Monday, August 27, 2012

Bluefish with Crispy Potatoes, 2.0

When people ask me how I learned so much about fish, I tell them that I like talking to fish mongers.  It didn't come as a surprise that Bob Arruda from Captain Marden's was a walking encyclopedia of fish.  But little did I know that I was talking not only to a knowledgeable fishmonger and an avid fisherman, but one of the most talented photographers in Boston.  When I told Bob how difficult and frustrating I find food photography, he offered to help.  Last week I invited him for lunch and we spent hours taking pictures of food.   

I cooked us a serious challenge: bluefish with crispy potatoes.  It's gray, it's shapeless, it's homey, and it's hard to plate.  It's my worst nightmare to photograph, but one of my favorite dishes to cook and eat.  For an appetizer, I thought we'll go with ratatouille on toast since I had a huge pot of it in the fridge.  

Bob turned out to be my favorite kind of teacher.  He didn't take any pictures for me.  He talked me through it and made me figured it out by trial and error.  After a few hours, I ended up with pictures that made me happy.  I hope they make you happy too, but most importantly, I hope they make you cook.  Bluefish is in season now in New England.  This dish, inspired by Marcella Hazan's recipe, will make a bluefish lover out of any skeptic.  Trust me.  I have hundreds of such converts from my One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish class.  And ratatouille is a perfect dish to make after a visit to your local farmer's market this time of year.  

Bluefish with Crispy Potatoes, version 2.0

I have blogged about this dish 7 years ago (click at your own risk -- there is a really scary picture).  It's time for an update.  The best pan for this dish is a 12 inch well-seasoned cast iron skillet.  It produced the crunchiest potatoes with the easiest release.  If you don't have one, don't fret.  Use any oven safe skillet or a baking dish (like a 10 x 16 inch Pyrex).  Keep in mind that the bluefish doesn't need to be in one piece.  If you have thicker and thinner pieces, overlap the thinner ones so that they don't overcook by the time the thick ones are done.  The goal is to have all the fish be about the same thickness.  

Serves 4

1 1/2 Lb bluefish fillet, skin removed 
1 garlic clove, mashed
2 tsp fresh squeezed lime juice (or lemon juice)
4 medium boiling potatoes (red bliss or yukon gold)
1/4 cup olive oil 
1 Tbsp butter, cut into very thin slivers
1 Tbsp chopped parsley, cilantro, dill, or basil
Salt and black pepper
  1. Rub the bluefish with garlic, splash with lime juice, and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper on all sides.  Place in the fridge while preheating the oven.
  2. Set the racks in the bottom third and middle positions of your oven. Preheat to 475F.
  3. Peel potatoes and slice into very thin (1/8" thick circles) using an adjustable blade slicer.  Place potatoes in your cast iron skillet or the pan of your choice.  Season generously with salt and pepper and mix with olive oil. Spread evenly. Bake in the bottom third of the oven for 25-30 minutes or until potatoes are tender, crisp around the edges of the dish, and brown on the bottom.
  4. Turn down the heat to 400F.  Dry the bluefish with paper towels.  Place on top of potatoes.  Top with butter.  Place the pan in the middle of the oven, and cook until bluefish is mostly opaque, but a bit of translucency remains in the center when you pull apart the flakes in the thickest part.  This will take about 12 minutes per inch of thickness of the fish.  This timing is longer than normal fish cooking time since the potatoes absorb a lot of the oven heat.  During the cooking process and right before serving, it doesn't hurt to baste the fish with the fat accumulating in the bottom of the pan (do this once or twice).  Tilt the pan, scoop up some fat with the spoon and pour over the fish.  
  5. Sprinkle with parsley, let rest for 7 minutes, and serve.
The cherry tomatoes are optional, but they look good and taste good.  The bunch of thyme, on the other hand, is purely cosmetic.  It's sturdier than parsley and held up well during the photo shoot.  Having it in a bunch looked better to me than scattering it all over the fish.  Maybe one day I'll learn how to make it look good and taste good at the same time.  For now I'll take what I can get.  

