Friday, November 30, 2012

Crispy Chicken Thighs with Prunes

"Mommy, when you were in Japan, Daddy cooked just like you," said my five-year-old daughter upon my return.  I beamed with pride for my husband.  You know the stereotype of a helpless father who is bewildered by diapers, laundry, school bus schedules, and dinner?  Well, that's not Jason.  I didn't return to find my kids eating twinkies for dinner.  While I was gone, Jason found the time to make frequent runs to Whole Foods and whip up things like seared tuna with asparagus for dinner and get a product release done at work.  Man, this guy is so competent, it scares me a little.  Sometimes I am glad he is not home in the mornings when I get kids ready for school.  He'd probably laugh at me.  "Competent" is the last adjective that describes me when I am dealing with kids.  Flustered and perpetually late would be more appropriate.

"Mommy," continued my daughter, "While you were gone, we had Ally and her Dad over for lunch and Daddy made your yummy chicken with prunes.  How did he know how to make it?"  "Don't you know," I answered, "Daddy is Mr. Incredible," I said with a straight face, but that didn't satisfy her.  "Yeah, but how did he know how to cook like you?" she asked persistently trying to solve the mystery of the chicken.  I opened my laptop and showed her my blog.  "See," I said browsing through posts, "all my recipes are here so that anyone can cook them."  "Show me the chicken," said Sammy.  Why does everyone in my family needs empirical proof to believe anything?  "Well, the chicken is not on the blog yet," I said.  "It's a newbie, but I e-mailed the recipe to Daddy from the airport, and conveniently he tested it for me."

Crispy Chicken Thighs with Prunes

This recipe is a combination of Judy Rodgers' early salting technique, Jacques Pepin's cooking technique (the slits near the bone are a brilliant idea), and my Mom's fabulous match of chicken and prunes.  Eventually, I found out that my Mom was not the only cook who combined these two ingredients.  Chicken Marbella in the Silver Palate cookbook made this combo extremely popular in the US.  But this dish never fails to stir sweet childhood memories for me.

If you don't have brandy, the recipe calls for, life will go on, but keep in mind that life with brandy is always better than life without it.  And for all you alcohol phobes -- yes, all the alcohol evaporates, so serving it to children and pregnant women is fine.

Serves 2-4 (depending on appetites)

4 chicken thighs, skin-on, bone-in (about 1.5 Lb)
3/4 cup water
2 Tbsp brandy (or more water)
12 pitted prunes
2 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp oil (grapeseed, safflower, and canola work the best)
1 garlic clove, peeled

Trimming and Salting (1 hour and up to 3 days before cooking)

Trim the skin so that it doesn't extend past the meat of the thighs.
Make a 1/2 inch slit on both sides of the bone to help the meat cook evenly.
Sprinkle with salt on both sides.
Let sit skin side up at room temperature for 1 hour or cover loosely and refrigerate up to 3 days.

Browning the chicken
Combine water and brandy in a pyrex cup or microwavable bowl.  Add the prunes and microwave until boiling, about 2 minutes.  Add balsamic vinegar and soy sauce.  Set aside.
Dry thicken thighs very thoroughly with paper towels on both sides.  Set a 10-inch heavy skillet (stainless steel if possible) over high heat.  If doubling the recipe, use a 12-inch skillet. Add the oil and wait until the first hint of smoke.  Swirl the pan to coat evenly with oil.  Add the thighs skin side down making sure they don't overlap.
Reduce heat to medium and cover.  Cook for 10 minutes checking occasionally to make sure the thighs are browning steadily, but not burning.  If necessary, reduce heat further.  Uncover, turn up the heat back to high and cook for 1 minute to finish crisping the skin.  Cover with a splatter screen if you have one to avoid the mess.
Turn off the heat, flip the chicken and cook for 1 minute (the skillet will still be plenty hot).  Remove chicken to a plate keeping it skin side up.

Making the sauce
Pour the fat out of the skillet, wiping the lip to avoid fat drips.  Add the prunes with their liquid.  Set the skillet over high heat and bring to a boil.
Grate the garlic on a microplane grater and rub the chicken all over with it.  Do all the skin first before your hands get wet with chicken juice to avoid making the skin soggy.

Check the temperature inside the thighs with a meat thermometer, making sure you don't hit the bone.  If you get 170F or above, the chicken is done.  If you get below 170F, add the thighs to the skillet with sauce keeping them skin side up to finish cooking them.  Check every couple of minutes and remove back to a plate as soon as they hit 170F.

