Steak Your Claim

Did your parents ever admonish you for watching too much TV as a kid? Did Saturday morning cartoons become a thing of the past once you grew up, relegated to memories of simpler days?

Not me. I would consume animated series like water, greedily drinking them in one after another without pausing for a breath of air. Slumber parties consisted of staying up into the wee AM hours to binge watch entire seasons back to back, staying glued to the screen until the lines looked blurry and the words seemed to echo.

After a long period of my life where I took myself too seriously and gave up such pleasures, I’m hooked again, back with a vengeance. My thirst remains unquenchable, but this time around, I fixate on very different details than in my youth. Unsurprisingly, it almost always relates to food.

食戟のソーマ (Food Wars) seems like it should have been an instant hit, being all about one young upstart trying to stake his claim as the best cook in an elite culinary school, but it’s definitely not for everyone. If you can get past the gratuitous nudity and unnecessary sexual innuendo, however, there’s ample inspiration to be found. One of the first dishes that really caught my eye was the Chaliapin Steak.

Despite its western name, this is an original Japanese preparation. Conceived in 1936 for the Russian opera singer Feodor Chaliapin when he visited Japan, it was created to accommodate a terrible toothache. At the time, he was suffering considerably and wanted only the most tender meat so it was easier to chew. By cooking a prime cut smothered with caramelized onions, the result was just what the dentist would have ordered, if one might have been consulted.

Translated into vegan terms, I thought a hamburger steak made from meatless ground might be even more appropriate. A loosely bound patty turned out to be even juicier, practically melting in your mouth. Plus, this is yet another Japanese innovation, distinctly different from conventional hamburgers and Salisbury steak.

Transforming humble, unremarkable ingredients into a 5-star dish worthy of high honors, the key is patience. It takes time to properly caramelize the onions, not just brown or sauté, to fully extract their natural sweetness.

I chose to serve mine over rice, donburi-style, in keeping with the inspiration, but traditionally this would be presented without much fanfare, perhaps a green vegetable or salad on the side. You can’t go wrong with a basic buttery mashed potato or thick-cut fries, too.

Even if anime isn’t your thing, you’ll still find your stomach growling after this episode.

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Slimy Yet Satisfying

Like many great inventions, this recipe was borne of an abject failure. Any reasonable person would have admitted defeat and tossed the initial results without a second thought, but then again, no one has ever accused me of such distinction.

It all started with a used pasta maker, the catalyst for a deep-dive into all sorts of noodles, common and obscure, simple and complex, to see what I could churn out at home. After working through soba and pappardelle and more, I hit upon rokube. Served on Tsushima Island, this local specialty is made of sweet potato flour mixed with grated yams as a means of creating more nutritious noodles during times of scarcity. Though rudimentary recipes do exist, they aren’t well detailed, leading to some very questionable cuisine.

Obviously, sweet potato flour is different from sweet potato starch, and perhaps they meant actual sweet potatoes instead of what I assumed were nagaimo. Thus, my attempt was doomed from the start. Nagaimo are known for having a uniquely slimy texture when grated or pureed; also known as “neba neba” in Japanese. This gooey mouthfeel is difficult for many western palates to accept, so be forewarned that what follows may not suit all tastes.

So, merrily, I measured out all the wrong ingredients and was surprised to see that it didn’t work at all- What a shock! Though the dough seemed stiff and difficult to knead, it refused to come out of the nozzle and when at rest, it appeared to liquefy. It was such a bizarre consistency that it defies easy explanation.

This is where I should have given up, but thrifty and scrap-happy cook that I am, I racked my brain for any way to salvage the mess. How about… Drying it out in the oven? Sure, why not? Into a greased sheet pan it went and it did indeed set into a sheet of odd, floppy, white and translucent starch. Next, still stuck on the idea of noodles, it only made logical sense to slice it into ribbons and proceed as planned.

Shockingly, flying in the face of all common sense, it actually worked. The strands cooked up as intended, remaining intact yet tender, and incredibly, extremely chewy. Very neba neba.