Monday, August 20, 2012

Zucchini Blossoms Tempura

For all my seeming confidence in the kitchen, there are some cooking tasks that scare the shit out of me.  Come on, we all have those.  What techniques or ingredients do you not want to touch with a 10-foot pole?  My kitchen fears are killing an animal myself (lobsters and crabs), roasting a turkey, and deep-frying.  There are probably more, but I'll stop here before I make myself look completely incompetent -- not a good move if you teach cooking classes for a living.  But I am happy to report that as of last week, my deep-frying fear is finally conquered.

It all started with the gorgeous zucchini blossoms I spotted at the Natick Farmer's Market.  I find these orange beauties irresistible and my love for them won over my hate of deep-frying.  Isn't there some other way to cook zucchini blossoms?  No, at least not a good one.  Trust me, I've tried.

To complicate matters, Jason was out disk golfing, and it was just me with the kids, a scary amount of veggies from the farmer's market to unload, and a big bouquet of flowers to fry.  Against my better judgement, I decided to go for it.

Heating up big pots of oil and getting rid of it (or storing) is a pain, so I decide to breaking a few rules.  Instead of a gallon of oil most deep frying recipes call for, I decided to only use a quart and fry in small batches.  Since each batch only cooks for 2 minutes, it turned out just fine.  I cooked my blossoms 2 at a time and kept the done ones on a rack in a 200F oven.  In 10 minutes lunch was ready.  The only remaining problem was what to do with the oil.  You can't dump it down the sink.  The common wisdom is to filter it and store it for the next time.  The problem was that I deep-fry about once a year, so my oil goes rancid before the next time.  That's when I thought of duck fat.  Of course!  Why not freeze it?  It wasn't that much oil, so fitting it into my freezer would not be a problem.  I let the oil cool to room temperature and poured it through a fine mess strainer into a tall deli container (the kind you get in a Whole Foods bulk isle), labeled it and threw it in the freezer.  You know, it really wasn't that bad -- the whole deep-frying thing.

For the batter, I used the tempura batter from Washoku cookbook by Elizabeth Andoh.  There are only two ingredients in it: self-rising flour and ice-water.  If you don't have self-rising flour on hand, don't worry.  I don't either.  You can easily make it by combining all-purpose flour, baking powder, and salt.  This is tempura batter to end all tempura batters.  One of the best I've ever had!

Sammy got a bit impatient with picture taking and decided to take matters into her own hands.

Tempura Zucchini Blossoms
(or whatever veggies you want to deep-fry)

Note about oil: For high heat cooking, I use grapeseed oil.  Other good options are safflower, peanut, canola, or vegetable oils.

For the Batter (adopted from the Washoku cookbook by Elizabeth Andoh)
5 oz (1 cup) all-purpose flour (I used King Arthur unbleached)
1.5 tsp baking powder
1 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (or 1/2 tsp table or fine grained salt)
1.5 cups ice-water

For Frying
at least 1 quart oil (see note above)
zucchini blossoms or whatever you want to deep fry
optional filling (ricotta, white bean puree, leftover risotto, etc)

  1. Preheat the oven to 200F.  Prepare a baking sheet lined with a rack.
  2. Remove the green leaves around the base of zucchini blossoms and remove the pistil (the stick in the center).  The best way to do it is to reach in with forceps and rip it out.  You remember from my last post how useful the forceps are, right?  Otherwise, make a slit in the flower so that you can remove the pistil with a knife.
  3. If you want, you can stuff the blossoms.
  4. Heat up a pot of oil to 370F (I use a 2 quart saucepan for 1 quart oil).  
  5. The batter should be done last minute.  Pour the ice-water into a medium bowl (measure it out without ice-cubes).  Sift flower, baking powder, and salt over the water.  Whisk very briefly just until ingredients come together.  The batter should be lumpy!
  6. Coat the blossoms with the batter and fry without crowding the pot for 1 minute per side.  Crank up the heat when they go into the oil to help the temperature recover.  Monitor vigilantly with a thermometer.  There are deep-frying thermometers, but I used my Thermapen for this and it worked fine.  Flip after 1 minute to crisp up the other side.  Remove to a paper towel lined plate and sprinkle with a bit of salt immediately.  Keep warm in the oven on baking sheet lined with a rack while frying the rest.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Tips from Shadowing at Craigie

"Aren't they worried that you'll steal their secrets?" asked one of my friends when I told him that I was planning to shadow at Craigie on Main for 2 days.  Secrets?  I think they were as worried as the Jain monks in India would be that every Joe in America would adopt their ascetic lifestyle.  There are no secrets at Craigie on Main (at least none that I've noticed).  If you are willing to spend 80-100 hours a week polishing your cooking skills, you too can cook like these guys.

