Lettuce Wraps with Pork, Cilantro, Crunchy Chow Mein Noodles, Peanuts & Sriracha


It was a typical summer in Japan, hot and humid with the occasional torrential downpour and thunderstorm. In an effort to save money on our bills, we played this silly game where we would see how far into the summer we could make it without turning on our air conditioner (once we made it until the beginning of August!) Absurd, yes, but there it is.

So our little Japanese apartment was obviously warm, but we had several fans going that made it bearable. I thought that lettuce wraps might be a good meal for a hot evening. I washed the lettuce leaves then got the “brilliant” idea (blame the heat?) to throw them in the freezer for a minute to keep them cold while we set the table. Ha. You know what happens when you put lettuce in the freezer? All the moisture in the leaves freezes almost immediately, and then when you take them out, they defrost immediately, leaving you with pathetic wilty leaves. Awesome. I can’t believe I just told that story. That night we enjoyed the lettuce wrap filling on its own, and I think I made some steamed rice to go with it. Needless to say, I never blogged about lettuce wraps. And we might have broken down and turned on the air conditioner.


This time around we were much more successful, and since we live in Santa Cruz and most houses don’t even have air conditioners, we’ll never play that ridiculous game again.  Leaves from a beautiful head of red leaf lettuce remained in the refrigerator until dinner time and were perfectly crisp and ready to be filled with seasoned pork, bright green cilantro, crunchy chow mein noodles (from a can, yes, but oh so good), peanuts, and plenty of Sriracha to spice it all up.


Lettuce Wraps with Pork, Cilantro, Crunchy Chow Mein Noodles, Peanuts & Sriracha

1/2 TBS. canola oil
1/2 TBS. sesame oil
1 lb. ground pork
1 TBS. grated or minced ginger
1 TBS. minced garlic
2 green onions, diced
2 TBS. soy sauce
1 TBS. mirin
1 TBS. rice vinegar
1/2 TBS. oyster sauce*
1 small spoonful of peanut butter
2 tsp. agave nectar
1 head of red leaf lettuce, leaves separated, washed and dried
Cilantro leaves
Crunchy Chow Mein Noodles, such as La Choy
Roasted, salted peanuts
Sriracha

*This can be omitted if you don’t have it on hand – we used it to add a little thickness and saltiness to the sauce

  • Add the canola oil and sesame oil to a large skillet and heat over medium high heat. Add the ground pork and cook until no longer pink, using a wooden spoon to break up the meat. If there is any fat, drain with a spoon. Return skillet to medium heat. Add the garlic, ginger and cook for several minutes, stirring frequently. Add the green onions and stir to combine.
  • In a small bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, mirin, rice vinegar, oyster sauce, peanut butter, and agave nectar. Taste and adjust ingredients as necessary. These lettuce wraps are very adaptable to your tastes!
  • Add the sauce to the pork mixture and cook over medium high heat, stirring, until it reduces slightly and incorporates into the meat.
  • Transfer the pork mixture to a serving bowl. Place your lettuce leaves on a serving platter. Put the cilantro, chow mein noodles, and peanuts in little bowls and place everything on the table for everyone to serve themselves. Don’t forget the bottle of Sriracha!

To go with our lettuce wraps, I used a vegetable peeler to make shavings of daikon (Japanese white radish) and carrot, tossed with a little sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, sugar & salt to taste, and a sprinkling of black sesame seeds.

Advertisements

Gyoza


Thank goodness for gyoza. It sustained us for a couple evenings during that first week in Japan when we were still jet-lagged, everything felt so foreign, and we hadn’t yet learned how to navigate our supermarket across the street. When we got up the courage to walk in, we were bombarded with bright florescent lights, foreign sounds, and (hallelujah) the prepared foods section, where we were immediately drawn to something familiar – plastic packages containing 6 perfectly browned gyoza, with a packet of dipping sauce on the side. We threw several packages into our basket, fumbled our way through the check-out line, and made it home. We heated them up in a pan (the one pan that was in our furnished apartment), poured the prepared dipping sauce packet into a small bowl, and made our first batch of rice in our rice cooker. It was one of our first dinners in our little Japanese apartment, and to this day we still talk about how delicious and comforting that supermarket’s gyoza was. It was also a good opportunity to practice our chopstick skills before going out in public :).


