GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

October 17, 2012

Cooking Japanese from the farm

Food for Thought Heather Atwood
Gloucester Daily Times

---- — This is a fascinating recipe for a Japanese broccoli tossed in a dressing made with smashed tofu, miso, sesame, and vinegar. (The recipe calls for yuzu, a relatively obscure citrus, which I replaced with a lemon.) The whole blends into a meaty but velveteen vegetable dish ridged with nuttiness and citrus. The tofu, all the liquid pressed out of it, becomes a warm stage for the very Japanese combination of tastes. Tossed with fresh broccoli — or cauliflower, the author, Nancy Singleton Hachisu, suggests — a recipe like this, like many from Hachisu’s new cookbook “Japanese Farm Food,” is a new horizon for a bowl of cruciferous veggies. It’s a delightful alternative to aioli or hollandaise, which is as dressed up as broccoli gets west of the Silk Road. Put this broccoli beside a bowl of sesame noodles and you have a beautiful vegan dinner. Alone for lunch, this dish achieves alchemy: a light meal with substance.

Twenty-four years ago Atherton, Calif., native Nancy Singleton flew to Japan to learn the language and eat sushi. Life took a sharp turn when she met a young, lanky Tadaaki Hachisu. Today she is back in the U.S. to promote “Japanese Farm Food,” a gorgeous cookbook and fascinating testament to the life that unfolded for her after she married Hachisu, who had grown up on the family farm without running water, and was as curious about food as Nancy was. (He had already planted the very untraditional basil because he wanted to know what it tasted like.)

Nancy’s sushi pursuit made her a Japanese farm wife; she and Tadaaki have run the family farm for 24 years. While raising and homeschooling their three sons, Nancy also started an English immersion school for local children. In Japan, Hachisu makes her own miso, tofu, shoyu, vinegar, noodles; her husband grows their rice, the only rice they use.

“Japanese Farm Food” is a wonderful, practical way to enter into Japanese cooking, as Nancy is cooking farm food for a family. She may make her own miso, shoyu, vinegar, tofu and noodles, and there may be some difficult-to-scavenge ingredients, but she is an American writing for American needs. The food is inspired by the deepest appreciation of local foods and home cooking, no sign of the sushi-platter school of spider rolls and quail eggs.

There’s tempura and shabu-shabu, but there’s also simmered chicken and miso meatballs, wonderful vegetable recipes — Napa cabbage salad with sesame seeds. Steamed leeks with miso-mustard. Spinach with walnuts and miso — and wonderful dressings and sauce ideas: walnut-miso dressing, miso vinaigrette, and how to use them.

Hachisu visited Rockport’s HarvestFest this weekend to do a cooking demonstration and book signing, and then came to my house the next day to make onigiri, rice balls tossed with bonito and seasonings, and sauteed celery and peppers. (A tip: fluff rice with two chopsticks to prevent gloppiness.)

“Heather, where’s your prepping station?” she demanded.

“Never cut vegetables with a knife like that,” she scolded a guest who had begun to work on the carrots with one of my old knives. Hachisu had brought her own from Japan; the lesson here — and throughout the afternoon — was reverence for the vegetables, and for one’s food. When one grain of rice fell to the counter, Hachisu’s quick eye caught it, and she whisked it back into the bowl. This was her husband’s rice, after all.

Broccoli with Tofu and Yuzu, from “Japanese Farm Food”

1 piece Japanese style tofu

3 medium-sized heads broccoli

2 tablespoons unhulled sesame seeds

2 tablespoons brown rice or barley miso

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1/4 sea salt

zest of 1 small yuzu or lemon

Place the tofu on a cutting board propped up on one end, angled into the kitchen sink for draining. Lay another chopping board or plate on top of the tofu to press out excess water for 1 hour.

Bring a large pot of hot water to a boil and place a medium-sized bowl of cold water in the kitchen sink. Slice off the thick stems of broccoli and pare around the perimeter of the stem to free the little florets. Cut the tender stem into half or quarters so the pieces will cook at the same pace as the florets. Drop the broccoli into the boiling water and cook for 3 minutes. Scoop out the broccoli florets with a strainer and immediately plunge them into the cold water. Turn on the tap and press the strainer gently on top of the broccoli so it will not flow out of the bowl. Run additional cold water to cool. Lift the broccoli out of the bowl with the strainer and dump the water from the bowl into the sink. Set the strainer back on top of the bowl to drain.

Toast the sesame seeds over medium-high heat in a dry frying pan until they are fragrant and just start to pop. Grind the sesame seeds in a suribachi (Japanese grinding bowl) or mortar until most of the seeds have broken down. Add the miso and vinegar to the mortar and blend. Squeeze handfuls of tofu to express any lingering moisture and add to the dressing with the salt. Continue grinding to emulsify all the ingredients until creamy.

Gently fold in the cooked broccoli florets with most of the yuzu slivers.

Serve in an attractive pottery bowl strewn with the remaining yuzu peel.

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Rockport resident Heather Atwood writes the Food for Thought weekly. Questions and comments may be directed to heatheraa@aol.com. Follow her blog at HeatherAtwood.com.