October 01, 2010

Japanese Cooking | Japanese stewed vegetables

When I was growing up, my mother made her special sweet potato casserole for every holiday dinner. It was filled with apple and pineapple chunks, and topped with marshmallows, which melted and toasted in the oven. All the adults at the table would rave about the concoction, assuring its appearance at the next holiday meal, but when the dish made its way around the table to me, I would carefully remove one marshmallow with the barest amount of sweet potato clinging to it, and place it on my plate. "You really should taste the casserole," my mother would say. "Yes. yes" came the echo around the table." I AM tasting it," I'd reply.

A similar thing happened whenever my mother made baked sweet potatoes. "I can't understand why you don't like these," my father would say. I just didn't like the taste or the smell. It took me years to develop a taste for sweet potatoes, and because they're similar in so many ways, for winter squash. And although I now cook, eat and really enjoy these vegetables, mainly roasted or in savory soups, I still don't consider them favorites — I'm more of a broccoli and kale person. When I see winter squash at the farmers market, my huge enthusiasm for buying them, I now realize, has more to do with their amazing beauty, and the variety of their shapes and sizes, than for their culinary potential. And I'm also suckered in by their names. How can I resist a squash called "butternut," or "delicata" or "kabocha?" The kabocha pumpkin pictured here was purchased to use in a Japanese donburi, or one-bowl meal, that I wanted to make from my new cookbook.

I received a copy of "Japanese Cooking, Contemporary & Traditional" by Miyoko Nishimoto Schinner from the Book Publishing Company, and, as a big fan of Japanese cuisine, was eager to try some recipes. Most of the recipes I was first attracted to involved making konbu-shiitake dashi, and if you recall my last post, (black worms, anyone?), you'll know why my enthusiasm was momentarily dampened. But I decided to "get right back on the horse" so to speak, and a new bag of dried shiitake mushrooms entered the kitchen.

I finally settled on a recipe for stewed vegetables, and because the sidebar on the recipe page said that "it was more of a method for cooking vegetables" than a recipe, I decided to use the resulting vegetables as a major component of a dish, rather than a dish by itself.

As the seaweed and mushrooms for the dashi, or stock, soaked, I was obsessed with any black dots or foreign-looking matter that appeared in the bowl. I picked and scraped, and generally harassed those mushrooms until they were pristine. I was tense.
Kobocha pumpkin was just one of the vegetable choices given in my chosen recipe, and although I had planned to combine several veggies, I ended up with so much cut up squash, I just used that. The directions said the skin was edible and the kobocha didn't need to be peeled, so I left it unpeeled, just scrubbing and scraping away any weird stuff. The pumpkin was very hard (as in VERY HARD) to cut. Using a recently sharpened Japanese chef knife, I got a good workout. I was surprised that it only took about 15 minutes to cook.

The recipe was simple, requiring only the pumpkin, dashi, a small amount of sweetener, mirin, and, near the end of cooking, soy sauce. As I was adding the ingredients to the pot, I have to be honest and admit to not looking forward to eating the result. My "squash-avoidance attitude" was kicking in, and I was also remembering that I didn't love the very dry, flaky texture of kabocha. It didn't look that good to me, and the broth at first had a slightly weird and fishy taste from the konbu. And the shiitake.

When I tasted the finished product I was shocked — it was fabulously delicious. How did that happen? The simple ingredients had magically transformed. I used the cooked pumpkin and its broth as the basis for a one-pot dish, adding fried tofu (purchased in an Asian market) and serving it over soba (the thin Japanese noodles made from buckwheat). The dish was a huge success. The next day, I added frozen corn and ate it for lunch, and the day after that I added Swiss chard and ate it yet again. I'd eat it right now if there were any left!

"Japanese Cooking" published in 1999, is a very handy collection of vegan, traditional and contemporary Japanese recipes. It contains a group of seasonal menu ideas, a useful glossary for those not familiar with Japanese ingredients, and a collection of easy-to-prepare recipes under headings such as rice dishes, soups and stews, cooking with tofu, fried dishes, salads and cold vegetables, noodles, etc. Many of the dishes will require a trip to an Asian grocery or well-stocked natural foods store to purchase Japanese specialty food such as miso, konbu, enoki, konnyaku, cooking saki (mirin). If you have an interest in learning about everyday Japanese cuisine, this little book might be a good place to start.

