 30 minutes. Makes six servings.

This was a nice, light, “clean”-tasting accompaniment to our meal, even if it didn’t look as pretty as the picture in the book.

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Scattered Sushi

Mark requested “tofu and rice” for dinner last night and looking for inspiration, I flipped through Asian Vegan Kitchen. I decided to make Scattered Sushi from that book. Wegmans didn’t have the lotus root called for, so I substituted dry tofu (which also satisfied Mark’s tofu request). At the author’s suggestion, I substituted bamboo shoots for the shiitakes because as previously discussed, I hate mushrooms.

Scattered Sushi

Before running up to the grocery store, I stuck a piece of kombu into 4 cups of water. This gave me enough dashi when I got home to prepare the meal below and make 2 servings of miso soup.

4 ounces dry tofu, cubed (original calls for 3.5 ounces lotus root, soaked in vinegared water)
1/2 cup dashi
2 Tbsp rice vinegar
1 Tbsp sugar or 6 drops stevia
pinch of salt
1 medium carrot, julienned
4 Tbsp dashi
1/2 tsp rice vinegar
1 tsp sugar or 2 drops stevia
pinch of salt
1 8 oz can bamboo shoots, shredded (or 10 dried shiitake mushrooms)
2/3 cup dashi
3 Tbsp sugar or 18 drops stevia
2 Tbsp mirin
2 Tbsp soy sauce
1/2 cup snow peas, strings removed, and chopped in half
sushi rice
1/2 cup white sesame seeds, toasted
pickled ginger for garnish
1 sheet toasted nori seawood, cut into strips, for garnish

Prepare sushi rice. I guess I should do a tutorial on this sometime, but all I do is cook it in a rice cooker, then cut in seasoned rice vinegar and salt with a rice paddle when it’s done. I don’t even measure those things, so it wouldn’t be much of a tutorial. Just follow the instructions on your package of sushi rice, then season with sushi vinegar and salt to taste.

Combine 1/2 cup dashi, 2 Tbsp rice vinegar, 1 Tbsp sugar or 6 drops stevia, and a pinch of salt in a small saucepan. Add the tofu or the soaked lotus root and cook for 3 to 4 minutes (until lotus root, if using, is tender). Drain and set aside.

Combine 4 Tbsp dashi, 1/2 tsp rice vinegar, 1 tsp sugar or 2 drops stevia, and a pinch of salt in the same small saucepan and cook for 2-3 minutes over medium heat, until the liquid is almost absorbed. Drain and set aside.

If using shiitakes, rinse and soak in water for 5 minutes, then remove hard stems. Place the mushrooms or the bamboo shoots in the small saucepan with 2/3 cup dashi, 3 Tbsp sugar or 18 drops stevia, mirin, and soy sauce and cook over medium heat for 4 to 5 minutes. The liquid may be nearly or completed absorbed if you are using mushrooms, however, it probably won’t be with the bamboo shoots. Drain if necessary and set aside.

Blanch the snow peas in salted boiling water. Drain and set aside.

The book didn’t suggest serving the scattered sushi with the typical soy sauce and wasabi you’d eat regular sushi with, but I wanted to try out the real wasabi I’d gotten from Penzey’s, so before assembling the sushi, I mixed some up so it could sit for a few minutes:

To assemble the dish, place sushi rice in a bowl, then “scatter” with sesame seeds, the prepared vegetables, pickled ginger, and nori slivers. Serve at room temperature.

Best served with miso soup and pickle!

Mark rated this meal as “simple but very good” and gobbled it up very quickly. Speaking of Mark, as much as I loved being in San Francisco, it was very good to be back in my own kitchen with my two favorite boys:

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Zaru Soba

I’ve always wanted to try fresh shiso (a.k.a. perilla, a.k.a. beefsteak plant), the Japanese herb variously described as minty and basil-y. For a while, I seemed to keep coming across recipes that called for it. Unfortunately, it is one of the few things I’ve never seen at Super H, or elsewhere around here. So I bought seeds and tried to grow them. Twice they didn’t even bother sprouting. Then I went to San Francisco and enviously looked at the fresh shiso in the Japantown grocery. I almost bought it just to taste it, but I thought eating it plain and by itself would be pretty weird, so I instead bought yet more seeds from Soko Hardware. Those seeds did sprout, however, they didn’t grow more than an inch tall before dying. So I was very excited to come across both green and red shiso plants at the nearby herb store this spring. And weirdly, my shiso plants are just about the happiest plants I have right now! I realized, though, that I’d better get to eating them before I kill them.

Of course, now that I’m ready to harvest them, I have no idea what all those wonderful shiso-inspired dishes were. And since I’m not that familiar with the taste, I’m not able to dream up my own concoctions. So after considering this conundrum for quite a while tonight, I eventually decided to just make zaru soba topped with a lot of shredded shiso, to familiarize myself with the taste.

Soba are Japanese buckwheat noodles, often served cold (really, room temperature, I believe) in the summer with a dipping sauce. For the dipping sauce I would need dashi. Usually for dashi, I just soak some kombu into water for a while.

Sometimes in addition to kombu, dried shiitakes are suggested for vegan dashi.

I may be the only vegan on the planet, other than my husband, who hates mushrooms. At least it seems that way. But every now and then I’ll get brave and try something mushroom-related. Soaking a dried shiitake in my dashi seemed pretty innocuous, although I will not be attempting to eat that nasty thing after it’s served its purpose.

You can simply soak the kombu and optional shiitake in room temperature water for several hours or overnight. I use a kombu piece about 4″ square per 4 cups of water. I was in a hurry tonight, so instead of soaking, I simmered it gently for about 20 minutes, then removed the kombu and shiitake.

The resulting dashi can be stored in the refrigerator for about three days, or frozen.

Zaru Soba

1 bundle (about 3.5 ounces) soba per serving

Dipping sauce (tsuyu) (makes enough for 2-3 servings):
1 cup dashi
2 Tbsp dark soy sauce
2 Tbsp light soy sauce
2 Tbsp mirin
a couple of drops of stevia (or 1 tsp of sugar)

Toppings (choose any or all):
chopped scallions
toasted sesame seeds
shredded or torn nori
chiffonaded fresh shiso leaves
wasabi
shichimi (Japanese 7-spice powder)
grated ginger

Cook the soba until al dente, being very careful not to overcook. Rinse under cold water very thoroughly, washing and rubbing it between your hands to remove any starch.

The “zaru” in zaru soba refers to the bamboo serving dish or basket the cold noodles are usually served on. If you have one, neatly arrange one serving of noodles on each zaru, otherwise use a pretty plate. I’m always interested in plating my meals in an attractive manner, even when only serving myself, but it seems particularly imperative with Japanese foods. So pick something nice! Sprinkle the soba with a few sesame seeds and top with some of the shredded shiso and/or nori. Set aside.

Whisk together the sauce ingredients; taste and adjust accordingly to your preference.

Place about 1/2 cup into each individual dipping bowl.

Place each of the toppings on individual serving dishes. Each diner adds the individual toppings to their dipping sauce or noodles, then dips a chopstick full of noodles at a time into the sauce.

One thing I did learn tonight that I didn’t realize before, is that the “sesame leaves” sold in the produce department at Super H are really Korean shiso! They look a little different – are flatter and darker in color – although it may be that what they have are just not as fresh as my living plant. They sell them shrink-wrapped on styrofoam so it’s hard to tell and I never really knew what to make of them.

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