Continue to boil down the sauce until syrupy and a flat wooden spoon dragged through the bottom leaves a trail.
Reduce heat to low.  Add the chicken back to the skillet along with all the juice that accumulated on a plate. Cook for 1 minute shaking the skillet to integrate the juice and sauce.  Take off heat, let rest 5 minutes and serve.
Leftovers taste surprisingly good, but the skin gets soggy.  Wasting crispy chicken skin is a crying shame, so I usually remove it, wrap around a prune, and pop in my mouth before refrigerating what's left of the chicken.

This technique lends itself beautifully so infinite variations -- mushroom cream sauce, coq au vin, chicken Provencal (tomato herb sauce), etc.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Tsukiji Market and Kappabashi-dori

You might expect that I’ll start my tale of food shopping in Tokyo with the tuna at Tsujiji or the knives at Kappabashi. We’ll get there, don’t worry. But I want to start with this egg that I bought at a convenience store called Lawson’s. I hear 7/11 stores carry them too.

Rightfully, you should be skeptical about how perfectly cooked this egg looks on the picture plastered on the packaging (the one on the left). McDonald's salads look fresh in pictures too. But on the right is a picture of the real egg after I peeled it and took a bite. I’d be happy if upscale restaurants in the US always got eggs done this perfectly. This egg summarizes the food in Tokyo in one tight little package. Actually, it summarizes the whole experience of this city and culture. It raises ordinary to extraordinary. It prizes uniformity, perfection, harmony and balance in all things: from fine art to public bathrooms.  Even the lowly convenience store that I would avoid like the plaque in the US didn't fail to pleasantly surprise me.

To tell you the truth, I’d never set foot into a 7/11 type store if it weren't for Chris, my fellow student at a Taste of Culture cooking school. He introduced me to these delightful eggs, and I decided to buy one myself to take to the airport with me.  Why put up with the torture that is American Airlines meal when Japan is the packaged food paradise!?  I took the deepest breath possible before going through the doors and held my breath trying to minimize the amount of putrid burnt coffee smell I had to endure. Eventually, I ran out of breath and inhaled. To my surprise, it didn’t smell bad. No burnt coffee. It actually smelled like normal food -- mildly sweet and savory as most food in Japan tends to be.  Apparently a 7/11 can offer a bigger cultural shock than Tsukiji!  But enough about convenience stores.   Let’s move on to the real food and equipment shopping.


Writing about Tsukiji is like writing about Notre Dame.  What can I say that wasn't said before?  It’s a temple of fish where tuna the Zeus rules supreme and is worshipped by mortals. I didn't go to see an auction. It’s  an experience that is fun to brag about, but big frozen tunas and screaming men don’t do much for me. I was much more interested in what’s inside those tunas and that can be easily seen without waking up at 5am. In fact, I suggest you wait for the craziness to calm down and get to the market around 9am. There’ll be plenty of lovely fish to drool over and you won’t feel in the way as you would in the morning.

My friend Junko Keller (in the picture below), with whom I was staying, offered to show me around.  She is a Tokyo native and a culinary instructor, so having her by my side was incredibly fun and enlightening.
Our morning snack of figs

Fall is the mushroom season: nameko on the left; matsutake on the right

I lost count of how many different vegetables I found pickled at Tsukiji.  My favorite was pickled lotus flower stems.

This is not tuna.  It's bonito (katsuo in Japanese).  That's what they make katsuobushi out of for dashi stock.  It's the "baby" of the tuna family due to its petite size.  Oh, how I miss it.  It's so rare that we see it fresh in Boston.  
  These little dried fishies covered in a sweet soy glaze are a snack I got introduced to at Tsukiji and got hopelessly addicted to. I brought some home with me and my daughter made them disappear in 2 days.  I love how nonchalant 5-year-olds can be.  "Mommy, what should I do with the head?"  "You eat it."  "Oh, ok."  Sammy pops the fish head in her mouth.  "Mmm, crunchy!  Yum!"

And of course, there was tuna -- glorious tuna.  I had a moment of silence staring at this delicious loin, mourning the fact that here in Boston within hours of where the best tuna is caught, I see nothing but pathetic yellowfin in the stores.  
You see how the color gets lighter near the skin?  That's the fat.

The problem with Tsukiji is that unless you live in Tokyo and have a kitchen, all you can do is drool. But at Kappabashi-dori, you can buy stuff that you can take home with you.

