When I set out on this little cooking adventure, one of my goals was to prepare dishes that featured ingredients and techniques that were unfamiliar to me. And this recipe from February Japanese was way outside the comfort zone.
First, the mystery ingredient: burdock root. Burdock isn't something you really ever encounter in Western cuisine. It's a type of thistle with slender, edible roots that can be well over three feet long. Burdock roots have a pleasantly earthy crunch but are very, very tough and need to be boiled for quite some time to soften them up.
As for the technique, it's pretty strange. This recipe is traditionally made with eel, whose long, thin fillets lend themselves to wrapping around skewers. Chicken, however, is less well adapted to such a preparation, so a little trickery is needed.
Basically, you bone a chicken thigh and then cut it into one long, slender ribbon with the skin still attached. (The technique is described below.) Then you arrange the vegetables -- in this case, marinated burdock and asparagus -- around a skewer, and wrap the chicken ribbon around the vegetables, making sure to keep the skin side out. Then the whole thing is grilled.
The learning curve is a bit high and the preparation may take a while, but it's a weird, wonderful way to prepare chicken. The marinade for the vegetables (made from dashi, sweetened rice wine, and soy sauce) imparts that distinct umami-ness so often associated with Japanese food, which is balanced nicely by the char on the meat.
The assembled skewers
RECIPE: (from Shizuo Tsuji's Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art)
1 medium burdock root, peeled and cut into narrow strips
6-8 asparagus, preferably on the thinner side
3 chicken thighs, skin on
Pickled ginger for garnish
1 1/2 cups dashi
1 tsp salt
3 tbsp mirin (sweetened rice wine)
2 tbsp soy sauce
Sauce for chicken
1/2 cup sake
1/2 cup mirin
1/2 cup soy sauce
Bring a pot of lightly vinegared water to a boil and add the sliced burdock root. Boil the burdock until tender (this will take a while) and set aside. Blanche the asparagus for a minute or two and set aside. Mix the vegetable marinade in a medium bowl and add the cooked vegetables. Allow to marinate for 1-2 hours, or as long as desired.
To prepare the chicken: Bone the chicken thighs and set them skin side down on the cutting board. Use a pair of sharp poultry shears to make three parallel, equally spaced cuts through the width of the thigh, stopping about an inch from the far edge. Rotate the thigh 180 degrees and make two more cuts in between the three existing cuts, again making sure to stop about an inch from the far edge. When done, you should be able to unravel the thigh into one long ribbon of meat.
Arrange 4-5 burdock strips or asparagus around a skewer and wrap the chicken ribbon around the vegetables. Use kitchen twine to secure the roll at both ends and anywhere else it may need reinforcing. Use one thigh per roll.
Set the skewers onto a hot charcoal grill (or a grill pan over medium-high heat) and grill on all sides until the meat is cooked through and has a good char, about 15-20 minutes total. Brush the skewers with the sauce as they are grilling.
Allow the grilled skewers to sit for 3-4 minutes and remove the skewer. Slice each roll into bite-size pieces and serve immediately, garnished with the pickled ginger.