I’m busy and it’s cold, cold, cold outside. Let’s cook up some meat and potatoes, Japanese style. Nikujaga (pronounced like Mick-oo Jagga) is Japan’s answer to the pot roasts and beef stews of the western world. In fact, it was developed by Japanese naval chefs in imitation of the beef stew the British navy served to its sailors. I’m sure you’re at a loss to come up with a finer culinary pedigree than “British Military Cuisine“, but bear with me for a moment. In order to understand why the Japanese would adopt something so seemingly mundane with, as it turns out, a great deal of enthusiasm, we must step into the WABAC Machine for a moment. For the better part of three centuries, Japan experienced a period of self-imposed isolation from external cultural influence. From 1603 to 1853 Japan experienced minimal contact with foreigners beyond their archipelago; limited mostly to Dutch trading ships allowed in once a year and private Chinese vessels. This isolation was in direct resistance to European (particularly Portuguese) attempts at colonization. By avoiding the economic and religious domination from foreign powers experienced by so many of the neighboring countries in East Asia, Japan underwent a cultural refinement almost unprecedented in world history. Despite (or possibly because of) near-constant civil warfare; the Japanese took a culture and cuisine largely borrowed from China and Korea and created something wholly unique. In the 1850′s; American gunboats forced the Japanese to open their harbors to foreign trade. The rapid mixing of modern industrial society with that of a country sequestered within an idiosyncratic feudal culture had longstanding historical and cultural ramifications ranging from World War II to tentacle rape. Free trade brought in new dishes which the Japanese began to develop a taste for like curry, spaghetti and tomato sauce and breaded pork cutlets. These days Japanese cuisine is loaded with borrowed dishes that, while only about a century and a half old, are intrinsic comfort food to the Japanese.
Nikujaga is one of the most accessible examples of this kind of proto-fusion cuisine. Literally meaning “meat and potatoes”; nikujaga is simple to make, delicious on a cold day and easily adaptable to whatever variations you feel like making.
Here’s what you need to serve about 8 people:
1 1/2 LBS Short Ribs, Bones removed (Sliced or Ground Beef will suffice)
2 large White Onions (sliced into rings)
4 large Baking Potatoes (Peeled and cut into large chunks)
1/2 LB Carrots (scrubbed and sliced into 1″ lengths)
*If you don’t have any Mirin sub 3/4 cup of Rice Wine (can be found at most asian markets) and 1/2 cup honey.
Steep dried mushrooms in 2 cups boiling water for ten minutes. Strain and reserve the broth. Once mushrooms cool; remove and discard the stems and slice the caps in half.
In a large pot; brown your meat in batches so that it looks good and you have a decent amount of rendered beef fat in your pot.
Add a little extra vegetable oil to the pot if need be and throw your Mushrooms, Onions and Carrots into the medium-hot (but not smoking) beef fat. Saute them until the onions and carrots begin to soften, about ten minutes.
Deglaze the pot with your reserved mushroom stock. Add the beef, sugar, soy sauces and mirin to the pot along with enough water to comfortably cover everything and bring to a boil. Skim the fat from the top using a ladle or the “traditional Japanese method” I learned from the person who taught me how to cook nikujaga; using a paper towel. Once skimmed, simmer on low with a lid on for about an hour. Add the potatoes and simmer with the lid on for another hour.
Check and see how the broth tastes. Too salty? Add more sugar. Too sweet? Add some salt. Too bland? More soy sauce. Meanwhile, drink some sake. You should be all set. Is your rice cooked? The short-grain sushi rice?
You better get on that.
Ladle the stew into bowls. Top with a big scoop of rice. Garnish with the scallions and if you want some spice; the Shichimi Togarashi.
The last few days have featured the kind of heat and humidity that give Vietnam flashbacks to 8 year-olds, and fill the heads of adults and children alike with elaborate plans for refrigerator tents.
It’s uncomfortable at best, but some people are behaving as though this is the first time in recorded history that summer has been hot. Having spend the summers of my youth in New Mexico, Texas and Florida; the heatwave we’re experiencing in Minnesota lacks a certain novelty for me. Don’t get me wrong; it’s gross and I hate it and I wouldn’t recommend going out and playing soccer in it, but having toughed it out as a wheezing little kid, it’s not so tough as a wheezing adult.
In this kind of weather most people would rather be doing two-a-day football practices than spend any time cooking in a kitchen, so they go to restaurants to enjoy the air conditioning (a feature typically not installed in the kitchen where your food is being made). Even barbequing, a normally robust and favored activity, becomes dangerous when the heat index is pushing 115°.