Served chilled and topped with additional nagaimo, this is a taste experience for the adventurous, seeking something refreshing and cool that offers textures not otherwise found in most common cookery. Slippery, springy, and slightly gooey, you must be able to embrace slime to appreciate it. Other neba neba ingredients can be added to enhance the sensation, like natto and sliced fresh okra.

There are probably easier ways to arrive at such a result, but through the process of experimentation, I’m just happy to land at such satisfying end results. It never hurts to keep trying and pushing forward, no matter the questionable path!

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All’s Fair in Love and Sushi

Do you believe in love at first bite? I’m far from the hopeless romantic type, giddy over every vague glimmer of attraction, but I sure do. Far from a mere plausibility, I can assure you that it’s a proven fact; I’ve experienced it on more than one occasion. Locking lips with one powerful bite that sweeps you off your feet in a moment of passion, you lose yourself in the moment. The setting, the people, the noise all melt away, leaving only the lingering taste sensation, and lust for more.

Blue Sake Sushi Grill is the most recent backdrop of one such fiery affair. From the onset, I knew this one would be a compelling catch, boasting a lengthy menu of entirely vegan maki and nigiri that go well beyond the standard vegetable garden. We’re talking about tomato ahi tuna, eggplant barbecued eel, ikura CaviArt– And those are only mere components that make up the larger rolls.

Don’t be shy; a little flirtation is a good way to get acquainted. Ease into the conversation with any of the clearly labeled plant-based appetizers, such as the Crispy Brussels Sprouts that could convert a hater. It’s not hard to find incredible fried Brussels in this city, with immaculately crisp, almost translucent leaves and tender, buttery interiors, but these take it to the next level. Slathered in zesty, savory, and subtly sweet yuzu-miso sauce, that plate alone would score serious points for a first date.

Recommending maki rolls from this fetching lineup is a daunting task, but the good news is that there are no losers here. The Cowgirl roll, which includes pickle tempura, sriracha-fried onion rings, BBQ-flavored soy paper instead of nori, vegan mayo, and tonkatsu sauce, is the overwhelming fan favorite. My personal favorite, however, was the Eden roll, comprised of grilled asparagus, sun-dried tomatoes, sweet potato tempura, and topped with creamy edamame hummus. It truly does taste like a little bite of heaven, swaddled in white sesame soy paper.

Best of all, you can indulge on a budget during their daily happy hour, which naturally includes a wide selection of carefully crafted mixed drinks. If you need an extra push to give it a try, join the Bite Club to get a sweet discount of $10 off your first $20 purchase.

Laying claim to 15 locations nationwide as of this writing, with plans to continue that rapid expansion, it’s clear I’m not the only one swooning. If you’re still waiting for a branch to open up near you, don’t worry, there’s more than just eye candy on offer here! Blue Sake Sushi Grill was kind enough to offer the secret formula for their incomparable Brussels sprouts. If you’re the jealous type, though, be careful who you share them with; anyone could easily fall head over heels for this hot dish.

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Art and the Zen of Japanese Cooking

Veganism is burgeoning across the globe, gaining traction at an exponential pace. Still in its infancy, the movement was seen as a niche trend a mere decade ago, and the word itself was coined relatively recently in 1944. That’s not to say that the concept of plant-based cooking is a new idea; Japanese Buddhist monks were well ahead of the curve, abstaining from the act of killing animals for human consumption for many centuries. Shojin Ryori is the art of zen cooking, a plant-based approach to simple preparations, with expert attention to quality, wholesomeness, and flavor.

Shojin” originally connoted a type of zeal in pursuing an enlightened state of mind. Breaking down the word further, “sho” means “to focus,” and “jin” means “advance forward along the way.” It’s the relentless pursuit bettering one’s self that drives the cuisine forward. Over time, shojin ryori’s health benefits and meticulous, artistic presentation contributed to Japan’s approach to fine dining, kaiseki.

