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Feature Fri Jun 20 2008

Grilling with a Japanese Flair

This year's grilling season is now in full swing. These days, I often come home to find my apartment full of wood smoke wafting in from our neighbors' backyards. The wood smoke reminds me of my childhood summers in Japan when we occasionally hauled out a rickety ceramic grill to our mosquito-infested backyard.

Modern Japanese cuisine is a (glorious, in my opinion) hodgepodge of a myriad of different culinary influences, and outdoor grilling is no exception. Though the recent popularity of outdoor grilling might have its immediate root in the American tradition, what the Japanese home grillers cook on charcoal fire is not just burgers and hot dogs. Simply grilling fresh seafood is always popular, but probably the biggest influence in Japanese outdoor grilling is the Korean barbecue. In my family, for one, when we said "let's barbecue," it always meant Korean(-ish) barbecue brought outdoors.

Another big influence on Japanese outdoor grilling is the ubiquitous yakitori. Yakitori, skewered chicken cooked on charcoal offered at many drinking spots and restaurants in Japan, has convinced many a home cook that the tastiest chicken comes from charcoal grill. Because charcoal fire doesn't produce water vapor (unlike gas fire), the surface of the meat gets crispy, while the inside stays moist thanks to the fast cooking on high heat. With that in mind, many Japanese grillers try their hands at making yakitori when they fire up their charcoal grill.

Many of the ingredients and condiments the Japanese use for grilling are available in Chicago, and in some ways, the grilling equipments here are superior to those across the Pacific. (Our Weber Grill, for one, is much easier to use and clean than the one we used in Japan, which cracked in the middle after just a few uses.) Below, I've selected some of my favorite things to grill from the nearly 20 years I spent in Japan. Some are super easy, others take some preparation, but they are never difficult and very yummy. Enjoy!

Yakiniku-Marinated Beef Short Ribs

Yakiniku, which literally means "grilled meat," has its origin in the Korean cuisine. Since yakiniku's supposed inception in the sordid chaos just after the WWII, the Japanese have developed a variety of yakiniku marinade to suit the Japanese palate.

Many marinades are sold in supermarkets, and some of them can be quite tasty--though, for my taste, too many are too sweet. You can find bottles of them in Chicago as well, in Japanese grocery stores and possibly larger Korean markets. I've experimented with various existing recipes and settled on this one (based on this recipe in Japanese) with some tinkering. This marinade combines the sweetness of fruits, heat of red chili and savoriness of miso, and when made fresh, taste much better than one out of a bottle. Makes about 1 quart.

1* medium onion, chopped
3* cloves garlic, chopped
1* inch fresh ginger, chopped
1* apple, chopped
3* dried prunes, chopped
1* cup cooking sake (or wine)
1/3 cup sugar
4 cup soy sauce
4 tablespoon miso
2-3 dried red chili

1. Pulse the first 6 ingredients (with *)in a food processor till smooth.

2. Put the mixture in a pot on medium low heat, and let it cook until the harsh smell of raw onion goes away, stirring to prevent it from sticking. Add the rest of the ingredients and cook it down on low heat, for about 20 minutes. The marinade should be a bit thicker than when it started. Cool and store in a clean bottle. This should keep quite a while in the fridge, though I can't say exactly how long.

3. Marinate the beef short ribs in this yakiniku marinade for a few hours (up to overnight) before grilling. If you don't have enough time to marinate the meat before grilling, this sauce can also be used as dipping sauce on simply grilled meats.

Tsukune with Gobo & Ginger

Tsukune is a popular item in yakitori (chicken skewered and grilled over charcoal) restaurants. (I personally think that it's the best thing on the menu.) Because tsukune is essentially a meatball of ground chicken with aromatic ingredients mixed in, it's quite versatile. Here, I've added gobo (burdock roots) to impart earthy flavor. Gobo's crunchiness is also a nice contrast to the smooth ground chicken.

1 pound ground chicken
2/3 cup gobo
1/2 inch ginger, grated
2 green onions, minced
1 tablespoon corn starch
1 egg
salt and pepper to taste

1. To prepare the gobo, use a coarse side of a Scotch-Brite to vigorously rub the surface of the root under running water. The idea is to wash off all the dirt and most of the outer skin of the gobo. If dark brown spots persist, that's okay. Get as much of the brown skin as you can, and forget about the rest. Shred the gobo finely, either by using the knife as if you are sharpening a pencil, or by cutting the gobo into short matchsticks. Briefly boil the shredded gobo until barely tender. Let it cool.

2. In a bowl, combine all the ingredients. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Tsukune will be basted in teriyaki-like sauce, so just a little salt and pepper should do. Form the mixture into 1-inch balls between your palms, and put them on skewers. (Alternatively, you can form a thin, long patties on flat skewers, just like Middle Eastern restaurants do with their ground chicken kabobs.)

3. For the sauce (and yes, this is pretty much what a teriyaki sauce is), combine the following in a small pot and heat over low heat to let the sugar dissolve:

1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon honey or maple syrup
1 tablespoon oyster sauce (optional)

4. Put the tsukune skewers on the grill. When the chicken is mostly cooked, baste with the sauce, by either dipping them in the sauce or using a brush. Turn the skewers to coat the tsukune evenly with the sauce. The sugar in the sauce makes it prone to burning, so you should wait until the chicken is cooked most of the way before basting.

Note: Of course, this can be made in a skillet. I usually shape the ground chicken mixture into patties when I use a skillet. Cook the patties in a skillet, and when they are cooked through, add the sauce mixture. Turn up the heat to let the sauce thicken a bit, and serve.

