Monday, November 22, 2010

Kansha: The Japanese Tradition of Giving Thanks

In her newest book, KANSHA: Celebrating Japan’s Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions, Elizabeth Andoh invites us to practice kansha – appreciation for nature’s edible gifts and the efforts of those who prepare wholesome, handsome meals from that bounty. As America celebrates the Thanksgiving holiday, this culinary message is especially poignant. Kansha – in any culinary culture – compels us to reduce waste, conserve energy, and sustain natural resources.

Expanding on the recipes and techniques she details in KANSHA, Japanese cooking expert Elizabeth Andoh has begun an open, on-line culinary classroom called KANSHAcooking. Discover how “nothing goes to waste in the kansha kitchen,” with recipes and menu suggestions that creatively convert vegetable peels and bits of produce into fabulous, food. Every six weeks Andoh shares new lessons that teach the basic tenets of kansha cooking through recipes, techniques, menu-planning, and presentation.

Addictively delicious Crispy Gourd Chips are fashioned from stock-making leftovers. Heaven-and-Earth Tempura Pancakes coax bits of produce languishing in the back of your veggie bin into lacy morsels. Eggplant Two Ways converts the often tough and usually discarded dark eggplant peels into a spicy sauté. With the scholarship and narrative flare that has become a trademark of her work, Andoh provides details on ingredients, technique, and menu-planning enabling you to construct myriad feasts from the more than 100 vegan recipes she offers up in KANSHA.

Heaven-and-Earth Tempura Pancakes (Ten Chi Kaki Age)

The name of this dish, Heaven and Earth, is a euphemism for kitchen scraps, namely the tops (heaven) and bottoms (earth) of produce: tender, leafy celery tops; tougher leek tops; mushroom stems; carrot and daikon peels; stubby ends of lotus and burdock root, parsnips, rutabagas, and bitter melon. All sorts of neglected or remaindered vegetable bits can be transformed into lovely, lacy-crisp, colorful tempura pancakes.

The key to making tasty pancakes from disparate ingredients is to select items that cook at approximately the same temperature and time. Cutting your vegetables so that most are long and thin and a few are in crescents or rounds will make it easier to form a cohesive mass. Dusting ingredients with cornstarch before adding them to the batter will also help the pancakes hold together.

When you are ready to form the pancakes, use a large, flat stainless-steel spoon or ladle to help shape them. Dipping the spoon or ladle into hot oil first will ensure easy release of the pancake as you slip it into the oil.

Another bit of advice: gaman, which translates as “reticence” or “reluctance.” Refraining from taking action is often considered a virtue in both the Japanese kitchen and Japanese society at large. My recipe instructs you not to take certain actions, though you may find it tough to follow such advice.

I provide two assorted-vegetable examples below, one using wintertime produce, the other showcasing summer’s bounty. At any time of year, use this recipe to guide you in creating your own heavenly pancake with earthy flavors. Serve with lemon or lime wedges and the three-pepper salt.

Makes 8 pancakes

Winter pancakes
1/2 red onion, cut into thin slices through the stem end to make crescent shapes (about 1/3 cup)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Scant 1/3 cup julienne-cut carrot peels (1-inch strips; about 3 ounces)
Scant 1/3 cup julienne-cut Satsuma imo, yam, or sweet potato peels (1-inch strips; about 2-1/2 ounces)

Summer pancakes
3-ounce chunk bitter melon, cut in half lengthwise, seeds removed, very thinly sliced, salted with 1/4 teaspoon salt, and drained about 1/4 cup
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 small zucchini, about 4 ounces total weight, tops trimmed, cut in half lengthwise, and then cut on the diagonal into thin slices, about 2/3 cup
Scant 1/3 cup julienne-cut kabocha squash peels (3/4-inch strips; about 3 ounces)
2 tablespoons finely shredded summer herbs such as fresh shiso leaves
4 or 5 fresh chives, cut into 1/2-inch lengths

Several ice cubes
1/3 cup cold water
1/4 cup self-rising cake flour
Vegetable oil for deep-frying
1 to 2 teaspoons aromatic sesame oil (optional)

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Generous pinch of kona-zanshō
Generous pinch of tōgarashi
Generous pinch of freshly ground black pepper
Lemon or lime wedges

Depending upon seasonal availability, choose to make either the winter pancakes or the summer pancakes: To make the winter pancakes, place the red onion in a bowl.

