Monday, March 31, 2014

Sushi in Tokyo

It's hard to quantify how Japan changed my relationship to food, but like any great culinary experience, it most certainly did. I experienced tastes I had never even imagined before. I ate foods I had never heard of, and I ate foods I had heard of many times but had never tasted in their most perfect form.

No food was more surprisingly exquisite than the sushi.

Sushi was the first meal I ate in Japan.  We were up early due to jet lag (16 hour time difference), and soon after 5 AM we set off for Tokyo's famous Tsukiji fish market. 

Among other things, Tsukiji is the place where tuna auctions take place, and every imaginable type of fish is sold. Certainly, tourists visit this place in droves. However, just like Pike Place in Seattle, this is a real functioning market. Just outside the market are countless restaurants and food stalls.  They're all up and running, bustling and steaming, before the sun has even considered rising.

After walking around for a bit, we spotted a place full of locals and were lucky enough to walk in just before a long line formed behind us. The place seated no more than a dozen folks at a sushi counter manned by three chefs. 

These guys weren't messing around. With the first bite of fatty tuna (toro), I realized (despite having lived in Hawaii, despite eating sushi all over the West Coast), I had never had fish this fresh, and therefor had never tasted fish as good as I did in that moment.


toro (not meat, although it looks it)

The taste of uni was completely redefined at that sushi counter. Uni had never been as buttery, unctuous, or perfect. I instantly fell in love with Japan over breakfast, and the love affair didn't end for the duration of the trip.

For our last dinner in Tokyo, we went to Sushi Yuu. The recommendation for the restaurant came from a friend living in Tokyo with great taste in food. I knew it would be good, but I had no idea just HOW good it would be.  

The restaurant is inviting and warm, and Chef Shimazaki-San makes you feel welcome and taken care of from the moment you arrive. As an interesting side note, the Chef is married to a Russian woman. His English is quite good, but we were able to speak in Russian as well. I never expected I would be speaking Russian to a Japanese sushi chef, and it was a great joy to do so.

There's no menu, there's no ordering, you sit down and go along for the ride of incredible food. You will be served the highest quality fish, rice, wine, miso, freshly grated wasabi, etc. etc. etc. The sushi is a work of art in its own right, but I was equally blown away by the Chef's pickled baby ginger. I love anything pickled and anything ginger, and I had no idea that pickled ginger could taste as good and delicate as the chef made it taste. The ginger is pickled the same day it is served, and because it is baby ginger, it is tender, soft, not too sweet, and perfectly balanced in flavor and spice. I could eat buckets of the stuff. I would go back to this restaurant just for the ginger, and that's saying a lot, because the Chef served us the best sushi of my life. 

Here are some highlights:

tuna, with the incredible ginger and freshly grated wasabi

fatty tuna

mackerel (special sun-dried preparation)

another part of tuna, seared


type of herring


toro with onion

homemade plum wine, made by the chef's mother

end of a great meal

Sushi for our first breakfast and our last dinner were the perfect bookends to an incredible trip.  

If you find yourself in Tokyo, let me know. I will send you straight to Sushi Yuu.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Kerala Indian Restaurant, Kyoto - The best tomato soup I have ever eaten

I ate incredibly well in Japan. Almost every meal was memorable in some way.  I ate everything from the best sushi of my life, to a perfect bowl of ramen, to excellent tempura, to Japanese style gefilte fish (more on that later), to deliriously good sukiyaki, to addictive yakitori.  

Somehow, amidst all of the excellent Japanese food, an Indian restaurant in Kyoto looms large in my food travel memory.  

That night, weary from days of travel, and overwhelmed by too many excellent dining options, we decided we were in the mood for Indian food. It was a cold day, and spicy food sounded good. Japanese food, while extraordinay, is very rarely spicy.  My travel companion decided to find the best Indian restaurant in town, and a quick google search led us to Kerala Indian Restaurant.  