Stewed Vegetables (reprinted with permission)
  • 4 to 6 cups large bite-sized pieces peeled carrots, daikon, bamboo shoots, lotus root, or kabocha pumpkin
  • fresh or reconstituted shiitake, sliced
  • approximately 2 cups konbu broth (to barely cover vegetables)
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons sweetener of choice
  • 1 to 3 tablespoons mirin
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons soy sauce
  1. Place vegetable pieces and shiitake in a pot, and pour broth over to barely cover.
  2. Add the sweetener and mirin, partially cover, and simmer until tender.
  3. Add the soy sauce and simmer for 5 or 6 more minutes. Vegetables should be soft. (except for lotus root, if using)
  4. Adjust seasonings if necessary.
notes: I added fried tofu purchased from an Asian grocery and cut into bite-sized pieces, with the soy sauce. The cooked vegetables and broth were ladled over soba, into individual bowls.

When I made my dashi, I used both dried shiitakes and konbu since I needed the mushrooms for the recipe, anyway. To make dashi: (reprinted with permission) Soak a 3 x 4-inch piece of konbu and 5 large or 10 small dried shiitake in 1 quart of water for at least 2 hours. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the shiitake and konbu; they can be used for other dishes.

Miyoko Nishimoto Schinner is also the author of "The Now and Zen Epicure: Gourmet Cuisine for the Enlightened Palate."
disclaimer: The cookbook described in this post was sent to me free of charge by the publisher. No attempt was made by the publisher to influence my review, nor was I paid to write a review.


  1. Andrea,
    This looks and sounds amazing! I LOVE Japanese cooking. Lucky for me, my good friend and next door neighbor is Japanese and a wonderful cook!
    Thanks for sharing,

  2. I adore Japanese cuisine! The Stewed Vegetables look absolutely delicious and made with elegant simplicity. Who wouldn't love that? Thanks you for sharing, Andrea. I'll have to be on the lookout for copies of both titles.

  3. It is hysterical timing that you just posted about that very sweet potato casserole, because today I just posted a vegan version of those flavors in cupcake form! How funny. Your Japanese vegetables look delicious... probably a lot better (and WAY better for you!) than sweet potatoes coated in marshmallows. :)

  4. Aimee,
    Thanks! I was pretty surprised how much I loved the dish, considering my unenthusiastic approach to squash. Lucky you to have such a friendly next door neighbor.

    It's amazing how the simplest preparation can sometimes be the best.

    The marshmallows were the only part of the casserole I liked. :D I'll look for your cupcake version — does it have vegan marshmallow melted on top? (I think I'm kidding, but not 100% sure.)

  5. This post inspired me to re-run a Kabocha soup recipe from last year. I'm pretty excited it's squash season again! I have a winter squash on the counter but not sure I can attack with Chris out of town. I know some grocery stores will cut them for you, which is helpful (especially with spaghetti squash).

  6. I've had a similar journey when it comes to accepting squash into my diet. I'm intrigued by this soup - thanks for sharing!

  7. I love all kinds of Japanese cooking, so I bet I'd enjoy this--though sadly (or maybe thankfully), I can't have shitake mushrooms right now. I'm sure I'd have been just as tense--glad the specks/dots/holes all turned out to be. . . just mushroom. And the final dish does look fabulous!

    I agree that the squashes are beautiful to look at, though I also enjoy eating them. Buttercup (the closest relative to kabocha we can get here) is a definite favorite. :)

  8. Carbzilla,
    Well, Carb, if you were doing wall push-ups in the shower instead of aquarobics, you'd cut that squash up in nothing flat. (kidding, kidding) I imagine kabocha soup would be great. We have a hokkaido and a something else sitting on our counter.

    I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one recovering from a reluctance to eat squash. (I don't have any qualms eating it in pie or cake.:D)

    I like buttercup, too. My favorite is butternut because it seems easier to cut, and the seed cavity is so small. (Not sure if all the dots and specks were benign. I'll probably never be able to "casually" soak or eat mushrooms again.)