Shadowing means following the restaurant staff and being on their beck and call.  Why on earth would I want to be on my feet for 12 hours doing hard manual labor without pay?  Because that's the best way to learn.  It's been 9 years since I've been in a restaurant kitchen and a lot has changed since then.  Immersion circulators, CVAP ovens, and hydrocolloids are ubiquitous in upscale kitchens.  But at Craigie, they employ this technology to cook relatively traditional food.  They are not serving carrot caviar, or octopus cappuccino.  They are serving roast chicken, burgers, grilled pork belly, and slow poached striped bass.  What makes their kitchen so fascinating to me is that they use innovative methods to perfect traditional dishes.

If you are looking for a Craigie Confidential account in the style of Anthony Bourdain, you might be disappointed.  The problem is I don't write as well, and I don't curse as well.  What is it like for a home cook in Craigie's kitchen?  Like being a civilian in a war zone.  What I want to talk about are the techniques that I picked up.  These are more useful to experienced cooks than they are to beginners.  If you don't know how to make a sauce, what use is it knowing how to re-emulsify it right before service?  Although these tips are the icing on the cake, I use them almost daily now.

Forceps are not just for bio lab
If the last time you used forceps was during the frog dissection lab in high school, it's time to revisit this useful tool.  It gives you much greater control when handling small or delicate objects and plating.  You can also use forceps to twist up spaghetti into a cocoon shape for a fun presentation (see the recipe below).

Milk frother is not just for latte
How many times has your sauce or Thanksgiving gravy formed a skin before you had a chance to serve it?   This happens to me all the time, particularly with pan sauces that are high in gelatin (from the stock).  I've seen this problem solved in other restaurants with the use of an immersion blender, but that requires at least 1/2 cup of sauce to work.  You'll also need to dirty a tall container that fits your immersion blender just right.  Milk Frother to the rescue!  It's so tiny, it can smooth out even a few tablespoons of sauce and you can use it right in the pan.  Many sauces at Craigie get this treatment right before service.

Micro greens
No more sprigs of parsley!  It's all about micro greens these days (tiny little shoots of arugula, basil, cilantro, etc).  You can buy them at some Whole Foods, and I hear you can easily grow them indoors, which might be a more practical solution.    A little pile of micro greens on whatever you are serving and you can create that contemporary look at home.  I suck and growing things.  Any good gardeners out there?  I'd love your advice.

Piment d'Espellete
Tired of black pepper?  Try Piment d'Espelette.  It's a fairly mild chili from Espelette region of France (on the Spanish boarder).  I prefer it to pepper on fish both in terms of taste and look.

Getting thick stuff into squeeze bottles
Getting thick stuff into squeeze bottles (like olive puree or ganache) is always a challenge.  At Craigie, the cooks dump their puree onto a large sheet of plastic wrap.  Twist up plastic wrap like a pastry bag, cut a little hole in plastic wrap with a tip of a knife and squeeze the puree into the bottle.  No mess!

Don't mince anything!
You know that technique when your guiding hand goes on top of the knife and you rock your knife back and forth through food to turn it into minuscule pieces?  It's called mincing, and usually applied to garlic, herbs, citrus zest and other things that you want in tiny pieces.  The chef was not happy when he saw me doing that to his parsley.  "We don't do that here," he said.  "You can only go through it twice: once to chiff (that's chiffonade), and once in the other direction."  You should have seen how small their pieces were!  The herbs do come our fluffier and less bruised this way, but this is not for uninitiated.  You'll need very solid knife skills to pull this off since your ribbons should be 1 mm wide.  A Japanese knife doesn't hurt either.  Good thing I brought my Mac (the knife, not the laptop).  There wasn't a German knife in sight in this place.  At one point I had a moment of panic when one of the cooks was showing how he wanted his fennel cut.  "Is this your knife?" he asked sternly after making a few cuts.  "Yes," I said getting a bit concerned.  "Do you sharpen it yourself?" he asked.  "Yes.  Why?  No good?" I answered nervously.  "No, it's very good," he said looking surprised.  "Here -- feel her knife," he said handing it to the sous-chef.  I breathed a silent sigh of relief.

