Monday, June 2, 2014

How We Threw a Japanese Dinner Party (with tips!)

We had some of our old friends over for dinner last month.  We don't get to see them very often since moving to the city, and we were excited to spend time with them.  I was also excited to have the chance to wow them with a fancy made-from--scratch meal.  Having recently taken a sushi class, Japanese was the most impressive thing Caleb and I could feasibly pull together, so that was our choice.  Pride cometh before the fall, my friends.  This Japanese dinner party became much more of an ordeal than I'd originally expected, and it had me mega stressed, especially when I couldn't find the resources I was hoping for.  What's amazing, though, is that not only did we totally pull it off, but all of the worry and frantic rushing was kept behind the curtains while our guests were only aware of a kick ass dinner!  Mission accomplished!

Now I admit that this exposition is long winded, but you know how I need to be thorough.  Also, I wish that I'd had something like this when I was looking for tips.  By the way, if you have any questions or more ideas, please share in the comments! 

Great tips for making sushi and having a sushi dinner party

Here's what we did!
We knew we wanted sushi to be on the menu, but I felt that sushi alone wouldn't suffice for a whole meal.  I went on a hunt for blogs with a layout of a Japanese dinner party to hopefully get some inspiration.  I ransacked Pinterest and Japanese recipe blogs I knew.  The personal blogs ended up being no help, because they focused almost entirely on sushi.  Most of what Google brought up was no fun, either.  I actually settled on meal additions that I found from Just One Cookbook (a Japanese recipe site) and a PBS video, of all things.

The Menu
Gyoza (dumplings) with ponzu sauce
Udon soup
(Guests were asked to bring another vegetable dish and dessert)


The Fillings:
One of the things I was continually searching for was more ideas for was what to put into the sushi.  I was worried about catering to our one vegetarian guest.  I wanted to be positive that she would have enough options when it came to preparing her sushi, so I looked through lots of sushi recipes and pictures of homemade sushi bars for inspiration.  Here's what we prepared (besides the fish):
Avocado slices
Cream cheese slices
Carrot sticks (sliced thin thin)
Cucumber slices
Sprouts (broccoli/alfalfa)
Asparagus (thin and steamed)
Sesame seeds
Sriracha sauce
More ideas I didn't incorporate here!

On "Sushi Grade Fish"
I've gotten conflicting information on what constitutes as sushi grade fish.  Our sushi teacher said it doesn't really matter.  All the blogs say it's important.  Watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi makes me realize it can be super important, but we'll never have access to that kind of fish ever-ever.  An article from PBS told me that if your sushi fish is stored near contaminated fish, your dinner will make everyone sick.  What was I supposed to do?!

The best chance we would have at anything close to good quality would come from the DeKalb Farmer's Market, that's for sure, so I headed there, with trepidation in my heart.  When we visit the market, Caleb always handles the meat and dairy, and I handle the produce and everything else.  Caleb typically doesn't get wrapped up in these things, so I begged him to ask the fishmonger for whichever fish was as close to sushi grade as possible.  Turns out the fishmonger had good news for us (and for the world)!

Secret Tip #1:
To make sure your fish is safe to eat raw in sushi, rinse it in vinegar, water, vinegar again, and water again, then rub it in salt before the last final water rinse, and you're good to go!

Hearing this was such a relief!  We had gotten the freshest fish we could,  we were able to make sure it was sanitary, and voila!  No one got sick, and the fish was great.  We got salmon and tuna, and it turns out that our vegetarian friend is actually a pescetarian, so she was able to have some fish in her sushi.

Caleb slicing the tuna against the grain so it looks pretty
The Dang Sushi Rice!
I had tried to make sushi rice from a recipe a few months ago, and I failed so miserably we immediately threw it away.  There was no way I was going to try the recipe again for such an important occasion.  I read on another blog that we'd probably be able to buy sushi rice from a sushi restaurant, so that's what we did.  I do wish I had planned for this part better, though, because it took us a long time to find a sushi restaurant that was open on Sunday.  Gekko Sushi came to our rescue, and for $4 a box, we bought 5 boxes.

