Preserving the Japanese Way by Nancy HachisuThe second time I met Nancy Singleton Hachisu, author of Japanese Farm Foodshe tried to convince me to make my own miso. More accurately, she tried to convince me (and a fellow food editor at Food & Wine) to produce a story about making miso. “It’s so easy!” she said. She described the process, saying how you mash soy beans with cultured grain, salt and a starter in February or March so it has at least a month to rest at cold temperatures before fermenting throughout the summer. The process sounded cool, but I knew that a recipe with a six-month-long lead time would never fly. A story about Nancy on her farm, however, would, so that’s what we did.

Last year, Nancy’s second book, the newly James Beard Award nominated (!) Preserving the Japanese Waywas published. I expected a slim follow-up to the farm food book. Nope, this one is just as big. The more time I spend with the book, the more I love it and see how important it is.

You see, for the past few years, chefs and food cognoscenti have been obsessing about fermentation and waxing on about umami this and that. This book showcases how to make many of these fermented, umami-rich ingredients, including soy sauce and miso as well as lesser known koji (which I wrote about here) and Japanese-style fish sauce. The book also covers other types of traditional preserving, including salt-pickling, vinegar making and air-drying.

If you glance at the book, I would excuse you for thinking that it’s a little out there. (Not many cookbook authors would dare to include a recipe for half-dried barracuda, for example.) But even if you never plan to brew your own soy sauce or ferment your own miso, Preserving the Japanese Way is still useful because Nancy shows you intriguing ways to use these Japanese ingredients, which are widely available at supermarkets. Much like Japanese Farm Food, many of the recipes call for only four to six ingredients. For example, a carrot salad with miso vinaigrette is nothing more than julienned carrots, sliced scallions, miso, brown rice vinegar and oil. For another salad, cucumber are marinated with dried chiles, ginger and soy sauce.

After my recent move from Brooklyn to Bucks County, I decided that a fun way to start my new life outside the city would be to make miso. The hardest part of the recipe, really, is tracking down the ingredients and the fermentation vessel. I cheated, a bit, and purchased a kit of sorts from The Brooklyn Kitchen (which recently hosted a miso-making class. Get on the list for next year!) The kit included already-cooked soybeans, so all I had to do was mix everything together and mash. Whether you cook them yourself or not, mashing them is a great way to earn that post-work cocktail.

The miso-making kit. You know you want it!

The miso-making kit. You know you want it!

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Ok, you got me. This bibimbap made with quinoa is not traditional. But it's good!

Ok, you got me. This bibimbap made with quinoa is not traditional. But it’s so good!

Until last week, I lived in New York City for eleven years. That’s long enough, according to many people, to have called myself a New Yorker. As any New Yorker knows, the city is one of stark dichotomies. It’s exhilarating but maddening; convenient but difficult; overwhelmingly wealthy but shockingly poor. Ever since having my daughter a few years ago, New York has felt harder and harsher and not just because of the school situation.

So when my husband and I realized we no longer needed to be in the city every day for our jobs, we started to look around for an easier place to dwell. We eventually settled on a small, walking-friendly town in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, that’s near family and friends but close enough to NYC to commute as needed. (And get an occasional Russ & Daughters fix.)

I will miss so many aspects of living in New York, including the incredible public transportation, the wild diversity, and the buzz I felt every time I stepped into the street. (Not to mention, the food!) But the thing I will pine for most, my friends, is the 24-hour bodega.

For those who don’t know, one meaning for the Spanish word la bodega is grocery store and it’s the term of choice in NYC for the corner store. (Here is more about the history.) It is not like a Wawa—a beloved Philadelphia area convenience store—and don’t even think of comparing them to 7-Elevens. Would a 7-Eleven deliver coffee and an egg sandwich to you when you’re hungover on Saturday morning? Or chicken soup when you’re sick? Not a chance.