CVAP oven
A CVAP oven cooks with a temperature controlled steam.  CVAP doesn't get nearly as much press as an immersion circulator, which I find surprising.  It has many advantages over the sous-vide method particularly when it comes to fish.  That's the "secret" behind Craigie's lovely fish with almost custardy texture.  I doubt you will be shelling out $2000 to buy a real CVAP oven.  Luckily, in just a few attempts I made great progress on faking it at home with the equipment common to most home kitchens.  I'll report on it as soon as my testing is complete.

Most Craigie recipes start something like this: "Take a whole pig..."  Since a whole pig might not be practical for most of us, I'll start with "Take a whole zucchini."  This is a dish inspired by the Craigie method of using every part of an animal or a vegetable, but in different ways.  They call it nose to tail dining.

Spaghetti with Golden Zucchini

Serves 2 as an entree or 4 as appetizer

1 golden zucchini (or any type of summer squash)
1 Tbsp olive oil
1/3 cup cream
1 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp parsley, finely chopped
4 oz spaghetti
Freshly grated Parmesan
Salt and Pepper

Cut of zucchini flesh with a mandoline into 2mm slices working your way around the seeds.  Slice with a chef's knife into long thin strands (kind of like spaghetti).  If you have a mandoline attachment that cuts right into strands you can do it all in one step.

Cut zucchini seeds into 1/2 inch thick slices.  Put on a metal pan lined with foil.  Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and mix.  

Broil until brown, 3-6 minutes per side.  Add the cream and puree with an immersion blender (or the blender of your choice).  Season to taste.

Cook pasta 3/4 of the way in a pot of boiling salted water.  While the pasta is cooking, melt the butter in a large skillet oven high heat.  Add the long zucchini strands, a generous pinch of salt, and toss around until slightly softened, about 2 minutes.  Reserve 1/4 cup pasta water.  Drain pasta and add to zucchini in the skillet along with pasta water and zucchini cream sauce.  Cook until most of the sauce is absorbed and the pasta is cooked to your liking.  Stir in the parsley.  

Pick up a bunch of pasta with forceps, twist into a cocoon shape, and place on a plate.  Use 1 cocoon for an appetizer, 2 for entree.  If you don't have forceps, tie chopsticks with a rubber band.  

Or just dump it onto a plate.  Garnish with cheese and serve.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ginger-Stewed Japanese Eggplant

There is no shortage of cooking issues that keep me up at night, but meal harmony is not one of them.  Somehow the idea that a dish has to present not only perfectly cooked ingredients, but also a harmony of textures, flavors, and colors usually gets put on the periphery of my mind.  Since my cooking is mostly informed by the culinary aesthetic of the Mediterranean, it works fine.  There is nothing wrong with serving a perfectly grilled fish with grilled asparagus as a Mediterranean inspired meal.  Some countries (particularly the US) are perfectly fine with cooking the entire meal including dessert on the grill.  Do French agonize over a perfect color accompaniment to a steak?  Not really.  Brown french fries with brown steak?  Mai, oui!  But when it comes to Japanese cuisine, the answer is a resounding   いいえ. That's one of the 20 words that currently comprise my Japanese vocabulary and it means "No."

Reading the Washoku cookbook made me think about how to put together a meal that adds up to more than the sum of its parts.  Elizabeth Andoh explains that to create a harmonious Japanese meal, one needs to include 5 colors, 5 cooking methods, and 5 tastes.  At first, this approach seemed somewhat complicated.  Doesn't it take an awful lot of planning to put this together?  Do people really do this for every single meal?  But when I tried to do it myself, I realized that it only took me an additional 5 minutes of thinking and assessing the ingredients in my pantry and fridge to make it work.  