The restaurant is located on the second floor of an unassuming multi-story building in a bustling part of downtown Kyoto.  We stepped inside, and were immediately greeted in English by the host/owner. Many people speak English in Japan, but it was actually unusual to be greeted in a language other than Japanese. We waited a bit for our table, and observed the busy, small, and inviting room.  

Once we were seated, I asked the owner what he recommended.  He mentioned their array of different kinds of grilled fish and meat, and he also mentioned that they were known for their tomato soup.  I wasn't in the mood for meat, and tomato soup didn't sound exciting. Instead, we decided to order a salad appetizer, palak panner, vegetable jalfy, rice, and garlic naan.  

The owner came back to our table, and we told him our order. He laughed a little and said to me, "You asked for my recommendations, but you haven't ordered any of them."  I apologized and said I wasn't wanting to eat meat.  Again, he mentioned the tomato soup.  I told him that we had probably already ordered too much food.  He responded that they offered a half-size serving of the soup. Out of a sort of culinary politeness, and a fair amount of curiosity, I decided to order the small-sized portion of soup.

I am so so so grateful that he urged me to order it, and that I listened to his advice.

This guy was underselling his soup. In his urgings, all he had said was "it is a fine soup." Fine is the wrong word. This soup is a miracle. I have never ever tried anything like it. It brought new ideas to my palate. It was silky and delicate, creamy without being heavy... and then there was the taste - aromatic, rich, tomatoey, spicy, mysterious.  I can usually parse out the ingredients in any dish I am trying, but this one stumped me. I tasted the soup a few times, and detected cinnamon and a few other spices. I asked the proprietor about whether there the soup had cinnamon and allspice, and he said "You are right, there is cinnamon, but I can't tell you anything else." He was happy I liked the soup, and justifiably guarded over the recipe.

The food that followed was excellent.  I can easily say that it was the best Indian food that I have ever eaten.  My travel companion has been to India (and had even been to Kerala), and said that it was the best Indian food he has eaten outside of that country.  The salad was fresh and spicy, the palak paneer was BRIGHT green, earthy and creamy (the owner says it's because they use a TON of fresh spinach). The vegetable jalfry was perfectly rich and delicious. The garlic naan was completely covered in thin slivers of fresh garlic. The raita was cool and refreshing. Even the wine was outstanding.

But that soup...

The owner tended to our table, and he and I talked throughout the meal. He is young, and is the son of a Japanese mother and an Indian father. He was born in Kyoto, but spent time in England, and speaks perfect English with a slight British accent. His father opened the restaurant many years ago (plus or minus 30 years), and the son has since taken over.  Before he took over the family business, he had worked in a classic French restaurant, as well as a classic Italian restaurant. The tomato soup is a fusion of French, Italian, and Indian cooking; it took him a long time to develop it to his liking.

I can't expect that I will be able to replicate anything like the perfect soup that he has created, but I certainly intend to try my own take on the dish as soon as possible.

And if you're in Kyoto, which by the way, I highly recommend you visit, please do yourself a favor and go to Kerala Indian restaurant.  Order the soup. Full size.  

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Fake Food in Japan

Just got back from Japan (Tokyo, Naoshima, Kobe, and Kyoto). Jet lag is hitting hard. I am preparing multiple posts about the food I ate in Japan. Too many memorable meals to count. I fell in love with the country and its food, but I was also blown away by the fake cuisine!

There's real artistry involved in these plastic wonders. There are fake food displays are outside many Japanese restaurants, regardless of the type of cuisine being served there. Here are just a few examples:

And you can even by your own fake food at a fake food store! 

And if you can't go to Japan, just order online!

More soon...

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Strawberry Hamantaschen Tartelettes

I need no excuse to make a cookie, but holidays are a good one.  Purim is this Saturday, and Hamantaschen, a three-sided cookie with a filling, is traditionally eaten and given as gifts on this holiday.

There are 2 things that hamantaschen need to be: three-sided and filled with something (jam, poppy seeds, prunes, etc.)  These aren't bad requirements for a cookie.  The only problem is that most of the Hamantaschen I've eaten in my life kind of suck.  They tend to be large in size, with dry bland cookie dough surrounding average tasting jam.

