Do you have a bottle of mirin in the back of your fridge or cupboard? Do you remember what you bought it for? I used to forget about my mirin until a recipe like Heidi’s Black Sesame Otsu came along, and then afterward I’d let it get pushed back into the shadows all over again. Thank goodness it takes a very long time to go bad. But over the past year I’ve been reaching for it a bit more frequently and experimenting with it in some less obvious ways.
Mirin is sweet rice wine, but with a low enough content that it can be sold at the grocery store. According to the authorities what you can get at the grocery store, sigh, is a far cry from the good stuff. But you can improve your mirin situation by sourcing it from a Japanese market (and if you’re up for an activity, that link, from Andrea Nguyen’s terrific website, includes a recipe for homemade mirin). Whatever kind you have, give it a taste—it’s quite sweet and a little boozy. An easy substitute for mirin is sake mixed with sugar, and high-quality mirins sometimes have botanicals or other aromatics mixed in, making them suitable for drinking on their own. I say all this just to contextualize mirin as a cooking ingredient, one that’s not so different from something like sweet vermouth (and hopefully there’s a mixologist out shaking or stirring up some delicious, mirin-spiked cocktails).
Kabocha squash, of course, is that wonderful Japanese winter squash sometimes labeled Japanese pumpkin. It’s squat and sturdy and its skin colors vary, but the flesh is flaming orange and gives off a bright, floral perfume when you cut into it. It has a slightly starchier, more potato-like texture than butternut and acorn, and it’s not at all stringy, as some winter squashes can be when cooked. Kabocha might look intimidating, like you might need to own a cleaver to do your work on it, but once you carefully cut it up, you’re good to go. Peeling isn’t necessary.
For dinner a few weeks ago I decided to roast a kabocha squashes in a marinade of mirin, soy sauce, and fresh ginger. It was so easy and appealingly unusual, I moved it to the top of the list of recipes to share here. It’s easy enough to do on a weeknight, but it’s also a good contender for your Thanksgiving table. I haven’t experimented a lot yet, but I imagine that warm spices like clove and cinnamon would be nice in here, and there’s no reason that squash is the only vegetable to pair with the marinade. Other types of squash and root vegetables like turnips would be just as good.
Mirin Roasted Kabocha
Serves 4 as a side
1 medium kabocha squash (2 pounds)
3 tablespoons mirin
2 tablespoons oil
1-1/2 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari (the later to make this dish gluten-free)
1-1/2 tablespoons finely grated ginger
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Slice off any barnacley-looking bits from the outside of the squash with a knife or vegetable peeler. With a big, sturdy knife, hack the squash in half lengthwise, stem to root. Lay the flat surfaces down on a cutting board and chop off the ends. Scoop out the seeds and discard them or reserve them for another use. Again lay the squash flat on the cutting board and carefully chop into wedges about 3/4-inch thick. Arrange the wedges in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet.
3. In a small bowl, whisk together the mirin, oil, soy sauce, and ginger, then pour this over the squash. Toss well to ensure that the vegetables are well coated. Transfer to the oven and roast for 20 to 25 minutes, until the flesh is easily pierced with a paring knife. Flip the wedges every 10 minutes. Grind some black pepper on top and serve hot or warm.