I find that in any meal, it helps to have an anchor -- the ingredient you want to show off.  In this case it was Ginger-Stewed Japanese Eggplant from the Washoku book.  As tasty as this eggplant was, it was not very photogenic by itself.  As I was racking my brain for how to make it look good for the picture, it suddenly dawned on me that I can try the Washoku way.  I was planning to serve this eggplant with onigiri (rice balls).  This added another color and cooking method, so only 3 more colors were left.  I needed something green.  A quick look through the fridge has revealed a cucumber and watercress.  I combined the cucumber with wakame seaweed and dressed it with rice wine vinegar to make a tangy salad.  Watercress worked well for a garnish.  While I was digging through my fridge, I also discovered some hard cooked eggs.  "Yes, yellow!" I thought.  One more color left.  I was hoping for red, but since nothing red caught my eye, I settled on orange cherry tomatoes.  I did a run down of the 5 principles in my head.

5 colors: 
  • black -- eggplant (dark colors are counted as black) and nori
  • white -- rice and egg white
  • yellow -- yolk of the egg
  • green -- cucumber wakame salad, watercress
  • orange -- tomatoes
5 tastes: 
  • salty -- eggplant
  • sweet -- eggplant and tomatoes
  • bitter -- watercress
  • sour -- cucumber salad and tomatoes
  • spicy -- cucumber salad (I threw in some chili flakes to spice it up), ginger in eggplant
5 cooking methods:
  • stewed -- eggplant
  • steamed -- rice
  • pickled -- salad (I don't know if it really counts, but after 5 minutes of sitting it tasted a bit pickled)
  • raw -- tomatoes
  • boiled/poached -- egg
It was the easiest photo shoot ever.  After everything was plated, the picture almost took itself and I got to enjoy the nicest lunch I've made for myself in months.  When I am home by myself working, a jar of sardines or a few spoons of almond butter count as a meal.  So I felt exceptionally pampered when I served myself this colorful plate.

About onigiri (the rice balls) -- is that buckwheat in there?  Why, yes!  One of my favorite discoveries from Elizabeth's book is the fact that many Japanese cooks add other grains (for example millet and buckwheat) to their rice.  Since I am Russian, buckwheat tastes good to me in absolutely everything.  Don't you think it would be a great flavor for ice-cream?  I am not kidding.  Buckwheat is very assertive, so it doesn't take much for it to declare its presence.  In each cup of rice, I replace 3 Tbsp of rice with buckwheat to add a bit of earthiness and textural contrast.  

Ginger-Stewed Japanese Eggplant
from Washoku: Recipes from a Japanese Home Kitchen by Elizabeth Andoh
page 192
© Elizabeth Andoh
My notes are in [square brackets].

[I have tried this recipe with long, thin, dark-skinned Japanese eggplants; and long, thin, light-skinned Chinese eggplants.  Both eggplant types worked well, but Chinese eggplant was softer, so you might want to reduce the amount of liquid and shorten the cooking time a bit.  Scoring the skin before cooking makes it exceptionally easy to bite.  I liked the scoring technique so much, I will try it with other eggplant types as well.]

[To make ginger juice: peel ginger and grate on a Microplane zester to make a puree.  Squeeze this puree with your fingers and you'll have juice.]

