Inari Sushi

I can’t shake the memory of the savory-sweet inari sushi I had on the train in Japan this past May.

Nishan and I were tired and hungry after a long day in Hakone, a sleepy town at the feet of Mount Fuji and best known for their onsen, or hot springs. We only had ten minutes left to catch the train back to Tokyo so I dashed into a shop and grabbed a small box of inari sushi. It was a welcome treat after a long day in the mountains and we inhaled it down to the last grain of rice on the return train. Each piece of sushi held a different savory and oh-so-slightly sweet filling atop the rice: furikake, tsukemono, shiitake mushrooms, and tamago.

I’ve since learned how to make these delicious parcels and they are much easier to produce than I initially thought. They are simple but filling and perfect for a picnic — or your next train ride.

Mother's Day sushi brunch

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups sushi rice
1 2/3 cups water
1 4-inch piece of kombu seaweed
1/4 cup rice vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 slices abura-age deep-fried tofu
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
1/2 carrot
4 dried shiitake mushrooms
4 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons mirin
2 3/4 cups dashi stock
4 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons sake

1. Make the vinegared rice: soak the kombu seaweed in the water for about one hour to make the stock. Wash the rice 30 minutes prior to cooking and drain on a sieve. Put the vinegar, sugar, and salt in a small pot and heat slightly until dissolved. This completes the vinegar dressing. Place the rice and stock into a rice cooker and cook according to cooker instructions. Transfer the rice to a large bowl and sprinkle with the vinegar dressing. Using a flat wooden spoon, toss the rice with horizontal cutting strokes while cooling the rice with a hand-fan. When tossing is completed, cover the rice with a clean cloth moistened with water.

2. Mix 3/4 cup dashi stock, 1 tablespoon sugar, and 1 teaspoon mirin in a saucepan. Peel the carrot and cut into julienned strips. Add carrot to saucepan and simmer over a low heat until seasoned, about 5 minutes. Set aside.

3. Mix 3/4 cup dashi stock, 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 teaspoon mirin, and 1 tablespoon soy sauce in another saucepan. Soften the dried shiitake mushrooms in warm water and cut into 1/4 inch cubes. Add mushrooms to saucepan and simmer over a low heat until seasoned, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

4. Mix remaining 1 1/2 cups dashi stock, 3 tablespoons sugar, and sake in another saucepan. Place the abura-age tofu in the saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the remaining 3 tablespoons soy sauce to the abura-age simmering liquid, slightly with a lid and simmer until the liquid is mostly gone.

5. Add the sesame, carrot, and shiitake mushrooms to the vinagared rice and mix.

6. Squeed the abura-age lightly to remove moisture. Fill each abura-age pocket with vinagared rice. Adjust the shape and fold the opening. Serve room temperature.

Buttery Dal

Until last year, I didn’t really know how to cook South Asian food. I mean, I’d try, and it’d end horrifically in memorable encounters such as That Time I Attempted A Dubious Fish Curry or In Which We Attempt A Fusiony Chicken Karahi Recipe from Bon Appetit. Needless to say, I thought I was completely incapable of pulling off decent biryani or a passable samosa.

That is, until I tried out this buttery dal. This dal, ladies and gentlemen, was my gateway dish into finally learning how to cook South Asian food, and deliciously at that. There are countless iterations of dal, but this was the first I mastered, and my favorite to date. This is comfort food at its finest.

Buttery Dal

Ingredients:

1 cup lentils (ideally Indian black lentils)
1 bay leaf
4 tablespoons butter
1 1/4 teaspoons cumin seeds, lightly crushed
1 small onion, finely chopped (about 3/4 cup)
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 jalapeno or serrano chile, seeded and finely chopped
salt
1 tomato, chopped
1 teaspoon lemon juice

1. Rinse the lentils and pick out any foreign objects. Put in a bowl, add water to cover by 1 inch, and soak for at least six hours.

2. Drain the lentils and put in a medium saucepan with the bay leaf and 5 cups water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and lower to a simmer. Cook, skimming the foam periodically, until the lentils are tender and beginning to disintegrate, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from heat.

3. Melt the butter in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the cumin seeds; when fragrant (about 1 minute), add the onion, garlic, chile, and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are soft and translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the tomato and another 1/2 teaspoon salt and continue to cook, stirring for 1 minute longer.

4. Add the tomato-onion mixture to the lentils and return to a simmer. Cover the pot partially, lower the heat, and simmer gently for 1 hour to blend the flavors. Remove and discard the bay leaf. Carefully puree half of the dal in a blender (in batches, if necessary) and add it back to the pot.