Toward the end of our two and a half years in Japan (and after buying countless packages of that prepared gyoza), we finally learned how to make it from one of our dear friends and colleagues, a woman named Chihiro. We sat around a table one spring afternoon, spooning a ground pork and cabbage mixture into gyoza wrappers and pinching the ends together. Even though we didn’t have much proficiency in each other’s languages, we still managed to share plenty of stories and laughs. It’s amazing how food crosses language and cultural barriers and brings people together. We hope that you’ll try this recipe and enjoy assembling the gyoza with the people you care about as well.


Sadly, in the move from Japan back to California, the recipe that Chihiro shared with us got lost in the shuffle. To make this gyoza, I looked at several recipes to try to find something similar. We ended up using Morimoto’s recipe, but added several things to the filling, including minced garlic, fresh ginger, a splash of soy sauce and sake, and sesame oil.


Gyoza

(Adapted from Morimoto: The New Art of Japanese Cooking)

For the Gyoza:

3 cups finely shredded Napa cabbage
2 green onions, chopped
1 TBS. coarse salt
1 lb. ground pork, preferably something on the fatty side like shoulder
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1 garlic clove, minced
1 TBS. soy sauce
1 TBS. sake
1 TBS. sesame oil
1 package gyoza wrappers (10-12 oz.)
1/4 cup vegetable oil

For the Dipping Sauce:

soy sauce
seasoned rice vinegar (if unseasoned, add salt & sugar to taste)
sesame oil
agave nectar
Japanese chili pepper blend (Nanami Togarashi)
water to dilute

  • Toss the cabbage with the chopped green onions and the salt in a medium bowl. Let stand for 10 minutes or until cabbage is very wilted. Rinse and drain in a colander. Squeeze the cabbage and green onions, a handful at a time, to extract as much liquid as possible.
  • Place the cabbage and green onions in a mixing bowl. Add the ground pork, pepper, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, sake, and sesame oil. Add a tiny pinch of salt, but not too much because the cabbage has already been salted. Mix everything together gently, but thoroughly.
  • Fill a small bowl with water. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and dust it with cornstarch. Place 1-2 teaspoons of the pork and cabbage filling into the center of a gyoza wrapper. Dip your finger into the water and moisten the edges of the wrapper. Bring one edge of the wrapper up over the filling to meet the other edge. Press the edges together firmly. Place the gyoza on the parchment pepper, plumping the bottom of the gyoza so that it stands with the pinched-together part facing up. Repeat with remaining filling and wrappers. Cover and refrigerate until ready to cook (can be made up to 4 hours ahead).
  • Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Heat 2 TBS. of the oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until the oil is very hot but not sizzling. Place half the gyoza in the skillet, pinched part up, letting the gyoza touch each other (traditionally, they are served attached to each other, but it’s fine if they don’t!) Let cook for several minutes. Add 2/3 cup of water to the skillet and cover tightly. Cook for 5 minutes, adding more water if it evaporates before the 5 minutes is up. Cook until water is evaporated and the gyoza are nicely browned on the bottoms, about 7 minutes total. Invert the gyoza onto a platter and place in the oven to keep warm. Repeat with remaining 2 TBS. of oil and gyoza. Depending on the size of your skillet, you might need to do a third batch, adding a little extra oil.
  • To make the dipping sauce, combine equal parts soy sauce and rice vinegar in a small bowl. Add a little splash of sesame oil, a sprinkle of Japanese  chili pepper blend, and a little agave nectar for sweetness. Stir together. Add water to dilute the sauce slightly. Taste and adjust amount of water or ingredients until it tastes right to you. It should be a nice balance of salty, sweet, and sour, with a little spice.
  • Serve the gyoza with a bowl of steamed rice and the dipping sauce on the side. Add a salad with sesame dressing and you have a comforting Japanese dinner!

Tori no Karaage (Japanese Fried Chicken) with Wasabi-Potato Salad


My Japanese cookbook translates this recipe as “Fried Chicken Chunks,” but I don’t think that name does it justice. We nostalgically refer to Tori no Karaage (which means “fried chicken”) as “Japanese festival chicken” because whether the occasion was cherry blossom-viewing in the spring or a hanabi (fireworks) show in the summer, we could always count on there being a fried chicken stand (which was more appealing to us than the whole-squid-on-a-stick stand). As you walk through a Japanese festival, the air smells like a sweet and savory combination of fried food, seafood, and caramelized soy sauce (the latter comes from the squid-on-a-stick; It’s doused in a sweet soy sauce before being grilled over an open flame). If you don’t read Japanese, don’t worry; all of the food stands have a banner displaying a cute little cartoon of the animal they’re cooking, such as a chicken, octopus or squid.

