Diane’s Birthday Dinner

At Diane’s request, I made her a nice dinner for her birthday tonight.

It is all-vegetarian, has no refined sugar or refined grains, and wherever possible organic so that Diane wouldn’t blow her macrobiotic diet.

Since I was cooking it I decided to make the meal entirely Zen Buddhist-influenced vegetarian Japanese food.

Clockwise from the left:

  • fresh renkon (lotus root) slices, cooked in vinegar, with a sweet lemon glaze

  • chopsticks-friendly salad: romaine lettuce hearts, daikon sprouts, pomelo, kumkwat slices

  • miso soup with a all-veggie base (Diane doesn’t like bonito dashi)

  • steamed brown rice with ginko nuts

  • main dish: sugar-glazed sweet potato, with a tofu-mushroom-water chestnut okonomiyaki

  • attached to main dish – umeboshi with red and green tsukemono

  • pumpkin cheesecake for dessert. Didn’t you know the Japanese invented cheesecake? Even though a large percentage of them are lactose intolerant? I guess they just liked looking at it. Riiiight. This is the only part of the meal that went “out of bounds,” but I figure, if you’re going to break the rules, you may as well break them in a huge way. Sort of like the way we do the federal budget.

If you don’t have access to the ingredients… you may be out of luck. Since almost everything is a fresh vegetable, there are no substitutions kiddo. Maybe you should live somewhere that doesn’t consider the Twinkie an actual food product. Lobby your grocer to stock more “oriental” food or move to a major metropolitan area nearer the ocean.

Incidentally, I despise how there are “Mexican” and “Oriental” sections in the grocery store- it’s all food, you racists. So I end up shopping at the all-Japanese grocery store which is run by Mexicans. I love California.

Recipes below.

  • Renkon: this by far was the trickiest part. Renkon is easy to screw up, if uncooked it tastes like a raw potato, if overcooked it gets mushy and tasteless. After peeling the lotus root, I sliced it real thin into a lightly-vinegared water to keep it from oxidizing. I let it just sit there while I got the sauce ready, which takes a while, so I started it first with the ginko nuts (see below).

    The sauce is:

    • water (about 3 T)
    • sugar (about 5 T) – I used honey, I could have used dehydrated cane juice- remember, no refined sugar)
    • lemon juice – about 3 T
    • lemon zest – about 1/2 to 1 lemon worth

    Combine ingredients, simmer to reduce. Don’t let it boil over, because it will caramelize and turn into an indestructible shell you need steel wool to get off the pan. Also don’t let it cool because it will be horrible to deal with (think jam). So the solution is to have the plate for the lotus ready and plate those suckers the second the sauce is ready. If you don’t, you can add more water and let it boil off again.

    While your nightmarish lemon sauce is getting ready, add some vinegar to about 2 cups of water until it’s fairly tart (This is for a renkon segment about 5 or 6 inches long). Put it on the stove until it boils, then dump the renkon slices into it. Cook them until they are the right texture- they should be crunchy like a crisp cucumber, but not as crunchy as a carrot.

    When you’re ready to plate, put a few slices on top of each other in a neat pile, then drizzle the sauce over it. Now let it sit- serve at room temperature! See why you do this one first?

  • Salad: the important thing to remember here is this is a Japanese salad. Which means not only is it in a nice little bowl, but it needs to be cut into small enough pieces to eat with chopsticks. The ingredients:
    • romaine lettuce hearts, preferably organic, cut into neat strips
    • daikon sprouts – to add a little zesty spice. Make sure to cut off the roots if you buy the hydroponic kind! They look ugly and unkempt.
    • pomelo pulp – for a sweet tang. I used pomelo instead of grapefruit because pomelo has a drier pulp and a milder taste that doesn’t leave a residue on your tongue. Since it’s a tad drier you can separate the pulp by hand- don’t cut the segments or you’ll end up with a drippy mess.
    • thinly sliced kumkwat, preferably organic. Kumkwats are like a citrus that is all zest. If you peel your kumkwats, you just don’t get it. Slice them thinly and sprinkle like you would green onions. This adds a sweet and bitter taste to the salad.
    • This salad is pretty balanced, so it doesn’t really need a dressing, but if you really want one, I recommend a light sprinkling of sesame dressing, usually labelled “Oriental.” As opposed to Occidental dressing. Like the Occidental Tourist.

    DON’T toss the ingredients you barbarian. Arrange them nicely in the bowl. Presentation is very important.

  • Soup: we had a bunch of veggies a few weeks ago which were no longer fresh enough to be good to eat, but they hadn’t gone bad: they were just stale. So we reduced them all to a vegetable soup stock and froze them into cubes, with the idea that we could get variable amounts of stock for future meals by thawing the cubes.

