I manage to have a pretty good diet throughout the year, eating lots of fresh vegetables and fruit, with moderate (mostly) wine consumption.
But from late November until the last gasp at the end of December, we all are bombarded with richness and excess at every turn. Who can resist?
Once the new year begins, it’s time to re-rig — but a person’s got to eat. I won’t commit to utter sensory deprivation, so I make sure that January’s food is tasty and beautiful, if not abundant. And throwing an occasional dinner party shouldn’t be out of the question. The trick is to lighten up without sacrificing flavor. That’s what this menu is all about.
When there’s a need for a meal like this, I’m often inspired by skimming through Japanese cookbooks. There, I find examples of food that is exquisite in its simplicity. Though I’m no expert, I try to mirror, respectfully, this uncomplicated approach.
For a first course, I wanted something fresh, so I settled on an herb salad with tofu. There’s a well-known Japanese dish of tofu drizzled with soy sauce or ponzu and sprinkled with scallions, ginger and shaved bonito, eaten cold.
Playing with that idea, I use a combination of tarragon, dill, shiso, mint, basil, cilantro, parsley and watercress paired with cool, custardy silken tofu. Then there’s a dressing of toasted sesame seeds, lime juice, ginger, sesame oil and finely minced green chile stirred into yogurt. It may sound odd (it’s not remotely authentic), but the combination is quite refreshing.
The chicken main course gets most of its flavor from miso, the Japanese paste made from fermented soybeans or other grains. Aside from being probiotic, high in vitamins and mineral rich, miso is delicious. (A small tub in the refrigerator keeps forever, and has many uses.) Light miso (yellow or white) yields a mild, nutty dish; dark miso (red or brown) gives it a deeper, moodier rustic quality. Both yield succulent results.
I simmer skinless, boneless chicken thighs — nearly impossible to overcook — in water with a few aromatics for a pleasant light broth, but feel free to use chicken stock for more depth if you wish. The simmered meat is then slathered with a seasoned miso mixture, and roasted until beautifully glazed. Served in a shallow soup bowl, with a ladle of leek and scallion-enhanced broth, it is unfathomably good.
Even people who may skip dessert can manage a bowl of fruit sorbet. This one is exceedingly easy and makes a perfect ending to any meal. Composed of fresh tangerine juice and a small amount of sugar, the sorbet mixture needs a bit of alcohol to keep it from freezing solid. A little sake does the trick here, while a splash of sake at serving time adds interest. (If you’re not a fan of sake, use flavorless vodka in the base, and a citrus-infused vodka or citrus liqueur to finish.)
In all modesty, I must say it’s a pretty fabulous meal, light enough to be called spa food, though if you don’t tell, no one will guess.
Tofu and Herb Salad With Sesame
Total time: 20 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
1/4 cup white sesame seeds, toasted and coarsely ground
3 tablespoons lime juice
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1 teaspoon finely chopped green chile
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon soy sauce
3/4 cup plain yogurt (not Greek-style)
Salt and pepper
2 cups watercress sprigs
1 cup Italian parsley leaves
1/2 cup cilantro sprigs
1 cup mixed herbs, such as whole tarragon leaves, whole or torn mint or basil leaves, chervil sprigs, snipped dill and slivered shiso
2 cups thinly sliced cucumber (from 1 large cucumber)
1 (14-ounce) package silken or soft tofu, cut into 1-inch cubes
Black or white sesame seeds, for garnish (optional)
1. Make the sauce: In a small bowl, put ground sesame seeds, lime, ginger, chile, sesame oil and soy sauce. Add yogurt and stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper. (If necessary, thin with a little water.) Set aside.
2. On individual plates, arrange watercress, parsley and cilantro, then the mixed herbs. Scatter cucumber slices here and there. Top with the tofu cubes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
3. Drizzle sauce over each plate, and garnish with sesame seeds, if desired.
Miso Chicken in Ginger, Leek and Scallion Broth
Total time: 1 hour
Makes: 4 to 6 servings
8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 3 pounds)
Salt and pepper
2 large garlic cloves, smashed but not peeled, plus 1/2 teaspoon grated garlic
1 (2-inch) piece ginger, peeled and thickly sliced, plus 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 small onion, thinly sliced
6 cups chicken broth (optional)
1/4 cup mirin
4 tablespoons yellow or red miso
1/2 teaspoon gochugaru (Korean red-pepper flakes)
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
2 cups leeks, white and tender green parts, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions, for garnish
1. Put chicken thighs in a large pot, seasoning well with salt and pepper on both sides. Add smashed garlic cloves, ginger slices, onion, 6 cups water (or chicken broth, if you prefer) and mirin, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, covered, for 30 minutes, until tender. Remove chicken to a baking dish. Strain broth into a bowl. Place back into the pot, and keep warm. Heat oven to 375 degrees.
2. In a small bowl, combine miso, gochugaru, grated garlic, grated ginger, vinegar and sugar. Add a little hot broth to thin, then smear mixture over chicken and coat well.
3. Bake chicken until browned and glazed, about 20 minutes.
4. While chicken is cooking, bring broth to a simmer, taste and adjust seasoning. Add leeks and cook until just done — soft, but still green, about 5 minutes.
5. To serve, slice chicken into 1/4-inch pieces and divide among large soup bowls, then ladle broth on top. Spoon any remaining miso mixture from pan over chicken. Garnish with scallions.
Tangerine Sorbet With Sake
Total time: 40 minutes, plus freezing
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
3 cups freshly squeezed tangerine juice, with pulp, from about 4 pounds tangerines (about 12 large)
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1/2 cup sake, plus more for serving
Citrus leaves, for garnish (optional)
1. Put tangerine juice, powdered sugar and 1/2 cup sake in a blender and whiz briefly to combine. Transfer to the bowl of an ice cream machine, and churn according to manufacturer’s instructions. (It should be about 20 to 30 minutes, until mixture thickens and holds its shape in a spoon.)
2. Transfer to an airtight container and keep in freezer compartment for at least 2 hours. (Sorbet will keep in the freezer up to two weeks.) To serve, put scoops in small, chilled bowls. Add 2 tablespoons of sake to each bowl. Garnish each with citrus leaf.