Saturday, March 18, 2006

To those who eat alone

Well, not entirely alone. The dog was there. He got the bone. After I had done my best to relieve it of any bit of meat. He was in ecstasy.

Me too, sort of. The lamb had cooked for 2 ½ hours in the broth, and the texture was like butter, the flavor outstanding.

But, except for the dog, it was a lonely pleasure.

The lamb protesters, for whom I have every sympathy, had already eaten leftovers from the previous day (Tilapia with Chili-Mango Salsa). Certainly an acceptable dinner for them.

They did eat the brown soda bread, though, so some small satisfaction.

I knew beforehand that the Irish Lamb Stew would probably not go over big, despite St. Patrick’s Day (where’s the respect for tradition anymore?). I tried to console myself with the thought that it was just more of this sensational stew for me (and the dog).

But somehow, if the crowd is not happy or satisfied, even if not directly appreciative, the results seem hollow.

Today, for various reasons, everyone is somewhere else. So I have two days – in a row – to savor things alone (well, with the dog).

To me, cooking, and eventually eating, are very social things. I frequently get some help in during the cooking, but not always. However, the intent of the cooking is always clear – people (and sometimes dogs) are going to eat it, sitting more or less together, communally, socially. The TV may be on, or a movie playing, or there may be other distractions, but the mere closeness of everyone, and the fact that everyone is doing more or less the same thing, makes the bond strong almost by default. And that connection, that knowledge that everyone is satisfying this most basic need, sort of together, conveys a deep satisfaction. I think to everyone, but especially the cook.

So today – comfort food. Solitary style.

I spent a lot of time alone when I traveled to Japan. I’ve been there a few dozen times, north, south, most of the islands. Because of the distance, and the necessity of often having had to stay over weekends, etc., there was usually a lot of down time.

One of the really enjoyable pleasures when I was alone in Tokyo, or Osaka, or maybe Sapporo, was finding somewhere for a bowl of Udon noodles, or a plate of Soba if it was hot out.

Sushi is a communal activity. It’s all about sharing, pouring each other more Sake, etc. I don’t think I’ve ever had Sushi alone. In any event, since everyone had their special Sushi place, places that I could never find in a million years, it was infinitely tastier to wait for an invitation. And they came almost every evening.

But, after 20 hours in a plane, plus the 2 hour train ride from Narita, and an occasional weather shock (from cool to 100% humidity), not to mention time shifts and cultural stress to my limited brain, Udon or Soba was like heaven. Even alone. Sometimes with tofu, or maybe giant tempura prawns. The variety was large. The pleasure was always the same.

So, tonight – Kitsune Udon, which translates to Noodles with deep fried Tofu, for one.

(Sorry - no pictures toady - someone forgot to charge the camera batteries! See, there's another problem with being alone - no one to blame dumb things on!)

The recipe comes from the

Kitsune means "fox" and this dish is named for the light brown color of the abura-age (deep fried tofu). Kitsune udon consists of noodles served in hot shoyu flavored dashi.
There are many variants to this recipe, instead of the deep fried tofu try placing a piece of shrimp tenpura on top, or try topping with a raw egg... called tsukimi or "moon viewing" noodles since the raw egg looks like the moon).

KITSUNE UDON (noodles with deep fried tofu)

4 pieces of abura-age (deep fried tofu), cut into large triangles
1 package of dried udon or soba noodles (about 3/4 lb.)
4 green onions (finely slivered)

6 1/2 cups of dashi (you can buy this already made, or make your own)
3 tablespoons of shoyu (basically soy sauce)
1 tablespoon of sugar
1 tablespoon of sake
(I used 2 tbsps Mirin, which is sweet rice wine)

Heat the broth ingredients in a small pot, and in a separate sauce pan simmer the tofu in a cup of hot dashi. Meanwhile cook the dried noodles (see the basics section on cooking noodles), then rinse them in a colander using hot water, drain, and then transfer to serving bowls. Place the tofu on top, pour the hot broth over the noodles and garnish with the green onions.

DEEP FRIED TOFU (abura-age)

Deep fried tofu, or abura-age, is used in soups, one pot cookery, noodle dishes, and in many other ways. It can also be delicious all by itself as a topping on a bowl of rice (domburi). Deep fried tofu can be purchased at most Asian food stores, but it is easily made at home, and all that you'll need is a wok for the deep frying and a colander for rinsing and draining. Deep fried until crisp and golden brown on the outside, abura-aga is amazingly white and soft on the inside! Here is how you make deep fried tofu.

1 block of regular firm tofu
A wok or large deep pan
1 small bottle of vegetable oil (about 20 fluid oz./or 600 ml)
I small pot of boiling hot waterlarge plastic or metal colander

Remove the excess moisture from the block of tofu by wrapping it in a clean towel and placing it between 2 cutting boards, let stand for an hour or two. Now cut the tofu block into triangle shapes about two inches long. Pour the oil into the wok and heat, when you dip a chopstick into the heated oil and bubbles rise from it the oil is ready for use. If the oil smokes it is too hot. Using the wok's spatula, slide the tofu triangles one at a time into the hot oil. Fry on both sides until golden brown.

Scoop the triangles out of the wok and allow them to drain on the wok's draining grill (or place on paper towels). Once the triangles are drained and cool, it's a good idea to give them a second deep frying. This deepens their golden color and makes them nice and crisp. Place once again on the grill to drain and cool.

The final step requires that you place the fried tofu triangles in a colander and run very hot water over them. I put the colander in the sink and allow the hot water from the faucet to run over the tofu, while I simultaneously pour boiling water from a pot over the triangles. This hot water bath completely leeches all remnants of oil from the tofu, resulting in tofu that you would never magine as having been deep fried. Pat dry the tofu and serve with rice or noodles and a little shoyu, or use the fried tofu in another recipe.

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