Thursday, September 5, 2013

Super Easy Pickled/Marinated Carrots and Daikon (AKA Vietnamese do chua or Japanese red and white namasu)

Homemade namasu carrots and daikon / do chua on my kitchen counter

Here's a super easy recipe for pickled/marinated carrots and daikon (Japanese white radish).  It is what Japanese call kōhaku ("red and white," with orange categorized as a kind of red) namasu ("raw vinegar," with "raw" referring to the uncooked vegetables and "vinegar" referring to what flavors them and alters their chemistry) 紅白生酢 .  It is also more or less the same thing as Vietnamese do chua, one of the delicious things inserted in French bread (albeit baked with rice flour) to make banh mi sandwiches. in banh mi, West Coast Guy (WCG) likes namasu /do chua with rice, and to eat it with some kind of meat or fish (see tilapia recipe below).  But it is great on toast or crackers with some cheese, for example chèvre (goat cheese).  Whenever I make these veggies (using local small, Hmong farmer versions of daikon so far), and share them with others (non-Japanese, non-Vietnamese), they eat a lot of it....  It is very good.

Here's a way to do make it:

Buy what in English is called "seasoned gourmet rice vinegar," made by Marukan or some other company.  The Japanese says, "sushi su," which means sushi vinegar.  This is because it is rice vinegar to which they have added some salt and sugar.  This is "whole food" stuff (as I recall, having used up my last bottle a couple days ago to prepare the vegetables pictured above): just vinegar, salt, and some sugar.  It is the formula suitable for flavoring rice to be used in making sushi.

The next super simple step: put julie-anned carrots and diakon into some kind of container.  I use freezer, microwave, and dishwasher safe sealable plastic ones.  Then pour the vinegar, covering the veggies.  Next, put it into the fridge, and wait a while.

After a few hours,  the carrots and daikon will very much absorb the flavor from the vinegar, etc.  After a day or two, it will take on a more pickle-like taste and fragrance.

Note: if you don't have, cannot buy, or run out of "seasoned gourmet vinegar" (you can buy it at most grocery stores, even in La Crosse), you can just add some sweetener and some salt to vinegar.  It is that simple.  When I ran out - not having quite enough - recently,I added some agave syrup and salt to some un-seasoned rice vinegar, and it tasted great.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

La Crosse Food Cart Boom?

You know you live in a small town when two of something constitutes a "boom":

Cooking With Tofu I: Don't Fear the Tofu
Tofu is coagulated soy bean milk pressed into blocks; it is sometimes referred to as soy bean curd.  In East and Southeast Asia it is a common food, where although associated with vegetarian Buddhist monks and nuns, the vast majority of omnivorous populations eat it as as a "normal" food.  In fact tofu dishes are often flavored by small amounts of animal products such as bits of pork or fish stock (animal proteins were traditionally a luxury and the modest inhabitants of the non-West are often bemused by Westerners who can afford to eat them but choose not to do so); it is - by the way - difficult to be a strict vegetarian in urban (East and Southeast) Asia, especially if one eats out at all.

Tofu is sometimes called something like meat from the fields because it has long been recognized as a source of high quality protein.  In fact, soy products are some of the very few vegetarian/vegan/vegetable sources of the complete set of essential amino acids that we all need.  Some say it is flavorless and it is indeed not strong in that department, but it does in fact have a subtle flavor.  Nonetheless, it also takes on the flavors one adds to it rather well, absorbing seasonings, sauces, broths, etc., well.  It is very versatile, and thus fun to cook with.  It is almost impossible to overcook, which is conversely very possible with most animal sources of protein.

Of particular note is that tofu comes in a variety of textures, densities, or levels of hardness.  In the US - where one can purchase packaged tofu in most supermarkets - there is generally soft, firm, and extra firm.  For most cooking applications, firm and extra firm are most appropriate.  Soft is good for salads and eating uncooked with some kind of sauce.  People use it blended to make sauces, deserts, etc. 

(Note: Tofu is available in the La Crosse area at Woodman's, the Co-op, Hmong supermarkets, and Festival.  However, the tofu at Festival is inappropriately and oddly EXPENSIVE.  West Coast Guy [WCG] suspects this is because whoever makes such decisions for Festival unwisely categorizes tofu as "health food," and thus associates it with the generally higher income people who have the luxury to buy items categorized in that way.  The long and short of it is that unless one has "money to burn," it is better to buy tofu elsewhere.)

