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I've loved Japanese food for a long time. But it wasn't until I went to Japan that I realized just how extensive that love is. I tried a variety of dishes that I'd never had in the States. I ate vegetables cooked in deliciously sweet-salty sauces and delicately arranged salads. I ate much more cooked fish than raw (though I did indulge in the touristy wonder of sushi at the early morning Tsukiji fish market).
Similarly, it was only after that trip that I began to cook Japanese food at home. All my former misconceptions about how hard it would be to find the ingredients or to master the techniques dissipated. I realized that Japanese home cooking can be described much like any other cuisine made outside of a restaurant: forgiving, comforting, and as easy as you want it to be.
Better yet, the irresistible umami flavors of Japanese food have a tendency to wow guests, and I'm not above playing to the crowd.
Horenso No Goma Miso Ae (Spinach with Sesame Miso Sauce)
In this side dish, the deep, vegetal taste of spinach is married with an earthy sesame based sauce. Spinach is first blanched, squeezed dry, and cut into strips. Then sesame paste is mixed with miso and a little soy sauce to create a thick sauce that's extra nutty and rich. When put together you have a side dish that's compacted with flavor. If you want to make this dish seasonal, feel free to sub in some Swiss Chard. It adds a nice, bitter bite.
Kabocha No Nimono (Squash Simmered in Soy-Sake Sauce)
Kabocha squash, also known as Japanese pumpkin, has a wonderfully sweet, bright flavor. Here it is simmered in a dashi broth that's enhanced with soy sauce, sugar, sake, and mirin. Serve small bowls of this tender squash topped with spoonfuls of the additively salty-sweet broth.
Grilled Salmon with a Miso Glaze
Miso and salmon are made for each other. Each has a deep flavor and a mild yet distinctive sweetness. In this dish, salmon steaks are coated with white miso, as well as freshly minced ginger to add spice and rice wine vinegar to add flavor-enhancing acid. Mirin and toasted sesame oil round out the sweet-salty-earthy flavors. Serve this grilled salmon with white rice, because you'll want to soak up the sauce.