Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Like Lunching in Japan: Tokyo Turnips with Soba and Miso Butter

I worked on the Invention until my hands shook. When I came home, if the house was empty, I practiced in a panic and, finally, it was almost right. On Wednesday, I went to Mr. Parker's and stood at the doorway, expecting something drastic and changed, but it was all the same. There were cookies and lemonade in the solarium. Mildred took a nap on my coat. My fifteen-minute warmup was terrible; I made mistakes in the simplest parts, in the things I knew by heart. -Laurie Colwin ("Mr. Parker")

I always have such high hopes for Tuesdays. I see myself completing tasks at a superhuman speed, crossing things off the list--and allowing myself to do so with a triumphant flourish. In my mind, I divide the day into segments: breakfast, work on chapter, take dog out, go and pick up vegetable box, tend to vegetables, do more work, make dinner, write blog post, write long overdue emails, watch the presidential debate (that is, when there is one)...Given my expectations for what I can achieve in 16-17 hours, you might think I had arrived on earth only yesterday, with little understanding of how much time it actually takes to get things done. The other side of the coin is that I just might be an optimist's optimist--a dreamer of the best kind. 


Yesterday, I definitely dared to dream. As I walked to the school where I pick up the vegetable box (a new part of my weekly routine, but one that I'm thrilled to make time for; the selection  is really impressive and, best of all, it pushes me to expand my cooking repertoire), I found myself thinking of my old life in Japan. I'd like to say it was thanks to the piles of crimson and burnt orange leaves scattered on the streets, but Berkeley, now caught between an Indian summer and fall, looks like a land being torn in half by warring seasons and, for the past few days, summer has definitely been the victor. The heat didn't stop the stream of memories; instead, it intensified them in a really strange way: warming my legs under the kotatsu (heated table) on crisp fall evenings while balancing a novel in one hand and chopsticks in the other, trying to figure out how to cook with only one burner and a rice cooker, spending lazy afternoons browsing the shelves at Kinokuniya, followed by tea. Considering that, until that year, my whole life had consisted of my being a student and, immediately following my JET experience, I returned to a student's life, it makes sense that I return to this year often, seeing it as a golden time.


Since food has become my comfort of choice, I decided to channel my nostalgia into a dish that would bridge the then and now. And since it's the second time in two weeks that Tokyo (Japanese) turnips have been prominently featured in the vegetable box, I didn't even have to try that hard. Japan had been given to me in the form of small, pristinely white vegetables.



The first time we received these, I was uncertain what I could do with them. Given their petite size, they didn't seem big enough for a repeat of the Turnip Puff that I had fallen in love with earlier this year. I considered a salad, featuring shaved turnips, but, given the deep-seated American dislike of turnips that was inadvertently passed down to me in my childhood, turnips in the raw just didn't appeal to my sensibilities. So, like all people in this day and age, I turned to the internet for help. Epicurious, with its digital collection of old Gourmet recipes, never fails me. One look at Japanese Turnips with Miso and I knew how we would forevermore be using our turnip supply...in a matter of speaking.


For round two, however, I just couldn't leave well enough alone. We had had the miso-buttered turnips as a side; I thought that it had the makings of a meal in and of itself. When I'm home for lunch, especially on Tuesdays, I allow myself to whip up whatever strikes my fancy. Sometimes this is mac and cheese, but, more often than not, it's a riff on soba noodles with vegetables and some kind of dressing. I sensed a similar opportunity here: miso-coated turnips and wilted turnip greens meet soba noodles. I would make it the way I make my miso soup, giving it an additional depth of flavor with grated ginger and toasted sesame oil.


The combination appealed to my palate in so many ways. It had salt and it had sweetness; the vegetables were tender, but the meal wasn't lacking in texture. The chewy buckwheat noodles provided it. It's a lunch (or a dinner) worth repeating--and not only because it tastes like the best of Japan.

Soba Noodles with Tokyo Turnips and Miso Butter

yields 2-3 small servings
inspired by and heavily adapted from Epicurious

For the miso butter:
 2 tablespoons white miso
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

6 oz. dried soba noodles

about 1 pound Tokyo turnips with greens, washed and destemmed
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon Mirin (sweet rice wine)
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1/8 teaspoon salt

-Stir together miso and butter.
- Cook the soba noodles according to the package's instructions. In case the packages fails to mention this (surprisingly, mine did), when cooking soba noodles, it's important to add 1 cup of cold water after the water and noodles come to a full boil. You must do this not once, but twice; this is what gives the noodles their chewy texture.
-Peel and slice turnips into small pieces (I got about 6-8 per turnip).
-Using kitchen scissors, roughly cut up the turnip leaves.
-Place the sliced turnips into a heavy skillet (I used cast iron) with the ginger, water, mirin, sesame oil and salt.
-Bring to a boil and let cook, uncovered for about 10-15 minutes.
-Once the turnips have softened and the liquid has begun to reduce, add handfuls of the turnip greens, stirring with tongs and adding more as they wilt.
-Stirring occasionally, continue boiling the turnips and the greens until the turnips are tender and the liquid has almost evaporated (you want there to be some liquid to coat the noodles with).
-Stir in the miso butter and cook for another minute or two.
-Remove from heat and add the prepared noodles.
-Toss to coat and serve.

3 comments:

  1. Reading this post I felt like I was right with you in Japan, discovering a bright new world. This dish sounds SO delicious and satisfying. I've never cooked with miso, but I feel inspired to buy some. Is it very salty? I try to avoid high sodium foods, which is why I've never tried miso. But perhaps in moderation (and combined with all the other stuff) it's no saltier than, say, soy sauce?

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  2. Ann, hello! I'm thrilled to have inspired you to try cooking with miso. It definitely *is* salty (330 mg of sodium per tablespoon), but infinitely less so than soy sauce (about 920 mg of sodium per tablespoon). I think sodium content definitely varies from brand to brand (Eden Foods has reasonable sodium levels for miso paste; this is the brand I was using: http://www.edenfoods.com/store/index.php?cPath=29_57), but, in general, when combined with other things (diluted with water/sodium-free broth for miso soup or unsalted butter for this kind of noodle dish), it doesn't taste overly salty--really, no more salty than anything else. And the flavor is definitely worth it; turnips aside, I could see this working with spinach, kale and broccoli, too. :) Hope you enjoy if you try it!

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  3. Thanks for the miso tips and encouragement. I'll look for it at the store!

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