One of the other directions our thoughts turn in spring is to what Earthy Delights Earthy Delights calls “the Grand Trio of Spring:” fiddlehead ferns, ramps, and morels. Our primary local purveyor of fresh spring delectables is Whole Foods Market, and they currently have two of these on offer: fiddlehead ferns and ramps. Since our recipe for yakitori chicken uses asparagus and spring onions, it was an obvious leap to combine two favorites, leading us to the recipe for yakitori chicken with fiddlehead ferns and ramps given at the end of this post. That is, since fiddlehead ferns are somewhat asparaguslike and ramps – or “baby leeks” or “wild leeks” as they are also sometimes called – are like a really strong spring onion, the substitutions are too intriguing not to try.
Besides chicken and our two vegetable substitutions, the primary ingredient in yakitori chicken is mirin, sometimes also called “rice wine,” although in The Penguin Companion to Food, Alan Davidson begs to differ:
“Mirin, sometimes incorrectly described as a `rice wine’, is a spirit-based liquid sweetener of Japan, used only for cooking and especially in marinades and glazes and simmered dishes.”
Davidson also notes that mirin was once difficult to obtain in western countries, leading some to propose a sweet sherry as a substitute, but he characterizes this suggestion with the parenthetical comment “not a good idea, better just to use a little sugar syrup.” Fortunately, mirin is now fairly readily available, both locally and on-line (Amazon’s Grocery and Gourmet Food department carries several different brands, including the Eden Foods Mirin Rice Cooking Wine ( 1x10.5 OZ) that I used in preparing the recipe given here).
I have looked through a number of yakitori recipes, both in cookbooks and from the Internet, and the ingredients that seem to appear in all of them are chicken, mirin, soy sauce, sugar, and spring onions. From there, things seem to diverge quite a bit. For example, the yakitori recipe included in Food of Asia (Journey for Food Lovers) calls for sake and kuzu starch rocks (a Japanese thickening agent), while the one given in The Complete Asian Cookbook doesn’t include either of these ingredients but does include crushed garlic and fresh ginger, as does the yakitori chicken recipe on page 31 of James Peterson's Cooking. When I had yakitori chicken in Japan, it was served on skewers, which is how both Peterson and The Food of Asia advocate preparing it, but The Complete Asian Cookbook serves it over rice, which is how we typically have it.
The original recipe that came with our yakitori grilling set uses chicken breasts, cut into 1 inch cubes, green onions, cut into 1 inch lengths, and asparagus, also cut into 1 inch lengths. In the recipe presented below, I have substituted ramps for the green onions (I cut them into somewhat smaller pieces because they are substantially stronger in flavor than green onions), and fiddlehead ferns for the asparagus (I don’t cut these up at all, beyond trimming off the ends as described in the recipe below). Our yakitori kit includes a grill pan which we use on our gas grill, but a workable alternative would be to prepare it in a wok.
My favorite food and beverage pairing book, What to Drink with What You Eat: The Definitive Guide to Pairing Food with Wine, Beer, Spirits, Coffee, Tea - Even Water - Based on Expert Advice from America's Best Sommeliers does not have an entry for yakitori chicken, but in their general entry on “Japanese cuisine,” the authors strongly recommend “beer, esp. Japanese and/or lager.” In addition to the fiddlehead ferns and ramps, our local Whole Foods Market also carries Hitachino Nest Beer Japanese Classic Ale, and that proved to go superbly well with the dish.
Finally, before giving the recipe, it is interesting to note that while neither of the Asian cookbooks mentioned above say anything about fiddlehead ferns, one of my other favorite Asian cookbooks, Culinaria Southeast Asia: A Journey Through Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia (Cooking) gives a recipe for Anyang pakis, an Indonesian fiddlehead salad that pairs them with coconut, beansprouts, and shallots, together with a spice paste made from red chili peppers, ginger root, lemongrass, lime, sugar, and salt. It makes me wonder how that would be with ramps substituted for the shallots, but I digress. So now, for the recipe, which serves two:
- 1 chicken breast, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 small bunch of ramps, washed and trimmed and cut into ½ inch pieces
- ½ pound fiddlehead ferns, prepared as described below
- 1 ½ teaspoons peanut oil
- 1 ½ teaspoons sesame seeds
- ¼ cup soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon mirin
1. Mix the peanut oil, sesame seeds, soy sauce, sugar, and mirin in a one quart sauce pan and bring to a boil. Cook until the liquid thickens (about 5 minutes) and let cool. Reserve a small amount of the sauce and marinate the chicken in the rest for at least an hour.
2. While the chicken is marinating, prepare the fiddlehead ferns as follows. First, wash thoroughly in a colander and trim away the ends. Blanch the ferns in boiling water for three minutes. Remove and immerse in ice water to stop the cooking. When cool, remove them and set aside.
3. Prepare enough rice for two people, starting it early enough that it is ready when the yakitori chicken is done.
4. Put the chicken in a grill pan on a medium-hot grill (or in a wok) and cook for two minutes. Add the ramps and fiddlehead ferns and continue to cook for about another 6 minutes. Then, brush with the reserved yakitori sauce and cook for one more minute.
5. Serve the yakitori chicken over rice, preferably with a nice Japanese beer.