Believed to cloud the spirit and interfere with meditation, the avoidance of flesh demonstrates respect for all life, which extends to an appreciation for plant life as well. In appreciation for their sacrifice, all parts of the plant are used. Things that we might throw away like cucumber peels or carrot tops are vital parts of the equation. Emphasizing the importance of every scrap, nothing goes to waste.

Additionally, unlike modern vegetarian food in Japan, shojin ryori dishes don’t contain garlic or onion, which are considered too pungent. Instead, natural flavor is drawn out through careful seasoning and gentle cooking processes. This is why shiitake mushrooms, concentrated sources of umami and tanmi, have been the critical backbone of countless zen dishes.

Beyond their Japanese origins, these same principles can be applied to western cuisine with great success, too. Take Italian minestrone, for example. Devised as a way to make the most of any scraps that might be on hand, this brothy soup is light and refreshing, yet wholly satisfying thanks to a rich palate of deep flavors, varied textures, vibrant colors, and ample umami. Since the exact components are flexible, it’s easy to bend the formula further to accommodate these zen principles.

Call it fusion if you must, but my shojin minestrone is in a different category from the typically overwrought, inelegant attempt at dumbing down Asian dishes to make them more palatable to hapless diners across the globe. Rather, by starting with potent Sugimoto dried shiitake, it takes the true essence of zen cooking to amplify ingredients found farther afield. Starting with a stock bolstered by the water used to rehydrate the mushrooms, you get all the tanmi properties infused into the liquid, along with the meaty texture of the caps.

Unique to Donko shiitake, this particular variety has a much thicker cap and tender stem, which means that every part of the mushroom can be chopped and added to the stew for a completely waste-less preparation. Forest-grown in Kyushu, a Southern island of Japan, they contains the largest amounts of Guanylate, which creates a much more intense savory flavor.

Buddhist monks were hip to the meatless movement long before it ever had a name. The wisest way to honor their innovation is to keep it alive, and keep innovating with their discoveries in mind.

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Bowl-In-One

Say you’re craving Japanese food, and most people will automatically think of sushi. Maybe ramen, or udon, but almost never a bowlful of rice garnished with ground meat. At least, that’s been my personal experience, even as a lover of all things from the Land of the Rising Sun.

Soboro donburi, also known as soboro don, is a traditional Japanese dish of lightly seasoned ground chicken served over a bed of warm sushi rice. Yes, it does have a deep rooted history in the national cuisine, dating back to the Meiji era (1868-1912) as the nation became industrialized and homemakers had less time to dabble about in the kitchen. A complete bowl-in-one was highly appealing, along with the minimalist composition that allowed these comforting meals to come together quickly and affordably.

In the spirit of thrift, any type of ground protein is a reasonable substitute that still rings true to the original concept, which is why my meatless soboro is as authentically Japanese as any other yoshoku.

Commonly accompanied by scrambled eggs and a simple green vegetable, it’s unfussy everyday fare that follows more of a blueprint than hard and fast recipe. For anyone else seeking a bite of comfort in a pinch, consider this your new go-to.

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Wordless Wednesday: Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto

Vegetable Nigiri; Hi Fi Mycology Mushroom, Aderezo, Lemon Zest. Zucchini Ahimi, Shiso, Rebel Cheese, Aderezo. Spaghetti Squash, Salsa Macha, Rebel Cheese, Scallion.

Veggiepillar Maki; Fried Miso Eggplant, Sesame, Pickled Cucumber & Carrot, Topped with Avocado and Serrano, Yuzu Miso Sauce, Sesame.

Fuyu Crudo; Rainbow Cauliflower, Beet Aguachile, Avocado, Roasted Beet, Salsa Macha, Sesame.

Spinach & Tofu Dumplings; Cashew Cheese, Candied Cashew, Cilantro, Red Curry Oil.

Lucky Robot
1303 S Congress Ave.
Austin, TX 78704