Friday, November 16, 2007

Iron Chef Japan is Back!

Ok, that's a totally misleading headline.

But it's the one I thought up as soon as we figured out what's going on for dinner tonight.

See, in order to thank my aunt and my cousin for all their hospitality and time, I decided I would make dinner - hopefully something I'm actually good at if I can find the ingredients. Makoto, as the resident professional chef, could not be one-upped, so he volunteered to make a dish, too.

Instead of being competitive, however, it wound up being collaborative. But considering the limited availability of ingredients, it sort of became Iron Chef anyway, considering the amount of improvisation that needed to be done. By the time dinner was made, for instance, I wished I'd just smuggled in some crême fraiche from overseas. It was that dire. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The first task was coming up with a potential menu. Makoto wanted to show off some chops he picked up in Italy, so he volunteered to make some kind of spaghetti. Talk about going for low-hanging fruit. Well, I had to make something to complement pasta, so I decided on chicken Milanese, paired with a nice, rustic French tartiflette - something warm and rich to fight off the crazy cold evening weather.

With only a few hitches, our grocery trip was a goldmine. Besides ingredients we already had at home, we ended up with amazingly fresh quail and chicken eggs, a box of organic tomatoes, delicious Hokkaido butter, beef bouillion (in lieu of actual stock), sour cream (in lieu of crême fraiche), chicken breasts, a (small) block of bacon, clams, elephant garlic (in lieu of shallots), a lemon, two kinds of button mushrooms in crazy cute packaging and of even cuter size, baby asparagus, Parmesean Reggiano (more on that later), Camembert (one of 12 varieties on offer, none of which were convincing), a miniature bunch of parsley, spaghetti, olives, capers. Oh, and the ace up my sleeve, Kobe-style beef.

The crazy part was all this was less than $35. Granted, some of the volumes are much smaller than at home, but it was more than adequate to feed four. The sad part is when I shop like this to cook for myself and Alannah back at home, the tally is usually well over $50. Who said Japan's expensive??

I started doing all my prep work as Makoto started cutting his tomatoes to make a pomodoro sauce from scratch. He got blindsided by the total lack of basil for sale (he thought because they had some at the herb garden yesterday that it should be no problem getting it at the super...) and had to steal some of my parsley. After I took the time cutting it into fine bits, of course. I sliced my potatoes and my mushrooms, cut my bacon into three different textures, made a cup of beef bouillon, minced the garlic, sliced the lemons... And then I got to the cheese.

All I have to say is: Double-you. Tee. Eff.

I opened the container of Parmesean and saw six laughing-cow like wedges inside. Ok, maybe it's cut that way for easier grating. Then I pick up a piece, unwrap it, and it looks, smells, and tastes just like... Laughing Cow. I open the package of Camembert and... same thing. I immediately got to work slicing the stuff thin, hoping to god it would at least melt.

The asparagus was easy. In fact, before Makoto started on his pasta, I had him blanch it in the hot water pot, and as soon as I started putting ice in a bowl, he knew to just shock it after he pulled the greens out. I have to say, it's fucking awesome working in the kitchen with an actual chef. (No offense at all to those I've cooked with before. You've all been perfectly wonderful in the kitchen. Just that Makoto's more wonderful.)

Pounding the chicken flat, dredging it in egg, and then in Panko (which, being Japanese, is incredibly ubiquitous here) was just as easy and routine. Cooking it was something else.

You see, the kitchen is tiny. Besides the counters being dwarf size (Makoto, his brother and I are the only people on this side of the family who break 5'7"). There are two electric induction cooktops inside, as well as a miniature range with two gas burners in the vestibule just outside the kitchen. Pots and pans suitable for each are minimal. The burners don't get industrial- nor enthusiast-quality hot.

Slowly, this was becoming less Iron Chef than another Food Network TV show, Dinner: Impossible.

My breasts weren't hot enough to fry up golden-brown without overcooking.

My demi-glace wouldn't thicken well because I had to substitute a bouillon cube for real stock, and temperature control was difficult. That and I used elephant garlic instead of shallot. It doesn't cook down, so instead of adding a bit of body to the sauce, it just added flavor - the rest I had to skim out.

I was stressing about my tartiflette, because a) it's in a little oven that looks like a kids' microwave playset, b) the cheese isn't melting, and c) the sour cream had the consistency of ricotta cheese.

I had to ditch my plans for Kobe beef tartare with quail egg because a) there's no cutting board large enough to double-fist the sharp-ass santoku knives - or even single fist one, and b) time's almost up.

Ok, there was no set time limit, but we'd all skipped lunch and were hungry, and we had to get food served fast.

In a flurry of activity at the end, it was like simultaneous climax. That is, it all, uh, came together. A few minutes of panic transformed into magical calm. We didn't have many plates, so we had to go a bit mixto. Makoto served up a pile of his spaghetti in tomato and clam sauce. I used it as a bed for my chicken breast Milanese. There wasn't any room left after that, so the tartiflette and asparagus got served up family style.

The demi-glace never thickened at all, so I just poured it over the asparagus to give it some tang. Oh, and a couple of tiny spoonfuls went on top of the panko fritters I'd improvised... Ok, I just dumped the remaining panko into the remaining eggs and dropped little spoons of it into the (semi-)hot oil.

Overall? It was actually a pretty damn brilliant meal. We'd made something heavy enough to fill us up nicely. Hearty enough to warm us up on a chilly night. And classy enough that accolades went around the table for all. Even the crazy cheap (¥800) bottle of French cabernet-syrah was pretty damn good.

Honestly, though, I think it was the toughest meal I've ever had to make. I had to cater to Aunt Izumi's typically Japanese palate and sensitive tummy. I had to impress my chef cousin. And I had to satisfy my second toughest critic: Mom. (I'm my own toughest, of course.) All that in one of the most rinky-dink, understocked kitchens I've encountered in my post-collegiate days. Hell, cooking at a campground is easier, because you prepare for it days in advance.

Cooking in other countries is always tough, unless you're going native. The ingredients aren't always what you expect. There are always things that are missing or unattainable. And the cooking facilities can be completely different simply based on the style of cooking dictated by the country's culture. But if you know what you're doing, you can make it work. And if you don't know what you're doing (which is my situation most of the time, even at home), just improvise your way through it.

Buono appetito!

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