5. If the dal is runnier than you like, continue to simmer uncovered until it reaches the desired consistency. Stir in the lemon juice, then taste and season with more lemon juice or salt if necessary.

Spicy Anchovy Banchan

This side dish is meant to be a banchan, or one of the small dishes served alongside cooked rice in Korean cuisine. I love it so much that sometimes I eat it on its own, too. It’s chewy, salty, fishy, and perfect with a cold drink. Spicy anchovy banchan, or myeolchi-bokkeum, keeps for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator and can be served at room temperature, making it great for a picnic. This version is adapted from the always wonderful maangchi.com.

Anchovy banchan

Ingredients:

1 cup of medium-small dried anchovies
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon sugar
1 clove minced garlic
1 tablespoon gochujang (hot fermented pepper paste)
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon sesame seeds

1. Make the sauce: mix the gochujang, sugar, garlic, and 1 tablespoon water in a bowl and set aside.
2. Heat a pan over medium-high heat and add anchovies, stirring for 1 minute. Add olive oil and stir-fry for another minute.
3. Push the anchovies to the edge of the pan away from the heat and add the sauce to the cleared spot in the middle of the pan. Simmer until the sauce is shiny, about 30 seconds.
3. Mix the anchovies with the sauce in the pan and then remove from heat. Add sesame oil and sesame seeds and serve.

Dry-Fried Mongolian Beef

I’m going to tell you a story about Mongolian beef: ever since I was ten years old, my family has been going to a Chinese restaurant in Sonoma County that makes the greatest Mongolian beef I’ve ever tasted. Scratch that, it’s one of the best dishes I’ve ever tasted. For over twenty years, it’s ranked among my top three favorite dishes of all time. Naturally, I’ve tried to guess the recipe for this Mongolian beef in an effort to replicate the results at home.

I’ve tried. And I’ve tried. And then I’ve tried at home. I’ve probably attempted fifteen different versions. I just can’t get it right. This version, adapted from an old Martin Yan recipe, is almost right. The original recipe employs lamb but beef works just as well. Curiously enough, this version includes leeks. Don’t omit them, as they’re key in building up a sweet onion flavor.

More than twenty years later, I still haven’t gotten that nostalgic dish 100% right, but until I do, this is the next best thing.

Mongolian lamb

Ingredients:

4 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 pound boneless sirloin beef, thinly sliced across the grain
1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic
12 dried red chiles
2 small leek, cleaned, sliced into 3-inch long pieces and sliced lengthwise into long, thin shreds
1/2 white onion, thinly sliced
3 green onions, cut into 2-inch pieces

1. To make the marinade, combine 2 tablespoons soy sauce, rice wine, and cornstarch in a bowl and mix well. Add the beef and stir to coat evenly. Let marinade for at least 20 minutes.

2. To make the sauce, combine the hoisin sauce, rice vinegar, and remaining 2 tablespoons soy sauce in a bowl and mix well.

3. Place a wok over high heat until hot. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil, swirling to coat the sides. Add the beef and stir-fry until no longer pink, about 3 minutes. Remove the meat to a plate and set aside.

4. Return the wok to high heat and add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil. Add the garlic and chiles and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 10 seconds. Add the leeks and onion and stir-fry until the leeks are wilted, about 1 minute. Return the meat to a pan. Add the sauce and toss to coat. Transfer to a serving plate and serve warm.

Pea Shoots with Soft Tofu

There’s something inherently comforting about soft tofu. Even if you didn’t grow up eating it (and I didn’t), soft tofu is, well, soft. Imagine a soy milk curd blanket, if you will. (Actually, please don’t imagine that.)

In this simple but delicious dish, soft tofu is quickly cooked with tender pea shoots in a light and gingery broth. It’s so good and incredibly healthy. If you can’t find pea shoots, baby spinach or bok choy make good substitutes.

Pea shoots with soft tofu

Ingredients:

1/2 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 pound soft tofu, drained
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon minced ginger
1 teaspoon minced garlic
4 cups fresh pea sprouts
1 teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in 2 teaspoons water

1. To make the sauce, combine the broth, oyster sauce, wine, soy sauce, and sugar in a small bowl until the sugar dissolves.

2. Cut the tofu into 1-inch cubes.

3. Heat a wok over high heat until hot. Add the oil, swirling to coat sides. Add the ginger and garlic and cook, stirring until fragrant, about 10 seconds. Add the pea shoots and stir-fry until they just begin to wilt, about 30 seconds. Add the sauce and bring to a boil. Add the cornstarch mixture and cook, stirring, until the sauce thickens slightly. Add the tofu and cook until heated through. Serve warm or room temperature.