Serves 4

4 Japanese eggplants, about 3 ounces each
1 teaspoon vegetable oil [I used 1-2 tablespoons adding them as needed to help eggplant brown nicely]
1/3 cup dashi
1 teaspoon sake
1 scant teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon ginger juice (see note above), with peels reserved
1 scant tablespoon soy sauce
Dash of light-colored soy sauce, if needed
Dash of mirin, if needed
1/2 teaspoon white poppy seeds, freshly dry-roasted (optional)
  1. Trim away the stems from the eggplants and cut each eggplant in half lengthwise.  [My eggplants were so long it was hard to fit them into the skillet, so I cut them into 4 inch long pieces.]  With the cut surface to the board, make many fine, parallel slits on the diagonal into the skin side of each half.  These slits should be very shallow, less than 1/8 inch.  Pat the eggplants dry.
  2. In a skillet just large enough to hold the eggplant pieces in a single layer, heat the oil over high heat.  Add the eggplant halves, skin side down, and sear them, pressing lightly to flatten to ensure that the entire surface comes in contact with the pan.  Searing the skin side first will help keep the color vibrant.
  3. Flip the eggplant halves over so that the skin side is facing up.  Continue to sear for another minute before adding the dashi, sake, sugar, and ginger peels.  Lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer.  If you have an otoshi-buta (Japanese drop lid), place it on the eggplants.  If you do not have an otoshi-buta, you can improvise with a double thickness of parchment paper (cut in a circle, 1 inch smaller in diameter than your pan) weighted down with a small, flat lid from another pot.  Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the liquid is reduced by half.  Add the soy sauce and discard the ginger peels.  Simmer for another minute.  Add the ginger juice and cook for another 30 seconds.  Taste for seasoning: The eggplant will be fairly intense, but the flavors should be well balanced.  Neither a salty (soy sauce), sweet (sugar), nor spicy (ginger) flavor should dominate the dish.  If necessary, adjust with a little light-colored soy sauce or mirin.
  4. Remove the pan from the heat and let the eggplant cool in the pan with the dropped lid or parchment paper in place for superior flavor.  It is during this cooling-down period that the flavors meld and enhance one another and the color will brighten.  Serve at room temperature or chilled.  The finished dish will keep, well covered, in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
  5. When ready to serve, cut the halves into bite-size chunks and arrange them so that some show dark skin side up and other the pale center.  For extra textural interest, garnish with white poppy seeds.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Kelp Mushroom Relish

What to do with Kelp?  Has this question been bothering you too?  If the answer is no, you probably haven't yet made dashi -- the sea stock that is the foundation of many Japanese dishes.  First of all, what is kelp (or kombu in Japanese)?  It is a sturdy seaweed used to make stock.  After 5 years of throwing it in the trash I finally have a solution to this persistent problem -- Kelp and Mushroom relish.    This is another wonderful idea I got out of Washoku cookbook by Elizabeth Andoh.

The recipe calls for enoki mushrooms.  I was able to find them at Miso market in Cambridge, but wouldn't be surprised if Russo's in Watertown carries them too.  This was my first time working with enoki.  If Alberto Giacometti made a sculpture of a mushroom, it would look like enoki -- exceptitonally tall and thin.  But if you don't have enoki on hand, try shiitake mushrooms, sliced paper thin.

The resulting relish is an umami bomb.  It has a fabulous balance between saltiness and sweetness with a pleasant little tang from the vinegar.  We ate it warm over rice and stuffed chilled leftovers into onigiri (rice balls that are the Japanese equivalent to a European sandwich).

A note about ingredients:
If you don't make dashi often, and don't have enough kelp, you can cut the recipe in half, or simply pour boiling water over kombu and let it sit for a few minutes.  Buy real sake in a wine store, not "sake for cooking."

My notes are in [square brackets].

Kelp and Mushroom Relish
pages 110-111
© Elizabeth Andoh

Makes about 1/2 cup

Several pieces kombu, about 50 square inches total, left over from making stock
2 cups cold water
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon sake
3 tablespoons mirin
4-5 tablespoons soy sauce
1 package enoki mushrooms, about 3 ounces, trimmed and cut into 2- to 3-inch lengths

  1. Slice the kombu into narrow strips 1.5 inches long [I made my strips 1/16 inch wide].  In a nonreactive saucepan, bring the water to a rolling boil over high heat and add the vinegar.  The vinegar helps tenderize the kombu and eliminate any questionable bacteria if you are recycling the kombu from a previous use.  
  2. Reduce the heat to maintain a steady, though not vigorous boil and cook the kombu for 4 to 6 minutes.  The water may become murky and develop a green cast.  This is normal.  Test for doneness: pinch a strip or two; they should yield easily.  If they do not, continue cooking for another 2 to 3 minutes.  Drain, rinse in cold water, and drain again. 
  3. Rinse and dry the saucepan and add the sugar, sake, mirin, and soy sauce.  Place over low heat, bring to a simmer, and add the drained kombu.  Simmer for 2 to 3 minutes, and then add the mushrooms.  Cook over fairly low heat for about 3 minutes, stirring frequently.  The liquid will become very foamy as it reduces rapidly; be careful not to let it scorch.
  4. When the kombu looks glazed and the liquid is nearly gone, remove the pan from the heat and let the contents cool to room temperature naturally.  Serve immediately.
  5. Transfer any leftovers to a glass jar, cover the top with plastic wrap, and then screw the lid in place.  Store the relish in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.  Each time you take some relish from the jar, reseal it with fresh plastic wrap before replacing the lid.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Braised Carrots with Hijiki Seaweed

