Last week was not my week in the kitchen, friends. I had great, ambitious designs on a rhubarb meringue tart that would be pink and pretty with a scalloped tart-shell edge and a meringue that looked like piped roses that had toasted petal tips. But as the week went on and as various really non-torments in the greater definition of the word but nonetheless tormenting to me mounted — thin curds, too thick curds, beige (you know, the color of pink rhubarb + multiple yolks) curd, slumped tart shells, wet meringues, useless broilers, blowtorches so close to empty, they emit the useless wisps of sleepy dragons, refill canister AWOL — my enjoyment of the project plummeted. But, because I’d like to teach my kid one day that he should follow through and finish what he started, I did, and lo, it was good, you know? Maybe I’m just not a meringue pie person and I forgot? None of this matters because the finished pie slid off the plate flopping face-down into the open fridge as I tried to put it away and then, as I crouched on the floor in front of the open fridge scooping fistfuls of meringue and curd into a garbage bag and questioning my life choices, my son walked in and asked what I was making for dinner.
I took a break from the kitchen after that. Sometimes, you just need some space, right? See if time apart restores that magic? Absence makes culinary ambitions grow fonder? Not to be clichéd or anything (cough, ugh), but I did go get a pedicure and while I was there an email appeared on my phone from Tasting Table extolling the virtues of the Japanese vegetable pancake known as okonomiyaki and all I wanted to do was run home and make it, immediately. That’s no small feat, considering the comfort of those massage chairs, and yet, if I were to wax philosophical for a moment, I would argue that this thing — when you think you’re done with cooking forever but see something new or different that’s so incredible, so doable, that you find all the minutes between then and when you’re finally able to get to the grocery store an irritant — is about the loftiest recipe goal there could be.
I actually got to making the pancakes a few days later, because life is like that, but please don’t wait so long because these are crazy delicious, filling and wholesome, as good as a side dish as they are as a main, topped with a fried egg. From what I can gather, there are many, many ways to make okonomiyaki and that this is by design — according to Wikipedia, the name is derived from the word okonomi, meaning “what you like” or “what you want.” What most have in common is a base of cabbage, flour, and egg, fried in a small or large fritter pancake form — can I call them Japanese latkes without offending anyone? Probably not, but there you are. From this base, only you are limited only by your imagination; I’ve seen versions with everything from kimchi to shrimp or octopus, green onions or pork belly/bacon, but I kept with the relatively earnest version outlined in the newsletter, with cabbage, kale, carrots and scallions. While okonomiyaki is often made omelet-like and thick, served in wedges, it turns out I like mine the way I like my potato pancakes, which is for them to resemble a flying spaghetti monster that ran afoul of a hot skillet and crisped up on impact in all of its straggly glory — i.e. heavy on the vegetable, light on the batter, charred at the edges, tender in the center and absolutely impossible to stay irate at your kitchen long in the face of.
One year ago: Warm, Crisp and a Little Melty Salad Croutons and Chocolate Buckwheat Cake
Two years ago: Leek Toasts with Blue Cheese and Vermontucky Lemonade
Three years ago: Oatmeal Pancakes, Spring Asparagus Pancetta Hash and Pecan Cornmeal Butter Cake
Four years ago: Endive and Celery Salad with Fennel Vinaigrette, Rhubarb Cobbler and Broccoli Slaw
Five years ago: Martha’s Macaroni and Cheese and Crispy Salted Oatmeal White Chocolate Cookies
Six years ago: Pickled Garlicky Red Peppers and Raspberry-Topped Lemon Muffins
Okonomiyaki are traditional served squeeze with a generous criss-cross of Japanese mayonnaise and a okonomiyaki sauce, tangy-sweet-salty mixture I’d liken to Japanese barbecue sauce, which is sold in bottles but I attempted to cobble together a version from recipes I found online, below. Please forgive me if the flavor isn’t perfect; I am new to it, but we loved it, just the same. Pancakes are then sprinkled with bonito flakes, seaweed flakes or even pickled ginger, but we enjoyed ours with a finely slivered scallion and toasted sesame seeds. I imagine they’d also be good with bites dipped in a simpler dumpling dipping sauce.
Yield: 4 large pancakes or I am really sorry, but I forgot to count, but I’d say at least 12, probably 14, smaller ones
1/2 small head cabbage, very thinly sliced (1 pound or 5 to 6 cups shreds) which will be easiest on a mandoline if you have one
4 medium carrots, peeled into ribbons with a vegetable peeler
5 lacinato kale leaves, ribs removed, leaves cut into thin ribbons
4 scallions, thinly sliced on an angle
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
6 large eggs, lightly beaten
Canola, safflower or peanut oil for frying
1/4 cup ketchup
1 1/2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce (note: this is not vegetarian)
1/4 teaspoon dijon mustard
1 tablespoon rice cooking wine or sake
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon honey (use 2 if you like a sweeter sauce)
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
Make the pancakes: Toss cabbage, carrot, kale, scallions and salt together in a large bowl. Toss mixture with flour so it coats all of the vegetables. Stir in the eggs. Heat a large heavy skillet on medium-high heat. Coat the bottom with oil and heat that too.
To make a large pancake, add 1/4 of the vegetable mixture to the skillet, pressing it out into a 1/2- to 3/4-inch pancake. Gently press the pancake down flat. Cook until the edges beging to brown, about 3 minutes. 30 seconds to 1 minute later, flip the pancake with a large spatula. (If this is terrifying, you can first slide the pancake onto a plate, and, using potholders, reverse it back into the hot skillet.) Cook on the other side until the edges brown, and then again up to a minute more (you can peek to make sure the color is right underneath).
To make small pancakes, you can use tongs but I seriously find using my fingers and grabbing little piles, letting a little batter drip back into the bowl, and depositing them in piles on the skillet easier, to form 3 to 4 pancakes. Press down gently with a spatula to they flatten slightly, but no need to spread them much. Cook for 3 minutes, or until the edges brown. Flip the pancakes and cook them again until brown underneath.
Regardless of pancake size, you can keep them warm on a tray in the oven at 200 to 250 degrees until needed.
If desired, make okonomiyaki sauce: Combine all sauce ingredients in a small saucepan and let simmer for 3 to 5 minutes, until smooth and thick.
Serve pancakes with sauce and any of the other fixings listed above, from Japanese mayo to scallions and toasted sesame seeds.
Do ahead: Extra pancakes will keep in the fridge for a couple days, or can be spread on a tray in the freezer until frozen, then combined in a freezer bag to be stored until needed. Reheat on a baking sheet in a hot oven until crisp again.