"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" ~ Mary Oliver

sukiyaki! . . .

Rib eye for sukiyaki
On Monday, I went to a huge asian market on the way into town for another appointment. There, I picked up a package of gorgeous rib eye steak, sliced thin and gleaming up at me to make either sukiyaki or shabu shabu, both Japanese recipes that call for prime thinly sliced beef.

Back home, I pulled out a number of my Japanese cookery books, looked online for recipes and also consulted my daughter, M., who lived in Japan for six years and for whom sukiyaki is one of her favorite dishes. (Hopefully, this quest for perfect sukiyaki will take less time than the search for foolproof popovers!)

The first thing that caught my attention when reading the recipes was the way to handle the beautiful beef: instruction to pan fry the beef in the skillet and brown it first, adding sugar or not adding sugar. Then, putting it to the side of the skillet but still on the heat and boiling napa cabbage, tofu, sweet potato noodles, scallions, mushrooms, spinach, etc. in a seasoned broth with sake, mirin, soy and sugar. You’re supposed to let the combined mixture cook for ten minutes so that the flavors of the beef and broth permeate the other ingredients.

Sounds good to me, except what happens to the cooked beef while all the rest of this boiling of the stock goes on, and for ten minutes? Wouldn’t it be tough and chewy by the time everything else was cooked through enough, especially when we have such gorgeously THIN pieces of rib-eye?

Not finding anything in the recipes that allayed my concerns about over-cooking the beef, I decided to buy some sake, which I enjoy drinking anyhow, warmed up.

I think what I will do is to saute the beef slices in the beginning, remove most of it from the pan except for a couple of pieces left in the skillet to give flavor to the napa cabbage, spinach, tofu and noodles. When the hot pot ingredients are ready to serve, I’ll then place the medium rare pieces of beef that I held aside to the broth, let it settle in and then serve it immediately.
Okay, so what I wrote above this line was during my thinking phase, considering this special Japanese dish. Here’s what I actually did during my cooking phase:
1. I cooked the sweet potato noodles (dangmyen) until they were tender, drained them and then put them back into the pot after using kitchen shears to cut them into smaller pieces. I then added soy, mirin, dashi and sugar to them and let their heat mix it in until these liquids were dissolved. Sort of like par-seasoning the noodles ahead of time.
2. I prepared the tofu by cutting blocks of soft tofu (that’s all I had and I didn’t want to go out to the store just to buy firm tofu. I basted the rectangular blocks with some Korean bulgogi barbecue sauce and crisped them in a skillet with a little oil. They came out gorgeous and smelled divine.
3. I cut up half a small head of napa cabbage and sauteed it in a little oil in a separate skillet. Removed it when it was fully cooked but still crispy, putting it aside.
4. I cleaned some beautiful pieces of Chinese spinach, tearing out the most fibrous stems and leaving the dark green leaves to add at the last minute to the sukiyaki hot pot.
5. I made the most important sauce, using te-dah!, Bobby Flay’s recipe (yep, that’s right) soy sauce, a little sugar, mirin and dashi stock. I cooked this until all the flavors were blended and it was delicious.
6. Sliced up four green onions into two inch lengths and set aside.
noodles, spinach, cabbage and tofu for sukiyaki
When it was time for dinner, I used a large skillet, coated the bottom with grapeseed oil and at medium high heat, seared some pieces of thinly sliced rib eye beef. Sprinkled the raw side with a little brown sugar and then turned them to cook the other side. Then I took them out of the skillet to add at the end of the dish. The beef drippings were still there as I sauteed the green onions, then placed in segregated sections the napa cabbage, barbecue crisped tofu blocks and sweet potato noodles around the perimeter of the skillet. Poured in the prepared Bobby Flay sauce which was full of flavor. Put on the lid of the skillet and let it all simmer for two minutes. Then turned everything over, added the fresh spinach and let simmer another two minutes. In the well in the middle, I gently placed the medium rare beef and covered it for one more minute. Then, I ladled an arranged sukiyaki bowl for G. and me, beating a raw organic egg in a separate bowl to use for dipping.

Here it is so you can see for yourself how it looked right before we ate it. I have to say, it was worth the extra preparation beforehand because everything in the dish was flavorful and cooked through, while the thin prime rib slices remained medium rare, front and center, savored in all its glory. Yum!
skillet with sukiyaki

popover lessons learned . . .

popovers in the oven
After the previous post was published, I decided that I wanted to share some lessons learned from my foray into baking popovers. At first, I thought it could just be a postscript to the last post, but it was too long, as you can see below.

Some recipes emphasize the temperature of the batter as being the key factor for success. For example, making it up the night before and letting it sit in the refrigerator so it will be so cold as to “explode” and rise when it hits the hot grease in the popover pans.

Others, like Ina Garten’s recipe, just tell you to have the eggs and milk at room temperature before you mix it together and bake right afterwards.

The gruyere recipe called for HEATING the milk almost to a boil before mixing it with room temperature eggs, flour and salt. In my experiments, ALL of them worked to produce humongous popovers. So, pick your poison.

The one thing that I learned along the way which I did not know previously, and which I believe is the real key to success is this: using a popover pan rather than a muffin pan and putting your ungreased popover pan into the heating oven (375 degrees) while you are mixing the batter.