The only exception to the sucky-hamantaschen rule are my grandmother's (of course).  Instead of cookie dough, she made a pastry dough that she typically used for peroshke.  She also made her hamantashen small. She also filled them with homemade jam.

Pie dough is my favorite type of dough, and I  thought why not make hamantaschen with that?
The result: it worked.

These don't taste like typical hamantaschen. They taste like little pies.  If you want to make them into tartelettes (in fact, my french roommate says they reminded him of these), you don't need to form them into triangles.  If you want to make them triangular, you need to make sure you fold over the corners really well. This is a versatile base to work with, and I'm sure I'll play around with this recipe in the future.

I apologize in advance for the directions on this one... I sort of winged it, and some of this you have to do by feel... make sure your dough isn't too wet, don't roll it out too thick, make sure you chill the dough, and make sure you chill the cookies before you bake them. They are a little labor intensive, but they're also fun to make, if you like this sort of thing.

Pie-Dough Hamantaschen with Strawberry Filling
Makes 30 cookies

for the dough-
1 1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup very cold unsalted butter (1 stick), cubed
1/4 cup ice water

for the filling-
1/2 cup strawberry jam (thick is best, recipe below if you want to make your own)
3-4 strawberries, quartered and sliced very thin
1 egg
turbinado or coarse sugar

for the dough-
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and sugar. For all pie dough, keep all of the ingredients as cold as possible.

In a food processor, add the flour and the cubed butter.  Pulse until the butter looks pea-sized and the mixture is crumbly.  Slowly add the ice water, a little at a time.  Pulse each time you add.  The dough is ready when it sticks together when you press it with your fingers.

Form the dough into a ball, flatten it into a disc, and cover it in plastic wrap.  Let the dough chill for at least 2 hours or overnight.

to assemble-
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Make an egg wash by cracking an egg and beating it in a small dish.

Cut the dough into thirds, keep the dough you're not using in the fridge.  Roll the dough out until it is about a 1/4-inch thick.  Cut the dough with a 2-inch biscuit cutter. You can take the scraps of dough and re-roll those out so that none of the dough goes to waste.  If you want the tartelettes larger, use a 3-inch biscuit cutter or a glass (add more filling accordingly).

Spoon a 1/4 teaspoon of strawberry jam into the center of each round. Top the jam with a thin slice of strawberry.  Fold over the edges of the dough onto the jam, forming a triangle.  I start by folding one third, then another, then the last.  Pinch each corner super tight, otherwise the dough will unfold when the cookies bake. Here's a good tutorial.

Place the cookie on the baking sheet, leave an inch or two of room between each cookie.  Once you fill up the tray, place the tray of cookies in the freezer (or fridge) to chill for 15-30 minutes before baking. Take the cookies out of the freezer.  Brush the egg wash over the edges of the cookie, sprinkle with coarse sugar.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the dough is golden brown.

Fresh Strawberry Jam
adapted from Ina Garten's recipe

2 pints fresh strawberries, rinsed and cut into small pieces
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
juice and zest of one lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine the sugar, lemon zest, vanilla, and lemon juice in a small saucepan and cook over very low heat for 10 minutes, until the sugar is dissolved. Add the strawberries and continue to cook over very low heat for 45 minutes, until the strawberries release some of their juices and the mixture boils slowly. Cook until a small amount of the juice gels on a very cold plate, and the mixture starts to look thick and jammy. (I keep one in the freezer.) Pour carefully into a canning jars and either seal or keep refrigerated. Use immediately, or follow proper canning guidelines below.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Roasted Spiced Chickpeas

Appetizers and desserts are the best parts of every meal? Right?

I remember hearing Rayanne's mom saying so on My So Called Life, and it alway stuck (at 1:27 in the clip below).

Let's throw "snacks" into the apps/desserts/best-things-to-eat category.