The guy on the phone said that each box would be enough for 2 sushi rolls, and I guess we thought  we'd be really hungry.  We ended up with way too much rice.  This meant we had enough for leftovers, but wow.  It was a lot of rice.

Secret Tip #2:
Buy your sushi rice from a sushi restaurant.  It will be perfect and delicious, and it will save you a lot of time. 

Ever since returning from Korea, the store bought dumplings I've had have been disappointing, and while I knew that the frozen ones from the Asian market would be better than the frozen ones from Kroger, I really wanted to make the dumplings by hand.  So, I bought all of the fillings, chopped up lots of cabbage, and pinched lots of dumplings together.

I made a meat dumpling and a veggie dumpling option.  The meat dumplings were a huge hit.  Huge!  Everyone loved them.  LOVED them.  Here's the recipe.  I didn't follow the recipe exactly, though.  I just used regular button mushrooms instead of shiitake,  I used powdered ginger instead of fresh grated ginger, and I used mirin instead of sake.  I also can't remember what oils I cooked them in.  I didn't use the prescribed dipping sauce, either; I made my own ponzu sauce to go with the dumplings.  Here's the recipe I used for that.  I did follow the ponzu recipe to a T, and it was also a huge hit.  Yummy, yummy, yummy.

Secret Tip #3:
You can use mirin instead of sake for most recipes.  We've done it multiple times for multiple recipes, and everything's turned out fine.  Having to buy lots of new ingredients for foreign dishes can get expensive, so this can be a nice help for your wallet. 

Prepping the gyoza
Secret Tip #4:
Make dishes at home!  They'll taste better and they'll be healthier.  No added MSG! Just make sure you allow for enough prep time. 

The veggie dumplings were kind of done on the fly.  I had a recipe I was prepared to use, but when I looked at it once more, I realized it had meat in it!  I scratched that plan and Googled other options.  Unfortunately, I didn't bookmark the recipe I actually used, but I'm pretty sure I improvised a little with it as usual.  I know I had in plenty of cabbage, button mushrooms, and green onions.  Heck, I might have made them exactly like the original pork dumpling recipe, sans the pork.  Anyway...

We actually needed a new cooking appliance in order to make the dumplings.  We needed a steamer.  Thankfully, our Asian market had a lovely double decker bamboo steamer that fit in our large saucepan.  The Asian market was a huge resource for us that day.  We bought our nori (sushi seaweed) there, the gyoza wrappers, dashi (powdered fish stock for the udon soup and ponzu sauce), noodles, miso, and sesame seeds.  The people there are always friendly, and it makes me happy to support their business.  Caleb and I are half planning to buy some bowls and plates from there soon.  They have so many beautiful options!

Udon Soup
The udon soup recipe from the PBS video seemed easy, and it would allow for the guests to add in what they liked, which I thought was a great idea.  The woman on the video also made it sound like a "Taste as you go along" recipe, which I also find appealing, because that's kind of how I cook.

Here's the recipe written out for you:
  • Cook the noodles separately to keep that full noodle flavor.  Pre-cooked udon will only need to be boiled for a couple minutes.
  • For the broth,  you will need tsuyu sauce.  (You can buy it, but I made my own using this recipe.)  The ratio will be about 8 cups of water for one cup of tsuyu.  You can then enhance the umami of the broth by adding sesame oil, soy sauce, coins of ginger, and/or mirin.  
    • Mirin and soy sauce were already included in the tsuyu sauce I used, so I added in some of it along with some sesame oil.  I think I may have even added in some more dashi.  GO GENTLY WITH THE SESAME OIL, because it will change the texture of the soup very quickly.  I didn't like how oily the broth turned out, and I wish I had only used a little sesame oil or none at all.
    • Basically, I think that while using the video as a guide, you can kind of just make this broth up, changing as you see fit.  Let me know if you try this and what changes you make!
  • For the ad ins, have scallions, mushrooms, broccoli, tofu, whatever you like.  You can cook them in the broth and let your diners pick out what they like for their own bowl, or, you know, however you want to do it. 
Funny thing about my udon soup... it didn't even have udon noodles in it!  The noodles we bought from the Asian market, I didn't realize until we got home that they were a "spaghetti shaped noodle substitute."  Tofu noodles!  We'd accidentally gotten tofu noodles!  No one else complained about them, but I didn't like them at all.

