With the launch of Crave comes new territory for this food writer: my first column, “If I Can, You Can.” In it I will share firsthand lessons from experts in everything from kitchen techniques to executing dishes, all very basic. The goal is to make the task of cooking approachable.
Not only do I aspire to get noncooks into the kitchen, focusing on the fundamentals will allow me to build on my own very basic skills. Sharing this journey with readers will be great fun.
This first installment is as basic as basic can get — no actual cooking. And it involves just a few ingredients: several cucumbers, a can of tuna, fresh ginger and vinegar. These are the fixings for a lightly pickled cucumber salad, presented rather grandly in an assemblage that resembles a cake.
Before you write off this dish as bizarre, consider its source: Her name is Harumi Kurihara, one of Japan’s most famous home cooks. Kurihara took to television back in 1983 after hosting more than a few dinner parties for her TV-executive husband and racking up raves for her home-cooked dishes.
Kurihara, 69, tapes her cooking shows in her own extra-large kitchen — after all these years, she is still, literally, a home cook. She has published 128 books and magazines that exceed 25 million copies and has presented more than 4,000 original recipes. It’s no surprise that Kurihara is referred to as “the Martha Stewart of Japan.”
The concept of Kurihara’s dish is ridiculously simple: Sliced cucumbers are quickly pickled in vinegar and served with the tuna and finely sliced strips of fresh ginger. If there is complexity to her recipe, it is in making accommodations for differences in ingredients.
For instance, she notes that the vinegars available in Hawaii can be more intense than what she uses in Japan, so sugar and salt might need adjusting. Kurihara’s advice reflects her approach to cooking.
“Any housewife can do my dishes. My philosophy is simplicity and flexibility,” she said. “Recipes evolve. I believe if someone uses my recipe, they should adjust it to their family’s preference.”
What Kurihara does insist upon is that ingredients be treated with care and respect, and that dishes are plated in an inviting way.
“When cooking, prepare food precisely. Do the steps with great care — politely, gently, precisely,” she said. “When you make a dish from a good recipe and present it attractively, it makes the experience of eating pleasurable.”
The combo of vinegar, tuna and crunchy veggies is familiar to the local palate — recall maki sushi, with its vinegary rice and vegetable and tuna fillings.
Nevertheless, expect to be surprised. There’s powerful punch in the fresh ginger, as well as less sweetness to the sauce than local folks would expect from a vinegary Japanese dish. The meatiness of the tuna nicely balances those bright, dominant flavors.
In its entirety it’s absolutely refreshing and satisfying.
Courtesy Harumi Kurihara
4 medium Japanese cucumbers
2 teaspoons salt, divided
1/2 (5-ounce) can tuna
1/2 cup Japanese rice vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 cup fresh ginger, sliced into fine matchsticks
Slice cucumbers in half crosswise, and then halve again lengthwise. Using a spoon, gently remove seeds, taking care not to remove too much flesh. Slice cucumbers diagonally, about 1/8-inch thick. Toss with 1 teaspoon salt; place in colander. Salt will extract water from cucumber. Let sit 5 to 10 minutes. (Do not let cucumber sit too long or it will wilt and lose its crunch.)
Drain tuna and place in colander lined with paper towels to absorb excess liquid. Set aside in refrigerator.
Combine vinegar, sugar and remaining salt. Stir until sugar and salt dissolve. Taste and adjust salt and sugar according to sourness of vinegar.
Place cucumber in cheesecloth or paper towel and squeeze firmly to remove excess water, taking care not to damage slices.
When ready to serve, toss cucumber with vinegar sauce. Mound cucumbers in center of plate and quickly shape into round shape with flat top, like a cake. Top with drained tuna, then ginger slices, placing them evenly over tuna like a layer of frosting.
Just before serving, toss layers. Serves 2 to 3.
Approximate nutritional information, per serving (based on 3 servings): 100 calories, 0.5 g fat, no saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, greater than 1,000 mg sodium, 18 g carbohydrate, 2 g fiber, 11 g sugar, 7 g protein
Is there a cooking technique you’d like explained? Email food editor Joleen Oshiro, firstname.lastname@example.org. Nutritional analysis by Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S.