Last week I was at the Japantown festival in the East Village and Suzuki Farms had a stand with Japanese produce so fresh, it was still clinging to the Delaware soil it was grown in. There were the usual suspects, like Japanese cucumbers and shishito peppers, but they had also had more exotic produce, like Momotaro tomatoes, rakyo (japanese ramps), and red shiso.
In addition to some great looking cucumbers, eggplant and rakyo, I also picked up a gorgeous bunch of red shiso. If you’ve ever been to a sushi restaurant, you’ve probably seen green shiso adorning your plate. Aojiso or Green Perilla, is a member of the mint family with broad jagged edged leaves. It’s often used decoratively, but it’s a delicious herb that goes great in dressings, sauces, and even desserts. Akajiso (Red Perilla), is a much less common variety that has a very distinct taste. It’s more floral than green shiso and in Japan, it’s primarily used for pickling vegetables. When exposed to an acid, the greenish-purple leaves turn a brilliant shade of magenta, imparting a stunning color onto the plums it’s typically picked with.
Although it’s often translated as as “Japanese plum”, ume (pronounced umeh) is actually closer to an apricot than a plum. When picked green, they’re about the size of a quarter and have a soft fuzzy skin. They’re pickled through a salting and drying process that renders them very tart and very salty. Because of the vibrant red color imbued by the red shiso, you’ll often see them used as the centerpiece to a bento box full of white rice, a nod to the Japanese flag. Indeed, umeboshi is a centerpiece to Japanese culinary culture as a whole, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a household without a container of these pickled plums in the kitchen.
Since I didn’t have any fresh ume to pickle, I decided to cook with the most of the red shiso I got, and this umeboshi chicken was my first experiment. It’s really only Japanese in name, and aside from the cheek shriveling tartness, this could easily be a French or Italian dish. I had it the first night with some white rice which was good, but it wasn’t until the next night when I tossed it with some olive oil and pasta that I realized how good it was. Pasta naturally takes to the tart acidity of tomatoes and the this tangy umeboshi chicken was a natural fit for a bowl full of linguine.
- Pat the chicken dry with paper towels (this helps the chicken brown because there's less moisture to burn off) then generously salt and pepper. Heat a dutch oven or heavy bottomed pot with a lid over medium-high heat until hot. Add the oil then add the chicken, skin side down. Fry until golden brown (about 7 minutes), then flip and fry until the other side is browned (another 5 minutes).
- Transfer to a plate and drain off all but 1 tablespoon of oil. Add the onions and saute until caramelized (about 15 minutes). Add the chicken and any collected juices back in, along with the umeboshi, wine, shisho leaves and lavender. Cover with a lid and simmer over medium low heat for 45-50 minutes. When it's done, the chicken should fall of the bone when gently prodded.
- Taste for salt, and adjust seasonings as needed. Serve the whole chicken thighs with rice, or debone the chicken and toss it with pasta.