In June, Henry, our middle child, took a three-week trip through Japan with five friends. He came home with little gifts for each of us. He also came home with stories that have left me craving Japanese food ever since, as if I am now haunted by a persistent, polite ghost.
I should have seen it coming. After all, I volunteered to pick him and one of his friends up from JFK at the end of their trip. More powerful even than travel photographs, that initial spill of memories on the drive home conveys the energy and wonder of a journey.
“What did you like best of all?” I asked as I inched the car along the Van Wyck, for once not minding that the traffic was slow. For the next 15 minutes, Henry and his friend recounted every morsel of a meal they’d eaten in a tiny shop in Kyoto. They had been looking for shaved ice drenched in condensed milk, a Kyoto specialty, but when the proprietor learned that one of their group, Nina, was native Japanese, he closed up shop for the day and began bringing out dish after amazing dish, urging Nina to translate every technique, every ingredient, every source to her friends.
Last week, I took a comparatively ordinary trip, up to the old New Hampshire farmhouse where I spend a part of each summer with my family and in-laws. My husband, Peter, and a handful of his cousins had decided to devote the week to a challenging project: replacing the cedar shingles on the back side of the house. I’m not much of a shingler, but I’d offered to cook to support the crew’s work.
I’m also not much of an improviser when it comes to Asian food, probably because it entered my cooking repertoire only in the last couple decades. But since sushi rolls are fun and easy to prepare, and I can make them without a recipe, I’d already added them to my mental menu for the week. And since two of the crew members were vegan, I planned to fill them with vegetables — batons of avocado, cucumber and blanched carrot.
But when the day came for me to make the sushi, I was suddenly gripped with worry. What about protein? What about green vegetables? Surely shinglers need sustenance! Edamame seemed the obvious solution, but I refused to drive 25 minutes to the nearest grocery store for a frozen vegetable. Instead, I popped down to the small, honor-system farmstand on our road, where I found a bag of freshly picked green beans hiding in the shade of a giant cooler.
Good enough, I thought. Back at the house, I cut some tofu into cubes, then found a recipe for a Japanese dressing. Although I didn’t have half the ingredients, I improvised, grinding up some sesame seeds in an old coffee grinder, and mixing them with soy sauce, maple syrup and ginger. And wow: It was amazing.
At the end of the week, I didn’t need to ask anyone, “What did you like best?” Those green beans kept turning up in conversations for the rest of the week, like a happy, if persistent, ghost.
Green Beans and Tofu with Toasted Sesame Paste
8 ounces extra-firm tofu (about half a standard package)
3 tablespoons black or white sesame seeds (the black ones are stronger)
2 teaspoons brown sugar
Small piece fresh ginger, grated (about ½ teaspoon)
3 tablespoons tamari (soy sauce), divided
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil, divided
Dash sriracha, optional
1 pound fresh green beans, stem ends snapped off
Salt to taste
Slice the tofu lengthwise into approximately ½-inch slabs. Lay a clean dish towel on a wire cooling rack. Place the tofu on one end of the towel and fold the other end over the top. Place a heavy skillet on top and set aside to drain while preparing the rest of the ingredients.
Heat a small skillet over medium-low heat. Add the sesame seeds and toast, shaking the pan frequently, until they begin to color and release their aroma, about 1 minute. Remove from heat and transfer to a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Grind to a rough paste; it’s fine to leave some seeds whole.
Transfer the ground seeds to your serving bowl. Add the sugar, grated ginger, about half the tamari and 2 teaspoons sesame oil, and mix well to form a paste. Set aside.
Meanwhile, prepare an ice bath. Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil; salt generously. Add the trimmed green beans and boil until just tender, about 3 minutes, depending on their freshness and size. Drain in a colander then transfer to the bowl of cold water to stop the cooking and preserve their color. Drain and pat dry and add to the bowl with the sesame seed mixture.
Cut the tofu into cubes and toss with the remaining tamari and sesame oil. Allow to marinate for a few minutes, then add to the bowl with the green beans and toss very gently, just until combined.