Udon soup in the making, with mushrooms and broccoli on top
For the dinner table, I set out pairs of Japanese chopsticks with their rests.  Everyone had their own large plate for gyoza and prepared sushi.  In the center of the table, I laid out plates of sushi veggies, sushi fish, the bamboo steamer filled with gyoza, and little bowls of dipping sauces and sesame seeds.  We had one end of the table set up as a sushi rolling station with our cling wrapped bamboo mat (tutorial here), a sharpened knife, water, a towel, and a cutting board.  We kept the soup on the stove top so guests could refill when they wanted more.

Secret Tip #5:
Have a small bowl of water placed near the sushi rice.  Having moist hands is important when handling sushi rice because it keeps the rice from sticking to your hands.  Have a towel nearby for wiping off any rice that sticks to you.

I will say that part of the wow factor came from having everything already prepared and set when the guests walked in.  All of the small bowls, all of the ingredients, and all of the tools on the table made for an impressive display.

Near the beginning of dinner, I gave a demonstration on how to make a maki roll, and that elicited more oohs and aahs. (Caleb should have done the demonstration, really; he's much better than I am.)  By the end of the night, I was making hand rolls, too.  I got the idea from MyCakies, and it was a quick and easy way to get all those tasty sushi ingredients into my mouth without worrying about the rolling techniques and without having to wait for our one sushi-making station to be vacant.

Secret Tip #6:
Hand rolls!  Here's a demonstration!
Maki rolls (the kind rolled with the bamboo mat) take some time to make, and handling the rice can be tricky for beginners.  Making hand rolls is faster, which means more food in your guests' tummies!  It also allows for smaller portions, which allows for more experimenting.  :)

All of this took a lot of time to prepare.  Dinner was scheduled for 5pm.  I made a plan to start prepping at 2:30, but we ended up starting earlier, and I was still rushing to get everything finished when our guests arrived late at 5:15.

(Not so Secret) Tip #7:
Do what you can beforehand.
We could have sliced up a lot of the sushi veggies the day before, we could have prepared and frozen the dumplings a day or so before, and we could have purchased the sushi rice a day before, too.  (Sushi rice is better a day old anyway.)

We had plenty of sushi ingredients left over.  The dumplings were all eaten, and there was only one small serving of soup left, but we had plenty of rice, nori, fish, and veggies.  Caleb and I took sushi fixings for hand rolls for lunch the next day.   We cut the nori into squares for hand rolls ahead of time and stored them in a sealed plastic bag.  (Nori needs to stay dry, because when it gets wet, it sticks.)  The fish had gotten a little dried out around some of the edges, but we were able to eat around it.  Our lunches were delicious, and I would totally do it again.

My delicious leftovers

Other Menu Ideas
The dishes I settled on seemed easy and fast enough, and I had most of the ingredients for them already, too, but I wanted to jot down some other ideas I'd had for this dinner:
Shrimp fried rice
Tempura vegetables
Roasted edamame or steamed edamame
Teriyaki chicken
Sake to drink
Mochi or green tea ice cream for dessert 

The sushi wasn't always the prettiest, but it was all very tasty.
If you have any other tips or ideas, please let us know!  Any favorite sushi fillings you'd include?  I'd love to hear about how your Japanese dinner party went in the comments!

P.s. Want more?  Check out my Japan travel pictures (part 1, part 2, part 3) or see my Korean cooking adventures here.

1 comment:

  1. That seems like a blasting event and I fell in love with your Japanese Dinner Party. The cuisines look amazing. I just can’t resist myself eating such foods. Anyway, I too have to host annual dinner party at corporate events NYC venue and would like to have Japanese menu for that.


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