I've been cooking from Washoku cookbook a lot lately.  A friend of mine asked me why I was ruining all the fun.  If I was planning to go to Tokyo to study with Washoku's author, Elizabeth Andoh, why take all the surprise out of what I would be cooking with her?  Yes, I tend to take all the fun out of my own culinary education.  For example, what better way to ruin the CIA boot camp program than work in a restaurant for a year before going?  But there is method to my madness.

The students who make the most of my classes are the ones who have tried the cooking techniques on their own before coming to class.  Even if their pre-class attempt at making pasta dough or deglazing a pan was a disaster, they couldn't have invested their time better.  By the time they were in class, they knew what could go wrong, so they knew what to pay attention to.  If their pre-class attempt was successful, they could free their mind from worrying about the basic procedure and focus on the subtle points that could help them improve further.

No matter how hard you try to pay attention to everything that happens in class, you can't.  There is too much visual and audio input.  But if you already have info in your head about some topic (doesn't matter if the info is right or wrong), the new info you are bombarded with in class has something to stick to.  Otherwise, it goes in one ear and out of the other.  Of course, it can take some of the surprise element out of being in class.  I remember how most of the guys I went to college with were complaining how boring the classes were the first two years.  While I was desperately scribbling notes and "paying attention," they were taking a nap.  Yet even in their nap state, they could absorb the occasional tid-bits that were new to them better than I could absorb anything in my awake state.

Does watching food TV count as class prep?  Nope.  Sorry.  Can watching the Big Bang theory make you better at physics?  You don't need to be Sheldon Cooper to know the answer to that.  Unfortunately, even watching the best culinary educators, like Julia Child or Jacques Pepin does absolutely nothing unless you are deboning that duck on your coffee table along with them the way Amy Powell did in the Julie/Julia movie.  The guys who were bored in my computer science classes were the ones who spent 10 hours a day coding, not watching TV shoes about other geeks.  To make a long story short, I am cooking a lot of Japanese food right now to make my time in Tokyo as productive as possible.

Hijiki Seaweed is not something you see on many Japanese restaurant menus in the US.  Not sure why.  Is the black color off-putting to most diners?  I had it in my pantry from my unsuccessful attempt to use it in place of wakame in miso soup.  Turns out hijiki needs much more soaking and cooking time than wakame.  Elizabeth Andoh's recipe for braising it with carrots turned out great!  Hijiki pieces have plumper middles and tapered ends resulting in an interesting textural contrast.  Iheir deep sea flavor is nicely balanced by the sweetness of the sauce and earthiness of carrots.

Where to buy Hijiki:  I found a bag of it in H-Mart, but I am sure most Japanese grocery stores carry it.  Here is what it looks like dry -- kind of like black tea.

Don't let the lack of English on the front of the package scare you off.  The back of my package labels it "Me Hijiki."

Soy-Braised Hijiki and Carrots
adopted from Washoku cookbook by Elizabeth Andoh

You can buy hijiki in Japanese grocery stores.  About Sake -- please don't use "Sake for cooking."  It's as nasty as "Cooking wine."  I was able to find real Sake at my wine store.  For cooking, you don't need anything expensive.  I only spent $12 on mine and am now keeping it in my fridge for further use.  For sesame seeds, it's best to buy them white and roast them in a skillet right before use.  But I only had roasted sesame seeds on hand this time.

