Sunday, 30 September 2012

House Of The Rising Bun (sorry) - A Journey into Japanese cooking

I love cooking. In fact, in the words of 50 Cent, I love cooking, like a fat kid loves cake (I probably love cake like a fat kid loves cake. Perhaps I am a fat kid. No, I don't love cake that much. Anyway! I love cooking).

Even at college, when everyone else was spending 3% of their grant on food and the rest on booze, I was food shopping like a mother of six from an edition of The Lady magazine. 

Indeed, it was my culinary skills that help me get through one of the hardest study modules that year, exchanging home cooked food for revision help from Paul in the year above. 

As a kid I would gripe incessantly at my mother's insistence that I, not my brothers, lend a hand in the kitchen. "But whhhhhy don't they have to help? It's just because I'm a girl!" My budding feminism was largely motivated by laziness and a strong need to watch The Muppet show which, in a gross oversight by BBC1 commissioners, clashed with the exact time my mum needed my help to prepare the evening meal. 

I was so lazy (and slightly obnoxious) that at one point I tried to turn our kitchen into a restaurant with my mum as soul proprietor, chef and waitress. I actually suggested she put up a menu by the door so we knew what meals to expect each day. I also, cheekily propose she knock through the wall between the kitchen and living room so that a serving hatch could be installed so me and my brothers wouldn't have to get up from our very important Grange Hill watching and deal with the tedious task of collecting our meals. 

Weirdly, both these suggestions fell on deaf ears and I was told to carry on peeling potatoes if I wanted to eat anything that evening. Parents have a strange logic, right? 

Anyway, in my twenties, my cooking became more adventurous. While the meals could be quite lavish, including creations straight from a Ramsey or Blanc book, they were also really rich with heaps of butter, cheese, cream and meat. I never really gave a second thought to the consequences of what I put in my mouth. In that respect, rather like Tulisa. 

Assisted by a shared bottle of wine to accompany most meals, my weight ballooned to 12 stone. I was living in my own Big Mama's House. Cooking and eating quite unconscious to the nutritional value of what I consumed and certainly paying no heed to any health implications. 

My journey to healthy eating, has been a long one, and perhaps a separate blog in it's own right, suffice to say, my diet is very different from the days of weekly risottos, steaks and fry ups and dare I say it... McDonalds. When I ate McDonalds, I knew something was wrong with it, but couldn't put my finger on exactly what. Like if a Martian zapped down and saw a picture of Wayne Rooney's new barnet. 

I'm now, very much an advocate of whole food cooking. My intake of dairy, meat, process foods and alcohol is vastly reduced, and instead I've integrated lots of weird and wonderful ingredients into my cooking. 

This week, I did a Japanese influenced wholefood cooking course led by a wonderful Japanese cook called Mutsuko Johnson. She is a keen proponent of cooking with heart. Not literally, that would be disgusting. It means, listening to what the body needs, nourishing the body with good ingredients and seeing food as more than fuel, or something to fill a gap, not feeding your emotions simply with comfort foods that do the body damage, but of taking care of your being with the food you introduce to your body. 

Sounds good, right?

The course latest two full weekend days and four evenings. I joined the group  for the second half of the programme. There were three or four people working at four work stations, all making the same food and there was lots of fun and laughter. This I guess, is what, cooking from the heart can evoke, a sense of joy.

While we used plenty of Japanese ingredients, the dishes were often Japanese-influenced rather than being out and out dishes from the land of the rising sun. For example, to the right, is an 'Orange Soup', full of carrots, pumpkin, sweet potato and onion, boiled for an hour with a light miso paste added at the end and garnished with spring onions to bring lightness. 

This was one of my favourite dishes. We wrapped a piece of cod on a bed of green beans, garnished with salt, a lemon slice and ginger and cooked in the oven for 20 minutes. We served this with a mixture of pressure cooked sweet rice (also called mochi which becomes very sticky) and brown rice. The rice was then wrapped in bamboo parcels. We made a turnip pickle by thinly slicing the turnip and soaking in salt. We then washed away the salt and covered in a good quality vinegar. This was served with some blanched leeks and carrots in tahini, lemon and vinegar dressing. I know, delish, right?!

This dish (left) involved more sticky rice, this time pressure-cooked with aduki beans (great for the kidneys),  deep fried prawns coated in seasoning and dessicated coconut and a green salad. We also made a tofu roll which involved pan frying some onion, carrot matchsticks and arame seaweed (we ate A LOT of seaweed this week) and then mashing the tofu, spreading it out onto a sushi mat then spooning on the veggie filling like you're making a sushi roll. This was then rolled in bamboo leaves and steamed.

Above are mussel tempura (yum) served with a kale and cabbage salad, an orange salad, rice and seaweed and a veggie parcel and the bowl contains a sweet pickle of turnip and apricots (in apple juice, ume seasoning and vinegar).

Next are examples of Japanese street food, making a pancake mix we stirred in matchstick vegetables (carrots, cabbage and leeks) and fried, this was served with marinated tempeh (a soya protein food) and a noodle salad (mixed with a miso dressing).

Finally, a squash filled with sautéed and seasoned vegetables. The whole thing is covered in foil and baked in the oven for approximately an hour. 

Here are a couple of the desserts we created. Above are sweet potato donuts. These were a lot of fun to make. Make sure you keep the mixture light with not too much flour (yes, I used too much flour. You could have played cricket with the donuts I made). The sweet potato is steamed, mashed and added to the donut mix and deep fried. These came out a little dense so we made a quick apple compote by stewing some apples in apple juice. When the apples were cooked, the remaining juice was reduced down and kuzu added (a thickener like cornflour) and maple syrup to sweeten. 

The following is a pear crumble. This is SO simple. The crumble top consisted of oats, nuts, flour, salt, a sweetening syrup like malt syrup or maple, oil and a little water. It was pressed into an oiled tin and cooked separately while the pears were cooked on the stove (like the apple compote above). When the crumble was ready it was simple broken and sprinkled over the fruit. 

This course was more than an opportunity to learn some cooking techniques or add a couple of recipes to my repertoire, it allowed me to solidify my commitment to whole food nutrition. Over just a few days, not only did I learn more techniques, got familiar with more ingredients and what to do with all these strange looking substances but also I got to work with a fantastic group of people all committed to taking care of their well being and as you can see, we had some amazing food. 

If this had a Facebook page, I would totally 'like' it!

This is an annual cooking course held at Concord Institute. They have three or four cooking programmes during the year. 

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