I'm always attracted to foods that are crunchy, spicy, or smoky.  I also prefer those things to be homemade, and not totally unhealthy.

This is a quick, easy, protein-rich snack.  It's best to eat these guys soon after you make them.  They lose their crunchiness after a few hours.

I like smoky flavors like cumin and smoked paprika, but you can try any spice combo you think you would like.

This recipe makes a small batch, but you could easily double it and adjust the spices accordingly.

Roasted Spiced Chickpeas
Serves 2-3 as a snack

1 15-oz. can chickpeas, rinsed, drained and patted dry
2 tablespoons olive oil or grapeseed oil
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon coriander
1/8 teaspoon chipotle powder (or chili powder could be good, too)
pinch of salt (optional, doesn't really need it as the chickpeas are seasoned in the can)

Preheat the oven to 400°F, with a rack placed in the center of the oven.  Line a sheet pan with parchment paper or foil.

Rinse and drain your chickpeas. Lay them out on a towel, or paper towels, and pat them dry.
In a bowl, add your dried chickpeas, olive oil, and spices.  Toss the chickpeas in the oils and spices so that each one is well coated with the mixture.

Transfer the chickpeas to your lined baking sheet and place in the oven for 25-40 minutes (it depends on the chickpeas and your oven), until they are crunchy and browned.  Keep an eye on these guys, they can go from crunchy to burnt pretty quickly.

Serve and eat!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Seared Mushrooms and Polenta

oyster, maitake, and shitake mushrooms
photo by Mark Hanauer

I have looked through the pages of Plenty more times than I can count. I often flip through the pages when I'm looking for inspiration for a dinner party, client, or for what to do with a farmer's market bounty.  I've always been interested in the mushroom and herb polenta recipe, but it felt like a special occasion dish and I never found the right special occasion to make it.

Last night, I was in the mood to make something special for no occasion.  I suggested a few options to my dinner companions, and they voted for mushrooms and polenta.  I didn't feel like following a recipe, and I also felt like making seared polenta as opposed to the baked polenta in the recipe.  I also didn't have time to make polenta from scratch, bake it in the oven for at least an hour, then cool it, then cut it into rounds or squares, then sear it.  Instead, I bought pre-made polenta (in the tube, found at Whole Foods or most other grocery stores). I cut the polenta into rounds before searing it.  

The recipe recommends Taleggio cheese, but the store had was out.  The guy at the Venice Whole Foods cheese counter was super helpful, and found me a mild sheep's milk cheese that worked really well. A goat's milk Gouda might be nice. You could probably use Mozzarella if you only had that on hand.

If you love mushrooms, this dish is perfect.  The creamy crusted polenta pairs perfectly with the earthy browned mushrooms, fresh herbs, and creamy melted cheese.  This meal feels special, but it is perfect as a mid-week dinner after work.  I served it with a simple salad with a balsamic Dijon vinaigrette, and we all ate coconut ice cream for dessert.  It was a great and happy meal.

Here's the dish, inspired by Ottolenghi...

Seared Mushrooms and Polenta Rounds with Herbs and Melted Cheese
Serves 4-5

About the mushrooms:  I used maitake, shiitake, cremini, and oyster. You could use any mushrooms you like, but I would try to use shiitake and oyster if you can, as they have a more delicate texture than cremini, white button or portobello mushrooms. 

olive oil
5-6 cups mixed mushrooms 
4 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 tablespoon, fresh thyme
1 tablespoon, chopped fresh rosemary
salt and pepper
2 18-oz sleeves/tubes plain polenta, cut into 1/2 inch rounds
4-5 oz Taleggio cheese, cut into thin slices (or use a mild semi-hard Sheep's or Goat's cheese)
1/3 cup shredded parmigiano-reggiano cheese
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

Line a sheet pan or large platter with paper towels. Line a second sheet pan with parchment paper, or tin foil.

Start by cleaning your mushrooms. Remove dirt and grit with a damp towel so as not to saturate the mushrooms with water. Cut up the oyster and maitake mushrooms into 1-inch pieces.  Slice the cremini and the shiitake mushrooms.  Prepare the rest of your ingredients: mince the garlic, remove the thyme from the stem, and chop up the rosemary.  