Hiyakko Tofu
Kimchi Tofu

 There are innumerable ways to cook/prepare tofu, and WCG has tried many of them.  Examples common in Japan that don't require cooking include kimchi tofu, which is Korean style pickled cabbage and other vegetables on top of cold soft tofu, and hiyakko tofu, which is soft tofu usually topped with katsuo (dried bonito fish) shavings, shoyū (soy sauce), and green onions, etc. If one is hungry and wants a simple tasty protein-heavy dish, WCG recommends slicing up some soft tofu and pouring on some sauce: soy, sriracha, tabasco, flavored vinegar, whatever.  (Ponzu sauce works exceptionally well - available at Woodman's in a bottle) One can add green onions, tomatoes, pickles, etc., too.  This tastes good with rice or alone.
Mābō dōfu teishoku (set meal) in Japan
Common cooked tofu dishes in East Asia include Mápó dòufu, a  Sichuan (Szechuan) Chinese dish that is very popular in Japan, where it is called mābō dōfu.  This is a spicy dish that usually includes chiles, garlic, minced pork, and soy bean paste.  Another dish in Japanese is called buta dōfu, which simply means pork tofu.  WCG's mom used to make this as an every day dish.

Buta Dōfu (Somebody else's mom's (or auntie's) recipe)

The most common way WCG cooks tofu is in a pan or skillet.  This generally means a kind of stir fry, cooking the tofu with onions, carrots, garlic, and or other vegetables, along with a mixture of seasonings balancing salty, spicy, sweet, and perhaps sour flavors.

Recently, WCG's culinary experiments have led to the realization that cooking the f&#^ out of tofu leads to good results.  Again, it is almost impossible to overcook the stuff, and when browned to the point of almost blackening, the tofu undergoes caramelization, the maillard reaction, or something like that.  The end result is that it tastes good.  Another method WCG has been experimenting with is marinating the tofu for hours before cooking it.  The marinade can consist of a variety of ingredients, but the WCG goal is to achieve - again - something of a balance of flavors including at least salty and sweet, and often spicy plus sour.

Ikeda Kikunae
Actually, WCG's goal with savory cooking is to achieve or find what in Japanese is called umami, but that is the subject of another post.  Suffice it to say that this culinary certain something (je ne sais quoi) taste comes through "cheating" with MSG or some MSG containing substance such as Japanese Hon Dashi (and MSG was invented by Japanese scientist Ikeda Kikunae in 1908 to essentially bottle umami), or one can get it from substances such as, for example, miso and fish sauce.  WCG has also noticed that umami comes from slow cooking vegetables in a pot until their juices flow.  A little salt and pepper facilitates this, and for some reason this works much better in a high-sided pot than in a pan.  WCG also suspects that something like umami results from the proper balance of flavors such as salty, sweet, spicy, and sour, which is the the essence of, for example, good Thai cuisine.
Hawaiian miso
Pictured below is a tofu dish WCG made a couple months ago.  It features big tofu slabs (the packaged block sliced once down the middle) marinated overnight in a mixture of Hawaiian Miso and Canadian maple syrup.  WCG also threw in some Mexican chipoltle powder and some Vietnamese fish sauce.  WCG fried the slabs in fresh Wisconsin butter from the "Norwegian" town of Westby and then made a sandwich with the pan-fried tofu, fresh baby spinach, tomato, sliced onions, and his homemade Greek yogurt-based sauce as a condiment.

Frying tofu in pan (note extra WI butter on top)

Open faced tofu sandwich (and man, it was good!)

PS: Another great tofu dish is Japanese age dashi dōfu, which is soft tofu coated with corn or potato starch and fried, and then served in a broth of dashi (generally katsuo/bonito fish stock) flavored with a little mirin (sweet cooking wine) and maybe some shoyū.  It is then topped with daikon oroshi, which is daikon grated into a sort of paste, along with green onions, katsuoboshi (shavings of dried bonito fish), and/or grated horseradish.
Agedashi dōfu and daikon oroshi on its own
Daikon is a giant white Japanese radish, which is available in La Crosse supermarkets/grocery stores.  Its name literally means "Big root" 大根. As such, if one buys it it inconveniently takes up much space in the fridge.  However, WCG recently discovered Hmong farmers selling small daikon at local farmers' markets, but being about the size of carrots, they are somewhat of a misnomer (maybe "small root" or shōkon 小根?  I suppose there's words for the small kind in Southeast Asian languages...).  They taste like daikon though.