Like the city itself, bodegas are masters at the use of vertical space. You can often find batteries, duct tape, and packets of Advil hanging so high that they’re only reachable with one of those handy arm-extending grippers. Groceries and cleaning products line the shelves and refrigerated cases, and the inventory often goes way beyond the basics. The yogurt selection, for example, rivals that at any suburban grocery store. Because bodegas are independently owned, they’re perfect launching pads for new products—in fact, coconut water started its massive rise in popularity in New York City bodegas.

At most bodegas, you’ll find dry goods, fresh produce and flowers (that last no longer than three days, mind you), as well as deli sandwiches and other prepared foods. Most fun, however, is that each shop reflects its microcosm and owner’s background. For example, when I lived in Washington Heights, a largely Dominican and Puerto Rican neighborhood, I could find limes sold 10 for $1 as well as dried chiles, Caribbean vegetables, and various kinds of pig parts.

I most recently moved from a pocket of Bed Stuy that is home to Caribbean immigrants; African and Middle Eastern immigrants; African-American families who have been there for generations; and yuppies and hipsters from everywhere. The local bodega stocked yucca and plantains, halvah candy, and a wide variety of Bob’s Red Mill grains, nut milks and alt sugars. Because the owners are Muslim, they do not sell pork products or beer.

While I never did all of my grocery shopping at the bodega, I loved that, in a pinch, I could make a full meal from ingredients sold there. And I’m not talking a Roy Choi-style gas station taco but a dish that’s actually healthy.

In honor of bodegas, I created this bibimbap (a Korean-style rice bowl) using only ingredients I could buy across the street. I wrote the recipe to be flexible (so flexible, in fact, that I used quinoa instead of rice as a base). You can use whatever grain you fancy, whatever vegetables look fresh, and whatever proteins are available to you.

And before you think I’m a weirdo for my bodega obsession, know I’m not the only one: Elizabeth Moss confessed she couldn’t wait to return to New York after months in Australia because why? The bodegas.

I made bibimbap with these ingredients from the bodega.

Yep, all of these ingredients came from the bodega.

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This dip is made a little healthier than the usual with Greek yogurt and fresh onions.

Confession: I may or may not watch the Super Bowl this weekend. I don’t care much about the commercials, let alone the game. And the idea of gorging on football food and beer leaves me bloated just thinking about it. You might think I’m a snob, or, even downright unAmerican. Sorry, folks. That’s just how I feel.

All of that said, there is one traditional game day snack I love and that’s onion dip. I can mindlessly eat 1000 calories worth, even when it’s the store-bought stuff scooped up with the greasiest potato chips

If I were to host a Super Bowl party, however, I’d class up the dip a bit and cook onions in butter until sweet and browned and then mix them with Worcestershire and smoked paprika-spiked Greek yogurt. Then, I’d buy the fanciest potato chips I can find. (I’m a big fan of the crisp, almost flaky Terra Blues. And blue chips have more antioxidants, right? ;))

If we’re going to keep this whole experience highbrow (and you know I would), I’d eat this with a well-chilled gin martini. If someone called me unAmerican for skipping the usual beer, well then there’s one less drink I’d have to make. (And you couldn’t blame me for keeping the dip to myself, could you?)

Smoky Double Onion Dip
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
To make the dip even more sweet and oniony, you can also add leeks, red onions, and shallots.
Serves: Makes about 1 cup
Ingredients
  • 4 scallions
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped (about ¾ cup)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup plain 2% fat Greek yogurt (or one 7-ounce container is fine)
  • ½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • ⅛ teaspoon smoked paprika
  • Potato chips or crisp vegetables, for serving
Instructions
  1. Thinly slice the scallions and separate the white and light green parts from the dark green parts.
  2. In a medium skillet, melt the butter. Add the onion and a large pinch of salt and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until it starts to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the white and light green parts of the scallions and cook until the onions are very soft, about 5 minutes longer. Increase the heat to medium-high; as some of the onions brown and the pan seems like it might start to burn, add a teaspoon or so of water. Continue cooking, stirring, and adding a little water as necessary, until the onions are very soft and very browned and all of the liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes longer. Let the onions cool to warm, about 15 minutes.
  3. In a medium bowl, fold the onions with the yogurt, Worcestershire sauce and smoked paprika. Fold in ¼ cup of the dark green parts of the scallions. Season the dip with salt and black pepper, garnish with more scallion greens and serve with potato chips or crisp vegetables.