Add a glug of olive oil to a large pan over medium high heat. In batches, add some of the garlic, mushrooms, rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper to the pan.  Be careful not to overcrowd the pan otherwise your mushrooms won't brown.  Leave the mushrooms in the pan to brown, then flip them and brown the other side.  I used two pans at the same time to speed up this process. I cooked the mushrooms in about 5 or 6 batches.  Transfer the browned mushrooms to a sheet pan lined with paper towels. Set aside all of the browned mushrooms.

Pat dry the polenta rounds before you cook them.  In the same pan you used for the mushrooms, add a tablespoon of olive oil and a pat of butter.  Add 5 or 6 rounds of polenta at a time.  Brown the polenta in batches (don't overcrowd the pan), cook them for 3-5 minutes on each side, or until they are nicely browned and crusty.  Transfer the browned polenta to the parchment-lined sheet pan.

Set your oven to broil.

Top the browned rounds of polenta with the seared mushrooms.  Add a thin slice of cheese on top of each polenta round.  Sprinkle everything with the grated parm.  Place the tray under the broiler for about a minute until the cheese melts and starts to bubble (keep an eye on it, the cheese melts quickly!) Serve and garnish with freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Kale, Date & Almond Salad

The other night I ate at Rustic Canyon for the first time.  I'm a big fan of Huckleberry, which is owned by the same folks. My expectations were high and overall the meal was quite lovely. The place was packed and the ambience was lively. The cocktail I had was perfect and the beer and wine selections looked great.  Everything we ate tasted good, but there were two dishes that stood out more than the others.

Service was outstanding for the first half of the meal.  For the second half of the meal, our waitress seemed to forget about us entirely. We were more or less ignored once our first round of drinks had been replenished; this made ordering dessert a little difficult. Service isn't something that matters to everyone, but it does matter to me. I'm particularly sensitive to service when the price tag of the meal is high. Regardless of what I'm paying, if a place has pretty good food and excellent service I'll almost definitely return to that establishment.  If a place has great food and terrible service I'm unlikely to go back.  Maybe it was an off-night because they were so busy (there happened to be celebrities there that night), or maybe that's just how it is. Rustic Canyon was yummy, but I'm not sure I'll go out of my way to return.

Back to the food... the gnocchi with oxtail, strawberry sofrito, pine nut, and fennel pollen was the stand-out dish, and the kale salad was a close second. I really like kale, but it's not something I tend to order at restaurants. On the menu the salad was described as having 'honey' dates, walnut, Parmesan and lemon.  It sounded good and different, and it tasted even better than I imagined. The kale was bright and slightly bitter, the dates were velvety and sweet, the lemon vinaigrette was creamy and vibrant.

I came home wanting to eat it again.  Here is a take on the great salad I had that night.

Kale, Date & Almond Salad with Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette
Serves 2-3

4 cups kale (lacinato/tuscan kale would be best, but I used the regular variety), thinly sliced into ribbons
1/4 cup almonds, toasted and chopped (hazelnuts, pecans, or walnuts would also be good)
5 dates, pitted and halved
salt and pepper
juice of one lemon, Meyer if in season
drop of honey
3 tablespoons olive oil, or more depending on taste
crumbled goat cheese (optional)
shaved parmesan (optional)

Add the kale, toasted nuts, and pitted dates to a bowl. Lightly season the salad with salt and pepper.

In a small bowl or jar, add freshly squeezed lemon juice, a drop of honey, and a little more salt and pepper.  Whisk the olive oil into the lemon juice mixture until creamy and emulsified.  Taste your dressing and adjust accordingly.

Toss the salad with the dressing until the leaves are well coated.  Let the salad sit for at least 15 minutes before serving so that the kale properly absorbs the dressing and softens.

Top with crumbled goat cheese, or shaved parmesan if you're in the mood for that.