I could buy a Misono chef’s knife and a yanagiba (sashimi knife) in the US, but it gave me great joy to hold them and choose them in person. Niimi is a huge store in Kappabashi area that can’t be missed. The staff is incredibly helpful and one salesperson spoke English.

I also picked up 2 otoshi-buta (drop lids) that rest directly on the food and not on the edge of the skillet. They are used to trap some of the steam in, but not all of it -- idea not that different from the French parchment paper lids called cartouche. Another use for otoshi-buta is to press on the food while it cooks to promote good contact with the skillet. Something tells me these little lids will come in handy not only for Japanese cooking.

Japanese ceramics are everywhere -- one plate prettier than the next. I chose a few pieces to give to Jason with the promise to fill them with sushi as soon as I get back. Of course, nothing I could possibly bring him could be an adequate enough “Thank you” for the amazing opportunity he gave me.

The only practical piece of advice I have about Kappabashi is to come with plenty of cash. Credit cards are often not an option no matter how much you spend. While visiting Kappabashi, take a look around Asakusa with its beautiful temple and busy market streets.

Happy Shopping!

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Taste of Culture Cooking School in Tokyo

I step into the pouring rain an hour before my class with Elizabeth Andoh should start. It’s my first day navigating Tokyo streets and metro on my own, so I want to give myself plenty of time. I can’t remember the last time I found myself in the middle of a large city caught in the rain. I love the coziness of watching from under the huge umbrella the intense tempo and glitter of Tokyo. I find Roppongi where I am staying with my friend Junko both gaudy and delightful at the same time. It’s as opposite in feel to my small town of Natick, MA as it gets without leaving this planet.

You don’t need to meet Elizabeth to know that she is detail oriented and dedicated to her students with every fiber of her being. One look at her phenomenal metro directions and you know this woman was born to teach. She clearly explains every line change, station layout, and warns you when to get on the local vs. express train. It’s all going well until I get off the escalator before my last train change. The train is at the station with open doors. I quickly check the direction and hop in not to miss it. The second the doors close I realize that it’s an express and it will go past my stop. I try not to panic, get off at the next stop and find the train that goes the other way reminding myself it has to be a local. When I get to Elizabeth's stop, it’s pouring even harder. I am trying to hold the umbrella with one hand and directions with the other. It’s raining so hard I can’t make out the names of the streets. After a few false starts of walking in the wrong direction, I finally get myself oriented. Finally, finally I find Elizabeth’s building, soaked to the knee, clutching dripping directions and completely out of breath. I call Elizabeth’s apartment and get buzzed in. In the elevator, I think of all the times my students were late to my cooking classes and feel terribly embarrassed. Something tells me I’ll be a bad student. For a control freak like me, it’s very hard to be on the other side. I am bad at following directions. I am even bad at showing up on time.

Natalia greets me at the door with a huge reassuring smile. She and Lauren are Elizabeth’s assistants. I get out of my dripping coat, shoes and socks and run into the kitchen. Elizabeth greets me warmly and we hug relieved that after 4 months of planning I am finally in her kitchen.

Elizabeth Andoh is not just a cook, a writer, and a teacher. She is a force of nature. Her energy and enthusiasm for sharing Japanese culture and food are palpable. No detail is overlooked. The kombu comes out of the water at 80C (at the first suggestion of a simmer) to avoid a tannic dashi. The sesame seeds are toasted right before serving and ground still warm for the most potent aroma. The miso gets mixed into the soup at the very last moment. The cucumber is rubbed to remove bitterness. There are reasons for every one of these techniques and Elizabeth patiently explains what Japanese cooks have known and practiced for hundreds of years. There is no question that she has more respect for tradition than innovation. My loyalties lie the other way around, yet I can’t help but soak in her wisdom.

We spend 3 days cooking, shopping, and eating the fruits of our labor. We taste non stop: all different types of vinegar, miso, seaweed, soy sauce, spices, vegetables cut with the grain vs. across the grains. Don’t laugh. It makes a huge difference. I am not surprised about the texture difference. But there is flavor difference too. Across the grain is milder and juicier since more juice is released. With the grains is less juicy and more spicy. We discuss traditions, cookware, serving pieces, and our restaurant experiences. For 3 days we immerse ourselves in Japanese food and culture completely and try to understand what makes it tick.

