Sunday, June 28, 2009

daigaku imo

The following recipe is my own twist on a traditional sweet potato treat called daigaku-imo ("college potatoes," so called because of its association with Tokyo University), which is basically deep-fried chunks of sweet potato coated with sweet syrup. In the traditional version, the sweet potatoes are cut up into large cubes or triangular chunks, and nothing is added besides a syrup and perhaps a sprinkling of black sesame seeds. In my version, the potatoes are cut into sticks, with nuts and dried fruit added for variety in texture and color.

Satsuma Sweet Potato, 1 large
oil for deep-frying

for the syrup:
water, 1/3 cup
sugar, 1/4 cup
butter, 1 or 2 Tablespoons
fresh ginger root, 1/2 teaspoon grated
dried seedless dates, 5 or 6, chopped
walnuts, 2 Tablespoons, chopped

Scrub the potato clean, and wipe dry with a clean kitchen towel, but do NOT peel. Cut off the two tough ends. Slice the rest of the potato into somewhat thick-ish matchsticks.

Heat enough oil in a medium-sized, deep-sided pot to cover the sweet potato sticks. Make sure to fry the potato sticks in batches that won't pile upon each other in the pot. Fry for about 3 minutes, or until the potato sticks are tender but not soft. Test with one or two to make sure. They have to still be tough enough to survive being tossed in the syrup without breaking. Take the sweet potato sticks out of the oil, drain them on a rack, then spread them out on paper towels.

Meanwhile put all the sauce ingredients into a clean frying pan or pot and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer the sauce until it thickens and gets syrupy. Turn off the heat. Immediately toss the fried sweet potato sticks into the syrupy mixture and stir gently so as to coat the potatoes thoroughly. Turn potato stick mixture out onto a serving dish. As it cools, the syrupy coating on the sweet potato sticks hardens a little like candy. The ginger gives it a really nice depth of flavor.

Daigaku-imo, like its main ingredient the sweet potato, is associated with winter, when it tastes best eaten hot. But this mixture freezes well, and makes a delicious summer snack when served barely thawed along with a glass of cold mugicha (barley tea).

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

stuffed dried persimmons

Fresh persimmons are delicious too, but dried persimmons are one of my absolutely favorite winter treats. When dried, the flavor and sweetness of a persimmon gets concentrated, the outside gets leathery, and the inside gets gooey. It makes a perfect snack just as it is, but if you go to just a tiny bit of trouble, you end up with a fancy-looking dessert suitable for serving on special occasions.

Where I live, fresh persimmons come on the market in late fall~ early winter. The dried persimmons start appearing about a month later. For this year's New Year's buffet, I decided to stuff some dried persimmons for a picturesque dessert. I found some that were still connected by their woody stems to the rope they had hung from to dry. I removed the stems, and cut the fruit in half. Then I pressed my thumb in the middle of each half to make a deep indentation and stretched the persimmon out a bit. Into each indentation I spooned a mixture of cream cheese, chopped candied yuzu peel, and chopped walnuts. If you can't find candied yuzu peel, use candied orange peel instead, but it won't be quite the same.

Variation: You can also replace the cream cheese with shiro-an (white sweet bean paste), if available. This combination is more in line with traditional wagashi and makes a very sweet dessert that complements green tea-- especially bitter matcha.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

super simple lima bean kinton

My first attempt at homemade wagashi was "Lima Bean Kinton," a recipe I found in the Sunset Oriental Cook Book when I was still in college. Decades and dozens of house-moves later, this book is still part of my cookbook collection. Kinton is a confection made from any one (or combination) of certain starchy foods. The most familiar version of kinton is made from chestnuts and sweet potatoes, one that is especially popular in the late fall and at New Years. The following recipe using lima beans is straight from the aforementioned cookbook, and is difficult to screw up. It's a good recipe for gaining a bit of confidence.

Lima Bean Kinton:

1 can (1lb) lima beans, undrained
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
green food coloring

Remove skins from lima beans and mash beans. (Or press beans through a coarse wire strainer to remove skins.) Place bean pulp and liquid, salt, and sugar in a small saucepan. Stirring often, cook over medium heat until mixture forms a ball and begins to pull away from sides of pan, about 20 minutes. Cool. Force mixture through a wire strainer or food mill. Mix in enough coloring to make a bright green. Roll mixture into 12 small balls. Let dry uncovered at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours. Then wrap loosely in plastic film and refrigerate until serving time if desired. Makes six servings.

You can also substitute green peas for the lima beans, which results in a simple version of endo-mame kinton (green pea kinton). The accompanying photo shows the green pea version.

By the way, the recipe says to "wrap loosely in plastic film," but if your kinton mixture is stiff enough, you might try twisting the wrap around the paste with enough firmness to shape it like a Hershey's Kiss with grooves pressed into it by the wrinkles in the film. Many wagashi shops form their kinton this way, and the resulting shape (chakin, or "tied-in-a-handkerchief" shape) is a familiar one to kinton fans.

my wagashi pilgrimage

Wagashi, traditional Japanese confectionery, has been a part of my life since childhood. My mother neither made it nor purchased it, but guests to our home often brought gift boxes of wagashi, and of course, it was often served along with tea when I visited the homes of my friends or neighbors. In those days western-style desserts and British teas were rarer, more expensive, more "classy," and therefore more valued by shallow youths such as myself. So it wasn't until I went to the US for college, in a mid-western town with no Japanese food sources to speak of, that I developed a strong craving for wagashi. This craving grew all the stronger because I could not readily satisfy it. This was the start of my adventures in making credible wagashi with easy-to-locate ingredients. I even remember the very first wagashi I made from a simple recipe I found in the Sunset Oriental Cook Book (c. 1970) published by Sunset Magazine. I will post that recipe later. For now, suffice it to say that the experience was the start of a whole new respect and admiration for the food craft of wagashi. Some years ago, I got it into my head to pursue certification as a wagashi shokunin (wagashi artisan), but it never happened. It turned out to be one-too-many commitments in an already over-committed life, and I settled for dabbling in it as a hobby. If you are a fan of wagashi, I hope you visit this site often. Join me as I explore the world of wagashi.