So there's a newspaper editor, a sake sommelier, an artist, a play producer, and a concert pianist—this isn't the set up for a joke but the guest list for a dinner party in my Brooklyn apartment.
The sommelier (for lack of a better translation) who is staying with us for a week has brought an entire suitcase of sake with him from Japan. This isn't hyperbole—there are at least seven bottles, four of them magnums. He got so excited about the idea of a dinner party, that he also brought his framed calligraphed certificate (less than 300 people have his level of expertise), and his uniform: a vest with lapel pins, a red tie, and one of those Japanese aprons made of fringed heavy canvas with his bar’s insignia (the editor and I try to bribe him for the apron, but it only makes him blush). He even brought his own glassware—five different kinds.
Meanwhile, I've set out mismatched napkins, and plates that I consider a set because they are all white (but not really the same). I made a bouquet with branches from my back yard and a few flowers from the abandoned house across the street. How will I cook a meal to match a suitcasefull of sake? To match our traveller’s ernesty and precsion?
I approach dinner parties with the same mix of excitement and apprehension you might feel before a first date—what if I get all dressed up/plan an elaborate menu, and then they cancel at the last minute? It’s happened plenty of times. And you don’t want to look like you’re trying too hard. But this time, everyone is here, and I’ve gotten a little carried away with the menu in spite of my efforts to be cool.
It’s a muggy summer night. I’ve cooked as much as I can on a tiny charcoal grill in my back yard so I don’t heat up the apartment. It starts to drizzle as I carry the food back upstairs. I set down a platter of grilled oysters, bubbling with miso and scattered with slivers of scallion. Our sommelier pours a savory aged sake into laquerware cups, and we oohh and ahh at its funky and refreshing counterpoint to briny oysters and earthy miso.
I return to the kitchen but I can hear lively conversation and laughter. I’m dressing mizuna greens and citrus slices with a sesame oil and ponzu. I’m simmering clams in dashi for clam miso soup, and keeping the rice warm in a heavy pot on the back of the stove. I arrange packets of steamy shio-koji marinated flounder wrapped with banana leaves—with their faintly floral and charred scent. I paint some squid ink on a plate while the grilled squid reheats under the broiler. I sprinkle a chiffonade of shiso over watermelon and feta. These are mostly Japanese flavors—subtle and fresh so they don’t compete with delicate sake—cooked in my own way.
The sommelier joins me in the kitchen and we lean over the plates, gesturing; we speak only a few words of each others’ languages, but we both get giddy about flavors. Pairing food and drinks is a game, and we’re having fun! He sprinkles more salt on the watermelon, showing me that it makes a bitter sake taste less bitter, then returns to the dinning room for a parlour trick where the flavor of one sake is transformed by drinking it from different shapes of glasses.
I keep bringing out food and he keeps bringing out sake. There’s not a grain of rice left on the table at the end of the night. It wasn’t just the amazing sake or the fresh seafood and vegetables but the wide-ranging and lively conversation that made this dinner so delicious, and the chance to share it with a group whose enthusiasm could match that of a man who brings an entire bar in his suitcase.
Recipe: Miso Butter Grilled Oysters with Scallion Mignonette
This recipe has evolved since that dinner party. I was told that butter doesn't go with sake, so for the original version I simply thinned the miso with sake. But I made it several more times over the course of the summer and concluded that butter is better. The balance of flavors in this recipe is just right—try drinking a Muscadet or lager if sake doesn't suit.
- 2 tablespoons butter, room temperature
- 1 tablespoon red miso
- 2 scallions
- 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
- 1 tablespoon dry sake
- 2 dozen oysters
In a small bowl, make a compound butter by mixing the miso and butter together into a smooth paste; set aside. (This compound miso-butter is delicious on toast, or melted and brushed on vegetables for the grill, or...just use your imagination)!
Mice one of the scallions: you should have about a tablespoon of minced scallion. In another small bowl, make the mignonette by mixing the minced scallion with the rice vinegar and sake; set aside.
Slice the remaining scallion very thinly on an extreme diagonal. Put the sliced scallion in ice water until ready to use to keep it crisp and take away some of its sting.
Get the grill hot. Shuck the oysters, leaving the meat in the deeper half of the shell. Yes, they would open on their own on the grill, but by the time they open and you get the miso-butter in they'll be over cooked. It's worth it to shuck them first.
Put a tiny dollop of miso butter into each oyster, about 1/2 teaspoon. Place them on a very hot grill, you don't want flames licking them, but you want it pretty darn hot. Leave them there just until their liquid bubbles and the butter browns ever so slightly around the edges of the shell, then remove them quickly.
Scatter the thinly sliced scallions over the oysters, and serve immediately with mignonette on the side.
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