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    Saturday, July 20, 2024

    This Japanese beef and potato stew is the 'ultimate comfort food'

    Anyone who has ever moved away from their hometown or home country can probably relate to the impetus behind cookbook author Rie McClenny's "Make It Japanese."

    McClenny, best known for her popular BuzzFeed food videos, moved away from Hiroshima in southwestern Japan as a young woman, eventually landing in the United States, where she got her culinary degree and began cooking in restaurants.

    She grew up loving to eat, but she noted that "since my mom was such a great cook, I didn't feel like I needed to cook." It wasn't until she struck out on her own that she realized cooking for herself was often the only way she could get the home-cooked Japanese food she longed for.

    Throughout her travels, she would call her mother, Yoko, so the family matriarch could walk her through favorite recipes. Rarely did her mother offer exact directions; instead of ounces or grams, she'd say use "ginger the size of your thumb." Or, when referring to texture: "It's soft as your earlobe."

    The back-and-forth worked because McClenny was motivated to make what she craved.

    The family lived in a rural area with few stores and restaurants, so her mother, who died in early 2021 while McClenny was working on her debut cookbook, made all their food from scratch as her daughter watched. Also, her maternal grandmother ran a kissaten, or Japanese tearoom, and McClenny and her mother both worked there as well.

    When McClenny began making her mother's food in the United States, she realized sometimes you just have to get as close as you can using the ingredients you have on hand. A case in point: nikujaga, a Japanese-style beef and potato stew that McClenny describes as the "ultimate comfort food."

    "I grew up eating this [stew] with thinly sliced beef, but outside of Japan, it can be tricky to find that beef, so I started experimenting," she said, noting that she didn't have the patience to chill and slice the raw meat herself. "I decided to use ground beef, and it was very tasty."

    And thrifty, too.

    The cookbook embraces this kind of flexibility. McClenny offers tips for building out a Japanese pantry and mastering specific cooking techniques, as well as foundational recipes, such as dashi, miso soup and rolled omelets.

    But McClenny, who graduated from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, is not a traditionalist. Flip through her cookbook and you'll come across a taco rice bowl, an edamame and pistachio dip, and a broccoli and bean salad. Sometimes she adds Japanese flavors to dishes, such as a clam recipe that substitutes sake for traditional sherry. Other times, like with her sushi bowls featuring roast beef and prosciutto, she slips nontraditional ingredients into Japanese favorites.

    Most of the 85 dishes are efficient weeknight meals and call for ingredients that can be found in well-stocked supermarkets, she said. Then it is just a matter of introducing people to flavor combinations and techniques.

    McClenny lives with her husband and son in Los Angeles and still does some work for BuzzFeed, but in May, she began focusing on her own video production and social media.

    "What I learned over the years is that the majority of people are, like me, looking for something very simple and easy," she said. "The book represents how I cook in my kitchen. . . . And (it) is proof that the tastes from home can be yours, no matter where you are."

    - - -

    Nikujaga (Japanese Beef and Potato Stew)

    4 servings

    Active time: 20 mins. Total time: 45 mins.

    Storage: Refrigerate for up to 4 days, or freeze for up to 3 months.

    - - -


    1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

    4 Yukon Gold potatoes (about 1-1/2 pounds total), peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces

    1 medium carrot, cut into 1-inch pieces (1/2 cup)

    1 large yellow onion (12 ounces), cut into 1/2-inch slices (2-1/2 cups)

    1-1/2 cups water

    1/2 pound lean ground beef (90 percent lean or higher)

    1 tablespoon granulated sugar, plus more to taste

    1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce

    2 tablespoons sake

    1 tablespoon mirin

    - - -


    In a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat, heat the oil until it shimmers. Add the potatoes, carrot and onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are coated with oil, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the water and bring to a boil.

    Add the beef and stir to combine. Bring to a simmer, and use a spoon or a mesh skimmer to skim off impurities that rise to the surface. (This will help you achieve a clearer broth, but the stew will taste great even if you cannot remove all of it.)

    Add the sugar and cook until dissolved, about 2 minutes. Add the soy sauce, sake and mirin. Taste the broth, and add up to 1 tablespoon of additional sugar, if desired. Partially cover with a lid and cook over medium-low to medium heat, until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.

    Remove the lid, and keep at a lively simmer until all the ingredients are very tender and the liquid has reduced a bit, 10 to 15 minutes. The finished dish should be the consistency of a stew. Serve hot or warm.

    - - -


    Instead of sake, use a dry white wine, such as chardonnay, or skip it and add more mirin, to taste.


    To make this stew meatless, omit the beef and replace the water with kombu dashi for a richer broth.

    - - -

    Nutritional information

    Per serving (1-1/4 cups)

    Calories: 346; Fat: 9 g; Saturated Fat: 3 g; Carbohydrates: 47 g; Sodium: 1294 mg; Cholesterol: 37 mg; Protein: 18 g; Fiber: 6 g; Sugar: 10 g.

    This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian's or nutritionist's advice.

    Adapted from "Make It Japanese" by Rie McClenny with Sanaë Lemoine (Penguin Random House, 2023).

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