What makes Japanese fried chicken unique is that it’s marinaded in soy sauce and sake first, and then coated in potato (or corn) starch before being deep-fried, producing a very flavorful, moist inside and a distinct, crispy coating. It’s great eaten hot out of the oil for dinner with mayonnaise and spicy Japanese mustard for dipping, or eaten cold in a bento box for lunch. It’s also a popular beer snack. You’ll find this dish on the menu at izakaya, Japanese bars that also serve snacks.


We decided to make wasabi potato salad to go with our Japanese fried chicken. Just as American fried chicken and potato salad often go together at 4th of July BBQs, you’ll find potato salad (along with macaroni salad) in the prepared foods section of Japanese grocery stores, conveniently located right next to all of the fried food offerings.


Japanese Mayonnaise – “Kyu-pi Ma-yo-ne-zu

A couple weeks ago, a friend (and English student) of ours from Japan sent us a package with lots of Japanese goodies, including the makings for Japanese potato salad: Japanese mayonnaise (which is slightly sweeter than the American variety and packaged in a squeeze bottle made of soft plastic), wasabi, and a bottle of Japanese pepper (Sanshou, which comes from the Sanshou plant and can be eaten in leaf or powder form). You mix those three ingredients into finely chopped boiled potatoes and you have authentic Japanese potato salad! I also added some sliced cucumber, because the supermarket that was across the street from our apartment prepared it that way and I have fond memories of eating it for lunch.

(If you want to read more about Japan’s love for fried foods, you might enjoy this old post, which I’ll resurrect for you. I talked about kushi-katsu restaurants that serve various fried foods on sticks that you dip into a communal sauce at your table. Sound fun?)


Tori no Karaage (Japanese Fried Chicken)

(Adapted from this little Japanese cookbook that one of my English students gave me called Japanese Favorites by Angela Nahas. It didn’t exist on Amazon, otherwise I’d link to it :))

16 oz. chicken tenders (or boneless-skinless chicken breasts), cut into bite-sized pieces
3 tsp. soy sauce
3 tsp. sake*
1 tsp. sesame oil
4 TBS. potato or corn starch
Canola oil for deep-frying

* We didn’t have time to run to the store, so I just used mirin, a Japanese rice cooking wine

  • In a medium bowl, combine the chicken, soy sauce, sake and sesame oil. Cover and let marinate for at least 30 min. or overnight. Meanwhile, place the potato (or corn) starch in a large ziplock bag.
  • Drain the chicken and place it in the bag with the starch. Close bag securely and shake until the chicken pieces are well coated. Add a little more starch if needed.
  • Heat the oil in a wok (or medium saucepan) until bubbles start to form around the handle of a wooden spoon when it’s lowered into the oil (this is a cool little trick I learned from the book!) Fry the chicken in batches, about 3-4 min. for each batch, or until chicken is golden brown, turning once.
  • Drain on paper towels and serve with wasabi potato salad. Serves 3-4.


Wasabi Potato Salad

yellow new potatoes or yukon gold potatoes, peeled (about 1 lb. for 2 people)
Japanese mayonnaise, to taste
wasabi, to taste
Japanese Sanshou pepper, to taste (or regular black pepper)
thinly sliced English cucumbers (optional)

  • Place the peeled potatoes in a pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, then simmer, uncovered, until potatoes are tender. Drain and allow potatoes to cool.
  • Finely chop potatoes and transfer to a bowl. Add a couple good squeezes of Japanese mayonnaise, a squeeze of wasabi, and season with Japanese pepper. Mix well. Taste and add more mayo, wasabi and/or pepper if needed. Add the sliced cucumbers right before serving and gently mix to combine.

Baked Fusilli with Marinara, Three Cheeses & Spinach


While making this baked fusilli, my mind wandered to Japan and its cheese situation. We used to travel 15-30 minutes on the train to various import food stores, where we’d pay an exorbitant amount for “exotic” cheeses like cheddar, parmesan, and mozzarella. At regular Japanese supermarkets, some of the few cheeses available were “pizza cheese” (shredded, mild white cheese), and cottage cheese, which for some reason was more like ricotta cheese in texture and taste. One of our fellow English teachers found that Japanese cottage cheese was a good substitute for ricotta in her baked ziti recipe. Sure enough, we tried it and it was true! We were reminded of that baked ziti when we tasted this pasta dish, but for this recipe we were able to purchase the ricotta we needed, and at a reasonable price! It’s sort of a cheater dish, because we used our favorite jarred marinara (Newman’s Own Organic), but we don’t mind cutting corners when we have an almost-crawling 8 month old!