  9. Phew! No worms! The stewed vegetables look so good and chunky. I adore kabocha! It can be hard to find around here, but it's always a happy sight when I spot it in the produce section.

    Those sweet potato casseroles topped with marshmallows are not my cup of tea. They're figgin' sweet! I like to eat my dessert *after* dinner, thank you very much! :D

  10. I wish I had a bowl of that soup right now. :) I'm so lucky that my best friend - who is Japanese, although she grew up in the US - is a wonderful cook, and often treats us to some amazing Japanese meals. I should really make an effort to cook more of that cuisine myself, too.

    I'm also not a big fan of sweet potatoes, but pumpkin/squash I have grown to like - as long as it is paired with something savory and not something sweet (unless it's a pie or another dessert, of course). :)

  11. I would like to exchange links with your site cookeasyvegan.blogspot.com
    Is this possible?

  12. I also recently obtained this cookbook, and have made this very recipe, with the exact results you describe, except that by default I love both squash and sweet potatoes, so didn't have that hurdle to leap before digging in and really enjoying the dish (I do, however, peel my kabocha squash). I really wish I'd had this cookbook last year when I was doing all-Japanese for VeganMoFo 2009, because it contains so many good things. And speaking of good things, good on you for facing the mushrooms...I haven't been able to yet :-0

  13. River,
    I'm with you 100% on the casseroles. There's something just not right about them.

    I don't know. What do you have in mind? Do you want me to list your blog or did you want to spam people? Email me with questions.

    What a coincidence! I'm glad to have confirmation of the results, since I did gush a bit. I agree that it looks like a great little book. As for the mushrooms, I"m still uncomfortable eating them in restaurants, though I probably will.

  14. I love sweet potatoes and winter squash. I have already been eating my fair share of them this Fall. I usually just do something simple, like roasting them though. Your recipe is way more creative.

    My mom used to make a sweet potato casserole too that I LOVED, but hers had a streusel topping instead of marshmallows. One of these days I need to veganize it.

  15. Andrea, I'm Miyoko Schinner, the author of Japanese Cooking. Thanks for the review! I'm really glad you liked the recipe. The beauty of Japanese cooking is in its simplicity, in letting the ingredients have their own pure voice.

    I was wondering if you would be willing to put a link on your site to my blog, albeit the very few postings I do per year. I'm trying to increase readership beyond my circle of friends! It's www.veganmanifesto.com I'd appreciate it. Thanks!

  16. Seglare,
    Your comment must have slipped in when I wasn't looking! I feel the same way as you do about pairing squash with savory rather than sweet, except as you noted, when it's made into pies, cookies or cakes!

    I usually just roast them, too, but I really loved this dish. With sweet potatoes, my favorite way to make them is as oven fries. Except for the marshmallows, and maybe some margarine, I think my mother's casserole was probably vegan, and those two things are easily replaced. Maybe I would like it better, now.

    Thanks so much for leaving a comment. I'd be happy to link to your blog. I visited it, and there are wonderful things there. You should update it more often so we can all benefit from your creative cooking!

  17. Even tho Japanese food is one my favorites, I know there's a lot of dishes I haven't tried yet. The soup looks so delicious! I like all of your additions. :-)

  18. I haven't had too many Japanese meals, but I must say...this looks and sounds amazing! I never liked sweet potatoes very much either until a few years ago...I now love them though.

    This is going to be my first year in eating winter squash, so we shall see what I end up thinking about them later in the year. :o)

  19. looks great. I never would have guessed that you were a (reformed now?) squash-o-phobe. though if they have sugar added and are topped w/ marshmallows, I understand :)

  20. Chow vegan,
    I think we'll be having the soup again, soon, as well as trying other recipes from the cookbook. We tend to keep making something we like over and over, but I really want to try more of the recipes.

    I highly recommend this squash recipe; it was delish!

    I really like squash, now, but usually not until I'm actually eating it. I still don't get excited about the IDEA of eating it. Or maybe it's the idea of cooking it that's the problem.

  21. ".....and generally harassed those mushrooms until they were pristine. I was tense."

    haha that was so good! thanks for the link to this, i saw your notes on how to make the broth at the bottom, i can do that!

  22. DD,
    I hope you don't get to see any of those worms. :D


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