1/4 cup dried hijiki
2 teaspoon vegetable oil
1-2 carrots, peeled and cut into julienne strips (about 1 cup)
1 Tbsp sake
1 cup dashi (basic sea stock)
1 Tbsp sugar
1-3 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp roasted sesame seeds
  1. Put hijiki in a bowl (at least 2 cups in capacity).  Add warm water (about 105F, but exact temp is not important).  Soak for at least 20 minutes, drain, rinse, and pat dry with paper towels.
  2. Heat 1 teaspoon of oil in a 12 inch skillet (preferably non-stick) over high heat.  When oil shimmers, add hijiki and cook stirring constantly until aromatic, about 1 minute.
  3. Add carrots and another teaspoon of oil and cook stirring for another minute. 
  4. Add sake and cook stirring until absorbed.
  5. Sprinkle evenly with sugar.  Add dashi and bring to a gentle simmer.  Lower the heat, cover with the lid askew, and cook until all the liquid is absorbed, 12-15 minutes.  Taste a piece of hijiki.  If it's not tender enough to your liking, add 1-2 tablespoons of water and cook until absorbed.
  6. Stir in soy sauce to taste.  Start with 1 Tbsp and add more as needed.
  7. Let rest covered for 20 minutes.  Can be served warm or at room temperature.  Before serving, drain off excess liquid and sprinkle with roasted sesame seeds.  Leftovers will keep in the fridge in an airtight container for a few days.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Dangers of Using Soy Lecithin

"You should title this post How I killed my husband with foam," said Jason. Ok, let's not get too dramatic. Jason will live. But he is in a good bit of pain right now, and it is my fault.

I heard a quiet whimper as Jason was brushing his teeth last night. "What's wrong?" I asked. "I got a canker sore," he answered. Canker sores are painful open sores in the mouth and unfortunately, Jason lived with them most of his life because the traditional dental establishment failed to recognize until recently that normal toothpaste is a major cause. Yes -- that wonderful tool of modern dental hygiene irritates some people's mouths so much that they end up with sores.

The culprit is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS). It's a detergent and some people are very sensitive to it. A few years ago, Jason switched to Trader Joe's Peppermint toothpaste, the only one he could find with no detergents, and voila -- no more canker sores. The fact that there was one in his mouth yesterday was a mystery to both of us. There was a short return of them when he tried a new toothpaste this summer called Squigle. It claimed to prevent canker sores by using poloxamer (a mild detergent) instead of SLS. As it turned out, no detergent was mild enough for Jason. The terrible sores came back. He switched back to TJ's, and life was good again. Could it be the lingering effects of Squigle, or...

No. It couldn't be. Soy lecithin? I have been playing with it a lot lately to make foams. But it's a food. Well, sort of. It's a food additive. Many commercial foods use it. It's approved by FDA; but hey, so are the toothpastes. I knew it was an emulsifier. In other words it helps oil and water stay together. But I also remember it being referred to as surfactant. That word sounded familiar, but I couldn't remember where I heard it before until now. Of course! I heard Jason refer to the cleaning agents in toothpaste as surfactants. Uh-oh. This couldn't be good.

"Is there a difference between a surfactant and a detergent?" I asked Jason. "No. Why?" he asked. "Because I think I know why you have a canker sore," I said. "Foam!!!" we said in one voice. We didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "I was going to suggest that you add a little drop of soap to all those stocks and juices to make foam," said Jason laughing. "As it turned out, that's exactly what I was doing," I answered.

Remember how I told you the stuff I got from Mark was legal? Well, not any more. Soy lecithin is officially outlawed in our house. The use of all other food chemicals is on hold until further investigation. Any chemists out there? Please help! What about versawhip, xanthan gum, agar-agar, ultra-tex 3, and the whole post-modern pantry? Are those surfactants too?

Please don't think I am on some food-should-be-natural-chemicals-are-evil crusade. One of my children is terribly allergic to completely natural and healthy foods: kiwi and eggs. There is nothing man-made about them, but his little body thinks they are toxic. I think there is a place for many chemicals that the food industry uses in people's home kitchens, just like there is a place for baking powder. I am sure 150 years ago, baking powder was considered a strange and unnatural ingredient, yet now there isn't a household without it. What I want is not a return to the good old "natural" days, but a good explanation about how these man-made substances work -- and that's not easy to get from contemporary cookbooks.