As a side-note, over dinner we were reminiscing about our English classes and remembered that one of our students said that her favorite lasagna recipe (given to her by an American English teacher) included cream of mushroom soup. We had never heard of this before! Has anyone actually put cream of mushroom soup in lasagna!?  The idea sort of offends me, but maybe it’s a regional thing (?)

Baked Fusilli with Marinara, 3 Cheeses & Spinach

3/4 lb. Fusilli
2 TBS. extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
2 bunches of spinach, trimmed and washed
Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper
1 24-oz. jar of your favorite Marinara (you’ll use about 3/4 of it; save the rest for another use)
1 tub of Ricotta
4 oz. fresh Mozzerella, grated
grated Parmesan

  • Cook the fusilli in boiling water for a little less time than indicated on the package so that it’s pretty al dente.  Drain and set aside.
  • In a large skillet over medium heat, sauté garlic in olive oil until fragrant and beginning to turn golden, about 1 minute. Add the spinach and stir until wilted. If skillet becomes dry, add a tiny bit of water. Season with a little kosher salt & freshly ground pepper.
  • Add 3/4 of the jar of Marinara to the wilted spinach, a couple dollops of ricotta cheese, and a small handful of Parmesan. Stir to combine.
  • Pour the cooked pasta into the skillet with the sauce and gently toss to combine. Pour half the pasta/sauce mixture into a greased baking dish. Scatter several more dollops of ricotta over the pasta. Pour the remaining pasta/sauce mixture over the ricotta. Top with a liberal amount of shredded Mozzerella cheese, and another small handful of Parmesan.
  • Bake at 375 until the cheese is melted and the whole thing is starting to bubble, about 15-20 min. Place under the broiler for the last minute so the cheese can brown nicely. Let rest a few minutes before serving. Serves 3-4 (or 2 hungry people with leftovers).

Yakitori


We miss our “yakitori man.” There was a supermarket right across the street from our apartment in Japan, and every Friday a man would set up a little red cart right out front. Starting at about 10 am, we’d start to smell that sweet sauce brushed over skewered chicken (and other meats) cooking over an open flame, and it became the official smell of Fridays in Japan. Especially in the winter (because the warmth of the grill felt good in the 20 degree air), we would walk across the street to get yakitori for dinner. We were the only foreigners in our neighborhood, so I wonder if he thought it was slightly odd that these Americans stood in his line on Fridays and butchered the ordering of his tasty, skewered treats.

In Japanese, the counting system is far from consistent. Depending on the shape of the item (flat, round, stick-like) or the state of its being (animal, human, large electrical appliance) there is a different way to count. Of course the first time we tried to order 8 yakitori skewers, we used the wrong word for 8, and he kindly corrected us. That’s how we learned the correct way to order 8 stick-like objects.

The chicken itself was never the best quality. In fact, most of the pieces were more fat than meat. But the sauce that the yakitori man brushed on those skewers as they were cooking was so addicting, that somehow we tolderated the fatty chicken and ate it anyway. To enjoy yakitori at home, we recommend using boneless skinless thigh meat, like we did last night. Serve the skewers over steamed white rice and some cucumber salad (marinate sliced cucumbers in rice vinegar, sliced chiles, and salt and sugar to taste), because something pickled cuts through the richness of the sauce and the slight amount of fat on the chicken.

Yakitori

(serves 3-4)

1 1/2 lb. boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup mirin (Japanese sweet cooking wine)
1-2 TBS. brown sugar
5 green onions (thick green onions work best)
6-8 bamboo skewers

  • Combine equal parts soy sauce and mirin (we used about 1/4 cup each), and the brown sugar in a large baking dish that’s long enough for the skewers to fit into.  Taste and add more brown sugar if you like a sweeter sauce. Add the chicken pieces and toss well to coat. Marinate in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or overnight.
  • Meanwhile, soak bamboo skewers in water.
  • Slice the thick part of the green onions into 1-inch long pieces, reserving the thinner green part for another use. Set aside. Prepare your grill (use charcoal for best taste!)
  • Assemble the yakitori. Take the chicken pieces out of the marinade and put on the skewers, along with the green onion pieces. Grill for 5-6 minutes on each side, or until chicken is browned and cooked through.
  • Serve with steamed rice, cucumber salad, and miso soup.

