I woke up this morning to the sound of cicadas buzzing in the trees outside our apartment. There is something comforting about cicadas. They are consistent. Consistency is a rare thing in this city. While so many things are changing around us, these buzzing bugs, like clockwork, are a sign of summer. They start abruptly and end just so. One day, we will be walking down the street and we’ll realize that the noise has stopped. We won’t know exactly when it happened, but at some point the buzz has ceased and the air is still. Or at least as still as it can be in Tokyo.
Another constant in Japan is yakitori. Walking into any Izakaya (small restaurants scattered along almost every block in Tokyo) and the smokey smell of barbecued chicken and pork belly wafts through the air while sizzling skewers are placed on a hot charcoal grill. For my recipe, I use a pan on the stove top (Shhhh…don’t tell!) because it is easier to get consistent results with the glaze. The sweet, salty flavor of the teriyaki glaze is the perfect accompaniment to an ice cold brew. (Or a nice glass of wine.) This is the essence of the Japanese Izakaya.
Because this is a staple food in Japan, it had to be a part of my wine dinner menu. We typically order chicken and leek yakitori, which is simply chicken thigh meat and Japanese leeks (smaller than leeks found in the U.S.) skewered and glazed over a piping hot grill. For the wine dinner, I chose to use pork belly rather than chicken. There are a few reasons for this decision, one of which is the utterly delicious, rich flavor of pork belly. Adversely, I’m sure we have all experienced dry chicken. It’s hard to make sure chicken doesn’t overcook when grilled, but it becomes even more tricky when cooking for 40 diners. Pork belly, on the other hand, is rich and fatty, making it virtually impossible to ruin with too much cooking. The layers of fat and meat simply melt in your mouth. Melty, flavorful, and just plain amazing. Nothin’ wrong with that!
Here’s the downside: pork belly is difficult to come across for some. I had a hugely frustrating experience trying to buy it in the Twin Cities (everyone I called said, “We have bacon!” which is just not the same). Fortunately Ursula’s could order it from a supplier. But what options are there instead of pork belly? Chicken. Yep. Use chicken thighs because they have more fat in them and therefore won’t dry out like chicken breast. If you are lucky enough to find pork belly, give it a try! It’s the same cut as bacon without the curing.
The Asian Slaw I served with the yakitori was a perfect companion for the rich pork belly. Red cabbage, shaved carrots, basil, cilantro and mint lightly dressed with soy sauce, sesame oil, fish sauce and mirin (sweetened rice wine vinegar) made for a light, refreshing flavor and a gorgeous color contrast. Kurt paired the yakitori with a 2005 Ramon Bilbao Crianza Rioja, a natural pairing for grilled meat.
Pork Belly (or chicken) Yakitori & Asian Slaw
Makes 4-6 servings
2 lbs. Pork belly, cut into sliced 1 inch thick and about 2 inches wide, or chicken thigh meat cut into cubes
3-4 Leeks or 1 bunch green onions, cut into 2 inch pieces
12 6 inch bamboo skewers
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup Mirin
1/4 cup Sake
1/4 cup Sugar
1 head Red cabbage, shredded
2 Carrots, shaved with a vegetable peeler
1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
2 Tablespoons mirin
1 Tablespoon fish sauce
1-2 Tablespoon Rice Wine Vinegar
1/4 cup cilantro leaves
1/3 cup basil leaves
1/4 cup mint
Soak the bamboo skewers in water for about 15 or 20 minutes. While they are soaking, cut the meat and the leeks. When the skewers are ready, assemble the skewers as follows: leek, pork belly, leek OR leek, chicken, leek, chicken.
Next, make the sauce. Mix the soy sauce, mirin, sake, and sugar in a medium bowl until the sugar has dissolved. Place the skewers in a shallow dish and pour the sauce over the top. Cover with plastic wrap and marinade in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours and up to 4. Flip the skewers once in the middle of the marinading process.
After marinading, remove the skewers from the fridge and allow them to reach room temperature (about 20 minutes). Heat 3 tablespoons vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the skewers and allow to brown about 3-4 minutes per side. After browning the second side, add the marinading liquid and toss the skewers gently to coat. Reduce heat to medium-low and cover. Allow to cook 2-3 minutes. The sauce with reduce and automatically glaze the meat.
Remove from the heat and let sit, covered, while you assemble the slaw.
For the slaw:
In a large bowl, combine the cabbage, carrots, and herbs. In a separate medium bowl whisk together the liquid ingredients for the dressing. Pour over the cabbage mixture and toss (I like to use my *clean* hands) until evenly distributed.
Place a handful of the slaw in the center of a plate or bowl. Top with 2 or 3 skewers and sprinkle with the sesame seeds. Serve.