People with working air conditioning don’t really have this problem. When you live in a perpetually-chilled wine cellar, not only does the heat outside not bother you, but you’re not subject to the hot-weather metabolism everyone else is experiencing. For example; if you’re out in the hot sun all day (or an ancient apartment building with no AC) and you can actually muster the energy to eat, you’re probably going to crave lighter fare like salads or pitchers of margaritas. Maybe you can stomach a hamburger if it’s late enough at night, but for the most part you and food maintain a tenuous distance during the hottest days of summer.
Not the privileged few living in the blast-chiller. People with AC are living in the future. Four months in the future, to be exact. Their bodies have been magically transported to November and so have their appetites. Air conditioning isn’t what jacks up your electricity in the summer; it’s the crockpot and bread machine you’ll have running at all times if you DO have AC. This is why people from Florida and Houston, where it’s 110° and humid all year round, are still so damn fat.
Head to a place with 100°+ weather and oppressive humidity where AC is a rare exception rather than the rule; and you’re pretty likely to find people eating hot soup in order to cool down. Pho, ramen, miso, matzoh ball, caldo- these are all perfect summer soups. I live on these soups during the summer.
In fact, if I don’t have hot soup for a meal at least once a week during the summer I tend to get really bad colds because I ride my bike in the city and inhale a lot of toxic shit. You ever ride your bike on a hot, dusty day and end up feeling like your palate is made of steel wool? Hot soup (especially spicy soups) will make you feel human again. Miso soup is particularly good for removing toxins related to air pollution, and a well-made bowl can be shockingly refreshing at the end of a hot day dodging traffic.
Caldo de Pollo, or Mexican chicken soup, is my favorite standby. Pretty much any Mexican broth-centric soup is good eating in this weather. Most of them are based on simple stocks offset with whatever is on hand. Many of them seem to work best as a breakfast, and if you’ve never experienced a huge bowl of Mexican soup for breakfast I highly recommend it. If you know where to look; there are plenty of small restaurants that specialize in it. Or you could make your own.
If you haven’t read my classic menudo recipe; you should check that out. If tripe and beef feet are a little too hardcore for you; here’s the puss-out method:
Throw four chicken thighs in a large pot with a quartered onion, ten cloves of garlic, two bay leaves and a few peppercorns. Fill with water and bring to a boil.
Once boiling, skim off scum from top of stock and reduce (ha!) heat to simmer. Let it bubble until it reduces by 1/4.
Cover a handfull of dried chiles in boiling water. Let sit for 20 minutes. Strain the chiles, reserving the water. Remove stems and seeds.
Puree the chillies in the chile water with a can of tomatoes.
Remove chicken thighs from stock and let them cool before removing bones.
Put the chicken along with the chile mixture into the stock with 1 tablespoon Mexican oregano. Bring to a boil.
Reduce to a simmer. Salt to taste.
Serve in large bowls with fried tortilla strips, avocado slices, chopped onion, chopped cilantro, wedges of lime. Fresh tortillas or Mexican bread are great for soaking up soup as well.
There you have it. It’s infinitely adaptable. I’ve made vegan and vegetarian versions of this. Experiment with it and see what you get.
Am I crazy, or does anyone else like soup in the summer?
*This is a Southern Expression. Reducer Network does not support kicking dogs.
If when you hear the word “Menudo”, all you can think of is the Puerto Rican boyband where Ricky Martin got his start, I feel deeply sorry for you. In reality; Menudo is a rich Mexican soup of beef tripe and hominy that doubles as both a common wedding recipe and hangover cure (typically for the morning after the wedding party).
Growing up in the Southwest and visiting Mexico frequently with my parents; I had my share of menudo and pozole (another hominy stew) without ever realizing what it was I was eating. It wasn’t until my late teens, when I was hired to videotape a shotgun wedding for some distant relatives, that I had a menudo experience that made an impression on me.
The wedding was between the daughter of WASP’s from suburban Minnesota and the son of Mexican migrant workers. Beyond the hilarious contrast of a wedding party split between uptight white people in their Sunday best and the shabbily-dressed but otherwise clean and well-coiffed lettuce pickers; there was the contrast in the kitchen between cheese-drenched enchiladas, packet-seasoned ground beef, taco pie and, well, actual Mexican food.
