Thursday, September 8, 2011

My Japanese Table by Debra Samuels: A Wonderful Introduction to Japanese Cooking

The cherry tomato salad with shiso was a light, flavorful and colorful way to start dinner.  The mushrooms with soy sauce and butter were almost creamy, earthy and defined "umami."  The Japanese rice bowl was so flavorful and yet so light. The sweet red bean crepes capped a wonderful meal. The best part? This dinner took place with good friends and family in my backyard rather than in the cool environment of a restaurant. Thanks to a preview copy of My Japanese Table by Debra Samuels, I have had a chance to both learn about Japanese cuisine and try to create it at home. Thanks to Ms. Samuel's ability to make Japanese food accessible it has been a successful (and tasty!) week.  
Photograph by Heath Robbins
I have long adored the sushi at Oishii (in Chestnut Hill and Sudbury), Oga's, O Ya and Fugakyu. But I have had to travel to New York to eat more varied Japanese food, such as the incredible tofu at Habino, soba at Cocoron and ramen at Ippudo. I rarely cooked it at home as the dishes seemed too complex and the ingredients too hard to find. However, Ms. Samuels has countered both of these beliefs.  I suspect it is her experience as a cooking educator that helped her to write a book that is welcoming, interesting and the least intimidating as possible.  In fact, it will be the book I recommend to any friend who wants to try Japanese cooking.
Cooking Yakitori with Red Pepper and Lemon
The book is well organized. It starts with a memoir of sorts, based on Ms. Samuels' life of travel to Japan and cooking with Japanese friends and family. From there she includes a wonderful 4 page introduction to Japanese cuisine that is perfect for novices and also offers gems like the meaning of the sounds: "Sa, shi, su, se and so."
Tomato and Tofu Salad; Savory Pancake and Cabbage Noodles
Her guide to Japanese ingredients and useful equipment is also required reading.  It offers a balance of text and images to clarify what you may need. I also appreciated that she tried to focus her list of "essential" ingredients and then to replicate the use of them throughout the book.  If the ingredients had been written in Japanese it would have made it easier to use the book as a guide at grocery stores when seeking out shiso or daikon, for example.  
Daikon with Sweet Miso, Summer Noodle Salad and Mushrooms With Soy and Butter
As for the recipes, I appreciated that they are grouped by category in the front of the book and then in an index at the back.  The variety of healthy, light, and quick meals made it easy and delightful to cook from the book.  There are many vegetarian dishes and variations on meat recipes which could create new tofu lovers.  Ms. Samuels offers both traditional Japanese recipes (such as sushi), updates (such as lobster rolls) and treasured recipes from her friends.  Once I had bought some basics-decent mirin, sake, seaweed and bonito, I was able to create many meals for very little money.  At times the headnotes almost too extensive (and the font too small on the dust jacket)  but at the same time, I appreciated the personal nature and stories that Ms. Samuels shared.  The absolutely gorgeous photography by Heath Robbins provided a glimpse into each dish and reflected the artisnary of Japanse food.  My only quibble: I wish that the recipes had clear storage information as I wasn't sure how to save my extra matcha cupcakes, or how long my daikon salad would last in the refrigerator.  
Mushroom and Soba Noodle Soup
I also loved her section on Bento and how to prepare it for young children, as well as adults.  I hope to try out this section more now that the school year is in full gear. 

I was able to try a wide variety of dishes over the course of a week, in large part because her recipes are so easy and accessible.

A Week's Worth of Delights:

Crunchy Cucumber Pickles-I don't love cucumbers, but this recipe that I made in about 30 seconds transformed them into something spectacular. My new side dish.

Sweet Miso Sauce-this yummy sauce tastes almost dessert life. I am now a huge fan of white miso.

Kyoko's All Purpose Dashi Soy Sauce Concentrate-This smelled like the essence of a Japanese restaurant. Yum!

Stuffed Savory Pancake-Don't shy away from the bonito flakes. They add a smoky nuance that makes this Japanese street food (Okonomiyaki) even more delicious.

Yakitori-Ms. Samuels suggestion to serve the chicken with red pepper and lemon elevated this easy grilled chicken dish.

Cherry Tomato Salad with Shiso and Basil-A perfect use of seasonal tomatoes, even though it was a challenge to find shiso!

Refreshing Tofu Salad: a light salad that matched tomatoes, chunks of tofu and a sesame dressing. A perfect example of her quick and healthy recipes.

Carrot and Daikon Salad-This is a lightly pickled salad that was a nice accompaniment to the yakitori
Carrot and Celery Salad with Hijiki Seaweed-the Hijiki was too strong for me, but my friends devoured it.

Yoshie's Delicious Crab Fried Rice: This recipe is so much lighter and full of flavor than restaurant versions. I made it without crab and added edamame.  The best part of this dish? It is the perfect weeknight meal. I made it in 10 minutes at most and my kids loved it.

Rice Bowl With Three Toppings-I made this with tofu and swooned. It was comfort food at its best.

Mushroom and Soba Noodle Soup-I slurped this up on a cool and rainy summer day.

Fried Cabbage and Pork Noodles (Yakisoba): This dish is fantastic for kids. In minutes you have a dish that marries any vegetables (or protein) and noodles. The best part? You can use prepared Bull Dog sauce. The dish couldn't be quicker and even my most finicky son loved it.

Spring Rain Summer Noodle Salad-My sons and young niece adored this.

Shoko's Summer Sesame Chicken Salad-The smell of toasted and heated sesame oil wrapped itself around this wonderful salad.

Simmered Daikon with Citrus Miso-a new way to try daikon and one that mellows it out.

Grilled Eggplant (and Tofu) with Sweet Miso Sauce-Savory and sweet, tender and flavorful.

Eriko's Simmered Eggplant-Fast food at its best.
Tofu and Vegetable Scramble-this was wonderful served on top of rice. It was inexpensive and flavorful.

Japanese Mushroom Melange with Butter and Soy-Eat this and you will understand the concept of "umami." It took minutes to prepare and the smell was pretty heavenly.

Fruit Cup with Mochi and Sweet Bean Topping-This recipe, which combined strawberries and red beans (easily purchased at Asian food stores), convinced me that this instant dessert is a perfect combination.
Matcha Chocolate Coffee Cake-I liked the texture of this (and transformed the recipe into cupcakes), but would have preferred them with a bit less baking soda.
Crepes Stuffed with Red Bean Jam-It was a delight to make the crepes (and they freeze beautiful for future desserts) and was another great use for Sweet Bean Topping.

For more fabulous recipes, Ms. Samuels' website is rich with video, articles and a range of recipes for everything from OBento to okonomiyaki. She will also be speaking around Boston and the country in honor of her new book. The book officially comes out September 10, 2011 but you can already order it through  I also was lucky enough to interview her. So watch for that post, as well. 

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