Saturday, January 7, 2017

Today's Craving: Chicken Karaage - a Japanese treat

Sometimes I wake up and get a hankering for a very specific food.  It’s usually extremely random.  For instance, recently I felt compelled to make Alfajores, the delicious South American cookie sandwich filled with Dulce de Leche.  I’ll share that recipe with you next time, as it truly has become an all time favorite and most requested cookie from friends and family.   Today I awoke, knowing I had some raw chicken leftover from last night’s Paella party, and the only thing I could think of was Karaage:  Japan’s version of fried chicken.  It’s pretty much as crack-like as popcorn shrimp,  a little more than bite sized pieces of marinated thigh meat with equally crack-like seasoned mayo for dipping.  Just for the record, before you read any further, this isn’t a “diet” dish.  And despite the fact that it’s still morning in my part of the world, I’m an adult.  I can have fried chicken nuggets for breakfast if I want to!

I had Karaage a few nights ago at my favorite Ramen restaurant in nearby Sebastopol – Ramen Gaijin.  Their food is better than ever, and their Karaage comes with shichimi seasoned mayonnaise which will definitely be on the "menu" today.
I typed “Karaage recipe” into Google.  The first one that popped up called for garlic, ginger, soy sauce and mirin in the marinade,  and potato starch for the coating.  I didn’t read any further, as when I get one of my cravings it’s more like a possession:   My tastebuds, cooking experience and instincts do the driving, 100%.  I had planned to use corn starch for the coating, but was pleasantly surprised to find an almost unused box of  Katakuri-ko (potato starch) in my pantry.I wouldn’t expect any normal American citizen to have that sort of thing laying around, but since I’ve been a bonified “nippon-phile” for so long, I have all kinds of unusual ingredients hanging around.
I’m a big fan of improvising and using whatever is in the larder when it comes to cooking.  Sometimes because I know it will work, other times because I don’t want to stop the momentum and journey to the store.  I happen to be out of Mirin (sweet cooking sake).  The last time I went for a purchase, it was $9 for a small bottle at Whole Foods.  How annoying!  I suppose one could argue that shopping at Whole Foods, in general, is annoying.  I happen to like most of their options (organic meat, dairy, produce and bulk items), and since I’m into food and not feeding a family of 4, it’s my main stop.   However, $9 for a tiny bottle of Mirin is just not going to cut it for me, especially since I can procure a 750ml bottle for $7 at the Asian Grocery.  However, the Asian grocery in these parts is about 10 miles down the road, so instead, I went over to the wine department, picked out a inexpensively priced 750ml bottle of Nigori sake (under $10) and when I need a little mirin, I add a bit of sugar.  It’s working out as a pretty good substitute.  The unfiltered body of the Nigori also works okay in recipes asking for regular sake. 
spent bonito and kombu
from Dashi broth
Because it’s raining and the Ramen shop re-inspired me in all things Japanese, I also whipped up a pot of Dashi, the all purpose broth made with seaweed and bonito flakes.  Dashi doesn’t take long to make at all.  The recipe didn’t call for it, but my instincts know it is the secret weapon in most dishes that adds that little something you can’t put your finger on.  The seaweed and bonito flakes add that unmistakable “umami.”
I put about a tablespoon of grated ginger, chopped garlic, about ¼ cup soy sauce and ¼ cup of nigori, a tsp or two of sugar and a pinch of salt in a stainless steel bowl.  Added about ½ cup of dashi. It tasted good, so I added my chicken and let it sit in the fridge for a good half hour.   Because the chicken I used was already cut up for paella, the pieces were a bit smaller than ideal for karaage.  But like I said, I like to improvise!
When it was well-marinated, I got the frying oil up to temperature, seasoned some potato flour with salt and a good amount of shichimi  (Japanese chili pepper blend - I wanted a sizeable kick).  Using cooking chopsticks I tossed around the chicken in the flour blend, then dropped it into the oil.  It seemed to take forever to brown, and when it did, the potato starch kind of “rendered” creating an unwanted blond crust on the already not brown enough nugget.  The flavor was amazing though.  

Unwanted "blond" crust from potato starch

Because the whole process was an “experiment,” I only started with about a half cup of potato starch.  Due to the fact that it wasn’t going so well, I decided to ditch the potato starch and use cornstarch instead, adding salt and shichimi just like before.  Wow, what a difference.  The nuggets sizzled away, pushing me to reduce the temp on the oil a bit, assuring they would cook through before overbrowning.   After frying, I tossed with a bit of sesame salt. 
I didn’t have any regular mayonnaise to create a sauce, and definitely no “kewpie” mayonnaise, but had some Lemonaise (a delicious lemon mayonnaise from a California company called The Ojai Cook) that I seasoned with soy sauce, sake and more shichimi. 
Sesame salt and Shichimi
The finished product is in every way as good as it looks. Incidentally, all of the items used today can be found in your local Asian grocery.  It’s worth a stock up, as most of these items are dried and kept in a cool, dry and dark cabinet, last for years.
Okay, I’m (overly) full now, time for a nap!