 

My recipe development notebook.

I like to write everything down the old-school way.

When I was a food editor at Food & Wine magazine, people would often ask me, “What’s there to edit in a recipe?” My response was something to the effect of, “More than you’ve probably ever thought about.” Here’s the thing: A well-written recipe is usually an unassuming thing. When properly crafted, cooks should be able to follow it effortlessly without questioning it or themselves. Getting to that place, however, takes time and requires a zillion little judgement calls. It also entails copious note taking during the development and testing phases and extra thought while writing and editing.

I learned almost everything I know about crafting a well-written recipe from my mentor, Food & Wine Executive Food Editor Tina Ujlaki, so I was thrilled to interview her about the process for the latest issue of Cherry Bombe. I narrowed down our 90-minute long conversation into 10 digestible tips. You’ll have to read the article to get her thoughts, but here are some of my own tips for crafting recipes.

My article in Cherry Bombe.

My article in Cherry Bombe.

  1. Record as much info as possible about your ingredients: Write down both the weights and volume measurements of ingredients, including produce, nuts, and dried fruit. (Usually, you’ll want to get the volume measurements after the ingredients are prepped.) As you write up the recipe, you can decide whether all of that information is useful, or just some of it. But at least you have the choice.
  2. Use your senses: Many people get hung up on the cooking times included in recipes, but these can vary widely depending on stoves, pots and pans and even atmospheric conditions. To help these nervous cooks, record how food should look, smell and (sometimes) taste before moving on to the next step.
  3. Offer substitutions when possible: It’s helpful to cooks without access to specialty and international food stores to know they can substitute a mixture of lemon juice and honey for pomegranate molasses or basil for cilantro (in some recipes, anyway). You can list these substitutes in the ingredients or suggest them in the headnotes.
  4. Consider your audience: Tina and I talked a lot about how certain knowledge among cooks is no longer common. For example, she no longer calls for egg wash; instead, a recipe will list 1 egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water or some such. If your readers are beginners, you have to assume they know very little, and write explicitly about how to break down a bulb of fennel, for example. If you’re writing for people who cook regularly, you can often use more shorthand; it’s enough to write “1 bulb fennel, halved, cored and thinly sliced lengthwise.”
  5. Reread your recipes: After you write out a recipe, reread it several times and ask yourself these questions: Are all ingredients listed in the order in which they are used? Are all ingredients used in the procedure (and when the ingredients are divided, do they add up to the amount listed)? Does the order of the steps make sense or is there a better, more logical way? Is this the clearest way to write the instructions for the cooks I’m trying to reach?
  6. Don’t forget salt: If you season your food throughout the cooking process (and you probably should!), note that. Unless I’m seasoning a raw meat mixture or something else that’s dangerous to taste raw, I prefer not to include an exact amount of salt in the recipe. But I always list salt as an ingredient and tell people when to add a pinch or season to their taste in the method.
  7. Don’t let cuteness trump clarity: Tina and I also discussed writing with voice and when it’s appropriate in recipes. We both agreed that we love a strong voice as long as the instructions are still absolutely clear. I see a lot of cute, chatty recipes online that are hard to follow; the voice is more distracting than it is useful. If you like to write recipes with a distinct style, be sure what you’re saying is crystal clear. Better yet, ask a friend to read it before you publish.

To learn more about recipe writing, check out these great posts:

How to Write a Recipe Like a Professional (The nitty gritty on crafting all the parts of the recipe.)

10 Ways to Write Clear Recipes (This includes some wonderful tips on line editing and trimming out the wordy fat.)

7 Most Common Recipe Writing Errors (Another great post from Dianne Jacob of Will Write for Food)