Before turning on the oven, place a sheet of aluminum foil on the rack underneath where you will put your popover pan because grease and batter may spatter into your oven (that’s the real price for making popovers–some mess in your oven, and smoking grease (not good) if you use oil rather than Pam in the cups.) Both racks should be in the bottom third of your oven. Then preheat the oven to 375 degrees with your ungreased popover pan in it.

[Before I knew about only spraying with Pam, I followed a recipe that instructed me to put a tsp. of cooking oil into the bottom of each cup. It was a disaster, as we found out on Christmas Eve, because the oil spilled into the oven as the popovers rose, caught fire (yes!) and began smoking into the oven and then, into the kitchen. This was a harsh lesson learned, and it was also the recipe that was fuzzy about baking the popovers long enough for the insides to be cooked. Later, after the oven had cooled, my daughter, M., patiently cleaned the oven by hand that night so that we could use it the next day to bake cinnamon rolls which we have every Christmas morning while opening presents.]

When the batter is ready, carefully take out the dry, very hot pan out of the oven and spray each cup of the heated pan with Pam, including around the tops of the rims where the batter will bake. This worked out well and no popovers stuck in the pan afterwards. There is nothing more irritating than having to scrape around popovers to get them out of the pan.

I mix the batter in a very large 4-cup Pyrex glass measuring vessel that has a spout. It’s perfect for pouring the batter into the popover pan sprayed with Pam. Fill batter up to the top of the cups, not just halfway or 3/4 way. Put the filled pan into the oven and don’t open the door, nor even think about taking it out before 40-45 minutes is up.

A 375 degree oven for the whole time worked well and is less chancey than the 425 degrees for 15-20 minutes, then turn down the heat to 350 degrees and bake “until they’re done” (too loosey goosey.)

Popping, I’ve learned the hard way (on Christmas Eve when I took them out after 20 minutes at 425 degrees when they were huge and then they all instantly shriveled into little muffin shapes by the time they arrived on the table) is only the first part of baking popovers. They need to pop, THEN, the insides need to bake. Even when the popovers look absolutely done at around 20 minutes and you’re worried about them getting too brown, the last 20 minutes is critical in order to have the popover flesh inside to be baked and not gooey. Do not open the oven door, ever, until they are baked for 40 minutes.

Actually, I’ve not ever come across anyone who doesn’t love popovers, especially fresh out of the oven. The rest of the meal, no matter what you have provided as your main course (prime rib, leg of lamb, roast turkey or baked ham,) quickly recedes into the background when the popovers arrive at the table. We eat them with unsalted butter (I use Kate’s Butter) and Billy Bee honey drizzled on steaming pulled apart crisp pieces of popovers. In my previous post, we found that popovers and a nice salad were enough to make a very satisfying meal.

Oddly, we didn’t go crazy over the gruyere cheese addition to the popover batter. Yes, it was tasty, but I expected more cheesy goodness. So, I think I’ve discovered that for us, classic is best, and I’ll stick to making plain popovers using the heated milk recipe.

I hope these lessons learned will help you if you decide to treat yourself and your family to these gigantic explosions of delight for your table. As mentioned above, I use popover pans, not muffin pans. They are deeper and the shape helps with the pyrotechnics. I have two six cup popover pans that make popovers so big that you can’t get them on your dinner plate. I then bought a twelve cup “miniature” popover pan on that I use instead. The popovers in this pan are plenty huge as you can see from the photos if you remember to fill them to the rim of each greased cup.

Okay, that’s enough on this. If you think I’m a little OCD about making popovers, I’d say you were probably right. Maybe it’s also a reflection of my determined quest to get ALL the many elements required for a four-ingredient recipe to be foolproof, at least for me and my family. Come to think of it, this recipe relies on a combination of the ingredients, physics and chemistry–and maybe that’s why they are so magical when they finally succeed. Good luck making popovers!

My foolproof popover recipe:

2 cups WHOLE milk, heated in a saucepan until almost boiling; then take off the heat
4 room temperature extra-large organic eggs, beaten in a 4 cup glass pyrex vessel with spout
2 cups King Arthur flour, measured and set aside
1 1/2 tsp. salt

1. Place a piece of aluminum foil on the bottom rack; both racks in the bottom third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place a dry 12 cup popover pan to heat in the oven while it is preheating.

2. Hand whisk the eggs and salt in the Pyrex bowl. Slowly add the heated milk into the eggs and keep whisking to combine (I was afraid of scrambling eggs at this point)
Add the flour in 1/2 cup increments into the egg mixture until it’s incorporated. Don’t beat, just combine it until everything is mixed in. lumps are okay. Scrape the edge of bowl to make sure everything is combined.

3. With a potholder, take the very hot popover pan out of the oven and spray each cup AND the rim space around the top with PAM.

4. Put the pan down and pour batter into each cup up to the rim. You should have exactly enough to fill all twelve cups.

5. Place in oven, close the door and don’t open it for at least 40 minutes. If your oven is dicey, leave them in for 45 minutes.

6. Shut off the oven; open the door, and leave the popovers in the oven for a couple of minutes to allow them to adjust to the cooler air coming in.

7. Set the popovers on the counter or stove; gently take them out and put on a platter–they should come right out. If not, you didn’t spray enough Pam around the top surface of the pan where the popovers adhere at the rim tops.

That’s all she wrote! (Finally!)