Asparagus Wrapped in Bacon

This is the easiest--and yet it seems to make quite an impression. (When we were grilling the asparagus from the Green City Market wrapped in bacon, our landlords saw them and were utterly smitten with the idea.) And, as you may know if you've tried them in a Japanese izakaya, they are absolutely tasty. All you do is wrap strips of bacon around asparagus and grill them till the bacon is nice and crispy and the asparagus cooked through. No need to season, for bacons contain more sodium than necessary.

Corn Cobs with Soy Sauce and Shichimi

Shichimi is a Japanese spice mix. A mixture of dried red chili, sesame seeds, mandarin orange peel, Sichuan pepper and other aromatics, shichimi is more flagrance than heat, but it does pack some heat. It pairs beautifully with the sweetness of the corn in season.

In the U.S., the preferred method of grilling a corn is grilling it in its husk. In the backyard of my parents' house in Japan, we usually grilled the corn that'd been husked and boiled. My mother might have done this to cut down on the cooking time (it's good to have something that cooks fairly quickly when barbecuing with a hungry daughter and a bored husband), but this method does have a few other perks.

First, corn starts to lose its sweetness the minute it's picked, and it continues to do so until it's cooked. So, when you aren't barbecuing the corn right after you purchased it, it makes sense to boil it and save it (in the fridge) until it's time for grilling. And because the corn is grilled naked, it's much easier to baste it with any sauce you like. Here, I'm using the ubiquitous East Asian flavoring liquid: soy sauce.

1. Husk the corn. In a large stock pot, put enough water to generously cover the corn cobs and bring to a boil. Let it continue to boil for about 4-5 minutes after the water reaches the boiling point. Remove form the pot and let cool.

2. Grill the corn until some of the kernels start to blister. Baste with soy sauce, turning the corn cobs to coat them evenly. A little burning is fine, but don't let it get too charred. When the aroma of the burning soy sauce hits your nostrils, take the corn off the grill and sprinkle with a bit of shichimi (though this is optional).

Yakionigiri with Sesame-Miso Topping

A lot of Japanese people say a meal isn't complete without rice. Not that we insist on a bowl of rice to go with spaghetti or a sandwich, but when there's no other source of carbohydrate in the menu, we tend to ask "where's the rice?" There are two ways to serve the rice Japanese-style. If you drink with your meal, the rice comes at the end of the meal in one form or another, when you're done drinking. If you don't drink with your meal, the rice is served with the meal. Because I think grilling without beer is somewhat pointless, I think rice should come at the end (if we have any room left, that is).

There are a few standard options for carbohydrates when grilling. One is yakisoba, especially if we are grilling on an electric hot plate indoors. The other is the yakionigiri, grilled rice balls. (Again, "yaki" means "grilled," and "onigiri" means "rice balls.")The rice is cooked ahead of time and shaped into flat-ish disks or triangles, and then quickly seared on the grill to give it a satisfyingly nutty flavor.

Traditionally, onigiri is made by shaping the rice in bare hands, but I prefer the cheat method that uses saran wrap (see below), if only for the protection it provides from the scorching-hot, just-cooked rice. Makes 8 medium pieces.

1 cup (Japanese) short grain rice
1.2 cup water (approximately)

1 tablespoon miso
1/2 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 tablespoon sugar
1/2 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
8 shiso leaves (optional)

1. First, cook the rice. (If you already know your way around rice, jump to step 2.) Wash the rice gently, changing water several times, until the water runs mostly clear. In a small pot, combine 1 cup of rice and 1.2 cup of water. Cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. When you start hearing the vigorous bubbling noises in the pot, lower the heat to low. Cook for about 13 minutes more, until the water is invisible and the top of the rice is pocked with little "craters." (If you had to open the lid to see the inside at this point, quickly put the lid back to trap the heat and moisture.) Let the rice rest for at least 10 minutes, with the lid on.

2. Coat a plate large enough for the rice balls to sit separately with a very, very thin film of oil. This is to prevent the rice balls from sticking to the plate.

3. In a small bowl, combine miso, soy sauce, sugar and honey and stir well. Grind the sesame seeds and stir in. (If you have a sesame seeds grinder, great. It you don't, use a mortar and a pestle, or just crush them between your fingers. Grinding them brings out more of the flavor.)

4. Fluff the rice with a fork or a spatula, being careful not to reduce it into a single sticky mass. Cut an 8-inch section of saran wrap and place 1/8 of the rice in the middle of it in a small mound. Gather the four corners of the wrap above this mound. Make sure the entire rice mound is now covered with the wrap, and holding the gathered tips of the wrap, spin the wrapped rice in circles. This will form the rice into more or less a round disc. Make modifications to the shape while the rice is still wrapped. When you're satisfied, unwrap and place the rice on the prepared plate.

5. Repeat with the rest of the rice. You want to do this while the rice is still hot, so try to be quick. Spread the rice balls with the miso mixture.

6. Spread some oil on the cooking surface of the grill. Sear the two surfaces of the onigiri briefly on the grill. The miso spread will burn pretty quickly and the rice is already cooked, so it's a rather fast process. If you have shiso leaves, warp each onigiri in a shiso leaf for a tasty option. (Plus it keeps the eaters' hands from mess.)

Note: Yakionigiri can successfully made in a toaster oven, too, instead of on a grill. Put the rice balls on a piece of aluminum foil and broil them until the spread gets seared in places. This is an easier method than grilling, though it does lack the mouthwatering aroma of the woodsmoke on the yakionigiri.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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