Sunday, March 25, 2007

Don't Try This at Home?

One of the coolest places in all of New Jersey is the Mitsuwa Japanese Marketplace in Edgewater. I'm trying to think of something you can't get there, and I'm coming up blank. There's an amazing produce section that offers nothing but prime specimens and includes enough imported fruits and vegetables to set my heart aflutter. There are shelves packed with all kinds of rice, condiments, tea, seaweed, and other dry good(ie)s, plus a vast sake section (which really should come with a person to help us neophytes make sense of all the choices). There are huge cases of fresh, vibrant-looking meats. There are even more cases of sashimi-grade seafood, from familiar varieties (salmon, tuna) to more esoteric choices (salted herring roe) to the just plain decadent (a big box of sea urchin that I wanted to scoop into my mouth as I shopped). And then there's the food court, which boasts a ramen house, a gyoza stand, a sushi bar, a cream puff shop, a tonkatsu counter, and a pasta station.

A pasta station? Hey, we're still in Jersey.

I had been to Mitsuwa once before, solo, but this was Margy's maiden voyage. Her eyes grew wide as we entered. It was a bustling Sunday afternoon, so rubbing elbows with everyone else was unavoidable, but we didn't mind. All the activity simply added to the impression that we had actually arrived in Tokyo.

Margy did hone in pretty quickly on the one thing Mitsuwa seems to lack: a gift shop. But I'm not sure we turned every stone -- there may be one back there someplace. Plus apparently there's an ordinance in the area about selling certain goods on Sunday, so the aisles and aisles of rice cookers and other fun-looking appliances were kept under wraps. We'll be back, and we'll find the gift shop. Anyway, there was an enormous sweets counter that held every imaginable variety of candy and cake, many of which looked too precious and ornate to eat (and some of which, I'm sure, would be too shocking to the western palate to enjoy, as has been my experience with Japanese desserts). That stuff would make great gifts, depending on the recipient.

The first thing we did was eat lunch -- gyoza and fried rice with a tiny cup of broth and a small daikon-and-seaweed salad. This good-sized meal was $6.95 (Margy and I ordered the same thing), and it was delicious and had been made to order. After lunch we took a walk by the river, and it sometimes seemed like we could toss a pebble and hit the west side of Manhattan.

When our stroll was complete, we returned to Mitsuwa to shop.

It wasn't easy to stop. I felt an electric current of adrenaline as I picked through things I'd never seen before, never even heard of. I grabbed some new stuff, some of the usual, some "eureka!" favorites, some things I had no idea what to do with. We bought two tiny yuzu fruits. We bought Japanese tofu. We longed for a knobby root of fresh wasabi, but it was $99.99 a pound and we put it back. We agreed that tonight we'd have sashimi at home, at our kitchen table, which we'd never even considered before.

Back at the ranch, the buzz of discovery continued into the evening. Among our purchases were four kinds of produce that were new to our kitchen: yuzu (citrus fruit), myoga (a mild gingerlike bulb), mitsuba (an herb that sort of falls between parsley and celery), and mizuna (a slender salad green). What the hell was I going to do with these things?

First I made some sashimi dipping sauces, including a riff on ponzu that used the zest and juice of the yuzu plus soy sauce and grated ginger. I'll tell you, those little fruits are stingy, with a yuzu about the size of a small plum yielding maybe two teaspoons of juice. But this juice was transporting -- it was a familiar flavor, but it was exotic at the same time, possessing a sharpness and a bitterness that distinguished it from other citruses. For a bit of our beloved heat, I mixed up some wasabi from a powder that my sister had given me, and I used Sriracha sauce to make a chile-ginger dip. I used the other produce in a salad and whipped up a sesame-yuzu dressing. (I was going to squeeze every last drop from those four-dollar fruits.)

Meanwhile, I had a second course in mind to follow the sashimi: the famous black cod with miso. If I'm not mistaken, Margy and I had eaten this dish only once, during our sole visit to Nobu, and it vaulted right to legendary status in our food memories. Sweet, salty, fatty, with a bit of crispy skin -- it was a perfect food, great fun to eat. A few years ago I tried making a version with salmon -- I got the recipe from Nobu's cookbook -- and we both found it a little sweet. This, after marinating, and obsessing over, it for two days. In the years since, I've noticed black cod with miso on just about every Japanese menu, but I believe it's still considered Nobu's signature dish. Today, since I'd found actual black cod at Mitsuwa, I tried a "quick version" recipe from the wonderful Washoku by Elizabeth Andoh, which calls for -- guess what? -- yuzu peel. The cod was marinating as I got the sashimi ready.

Now, I have tried my best over the years to cultivate a certain kitchen fearlessness, with "Why not?" as my motto. Can an Italian-American punk from Jersey make a real Indian curry? Why not? Can he steam a chicken the Chinese way? Why not! But suddenly, in the simple act of slicing raw fish, I was losing my nerve, feeling like I somehow had no right to do what I was doing. All because of tradition.

It's a dream of mine to be a sushi chef. And sushi chefs in training don't get to make sushi for years. For the first, say, 24 months or so, they scrub the wooden bar. Once they've gained proper respect for their surroundings, they begin learning to make rice, which takes a long time to master. Only after they've perfected the rice, way down the line, do they get to begin to use a knife. And so it goes, give or take -- and now here I am, catapulting myself light years ahead to the fish-slicing part, and I haven't even washed the table. I felt like I was intruding.

But I wasn't about to stop, so I even dared to try to arrange our sashimi platter with a little bit of clumsy flair. I laid out little piles of sweet shrimp (amaebi), with rows of tuna and yellowtail, plus thin rings of Japanese cucumber and stacks of julienned myoga. The yellowtail was particularly uncooperative and fell apart a bit, but it made it to the plate successfully.

And then, next thing we knew, we were eating sashimi in our kitchen. All of the fish were of top-notch freshness. The shrimp were creamy and melted in our mouth, the tuna was tender and clear tasting, and the yellowtail was firm and briny. The ponzu sauce definitely represented a step up in complexity as opposed to plain soy sauce. I look forward to benefiting from the skills of a real sushi chef in the near future, but this experience was aces in terms of kitchen empowerment. Plus it was downright delicious, not to mention wildly entertaining. And the black cod came out beautifully -- thanks to an amazing piece of fish, a shriveled but powerful citrus fruit, and a wise Japanese chef and teacher.

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