With a pastry brush, dust the slices thoroughly with some of the cornstarch. Pull gently to separate the crescent shapes, dusting again with a bit more cornstarch. Add the carrot and sweet potato peels to the bowl and dust with the remaining cornstarch. Toss to distribute the vegetables evenly.

To make the summer pancakes, with a pastry brush, dust the bitter melon slices thoroughly with some of the cornstarch, then place them in a bowl. Dust the zucchini slices and kabocha peels in a similar manner and add them to the bowl; toss to distribute evenly. Dust the shredded shiso leaves and chives with cornstarch and add them to the bowl; toss again to distribute evenly.

Make the batter just before frying: Place the ice cubes in a small bowl with half of the water. Sift the cake flour over the water and stir to mix slightly; there should still be lumps. If needed, add water, a few drops at a time, until the batter is the consistency of a thin pancake batter.

Pour the vegetable oil to a depth of 1-1/2 inches into a small wok or small, deep skillet, add the sesame oil, and heat slowly. Check the temperature with an unvarnished long wooden chopstick (or a bamboo skewer). Small bubbles will form around the tip when the oil is about 350°F.

Wait for about 45 seconds longer to allow the temperature to rise a bit more—to about 370°F—and then test the oil temperature with a few drops of batter. If they sink slightly, then rise to the surface and puff quickly but do not color, the oil is ready. You may need to fry the pancakes in batches to avoid crowding them in the pan. Preheat the oven to 200°F for keeping the cooked pancakes warm.

Spoon a bit of the batter over the cornstarch-dusted vegetables and toss lightly to coat the vegetables with the batter. Dip a large spoon or ladle into the hot oil. Place one-eighth of the vegetable mixture in the bowl of the oil-dipped spoon. Carefully tilt the spoon to slide the pancake into the hot oil, aiming to make a disk about 2 inches in diameter. The batter and cornstarch act as “glue” to keep the vegetable slivers together. Repeat to make more pancakes, being careful not to crowd the pan.

Most important, refrain from touching the pancakes for a full 30 seconds after you place them in the oil. It will seem like an eternity, but gaman will yield the best results. If wayward bits are strewn at the edges of your pan, carefully pick them up and place them on top of the still-moist pancake batter in the center. (Skill with long chopsticks will be well rewarded, though a long-handled fine-mesh skimmer can scoop beneath as well.) If the center of the pancake is very dry, dip the wayward bits in some fresh batter before “gluing” them in place. When the batter in the center of the disk seems barely moist, carefully invert the pancake.

After flipping, allow the pancakes to fry undisturbed for about 1 minute, or until crisp. Using cooking chopsticks or a skimmer, remove the pancakes from the oil and place them on a rack set over a baking sheet to drain. If frying in batches, place the baking sheet in the oven to keep the fried pancakes warm. Use the skimmer to clear the oil of batter bits between batches. When all of the pancakes are fried, transfer them to paper towels to absorb any additional surface oil.

To serve, line a plate or shallow bamboo basket withfolded paper (the Japanese use ones called shikigami or kaishi that are oil-absorbent on one side and oil-repellant on the other). Paper doilies make an attractive alternative. Mix together the salt and 3 peppers in a small bowl. Arrange the pancakes on the folded paper and put the lemon wedges and the pepper mixture on the side.

Celebrating Japan’s Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions
by Elizabeth Andoh
Ten Speed Press
October 19, 2010
$35.00/ Hardcover
Photographs by Leigh Beisch
ISBN-13: 978-1580089555

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