It's one thing to have a wonderful teacher in the room with you, guiding you through a process or a doing a bit of hand-holding, but it can be a different story (requiring some amount of self confidence) when you find yourself alone in a room, trying to launch or continue on with the same process or project and the teacher is nowhere to be seen.
Well maybe I am overthinking this just a skinch but anyhow, the other night, I realized I had a giant bag of organic spinach that was in full-blown "use it or lose" mode. I also had brown rice cooking on the stove and I had a five year-old who snacks waaaay too much before dinner handing me his plate with a completely un-touched breaded chicken cutlet on it. I realized I needed to channel Fumika, the lovely young woman from Tokyo who, a month ago, had taught me and the boys as well as my friend Sarah and I, how to make several popular Japanese dishes. "Gomae," I said aloud to no one in particular and decided right then and there I would transform that bag of spinach into the super simple but satisfying Japanese side salad. Fumika had made it for us when she taught us how to make Tonkatsu back in March and I still had most of the ingredients.
The first challenge was when I realized I had never written down Fumika's recipe for gomae. I was too busy pounding the bejeezus out of the pork cutlets and making sure Sam didn't deep fry his pinky finger in the hot oil. So I got on the internet. The first recipe I found didn't sound quite like Fumika's but the second one, this one, did. Sort of. When Fumika had said we'd need sesame seeds for the gomae (we were shopping for ingredients at Mitsuwa) I told her I had a large bottle of black sesame seeds at home. "No, I have never heard of using those," she said matter-of-factly and we purchased a small bag of ground blonde-colored sesame seeds. Then I found this recipe where everything was pretty much as she had done, except it called for, you got it, black sesame seeds. It's probably a regional thing, but what I was reminded of immediately is that all cultures and countries have different regions and these regions use varying ingredients. So while black sesame might be completely foreign (and possibly "wrong") to Fumika, to someone from say, Osaka or who knows where, they might be the everyday standard. And in my kitchen, ready to make gomae, all I had was black sesame seeds so I went ahead and used those. I toasted them quickly in a skillet and then ground them up with my trusty old mortar & pestle. The kitchen smelled divine.
My second challenge was that when I was starting to pour the Japanese "Mirin" sauce into the measuring spoon, I realized it was rather thick, kind of like corn syrup. We had picked this sauce up at Mitsuwa and so I assumed that it being imported from Japan it was superior. I stopped pouring, turned the bottle around and looked at the ingredients and sure enough, the first ingredient listed was corn syrup -- the second was high fructose corn syrup! (Apparently plain corn syrup isn't high enough in fructose.) So I poured the tablespoon of imported "Mirin" sauce into the sink and reached for my sugar bowl and my little bottle of straight Mirin (sweet rice vinegar) and used those instead. It wasn't a big deal but I'd just rather use straight cane sugar than a sauce that's basically just two types of corn syrup with some rice vinegar thrown in. So my lesson there, as I was "cooking on my own" is that one person's "secret sauce" can easily be substitutued by something else. They both work, it's just a matter of taste and preference.
I was ready to toss the soy sauce, mirin, sugar, sake and ground black sesame seeds with the quickly blanched spinach. But I stopped myself and remembered one trick Fumika had taught me about the gomae that I did in fact remember, even if I didn't write it down. She said that tossing all the ingredients together with chopsticks "just makes it taste better." So I grabbed a pair and did just that. And she was right. And I realized (once again!) that cooking is an on-going, wonderful, life-long learning process. I need to be inspired and educated by people like Fumika (otherwise I get bored and stuck in a rut) but I also need to go with my gut or riff on a recipe when it is necessary or i simply feel like it.
I quietly enjoyed my solo dinner (Ted was heading out to soccer) of gomae, a gringo version of chicken katsu, sticky brown rice and a simple salad of sliced cucumbers doused with a bit of sesame dressing. I think Fumika (who has since moved away to Austin, Texas) would have been pleased with what I came up with in a somewhat impomptu manner. And besides, it tasted really good -- especially the gomae. And I think that's what she really wanted to teach me.