Thanks everyone for your kind words of condolence. Much better now and glad to just be trying to gain back some semblance of normal and routine as life marches ever forward.
Speaking of forward, I know this is exceptionally tardy but I wanted to share with you all pictures and stories from way back in November when my cousin stayed at my family’s home over winter break and I decided to use the opportunity to cook together. My first ever attempt at making some of my favorite Japanese ‘comfort foods’, crispy tonkatsu and rich katsudon.
It’s almost unbelievable to think it’s already been ~4 years since my cousin arrived to begin her Master’s at the esteemed Juilliard School. Having her so nearby all this time has been an incredible opportunity for the two of us to get to really know each other, spending many nights and afternoons talking, sharing, and exploring New York and New Jersey. But one of my favorite experiences with her has been helping her learn how to cook. I remember one time going into the city and meeting up with my cousin to go grocery shopping and then make a full meal from scratch in her apartment. So it seemed only natural that, given the time we had over the holidays, I’d want to have another night for the two of us to cook and bond.
This was going to be quite the special occasion for a number of reasons. For one, it was the quality of the ingredients being used, which I’ll discuss more later. For two, it was two days before Christmas and we were all getting into the festive spirit. And last but not least, this would be a rather large undertaking (a meal for six people with three different side dishes and two selections of entrees). For the most part up until now, these cooking experiences with my cousin were simple dishes meant to highlight fast weekday casual meals and simple preparations for easy home cooking. And for the most part we had disparate roles, more like teacher and student than chef and sous chef. But it had been four years, my cousin has in that time become a skilled and confident kitchen presence, and so this was our first opportunity to both really take charge and take equal roles.
The theme of the night’s dinner was Japanese comfort food, and I wanted to really focus on the incredibly delicious and satisfying, deceptively simple looking yet complex in flavor, home meals. For sides we prepared shrimp and seafood gyoza, pork gyoza, and a wakame salad with slices of octopus, tobiko, and toasted sesame seeds. The wakame is a variety of seaweed with a firm chewy texture and slightly sweet flavor. You can find it sold in dried strips in Asian markets, and we first rehydrated and plumped them back up with a mixture of water and seasoned Japanese vinegar. I mixed the wakame with thin slices of cucumber that also slightly pickled in the vinegar mixture, then garnished with slices of boiled octopus, toasted sesame seeds, and tobiko, bright orange flying fish roe with a wonderfully sweet and salty taste that bursts in your mouth. The key to good gyoza (dumplings) is in the balance of steaming them to delicate doneness while frying the bottoms just enough to add crispiness and a slight crust. My cousin was entirely in charge of watching the gyoza, steaming them at first and then, once the water was all evaporated, frying the bottoms to a nice crispiness and creating the gyoza dipping sauce with a blend of soy sauce, sesame oil, and Japanese chili oil.
But the real star (I mean aside from my cousin and I of course) of the night was the incredible Berkshire pork loin I brought home from my local Japanese grocery store. For those of you who might not be familiar with Berkshire pork, consider it the Kobe version of the other white meat. Berkshire pigs are a prized breed from England and are pretty rare. They have an incredibly tender, juicy, and fatty meat with a large amount of marbling that makes it just oh so perfect for frying in high temperature without risk of drying up or becoming tough. Instead it remains tender, moist, and retains so much of its incredible fat and flavor. I would be preparing the pork pretty much the same way but then finishing it in very different styles. The pork I pounded with a mallet just a bit to break up the fibers and further tenderize the meat, then a standard flour, egg, and dip into Japanese panko breadcrumbs flavored with honey. I then deep fried the thick cuts of juicy pork until GBD. Golden brown and delicious. The much coarser style of Japanese breadcrumbs created a beautifully rugged and jagged surface area that crisped and made a satisfyingly loud crunch when I cut into it and the meat inside was perfectly done. The first preparation, tonkatsu, was to serve it sliced right out of the fryer on top of a bed of shredded lettuce alongside a homemade tonkatsu sauce that I made with freshly ground sesame seeds, chili flakes, and a thicker Japanese sauce similar to Worcestershire. This meal is especially popular with students around exam season, as ‘katsu’ in Japanese means ‘to win’, so it’s eaten for good luck. My brother, aunt, and father had it prepared this way. My mother, cousin, and I had it a different way, which is my favorite way to also have grilled eel. After the pork is fried and sliced, I place it in a shallow pan with onions simmering in a broth of soy sauce, rice vinegar, sugar, and dashi broth and then pour an egg on top, cooking it til just barely done, then putting it all over rice with a lot of mistuba, or Japanese parsley. The flavorful simmering liquid soaks into the rice and the still runny egg adds a layer of richness and creaminess.
You should have seen it. My cousin and I moved around that kitchen like a well-oiled professional machine. We finished everything in an hour and a half, and that’s with me finishing a growler of beer and my cousin almost completely downing a bottle of wine on her own. Because drunk cooking is the best kind of cooking and the most fun way of cooking. The constant motion, the sounds and smells, the intense concentration and sense of purpose, it was a great night. And the food? Tasted better than the pictures. But honestly, that’s not the pork, or even the chefs. That’s just plenty of good old-fashioned love.