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Thursday, March 31, 2011 09:44 am

Thoughts turn to Japan at cherry blossom time


I got an email from the Missouri Botanical Garden last week: “The weeping Higan cherry is now in bloom in the Japanese Garden. If current weather patterns persist, we expect Yoshino Cherries to begin peak bloom by this weekend.”

My husband, Peter, and I are longtime members of MoBot, as the Missouri Botanical Garden is known. MoBot’s Japanese garden, Seiwa-en, is the largest traditional Japanese garden in North America. It’s always lovely, but never more so than when the cherry trees are blooming. We always try to visit during blossom season. But this year our anticipation of a pleasant outing is suffused with sadness about the Japanese peoples’ suffering in the wake of the horrific earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of cherry blossoms to the Japanese – they’re an integral part of their culture and history. In the eighth century, wealthy and aristocratic Japanese began the tradition of Hanami. Hanami – literally “flower viewing” – are parties organized to visit blossoming cherry trees. Originally Hanami were moralistic about the shortness of human existence, especially relating to Buddhist philosophy: Blooming cherry trees are overwhelmingly beautiful, but their season is brief; the flowers inevitably fall to the earth. Artists of every stripe – poets, musicians, visual artists – celebrated cherry blossoms and their meaning.

These days, Hanami are not just for a privileged few: all Japanese take time to enjoy blossoming cherry trees which, according to Sue Schaeffer, are everywhere in every park in Japan as well as every public space. Picnicking is de rigueur. It’s no longer just about philosophic reflection.

“I arrived during cherry blossom season,” she told me. “The next weekend, friends took me to a picnic under the blossoms. Everyone took pictures. There was even karaoke! But even though there are crowds of people, you feel like you’re in a private space with friends.”

Schaeffer, a good friend, is a retired University of Evansville (Indiana) professor. In 2005 she taught English as a Second Language in Shizuoka, south of Tokyo, where her gracious, self-effacing personality made her a natural fit. Shizuoka only suffered slight damage from the earthquake/tsunami, but she’s been in contact with friends since. They’re OK, but traumatized by the events and their effects locally and nationwide.

A couple days later, I got another email from MoBot: freeze warnings for the weekend. Too bad, but I hoped any cherry trees that survived Japan’s devastation were blooming. Not only to remind them that life is transient. But also that, in its short time, life can be beautiful.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

RealCuisine Recipe
Chicken yakitori

Yakitori is traditional for Hanami, but it’s also classic street food. This recipe calls for boneless skinless pieces of chicken, but in Japanese yakitori stalls, skewers are also pierced with ground chicken meatballs, chicken hearts and livers, and other bits and pieces, such as tailpieces. My husband is so fond of yakitori that he bought a special ceramic yakitori grill, but it’s just as good made on regular gas or charcoal grills. The classic teriyaki marinade is delicious, but I’m especially fond of the tangerine version below, a variation on one from barbeque maestro Steven Raichlan.

  • About 2 lbs. chicken, boneless, skinless, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • Trimmed scallions cut into 1-inch lengths, white and light green parts only, optional
  • Bamboo skewers, soaked in hot water for at least 1 hour
  • Toasted sesame seeds (black or white) for garnish

Classic Teriyaki Marinade

  • 1/2 c. soy sauce, preferably Kikkoman
  • 1 T. brown sugar or honey
  • 1 tsp. grated ginger or ginger juice
  • 2 T. peanut oil OR 1 T. peanut oil and 1 T. sesame oil
  • 1 tsp. minced garlic

Combine the marinade ingredients in a resealable plastic bag. Seal the bag and squish the contents around until the brown sugar or honey has dissolved.

Tangerine Teriyaki Marinade

  • 1 c. fresh tangerine juice OR 1/2 c. tangerine or orange/tangerine juice concentrate
  • 1/2 c. naturally brewed soy sauce, such as Kikkoman
  • 1/3 c. honey
  • Zest from one tangerine OR ½ oz. dried tangerine peel, crumbled
  • 1 tsp. minced garlic
  • 1/4 c. minced shallot or onion (NOT super-sweet)
  • 1 T. minced fresh ginger
  • a 2-inch piece cinnamon stick
  • 3 T. sesame oil (dark/roasted/Asian)

If using fresh tangerine juice, place juice in a small saucepan over high heat and boil until juice is reduced by half. Add the remaining ingredients (including the juice concentrate if using instead of the fresh juice), bring to a boil, reduce to a bare simmer, and cook for about 15 minutes, or until thickened and syrupy. Remove from the heat and let come to room temperature before marinating the chicken.

Place the marinade of your choice in a resealable plastic bag with the cut up chicken, squish out as much air as possible, and let marinate for at least one hour, and up to three hours.

Preheat the grill to high.

Remove the chicken from the marinade and reserve the marinade. Thread the chicken onto the skewers, alternating each piece of chicken with a piece of scallion if you choose. Leave enough space so diners can hold on to the ends.

Place a doubled-up length of foil over one side of the grill so that the skewer bottoms don’t burn.

Grill the skewers, brushing them frequently with the reserved marinade, until well browned on the outside and cooked through, 10-15 minutes.
Serve immediately, sprinkled with the reserved sesame seeds.
Serves 6-8.

Tangerine Teriyaki Marinade adapted from a recipe in Barbeque USA, by Steven Raichlen.

RealCuisine Recipe
Miso - marinated salmon

Miso-marinated fish is a signature dish of Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa, whose exquisite cuisine has won him accolades for years and built a 23-restaurant empire that spans the globe – from NYC to Tokyo, Australia, Dubai, Moscow and London. My husband and I first experienced it during a tasting lunch at Nobu NYC years ago (Sean Connery was at the sushi bar); it was love at first bite. Nobu most often miso-marinates black cod, something that’s not readily available here. But it’s just as good with salmon. Somehow the marinade manages to infuse the fish without obscuring its own flavor or altering its texture, even when marinated overnight. This is one of my favorite – perhaps even my most favorite – salmon preparation.

  • Salmon filet, either 6-8 oz. individual pieces (up to six) or a 2–3 lb. single piece
  • 1 T diced fresh ginger
  • 1/2 c. white (shoyo) miso
  • 1 c. mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine)
  • 1/2 c. sake or dry white vermouth
  • 1/4 c. rice wine vinegar (a.k.a. sushi vinegar)
  • 2 T. dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 c. soy sauce, preferably Kikkoman
  • 1 – 2 T. unsalted butter

Place salmon in a resealable plastic bag. Combine all ingredients except the butter in the container of an electric blender and blend until smooth. Pour over the fish, squeeze out the excess air, seal the bag and refrigerate at least 4 hours and preferably overnight.

Preheat the oven to 400°. Remove salmon from the marinade. Let excess drip off, but do not wipe off. Heat the butter over moderately high heat in a nonstick skillet large enough to hold the salmon in one layer. When the butter is hot but before it begins to brown, add the salmon, skin side up, and sear only until browned and caramelized, 3 to 4 minutes. Carefully turn the fish over and roast in the oven an additional 3 to 4 minutes. The salmon can be slightly rare or just cooked through, according to your preference. It can be served with the skin on, which will have gotten crispy and is delicious, or skinless by carefully sliding a spatula between the flesh and skin. Serve warm or at room temperature.

This marinade is excellent with other types of firm fish, such as cod or halibut, or trout fillets. Adjust roasting times to the thickness of the fish.

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