The presentation and symbolism of both ingredients and serving ware is fascinating. Every meal must offer 5 colors, 5 flavors, and 5 cooking methods. Ideally, it should show off some ingredient that is at its prime, some ingredient that is about to become at it’s prime (the ingredient you just can't wait to cook), and some ingredient that is on the decline (think tomatoes at the very end of the summer when you just can’t let them go). The ceramics must reflect the season and even the weather. On a sunny day when Mount Fuji is in sight, Elizabeth uses Fuji chop stick rests. Since the rain is still pounding the windows as we sit down to our first meal together, we opt for ginkgo leaves, persimmons, turnips, and other fall themed chop stick rests. Elizabeth’s ceramics collection is bigger than some of the local stores, so there is no shortage of options.

One thing I find peculiar is that Japanese cuisine has a tendency to combine what seems like a crazy cornucopia of mismatched plates, bowls, textures and flavors and present them to the diner all at once (at least for obento type meals). Intuitively, it seems that such an approach would result in a cacophony, but somehow the total ends up greater than the sum of its parts.

Japanese have an interesting approach to saltiness and sweetness. Since all 5 tastes including sweetness need to be represented throughout the whole meal, the level of salt and sugar barely changes as you move from the main meal to dessert. Elizabeth explains to us that the presence of sugar in all food satisfies people’s natural craving for sweetness and reduces how many desserts people consume on regular basis. I like this theory. I am also delighted that many desserts in Japan are made out of beans and vegetables. It has nothing to do with their health benefits, I just love beans and veggies more than I like caramel and butter cream.

The amount of food we produce in 3 days is phenomenal.

Day 1 - Basic Japanese Meal
Counter clockwise from bottom left: rice with mixed grains, pickles cured in rice bran, dashi simmered turnip with miso sauce, miso soup, buri (fatty fish in the amberjack family) belly in soy glaze
Daikon radish is carved to resemble chrysanthemum flowers (part of our autumn theme).  They are first simmered in starchy water left over from rinsing rice to improve their flavor and then simmered in dashi.
Little turnips are pickled in rice bran with persimmon peels and other spices.  
Buri's belly is mouthwatering -- like eating bacon of the sea.  

Day 2 -- Obento (special occasion bento box)
Obento and Dobin Mushi (ingredients steamed in a teapot to create a soup)
Inside the bento box (see below for a close up and explanation of each section)
Sushi rice with chrysanthemum petals and a sliced thin omelette shaped to resemble a flower (kids, don't try this at home with the flowers you get from a florist -- they are treated with chemicals).
The omelette is made in a rectangular pan.  It's not that different than making a crepe.  A chop stick is the best way to flip it.
Shiitake stuffed with chicken, shiso leaves with miso walnut stuffing, spinach with tofu walnut sauce.
Miso marinated salmon
Little turnips cut to resemble chrysanthemum flowers and pickled in sweet and sour sauce.  The yellow comes from gardenia pods; the pink from akajiso (red shiso).  These were my favorite pickle!
The picture on the left is sansho berries (mistakenly called "pepper") that Elizabeth picked and froze.  We used them in the kelp relish (on the right).  This was the most fascinating ingredient discovery of my trip. It tickles!  I've never experiences this sensation in my mouth before.  I brought a bag of pickled sansho berries with me from Japan, but once I run out, I am at a loss.  If you know where to get them in the US, please let me know.
We put kelp, maitake mushrooms and a dash of salt into teapots, steamed them to release the aromatic mushroom broth and served with a squirt of lime.  First you pour the liquid into a little cup and drink it like a soup and then you eat the mushrooms out of a teapot.  There is something irresistible about soup served this way.

Day 3 -- family style (izakaya style) meal with the theme of abundance
The table is set (see below for details)
Quick pickle of cabbage, cucumber, and myoga -- my other ingredient discovery from this trip.  Myoga is a relative of ginger.  It tastes like a cross between ginger and shallot.
Molded rice
 Various pickles.  The yellow radish was butterflied and stuffed with shiso leaves -- very pretty and yummy.

 Daikon greens with sesame sauce
 eggplant in dashi with bonito flakes
 Treasure boats -- fried tofu skins stuffed with shirataki noodles and vegetables
Daikon quick pickle dressed with miso mustard sauce (very tasty and versatile) and sliced shiso leaves.
Domo arigato gozaimasu (a huge thank you) to Elizabeth for her hospitality, charm, ambitious class planning, and encyclopedic knowledge of Japan; to Natalia and Lauren for dish-washing efforts of herculean proportions; and to my fellow students -- Christina from the US, Dagmar from Germany, and Chris from Australia -- for their curiosity and passion for Japanese food.
Left to right: Helen, Chris, Elizabeth, Christina, Dagmar

Itadakimasu (Bon appetit!)