I smartly avoided the shredded cheese nightmare of the gringos and ended up spending most of the day nursing bowl after bowl of homemade menudo. It was tangy and red; full of pieces of tripe, hominy and pork that seemed to have been simmering since before the bride and groom had been engaged. With a squeeze of lime and a liberal handful of cilantro floating around in the soup; the contrast of spicy, fatty, meaty, gamey, tangy and astringent was so complex and delicious, that to me it tasted like Mexico in a bowl (Northern Mexico anyway).
Years later when I was living in San Diego; Menudo was readily and cheaply available at all the best taco stands. As I was typically hung over almost every day I lived there; I can vouch for the fact that its restorative properties are equal to (and often exceed) that of the typical tomato juice based cocktails of which I am so fond of for abetting my detoxification.
In the last three years since I’ve stopped eating swine I’ve eaten plenty of tripe, but have avoided ordering menudo because it almost always is made with pigs feet as a base for the stock.
Luckily for me; cows have feet too.
If you’re squeamish about tripe; don’t be such a wuss. It’s a delicious and underutilized part of the cow with a texture similar to fun noodles, that stands up very well to strong flavors and spices.
You’re going to need the following:
2 lbs Beef Tripe, thoroughly rinsed and chopped into 3″ squares
2 lbs Beef Feet, thoroughly cleaned and split lengthwise (ask you butcher to split them if they don’t come that way)
2 oz. Tequila (reposado or añejo) and a couple more for the cook.
3 oz. Dried Ancho Chiles
1 Head of Garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon Kosher Salt
2 Teaspoons ground Cumin
1 Teaspoon Whole Peppercorns
30 oz. can White Hominy, drained
16 oz. can Yellow Hominy, drained (If you’re making this for Texans; sub the white hominy for another 30 oz. of yellow)
2 Bay leaves
Mexican Oregano (Absolutely no substitutes for this)
Put your cleaned tripe and beef feet into a large stock pot and put in enough cold water to just cover them. Add your tequila and bay leaves and bring the pot to a boil, uncovered.
Strangely enough; boiling cow stomach makes your whole house smell like cow burps. There’s really no avoiding it, but here are a couple of tips for dealing with it:
Make it outside (That’s how it’s typically done in Texas)
Open your windows for first four hours of cooking.
Invest in some incense or scented candles.
Get used to it.
Once boiling; skim the scum from the top and reduce™ the heat to medium-high so that the liquid is just between a simmer and a boil. Partially cover with a lid so steam can get out; and let the tripe simmer for at least 4 to 6 hours.
In the meantime; soak your dried chilies in enough hot water to cover them for about 25 minutes or until they get soft.
Drain the soaked chilies (reserving the liquid) and remove the seeds and skins from them using a knife. If you are an incredible bad-ass who lives dangerously; do this without rubber gloves. Otherwise- you better don some protection there, J.P. Prewitt.
Once you’ve thoroughly seeded the chillies; throw them into a food processor with your salt, peppercorns, garlic cloves and cumin.
Adding a little bit of chili water at a time; puree the mixture until it forms a beautiful red paste like this:
After about 3 hours of simmering; your soup should be ready for the addition of the chili mixture. Go ahead and stir that in; then let it simmer for another couple of hours.
There’s a little bit of gray area here. 6 hours should be a minimum guideline for cooking your menudo; but I don’t like to serve it until the feet come apart and the soup is filled with rich pieces of collagen and tender bits of meat. If you plan on serving it for breakfast (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED) then pull it off the heat after 6 hours the night before; add the drained hominy in the morning and bring it back up to a high simmer for another two hours.
Either way; around the seven hour mark your soup should look like this; with the tripe tender enough to chew and the feet at least beginning to fall apart.
Again; the more patient you are with this menudo the better it will turn out.
Whatever time frame you settle on; when you’re at least two hours from serving the menudo you can stir in the drained hominy and let it get back up to a simmer.
Some of the recipes I’ve looked at warn against adding it too soon, but even after making a batch with hominy one day and reheating it the next, I never had a problem with it plumping up and over-thickening the soup. I suspect the presence of natural gelatin from the beef feet might have had an effect on this, but that’s only a hypothesis.
Your finished product should look something like this (note the foot bones completely devoid of meat or collagen). You can add the Mexican oregano at this point; or your diners can add it at their discretion (just make sure it’s in there- the flavor component it adds is key to the whole soup).
Serve the menudo in large bowls with plenty of chopped onion, cilantro and lime juice.
Be sure to have lots of fresh tortillas and bolilllo rolls to soak up the unctuous goodness that is your homemade menudo.
Drink lots of cold beer or soda (Mexican Coke is especially good with this) and revel in the sophisticated joy that a simple thing like honeycomb tripe can provide.