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Celebrating Japanese simplicity

 

J.B. FORBES/TNS
Donburi Soboro takes common American ingredients — eggs, ground beef — and uses them in unexpected ways.

I was 8 years old when I first had Japanese food. I still remember every detail.

It was my first trip to San Francisco. The restaurant had a red lantern outside, and when we came in we were asked to remove our shoes. We walked shoeless on tatami mats to the tables, which raised just slightly over the level of the floor with a hollowed space underneath for our feet.

And I had what I thought then – and considered for many years after that – to be the finest meal of my life.

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The restaurant was called Mingei-Ya, and we dined on a dish they called o-mizu-taki. It was thin slices of beef and vegetables that we cooked ourselves in a pot of simmering stock. And it was memorable enough to be recalled with great pleasure nearly 50 years later.

Imagine my thrill, then, when I was skipping like a stone across the internet a few years ago and discovered that the restaurant, Mingei-Ya, had published a cookbook back in 1969. It was out of print, but used copies were available from various sources.

I happily snagged one and have been using it for inspiration ever since.

Mingei-Ya specialized in rustic Japanese cooking, the humble but delicious meals you would find in the countryside. As with all Japanese cooking, simplicity is key, along with elegance and beauty. The flavors speak for themselves.

It is with fond memories of that meal I had in San Francisco that I decided this week to dip my chopsticks into Japanese cuisine. I used the Mingei-Ya cookbook, “Japanese Country Cookbook,” as my guide for all four recipes.

I chose not re-create the o-mizu-taki, however, because to do so properly requires a hot pot, which most Americans do not have. I have made it in an ordinary pot, and the result tastes great but you miss out on the convivial cooking-at-the-table aspect that is such an important part of the meal.

Even without the o-mizu-taki, I could not have been more pleased with the four dishes I made.

PICKLED FRESH MUSHROOMS

Yield: 4 servings

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1 cup vinegar, preferably rice or sherry vinegar

1 cup soy sauce

Pickled Fresh Mushrooms made with shiitakes or cremini are mild and not too vinegary.

1 cup granulated sugar

Salt, if desired

1 pound mushrooms, shiitake or cremini, halved or quartered if large

Boil vinegar, soy sauce sugar and salt, if using. Add mushrooms and boil for 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit 5 to 10 minutes. Remove mushrooms from liquid and serve hot or cold.

PER SERVING: 265 calories; 1 g fat; no saturated fat; no cholesterol; 8 g protein; 56 g carbohydrate; 52 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 3,506 mg sodium; 28 mg calcium

DONBURI SOBORO

Yield: 4 servings

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 carrots, minced

2 scallions, minced

4 to 6 ounces ground beef

8 ounces tofu, diced into ½-inch cubes

½ bunch spinach or ½ cup frozen, chopped

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

4 tablespoons soy sauce

Salt

4 eggs

Hot cooked rice

In a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat, heat oil and sauté carrots until tender. Add scallions and cook until limp. Add beef, breaking it up to prevent formation of chunks. Cook until brown. Add tofu, spinach, sugar, soy sauce and salt to taste. Cook on low until heated through, stirring carefully so tofu doesn’t crumble.

Beat eggs and add to the mixture, cook and stir carefully until done, about 4 to 5 minutes. Put hot rice in 4 bowls and top with the meat-egg mixture. Add hot sauce, if desired.

PER SERVING: 392 calories; 18 g fat; 4 g saturated fat; 204 mg cholesterol; 22 g protein; 36 g carbohydrate; 9 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 1,067 mg sodium; 202 mg calcium

CHICKEN SUKIYAKI

Yield: 4 servings

1½ pounds boneless chicken breasts

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

¼ cup chicken stock or water

Chicken Sukiyaki (Niwa Tori Sukiyaki) is a satisfying cross between a stew and a stir-fry.

1 onion, sliced thin

2 carrots, parboiled 1 minute and sliced thin on diagonal

8 ounces bamboo shoots (canned is fine)

2 ribs of celery, sliced thin on diagonal

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1½ teaspoons granulated sugar

1 bunch spinach

8 large mushrooms, sliced

Cut chicken breasts in crosswise slices. Heat oil in a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat until very hot. Add the chicken and brown slightly, tossing often. Add stock carefully, to guard against splatter. Add onion, carrots, bamboo shoots, celery, soy sauce and sugar. Simmer and stir for 5 minutes. Add spinach and mushrooms and cook until spinach is wilted. Serve hot with rice.

PER SERVING: 332 calories; 12 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 105 mg cholesterol; 45 g protein; 12 g carbohydrate; 5 g sugar; 5 g fiber; 713 mg sodium; 134 mg calcium

SHRIMP MEATBALLS

Yield: 4 servings

1 pound shrimp, cleaned and ground or minced fine

2 scallions, chopped fine

2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon soy sauce, divided

Shrimp Meatballs (Ebi Dango) are simmered in a broth flavored with soy sauce and served with hot rice.

1 beaten egg

4 cups chicken or fish stock

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

1 head Chinese (Napa) cabbage, about 1½ pounds, in 1-inch cubes

8 dry mushrooms, reconstituted

In a large bowl, blend together shrimp, scallions, cornstarch, 1 teaspoon of the soy sauce and egg. In a large pot, season the stock with the remaining 2 tablespoons soy sauce and the sugar, and bring to a boil. Drop spoonfuls of the shrimp mixture into the stock and they will cook into dumplings. When they rise to the surface, they are done. Add cabbage and mushrooms. Cook 7 to 8 minutes, covered, and serve with hot rice.

PER SERVING: 158 calories; 3 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 188 mg cholesterol; 21 g protein; 12 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 2,045 mg sodium; 151 mg calcium

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