Vegetable Lo Mein with Salmon


Our bowls and chopsticks often inspire me to make dinner. Each one tells a different story and conjures up a different time and place. These bowls were hand-crafted at a local artisan shop downtown and were given to us as a wedding gift 3 1/2 years ago. I love that they have little indentations on the edge for resting your chopsticks. The chopsticks came from a student of ours in Japan as a goodbye present. My decision to make something Asian-inspired for dinner came from looking at these bowls and wanting to eat something out of them! Stir fried noodles seemed appropriate because it was one of our weeknight standby meals in Japan. I don’t know how it never made it on the blog, but finally it’s making an appearance. We enjoyed a nice Junmai-style sake (best when served at room temp) with this meal and it transported me back to our tiny apartment in Osaka.

Vegetable Lo Mein with Salmon:

1 package Chinese Style Noodles (such as Nasoya brand)
3 to 4 TBS. canola oil
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 white onion, diced
1 cup snowpeas, ends trimmed and cut in half
1 cup sliced shitake mushroom, stems removed
a small head of broccoli, florets removed, and stems cut into equal-sized pieces
3 to 4 TBS. soy sauce
1 TBS. hot chili sauce (such as Sriracha)
2 TBS. rice wine vinegar
2 tsp. mirin
2 tsp. brown sugar
salt & pepper to taste
3/4 lb salmon, cooked and flaked*

*This recipe is ideal for using up leftover salmon (or other meat), but this time we cooked ours on the same night: We preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a small bowl, Dustin mixed up our usual Honey-Soy Glaze that we often put on tuna in Japan. We poured some of the glaze mixture over the salmon in a baking dish before putting it in the oven, then based it every 10 minutes until the salmon was done (about 20 minutes) and we could easily flake it with a fork.

  • Cook the noodles according to package directions (we boiled them for 3 minutes), drain, rinse with cold water, and drain again. Set aside.
  • Heat the oil in a wok until very hot. Add the onion and garlic and stir fry for 1 minute. Add the broccoli and put a lid down over the veggies for about 3 minutes to speed up the cooking. Remove the lid and add the shitake mushrooms and snowpeas. Stir fry for about 2 minutes. Add soy sauce, vinegar, chili sauce to taste (we add a lot), mirin, brown sugar, and salt & pepper to taste. Stir together with the veggies. Tilt the wok so the sauce runs to one side. Cook sauce over the heat for a minute until it begins to thicken a little, then combine with the veggies again.
  • Add the noodles to the wok, and drizzle a little oil over them (about 1 tsp). Stir fry for a few minutes, combining them with the veggies and sauce. We found using tongs worked best for this!
  • Add the flaked salmon and toss to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Serve in your most beautiful bowls 🙂

Blueberry Streusel Muffins


What makes blueberry muffins even better? A crumbly cinnamon & sugar topping! I made these several times in Japan for my students. In true Japanese fashion, the students would always request that the muffins be divided into quarters. Then they would eat one quarter at a time (until they had eaten a whole muffin) with a small dessert fork. Picking up a whole muffin and biting into it must be an American thing! Anyway, cultural differences aside, this is a very easy and delicious muffin recipe that’s even better made with fresh blueberries. Try this crumb topping on any muffin!

Blueberry Streusel Muffins
(From Annie’s Eats via Allrecipes.com)

1 ½ cups flour
3/4 cups sugar

1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking powder
1/3 cup vegetable oil

1 egg

1/3 cup milk

1 cup blueberries (or more)


For streusel topping:

1/4 cup sugar
2 TBS. and 2 tsp. flour

2 TBS. cold butter, cubed

3/4 tsp. cinnamon

  • Preheat the oven to 400°. Grease or line 8 muffin wells with muffin liners.
  • In a bowl, combine flour, sugar, salt and baking powder. Place vegetable oil into a 1 cup measuring cup; add the egg and enough milk to fill the cup. Mix this with flour mixture.
  • Fold in blueberries. Pour into lined muffin cups; fill to the top.
  • Make streusel topping by combining the listed ingredients and mix well with a fork until crumbly. Sprinkle over tops of muffins.
  • Bake at 400° for 20-25 minutes. Makes 8 large muffins.