Lately, since I've had a chance to unpack my cookbooks from Japan, I've been browsing through them and looking at the pictures and that has awakened a wave of nostalgia and a craving for some of my favourite Japanese dishes.
Besides the cool salad greens that I spoke about in my last post, Japan has a wide variety of more fibrous greens meant for cooking and saucing. Japanese sauces tend to be rather simple, relying on the standards of soy sauce, sugar, mirin, sake, dashi, Japanese vinegar, which is milder than most vinegars available in the west, and of course, herbs like shiso and seasonings like sesame seeds. Known as goma in Japan, toasted sesame seeds make frequent appearances in sauces for cooked greens and are available fresh daily in the ready-to-eat section of almost all supermarkets.
One of the most simple sauces, this sesame dressing has only three ingredients: toasted sesame seeds (usually the white variety), sugar, and soy sauce. Despite its simplicity it is a taste star, shining and glowing when it's used to dress simple boiled greens. If you live in Japan you know how good this is, because you have already eaten it ready-prepared. What you might not know is that if you make it at home it has about three hundred per cent more flavour and it is so good that if you serve it to anyone who hasn't had it homemade, they are going to be really impressed.
It might be your secret how easy it was to make, or you might want to pass the recipe around to your friends so everyone can enjoy it. This recipe also has the virtue of being easy to make outside Japan, with a totally authentic flavour. You can't say that about that many Japanese foods because of the poor quality of ingredients usually available in supermarkets in North America. If you have access to a Japanese or Asian store you may be able to get good quality ingredients, and in that case consider yourself very lucky.
But here in the country, in Canada, I lucked onto a bonanza of good quality Japanese ingredients at the near-by town's Superstore. If you live near a Superstore look in the imported and health food sections for such things as Koyo brand nori from Japan, Koyo tamari (wheat free and organic no less and the tastiest sauce I've had outside Japan), umeshu (Japanese plum wine or vinegar), two kinds of miso, wasabi powder, and in the health food section, large bags of raw sesame seeds that can be toasted for this sauce. If they don't have these ingredients and you want them, I'm sure you could make a request because they have them on the stock lists.
Enjoy these greens with rice and any other side dishes you like. They would be lovely with fried tofu, grilled vegetables, tofu-burgers, anything really. They are very savoury so add a punch to any meal. Go on, treat yourself or someone you care about.
Spinach with Sesame Dressing/ Horenso no goma ae
About 1 - 1 & 1/2 cups, serves 2-4 as a small side dish
1 large bunch/ bag of fresh spinach
3 Tb toasted sesame seeds
1 Tb soy sauce/tamari sauce
2 Tb sugar (I used light brown)
Wash the spinach in plenty of water in a pot and then add water to cover and bring to a slow boil or simmer and cook for two minutes. Drain the water from the pot or put in a colander just to remove the water. You can save the water for soup if you like. Please refrigerate or freeze it in this heat.
Cover the spinach with cold water and swish it around for a minute until it is cool, then squeeze most of the water out with your hands and put it on a plate.
While the spinach is cooking you can also be toasting the sesame seeds. If you are in Japan, you may want to use the ready-toasted ones, but I can't promise the same fresh flavour.
Put the 3 Tb of seeds in a hot cast iron or other pan, ungreased, and stir them over low to medium-low heat until they are a bit golden and are smelling good. This will take a couple of minutes usually. I always taste a few seeds to see if they are toasted enough, but if you do this be careful as they will be hot. Keep swirling them around with the back of the spoon so they will toast evenly and when they are done put them in a bowl or on a plate to cool, as they might burn if left in the hot pan.
Put the seeds in a food processor or a suribachi (mortar and pestle) and grind them to a powder. It may help to add the sugar to the seeds for this. Last, add the 1 Tb of soy sauce or tamari and finish by whirling briefly to get a paste that looks like the following picture.
You may want to add a few tablespoons of the water you cooked the spinach in if the paste or greens seem too dry to combine. Don't add too much, though, because the dish is meant to have a dry paste sauce.
Mix the sauce with the cooked spinach well. It may take a minute or so to distribute the sauce through the spinach. Don't leave big lumps of sauce. Serve immediately for best flavour, or keep the spinach and sauce separate until just before serving.
It's a rather small recipe so unless you are alone you can probably finish it in one meal. Put the leftovers, if any, in the next day's lunch box.