    However I was getting sick of seeing their container take up valuable freezer space, so I nuked them all and added a strong miso (no such thing as organic miso unfortunately- make sure there is no MSG in yours), green onions, and “Japanese ginger” (myoga). The miso soup was a little carrot-y, but that made it taste more like “fall” somehow. It was a mild, sweet soup which was extremely easy to make.

  • Rice: this is just normal organic brown rice. Brown rice is digested later in your GI tract than (polished) white rice, and is therefore easier on your stomach and is gentler to your blood-sugar levels. It also has more nutrients. Under the macrobiotic diet you end up eating a lot of whole grains…

    I served our rice with cooked ginko nuts, in keeping with the “fall” theme of the meal. Ginko nuts (ginnan) sort of taste like giant corn kernels. Because they don’t have to be hot and their preparation does not make a mess, I boiled them at the very beginning of my cooking session so I could use their pot for something else. Also I knew that it’s hard to mess up boiling nuts, so I could focus on my more finicky dishes like the lemon sauce. Don’t be stingy with the ginnan!

  • Main dish: an “okonomiyaki” is sort of halfway between a omlet-scramble and a pancake. This one is heartier because it has less vegetables – usually you have bean sprouts and other stuff in there, like noodles and even mochi.

    The ingredients:

    • 1 block tofu! this is the bulk of this recipe. I got freshly-made tofu from San Jose Tofu. They don’t even package their tofu; it comes in styrofoam bowls like a “to go” container for soup. It’s awesome. You wrap the tofu in a cheesecloth or a clean dish towel and squeeze! Keep squeezing. The drier you get the tofu the more evenly the “pancakes” will cook. When you’re done you should have a mass of tofu paste. then add:
    • 3+ chopped green onions, to taste

    • 1 can water chestnuts, drained – I used sliced ones. It’s actually possible to get fresh water chestnuts at Stanford Shopping Center or at Andronico’s but… that’s a little more hassle than I wanted to get to tonight.
    • Usually you add 1 can of tuna or other seafood. But this time I used:
      • some Japanese (young hon-shimeji) mushrooms. That would be Hypsizygus tessulatus for the detail-oriented chef, but any mushroom will do. Make sure to grill them first and don’t get them wet. I used about 2 handfuls, but I should have used more.
      • grated yamaimo- this is a really slimy substance that you get from grating “yamaimo,” a tuber that grows in the mountains (yama = mountain, imo = potato/tuber) and tends to be used as a binder because it stays slimy even when cooked. Sort of like a raw egg white slimy. Gack. I used about 8 inches.
    • 6 – 8 eggs, well beaten. Time to dust off the food processor, don’t waste time while your other stuff is cooking!
    • I had some left-over lotus I just chopped up and grilled real quick to mix in there. I also had some bamboo shoots but I forgot about them, so they are still sitting in the fridge. Doh.
    • Spices. Sometimes you use salt, pepper, garlic powder, ginger… I just used soy sauce

    Mix all the ingredients. Since this is basically batter you can let it sit while you put out the fire you started with your lemon sauce.

    When you’re ready to cook the pancakes, fire up your griddle or lightly-oiled pan and cook ~1/4 c dollops like pancakes. Flip them when the bottoms are cohesive enough to remain whole while flipping. They may look slightly burned but this is normal. They can take up to 10 minutes each to cook, so make sure you give yourself enough time! A griddle definitely helps here.

  • Side dishes: we used some store-bought sugar-glazed sweet potato, which is basically a Japanese yam sliced with a carmelized soy sauce glaze on it, sprinkled with black sesame seeds and then backed. Mmmm. Very sweet and starchy (not exactly orthodox macrobiotic but, hey, sue me).

    I have a huge variety of Japanese pickles. I highly recommend buying a bunch since they keep forever and they make a bowl of rice a nice healthy snack. Appearing here are a sweet daikon (red), a sour cucumber (green), and a umeboshi (the red plum thing) which is incredibly sour.

  • I bought the cheesecake. Sorry! We call that an anticlimax.

Total preparation time: around 2 hours. It’s possible to do everything in 90 minutes, or even in less time, if you cook the okonomiyaki while you eat the other courses. Ah the wonders of multitasking.

Diane assembled the salads and started the rice maker.

So, the summary: notice this is a balanced meal, even for meat eaters- the protein is represented by the eggs and tofu. We have balanced textures: the crunchy lotus, the cool crisp salad, the warm liquid soup, the gooey pancakes, and the fluffy starchy rice. We also have balanced tastes: pickles provide the saltiness along with any soy sauce on the okonomiyaki. Lotus is sweet and sour, the salad is spicy sweet and bitter, the main dish is salty, sweet and sour.

Thank you and good night.