Cooking with care takes time. Care can’t be rushed, care for the ingredients, care for the kitchen and the equipment in it, and of course care for those who will dine. Settle in, pour a glass of wine if you’d like, put on some good music and commit, commit to the time it will take knowing that cooking dinner will not just be a part of your evening, it will be your evening.
There is a myth that cooking should be easy, should be quick, that only elaborate foods based on complex stocks and sauces take time. But I’d argue that time is an essential ingredient in cooking well. This is particularly true with washoku, a culinary tradition that asks the cook to preserve and present the purest interpretation of an ingredient’s character and flavor. It’s a simple concept and yet the techniques employed can be complex, multi-faceted, and above all immensely time consuming.
No dish in my repertoire illustrates this quite as well as ginnan meshi (rice with ginkgo nuts). This simple bowl of perfectly cooked white rice dotted with nutty golden or translucent emerald oval orbs is truly a labor of love. If you haven’t made it yourself, it can be hard to understand how something so simple could take so much time.
Each serving should hold at least 6 or 7 ginnan, more if you’re generous. Multiply that by the number of people at your table (plus the second helping they’ll require) and maybe a little left for lunch the next day, and well, you have whole lot of shelling to do – in the neighborhood of 50 ginnan.
Cracking the shell of ginnan without smashing the soft seed inside takes some practice and even then there are casualties. That classic example of fantastic Japanese kitchen dogu (tools) the ginnan cracker (a set of pliers with a curved beak) is a wise investment. I try to position them around a ridge in the shell, then press firmly and be ready to release the pressure as soon as it cracks. From there it’s up to strong fingers to pry away the pieces.
Denuded of their hard casing, you’ll find the ginnan still wrapped in a papery shroud that would, if left on, conceal their glorious color. The ginnan must be submerged in boiling water and muscled around with something like a mesh ladle very briefly to try and loosen the skins, then soaked in cold water and rubbed one by one to peel away those maddening membranes.
Once this ordeal is over it’s smooth sailing. Simply measure out 2 ½ – 3 cups of white rice and wash until the water runs clear. Set it to drain for 15 minutes, and then soak another 20-30 minutes in equal part (2 ½ – 3 cups) cool water. But in this case subtract ¼ cup of the water and add in a ¼ cup of sake. Just before cooking, add a generous pinch or two of salt and sprinkle the drained clean ginnan on top.
There are, in fact, easier ways to enjoy fresh fall ginnan. Crack the shells and swirl them around a hot skillet until cooked through. Generously douse them with good sea salt and serve immediately. At the table, prize away the hard shells, press the green flesh, papery casing and all, into the warmed salt and enjoy between sips of sake.
The word for luxury in Japanese is zeitaku. It’s a high compliment at the dinner table in our house. It’s said not so much to compliment any one dish itself but to describe the rich sense of contentment when eating and drinking well. It’s a phrase I hear often on nights when we finish the meal with ginnan meshi. Whether the diners at my table really understand how or why this simple dish takes so much time, the body and soul clearly take great pleasure in such a labor of love.